Tabloid Trio; New voices speak up on built environment

Trying to create an architectural Esperanto - one common language to translate design dialogue - three publications have lately found voice in tabloid form.

The three - Skyline, Express, and Metropolis - each published in Manhattan, make monthly or bimonthly statements on matters of style and substance and deploy lively graphics and comprehensible prose on a field usually deficient in all three.

If sometimes you can't sort the new papers without a score card, each has a certain style and adds a literate and even cerebral element to the discourse on the built environment.

Skyline, which calls itself ''the Architecture and Design Review,'' has the biggest letters. The ''S'' in the masthead ''Skyline'' is as long as my little finger; the ''W'' in a discussion of Tom Wolfe's ''From Bauhaus to Our House'' stretches out to the length of my thumb.

The magazine, recently revived by the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies and distributed by Rizzoli Communications Inc. to 6,000 readers, matches its super-scale graphics by seeking out the tall trends and bold personalities among the New York City polemicists and foraying afield to the broader culture.

Metropolis has the colored cover. The letters in its subtitle, ''the Architecture and Design Magazine of New York,'' are thumbnail size, but the collage effect of the snapshot views of its tabloid face again suggest the approach to New York neighborhoods.

The publication offers consumer-oriented, walking tours-cum-analyses of, say, Park Slope and opinionated assessments of the Manhattan environs. The ''Rousing'' of Seaport, for instance, tells how that section of the city will be spruced up, or boutiqued, by James Rouse of Reston, Va., Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and Harborplace fame.

Express, to complete the trio of tabloids, is a tad longer in size and a lot looser in format than its peers. Its paper stock is thinner, but its range is both wider and more quixotic.

This ''Architecture, Art, and Design Newspaper'' shelters everything from a review of the MX (''The largest Construction Project in History'') to a lyrical tribute to the late Wallace Harrison (''I have heard him exclaim that in the modern city - the city for which, paradoxically, he bore so large a responsibility, one could no longer see the moon,'' August Hechscher writes. ''But some part of the moon's roundness shows in almost all his own creations.''

All the tabloids' moonings over Manhattan may not be so poetic, but the designing voices of Gotham City certainly deserved such printed expressions. Neither iconoclastic nor saccharine, their media of expression now offer everything from Freud's view of the city (Skyline) to a study of the stoop (Metropolis).

The architectural tabloid, like other specialty magazines, is an idea whose time has come. With the closing of Architectural Forum and Plus and the heightened interest in the built environment, the splintering seemed inevitable.

Chicago has its Inland Architect, revamped by William Marlin, and Los Angeles its new glossy Arts and Architecture, supported last fall by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. With triple the action in number of architects and new buildings, and such centrifugal posts as the institute and the new Municipal Art Center, New York merits all three publications.

Whether it can support three financially frail and competing claimants for the turf is another question. They all seem hale and hearty at this point, useful to the culturally curious and responsible to their urban and public context.

Whether it can support three financially frail and competing claimants for the turf is another question They all seem hale and hearty at this point, useful to the culturally curious and responsible to their urban and public context.

In common, then, they voice a concern for the city.

Pages in all three have dealt with the battle over the extra acreage that St. Bartholomew's wants to sell for a glass prism by Edward Durrell Stone Associates , with issues of zoning and the Portman Time Square mega-project, which would take the Helen Hayes and Morosco Theaters.

Alike, they provide a communicating service: a calendar figures as centerfold in Express and as final lists in Metropolis and Skyline. And similarly, they invite reading as well as the picture-looking emphasized in the advertising-heavy trade magazines.

Express, which editor Andrew MacNair calls ''the intersection between architecture and the arts,'' is, in his words again, ''a cottage industry run out of a loft in SoHo.''

Metropolis, with the largest circulation and reaching 8,000, is the most consumerist, according to editor Sharon Lee Ryder - a magazine that focuses on ''the place where you live and work,'' avoiding the aesthetic for ''nuts-and-bolts design.''

''Criticism,'' Alan Colquehoun writes in Essays in Architectural Criticism (MIT Press), occupies the no man's land between enthusiasm and doubt, between poetic sympathy and analysis. Its purpose is not, except in the unique cases, either to eulogize or condemn.''

Fortunately, these new journals don't follow that bland maxim. Skyline, in fact, was criticized for the biting and backbiting approach. But its interviews by Peter Eisenman, the William Buckley-cum-Don Rickles of architectural rhetoric; its book reviews; its peepholing on architecture firms; and its cross-country criticism, satisfy non-Manhattanites' urge for strongly put views.

Metropolis utters a positive and activist voice for the grass-roots New York constituency, while Express, in its idiosyncratic way, fans up all the arts.

All three contribute to what Express calls ''the era of flashy signage, considered preservation, and the hyperintellectual uses of history and theory that mark the architectural field at the moment.''

Whether this let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom miscellany of magazines takes root may remain a question, but the growth of the tabloids is a strong indication of the fertile field for architectural discourse.

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