Following a Decade of Highs and Lows, America’s Architects Are Asking, “What Now?”

Whoa. Wait a minute. That’s not an Architectural Record cover.

At least not one I’m familiar with. What’s a person doing there? Where’s the building? Where’s the beef?

If you’re confused, thinking that you might be inhabiting a parallel universe, calm down — you’re right. Except for the blurred image of passersby, RECORD has not featured a living soul, except for the portrait shot of the AIA Gold Medalist we’ve run every year since 1999, when Frank Gehry took center stage with a rock-star, black-and-white poster moment. Yet here is an average architect staring back at you in the year 2011, looking, well, normal. (By the way, which issue did you receive, the one with the man or the woman?)

Architectural Record January 2011 covers

Since the foundation of the world, architects have consistently told us, “Please, please, do not put people on the cover.” Why? You’ve said that you think it trivializes the work we architects do. It places too much emphasis on gender or race or all of the above. Our work as architects should be paramount. We’ve studied and worked for years to arrive at professional status, so go easy on the personalities. Focus instead on architecture. Clearly, we understand your concerns. So when we chose a person for this special cover, we meant to grab your attention in a watershed year that has us gasping, but unbowed. “What now?” indeed. The architect still stands.

In addition to drawing attention to a new decade, our poster architects signal changes within the publication. For eons, readers have asked us to include more criticism in our pages and on the Web. We have raised our hands (right or left?) to make the critical pledge, more than once. Yet architectural glossies have too often been guilty of a kind of “boosterism,” as Alexandra Lange states herein, so we added more criticism into the mix this month. Change, which we serve up with this issue, pumps oxygen into any publication, in any form. It gives it zip for another sprint, allowing Architectural Record to enter 2011 on an oxygenated high.

The central theme of the publication, announced on the cover and on our Web site, is “What Now”? After a decade of ultimate highs and lows (the richest decade/the poorest years), we stand at a crossroads. Deputy editor Clifford Pearson has composed a polyphonic arrangement for days past and yet to come, with multiple voices that include respected architects, economists, historians, and our own staff. (We do have points of view. You should hear us kvetch.)

You, the reader, will notice the differences most in the departmental matter at the front of the publication, where we have adopted a decidedly more conversational, critical tone. Call the title of this section “Kultur,” but don’t be fooled by the innocuous-sounding individual sections. There’s a bit of tooth behind the polish. Ask Suzanne Stephens, our deputy editor, who helped shape the columns. “Community,” for example, captures threads, letters, forum entries, and anything else that has been contributed to our Web site — in this case, a range of opinions on the LEED rating system.

When is news not news? Today we recognize that you have already seen the news on your PDA or gulped breaking events with your morning latte.

In this fast-as-light world, what’s a monthly to do? Rather than mimic a newspaper, we weigh; we think. In this issue, you will find news in perspective, an analytic look, even an opinion or two, about important or interesting actual events. Read our take on the recession at the dawn of another decade, or follow the interview of the German-African architect Francis Kéré, who engages with the communities that help build his designs. “On the Boards” presents the most fascinating projects worldwide, while “Briefs” brings the news full circle, pointing us from print back to the Web site. Jenna McKnight, our news editor, leads you through the paces — fast on the Web, slow-burning and thoughtful in print.

Ah, who doesn’t love a rant? At least a funny one. Expanding on our legacy of great writing, Martin Filler takes a bite at contemporary architectural practice. We give him free rein, almost, in our “Commentary” column, in which he sends up architectural firm names. Are they wannabe rock bands or what? The field seems begging for the treatment, and Filler and Charles Linn deliver. Reviews, always a chance for get-real language, here take on an art installation, film, and books, rounding out the sparky front matter, which changes monthly.

All this hype for the January issue might seem more dramatic than the actual publication you are leafing through. We’ve talked change, but RECORD will always feature architectural projects. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. One difference, already inaugurated, involves integration, in this case the meshing of two vital ingredients — call it an ultimate mash-up. Featured projects will occasionally offer continuing education credits, where the depth of content and a full presentation warrant. Such is the case in this issue with the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge Park. Ingest, synthesize, learn, and count your credits.

Many of us design schools, a perennial building type that will always find a place in Architectural Record. But for this issue, even our franchise “Schools of the 21st Century” has been refreshed with a story on architects finding the simplest solutions for educating students around the world, things you could imagine doing yourself.

So how do we follow up? Another generic architect on the cover? How would they be dressed? Who would do their hair? As dramatically as this issue announced change, next month’s cover will feature one of the most informative or inspirational or amazing architectural projects, wherever it might be located on planet Earth. So relax: Architectural Record remains Architectural Record, even as the decades roll. The curtain closes, dramatis personae recede into the shadows. Please tune in for Act II, next month, wherein “everything old is new again: renovating and retrofitting your way to success.”

If you wish to write to our editor-in-chief you can email him