The Future of Architectural Discourse

Daniel Davis – 27 October 2013

About a month ago I put my thesis online. Almost everyone I spoke to advised me not to do this. My supervisors, my examiners, a couple of publishers, the Australian Society of Authors, and even my parents. They all thought I should instead try to publish my thesis as a book.

I’ve been thinking about publishing a lot lately. What it means, why we do it, and where it is going. In this post I’d like to take you through the reasoning for why I chose to publish my thesis online, and what this might tell us about the future direction of architectural discourse.

Publishing

The printing press quite possibly changed the course of European architecture more than any other invention over the past millennia. It broke the secretive transferal of knowledge through guilds, democratising access to construction knowledge, institutionalising architecture, and catalysing countless treatises, manifestos, and monographs.

Historically authors have had clear motivations to publish: money and power. Compared to past traditions of dissemination, publications offered authors the chance to reach more people, to reach people further away, and to reach people faster. Successful authors became authorities. Successful publishers brokered deals between authors and readers, selling a single publication many times over. The reader got access to knowledge relatively cheaply, and the publisher took a cut of whatever the author was paid. In the process, knowledge was liberated from the silos it was previously held in.

With the recent ‘professionalisation’ of academia there has arisen one further reason to publish: promotion. Publications have become one of the primary metrics for evaluating academics with most institutions now tying promotion to publication. The net effect has been a proliferation of sub-standard publications. Well known academics have curriculum vitae padded with books and articles that you have never heard of, that have never been cited, and that they don’t even have copies of. Uninspired workshops are written up in conference presentations absent of any distinct methodology and lacking any meaningful conclusions. Another step closer to promotion. Poorly thought out diagrams of idealised design practices are written up in journal articles absent of references to theory and lacking any relevance to the reality of design. Another step closer to promotion.

Although academics are blatantly gaming the system, none of the major players has any incentive to change. Publishers don’t want the system to change because even if there isn’t an audience for a publication the academics and institutions are so desperate to publish they will often pay for the privilege. Senior academics – those with political sway – don’t want the system to change because their position comes from decades of playing the game, and changing the rules might render all of that work for nothing. Librarians don’t want the system to change because their livelihood hinges on the need for someone to acquire material from publishers and then catalogue and archive it. And academic institutions don’t want the system to change because they are terrified it will disrupt their funding. Rather than stepping in to stop academics wasting time and resources on low-quality publications, most have instead doubled-down and told academics to ‘publish or perish’.

Publishing to Perishing

Putting something online doesn’t count as publishing in academia. Anyone can put something online. To ensure writing is of a standard worthy of being counted as a publication it must either be peer-reviewed or approved by an editor. This leads to strange situations where an academic can write a blog or make a presentation that is revered by their peers but completely unvalued by their university. In Australia I have seen talented academics who operate in this fashion get continually overlooked for promotion in favour of others who pursue publishing by more ‘official’ – although less impactful – means.

Comparison of AD Magazine and ArchDaily

AD Magazine (left) is full of incredible content, none of which is accessible online. There isn’t a list of past issues and contributors, there isn’t even a description of what the most recent issue is about. In comparison, ArchDaily (right) is fully accessible online. They have a huge readership and they publish articles almost immediately. Academics may look down their nose at ArchDaily, but it is easy to see why the audience is there.

My decision to put my thesis online was motivated by my observation that very few of my students read official peer-reviewed publications. We will do an assignment on the history of digital architecture and they will come back with printouts from ArchDaily, Archinect, and Dezeen. Initially this frustrated me. I’d tell them that there were entire issues of AD magazine dedicated to this topic and that there were books waiting to be checked out. I’d tell them ‘back in my day’, catch myself, and realise that even though it’s only been nine years since I was first an undergraduate student, ‘my day’ has truly passed.

It is hard to overstate how much the medium of discourse has changed in the past nine years. Back in my day I used the library out of necessity rather than some scholarly calling. Now that I am a professional researcher I hardly ever use the library. My typical approach is to first Google something, I’ll then try more dedicated searches in Google Scholar or Google Books, failing that I’ll move onto searches in subject specific databases like CuminCAD. Only after I have exhausted all the possibilities of finding something online do I begin looking offline for information – and even then I’ll use online search engines like Amazon to help find the right book. Of the 693 references I read while writing my thesis, at least 479 were read electronically (there were more but I just didn’t bother saving the PDFs for them). Like my students, I am far less likely to read something if it isn’t accessible from the first page of a Google search, and I am even less likely to read something if it isn’t available online.

This desire for immediate access to material may sound like laziness, but if it is not already our reality, it will become our reality as more digital natives (and more digital converts) enter the fray. Ask any movie rental store – people will go where it is convenient. Authors are lazy not to follow them.

There are obvious parallels between the entertainment industries and the academic industries. Movie rental stores, music record labels, and universities are all holding tight to business models that actively resist the inevitability of the digital age. In academia, the definition of publication no longer matches the way people consume publications. Although there is technology to to reach more people, to reach people further away, and to reach people faster, publishing in this method doesn’t count as anything other than perishing. However, in the long-term, it seems inevitable that the current bygone definition of publishing will perish as ranking highly in Google becomes more important than placing content in highly ranked journals.

New Models of Publishing

The Hubspot inbound marketing pipeline.

The Hubspot inbound marketing pipeline.

If publishing does perish, I’d guess that Patrik Schumacher may offer a glimpse into the future of publishing and discourse. While I may disagree with his message, I congratulate his delivery. A number of well known academics have confided to me not only their dislike of Schumacher’s message, but their surprise that he has been able to lead the discourse so unimpeded. They needn’t be surprised, Schumacher’s methods come from page one of the Hubspot online inbound marketing program:

  1. Blogging. Schumacher doesn’t blog but he effectively does the same thing by consistently releasing freely accessible content that establishes him as an authority. Note that this authority isn’t bestowed from peer-reviewers or anointed by editors, rather it is plainly evident to laypeople by the fact that Schumacher is out in the world getting shit done – making pretty renders and getting architecture built.
  2. Keywords. Schumacher is well positioned within search engines for a number of keywords. Google Patrik Schumacher and compare the results to some of his contemporaries like Mark Gage, Frank Gehry, and Greg Lynn. The first link on the Patrik Schumacher results take you to a full archive of Schumacher’s writings and presentations. The second link takes you to a huge collection of building by Zaha Hadid. Mark Gage takes you to an ‘under construction’ page, which has recently replaced a website that displayed covers from journals containing Gage’s writing (remember that in academia the fact that you have published is more important than what you have published). Frank Gehry takes you to a sparse website with his signature. Greg Lynn has photographs of the books he has written and not even a description of what they are about (again, the fact that he has published is valued more highly than the content of his publications). Schumacher may not have written as many books as Lynn, he may not be in as many Simpsons episodes as Gehry, and he may not be as cool as Gage, but people write about Schumacher because, unlike many other architects and academics, you only have to Google Schumacher’s name to receive his message.
  3. Social media. Schumacher is all over social media. Like hundreds of others I follow him on Twitter and Facebook. His use of social media doesn’t appear to be the typical cynical campaign to build audience, rather he genuinely appears to enjoy sharing what he is up to. Last week on Facebook he posted work-in-progress snapshots of a parametric swim-ware collection he is working on. Number of other architects that give me candid weekly updates of what they working on: zero. I think it is also worth pointing out Schumacher’s propensity to get involved with conversations that are happening online. He’s commented on this blog and I’ve seen it happen elsewhere. When academics privately confide to me their dislike of Schumacher’s message and their surprise that he leads the discourse, I suggest they should publicly share their rebuttals online. I have even followed up two of the more well known academics via email. Although they clearly care deeply for this topic, none has ever entered the online discourse. I guess academics don’t get promoted for commenting on blogposts or creating Youtube rebuttal videos.

Schumacher may be the first architect to have mastered online discourse. In the same way we remember Superstudio (and to a lesser extent Archigram) as being the first to understand and harness the ways journals were shaping culture in the 1970’s, so too we may look back on Schumacher’s deployment of parametricism in the 2010’s as one of the first instances of someone understanding and harnessing the way the internet was shaping architectural culture.

This has been a wordy rant, but it is not without action. I put my thesis online because I believe what I said. While this goes against some advice I received from people who publish, I think it follows the inevitable direction of discourse. I’m certainly not the first person to put their thesis online – when I was an undergraduate student I read and was inspired by Axel Kilian’s PhD thesis, which I probably wouldn’t have found had he not made it accessible online. So none of this is new, but it was a revelation to me when I started making a mental pro/con list and realised that new methods of publishing probably outweigh old methods – even for unestablished authors such as myself. As this realisation ripples, it seems there will be far reaching consequences for the architectural discourse and perhaps a further loss of relevance for the those academic institutions built upon the traditions of old.

Title image from Hubspot.