Architecture

Design Criticism Ignores the Places that it Could Help the Most


Growing economies- and the inspiration of Western style architectural wealth - has led to the development of areas such as these across the world. This example, in Ordos, Mongolia, was built for a prospective population that never quite came.. Image © Raphael Olivier

Growing economies- and the inspiration of Western style architectural wealth – has led to the development of areas such as these across the world. This example, in Ordos, Mongolia, was built for a prospective population that never quite came.. Image © Raphael Olivier

This article was originally published on CommonEdge asThe Design Media Needs to Examine its Own Privilege.

Kate Wagner grew up in rural North Carolina. As a kid, her mom, who never went to college, worked in a grocery store deli and later in childcare. Her dad had a steady government job with a pension, and his time in the military meant he had the resources and benefits needed to get a college degree. Wagner describes her economic background as “one foot in the working class and one foot in the middle class, and it was always a negotiation between those two classes.” They were, she says, “just normal-ass American people.”

In high school, her interest in architecture was sparked after taking a career aptitude test which told her she should become an architect, and she became intrigued with Modern architecture by browsing books at the school library. Later, she was shocked that there was no blog devoted to the urtext of late capitalist American excess—the McMansion. She found McMansions to be inherently funny and also fascinating. “I find them very effective vehicles for teaching about design, because there is just so much wrong with them,” she says.

In 2016, she started posting memes mocking McMansions on her blog, McMasnion Hell, wringing mocking derision as well as pathos from each superfluous dormer, bloated cupola, and misshapen window. The blog went viral and Wagner was invited to do TED Talks and riff on architecture in film by New York Magazine. She followed up her blog with incisive critical analysis that situated McMansions as postmodern icons of consumption and commodification, and offered populist reconsiderations of historic preservation as viewed through Internet social media culture, and more. Throughout, Wagner found ways to examine a prosaic element of our built environment (big box stores, ranch houses, McMansions) and place them in a specific cultural and economic context. She did this in a way that tore down the high/low culture dichotomy that exists between extremely online meme-roasting and arcane tomes of architectural criticism. It might be what Bob Venturi would be doing had he been born in the Clinton Administration. In a short time, Wagner has earned a spot as the leading edge of a new generation of design critics.


A typical post of McMansion Hell. Wagner's take on criticism is decidedly open, from the language to the subject material. Image via CommonEdge

A typical post of McMansion Hell. Wagner's take on criticism is decidedly open, from the language to the subject material. Image via CommonEdge

Wagner’s career path is not replicable. Her most enthusiastic boosters (I am one) would tell you that she’s redefined architectural criticism in a way that’s only possible once a generation. That’s what she had to do to walk through the door. And when she did, she discovered that the people that had already crossed this threshold had backgrounds that were nothing like hers. “The reason I got into design writing was because my blog went viral, and that’s a very different origin story than most people,” she says.

Colleagues that write about design and architecture for a living are far more likely to come from upper-middle class homes or better, often with a familial connection to the architecture and design world, and the elite institutions (educational or otherwise) that serve it. Ask a few questions, and a great many design writers had grandparents that met at Yale or some such place, and were born into contexts where knowledge of this relatively esoteric realm of cultural production was something they were raised alongside. Unsurprisingly, these defining characteristics means the design media corps are also overwhelmingly white.


via CommonEdge

via CommonEdge

I can relate to Wagner, though I likely had it easier. I grew up the child of a single mother public school teacher, and my mom was the first and only person in her family to graduate from college. My parents divorced when I was 8, and after their divorce I moved from rural Iowa to a working-class neighborhood in Des Moines, next door to a soybean processing plant, the freeway, and a flood basin. I went to public schools, and most of the kids in my elementary school were on free and reduced lunch. About one-half of my freshman high school class dropped out before graduation, and most didn’t go to college. I attended a large state-run university for college and never went to grad school. The only unpaid internship I ever took was one I saved up for by working. 

But outside of Wagner, I have very seldom met another design writer who came from a similarly humble station in life. I’ve been writing about architecture for more than a decade, and Wagner and I are rarities.

And yet, I’m quite sure I grew up with more privilege than most Americans. First, I’m white and male, which speaks for a lot. But also, my existence was modest but very stable, with cash for a few flourishes. My parents encouraged (and could pay for) artistic pursuits, and I got a fantastic public education. My dad is a bonsai tree artist in rural Iowa, which is nowhere close to lucrative, but early on instilled the value of building your life around the refinement of craft and aesthetics. And there are numerous other lucky breaks and (seemingly) ancillary privileges that have allowed me to shape my career in this way. 

So if the design media is drawing largely from the socio-economic strata of people above me, then it’s drawing from an absolutely miniscule segment of the population that is in no way representative of the whole. If Wagner came from “normal-ass American people” and doesn’t recognize anyone in her current station, it’s a grim indication that the design media (like many segments of the broader media) isn’t opening its door to median Americans often enough.

This phenomena is common to the arts media, drama media, or any other number of creative sub-fields. (After studying music and getting a degree in acoustics, Wagner says the music world is downright “aristocratic,” and far less inclusive than design.) This is a particularly dangerous dynamic for the architecture and design media, because unlike art or music or dance, architecture and design are functional things required for life. You can ignore a museum exhibition at a museum or an opera, but you can’t ignore the built environment because it’s gifted (or inflicted) on all people at all times. And that means the public needs architectural interpreters (journalists) who can reach beyond cloistered discourse and speak to a broad audience. The best way to do this, it would seem, would be to make sure you’re recruiting from this broad public.

There are no trends in the overall media that don’t also filter down to the design journalism niche, and a common refrain here is that the media would have the resources and time to focus on being more diverse if it was not hemorrhaging money and stumbling between rounds of mass layoffs. As such, the overarching world of journalism is stubbornly un-diverse. According to the Columbia Journalism Review(CJR), an annual ASNE newsroom diversity survey showed that Latino and non-whites made up 12 percent of newspaper editorial staff in 2000, but by 2016 this number had increased only slightly, to 17 percent. (The country is currently 38 percent Latino or non-white.) And asking these questions of the media is rather taboo. When CJR reached out to 15 national news outlets for information on the gender and racial composition of its political press corps during the 2016 election season, only four responded in full. It’s not surprising, then, that a 2014 study from the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that merely 25 percent of African-Americans and 33 percent of Hispanics reported that the news media accurately represented their communities.

Most of the analysis and study here is focused on racial diversity, and that’s no surprise, considering how little class consciousness there is in America, where people nearing desperation’s doorstep and coasting on generations of accumulated wealth both claim to be middle class. But there is this bit from CJR, quoting Meg Fair, who made more money from working at a pizzeria than she did writing for her alt-weekly, Pittsburgh City Paper, that speaks specifically to the media’s blindness to class background: “The more newsrooms are diverse class-wise, the more fruitful and intersectional coverage will be. If you don’t have a single person in your newsroom who comes from a blue-collar background, or knows what it’s like to wipe down tables at the end of night, they’ll never be able to empathize when they’re writing stories about things like workers’ movements, or communities displaced by gentrification. If you don’t have that experience, or at least [a connection] to someone that does, it’s easier to turn a blind eye to the multidimensional struggles people have.” I’ll simply note here that “gentrification” is often understood as an explicitly architectural phenomena.

All these barriers to entry are intensified by the specificity of the design media. In a smaller universe of publications and editors, there are just fewer on-ramps for people outside of its traditional ranks. And the many rounds of media consolidation, in both the overall media and the design media, have concentrated jobs in New York, an exceptionally expensive city out of reach for those with modest resources. The emergence of the Internet as a primary medium for architectural discourse has enabled a louder multiplicity of voices (like Wagner), but these low-barrier-to-entry platforms seldom pay well. Meanwhile, ad revenue scrambled by social media’s lock on our attention lessens the ability of the newspapers still standing to pay for grand, authorial architecture critics, a model that seems likely to go extinct in my lifetime. Given the relatively niche interest the public has in architecture and design (more on this apparent limitation in a bit), design publications can seldom offer compensation levels that young journalists without a financial cushion from their parents need to survive.

To get new design journalists into the fold, they need to develop two distinct sets of skills and knowledge. First, are the fundamentals of writing and reporting. But second, they also have to ground themselves in their professional subfield, to learn their Frank Gehry from their Frank Lloyd Wright, and their pilotis from their pediments. And if you don’t grow up in a design-savvy home where you were introduced to this body of knowledge early on, you have to perform some alchemical feat to gather this information and get established (like Wagner), or luck into one of the dwindling handful of entry level jobs still available, as I did.   

The closer I look at my own professional biography, the more I notice how I was different from the norm. But I also can’t overlook advantages I had that make it near impossible for those further down social scale to repeat my path. While Wagner struck gold with “a bolt from the blue,” she says, I worked through institutions.

I was the sort of kid that always did all of the required reading, and genuinely loved writing papers getting good grades on them. My mom put them up on the fridge, and I liked that too, so I just never stopped. I studied journalism in college, which I graduated from with no debt. (This was quite a long time ago.) I wrote about music and film, and got the perfunctory small-town newspaper job in rural Missouri (editorial staff of two) where I did not write about music and film. I moved to Philadelphia for an unpaid alt-weekly internship, and did the normal things one does in this situation, like live in an apartment with no chairs and rely on 50 cent soft pretzels from a foot cart for lunch. When the internship ended, I moved to Washington, DC, to look for arts writing gigs, to crash with my then-girlfriend (now wife) who was working on Capitol Hill after clawing her own way through a longer series of unpaid internships. 

Without that connection and the ability to live rent free in a place where they were hiring architecture writers, I never would have found my way into a cub reporter type job at the American Institute of Architects. (There was a staff of five full-time editors and reporters working with me when I started in 2007, and much fewer when I left 7 years later.) The most I knew about architectural journalism was that David Remnick paid someone in the New Yorker to write about it every once in a while, so it might be a thing. I gave it a shot, and I had a salary and a 401(k). I realized pretty quickly I won the lottery, and that my professional milieu was going to be radically different from the working class environs I’d grown up in. This feeling was heightened in 2008, when I had a place to wait out the recession amid small plates and craft beer while the rest of the economy fell apart. 


Kolson Hurley on holiday with her father at Stonehenge. Image via CommonEdge

Kolson Hurley on holiday with her father at Stonehenge. Image via CommonEdge

In DC, I met Amanda Kolson Hurley, then an editor at Architect Magazine now an editor at The Atlantic’s CityLab, where I’ve often written for her. And her path and background is more standard for design writers. She grew up in Northern Virginia, attending a private high school, and later getting degrees from St. Andrews in Scotland and the University of Bristol in England. Her dad was a political science professor that studied urban histories and planning. She remembers childhood trips to see Native American ancient mound sites, alongside visits to architectural mainstays like Fallingwater. “Even though my father was not involved in the profession, it was absolutely part of my awareness growing up, and its part of the reason that I ended up doing what I’m doing,” she says.

But even with her international education pedigree, Kolson Hurley finds the intercontinental set of biennale and triennial exhibitions and the revolving door of globe-trotting architecture curators daunting. “There’s this unstated but widely and totally assumed familiarity with cities outside the US, often around the world,” she says. The assumptions is that, for design and architecture writers, “You know, say, different neighborhoods in London. You have been to Paris. You have been to Rome.” (I haven’t, and you can make an argument that a city I’m far more familiar with—Des Moines, Iowa—is in much more dire need of design criticism.)

“I feel like I’m pretty well-traveled, and I had some really good fortune in life,” she says. “If I feel like this, I can’t imagine how it would feel for somebody that was the first in their family to go to college who didn’t have a lot of travel opportunities.”


Courtesy of La Biennale de Venezia

Courtesy of La Biennale de Venezia

This current scope and breadth of the design media can be viewed as giving a narrow but loyal audience what they want. But it simultaneously limits its reach, says Kolson Hurley. “What’s deemed as important is decided by a culture that’s pretty narrow,” she says. “The people writing about the topic are so closely intertwined with the people producing the culture that it’s very circular, and the logic is not discernable to the people on the outside. It imposes these narrow priorities on what content gets produced that miss opportunities to connect with a larger audience, as blogs like Wagner’s show.”

Kolson Hurley’s experience across trade media, as a well-traveled freelancer, and the wider audience of The Atlantic also points to a key question: Who is the design media serving? (She’s quick to point out that her gripes with the elite internationalism of the design media were arrived at before her time with The Atlantic’s CityLab.) Within professional journals or any publication that’s primarily serving architects and designers, there needs to be space for intra-disciplinary discourse and experimentation. These sorts of publications are the breeding grounds for new ideas that are critical to keeping creative fields fresh and vital, and puzzling arcana that’s not immediately explicable to the general populace is appropriate. But for a broader group, publications that don’t invite a wide swath of the public in to tell their stories risks creeping irrelevancy.

This lack of economic and racial diversity often manifests itself through design coverage that presents buildings, landscapes, and more as purely aesthetic objects or lifestyle choices. It’s getting better, but when designers do get involved with disadvantaged communities, it’s often presented as technocratic experts handing out goodies to rubes, and we almost always hear more from the technocrats than the rubes. And the sum total of design media produced over the decades is an encyclopedic list of Things that Rich People Care About. That’s why we know scads of information about museums, luxury housing, and skyscrapers, and almost nothing about, say, Reconstruction Era African-American cemeteries, which are an incredibly vulnerable and historic cultural landscape that almost no one has written about.Wagner’s rapid success at critically, accessibly, and often hilariously examining the bog-standard American built environment is the herald of a larger failure. “What I did should not have been disruptive,” she says. “It should not have made the waves it did. The reason it was so effective was because things have been stagnant in the design media for so long.”


© Federica Babina

© Federica Babina

And as a card-carrying member of this group, it’s time to accept some responsibility for this myself. I understand the examples above from personal experience. I’m also complicit in handing over advantages that may well crowd out others with less means; namely, I’m the dad of a toddler who sleeps beneath Federico Babina prints hung over her crib; OMA’s Casa da Musica in Porto as a winking pig and the Guggenheim in New York as a smiling snail. It’s a mantle she could pick up, and this time around I’d be fully aware of how the machinery of privilege opens doors for her and shuts them for others.

As to what can be done to mitigate these blind spots in the design media, a broader base for design literacy, perhaps integrated into K-12 education, would help. And there should be more on-ramps to both the design and media world, so that they might meet in the middle. Non-profits like Territory in Chicago, for example, work to empower public school students in low-income neighborhoods to diagnose gaps and deficiencies in their native urban fabric, designing and building place-making installations and pavilions. And there’s Princeton’s Summer Journalism Program, which invites low-income high school students onto campus for an intensive 10-day seminar hosted by professional journalists. Recruiting more outside of traditional design media and raising the economic floor for young design journalists could also make a difference. Paying interns and establishing fellowships for recent grads would open up opportunities for writers that otherwise would have to defy great odds to get their interpretation and critique of the designed world heard.

Lee Bey was the first, last, and only African-American architecture critic. That’s a portrayal he sometimes shies away from because, he says, it’s a “description of institutions’ racism, not my achievement.” From 1996 till 2001, he was the Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic, and has since worked in academia, at cultural institutions, in city government, and at architecture firms. He’s currently assembling a book of his photography of South Side architecture, and remains an indispensable member of the design community in Chicago.

A South Side native that came from a working-class family, whose parents didn’t go to college, it’s hard to think of another design writer that has crossed as many barriers as Bey. His family had no explicit connection to the architecture and design world, though his dad was an amateur architecture buff. Bey remembers his dad taking him to see the Sears Tower while it was under construction.


The Prairie Shores Development in Bronzeville, Chicago . Image

The Prairie Shores Development in Bronzeville, Chicago . Image

Bey’s own experiences illustrate how vital it is that the design media let a wide swath of people criticize and interpret the built environment. African-Americans, he says, experience space differently. If you’re black, space is often contested and exclusionary, from Chicago’s deep history quasi-state sanctioned violence aimed at persevering segregation, to the murder of Trayvon Martin, singled out by a vigilante for appearing to be somewhere he just didn’t belong. It’s seldom hard to find an explicit and often violent interest in delineating exactly where black people can be. It’s an intrusion I’ve never faced when, say, I’m touring around a predominantly black neighborhood, gawking at its architecture.

And you can read this racist and classist urge to control and manage architecturally, through the legacy of red lining, through the design and placement of public housing, and via the history of urban renewal. For those on the outside, the built environment is a measure of inequality itself. “Being African-American, you are constantly aware of buildings, space, architecture, all of that,” Bey says. “If you’re black, this is contested. Growing up in the 70s in Chicago, the parks on my side of the city, even though they were Olmsted-designed parks, clearly looked different and were maintained differently than parks on the North Side of the city. My greystones were raggedy. Their greystones were not.”

There aren’t many stories of systemic racism and classism that don’t have built environment components, and can be interpreted through design media. The disastrous history of urban renewal could probably only unfold as it did when the people most affected by it are kept away from the public discourse about it. Bey mentions the history of Englewood Plaza, which ripped out a bustling shopping district deep in the South Side in the late 60s, and replaced it with a half-installed suburban-style pedestrian mall surrounded by a partial ring road and moat of parking lots, which went broke within 20 years. But there are countless examples. Mid-century architects and planners often saw poor and minority communities as in need of paternalistic shepherding at best, or as fungible inconveniences at worst.

And make no mistake, these communities are already having these conversations whether they’re listened to or not. One place they’re happening is Bey’s Facebook page, which hosts the most inclusive and diverse discussion on architecture I’ve ever seen. When he posts photos of Chicago architectural curios or b-sides (like this particularly beautiful block on Chicago far West Side neighborhood of Austin), some people like me might chime in with a bit of professional commentary, but there’ll be a lot more neighbors and friends sharing their memories and recollections of the place in explicitly architectural terms. Bey says this group skews white, though not by much. “Black folk,” he says, “are talkin’ about it.”


Courtesy of TWBTA. ImageThe Obama Library

Courtesy of TWBTA. ImageThe Obama Library

After the Obama Foundation seized public parkland designed by Frederick Law Olmsted on the South Side for the Obama Presidential Center, Bey noticed a preponderance of articulate and well-informed design commentary springing up. “If you walk the streets and talk to people, folk are talking about issues of urbanism,” he says. “What is the parkland going to be like? Why does the tower have to be so tall? These are people we could consider laymen, but they’re wrestling with these issues, and I wish their voices could be heard, not just as quotes in a news stories, but as part of the body of things being written about this library.”

No matter how progressive and enlightened the design media’s values are, this issue of authorship can only really be addressed by diversifying its ranks. Anjulie Rao, editor of AIA Chicago’s Chicago Architect, says coverage is becoming more cognizant of putting architecture in a social context. There’s more opportunity to explain how architecture is “impacting people’s ability to thrive in the world,” she says. “But I don’t think they’re being made by the people who have actually been affected by them. We have an opportunity to tell the story of how places affect people, and the more diverse [a group of] people we have telling their own stories, the better.”

Rao says the culture of architecture and design is itself becoming more diverse and inclusive. “There are very clearly people with money who are making decisions. It’s clubby. They exist in this cute world of nice houses. Some of them are elitist, but they’re dying. That group of people is dying off, and it’s giving more power to people who [are] working in the architectural world and may actually be thinking about better ways of doing it.” There’s a rising class of emerging designers and practices in Chicago (several of which are founded by women of color) who display their progressive values unabashedly, and use architecture as a way to both frame discussions around inequity and find solutions to it. Local examples include Paola Aguirre’s Borderless and Chicago Architecture Biennial standout Amanda Williams, though they certainly have many parallels in other cities. By covering them, Rao is hopeful that the design media might absorb some of their values.

We don’t definitively know how un-diverse and un-representative the design media is right now, but we do have the advantage of starting this conversation at a time when some segments of the population are more open to interrogating their own privilege and finding ways to ameliorate the resulting inequalities. We’re a ways away from quantitative numbers on who we are. But I don’t know of any other way to gather this data and start this conversation than by beginning with our own stories. And if we don’t start telling this story and rectifying it, the broader public won’t listen to the next one we tell.


Zach Mortice
is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.


Amanda Williams' work in Chicago. Image © Courtesy of the Amanda Williams and McCormick Gallery

Amanda Williams' work in Chicago. Image © Courtesy of the Amanda Williams and McCormick Gallery

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