Martin C. Pedersen on Common Edge, Authentic Public Engagement, and the Magic of Eero Saarinen
Martin C. Pedersen is the former executive editor of Metropolis and the current executive director of Common Edge, a non-profit organization “dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design with the public it’s meant to serve.” Common Edge features essays, interviews, and opinion pieces about a wide range of design-related issues, including design education, urban design and cities, architectural criticism, design responses to climate change, architectural history, and the practice of architecture.
In 2014, Martin co-authored a New York Times op-ed titled “How To Rebuild Architecture” that was widely read and generated thousands of comments and responses, including a fiery essay by Aaron Betsky in Architect Magazine titled “The New York Times Versus Architecture.” I interviewed Martin over beers at a local bar, after attending a joint lecture by Theaster Gates and Dan Pintera at Tulane University.
This interview originally appeared in the architectural circular pulp. Click here to subscribe.
JK: John Kleinschmidt
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
We just heard an architect and an artist talk about—to borrow a phrase you have used—the trouble with architecture. I’m curious about how your writing and editing have come at the question of the architect’s role in society, in the profession, in the discipline.
Initially, when we started Common Edge, it was principally about public engagement, trying to reconnect the profession with the public. In creating the website, we’ve deliberately tried to broaden that definition, both for a philosophical reason, and a practical one: I don’t want to cover just this little sliver of socially engaged, socially squeaky projects which everyone likes. By defining engagement in a broader way, we can cover everything: urban planning, equity, preservation, architecture, climate change. It’s all on the table, because it all of it intersects with the public.
Let’s talk about the origin of Common Edge.
I moved to New Orleans in July 2011. For three years I continued to work for Metropolis remotely, spending one week a month in New York. That arrangement ended in August 2014. During this time, I had made some friends here. One of them was an architect in town named Steven Bingler, with whom I started having a standing Tuesday breakfast, a very New Orleans thing. Pretty religiously, we’d meet at 8 o’clock and talk about the state of architecture. Steven had started a non-profit, Common Edge Collaborative, and so we started the website in 2016.
But all of that was precipitated by something else: we collaborated on a New York Times op-ed in December 2014. I don’t want to say it was prescient, because a lot of these concerns were already in the air, but I do think we were ahead of the curve. The piece was fairly controversial. A lot of people loved what we said, a lot of people disagreed vehemently. I love that.
Did you have a sense of who would disagree when you wrote the op-ed?
I knew we were going to stir things up. It was written as a polemic, as a provocation. We were going to nail it to the door! We fully expected response. But I think that’s healthy, and now it’s in the spirit of our website. I don’t agree with everything on Common Edge, but I do think that it’s rigorously edited and intelligent, and if anyone has a problem, email me and propose a counter argument, and if it’s good, I’ll put it up. We’ve already done that. Earlier this year, Duo Dickinson wrote critically about education, and Phil Bernstein wrote in opposition to the same post a week and a half later.
One of the most widely shared responses to your op-ed was by Aaron Betsky, right?
Aaron got a little bit unhinged. He wrote not one but two columns about it. At one point there was a paragraph in his first piece where he seemed to be so mad that he was almost incomprehensible. It’s fine. Aaron is a smart and passionate guy. I’ve edited him at Metropolis, and I respect his intelligence, but I disagreed with him.
I’m curious about your strategizing before it was published. Was there ever an idea that you might bring in more voices to the piece? A manifesto sometimes comes from a group of more than two.
It came out of a book Steven was writing that I was helping him with. I just pulled out a piece, and we started playing around with it. We have a longer version on the website. The great thing about the New York Times is you get read by hundreds of thousands of really smart people. But the downside is that the longest an op-ed can possibly be is about 900 words. To encapsulate the-trouble-with- architecture-for-the-last-120-years in 900 words is pretty damn difficult to do. Some stuff got sheared away so it could fit the container. The fuller argument is on the website, and it is less about style and more about engagement. Style was part of the argument, no question, but it wasn’t the whole argument. If you read just the Times piece, it might sound like we were staunch anti-modernists, which we’re not. I’m a small-c catholic, so I like old buildings and I like new buildings. Now I think modern urban planning has been a disaster for cities in general, but there are many good modern buildings.
Favorite modern building?
I love Saarinen’s work. The Arch is fantastic. I love Ingalls Rink at Yale. Saarinen was just a great architect. But Eero, and especially his father, had one foot in the past, too. They were modern, no question, but they hadn’t chucked away the past. They still drew lessons from it.
That’s kind of our argument about architecture. I don’t believe in replication. There are people who do it well and I respect them, but I don’t think that’s the way forward. There are lessons from the past we can pull in and use in new ways with new materials that would make for a more humane architecture.
It’s not hard to like a Saarinen building.
I go to those hockey games, and everybody loves that building. It feels like a cathedral, and it’s beautiful, and it’s raucous, and it’s classical and symmetrical, and it’s also weird as shit from the outside. Yet it is beloved. It can be done: there is a way to bridge the past with the future.
Tonight, at the beginning of the Gates/Pintera lecture, we heard beauty defined as something like food and water: we can’t survive on it alone, but it is something that is essential for life. At the close of Betsky’s retort, he writes about the responsibility of architects to find space within a commission to do something bold and beautiful.
But that begs the question: Whose definition of beauty? There is often a divide between what architects think is beautiful, and what the public likes. Bridging that divide doesn’t mean pandering and replicating either. I went to Spain and saw Bilbao and loved it. There is a place for signature buildings, but they can’t drive the whole discussion. They can’t be the entire aspirational model for young architects. In the last four or five years, I think that part of the conversation has shifted, and that’s entirely healthy.
How did you start writing and editing before Metropolis?
I started as a short story writer and humor writer. The story of how I got into design writing is an interesting one. Back in the 1980s, in New York City, I would occasionally get mail for a different Martin Pedersen. His name was B. Martin Pedersen, and he was the owner and publisher of Graphis magazine. When we got this new-fangled thing called an answering machine, I got plane reservations for Marty to Seattle. It became this running gag with my roommate, who was a comedian. When I got my own place, those calls and letters fell off.
Then, one morning, I got a call for the other Martin Pedersen. It hadn’t happened in a while, so it inspired me to write a humor piece about sharing the same name with someone who seemed a lot busier than you were. It was titled, “The Other Martin Pedersen,” and it was published in the late and lamented New York Newsday. Marty saw it and called me, and we struck up a friendship. We would have lunch a couple of times a year, and at one point he asked me about what I thought about the writing in Graphis. I told him that it was uneven. It had some good writers, but because it had no travel budget, it had to use people who weren’t professionals to profile international graphic designers. Often, they would write in their native language—poorly—and then it would get translated into mush.
So the other Martin Pedersen said, “Would you like to help me change that?” He offered to let me help him edit the magazine, and do it from my house so I could continue with my other writing. There was no reason to say no. I found that I really liked editing, thought design was interesting and engaging and important. And I was completely naive. I tell my kids: well-directed ignorance is very powerful. You just have to know what you don’t know. When you know that, you blunder forward creatively, in ways that you wouldn’t if you knew more. Weirdly, it opens doors. I was shameless about asking people to write for us, largely because I didn’t know any better. I started at Graphis in ’96, and that led to Metropolis in ’99.
You spoke earlier of the high time of Metropolis, when print media was still relevant.
Print is still relevant. It’s just the financial foundations for it are eroding. The money that digital advertising brings in isn’t the same. It’s literally dollars to nickels and dimes. The entities that are moving forward confidently are those that charge for content—the New York Times, the Economist. That’s probably going to be the model going forward. There will be plenty of print magazines around, but they’ll be either be really beautiful and lush, or they’ll be really cheap. The middle ground is thinning out. Print won’t go away, because it’s still an excellent vehicle for conveying images and words. But is it as powerful and ubiquitous? No. Just look for a newsstand in New York. You used to find one on every corner.
Do you miss that?
Of course. When I moved to New Orleans, I was such a ridiculous, parochial New Yorker, so of course I had to subscribe to the print edition of the New York Times. I would get it out in my driveway over on St. Charles Avenue, and New Orleans being New Orleans, it didn’t show up every day. It was getting expensive, so finally I switched over to a digital subscription. It bothered me at the beginning, but now reading a physical newspaper actually seems strange to me. It breaks my heart. That was once something that gave me immeasurable pleasure, just to sit with a newspaper and leisurely read it. Now when I travel and pick up a copy of the Times, I no longer get the same pleasure. I’m a little frightened by that, because I feel like this thing—the computer screen—is rewiring my brain in ways that aren’t healthy.
I want to go back to the op-ed for a minute. Who was your audience when you and Steven were writing. Was it architects? The “middle ranks” of the profession? Students?
It was all of those people, but it was also aimed at the public, who have been pretty consistently ignored, certainly by the academy. Engagement now is very trendy. We’re in a different place given our challenges: income inequality, gentrification, climate change. These issues will be with us for a while. The celebration of overt formalism seems a bit in bad taste now, given where we are. Remember when Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation opened in Paris a few years back? That project came in for a lot of heated criticism for what it “represented.” But that criticism wouldn’t have occurred if the building had opened five years earlier. It was a different political and cultural moment.
I think we’re nearing the end of something. The Industrial Revolution started when we figured out how to burn fossil fuels in the mid-nineteenth century. Out of that was created several different waves of architecture, along with technological developments: the invention of the elevator, the escalator. Those were manifestations of modernity and industrialization. Modernism had many different spokes, but it all follows the money. Now we’ve reached a point of imbalance in capitalism, in which it feels broken. There’s a restlessness within the architecture world; everything feels like a variation on what’s come before. It’s a bit like music right now: there isn’t a whole lot of absolute, original expression, because we’re waiting for something new to be formed. It may come with climate change adaptation, but that’s just a guess. There is a little fear at the end of a cycle, but there’s also hope that we can change things.
The solutions that we’ve been coming up with to this fairly narrow and linear path of history are becoming inadequate.
We’re not addressing huge things that were not part of our calculus before.
The questions aren’t even the same anymore. We’re in a different place, and we’re waiting for it to recalibrate. I hope we can do that in a way that isn’t cruel and chaotic. My kids are young; you are young.
I heard someone ask a question: what is compelling about climate change? We will have to come up with some incredible solutions and no one is listening to those crazy ideas now. How do we create the conditions that allow us to listen to those ideas?
That’s a damn good question. It’s a classic bad news/good news situation. The bad news is that it’s not happening quickly enough. The good news is that the demographics favor change. But it will have to happen on a timeline that makes some sense for the planet. Most of the impediments are older and entrenched. The question becomes, do we have enough time, so that when those impediments lose their power, die, or become irrelevant—and a new set of leaders in your generation take charge—can they then marshal the political will to make it happen?
Architecture reflects and follows in the wake of all that stuff. It’s why I don’t get overly tied up with style. Buildings always come with a backstory that is financial, political, cultural, a zillion things. And yet the design press tends to focus on what it looks like. That’s like 5% of the process of the birth of a building.
I remember reading your op-ed in the Times back in 2014, and there’s one line in particular that stood out for me. You wrote that our focus on starchitects has given the “middle ranks” of the profession a warped view of what we’re trying to do.
For quite a while, the architecture media focused on a small group of architects. Herbert Muschamp, during his run as the architecture critic of the New York Times, was particularly guilty of that. He had 20 or 30 favorite architects that he wrote about incessantly, almost to the exclusion of everyone else. The stars are stars for a reason, they often do beautiful buildings, but they represent a sliver of the built environment, 90% of which doesn’t even have an architect! So our argument was about refocusing the aspirations of younger architects to think more broadly about how they might serve, beyond the one-off building.
We’re now at a point of crisis, especially in our coastal cities, but I’m hopeful. Not for the current political climate, or for the people my age, but for the Parkland kids, the people of your generation. I see glimmers that it can be different.
Sometimes I feel like I’ll spend my whole career correcting 20th century urban design mistakes.
If you’re doing your job correctly, you absolutely will be! But I think that’s a pretty heroic gig. You could be a school teacher or a surgeon. But next to that, correcting the built environment is a big job. So get on it!
Featured image of the Gateway Arch, via Bi-State Development.