ISSUE 35_ON READING & WRITING ARCHITECTURE: MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS _BY AMELYN NG _SUBJECTS_ #DEAR ARCHITECTURE SCHOOL... It is a sweltering night in Melbourne. In the hours that follow the quietly intriguing ‘Editing Architecture’ talk at MADA, Monash University, I give in to the compulsion to do some writing of my own. In spite of the living room transforming into a sauna in my absence, under the influence of my laptop screen’s fluorescent glow, I begin to type. The architect’s mutating relationship with writing is simultaneously fascinating and concerning as we appraise it in its present state. Spontaneous architectural writing seems a somewhat concerted extracurricular effort in the 21st century for those who do not write professionally nor have to turn in an academic essay. Students are taught to conceptualise quickly via diagrams and renders; words fall to secondary to the hero image. For the average architect trying to run a practice and sustain a business, text may just be a news headline or supplementary tool for prefacing, rationalising or contextualising a project. Architectural writing is many things in today’s fast-paced and highly malleable industry: symbiotic, sympathetic, parasitic, antiseptic... These days the vast majority of written content about architecture appears synthetic (perhaps even apathetic). Architects are growing more detached from the value of words and distanced from their manufacture, perhaps a subconscious consequence. My thoughts on the matter are as incongruous as the malformed text on my screen. I have too many questions and too few words for what I wish to articulate. •Is publication now more about news coverage than new content? •Does the market bias inherent in vanity publishing (e.g. self-published monographs and practices’ design philosophies) in a way de- legitimise architectural criticality? •In an age where the image reigns supreme, would the contemporary architect still care about deep reading and writing as a useful professional endeavour? The living-room and its increasing aggregation of insects is not proving to be a very conducive space for answering these burning questions. In heat-addled malaise, I swat at a particularly bothersome fly with the closest thing within reach - in this case a copy of the latest Architecture Australia magazine. I miss a few times; this only tightens my grip on the makeshift bat that is Volume 105. And just like that, a realisation. Here I am, in my un-airconditioned living room in the wee hours of the morning, fingers curled around the neck of one of Australia’s most established monthly architecture magazines still fresh from the mail. Its unread contents represent not just national prestige but months of development and painstaking curatorial and editorial labour. Yet in a few moments it becomes a mere paperweight; reduced to a banal instrument of insect warfare. With a guilty eye I glance across my bookshelf at the growing stack of unread AA back-issues, still in their plastic wrapping, glistening in silent indignation. The most mileage they’ve had has been from my mailbox to the bookshelf, earmarked for ‘later reading’. I, too, am complicit in the devaluation of architectural writing. Have I fallen prey to the prevailing consumer trend, erudite ordering of books and magazine subscriptions while ultimately perpetuating a disposable culture based on publication ubiquity? I allow myself a moment of existential calamity. What did this publication and its host of contributors do to deserve such an offhand reproof? Would the books enshrined in cult status deserve equal manhandling? Would it be sacrilegious to swat at an insect using Vitruvius’ 10 Books or Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture or my recently acquired S,M,L, XL (retailing at $160)? . . . Does anyone actually care? For three hours I toggle between trawling through current commentary and typing haphazard paragraphs (also online). Any attempt to consolidate my revelation only seems to unravel more questions than conclusions. • Who determines what content is culturally relevant for the profession by-and-large? • How invested is the consumer in the active shaping of this content? • How do new writers and architects gain legitimacy and a voice in already established media circles? • Why are architectural critics and theorists largely non-architects? • Does the architect’s desire to build override the desire to shape and inform a school of thought? • How much does the format or delivery of words influence our reception of them? Unless the throwaway nature of publication was part of the author’s provocation- as was the case of Marinetti’s galvanising 1909 Futurist manifesto (whose myriad copies were flung by artists in political revolt from atop a Venetian clock tower onto unsuspecting crowds)- it seems architectural writing is now more susceptible than ever dilution amongst the competing streams of instant promotion. This is seen most in online publication. The mass-manifestation of words in mainstream media affords little time to percolate as we sift through endorsements and newsflashes, tweets and reader comments... Unless one proactively engages and deliberately persists with a written work, the chance for words to take root in society and enact genuine change is slim and likely to be momentary. Where it was once commonplace for the practising architect to publish critical writing as an integral part of their professional development (for example Loos’ Ornament and Crime, Corbusier’s Five Points, Venturi & Scott-Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas), we now find a lag- even a distinct dissociation- between the two domains. As we developed a consumer’s appetite for photographs and visual excitement, written publication and theory were diminished and finally shed from the architect’s list of duties and priorities. From the powerful and rigorous treatises and essays of our predecessors, we have evolved sharply toward the casual and the quickly-digestible: photo-essays, media bites, disguised branding strategies. Yet we must surely recognise the significance in deep reading and writing, just as the preceding generation did. Participating in the formation of words, whether for leisurely exploration or critical evaluation, are just as worthy of attention as the practical need to build, if not even more so in our image-saturated age. The Manifesto typology has not yet been exhausted of potential. Brazilian-Italian architect and prolific writer Lina Bo Bardi once said that an entire building could be designed just using words; that she was not interested merely in the beauty of architecture but also poetry. The night of writing ends as I get lost in the essays of Bo Bardi’s Stones Against Diamonds. I haven’t gotten round to answering any of my own questions. Nevertheless, I do eventually get to the end of drafting an article, which concludes with the same spirit of encouragement that started it in: Regardless of the unanswered dilemmas and debates over relevance, let us consider \ grafting the lost art of reading and writing back into our everyday practices. Let us not let the length of a book or essay (or a lack of images) daunt us from taking a chance on it. If that ‘Editing Architecture’ talk was anything to go by, Melbourne still looks to be promising terrain for cultivating ambitious generations of multitaskers, architects, readers, writers and cultural producers to come. Postscript: Nebulous questions and all, I certainly hope the considerations of this article will prompt further discussion, debate and re-evaluation on the state of architectural reading and writing. And if any reader ends up using my words to swat at a fly, I won’t hold it against them. In fact I would be honoured, simply because that would mean I made it to print. . . .