Bedlam in Montpellier: a meeting of architectural magazines
Two hundred years ago, the Marquis de Sade penned his notorious work Les 120 Journees de Sodome, chronicling the project of four super- rich war profiteers to hold a large-scale Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy in an isolated castle in Switzerland. Needless to say, apart from being held in a castle, the 'First European Meeting of Architectural Magazines' last weekend bore no real resemblance to this mad project. Only its termination - a dazed crowd of some 300 fashionable persons, staggering down the marble steps from the grand hall to the vast courtyard of the Chateau de Castries at Montpellier - might be compared to the image of de Sade's exhausted libertines emerging from their grande bouffe of turpitude portrayed by Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel in their Surrealist classic Le Chien Andalou.
'Pour moi la revolution c'est l'amour!' I was assured by an Argentine architectural student many years ago under somewhat similar circumstances, and at the time I enthusiastically agreed. But later I discovered that the reverse is not true at all. The pattern of architectural discourse in France makes the case perfectly. After 30 years, it remains in the grip of the revolutionary style of 1968, despite the years of French architectural ascendancy that have passed since then. As a result, where a panel discussion in England might feature a nervously witty chairman and four or five dull people on a podium in front of an audience refusing to ask questions, in France everything will be different. The chairman will be a demagogue who will harangue the audience for half the time allocated to the entire session, then grudgingly give way to the first panellist, urging them to be brief. By the time the last panellist is finally invited to speak - impudently urged to confine his or herself to a mere 10 seconds (Peter Davey, editor of The Architectural Review, displayed expertise at this, compressing his message to the conference into a single sentence: 'I am the son of William Morris with modern technology.'), the audience is a volcano ready to erupt, not so much with questions as with shrill pronouncements of its own.
And what emerges from this barrage of oratory? Nicht Neues, as they say across the Rhine. Amidst the babbling, architecture critics are heard being urged to explain architecture to their readers (as opposed, presumably, to keeping their jobs). Editors of architectural magazines are exhorted to give more opportunities to young people. They are told to illustrate bad projects as well as good; to support national identities without being nationalistic; to engage with local and global issues at the same time; to use more gritty photographs, fewer words and more drawings; to remember the Internet; to write more informative picture captions (difficult, when all the information they have is the picture and no one has actually seen the building); to stop using shiny paper, and to 'learn from science fiction how to explain the architecture of tomorrow'.
All good advice, to be sure, but how to act upon it in an age of non- readers and net-surfers? An age when young people, far from being excluded, are the ones producing (if not directing) the magazines themselves, and spending their leisure time being hunted down in subterranean urban haunts where their mysterious views can be analysed and coded into trends, names and images worn on shirts or backlit on hoardings.
In the end the thing about architecture magazines is that their readers are their contributors. Try to imagine a car magazine read only by motor manufacturers, or a football magazine read only by footballers. What was foreshadowed at the meeting in the Chateau de Castries was a celebrity magazine read only by celebrities.