What is the REAL future of architectural publishing?

Two London-based designers-cum-critics have crowdfunded a new architecture magazine, the Real Review. Phineas Harper discusses the publication with founders Jack Self and Shumi Bose

Phineas Harper (PH) In 2011 Netherlands architecture journal Mark published a graph charting the remarkable growth in the number of design magazines across the globe. From a tiny elite clique of European heavyweights at the start of the 20th century, the world’s architecture publication population had exploded exponentially. Business, the article deduced, was good with the industry seemingly able to sustain an ever-expanding media. Mark itself was only founded in 2005 but had already gone on to be a mainstay in newsstands around the English speaking world and beyond. The golden age of architectural publishing had arrived. 

Yet in the few short years since Mark’s upbeat report we’ve seen a gloomy pattern emerge. In 2013 the sophisticated Spanish mag 2G went digital only and has since seen its readership collapse. A similar fate befell British newspaper Building Design in 2014, just months after the excellent Italian journal Abitare closed entirely following an editorial staff walk out. And last month EMAP, publisher of both the Architects’ Journal and the Architectural Review, was reported to be taking both magazines digital-only within 18 months, prompting many to speculate whether the two 120 year old titles’ days were numbered.

Meanwhile, many would argue that the architectural media at large has not kept up with a changing world, failing to grapple with the machines of speculative capital which drive development. An upcoming debate at Second Home accuses the design media of being “little more than a sycophantic, vapid and naval gazing extension of the PR industry, feeding a cycle of shallow celebratory hysterics with little to no investigative or critical practice”. Amid this context of economic uncertainty and journalistic paralysis how will the Real Review operate?

Jack Self (JS) In order for architectural journalism to be really relevant it has to be fearless. To do this, it must be financially independent, and totally autonomous in its agenda. This means a magazine must follow certain moral principles about how it will pay for itself and who will pay for it. This possibility of independence is also closely related to the type of articles you want to publish.

The Real Review is fundamentally a review of books on architecture, although with a twist. We don’t pay for related costs like travel (and we don’t ask writers to pretend they have visited remote buildings), photography or administration and office space. We don’t even pay for the books. We just pay for very high quality journalism. This already makes a huge impact on what it costs to run a magazine, while still paying all our writers well. 

If you add up all the costs, including UK shipping and printing, it costs £6.33 to produce an issue of Real Review. And that’s exactly what we charge our subscribers. Our editorial team work for free because we really believe in the need to provide a forum for radical, engaging, inclusive debate. We consider this magazine to be a kind of public service, which is why we run it through our charitable foundation, the Real Estate Architecture Laboratory (REAL).

REAL studies alternative relationships between architecture, ownership, development and property. As a result, we work a lot with economic and political concepts, and our new publication, the Real Review, is no different. Breaking the deadlock is basically about balancing the numbers.  

Shumi Bose (SB) In a climate of stretched finances for much of our intended audience, it was important to be able to be transparent about costs – about what we do when we ask people to pay money. But – important as this is to me, in terms of labour and validation, specifically the role of print in validating academic and intellectual labour. One thing is the transparency, but the other is the opening of remit and of audience.

Fistly we think the review format is an under-rated and interesting one for opening a critical discussion, while basing itself on a real object of cultural production (be it a book, an event, an exhibition etc) – rather than pure opinion or conjecture. This insistence that an opinionated piece of writing nevertheless pin itself to a real ‘object’ was important to us, as well as the inverse – that a specific object of cultural production can open up a broader discourse.

Secondly, the notion of expanding the discussion beyond the profession – of course this is of paramount importance, and likely will be one of our hardest hurdles. Personally, I think if you have ever considered the material conditions in which you live – you should be, and may well wish to be, engaged in a conversation about what forms that built environment around you. Therefore we are making sure we solicit contributors from outside the directly affiliated fields of architecture – from scientists, poets, philosophers and lawyers – as well as from designers, planners and so on. That narrative is exciting to me because, hopefully, it involves more of us. 

PH You’re both veterans of the publishing world. Jack you’re an editor at the AR and Shumi you were an editor at Blueprint. You’ve both written widely, worked with numerous publishers and the weekly student magazine you co-founded, Fulcrum, built up a huge cult following. Why then are you starting from scratch rather than using the contacts and influence you both have to create structural change within the existing media?

JS Fulcrum was downloaded more than 500,000 times over its four year lifespan. Traditional thinking about “branding” would suggest we should have revived it, or sought to profit from it in some way. But after 100 issues, the project was finished. Any attempt to extend it or commercialise it would have seriously weakened what we were trying to achieve. So in that sense, starting from scratch is a question of integrity.  

With regard to existing media, there aren’t any English-language independent architecture magazines. They are all owned by publishing companies, which makes structural change impossible. It’s true, we don’t have a name for ourselves yet, but, if we publish interesting and engaging articles, that will come with time.

SB It would be disingenuous to say we haven’t used our contacts or influence at all: both of us have been working in the field of architectural discourse for a fair while, and so we have received a tremendous amount of moral and financial support (through informal and formal channels) from a number of writers, readers, editors, photographers and other actors within architectural publishing. However much of this support has been specifically on the basis of our independent endeavour; to me this suggests a frustration with endemic problems within the current model of business- or industry-led publishing which suppresses much of the critical discourse we hope to foster.

Above: Some of Jack and Shumi's previous colaborations

PH Independence and the nature of that independence seems absolutely fundamental to this project. Journalistic independence is one thing but the stall you have set out is bigger than a publication. REAL’s mission statement makes a set of assertions many of which are loaded with clear values, even moral positions. As you engage with policy makers and big development, to what extent will you be willing to take sides, form coalitions and compromise in order to influence those in power?

JS There is no such thing as a pure act, so it would be naive for us to think compromise is avoidable. However, the art of politics is about achieving your goals without sacrificing your moral position. Forty years of chipping, and then hacking, away at the state has meant that Politics (with a capital P) has become largely ineffective at addressing the major concerns of Britain. Particularly concerning housing, we cannot rely on the state to either build, or incentivise to have built, sufficient stock. There is an artificial (ideological) barrier to production, and so as REAL we’re very much concerned with how to circumvent the barriers to sustainable, affordable development, while also communicating to the public why and how we ended up in this most deplorable situation. Fundamentally, we’re architects, not politicians, so our moral positions are not tied to the choice of the electorate.  

SB We do not seek to be dogmatic in our published output, while maintaining the right for ourselves and our contributors to take personal positions in terms of political perspective and comment. For me, engagement (while necessarily ‘taking sides’) should be a process of mutual understanding. For example, the reasons my personal research would lead me to engage with large financial corporations or commercial developers does not suggest that I agree with or advocate all of their activities, but rather suggests that I wish to learn and understand their mechanisms objectively, before perhaps positioning myself and potentially attempting politically motivated change from a more enlightened position.

PH You’ve already snagged a set of the usual suspects from the architectural criticism scene but there are also a few curve balls like London Review of Books regular James Meek and Daniel Trilling of the New Humanist. Who do you for see is the Real Review’s constituency? And what is your attitude to existing real estate journals such as New London Quarterly or Inside Housing?

JS Architecture happens when ideas, ideologies and social conventions become realised in space. Sometimes that space exists through built structures like buildings, but sometimes it is what could be called ‘spatial practice’ (the air corridors for passenger jets above our cities are not built, but are definitely identifiable spaces). When you think of architecture in this way, you begin to see that even very simple arrangements of objects and material conditions in fact make real highly complex ideas: armchairs around a living room fireplace are traces of class taste, social traditions, family power structures, even financial relationships — whether the house is paid for with a mortgage or is a family asset will have huge impacts on the space and life of its inhabitants.

There aren’t any magazines I know of that think about architecture in this way, so the Real Review won’t conflict with existing architecture or real estate magazines. Our way of discussing architecture, as a material trace of abstract forces, concerns everyone. We imagine our audience to be anyone with an interest in understanding the meaning of the spaces they inhabit.     

SB The possibility of engaging with a broader, non-professional or non-disciplinary audience is most exciting. And though I have moments of doubt, the changes to spatial realities and the built environment – and our agency within it – does seem to be of growing interest to a general audience. I mean, who would have expected a BBC1 prime-time slot given over to the banalities of the UK planning process? The established publications such as Inside Housing etc do a fine job of reporting industry concerns within a specific field; but for various reasons, these publications are not often free to expand the definitions of their vocational remit, nor to give space to concentrate on critical discourse addressed outside of specific professions. Therefore I don’t see the Real Review conflicting with them at all, just providing an approachable, accessible but still intelligent and nuanced space for a discussion, one which is hopefully appreciated by a broad and currently under-served constituency. 

PH While we were writing this you both hit your initial funding goal and were announced (along with Finn Williams) as the curators of the 2016 British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Congratulations all round! What are your plans for the additional funds you're raising above that first target and how will the pavilion commission intersect with REAL?

JS Thank you! It’s honestly amazing. Our primary target for Kickstarter is literally just the cost of printing and shipping. The majority of our writers have accepted IOUs, in the form of some fetching mugs to be smashed upon payment. So every pound and penny from this point goes to paying our contributors and, if we can afford it, our editorial team. To be sustainable past the first year we need to build a subscription base of at least 1000 — we’re currently at around 500, so there is still some way to go yet.

Our proposal for the British Pavilion approaches architecture in the same way as the Real Review, and REAL are our institutional partners with the British Council, so the relationship will be a strong one. We are even considering a special issue of the Review to coincide with the opening. We’re not aiming to make some cute nostalgic print object, the Real Review is a serious attempt to shift the discourse of contemporary architecture, away from thinking of it as just buildings, and toward this idea of spatial practice — the British Pavilion, the activities of REAL, and the editorial of the Real Review all approach this in different ways, but are united in their ambition.       

SB The Kickstarter funding drive isn't in any way linked to our development of the Pavilion – as we’ve discussed, it’s important to keep our finances transparent. So yes, the connections may extend to a Venice-sited version of Real Review, potentially..and we have offered a reward tier that invites Real Review backers to join us there! However, many of our concerns regarding architecture, property, ownership and so on are present in both endeavours: intellectually there are strong ties. It would be strange if our curatorial statement at a platform like Venice did not support the positions we have set out with REAL and the Real Review. We look forward to developing both in tandem.

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