The Daily Heller: Architecture on the Common Edge
Among the finest editors in design journalism, Martin C. Pedersen, formerly of Graphis and Metropolis, is currently co-founder of the website Common Edge. Architecture is the focal point, but design comes into play in many ways—as structure, monument and shelter. The articles are informative, timely and inspiring. It is a feat to make a weekly site with this level of mass appeal and disciplinary rigor, so I asked Pedersen how he does it. Maybe I'll get some useful pointers.
You have been editor of Graphis and executive editor of Metropolis, and quite a good one, too. How did the Common Edge collaborative come to life? Common Edge—the name was coined by my partner and co-founder, Steven Bingler—was initially launched by a New York Times op-ed we co-authored, entitled, “How to Rebuild Architecture,” which appeared in December 2014. It basically argued that the profession was almost terminally disconnected from the people that it was supposed to be serving. The piece caused a bit of a shitstorm, which was its intention. We were nailing a proclamation to the church door, telling the priests of Architecture inside that they had a problem. Over the course of the next year, Steven and I would meet for breakfast every Tuesday morning, a very New Orleans thing, at a place called Satsuma. So began what Steven jokingly referred to as the “Satsuma Dialogues,” which was really us planning what a Common Edge site might look and feel like. At some point, we brought in our friends at Once Future Office, my old Metropolis art director Dungjai Pungauthaikan and her business partner, Nikki Chung, and they helped us visualize what it would look like. They also created, I think, a superb and powerful logo. In January 2016, we were off and running.
Your site is primarily devoted to architecture, but under that umbrella you don’t just cover form, but also function from various viewpoints, including the impact of politics and design and vice versa. What determines your coverage? Our mission is public engagement. We have deliberately defined that as broadly as possible, so that we wouldn’t pigeonhole and limit our coverage. We’ll cover socially responsible design, projects that embody that, but we also want to talk about the politics of climate change, the ethics of economic development, how technology shapes and distorts our cities. We have also, quite deliberately, made ourselves home to dissenting opinions. We have had classical architects write for us, socialist architects write for us. We’re catholic with a small 'c'. We publish intelligent, engaging material, with the constant throughline being that connection with the public and the public good.
Do you believe that architecture on the whole is a force for a better society? And why or why not? Of course in a perfect world, it can be. But the bigger question, especially now when we’re rightfully questioning everything is, can it be a force for good when the economic, social and cultural forces that shape it are so dysfunctional, so skewed toward the rich, so imbalanced? Here’s where I shock myself with a somewhat optimistic answer: Despite the 21st-century baggage they lug around like an anvil, architecture and design are still capable of positive social change. Except we can’t naively believe that. They have limitations, especially on the financial and political end. And because of that we have to be critical and skeptical of their claims as well.
You began during the Trump era. Other than the Trump (anti)aesthetic, which seems to have contributed little to our society, do you believe that, in addition to his many sins, he will be known for his architectural vision? I am a good deal more concerned and, frankly, terrified, by Trump’s many sins against the republic—which I sincerely hope will eventually land him in jail—than I am by his aesthetic. The Trump Aesthetic is simply tasteless and tacky. At its best, it’s Trump Tower, gold-leaf horseshit. At its worst, it's an imploded hotel tower and a hollowed out and bankrupt Atlantic City. Or dozens of stiffed architects and interior designers, who are still waiting to get paid by the Trump Organization. (It’s why he stopped working in New York City decades ago—word got around, he never paid his bills!) His impact on federal buildings and the executive order mandating traditional architecture, I believe will not only be short-lived—Biden can easily repeal it—but when the dust settles, it will have done irreparable harm to the cause of traditional architecture, since it will be associated with Trumpism and the attack on American democracy.
What do you envision for the fuel of Common Edge? Our fuel is the ideas that we’re trying to serve. We’re very much a mission-driven, volunteer operation. We pay small honorariums, but mainly to signal to our contributors that their work has value. I have a tremendous copy editor, Braulio Agnese, a former managing editor at Architect, who a while back emailed me blind, complimented us on our work and, asked, as discreetly as possible, if we wanted a hand. It’s always good to have a second pair of eyes read copy, but to have Braulio’s discerning eye (and ear; prose at its best is a type of music) really helps serve and elevate the ideas. Will you push an activist agenda? We want to help seed new ideas! We’re either at the end of something, or at the beginning of a whole new era. And I think this is true across the board: environmentally, economically, culturally. All of these paradigms are broken. This is certainly true in architecture and design, where imperatives like climate change and economic inequities are going to force us to act. As Steven Bingler likes to say: “Planning is always a good idea. But doing it ahead of time is always better.”