Why write? Specifically: Why write about architecture? Today, there are many reasons to write, little time to so, and many publishing efforts—books, journals, magazines, newspapers, blogs, Tumblrs, Substacks, newsletters, tweets, TikToks, posts, memes, et al.—that engage the built environment.
Architecture Writing Workshop (AWW) is a new platform for writers, practitioners, and academics—or anyone interested in writing—to explore and discuss issues affecting the architecture discipline. Led by editors Pouya Khadem, Sebastián López Cardozo, Mai Okimoto, and Lauren Phillips, the group introduces an editorial theme every other month to instigate and frame a conversation in our contemporary discourse. The quartet met during graduate studies at Rice Architecture and worked in varying configurations on PLAT, a journal operated by the school’s students.
AWW’s aim is to “collectively practice architecture through writing and explore the medium’s possibilities to engage the social, environmental, and political spheres surrounding architecture,” and they state their commitment to “representing diverse perspectives and to expanding access to our shared conversation across the discipline.”
AWW’s first thread was published online in January. It asked the question “Who Gets to Write?” and featured a panel discussion in addition to texts by Stefan Novakovic, Matthew Allen, and Okimoto.
AWW also plans to conduct writing workshops as a way to address its interest in exploring “the medium’s possibilities to engage the social, environmental, and political spheres surrounding architecture.” Recently, the group led a writing workshop with students at the Bergen School of Architecture in Norway.
AWW’s second issue will be published this month and will address what it’s like to navigate architecture as an early-career educator. Anticipated contributors include Zaid Kashef Alghata, Quan Thai, Leyuan Li, and Ekin Erar.
In the following exchange titled “Speaking of Writing,” previously published in AWW’s inaugural issue, Khadem and López Cardozo speak with Scott Colman, Sydney Shilling, and Brittany Utting about how architecture is communicated to the public and bring together perspectives from design practice, journalism, and academia.
Sebastián López Cardozo (SLC): Who gets to write? Do certain people have more access to the act of writing than others? Who gets to shape architectural discourse today, and what resources are needed to do so?
Scott Colman (SC): It’s a big question. People don’t have time to write because they’re often laboring for low money for long hours. Writing, as a mode of reflection on architectural design, used to be fundamental to architecture practice—at least in the western tradition. Because of capital and its structuring division of labor, the distinction between specialists within the discipline has been growing; all of the labels that we have for what people do—theorist, historian, academic, practitioner …—are products of that system. In the current system of design practice, we’re structurally inhibited from having this kind of reflection—we are restricted to specialized roles, and we have little room to reflect. To have time and space for these reflections would lead us to question the system. So, the question of “who gets to write?” is as much a political question as a structural one.
So, in a way, your setup is an effort to find ways to hack the system. Now, the only way we get to consciously engage the politics of design is to do it on our own time with our own dime, using any surplus means, or any surreptitious communication tools we have. I’m one of those privileged people who have been given the opportunity to be able to spend at least part of my time writing. And so I have an enormous responsibility that I should feel more often than I probably do.
Brittany Utting (BU): The question asked for this panel is: “Who gets to write?” You could have asked “Who has to write? Who needs to write? Who doesn’t write? Who won’t write?” It’s important to unpack the implications of your phrasing, and what audiences it includes and excludes. More traditional forms of architectural writing typically take place in sites of “sanctioned” discourse: journals, magazines, and books. Increasingly, however, alternative formats of exchange are emerging: activist letter writing, open-source curricula, and even satirical memes. These different practices of writing have the potential to expand the notions of audience and authorship, but they also participate in a complex system of labor relations and exchanges that themselves aren’t free from exploitation.
Sydney Shilling (SS): It’s important to mark the distinction between shaping the discourse and writing, because I don’t think we can say that the discourse is only happening in publication. For instance, look at @fa.front and @architectural.workers.united on Instagram—the grassroots movements they have created are impactful, started through their own agency with virtually no resources. They didn’t rely on traditional outlets to give them permission or to publish. Social media platforms, despite all their flaws, have in many ways democratized the conversation. In today’s saturated media landscape, it is an absolute privilege to have an audience, but as far as the privilege of being able to write is concerned, writing is as accessible as it has ever been. And in fact, the architectural worker is the ideal architectural writer, because they have a facility of language with which to discuss projects that is rare within the broader field of journalism.
SC: In the history of western architecture, this kind of architectural writing—what we call architectural criticism—arose with the public sphere, alongside newspapers and other modes of more democratic communication. Architects were no longer beholden just to the nobility or to the church, but also to the public at large. And now there’s a fundamental crisis in democratic discourse, as the space to reflect and criticize shrinks everyday—especially in the last thirty years or so—due to the structure of the market and the neoliberal system of value.
BU: The question of writing’s accessibility that Sydney refers to is an interesting one. For instance, short forms of writing are accessible because they can more easily fit into the frameworks of social media that are increasingly defining the public sphere. But these shorter formats can also have the effect of flattening discourse: reducing disciplinary arguments to a quick quip, an image, or a few hundred characters. Although those formats can expand discourse into visible sites that are more immediately political, they can also make longer forms of conversation and more nuanced exchanges impossible.
Pouya Khadem (PK): Scott brought up an interesting point about democratization. Is there a connection between more accessible language and democratization? Is the consumer-driven “accessibility” that happens under capitalism a function of reduced leisure time to read and think?
SC: It’s complicated. The distance between architectural discourse, criticism, practice, and the general public has never been as wide as it is now. As mentioned earlier, architectural criticism was synonymous with public discourse. Through newspapers, socialist journals, and even gatherings in union halls, critics, academics, and practitioners conveyed their thoughts through a language that was accessible to the public. But as the different parts of the discipline have more intensively specialized, a certain language has developed—inevitably—among the experts. As a result, the space for reflecting on architecture has shifted away from publicly accessible media to specialized forums.
SS: It makes me wonder to what extent the journalist serves as translator between the architect and the public. Communication about built works have been increasingly taken over by firms’ marketing and public relations departments. But in order to connect readers and writers, we need authors who can speak about architecture in plain language. The needlessly academic jargon prevalent in architectural writing is a barrier to growing an audience outside the profession. This hinders the public’s ability to engage in this discourse in meaningful ways.
PK: Any business that relies on traffic for ad revenue benefits from an increase in consumers. News and media companies have broad access to complex tools and metrics, and can tune their content to attract more traffic. But as columnist David Carr wrote for The New York Times some years ago on the risks of traffic-hungry journalism, “just because something is popular does not make it worthy.” Under this business model, the project of making architecture more accessible (in its image and written form) risks entanglement with questions of marketability for advertisers, and pushes elements of social, economic, and environmental significance—what makes writing “worthy”—aside.
BU: This perhaps is the role that emerging forms of journalism can play: to create a public space for intellectual inquiry and debate that can happen independent of a market-based translation of architecture to consumers.
SLC: I see two aspects to the question of writing’s accessibility that seem to be at odds with one another. At the core, there is the ethically-rooted, journalistic mission to create a more informed public and deepen their appreciation and engagement with architecture. This mode of writing is more likely to embody Carr’s idea of what makes writing “worthy”… Yet, when ad-revenue weighs too heavily, readership numbers trump any notion of worthiness. The difficulty in challenging this second, traffic-driven mode of writing is that it is still about a certain idea of accessibility: It’s giving the majority of readers what they want to see.
SS: Everything comes at a price. The industry has to be able to sustain itself one way or another. It is a very delicate balance to find a way to support the business of writing financially, and not sacrifice journalistic integrity.
BU: That’s why these alternative writing practices are so critical. For example, projects such as AWW function outside of both the traditional systems of academic review as well as profit-driven models of journalism. Such projects are ground-up, edited by students and recent grads, supported by non-profit institutions, and don’t need to sell a minimum number of copies to break even. However, because such formats exist outside of a financial or academic market, the ideas produced in these journals typically rely on forms of labor that are unwaged. When asking the question “Who gets to write?” it’s critical to also acknowledge not only the different value systems and formats of exchange in publishing, but also how the labor of writing is often hidden in discourse.
SLC: Sydney, in your work as a journalist, I know you’re quite interested in this notion that there is a gatekeeping of architectural discourse through language—for example, through the way architects use internal, academic jargon that is often inaccessible and requires a certain level of education to access.
SS: I think that the question of accessibility is a difficult one, but architectural writing, and in particular academic writing, tends to be written for an academic audience. If we allow academia to become the only voice and agent to shape the discourse, we’ll shrink the discipline into an echo chamber, where only those who have the luxury to read will have the luxury to write, and vice versa. In that scenario, what happens to the perspectives and voices outside of academia that don’t necessarily have the resources to contribute to the conversation? There are not enough outlets talking about architecture in plain language that the public can easily understand, and this prevents the public from engaging with issues within the built environment.
BU: It’s provocative to think about how we can write for non-architects—not as future clients, but as co-participants in the public sphere. Most design magazines cater to a wealthy clientele while many architectural journals are limited to only academic audiences. Far fewer platforms support writing for a public that focuses on the inequities embedded in the built environment—architects writing for and with their communities as they negotiate the political, environmental, and financial conditions of design.
SLC: Since 2020, we’ve seen a shift within the architecture community’s attitude—a willingness and urgency to engage with issues of labor, the Western-centric pedagogy, privilege, systemic racism, and more. I think all of us at AWW have felt that there has also been a renewed interest and appreciation for different forms of writing or expression, like memes and social media platforms. Maybe Sydney can share her experience writing an article on architectural workers’ unionization efforts. Would this have happened before 2020?
SS: That conversation probably could not have happened five years ago. I think that the pandemic necessitated a change in perspective. Many of these issues could no longer be ignored—priorities changed. I was seeing conversations about architectural labor (which had already been happening, albeit mostly in private) unfold on social media, and I thought about how to best translate these conversations to an architecture audience, and to spotlight the impact of the grassroots work. It was a challenging issue to cover, especially at a magazine where the majority of our readership consists of practitioners. But the industry seemed ready to confront these difficult conversations.
BU: Why wasn’t this type of content being reported to wider audiences beforehand? Efforts addressing the issues of architectural labor have been going on for years. And so it’s interesting that it was only after the social and health stress of the pandemic and the immense pressure exerted by the Black Lives Matter movement that those issues got the traction to be discussed more broadly in the profession—and that they were actually implemented in firms across the world.
SS: Critical mass was really important in publishing stories like this because there is an inherent risk in publishing content that is, in some ways, critical of your audience. At the same time, we want to create relevant and valuable content, which is why it’s so important that these issues are publicized to a wider audience. Until recently, the public really had no idea what it takes to produce a building. As a society, it’s difficult to know what you value if you don’t understand the invisible labor behind these projects. People are starting to acknowledge what the reality is, and this will enable people to advocate for change.
SC: There was an essay written by Sylvia Lavin maybe 15 years ago, called “Conversations Over Cocktails.” Its thesis was that written architectural discourse had died and the academic discourse of architecture was happening “over cocktails.” The obvious implication is that a society organized through verbal discourse is a society in which power operates behind the scenes as opposed to out in the open. These things are absolutely connected. There may be a thousand million tweets every second, but the way the world is actually being reorganized is through a series of very tight, specialized, increasingly privatized conversations.
Scott Colman is an Assistant Professor at the Rice University School of Architecture.
Sydney Shilling is the Assistant Editor of Azure Magazine, an international publication with a focus on contemporary architecture and design.
Brittany Utting is an Assistant Professor at the Rice University School of Architecture and co-director of the research and design practice HOME-OFFICE.
Pouya Khadem edits for Architecture Writing Workshop. He works as an architectural designer in Houston.
Sebastián López Cardozo edits for Architecture Writing Workshop. He works as an architectural designer in Toronto and is a frequent contributor at the New York Review of Architecture.