An Interview with John Morris Dixon by Meral Ekincioglu

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Information about An Interview with John Morris Dixon by Meral Ekincioglu

Published on January 13, 2018

Author: MeralEkincioglu


1. Interview with John Morris Dixon * by Meral Ekincioglu ** Connecticut, May 8th 2007 (an unpublished interview) Following my appointment with Robert Ivy and Suzanne Stephens at the editorial office of Architectural Record (McGraw Hill Company in NYC 2007), Suzanne Stephens kindly helped me to contact John Morris Dixon, a graduate of MIT and a former editor of Progressive Architecture. On May 8th 2007, I met him in Connecticut and talked with him about his editorial experience at Progressive Architecture, Pencil Points, (professional) architectural journalism and the architecture profession in general. *A graduate of MIT-Architecture and the former editor of Progressive Architecture. **Special Turkish fellow at Harvard University, 2006-2007. This is an unpublished interview. ©All Rights Reserved.

2. draftsmen had not had an architectural education, but learned on the job and where draftsmen for life. As the structure of the profession shifted, toward professionally educated people serving as draftsmen on the path toward being architects, the magazine evolved from a largely “how to draw” publication to one covering broader aspects of what architects do. Throughout its life, Pencil Points supported “traditional” vs. “modern” architecture – although it had occasional article on modernism, some approving, most disapproving. By 1945, it was obvious that Modernism was going to dominate. Editors and management realized that the magazine’s future was a magazine for architects, supporting Modernism, and decided to change the name, as well as the editorial direction. “Progressive” seemed at the time an ideal word to represent what the magazine stood for, although within a few years the idea of “progress” would be widely questioned. For that reason – and the fact that Progressive Architecture is an unwidely name – John Morris Dixon and Meral Ekincioglu Connecticut, May 8th, 2007. On the train (Boston-Connecticut), May 8th; 2007. Meral Ekincioglu: You are an architect graduated from M.I.T. and worked as a chief editor of Progressive Architecture, one of the leading architectural journals. In addition to this, you published many books, articles and served as a jury member of some architectural awards. First of all, I would like to ask some questions about Progressive Architecture. This leading journal was born as Pencil Points. Could you define briefly its historical background and some major / intellectual shifts? How did this journal begin its publication; and what was its role in the progress of architectural journalism? John Morris Dixon: P/A had no relationship to Pencil Points, except a continuity of ownership and –to some extent- management. But those too, evolved over the years. I wrote extensively about Pencil Points in the introduction to the Pencil Points Reader (Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2004). It started in 1920 as a magazine for architectural draftsmen, when most draftsmen had not had an architectural education,

3. the magazine presented itself increasingly as P/A. It wasn’t until 1990, however, after years of pleading, that management allowed us to feature P/A on the cover. M.E.: From today’s perspective and under your editorship, what would you like to say about the role of Progressive Architecture in the progress of architectural journalism and the intellectual profile of the architectural journalist? J.M.D.: We were in a different ear, addressing a very different audience. I am not sure P/A, per se, affected the “progress” of architectural journalism or the intellectual profile of the journalist. There has been a tendency, at P/A and elsewhere, for journalists to be better educated (more years of education, broader knowledge) than in, say, 1960, when I entered the field. More journalist have become familiar with the theoretical and conceptual discourse that has become much more common at universities since 1960. (There were no Ph.D.’s in architecture until the late 1970- right?). This theoretical discourse has had only a minor, derivative effect on architectural practice and journalism. Sharp journalists know some of the jargon, but these magazines must have the broad audience of practitioners, so must focus on reality. M.E.: The position of the architectural journalist who controls the flow of information is very critical. At that point, I would like to know the role of editorial staff of P/A in its Annual Design Awards Program and its process? Do you think that the editorial staff of P /A had a critical position the outcomes of these awards in addition to jury members? J.M.D.: The staff chose the jurors. And the magazine solicited the entries. There were general calls for entries, but personal letters went to architects whose work we admired in an effort to assure some entries from known architects. One fo the purposes – and successes – of the P/A Awards was to introduce previously little known talents (I don’t like the fuzzy term “emerging”). But I always insisted that there work was validated only if the winners included some by people already recognized – so they’d be some of the best work, not just the best work by little-known architects. We chose jurors with considerable diversity. We didn’t want a “clubby” jury where everyone thought more or less alike. We wanted a range in age. Early juries (before I was editor) had always included an engineer, but that reflected a period when technology was seen as the way toward “progress” in architecture. Under my editorship (1962-1995) we always wanted some expertise in urban design, in architectural research (usually sociological / psychological ); we wanted people from large and small firms. We wanted geographical diversity, and in the later years always had one juror from abroad – but only people who had a deep understanding of America from studying or doing work here. We included at least one woman per year. (From

4. 1954 through 1972, only two women –total- had served on these juries). For a decade or so, we always included at least one African-American, then we drifted away from this commitment. There were too few strong African-American candidates, and we didn’t want to include one simply as a token. (The representation of African- Americans in the profession remains terribly low – and we did write repeatedly about that; we also wrote frequently about the status and accomplishments of women in architecture). For a few years, we had an 8 person jury made up of 3 teams, for architectural design, urban design, and architectural research. (We were strongly promoting research, taking the position that architecture needed a stronger scientifically and statistically provable base. We may have stressed this too much; in any case, research has a modest –and appearantly dwindling – role in the schools and the profession. For a couple of years, these 3 teams worked independently, seeing each other only for meals. Then for several years we had each team come up with candidates for awards, which were presented to the other teams, after which all 8 would vote. This was very interesting. It produced stronger winners, with stronger arguments behind their recognition. But it took much time and energy, and the jurors were, after all, volunteering. At some point, we stopped including research (briefly sponsoring a separate competition for that) and merged the urban design and architecture into a single jury of 5, which is what the program began with in the 1950s. Once the jurors assembled, we exercised no influence over their decisions. We always had staff editors helping to organize the effort, moderating the discussion, often pressing for a decision, so the jury could move on. We did have other parameters. While early juries considered bulky drawings, with names of the architects clearly visible, in my years we established anonymity, poring over the material submitted (now limited in size) to blot out any firm identity, and we asked jurors who happened know who designed a project – as often happened- not to let other jurors know the identity. Also, in early years, the entries were virtually always for real projects. But by the early 1970s, architects were dreaming up fictional projects and submitting designs that were not conditioned by real clients, real site conditions, etc. Architects who submitted real projects felt – rightly- that it was unfair to compete with fictional ones. So we required signed statements that the project had a real client – who intended to carry it out (not some early scheme the client as rejected as impractical) – and a name and phone number for the client. He jury’s choices were conditional until we contacted those clients and got their confirmation. It was common to have typically one selected project per year fail this test and be deleted from the winners list and the issue.

5. M.E.: Do you think that there are some differences between the architectural journalist and architect to criticize an architectural design project? Why? J.M.D.: We had ample opportunity to compare our editorial choices of outstanding projects with the choices of architects. The decisions ouf our (chosen) juror differed, of course, from the editors’ – but usually not radically. (I should note here that one of the most important roles of the P /A Awards was in informing the editors about 100s of project a year –which did not make the jury’s final cut – that we could publish as designs and pursue for publication when completed. It was a great, efficient way to gather intellience on new designs). It is perhaps more telling that on the many, many occasions when I or other editors served on awards juries or design competition juries with architects, we never detected a split between us and them. (In these cases, of course, we had no selected the other jurors). Personally, having visited many projects with architects, I find the architects more interested (even fixated) on details (whether it’s their own work or someone else’s). I think editors tend to focus on the strength of a concept and the overall execution; we’re more willing to forgive clumsy detail –even leaks – while architects seem to me to often focus on them excessively. This does come up occasionally as an editor / architects difference if we are both on juries. (This comes up even with my current volunteer service on my town’s Architectural Review Committee. And it doesn’t just involve architects focusing on poor details, but sometimes they will want to approve a project serious overall flaws because the details are so good). M.E.: In your opinion, does an architectural journalist has an authoritative position within the intellectual network; or is s/he an outcome of social / economic / cultural factors in an architectural society? What are the main differences between these two profiles? J.M.D.: Yes, architectural journalist is respected in the profession (if not necessarily “the intellectual network” depending on what that means). Respect comes with percieved power, more so if that power is perceived to be exercised responsibly. And of course we all outcomes of the social / economic / cultural millieu in which we develop and operate. I don’t see an either / or here. M.E.: In her book, Larson pointed out “....John Morris Dixon says that the only selection rules are serious reputation and regional balance. Yet a former member of the editorial staff insists that the magazine adopted parameters that are not merely geographic, but stylistic and technical as well, no more than two avant-garde designers, as long as they were well known, and always one juror to represent concern with social issues, user needs, or technical solutions. Geographic spread

6. used to mean a West Coast architect, until the Californians became too avant-garde. Then balance had to sought elsewhere, and such questions as “Does anyone know somebody in Arizona?” started pooping up at editorial borad meeting.... What would you like to say about these sentences? (selection rules, reputation, regional balance, geographic parameters....) From today’s perspective, how does the regional context affect the editorial decision making process and the dissemination of architectural knowledge? J.M.D.: I wrote at lenght about the jury selection above. I don’t know which former member of our staff Larson was referring to. Anyway, much of what that unnamed editor said is more graceful phrasing of what I wrote above. I (we) did recognize that our audience would have less confidence in our juries (as would we) if they included only Northeasterns and Californians, with an occasional Chicagoan. I don’t think we tried to find “somebody in Arizona” except half in jest, but we did want someone outside those favored areas. (I think, incidentally, that high- profile, recognized talent has tended over several decades to concentrate even more than before in the Northeast – notably in New York (with Boston and Philadelphia losing some of their former eminence) and California (with San Francisco also fading) and Chicago has lost some of its prestige as a center of architectural creativity). M.E.: There is an exhibiton in New York organized by Beatriz Colomina and her Ph.D. students at Storefront Art Gallerie : Clip / Stamp /Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196x-197x. One of the start points of this exhibition was to provoke a similar intensity of 60s and 70s. As an editor whose career is in architectural journalism began since 60s, what would you like to say about the common and different points between the printed media practice in 1960s and 70s and 2000s. For you, is it possible to provoke a similar intensity again, why? J.M.D.: I feel guilty that I missed that exhibition. No, I don’t think it is possible to invoke a similar intensity today- but it may be tomorrow. In the 1960s, there was a general revolt against the social constraints of the past, against the misguided governments then in power, etc. In architecture and urbanism, there was a strong revolt against the dogma of the Modern Movement. It took numerous directions – back to nature, into community effort, into Post Modernism, in the presentation movement. – all ass alternatives to the perceived mistakes of bureaucratic planning and the deadening effect of orthodox Modernism applied rather thoughtlessly on a large scale. Most of these counter – movements have faded away – although Post-Modernism is actually thriving in the real world, outside the “serious” architecture world that is concern of the magazines and the schools. Post-Modern planning is the only kind of

7. planning taking place in the US and many other countries, because the concept of walkable, mixed-use communities with traditional street patterns simply works better than the isolated uses and vehicle dependency propagated earlier in the name of Modernism. The preservation movement has, of course, become dominant almost everywhere and is perhaps too slavishly respected. (It is often used by those narrow-interest “communities” to flight off any change.) M.E.: Thank you for this interview. Connecticut, May 8th 2007.

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