builder mag duo

Does Architecture Have a “Fake News” Problem?

There’s a fundamental disconnect in architectural journalism. As with Fox News and MSNBC, they are parallel worlds of single-minded focus. In each bubble, all that is seen is great, but there is orthodoxy signaled by each venue’s exclusivity. Seldom is heard a discouraging word, when a single aesthetic is offered to the reader as the only way to design a building. In what remains of traditional architectural journalism, there is virtually no diversity of thought presented, together, on one platform, no real dialogue, only “good” architecture and little representation of “wrong” architecture.

There are exceptions in the explosion of websites over the past two decades. Common Edge is an example of diversity of thought; ArchDaily has embraced a more ecumenical approach. The sheer volume and exposure on Architizer, Dezeen, and Archinect holds out hope that diversity may be forthcoming. Otherwise, there is an seeming aesthetic apartheid, where each venue offers a point—but rarely, if ever, a counterpoint. This mirrors the separation of the rest of the media into oil and water, “news” and “fake news.”

Let me be clear, I am not talking about one style versus another. I find beauty in what is now cast as “modern,” “traditional,” or “vernacular.” I’m talking about the loss of credibility when no diversity of outlook is offered, only elaborations of systems-based focus, such as sustainability or resilience. This sort of purity turns journalism into testimonial, not exploration. Within each silo, then, opinions substitute for facts. There is no meat in a vegetarian cooking book—it does not exist as an option. Buying stocks is the default philosophy for a bull market website. In architecture, what is presented by definition excludes what is not. 

Creating an echo chamber does not recognize that we see all kinds of architecture every day, so an absence of that diversity renders what is missing illegitimate. Although there are more total numbers of eyes on journalistic outlets, the magazines are struggling. In addressing an existential threat, journalism continues to editorially focus itself, platform by platform, to reinforce what the readership thinks is credible, rather than presenting the entire profession.

This week I received the September 2020 issue of Builder Magazine. It featured the 16 winners of the Annual Design Awards, all residential in focus: single-family, multiple-unit dwellings, a few renovations.

The winning projects were all great, some with terrific editorial backstories. But they also had one striking “POV”: all 16 sported flat roofs. This is not surprising in architectural journalism, as the vast majority of homes that are recognized in architect-focused media have flat roofs. But Builder Magazine is usually quite broad in its aesthetics. In fact, the majority of its ads feature pitched roofs. In most regions (save the West and Southwest), houses with flat roofs are anathema to the majority of Builder Magazine readers: developers, contractors, and those tasked with marketing and selling homes.

So why do the winning homes of this national competition all have this one distinctive feature? The editors that choose the jury determined the outcome. In the mainstream architectural world, the visual cue for “high design” is a flat roof. So much so that the only picture of a pitched roof in the issue was a “before” photo of a corrected home, where a flat roof had replaced the unacceptable pitched roof.

This year’s three-architect jury produced results with the rigid consistency of the faithful…This is not about “style,” but about the absence of any style other than the one presented.

 

Why so dogmatic? Competitions, to a great extent, are their judges. I was on a Builder design competition jury a generation ago. It included two other architects, a homebuilder, and an interior designer. We gave out awards to different styles and roof aesthetics (pitched, flat, decorative, abstracted). This year’s three-architect jury produced results with the rigid consistency of the faithful, in stark contrast to the ads that appear between the featured projects. Again, this is not about “style,” but about the absence of any “style” other than the one presented.

 There are other competitions and publications where a style is openly declared as criteria for judgment. The “traditional” or “classical” competitions, such as the Palladio Awards, openly balkanize themselves. Whether it’s Record Houses or the P/A Competition, the winners presented are fully formed prescriptions of architectural legitimacy. They are beautiful, but they tell an incomplete story.

We live in a fractured time, one where sides are taken, lines drawn. During this season of change, I think it’s necessary to broadly assess our culture. Like the greater marketplace it serves, architectural journalism needs to straddle the established aesthetic lines. I have been an architect for 40 years: I know that more than 50% of architects design homes that do not have flat roofs—they’re just not in Builder’s Design Awards.

Featured image: photo by the author. 

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