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Architectural journalism is vital for leading debate

Catherine Slessor
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With media giving everyone a voice, architectural journalism is vital for leading debate, says Catherine Slessor

When I joined the AJ in 1987, the worlds of publishing and architecture were unimaginably different. Architects still used drawing boards, and CAD was just a mad twinkle win some boffin’s eye. At Queen Anne’s Gate, the agreeable historic bastion of the Architectural Press, ‘publishing technology’ extended to glacially slow fax machines and primitive, first-generation PCs.

As a greenhorn assistant technical editor, I worked in the monastic hush of an elegant drawing room, where articles were written in longhand, typed up by secretaries and then retyped by copysetters at the printer. Two weeks later, the words would reappear on a printed galley to be stuck down on a paper layout. Now all this is done in a morning.

In ‘Tech Sec’, we aimed to furnish readers with definitive advice on everything from drainage to roofing, in the form of cut-out-and-keep weekly partworks, which (we imagined) were gratefully archived by practice librarians. If only we’d known that the internet was just around the corner. Yet, despite what would now be regarded as crippling logistical limitations, buildings were built and magazines published, powered by legions of typists, copysetters and architectural draughtsmen. And the stuttering early technology soon expanded with apparent effortlessness to encompass all aspects of working and non-working life.

It’s not just the technology that’s been democratised. Architectural journalism is no longer a priesthood with opinions delivered from on high. Now everyone has an opinion, and a quick means of expressing it. Yet, amid all the blare and static, it’s still the fundamental task of architectural media, in print and online, to try to steer what might unfashionably be described as a ‘noble’ course. This celebrates thoughtful endeavour and scourges the mediocre (and the downright bad) in a way that stimulates uplifting debate. And though many architects regard magazine publication as simply another facet of public relations, we knew then, and still know now, that it should be much more than that.

Catherine Slessor, assistant technical editor on the AJ from 1987-91, is the new editor of the Architectural Review

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