Monday, 17 December 2012

Owen, Dezeen, photography, criticism and its decline, etc etc

[EDIT - For some reason I lost the second paragraph of this piece when I originally posted it - I've now put it back in]

In the last week there was a very minor spat, which although silly, does point to some interesting difficulties in the way that architecture is mediated these days. It concerns two very different approaches to how we discuss buildings. It started with Owen Hatherley writing a blog for the Photographer’s Gallery, about modern architecture and photography. Overall this focussed upon various topics close to Owen’s academic work; critiques of Neue Sachlichkeit, constructivist photography and the influence of black and white photography on the design of early modernist buildings. It’s all very interesting, and you can read it here.

But it’s Owen’s opening gambit that’s of interest here. In it, he laments that the current archi-porn websites Dezeen and Archdaily “provide little but glossy images of buildings that you will never visit, lovingly formed into photoshopped, freeze-dried glimmers of non-orthogonal perfection, in locations where the sun, of course, is always shining” - a situation he describes as “disastrous, a handmaiden to an architectural culture that no longer has an interest in anything but its own image.” While I generally agree, I think that there still needs to be a proper discussion of super-photographers like Iwan Baan (who recently jumped into mainstream media by taking that image of Lower Manhattan blacked out after the storm), but that will have to come some other time.

Within a day however, Dezeen posted up a link to this very article, summarising its points, under the headline of ‘Architecture “no longer interested in anything but its own image”’. Rather cleverly they’d found a picture of Owen being all vain and Bowie-ish, thus somewhat hoisting him by his own petard. Underneath, Dezeen editor Marcus Fairs did actually respond, saying “Rather than being "utterly distastrous [sic]" for architecture, sites like Dezeen are a powerful new platform for presenting and discussing architecture in new ways, in front of far bigger and more diverse audiences than the old magazines (and their hermetic writers and critics) ever managed to reach. It's a huge opportunity.”

Of course, Dezeen’s posting up of Owen’s criticisms is amoral recuperation - as a web-business, anything that gets them ‘hits’ is good, so it matters not a jot whether Owen’s right, because it only makes them stronger - and one can imagine them laughing away in the office at the irony of their choice of picture. But it’s also very symptomatic of where ‘criticism’ is at the moment.  Owen has never made any secret of his distaste for these sites, although he luckily doesn’t need to keep a close eye on them - my RSS feed is constantly plugged into them in case there’s a press release that I haven’t received. In fact, frequently I’ll receive an email from a PR, and within half an hour or so it’s up on both Dezeen and Archdaily, wording unchanged; which certainly undercuts the journalist’s traditional information privilege. But at the very same time it also wipes out the role of the expert journalist in giving context and narrative to these unconnected images. So on the one hand you have the democratising effect of internet culture, but as we have seen in other fields, this causes a sagging in quality, and I certainly find most of the stuff that gets posted up there depressingly banal.

But both Owen and Dezeen are successful - now that Owen basically doesn’t blog any more, he’s occupying a very traditional niche of the writer/journalist, creating long arguments spread over hundreds of thousands of words. On the other hand the archi-blogs have been traditionally devoid of original thinking, but neither Dezeen nor Archdaily are as blank as they were before; for example, Archdaily now has columnists and short original articles, but they are often of cringe-inducingly low quality. Dezeen generally doesn’t speak in its own voice, but the massive increase in filmed interviews that they post up means that there actually is a rather high level of debate being conducted on the site, channelled through Dezeen rather than directly created by them. I certainly applaud this, it's certainly great to have access to people discussing their work, but I have to say that it’s also dangerously flawed. Fairs has made an incredible success of Dezeen, which now has all manner of pie-fingers, selling watches, organising events, pop-up shops, sponsoring various events and even appearing in global branding campaigns for Apple. But at the same time it buys into a rather sickly language of web-entrepreneurship, all ‘creatives’ and ‘content’ and assorted bollocks. It sails close to some very negative practices too; recently it got involved with a property developer in the East End of London, inviting local ‘creatives’ to submit work which would eventually adorn the lobbies and spaces of a new block of yuppiedromes in the extremely poor neighbourhood of Stepney Green. I personally find this horrid; you can’t claim to be celebrating ‘creatives’ while at the very same time contributing to the forces that make their lives difficult, you can’t promote the East End design scene while simultaneously assisting in its being wiped out.

So while Owen is very lucky to be in a position of disseminator of expert knowledge, creating original ‘content’ of intellectual and critical quality, it’s an incredibly hard life, getting harder by the year, as the traditional media model sinks ever deeper. Dezeen have found a platform that works, that financially sustains itself, but it doesn’t necessarily perform a useful role in terms of understanding, historical context or, of course, critique. Is the only way forward from here an ongoing obliteration of culture’s independence from PR?

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