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David Jenkins interview – Mark 68

13 June 2017

David Jenkins interview – Mark 68

‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity’

Publisher David Jenkins talks to Mark magazine about making books (it’s never been easier), selling books (it’s never been harder) and writing architecture criticism (it’s a dying art).

Text: Giovanna Dunmall
Photo: Andrew Meredith

London-based David Jenkins trained as an architect and practised for seven years in the 1980s before coming to the conclusion that architecture is ‘2 per cent creativity and 98 per cent drudgery’. He turned to writing and editing and has never looked back, first working at The Architects’ Journal in London and then joining Phaidon Press in 1991, after it was bought by Richard Schlagman. Jenkins created an impressive architectural programme and commissioned over 100 new titles before leaving Phaidon in 1998 to establish an independent publishing unit within the Foster studio. While there, he conceived Norman Foster Works, an encyclopaedic series that covers five decades of the architect’s work and comprises six volumes, 3,500 pages and over 1.5 million words.

In 2014 Jenkins founded Circa Press, which has published, among other things, a children’s book on architecture called An Igloo on the Moon; and Death Drive: There Are No Accidents, a compendium of stories of famous people killed in cars and an exploration of the automobile in popular culture.

What is the most formative or influential book on architecture or design that you have come across?

DAVID JENKINS: Le Corbusier’s Aircraft [1935] is a book that Norman [Foster] and I both take as a reference point. It’s about seeing cities from the air and seeing the world differently through the cockpit of an aircraft. For the previous generation, seeing the so-called fifth elevation wasn’t an issue, because nobody went into the air. Somehow, Le Corbusier sees a complete continuity between architecture and industrial design. It’s also a book about how machines can be beautiful in their own right.

So you like books with a theme running through them?

Yes. The kinds of architecture books that excite me are what a film-maker might call ‘high concept’, where there’s a big idea. What drive me to distraction are monographs. They are so dreary and dull – something that nobody really wants.

You have created dozens of monographs yourself, however, such as Phaidon’s Architecture in Detail series. You also did one at Circa just last year, on Jan Kaplický.

I suppose the word ‘monograph’ embraces a wide spectrum, most of which I don’t find at all interesting, particularly the formulaic 50-projects-and-an-essay type of publication, which most architects seem to think they have to produce in order to sell themselves to clients. I think most clients find that sort of book as off-putting as I do. To be engaging, a monograph has to have an overarching concept. For example, the Jan Kaplický book is about drawings; you won’t find a single photograph of a finished building.

The problem with monographs is that most are just vanity projects.

Absolutely. You can do them really well, however. The book that Lars Müller did on Peter Zumthor [Thinking Architecture, 1998], for example, is a real classic. It’s a beautiful thing, with Hélène Binet’s photographs. That’s as good as the architectural monograph gets, because somehow it adds up to something as an object as well as a statement. The rise of the monograph marks the point at which the architectural publishing industry got lazy in my view. Anyone can walk into a publishing house and say: I want a book.

As a publisher, you’ve done some interesting things with format, and you memorably shrunk some of the books you worked on at Phaidon. 

Yes. Minimum by John Pawson [1996] was originally four times the size: twice the length and twice the height. We shrunk it but used the same cloth cover. Everything was the same – number of pages, images, text – but it was much more coherent as a small book. The reduction sharpened everything up. You could see it as a book of ideas rather than as a book of pictures.

Was there something about the bigger format that allowed people to disregard it as a coffee-table book?

Yes. The curse of the coffee-table book! While as a small book, it gained intellectual substance. It’s back to the high-concept idea. When Rem Koolhaas did S,M,L,XL [1995], I remember seeing a mock-up of the book at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and I couldn’t quite believe they were serious. Phaidon at that time was doing 240-page books, and suddenly here was a 1,300-plus-page book that looked so enormous, so visually and intellectually rich, and so ambitious – in every sense – that it seemed incredible. I loved it because it was so unreasonable. What’s the physical limit to which you can actually make a book before the binding collapses on itself? How far can you push the boundaries of publishing? That’s what S,M,L,XL was all about.

Where do you get your inspiration for the next project?

There’s very rarely a eureka moment. The process is usually much looser. I have ideas all the time, and people bring things to me. Most ideas don’t survive for very long, for whatever reason. One test is not to write an idea down. If I haven’t forgotten it after a week or two, then it has a good chance of survival.

Which architecture publishers do you admire?

If there’s anybody that I look to as a sort of benchmark, it’s Lars Müller. He is without a doubt the best in the business, because he really cares about everything. You never feel with Lars as if a book has been done just to fill a gap in the programme. You get the impression that every time he does a book it pushes the field forward a bit. Every book seems to have a clear logic, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s properly designed and has conceptual clarity. It also adds up to a big programme of work.

Anybody else?

In my view, Bruce Mau [who designed S,M,L,XL] is the nearest thing to a genius in publishing. That book completely changed the way people think about architecture books – or about illustrated books generally, for that matter. If you ask Mau to define graphic design, he’ll tell you he can’t do it. He is definitely not a graphic designer in the conventional sense, which is someone who gives form to someone else’s content. He’s actually more like an architect. For him, content and form are indivisible. He has an extraordinary ability to see the idea within an idea, as well as an incredible visual and intellectual frame of reference.

How has architectural publishing evolved since you started?

There is less of it, but the best of it is better than ever before. In the ’90s, the benchmark for us was Electa. They were doing what we thought were the best architecture books. But you look at those books now, and they are dry and graphically very boring. The whole field has moved on. People like Kevin Lippert, who founded the Princeton Architectural Press, helped move it on.

Is making books easier today, in the age of the Internet?

Making books has never been easier, but selling books has never been harder. Picture research and academic research, for instance, are much easier. Essentially, you can picture research a book by yourself now. Pre-Internet, that would have been impossible. It’s the same with market research. If I were proposing a book on Alvar Aalto in the ’90s, to find out what else had been published on Aalto, I would have had to be a librarian. Now you just look on Amazon. It tells you if a book is out of print, and you can follow up on Nielsen to find out how many copies have been sold.

So it’s much easier to be an independent publisher, but selling books is harder than ever. Why?

There’s too much noise, too few booksellers and the big ones, like Waterstones, only want to stock the stuff that’s going to sell quickly. Architecture and art titles can sit on the shelves for weeks and months, taking up valuable space. And their ticket price is quite high generally. One of my books takes the same shelf space as Fifty Shades of Grey but costs the bookseller £40 instead of £4. So it’s tough.

You have written scathing pieces about the state of architecture criticism. Are there any good architecture critics still out there?

Yes, but most of them are in their 70s. It’s a dying art, sadly. When I was at The Architects’ Journal, we never invited the architect to write about his or her own building. Now it’s the first thing you read: the architect’s account, followed by the engineer’s account and then the client’s account. Or there are long technical pieces that are just endless series of facts.

The best critics were Reyner Banham and Martin Pawley. I edited a book of Pawley’s writings. Robert Maxwell, who is now in his 90s, is still a fantastic writer about architecture. Paul Goldberger is not bad, and Michael Kimmelman, the critic for The New York Times, is good. Here in the UK I have a great affection for Rowan Moore. He is a very, very intelligent writer. Stephen Bayley is a great writer, too. He occasionally writes pieces for the Spectator, which are always worth reading.

Do you think the younger critics lack knowledge or objectivity?

I see a series of problems that come together. First of all, the knowledge base among writers is declining. People don’t know enough about the precedents to criticize things coherently. If an architect is doing something that looks like Louis Kahn or Le Corbusier, they don’t know enough about Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier to make connections. Secondly, I think people don’t engage with architecture criticism in the way that earlier generations did. Thirdly, PRs don’t want it. The dominance of the PR means it’s all got to be good news. You don’t want to let your client get a pasting in the press.

That isn’t the worst thing in the world, though, is it?

No. I think there’s no such thing as bad publicity. If you find architecture criticism now, it’s in newspapers or magazines like The New Yorker. I read a fantastically scathing piece about Zumthor’s building for LACMA in an arts journal called The LA Review of Books. You can still find architecture criticism; you just won’t necessarily find it in architecture magazines.

You still write books occasionally. Has the experience of editing other people’s work changed the way you write?

I like to write, and sometimes it’s easier than trying to coax a text out of somebody else. Writing is generally a pleasure and rewriting other people’s work sometimes less so, but I enjoy it nonetheless. I learned how to write at The Architects’ Journal. Martin Pawley gave me a few basic rules: grab the reader’s attention, start every piece with a strong idea or statement, go back over it when you’ve finished and get rid of all the adjectives, keep your sentences short and, most importantly, clarity is everything. It sounds dumb, but you’d be surprised how few writers can do it.

As someone who has written about other architects’ work, how do you handle criticism of your own work?

If people don’t like things, I don’t really mind. The most difficult thing is when somebody points out factual or typographic errors and you think shit, why didn’t I see that? I get angry about that sort of stuff, angry with myself for being fallible. When I get a new book back from the press, often I don’t open it for a week or two. I know that when I do, I’m going to find a mistake.

David Jenkins recommends

FRS Yorke, The Modern House, Architectural Press, London, 1934
‘It was the first book to pull together modernism as a genre and explore it internationally, and it was a huge sales success. In a way, you could argue that it pushed the story forward a bit. If you were an architect working in Britain, you wouldn’t have seen any of this stuff before, so The Modern House was a complete eye-opener. I think architectural publishing at its best can fulfil that role, of opening your eyes.’

JM Richards, The Functional Tradition in Early Industrial Buildings, Architectural Press, London, 1958
‘It’s a book about buildings that once upon a time were not really regarded as architecture at all but just as containers for machinery. I like the way it pulls together a number of seemingly unrelated things, and you see a story emerge.’

KG Pontus Hultén, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1968.
‘I like technically weird books, and I am desperate to do a book at some point that will have a tin cover like this one, just for the technical challenge and for the fun of it.’

Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978
‘This is an amazing book. Again, it opens your eyes . . . encourages you to see New York in a different way.’

Philip Morrison, Phylis Morrison and the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten: About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe, Scientific American Library, New York, 1982
‘This is such a digital idea, yet it was done in the analogue era. What I like about it and the Eameses is that they saw everything as design. That chimes with my view of the world.’

Hakon Ahlberg et al., Sigurd Lewerentz 1885-1975: The Dilemma of Classicism, Architectural Association Publications, London, 1989
‘This book has a cover made out of emery paper that is rough like sandpaper, even though it is screen-printed. If you pull it out of a bookcase, you can hear it sanding the covers of the books next to it. It would be a great book without the emery-paper jacket, but the highly unusual use of that material makes it truly memorable. 

Mario Rinke and Joseph Schwartz (eds.), Before Steel, Niggli Verlag, Sulgen, 2010
‘I picked up this book in the AA Bookshop and found I couldn’t put it down. I am fascinated by the subject – the introduction of structural iron and its consequences – but the book is so ingeniously designed, with a series of fold-out sections, that I had to have it for the quality of the paper architecture alone.’