In fact, I’m surprised that a vocabulary for all the new fingerings hasn’t yet emerged. So far, the new digital reading platforms have been simulacra of the book. The turning pages of the iPad and Kindle, the bookmarks and even the yellow highlighting, are all imitations of what we are already familiar with. But one thing that is different is that they allow length not to be an issue. We can take a 24-volume series on holiday as easily as we can take a single article. This has created a new opening for a format that has never really found its proper place in English culture – the essay.
A medium which was pivotal to Central European culture, which Austrian writer and journalist Karl Kraus and his contemporary, architect and theorist Adolf Loos, turned into an art form at the beginning of the 20th century and which still survives in the serious papers of continental Europe but which only appears in Anglo-Saxon culture in the pages of literary journals. Justin McGuirk, Guardian design critic, calls it “long-form journalism”. McGuirk is the editor of a new series of ebooks from Strelka Press, an offshoot of the Moscow-based, Rem Koolhaas-programmed and oligarch-backed post-graduate architecture and urbanism school.
The first tranche of essays from Strelka Press, which are available to download for £2 each and launched this summer, looks like a worthy attempt at geographical, stylistic and subject spread. There is McGuirk’s own Edge City: Driving The Periphery Of São Paolo, a road trip around the almost mythical edges of an endless city. Drawing a little on Iain Sinclair’s self-consciously visionary circumnavigation of the deadlands of London’s M25, McGuirk’s prose is quiet, reserved and observant, different to the slightly gonzo absurdity I’d been half expecting. It takes in well-intentioned modernist housing and ramshackle shacks alongside the ubiquitous non-places and junk-spaces that define the universal experience of the urban periphery. It is a warm, humane and readable piece, far from the pretentious and condescending architectural critiques of the megacity we have become used to from some of theory’s biggest names, paeans to informality from the pens of those living in Georgian houses and generous brownstones.
Then, there is China. Julia Lovell’s Splendidly Fantastic: Architecture And Power Games in China is another readable history, which embraces the politics of planning and resistance as well as documenting arguably the fastest and most extraordinary urban development in mankind’s history. Entirely lacking in the spurious justifications for megalomania which often appear in such texts it is a useful introduction to a world that is both visible yet opaque.
Keller Easterling, normally a fine writer, falls slightly flat with The Action Is The Form: Victor Hugo’s TED Talk. Rather as Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher, argued that “the medium is the message”, Easterling attempts to explain, I think, how architecture is, in fact, information. I had the nagging sense that I was being thick and missing the point.
Alexandra Lange, who teaches criticism and writes for the Design Observer website caused a ruckus in New York when, in 2010, she wrote a piece entitled Why Nicolai Ouroussoff Is Not Good Enough slating the then New York Times architecture critic in what looked a little like a blatant pitch for the job. Lange’s essay lounges around the banal architecture of Silicon Valley, asking mild questions about its urbanity, suburbanity and lack of ambition. It’s a shame Frank Gehry’s plans for the Facebook campus hadn’t been published yet as it would have given Lange more meat. As it is, this is more of an amble than a critique but pleasant enough.
Dan Hill’s Dark Matter And Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary is the most ambitious of all the essays, touching on politics, global economic crises and quoting one of my favourite design writers, Norman Potter. But it proved too dense and, although quite possibly brilliant, went over my head – I began skimming, lost track and finally gave up.
Finally, comes the irrepressible Sam Jacob of London-based architecture practice FAT, who has, I think, long been one of the sharpest, funniest and finest critics of contemporary design culture. Make It Real: Architecture As Enactment is an ambitious study of copying, re-enactment, the simulacra and the reconstruction of architectures in history from Henry Ford’s nostalgic Greenfield Village to Mies van der Rohe’s replication of his own buildings. It is, as you might expect, erudite and clever but, with the exception of a brilliant introduction, Jacob forgets to be funny, which is what he is so brilliant at. His schtick is to find the funny on the everyday, much as the French might have found the excruciatingly dull in the everyday. It is a good essay but it shows a drift towards the language and concerns of academia (Jacob teaches at the Architectural Association and at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Yale), which begin to dilute his style. For the real thing, go to his website strangeharvest.com.
None of these essays are brilliant – but it does begin to provide a platform for what I think could be a very valuable gap in contemporary architectural culture, a forum for engaged, intelligent and international writing where length is not the main issue.