Internal Memo: Nancy Levinson Lecture Review

4-11

Just What the Doctor Ordered: Health and Architecture

February 7, 2019

On Thursday, January 31, Nancy Levinson, editor and executive Director of Places Journal, delivered a lecture titled “Marginal by Design: Observations on Architectural Journalism” in Hastings Hall. The talk, sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism at Yale, was a short, personal view on the condition of architectural journalism. The view was grim. That isn’t to say that Levinson was all doom and gloom; she was exceedingly optimistic, and by the end of the talk I was too. But the start of her lecture—a short appraisal of our current circumstance—defined the strict limits to which architectural criticism is contained. Levinson divided the field into the academic and the commercial; she didn’t blame either for finding their niche and sticking to it, but instead suggested that Places is aiming to expand the audience of architectural writing past our disciplinary boundaries. To accomplish that, Places casts an exceedingly wide net of what constitutes “architecture,” looking broadly at as many fields as it can where the only criteria required is some notion of the spatial. In that sense, Levinson’s editorial mission is to find architecture in something other than itself and hope that the audience of that “other” will learn to appreciate architecture. Paired with Places Journal’s shift to a free, digital platform, Levinson’s goals are admirable, and a lecture with a point is always welcome. The discipline already knows architecture affects everything, it just can’t sell itself very well—Levinson wants to help.

While I appreciated the lecture, it wasn’t until the audience questions at the end that it came to life for me. There were two in particular that called into question the medium of journalism and our view of architectural “politics.” The first question asked how journalism that survives on philanthropy—a growing model—can provide the impact metrics that its donors seem to require. The second asked how “political” journalism can reach more of its dissenters, e.g., how can an article about climate change find those who don’t believe in climate change. For Levinson, the answer to both questions was time. Journalism isn’t an instantly gratifying field, Levinson argued, and an article doesn’t change the world when the editor hits “publish” on WordPress. The questions from the audience didn’t poke holes or attempt to criticize Places or Levinson, but they did create further questions for me, questions about the risks of philanthropy as a funding model or about what we consider “political.”

In architecture and its associated fields we are often content to call something political and move on. We accept the word political as being synonymous with our specific ideological position. We rarely define how something is political, instead we’re uncritical of anything we see as having “good morals.” This view of a certain practice as “moral” in itself has been a condition of architectural discourse since the Enlightenment.¹ By equating the political with our own specific views, we cut off other positions from existing as political thought—similar to how the media looks at a Republican-voting Rust Belt worker and can only conclude that they’re “voting against their interests.” There are belief systems outside our own, and we would do well to both recognize and attempt to understand them while more strongly defining our own. There is a mode of “acting politically” in architecture that would conceptually reject hegemony, but through our misuse of language it has created just that. By being clearer with our vocabularies and ourselves, we can be more open to different modes of acting “politically.”

[1] Extreme examples include Augustus Pugin and John Ruskin in Victorian England, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in France, and Adolf Loos in the Modern Movement.