Post-truth in Architecture Media
Hulya Ertas, Burak Pak
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KU Leuven Department of Architecture Campus Sint-Lucas Brussels, 1030 Belgium
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Architecture media has a history of more than a century as a business-to-business (B2B) platform with established relationships within the construction and real estate sector and it is rarely discussed in a critical manner in the theoretical and empirical media studies. Therefore the recent debates on post-truth are hardly considered as problematic in this field. In this context, the main aim of this paper is to initiate a critical discussion on the forms of post-truth such as manipulation of knowledge; censorship, self-censoring and blackout; commercialization of knowledge and poor journalism within the mainstream architecture media. The paper starts with a visit to three scenes experienced by the authors, revealing different forms of post-truth in this domain. Afterwards, we discuss the emergence and evolution of post-truth in relation to the architecture media. Following the presentation of a theoretical framework for the future of a post-truth-proof architecture media, we introduce the idea of a knowledge commons as a means to enable social and participatory construction of truth on architectural projects in the form of dissensual post-media, and initiate an open discussion for further questions.
keywords: post-truth, architecture media, knowledge commons, post-media, commons
“Can true function arise from basic dysfunction?” Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)
On July 2017 the first author receives a call from Ersen Gursel, a well-known architect in Turkey. The topic is Galataport, a controversial project on the agenda for more than 15 years, criticized for privatization of public space, risk of gentrification and over-touristification. Located on the seaside of Tophane, very close to Pera, the place used to house the cruise port, museums and cultural institutions. With the support of local and national authorities, the neoliberal logic of urban transformation and privatization envisions a scheme based on profit maximization at this very central seaside. On the phone Gursel was mentioning he had seen the project on Metropolis magazine’s website. Given the lack of transparency in these transformation processes this was a big news. Through the link he sent with the title of How a Hydraulic Boardwalk Is Giving Istanbul Its Waterfront Back it reads: “So a master plan, under construction through 2019, that will restore the public’s access to a historic 0.75-mile area along the European bank of the Bosporus has been welcomed.” (Moreno 2017) By tearing down buildings of modernist industrial heritage (Anon. n.d.) and replacing them with luxury hotels and commercial spaces through an extremely opaque process, Gensler and Dror are promising the citizens to “give back” their public space after 200 years. However, on the plan it is unclear how the foreseen linear boardwalk connects to the everyday life and the informal networks. Also, the notion and definition of public space in Istanbul is problematic today and apparently was more problematic 200 years ago. The statement and how the project is being developed does not only impose a western and modernist mode of thinking (in the form of creative destruction and panopticism) it also ignores the long term effects of the project such as gentrification, urban memory loss and commercialization of leisure activities. This type of myopic readings especially on public space in developing countries is not accidental, it is an intentional manipulation of knowledge by the architecture offices that wishes to continue their businesses as usual.
On May 2015, the second author reads an article written by the manager of the Arkitera online platform on the architecture of the Presidential Campus of President Erdogan in Ankara: “Sometimes acquaintances, journalists ask me to make a few comments solely on the architecture of this building. How am I going to do so? Has this building been ever published in architecture media? Have we asked the architect Şefik Birkiye to give feedback? Yes, several times (without success). Has anyone took us around the building? … No.”. In this article, Ömer Yılmaz (2015) points out to a vital problem which has become increasingly prominent in the last decade in the Turkish media: censorship, self-censoring and blackout. The presidential campus is estimated to cover a total area of 750.000 square meters (TC Cumhurbaşkanlığı 2015) and it is one of the most important pieces of architecture ever built in the history of the Turkish Republic using public funds. The whole process of its design has been organized without an open competition and completed in secrecy with a single architecture office. The main presidential building has been completed in 2015 and the citizens and representatives from 25 media organizations have been invited to join guided tours, and even a virtual tour has been made available. However, both are organized in a strictly limited perimeter and cover only “the main areas”. Yet, almost three years after its completion, there is still a cloak of secrecy over the architectural plans, a mystery on the exact size and the building program(s) and the total cost which are ever-expanding. This factual blackout of architecture and selective censorship leads to lack of sensible criticism and make it impossible to initiate any meaningful architectural discussion on the Presidential Campus. These also result in the emergence of fake news and polarizing speculations (such as golden toilets), (Anon. 2015) diverting the public sphere the towards the never ending cycles of myth-manufacturing and myth-busting as well as accusations of “perception management” by the government.
On September 2018, while working on this article we were reading about Superkilen, BIG, Topotek 1 & Superflex’s well-known project in Copenhagen online. Clicking on some architecture websites led to a numerical oddity. On Archdaily, (Anon. 2012) the park’s length is half a mile (804.672 meters), on Designboom (Chin 2012) 1000 meters, and on Dezeen (2012) it is 750 meters. This quantitative oddity is easily traceable. The mismatch between the social impact envisioned by the design architects and daily life consequences is not that easy to spot. If you keep reading about the Superkilen on mainstream architecture media, you come across the statements of Bjarke Ingels, spread out in the form of a press release to all media outlets. This press release quotes him saying: “… we proposed public participation as the driving force of the design leading towards the maximum freedom of expression. By transforming public procedure into proactive proposition we curated a park for the people by the people – peer to peer design – literally implemented.” When we searched for this exact statement online, we discovered ten more news resources and countless blog posts which “copy-pasted” the statement of the architect into a news piece without any questioning and quoting, one being the news outlet of a reputable university. These are clear cases of poor journalism through which novel projects are praised and set as ideal cases on the architecture media. It’s a fait accompli: architecture journalists don’t have to spend effort to write and criticize but still can make profit from the press release; and the architect gets free marketing of his/her own “truth”. However, there is an issue with this truth: “a park for the people by the people” does not seem to be appreciated by the people using it. On a site visit to Superkilen in 2012 the first author had witnessed one of the project managers at BIG explaining how the pieces of urban furniture were being broken by people and replaced over and over again. Brett Bloom (2013), a critic of the park for its financial model, lack of urban feel, surveillance and control mechanisms implemented on public space also tackles this issue of constant breaking of park elements and connect that phenomenon to them not being “designed for Nørrebro’s public space” (Bloom 2013). For instance, the palm trees transplanted (Green 2013) from distant cultures struggle to survive due to climatic incompatibility. The qualitative oddity here becomes apparent as a rupture between the information shared through the press release (as a form of self-promotion and advertising) and the reality of daily life.
The evolution of post-truth
The general discourse evolving around post-truth accelerated after the presidential elections in USA in 2016. The term was even selected as the word of the year by Oxford Dictionary (Flood 2016) which related the emergence of the term to the widespread use of social media as a news source as well to distrust towards the establishment. However, according to Google Ngram analysis tool (2018), the use of the term dates earlier -back to the beginning of 1990s- a period when it was common to add “post” to any concept to start a speculative discussion.
The concept of post-truth in the meaning we understand today originates in The Post-truth Era book by Ralph Keyes in 2004. The author positioned post-truth as a third category between an ambiguous statement and a lie. According to him, key elements of post-truth is deception and dishonesty. These are employed by high-profile dissemblers, through a trickle-down mechanism which operates from top to bottom.
Today, we observe the popularization of the post-truth which operates both ways, top-down and bottom-up in cycles of feedback, creating a snowballing effect. The financial crisis of 2008 has led to the increasing distrust towards the establishment and the increasing use of social media by the disadvantaged parts of the population. In this context, varieties of post-truth get amplified through the echo chambers of platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat which have recently been put under legal scrutiny for spreading misinformation. Long established protocols of editorship, scholarly and journalistic truth are being replaced by the Newsfeed algorithm of Facebook, making Mark Zuckerberg the “editor-in-chief of the globe” (Martinez 2018). However, the fabrication and spread of post-truth goes beyond the social media, blogs and online platforms. Bjarke Ingel’s sentences in press release reviewed in Scene 3, has even been published in an MIT Journal as an article (Ingels 2012).
Emergence of post-truth has also led to the emergence of the concept of “fake news”. According to the Reuters Digital News Report (Newman 2018) fake news covers: manipulation of knowledge, commercialization of knowledge (stories as adverts), censorship, self-censoring and blackout and poor journalism. These bring core principles of journalism under the spotlight.
Organizations such as the Ethical Journalism Network (Anon. n.d.) suggest to tackle the poor journalism practices by enforcing five core principles: truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity and accountability. The principles such as accuracy, independence, accountability can be monitored and discussed relatively easier (but may be difficult to implement in a neoliberal context) compared to the truth, fairness and humanity. The biggest challenge in this context is the kind of understanding of truth which is based on objectivity: the factual truth (Keane 2018).
Post-truth in architecture media
Architecture media has a history of more than a century as a business-to-business (B2B) platform with established relationships within the construction and real estate sector. These are rarely discussed in the theoretical and empirical media studies, thus the recent debates on post-truth are hardly considered as problematic in the architecture media. Yet, going back to the opening scenes of this article we can easily trace the mechanisms for the construction of post-truth (Newman, 2018) manipulation of knowledge (scene 1), censorship, self-censoring and blackout (scene 2), commercialization of knowledge: stories as adverts (scene 3). And poor journalism plays part in varying proportions in all these aforementioned scenes. These phenomena are partly related to the culture of architecture media, partly to the emergent socio-political and technological developments.
Through a cross-matching of the general conditions in architecture media and the forms of post-truth, it becomes explicit that manipulation of knowledge is related to culture of architecture media as a B2B platform, censorship to editorial line and commercialization of knowledge to content production mechanisms.
The architecture media’s inherent quality as a B2B platform indicates a complex relationship between the media outlet and the profession. Architects are content producers and consumers at the same time. They are the news, authors of the news, readers of the news. And with the introduction of new online publications or online interfaces of established architecture magazines this relationship gets even more complex since different levels of contribution to content production is possible through comments, voting for future content, sharing on social media or financial support of media outlets via crowdsourcing, etc. (Garrido 2015, 82). It is actually this complex relationship that undermines the criticism in the field. It is a common practice in architecture media to first contact the architects who designed the building, ask for their permission and recommendation of a critic to publish the project. The natural end product of this mechanism is “captive writers telling happy stories of what the architect wanted to do and how they did it (always successfully)” (Clark & Walker 2013, 25). Mostly relying on the intention of the architects, quoting their design principles with little or no critical reflection, the texts penned by critics manipulate knowledge. These are also accompanied by images produced by the architecture office who designed the building, namely renders or photographs shot by the artist commissioned by the architecture office. It is possible to digitally manufacture a render with no balustrades on balconies, green terrace gardens on 100 meters above ground and have it circulated in architecture media outlets (Minkjan 2016). It is also possible to photoshop photographs of the buildings to clear unwanted wires, dirt on facades and even to replace the building in another setting (McGuigan 2012). This is the practice of manipulation of knowledge through the textual and the visual content .
On the other hand there is a long tradition of setting the editorial line of the architecture magazines by selecting what to publish or not, claiming this is where the critical stand of the publication lies. “Criticism is practiced by omission: when the editors don’t like a building, they just don’t talk about it" (Fromont 2013, 13). This trend is to be followed all the way back to first editions of Architectural Review, founded in 1896 (Parnell 2016). Taking a position through selection, architecture media limits itself to productions of architects which is only 5% of the built environment (Ibelings & Powerhouse Company 2012, 60). This self-censoring and/or blackout mechanism has also played a part in detaching architecture media from the wider audience since the daily life realm has been omitted along with the not-good-enough-to-publish buildings. Even within the 5%, the buildings that their designs are not well received in quality, are not published at all, rather than receiving a well-deserved critique. This is partly related with the characteristics of architecture publications as B2B platforms; in the architecture community no one wants to be enemies with no one. And this can also be partly related with the political and economical conditions of the context or power relations architecture media is operating in. Knocking down a building with a good critique requires more courage than claiming criticality through not publishing it at all.
How the selected projects are being published, namely how the content production mechanisms work needs to be discussed in detail as well. There is a great dependency on the information (texts and visuals) provided by the architecture offices and absence of fact-checking mechanisms to question the information provided. Copy-pasting the information received from architects mostly in forms of press releases has become the common modus operandi, especially in the online media outlets, such as Archdaily, Dezeen and Designboom, etc. In some of these outlets, it is also possible to upload your own project, and if it is selected by the editorial team you are online directly. The accelerating speed of content generation and distribution and free access to information within the world of internet has resulted in online publications that are hungry for web traffic in order to be able to finance themselves. To feed the monster of web traffic one has to outsource the content generation. In architecture media case it is outsourced to architecture offices who designed these projects in the first place. This results in an indifference between news-making and PR campaign. Stories as adverts are published and circulated with no critical judgement, or fact-checking. This is more problematic when the story of the architect is based on social issues. Stories that are not told in formal descriptions, but in the architecture’s impact on social life with the terms such as social engagement, participatory design, ecological awareness are harder to fact-check.
What is to be done?
First step to challenge post-truth is to understand it better (McIntryre 2018). In this paper we tried to reveal and discuss the specifics of post-truth in the architecture media. We are aware that the effects of post-truth in this field is not as devastating and society-wide as it is in the mass news media; yet the epidemic spread of post-truth needs to be fought in every aspect of life. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Marx 1875). In this case it is in our ability to spot and stop post-truth in architecture media.
It is important to recognize that there is a long-established dispute over the objectivity of the facts, that facts can also be understood as social constructs. These completely override the ethical principles of journalism and call for a new direction of thinking towards a post-ethical framework that exceeds the positivist understanding of truth. A social constructionist view of factual truth also triggers novel approaches and positions on how to react and challenge post-truth.
In order to deal with post-truth, a wide range of strategies have been developed and adopted. In the last decade we witnessed the rise of fact checking (Graves & Cherubini 2016). However, it became clear that fact-checking is insufficient (Keane 2018); it’s a paradoxical effort destined to fail since the manufacturers and consumers of post-truth do not believe in factual truth, for them “truth is not truth” (Gomez 2018).