Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Jennifer Sigler, Editor

For the eighth installment in the 2009 Domus interview series, I spoke with Jennifer Sigler, an editor based in Rotterdam who has spent her career expanding the possibilities of architecture in print. We talked about her lifelong fascination with books, the process behind her most famous editorial work, Rem Koolhaas’s S,M,L,XL, and the struggle to transfer life onto the page.

The aim of this series is to try to understand the experiences of people who work with architects and find out what they give and receive in the collaboration. I want to begin with the basics. How did you start editing?

Actually I started making books as a kid… writing, drawing, cutting and pasting words and images and letters from magazines to construct these stories. I was less interested in writing the stories than in assembling them – in arranging these sequences and stapling them together. The act of turning pages has always been important. There’s drama in that—suspense, engagment. It’s physical.

And from there?

In college I got a student job working in the library of the GSD [Harvard Graduate School of Design]. I loved that job. Every day I looked forward to going there. My cart of books was always waiting when I came in. I got to put them all back on the shelves…

Wow, I had the same job when I was in college.

It’s funny, sometimes I think, “Oh I’m not an academic; I’m not part of that.” But all that time in the GSD surrounded by those books made a big impression. I remember kneeling down between the shelves, being so close to them, and of course you’re secretly reading them while you’re filing them and they are getting into you.

I thought at a certain point that I wanted to study architecture—to be one of those people from the GSD library—but I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be architectural history or architecture itself. So after I graduated, with a degree in English and Art History, I got an internship at Progressive Architecture magazine. It doesn’t exist anymore, but at the time that was the American architecture magazine and the PA Awards were very prestigious. I was going to work there for a few months and then decide which program to apply to. My job at PA was writing descriptions for what was called the “Information Sources Issue,” and it was so boring. It was a special issue about architectural products; architects could use it to order new catalogues for their office libraries. So it was a catalogue of catalogues. I wrote descriptions of catalogues about bricks and roofing materials and lighting fixtures and toilets and park benches… you name it. The descriptions were one or two sentence blurbs: “A wide assortment of window frames are featured in this 32-page catalogue.” And I had to do that for about 300 different catalogues, and you can imagine that after a couple months I was freaking out and I had all these catalogues piled up on my desk. I couldn’t figure out what this job had to do with the 30-page paper on Le Corbusier I had submitted with my application, and I just wanted the thing to end as fast as it possibly could.

Then one of my colleagues told me about a short-term position she’d heard about from [the publisher] Rizzoli: the assignment was to “go to Rotterdam and collect the material for a monograph about Rem Koolhaas/OMA.” It was supposed to take six months to a year. Rem was hardly known at that point. He had recently been part of the Deconstructivist Architecture show at MoMA and had built the [Netherlands] Dance Theatre. And of course there was Delirious New York. So Rizzoli wanted to do a monograph on him. It was to be part of a series; they had already done Aldo Rossi, Charles Moore, Michael Graves, and now they wanted to do one on Rem Koolhaas too. [Laughs]

Four peas in a pod.

[Laughs] Exactly. As I remember it, each book in the series had a pastel cover with a small-ish square image in the center. There was a certain kind of typography and a certain kind of paper. And the next one in the series was going to be Koolhaas and I was supposed to go over, pull the material together (of course this was before digital photography and FTP servers) and bring it back. But of course, it didn’t happen that way.

Did that book ever get made?

No. At first Rem wasn’t even interested in doing a book. He was in the midst of building the Kunsthal, Villa dall ‘Ava, travelling to Fukuoka, Lille. And the big competitions started up—Bibliotheque de France, Karlsruhe, Zeebrugge. That was such an exciting time in the office; I had never seen that kind of energy – frantic invention – and I was absorbing everything. Documenting. Recording. Interviewing people. Collecting images, articles, quotes. It didn’t take long to realize that the content of the book was still being born and I didn’t seem to have any choice but to try to catch it in mid-air.

That book that Rizzoli had in mind just wasn’t the one that we were going to do. As little as I knew at 22, I knew that that wasn’t it. As time went by, our commitment to doing something different—something “of” OMA, rather than “about” OMA—meant that we couldn’t be part of the Rizzoli series. At the same time, Gianfranco Monacelli broke off from Rizzoli to start his own press. He was committed to making the book happen, and it simply couldn’t have happened within the construct of Rizzoli. At first he wanted to name his press “Black Diamond”—like the markings on the expert ski slopes—because he only wanted to do the toughest, most ambitious books.

That is still a major problem in publishing now: it’s often hard to find a publisher who is willing to take a chance on something that doesn’t fit into their existing catalogue.

They are afraid it won’t sell. But what sells? Now people are asking whether the book will cease to exist. But I’ve been thinking about this and it seems that just at the moment that publishing is in danger, architects themselves don’t know what to do. So publishing becomes a viable form of practice, because architects aren’t building. This is the time for architects to publish or to express themselves on other platforms.

Have you ever thought about making books with people in other fields?

Absolutely. My interest in bookmaking, or editing, isn’t necessarily tied to architecture. For me what is interesting is the intersection of media. It could be much more exciting to work with a choreographer or a theater director or a musician for instance, than it would be to work with a lot of architectural offices out there. Or to connect those fields to architecture and design.

One of my interests is in transferring the event onto the page, or into the thickness of the volume, so that the book itself becomes a new sort of “event.” I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’m working on a 12-week event program for the [Rotterdam Architecture] Biennale. It’s very tempting to visualize the event program as a table of contents and to think about the relationship between what’s happening in real time and real space and what could happen on the page and how they can have a relationship potentially. That has always really interested me. When I started working at the Berlage [Institute] I had the same observation: there was this missed opportunity, there was so much stuff happening there. Someone had to grab it…

You mean lectures and seminars?

Yeah. All the live action was there to be explored in different formats. Not that everything that happens is meant to be published, but I have this interest, and maybe it’s more journalistic, in editing real life. It may be more related to documentary-making.

I’m also obsessed with the spoken word in print – the intimacy and directness of speech, or conversation, when you read it. It’s like you’re in the room with the person. Before I got into architecture I was very involved in theatre. I also used to have summer jobs, in high school, working at a television news station. News production was too fast and superficial for me, but still, from those experiences I became more interested in dialogue, in the interview process, or in taking a lecture and generating text from that. The candidness of the spoken word in telling a story has always appealed to me, and the process of teasing the story out of an author is part of that. I don’t see myself as an author but more as an accomplice.

A henchman. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Yeah. It’s like, “We’re gonna get it out of you!” Do you see it that way?

Yes, I totally agree about the power of the spoken word. And about transferring an event onto the page and how, ultimately, the process through which you transfer architecture into a book could be applied to contemporary art or music, etc. I think in the end it comes down to really understanding the author, what he or she is trying to do, what obstacles they face and finding a way to translate that in a clear and compelling way.

I know that in doing a project like S,M,L,XL, where you’re completely involved in all facets and spend years bringing a book into existence, the scope of what the editor does stretches far beyond what is commonly perceived as an editor’s job. You almost need to invent a new term to describe that sort of work.

“Mother,” maybe? But seriously, it’s always a process and a dialogue. It’s not about saying that one person did something.

I suppose it’s about acknowledging that one person can’t possibly do everything.

Yes, but it’s simply also about the chemistry and the back-and-forth that goes on in these projects. Things that can only happen through collaboration. Not just between the editor and the authors, but also with the designer, who, in the most exciting cases takes on a co-editorial role, or even a position of co-authorship. It’s funny, I don’t know if Bruce Mau would have ever been involved if I hadn’t fought for him to be the designer. And without him, of course, it wouldn’t have been S,M,L,XL. I can remember sitting down with Rem after we had explored all kinds of possibilities and saying, “Bruce Mau has to do this book.” I can remember picking up Zone 1/2: The Contemporary City (1985, MIT Press) again and again, flipping through it, and thinking, “He’s the only one who can take this idea to the next place.” For me, being an editor is all about that pushing and driving things in certain directions, whether it’s the content or the process or the people you choose to work with. But it’s also about knowing when to hang back and let certain things take their course.

And understanding the freedoms that you enjoy by being something other than an author.

You talk about what an editor does—or doesn’t do. Most people think that someone hands over the text and you fix the commas. But what people don’t realize is that often the editor is the one that initiates that text, or the entire context for that text. In a project like S,M,L,XL, where we actually had to reinterpret the experience of architecture onto pages, each one of those different approaches to writing about architecture started with a conversation. How do we approach this? What is the story that we need to tell here? How do we tell it? Who do we need to talk to or where do we need to go to get it? Just like in architecture, the things that seem most obvious, most effortless, are often the biggest struggles.

Could you pick a particular example from the book to give a better sense of how that worked?

The Kunsthal was a really interesting one, because I can remember being completely stuck. Rem was stuck. I remember at one point saying, “Well, whenever you show the building to a visitor, you lead them through this very specific circuit. Maybe the routing, the circulation, is the story here. Why don’t we just do a really boring tour? Why don’t you just give really matter-of-fact instructions for how to “do” the Kunsthal, as if you’re telling a friend how to drive to your house?” So I took the tape recorder and I made [Rem] say it. Turn left, turn right, etc. And he said it and then we made the sequence of images. Then we added something else—and this was one of the things that kept me up for so many nights: sound. I thought there had to be sound, there had to be voices in there. I was obsessed with the idea of planting ghosts in the building, so that you could walk through a silent space and overhear this intimate conversation that would also somehow echo the experience of the design, of seeing things you had already seen from new positions. So we experimented with all these different scripts. At first we tried some [Jean-Luc] Godard scripts, but in the end it was [Samuel] Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It took a long time to find the dialogue that worked on all the levels that we wanted it to. It may not show to most readers, but for me it’s one of the moments that the book pushes the limits of the medium because it starts to work with time and space and characters and voices all at once. It started with this idea of having sound on pages.

Right, which is such a nice idea.

Can you have sound in a book?

How do you cultivate a sense of ambience in a book?

Right. But with every single project in that book, it started with a question – what is the story we want to tell and how do we tell it?

And sometimes it’s just a matter of getting a recorder and asking someone to tell it.

I just bought a book [The Rhetoric of Modernism (Birkhauser, 2008)] about Le Corbusier as a lecturer. It’s really interesting, because it analyzes the way he spoke and how he was able to draw these huge crowds and convince his audience of his arguments. Print and spoken word are different media and I think it’s interesting to think about what can happen when they come together. How do they intersect?

How do they enrich each other?

And what happens to the value and the power of a lecture when we interpret it in print? How does it communicate differently than a written text would?

Another thing that’s useful about lectures in terms of establishing a narrative is that they force architects to compress. They force the speaker to figure out exactly what matters about the subject and, hopefully at least, cut out the superfluous or self-indulgent parts. I find that it’s very hard to replicate the urgency involved in that without a real life performance and real life audience looming.

Right; it’s a form of discipline.

And storytelling.

Exactly. The format insists on a narrative. It’s the beginning of a book format – simply a sequence of images and captions and a process of page turning. But it’s strange, I haven’t been working on many books lately. Right now though, I’m working on this book for the Rotterdam Architecture Biennale, Open City: Designing Coexistence (SUN Publishers, 2009), but that’s a very different kind of role, because I’m one of several editors, with Tim Rieniets and Kees Christiaanse, who are the curators. Of course I’m very heavily involved, but it’s not the same kind of nurturing that I’ve done before. And Hunch was different—it wasn’t a book…

Let’s talk about Hunch, the magazine you made for the Berlage Institute. I know that you worked on that for several years, but I don’t know much about what went into it.

I started it up and did the first seven issues. In the beginning it was meant, like S,M,L,XL, to have very clear approaches to different types of texts, and different aspects of the Berlage-world, which would return in each issue. There was a diary format, there was a lecture format, there was always an interview, a theoretical article, a project, a photographic or artistic intervention… The issues weren’t themed; each was meant to slice through a moment in time.

Now everyone wants a theme – it’s more marketable and maybe seems more serious. But sometimes it’s exciting to work the other way around—to distill your theme from your evidence. Time has its own way of organizing.

How did Hunch start?

Berlage called me one day and said they wanted someone to work one day a week to make their newsletter. It was a really little job. I had very young kids and was doing a few freelance projects at the time, so I said, “OK, sure. Why not.”

So I started this one-day-a-week job, but as soon as I got there I felt really passionate about it. The Berlage was a very inspiring place to be. It was still in Amsterdam at the time and Wiel Arets was the dean. Stefano Boeri was teaching with Francesco Jodice; Stan Allen was teaching; Sanford Kwinter and Edward Soja were lecturing… and Sejima, Branzi, Zaha; Steven Holl was doing a masterclass; Bart Lootsma was there and Roemer van Toorn and Vedran Mimica were there of course. There were all these interesting people coming through and I was very happy to be back in this international scene, like at OMA. And maybe I also felt within myself that I had never…

Been to grad school.

[Laughs] Been to grad school! I’d never been back to school, so I was now getting a sort of architecture education and having a good time. I felt a little bit rebellious and sometimes more like one of the students than one of the staff. Of course the goal was not to make a student publication – it was supposed to have international relevance – but I wanted to make something that was in the spirit of them, not in the spirit of a newsletter.

[Laughs] You say that like it’s the ugliest word in the language.

[Laughs] I just saw the potential to do much more. At the time they were doing two kinds of publications – a newsletter and a review of all the student work which was as least a year behind schedule. So I suggested that we bag the two and do a magazine that would combine the best of both worlds and bring in all of the interesting lectures and events that were coming through.

The name Hunch and the format came to me right away, and the quality of the typography on the cover too. I had that image in my mind immediately and developed it in the first issue with the graphic designer Simon Davies. No one in Holland knew what “hunch” meant so I had to explain this strange word to everyone and convince people. But once I did, it was fine. That’s what was great about the Berlage – they gave you space. They called it a laboratory and it was a laboratory.

I put a call out to students asking who wanted to take part – in making the diary, for instance. So in every issue there was a different student writing a diary for Hunch and I always developed close relationships with these students. Some of them found their own voices in writing these diaries and really used it as a personal laboratory. They were all very brave, and very willing to expose the place where their private and professional selves overlapped.

Tell me more about the thinking behind the format?

There was a logic to the long vertical shape. It was more or less the width of a novel and the height of a magazine. But the content didn’t have to extend over the entire height of the page. Each article could occupy a different portion of this vertical “territory” and leave the rest available for marginalia, or for some other intrusion. So we could blow up quotes, or do whatever we wanted in this play-zone we created throughout.

The problem was that we didn’t have design continuity. We did most of the issues in-house, and after I left even the in-house designer changed, and there were various “guest-editors.” So this idea was not maintained. Now Salomon Frausto is the editor and has relaunched it with NAi Publishers. It’s very different, but I’m glad he’s taking care of it, and that it will continue.

It’s interesting that you said you started with a graphic designer but then proceeded without one for the rest of the issues. That’s another important aspect of the kind of editing that you’ve been describing. You have to develop a very close relationship with graphic designers and absorb their way of thinking, almost to the extent that you could do it yourself or at least explain it with precision. That’s a struggle of course, but it can also be a lot of fun.

It’s the most fun when you can really invest in that and have a graphic designer who wants to have that dialogue, who really wants to interpret the content and not just make it look good. That’s the most interesting part of the project I think, but in some situations it’s a relief when you have enough confidence and trust in a graphic designer to back off and say, “Let’s see what you do with it.” That’s what’s great about working with Mevis and van Deursen now on the Open City book. I can let go a little bit. It’s something I’ve had trouble with in the past, I can be a bit too possessive.

Me too, but at a certain point you just feel that you’re the only one who actually knows what’s going on. You’re the only person who’s read everything, understands how the pieces relate to each other, how the sequence should work, etc. and I think it’s somewhat natural to say, “Well, I’ve got to make sure that this thing goes right.” To be an editor is to be a bit of a control freak I think. In that way, I think it’s interesting that you say you’re now one of several editors working on a book.

Yes, but sometimes it’s interesting to discover that different editors play different roles and have different backgrounds and talents and orientations. There’s a lot you can learn from working with different editors. Let’s say you’re working on a project where you have to bring in a lot of authors, there are always authors who you simply wouldn’t have known or had access to otherwise. I really like to work in collaboration, to have a sparring partner and bounce off of people. If I don’t, it all just spirals inward.

That’s another thing about working with architects though – because everything they do is so collaborative, you learn through the process of working with them how valuable the process of collaboration can be and how to nurture it.

The question is, what can this editorial collaboration mean for architects and for the history of architecture? What is the relevance of publishing to architectural practice? That’s part of what Beatriz Colomina and her PhD students at Princeton investigated with the “Clip, Stamp, Fold” exhibition for instance. And Michael Kubo has been working on a project called “Publishing Practices” — specifically about the relation between the history of books by architects and the history of architecture. It starts with Le Corbusier’s Vers un Architecture and ends with S,M,L,XL. So I have to ask myself what role I have had or could continue to have in “publishing practices” as an editor. Or what role we could have… or do we even want a role?

[Laughs] Right.

That’s what I ask myself sometimes: what am I doing here? But I guess it’s just something that gets in your blood. That’s why I told you about shelving those books in the GSD library. Or the Le Corbusier book I mentioned before. When I saw it in the store I got this enormous buzz, and thought, “Why am I getting a buzz from this architecture book?” Because I’m not supposed to get that. [Laughs]

[Laughs] But you’re just in denial.

I am not. Listen, people don’t realize this. I couldn’t even tell you… I can’t name all the buildings by Jean Nouvel or Herzog and de Meuron; I don’t stop in lobbies and study details; I don’t buy El Croquis; I don’t walk around the city looking up in the sky. I am not into architecture. But I’m into…

But that’s the big question: what is it?

I don’t know. It’s about the communication. It’s about the ways that the ideas are expressed, somehow.

Is it because architecture is so difficult to express in that way? Like the old quote says, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – it’s so difficult to communicate across platforms and that challenge is what keeps it exciting.

I really don’t know. What is it for you?

My experience is very similar to yours. My architectural education is limited, first because I never studied it in school but also because even now I don’t feel compelled to read up on architecture in the way I do other subjects. There is a social dimension to it, a societal dimension that I think can be fascinating. But actually I feel motivated to make architecture books and write about architecture now mostly because I have so much sympathy for architects themselves. I’ve seen how much effort and sacrifice goes in and how poorly understood all that is among the general public. So I agree that it’s about an interest in communication ultimately.

But I keep coming back to the same question: what kind of book could the next really important book be? And will the next very important book in architecture be made by the one who has the most important thing to say, though maybe in a very familiar book format, or by the one who finds a new potential for the medium to communicate architecture?

Or both… I think that one of the most obvious inadequacies of architecture books is their failure to convey a real sense of the space as it’s experienced by a visitor. Maybe that’s a problem that the next great architecture book has to solve. It’s a challenge from an editorial point of view but just as much from a graphic design point of view. Michael Rock [director of the design firm 2x4] talked about this. He’s made many architecture publications over the years and says he’s still completely frustrated by the problem of translating physical experience into print.

It’s similar to my talking about the spoken word, and of bringing in sound – it’s really about immediacy. It’s about making the book more of a live, tangible experience, because ultimately architecture is only accessed as a first hand experience by a limited few. For most of the world, it’s accessed through a secondary medium, usually photography and some sort of descriptive text.

I wonder if the enormous emphasis on photography in architecture books and magazines influences that. I don’t have any data to back it up, but my feeling is that we visit great buildings less because we are so inundated with high-definition, highly commercialized imagery of them. In that sense, I think architects do themselves a disservice by presenting anal-retentive, humanity-free visions of their buildings. When I write for magazines, for instance, I often find that the photos offer no help at all in terms of providing an interesting perspective on the building, because they are so focused on simply making it look pretty. That is the benefit of editing something yourself, of course, you can develop a relationship between text and image much more actively.

It also has to do with who you ask to photograph and how and why. That’s also part of the editorial process – who you commission to take those photographs and what the nature of their assignment is. For instance, once in Hunch we published a private museum called the Hedge House that Wiel Arets had done in Maastricht. It was for these contemporary art collectors who lived in a 17th-century castle surrounded by gardens and who also raised orchids and this special breed of chickens called Barnevelders. We knew we wanted to publish this building, but not as architecture, and not as the subject. The architecture had to “work.” I asked a French artist and photographer, Philippe Terrier-Hermann, to do it, and he actually visualized a scenario that he wanted to project in that space. He said something like, “In this museum I want to bring women in costumes that I’ve designed and they will be giving a tour to twelve businessmen. Can you find me the twelve businessmen? That will be one story. The other story will be about six little boys having a birthday party.” So we actually staged these two events and then he made these two series of images and it created another layer of interpretation. It was no longer just about the building. We wanted to take it further: we wanted to present the building; we wanted to present the art in the building; and we wanted the documentation to contribute to that art in a way, and for the magazine itself to feed back into that. The text we commissioned wasn’t just analyzing the architecture of the Hedge House, it also reflected on this photographer’s work—how he interpreted the environment, domesticity, the “collector as artist.” So for an editor it’s a question of to what extent you see your document as just a document, a record, or to what extent you see it as a contribution to the process.

Part of a feedback loop.

No matter what the medium that you’re producing is, it remains part of a feedback loop. It gives something back, rather than just records.

I guess that’s the ultimate challenge: to respond to art with art.

But it’s one thing to be an editor who is working with an architect – “We are collaborating to make your statement” – versus being on the other side where the architect is your subject. Those are two different relationships, and I’ve found that the degree and the nature of collaboration that architects are willing to engage in differs a lot. What was amazing during S,M,L,XL, and something that I think few people realize, is how vulnerable Rem made himself. And how collaborative it was. Not many architects, or writers in general, are so willing to expose their vulnerabilities. They’ll hand over a text and they are extremely rigid about it. They’re very uncomfortable with changes and with sharing the editorial process. They don’t know how to deal with the editorial process. But when I go back and look at that process with Rem, how it could literally start with a scribble on a napkin that I would type up and send back… and when I sent it back, I could send it with…


With comments. Then it would come back to me and that same scribble on a napkin could go back and forth a hundred times. Maybe two hundred times, when you think of the number of corrections that each text went through. Through the fax machine, of course. There was no e-mail then. Long ribbons of that thermal fax paper would be spilling onto the floor on Sunday mornings from London! Ironically, it was maybe only by having such a humble position, by being…

A stenographer.

Yeah, that you can have such an intimate role in the process. Because then you’re really following the thought process, so sometimes when you type something up, you say, “Maybe you could…” In the beginning Rem was not always prepared to take my comments, but as the process went on, it built and built into more of a trust. Eventually he started scribbling “J?” when he wasn’t sure of something and that was the way it worked with all the texts – back and forth, back and forth. That doesn’t often happen. I wouldn’t even have time for that process again.

Rem wouldn’t either. [Laughs]

No, it was very specific.

I agree that there is a basic level of confidence you need to work like that. You need confidence on the author’s side and openness to critique and suggestion, and you need confidence as an editor to treat the least glamorous aspects of the job with the same level of seriousness that you do the most glamorous ones. Is there any glamour in editing? [Laughs]

It’s not about glamour, it’s about invisibility! Of course you’re at the center of everything, but the better you do your job, the less your effort shows, and the more the project works. Editors are there to make others look glamorous.

Originally published in Domus China 37 (September 2009); republished in Who is Architecture? (Timezone 8, 2010)