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Does architecture have the media it deserves?

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: In the wake of the News of the World scandal, it is timely to audit architectural publishing

The welcome implosion of the rotten Murdoch media empire raises questions about all sorts of institutions and subjects which are not about the media as such. The proper relationship between power groups in society is one, as are issues of monopoly ownership, regulation, individual rights and the democratic scrutiny of our elected tribunes.

At the moment, as generally happens when Britain has one of its periodic outbursts of self-questioning, the pendulum has swung too far in one direction; that is to say the assumption that the media is dark-side territory which needs to be ‘reined in’.

As usual, the Press Complaints Commission takes a caning, although no journalist I have ever met takes it very seriously. Changing it won’t make a difference either, since the real protection against an over-mighty media is the law. That is why the attempt by Rupert Murdoch’s cadre of bullies to make impotent the police (and in effect the judiciary) by use of stick and carrot is so worrying; it goes to explain Murdoch’s remarkable public apologies, which hark back to an era (his father’s) when the duties and responsibilities of journalism were to the wider public good, not the support of Mammon at any price.

Happily, the world of the specialist press is not one which has much to do with general elections, the police or anything involving sinister types like Alastair Campbell or Andy Coulson, whose Faustian pacts with the world from which they sprang degraded public life, with the full approval of their prime ministerial masters.

But of course there is a relationship between architects and the media which serves them. In light of the general discussions about media responsibility, it may be worth reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of that relationship today, especially because of the commercial pressure under which all printed media now operates, as a result of the internet.

On the whole, as far as the UK is concerned, I think the profession is reasonably well served – extremely so in comparison with many other countries. We have two good weeklies, covering the subject in rather different ways, but then variety in journalism, as well as in architecture, is to be welcomed. We have four specific monthly magazines, again looking at the world from very different perspectives and all the better for it. There are many additional magazines which, though covering a broader spectrum of design subjects, have a relationship to architecture, and of course the other specialist titles devoted to construction and engineering which many architects enjoy.

There is no monopoly at work here, and while various media owners have expanded from magazines to conferences, exhibitions and festivals, I don’t believe that there is a sense of an unhealthy control over who or what is published.

You might say that in the age of unfettered publication via the web, with blogs and tweets the outlet of choice for the unpublished and the unpublishable, that doesn’t matter very much. But when there is so much undifferentiated rubbish available at the drop of a hat, there is an argument that what is chosen by those interested in variety, including digital publishers, becomes even more important.

At the heart of all this is the question of integrity, whether applied to publications, awards and prizes, or exhibitions. Does it seem to add up? Is there transparency? Would those involved be happy to say why they took the decisions they did?

As a veteran of many awards-judging processes, my belief is that the answer to these questions is, broadly, yes. The shortlist for this year’s Stirling Prize is a good example, where everyone involved in drawing it up would probably have changed one or two schemes had it been their personal choice, but in the round are happy with the outcome.

As with the media, the integrity of the process is as important as the outcome. If there is one issue which is worrying, it is that so much of what is reviewed is at the high-quality end of the architectural spectrum, and tends to be seen positively because editors and critics like to review buildings that they like.

Alas, what surrounds us is not the best but the general stuff of the built environment; criticising that is not only tough, but to be effective requires a proposition about how it could have been improved. That is one of the many justifications for the widespread use of design review – a subject for another day.

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