To mark RECORD's 125th anniversary, the two living former editors in chief joined me for a conversation about RECORD's past and present. Mildred Schmertz, FAIA, who has an MFA from Yale in graphic design as well as an architecture degree, came to the magazine’s art department in 1957, moved on to be a writer and editor and finally was made the first woman editor in chief, from 1985 to 1990. The late Stephen Kliment succeeded her, and then Robert Ivy, FAIA, arrived as the top editor in 1996. When he left to become CEO of the American Institute of Architects in 2011, I was hired to take the helm. Following are highlights from our talk about the magazine’s history under our collective watch, which stretches back 59 years.

Cathleen McGuigan: Mildred, you were at RECORD for 33 years and have the longest view of the magazine. What was its mission when you began, and how did you see it shift from the late 1950s to 1990?

Mildred Schmertz: The mission has been the same for 125 years, and it’s simple: to serve architects in the profession, to keep their loyalty, and to attract advertisers because of the size and quality of our readership.

Robert Ivy: I agree the fundamental mission really hasn’t changed. I would just add to that: we inform and inspire our audience; architecture is both an art and a science. But the world has shifted and changed dramatically over the period of time that Mildred and I and you have been involved—everything from the explosion of digital technology to globalization, climate concerns, and social questions. We’ve all responded in one way or another to all of that through the publication.

CM: When I got here, there was no question that this was a publication of tremendous authority. But we also very consciously tried to frame the issues that affect architecture that Robert just mentioned. We have kept our eye on cities, and have been covering other topics the profession is confronting, such as diversity and the collaborative, inter­disciplinary world that architects now work in. Yet we’re doing all this in the context of presenting the best projects that reflect our time. That’s still the core of our mission.

RI: We have always had a curatorial role—making selections of projects that we think are going to interest people for a variety of reasons. The good examples are ultimately more interesting than the bad. So, what we have typically done is held up the best examples and said, “Look at this.”

MS: Something that RECORD would simply never do, which some other magazines have done, is take a building that is poor or mediocre and boot it around. The building itself isn’t that important really, in the culture, and it always seemed to me very crude to make that kind of attack.

RI: Unless there’s a rationale for doing it. Architects have said for years, “Why isn’t my project in RECORD? I’ve done a school, and really, it’s good.” And the merely good isn’t a rationale for publication either. Because all architects should be doing good work. So the question is, what is the lesson in it? Does it have a point of view? What can it share beyond meeting the criteria that any project in any community should meet.

CM: We look for projects that embody a specific idea, that reflect something new or innovative. We’re looking for excellence, but of course that’s subjective. It’s a group of editors making selections based on what we think is the best work out there.

Let’s switch gears, and talk about digital content. Robert, the digital revolution started when you were editor, and it has had a huge impact on us, because it enables us to do daily journalism. It helps us stay on top of key issues. We are seeing stories break and then evolve, and the process complements what we do in the magazine. And yet print is still very important to us, and to our audience.

RI: What digital has allowed you to do is bring news forward in a way that we could not. Mildred and I had the luxury of time. We were able to choose, make selections for an audience, with the luxury to work those issues out, get the photography, acquire the writer, and do all those things print demands. But on the Web, you’re out there daily, with the latest, putting all those things together in a true publication which is now more than a magazine.

CM: Let’s talk about the shifts in relevant topics over the years. Robert, under your tenure, there was a real response to globalism. With expanding global markets for architects, you began to cover China intensively—you started the quarterly Architectural Record China in Shanghai in 2005, and during this time there was also a new focus on sustainability.

RI: Part of the magazine’s role is to try to catch the wave of development and thought. And in the years that I was active, there was this explosion of international travel and knowledge, and architects were finding work in other parts of the world, not just in China.

British architects had a moment of real creativity, and you could’ve made a whole publication out of Japan alone. As editors, we recognized that that was something that was relevant to our community, and we would create issues devoted to, in some cases, a country. 

In China’s case, it was particularly powerful, because we watched the explosion of the whole country as Chinese architects were training in the United States, going back to China and changing creatively what had been a fairly staid design and construction environment. American architects were going over and doing exciting things, including building whole cities from the ground up.

CM: Mildred, what were the big issues the magazine confronted in the years that you were here?

MS: For a long stretch when I was at RECORD, we celebrated modernism. We showed it all the time, and reached as far as we could. The next great change was, of course, the Postmodern movement. And I can say at this point that it was a great joy, because we’d gotten tired of the modern movement, and when I say we, I mean us, editor-writer folks.

Some of the Postmodernists did work of great appeal—I mean they drew well. Michael Graves, Charles Moore—they had started to draw in new ways, and instead of scorning traditional architecture, they were looking at it again but incorporating its values in an inventive way. I don’t know whether we had any theory; all we knew was that we were going to grab all that we could, because it looked terrific in the magazine.

CM: Robert, when you took over, Postmodernism was on the wane, and we’d already had the deconstructivist burst.

RI: As I was coming into the role, we saw the convergence of the digital revolution with material prosperity. I was here during a period of unparalleled money. We had a license to build anything the human mind could conceive because we were freed from this orthogonal framework, of what had been the drawing board and became computer-aided design. It was as if someone had thrown a bomb.

And, so, architects were developing computer programs, using software from the aerospace industry. And, all of a sudden, the forms of buildings began to change. Architects were freed, and we had buildings that began to look like a snail or a slug or an exploding flower, or something like that.

For a period of time, buildings were extremely exuberant and defied any sort of label. And that created what came to be known as iconic architecture, from starchitects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava, where basically architecture became a form of urban sculpture as well as habitation.

And, what evolved somewhat later, were people—young people in particular—asking, why these icons? In publications like ours, which had been purveying them and putting them on our covers—because they made great covers and subject matter—they kept saying, what about the community?

CM: We’re still incredibly impressed with spectacularly beautiful, exotic buildings, but a magazine like RECORD doesn’t have to settle on one point of view. It is really a reflection of all kinds of architecture.

We love the mix and the plurality, and we can celebrate all of that. But it’s true that many younger architects seem to have different values, and we listen to them and try to reflect that.

RECORD in its long history was up against at least three other magazines in the U.S., plus the British and Italian magazines. It was a larger field for print, and now it’s a larger field in terms of digital coverage.

But RECORD was always steadily in the middle. It wasn’t Progressive Architecture, and yet it reflected a pretty broad spectrum of what was going on. Do you agree with that?

RI: Oh, I do. Absolutely.

MS: The magazine in my day was more than the so-called starchitects. The monthly collection of buildings contained work, such as a collection of schools, that was well designed and well described. It should be acknowledged that, besides showing greatly imaginative work, what made the magazine even better is that it paid attention to the very good everyday architectural performance.

RI: And, Cathleen, that’s an important point about the nature of the publication—it has always struck a balance, presenting not only the edge of the wave. It’s always had this pragmatic underbelly and has hoped to relate to the architects, designers, and people in the construction arena who actually go out and do the work. And so it’s never been completely about the latest trend but about design excellence, and also technical knowledge. It’s never been just flash and dash.

CM: And being more than just flash and dash is more important than ever. RECORD's role is arguably even more significant in a world where, every morning, people turn on their computers or look at their phones and see a whole bunch of little postage-stamp-sized images of buildings, from all over the world, and think they know architecture from looking at those teeny pictures!

What we continue to do, which you both talked about, is to curate the best buildings of our time and select images that most accurately and beautifully reflect the experience of the building. We send writers to report on projects and we produce first-hand stories in layouts with plans and specifications, with all the information and insight that RECORD has been providing for decades. There really is no better way to publish the experience of what makes a great work of architecture. 

VIDEO: Across the Decades with Three Editors