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‘Architectural criticism is a monoculture’: new mag Afterparti gives platform to underrepresented voices

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A new publication has launched offering a fresh look at architecture from a diverse range of up-and-coming voices. So what are its aims and why is it needed?

Afterparti has been produced by a collective born of the Architecture Foundation-run New Architecture Writers (N.A.W.) programme. It promises to hold power-players to account, improve representation and not to publish any building studies.

In its first issue, the self-styled ‘zine’ features interviews with RIBA president Ben Derbyshire and Neba Sere, co-founder of the newly-established Black Females in Architecture (BFA) network.

It also includes a piece by Nile Bridgeman on ‘failures in our urban environments’, an examination of architectural progress by Siufan Adey and a ‘Survival Playlist’ for BAME architects written by Pooja Agrawal of Public Practice and the GLA’s Joseph Henry.

Akil Scafe-Smith from design collective RESOLVE has written an academic piece on the Caribbean diaspora in London and a pop-up space in Brixton that his collective designed.

The Afterparti collective’s inaugural members are Nile Bridgeman, Thomas Aquilina, Samson Famusan, Aoi Phillips, Tara Okeke, Shukri Sultan, Josh Fenton and Siufan Adey.

What do you hope the Afterparti zine will achieve?

We hope it opens up a dialogue on subjects that are often insufficiently discussed. We want it to be a platform where open thought and criticism are encouraged while looking forward to a positive, propositional and constructive output.

Its themes are diversity, design colonialism, accountability and education – why have you chosen to focus on these topics?

Our prototype zine, Issue #00, gave us a lot of freedom. Its content drew on our live debate, The Time for Failure is Now, staged in the summer of 2018 at the Royal College of Art.

We interviewed a range of speakers who offered alternative perspectives on the practice of architecture including Indy Johar, Danna Walker and Danah Abdulla. The panel discussion that followed involved Farshid Moussavi, Adrian Lahoud and David Ogunmuyiwa. During the interviews, panel discussion and Q&A with the audience, the themes of diversity, design colonialism, accountability and education were discussed most frequently.

We want to take the discussion beyond beauty

The zine picked up where this live event ended, by responding to and building upon the themes raised. While the topics were personal to each speaker’s own observations and experiences, they had a universal relevance within architecture and the design profession as a whole.

Diversity, design colonialism, education – and we’d add spatial equity to that as well – are urgent issues in architecture right now. These ideas will likely resurface in the zine’s future issues. The theme of accountability relates to our desire to productively confront those in positions of power. We don’t want to shy away from asking tough questions of those who are able to make a difference, but for whatever reason, may not be doing so.

Afterparti first edition zine

We actively avoided the inclusion of building reviews, because that is just not the direction in which we wanted to take the zine. There are already enough magazines and commentators around who are doing that. We have a desire to take the discussion beyond beauty. Architecture is political, architecture is social, architecture affects lives. So we dealt with these issues in the zine.

Crucially, with any future issues of the Afterparti zine, we will always retain an interplay between the live events and the written articles. When we do write, we want it to be a way of activating change, broadening perspectives and holding the power-players to account.

With or without words, we feel that we must take action. The zine was just the first step.

What are some of the issues with the existing architectural press/criticism the collective will try to address?

We are all aware journalists and writers have to moderate their biases to represent the facts and story evenhandedly. These biases come from many sources: ethnicity, class, education and gender, to name but a few. A monocultural environment creates a one-dimensional view on any given set of issues. Architectural criticism is one such monoculture. N.A.W. was initiated in an attempt to address the limited range of voices in the architectural press. It was the vision of established writers Phineas Harper and Tom Wilkinson to provide a platform for strengthening the presence of BAME voices [A new cohort of N.A.W. writers began last month]. The press needs to step forward and look at who is reporting and how that affects the way stories are reported. It’s important that the press reaches out to BAME writers to contribute to a publication – architectural media needs these voices now more than ever.

Architectural media is incredibly self-congratulatory

Beyond representation, our clickbait culture is encouraging publications to prioritise topics guaranteed to generate views and reads, when perhaps there are other, riskier and more socially engaged stories worth reporting on. This apathy produces middle-of-the-road content at best. As a collective, Afterparti is more interested in encouraging critique on the cultural, societal and political aspects of architecture and cities than we are in publishing building reviews or detail drawings.

What’s more, architectural media is incredibly self-congratulatory. Host a couple of pompous panel discussions and hand out a few awards and apparently the work is done. The language around these sessions is alienating, the subject matter out of touch and they tend to end with no conclusion, indeed no tangible effect whatsoever.

On the subject of awards, the architectural press hosts many of these awards itself. The fees for some of these are an obstacle to entry for small or emerging practices. As well as this, criteria by which the projects are judged only serves to ensure that the winners are the ‘same old, same old’, artistic value always superseding social value. 

Architecture is well known for being a non-diverse profession. What role should the architectural press play in challenging this?

This is a difficult question to answer as lack of diversity in the profession begins at the early stages, during education. The study of architecture is inherently taxing – both in terms of time and money. This can be offputting to some of those who aren’t from a middle-class background. The architectural press can play a pivotal role in raising awareness and broadening perspectives.

The AJ is already working to keep these issues at the forefront, with their regular diversity surveys on race, gender and sexuality. Raising awareness like this can help to challenge stereotypes and cause those in positions of power to think differently when hiring and firing.

Beyond that, the projects and architects that publications choose to celebrate and feature have a profound impact on how students see the profession and how they can fit within it. Architectural journalists need to start looking hard to find designers who are trying to break the mould, whether down to their work or background. Increased visibility is an important step towards greater diversity.

The work that is valued and promoted by the press and their competitions should reflect a broader cross-section of projects and practices. The architectural press should be part of a move to normalise the existence of quality BAME designers. Don’t stop at proportional representation; dedicate a whole issue of a magazine to BAME architects for example. IT’S 2019!

Also, the press have to name and shame practices that exploit employees and interns. This culture of unpaid/cheap labour perpetuates the reality that architecture is a middle-class profession, since the only people who can afford to take on these unpaid (or underpaid) positions are those who have family that can support them while they gain experience.

Order a copy of the Afterparti zine here


 

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New Ways is a series of reports looking at innovative practises,
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