The Institute for Applied Reporting and Urbanism frames a method of working and reporting on architecture that consciously bypasses conflicts of interest in design journalism, questioning the limitations of conflict of interest as an ethical principle when considered in light of the aim of activist journalism to influence political, social, and economic outcomes. In a sense, the Institute for Applied Reporting and Urbanism is a purely fictional entity, which I formed in 2009 to lend credibility to my work as an independent architecture journalist and community activist. In another sense, however, the “Institute” could be understood as a one-person urban advocacy office analogous to a nonprofit arts organization with a mission to extend journalism beyond writing and lecturing, employing activist tools alongside public art, architecture, and urban interventions to engage municipal processes and instigate change. The Institute only exists as a nominal strategy—there is no staff and it has no affiliations—yet it has been productive as a way to conceptually frame my work, in particular the instigation of several activist projects in North Brooklyn, cultural programs dealing with reclaiming industrial waterfronts, and my founding of Flint Public Art Project, a six-year-old nonprofit organization in Flint, Michigan.

Flint sidewalk.

Flint sidewalk. Image courtesy of the author.

Aligned with a similar set of ideas about architectural agency associated with groups like Architecture for Humanity, Design Corps’s Public Interest Design, and the Architecture Lobby—and referencing Alanna Heiss’s Institute for Art and Urban Resources and Peter Eisenman’s Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies—the idea of “applied reporting” offers journalists (as opposed to designers and architects) an operating model to adapt to the changing print and digital media environment. The shift to free online content coupled with the declining advertising revenues of the 2008–2010 recession forced publications to cut staff and editorial pages, and most independent blogs were not adequately monetized to pay writers for content. Applied reporting extends the processes of reporting—research, investigation, site visits, interviews, and writing—toward protest, lobbying, policymaking, actions, public events, public art, and built projects, all of which are limited by mainstream journalistic ethics because of the potential for bias or the appearance of conflicts of interest. Although critics are free to advocate and express positions that betray biases, thereby making those causes transparent to the reader, they are still subject to conflict of interest rules. For reasons that I will make clear later, critics are especially vulnerable to the charge of favoritism. The appearance of a financial or personal interest undermines the credibility of the critic as a figure who speaks on behalf of the general public interest. Applied reporting, however, proposes that processes instrumental to journalism and criticism can be employed as tools in the creation of activist platforms whose aims extend beyond reporting. If the core aim of reporting is to make information public, applied reporting aims to distribute information by other means. Instead of articles, essays, or reviews, it produces “projects”—protests, events, built forms, etc.—that advance implicit and explicit arguments and in turn become the subject of news and criticism. Applied reporting means playing a dual role as an intellectual thought leader and a producer mobilizing that knowledge into useful actions and things.

Crossing over from the production of text to advocacy presents a potential ethical problem for traditional journalism, however. Contemporary ethics guidelines require reporters and critics to disclose or avoid real and apparent conflicts of interest (friendships, romantic interests, financial interests, etc.). Yet these guidelines are constantly being stretched by common publicity practices and the influence of advertising. Architecture journalism—like other professional fields—has a small-world quality: Wine-fueled publicity events blur the line between familiarity and friendship; publicists and press liaisons control travel invitations and access to projects for extremely sensitive clients, guarding against negative reviews that can have an outsize impact on careers and future commissions. Writing a negative or critical review might result in an immediate withdrawal of access to future projects. Participating in review panels and juries, and collaborating on a project that you subsequently write about also violates these standards, as does using your influence as a reporter and critic to promote a cause or project in which you have a personal interest. At the New York Times, staff and freelancers must sign a contract adhering to a handbook of ethical guidelines:

“The Times has exceptional influence in such fields as theater, music, art, dance, publishing, fashion and the restaurant industry. We are constantly scrutinized for the slightest whiff of favoritism. Therefore staff members working in those areas have a special duty to guard against conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflict…Reporters, reviewers, critics and their editors in the Book Review, the Times Magazine and the cultural news, media news and styles departments, beyond abiding by the other provisions of this document, may not help others develop, market or promote artistic, literary or other creative endeavors.”1

Yet even these strict standards are compromised when critics like Herbert Muschamp spearhead competitions for the World Trade Center site, Nicolai Ouroussoff fawns over favored designers portrayed as buddies, and Michael Kimmelman pairs his own article with Vishaan Chakrabarti’s alternative proposal for the Penn Station redevelopment.2 3 In each of these projects, the critic presents himself as serving the interest of the public by promoting a “neutral” agenda of better design. Yet the Times‘s seeming neutrality hides their own allegiance to the powerful real estate interests behind these projects. The paper exerts an overwhelming influence on public processes, and by aligning itself as a collaborator with certain architects, it sacrifices its critical independence and undermines its credibility. On February 3, 2017, the Times fired long-time theater critic Christopher Isherwood for insider exchanges with high-level Broadway producers and publicists. In some cases, the paper seems to take these standards very seriously.4

Commercial conflicts of interest and the fear of compromising personal relationships can create dangerous blind spots for critics—blind spots that may prevent them from calling out problematic projects, limit them from identifying the underlying conditions of uneven development, and render them unwilling to scrutinize damage to people and the environment. As an example, during my time as a writer and editor for Metropolis, I had the chance to write several articles about Steven Holl Architects (SHA)—one about the firm’s extraordinary addition to the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City and another about the watercolor sketchbook drawings instrumental to Steven Holl’s design process.5 6 Both of these articles were overwhelmingly positive. However, later, during the public RFP competition for the Hudson Yards development, I wrote a piece that was dismissive of SHA’s proposal—a project which Ouroussoff applauded for its low density and small profit margins. I took issue with its monolithic, colorless character and expressed a preference for development proposals that incorporated a greater variety of designers over a singular architectural voice.7 My piece sparked a private exchange with one of the lead designers on the project, who, almost as if responding to a personal attack, expressed grief over the content of the article. From then on, I was no longer invited to the firm’s office events—events where reporters are given access to new projects and potential stories to cover. Another time, a feature of mine on Israeli construction of suburban housing in the West Bank8 —framing Israeli colonial architecture as a human rights abuse—resulted in a number of businesses pulling advertisements from the magazine and a note from the in-house advertising department on the issue warning, “Do not send to advertisers.” In these articles, my role as an advocate for the public interest relied on my ability to make information more widely available and to take positions that advance not only better understanding of the issues, but better policymaking.

Yet in early projects conceived under the rubric of the Institute for Applied Reporting and Urbanism—like advocating for better design at the Domino Sugar Factory site in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and co-producing a light-art festival in Greenpoint—I was able to actively and self-consciously cross the boundary between journalism and activism. In the case of the new Domino development, I took issue with community groups that opposed Raphael Viñoly’s original project (later abandoned) solely on the basis of its height and number of affordable units—arguing instead that the criteria of design quality, urban design, and the program’s relationship to the neighborhood should play an equal role in their criticisms of the project. Soon after, I got involved with the Bring to Light: Nuit Blanche New York festival during an open public meeting to help organizers gain community support in the neighborhood, and pushed for the festival to frame itself as an argument for public access to the industrial waterfront. In both projects, getting personally involved presented a tantalizing opportunity: By using blog sites and social media platforms, asking colleagues to sign letters to the City Council regarding the Domino development’s ULURP review, mobilizing political support from community groups and elected officials for the Nuit Blanche festival, and testifying at Community Board and City Council meetings, I could use my credentials as a design journalist to more specifically impact the built environment and advance social justice—engaging political and cultural production to prove ideas about which reporters and critics have only the limited power of the pen.

Nuit Blanche New York.

Nuit Blanche New York. Image courtesy of the author.

The argument for activist or applied journalism intersects with salient critiques of the limitations of architectural discourse. In the nonprofit, public policy, and academic sectors, the solipsistic practice of producing talks, printing books about talks, and organizing talks about the books about talks risks skipping an important step: the application of ideas beyond the discursive. Contemporary society is undergoing a crisis of inequality and corruption comparable to the conditions that motivated muckraking journalists like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell to strike out against oil monopolies and political corruption in the 1900s in The Shame of Cities and The History of the Standard Oil Company. The concentration of capital in New York and other globally-networked urban centers makes clear how cultural activity and new construction naturally occurs in places that already attract wealth, reinforcing the existing inflationary bubble of wealth and inequality. Considering innovative art, design, and architecture practices as forms of cultural capital, we can attempt to displace this activity in ways that would redistribute resources in more useful directions. In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, New York merely grew at a slower pace—developers warehoused apartments and stalled new construction until they could produce higher profit margins. Even a major recession did not ease the city’s affordable housing crisis or its unequal access to resources. This situation demanded more than strongly worded editorials.

In late 2010, I began circulating a speculative proposal initially called the Flint UAW Freeway Project (soon changed to the Flint Ecological Urbanism Project and later Flint Public Art Project), which introduced a sprawling set of ideas on how contemporary practices in art, architecture, and planning could stimulate urban change in Flint, Michigan. Having grown up in Flint before leaving for school in 1986, and returning to visit over the years, I was aware of the city’s unique history: that it had suffered from severe retail losses and industrial decline since the 1970s, and had been hit by massive foreclosures in 2008–2010, after predatory lending and mortgage-backed securities led to underwater home values and loan defaults. After sharing the proposal with dozens of potential participants, stakeholders, and partners—many of them artists and architects who I had met, written about, or could write about in the context of my job as a reporter for Metropolis, the New York Times, and other publications—I posted the proposal on my blog and began organizing public meetings, gathering input, and adjusting the proposal based on feedback. I continued to write for news sites like Metropolis and the Architect’s Newspaper. I not only made frequent use of the contacts I developed through reporting to invite other architects to participate in the Flint project, but also drew on the work I wrote about to instigate new directions.

I went to Flint for six weeks to initiate a pilot project in June 2011. The Flint chapter of the American Institute of Architects had recently organized a competition to save a condemned city-owned nineteen-story mid-century modern tower, which I had written about in the Architect’s Newspaper. Writing for these publications gave me credibility with city officials. I was able to my leverage my role as a reporter and critic to work with Mayor Dayne Walling, the city attorney, and various building inspectors to gain access to the tower for a temporary public art installation. Through research on a book about New York art and planning in the 1970s, I learned specific lessons from people I interviewed such as Anita Contini, founder of Creative Time, and Alanna Heiss, founder of PS1 Contemporary Art Center, about how liability insurance, hiring security, and creating hold-harmless agreements could help gain access to sites. Using all the outlets available to me to promote the event—Facebook, blogs, TV, radio, newspapers, and word of mouth—the event attracted hundreds of people to the street and parking lot facing Genesee Towers on July 8, 2011. The tower was animated with colorful lighting, dancers in the windows, music on the sidewalk, and projections on the façade. Demonstrating the possibilities of quick actions to activate vacant space, connect people and places, amplify the local community, and help transform the image of the city, the lighting of the Genesee Towers became a calling card for Flint Public Art Project. Substantially funded by ArtPlace in 2012, the project evolved into a nonprofit organization dedicated to an ongoing series of programs focused on social engagement, activation of industrial brownfield sites, and temporary projects to remediate foreclosed homes in the hardest hit neighborhoods of Flint.

The history of New York City, especially in the 1970s and 80s, is populated with many examples of reporters and critics as initiators of activist projects. These figures exploited their influence as journalists to promote their own political agendas, extending their work beyond writing to testify in court and City Council hearings, organize activist groups, and create projects that they subsequently wrote about as critics. Among the most influential, Jane Jacobs used activism and advocacy as an extension of her work as an editor at Architectural Forum, an editorial writer at the New York Times, and the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her leadership of the Joint Committee Against the Lower Manhattan Expressway and other activist groups enabled her to have an enormous impact on public policy and helped prevent the erasure of a large part of SoHo and Greenwich Village from urban renewal. Lucy Lippard used her position as an influential art critic to form numerous protest groups such as Art Workers Coalition and Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America, to instigate non­profit organizations like Printed Matter, to establish women-run art spaces like A.I.R., and to form projects like Political Art Documentation/ Distribution (PAD/D)—all of which influenced generations of artists and paved the way for inclusionary and activist practices in contemporary art.

In 1967, the late Village Voice art critic and poet John Perreault initiated Street Works with a group of poets. The series motivated the group to experiment with performances in the street, and Perreault subsequently wrote about these explorations, promoting colleagues like Vito Acconci, Margorie Strider, and Hannah Wiener and shaping the future of performance art in public space. “It was kind of unorthodox then to write about something you yourself were involved in, but that was a certain period,” Perreault wrote me by email, “and Jill Johnston, Jonas Mekas, and others had already erased the line between participation and journalism.” Johnston, who wrote dance criticism at the Village Voice, promoted experimental choreography in a writing style that itself mirrored the cultural avant-garde, and Mekas immersed himself in the Warhol Factory scene as collaborator and documentary filmmaker. Perreault himself played a crucial role in the 1969 protest by the sculptor Takis at the Museum of Modern Art, which resulted in formation of the Art Workers Coalition, advocating for the moral rights of artists over their work, diversification of museum collections and exhibitions, and extension of museum activities into under-served neighborhoods. About Street Works, Perreault wrote: “Of course, it was considered a conflict of interest and we gloried in it.”

Professional conflict of interest standards continue to provide a valuable ethical framework for journalism. However, rather than think of these standards as a dead end, perhaps we can think of them as having a degree of fluidity both in their application in mainstream criticism and in their relevance to efforts to extend journalistic practice beyond the written word. I consider my work under the guise of the Institute for Applied Reporting and Urbanism to be imperfect realizations of the idea that journalism has a potential role to play in producing advocacy. But as explorations testing the limits of discourse related to conflict of interest in design journalism, they can be useful in evaluating the potential for criticism to have a more pronounced social impact in the field and may even encourage others to push professional boundaries and experiment with new ideas.

  1. 1.  “Ethical Journalism: A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial Departments,” the New York Times, September 2004, http://www.nytco.com/wp-content/uploads/NYT_Ethical_Journalism_0904-1.pdf^
  2. 2.  Herbert Muschamp, “Don’t Rebuild. Reimagine,” the New York Times, September 22, 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/08/magazine/don-t-rebuild-reimagine.html^
  3. 3.  Michael Kimmelman, “An Alternative Plan,” the New York Times, September 30, 2016,  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/09/30/opinion/penn-station-reborn.html. Chakrabarti, a former developer at Related Companies and SHoP Architects skilled in the high-level sales pitch, was invited by the Times to share a visual package of his vision for Penn Station. ^
  4. 4.  Boris Kachka, “Why Was Times Theater Critic Charles Isherwood Fired?” Vulture, February 22, 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/02/why-was-times-theater-critic-charles-isherwood-fired.html^
  5. 5.  Stephen Zacks, “The Magic Lantern,” Metropolis, March 1, 2017, http://www.metropolismag.com/uncategorized/the-magic-lantern/^
  6. 6.  Stephen Zacks, “The Painted Building,” Metropolis, November 1, 2008, http://www.metropolismag.com/uncategorized/the-painted-building/^
  7. 7.  Stephen Zacks, “Hudson Yards Reveals the Architecture Critics Have Indeed Failed Us,” Metropolis, August 26, 2013, http://www.metropolismag.com/architecture/hudson-yards-architecture-critics-failed-us/^
  8. 8.  Stephen Zacks, “Lay of the Land,” Metropolis, February 1, 2003, http://www.metropolismag.com/uncategorized/lay-of-the-land/. ^

Stephen Zacks is an internationally recognized architecture and urbanism journalist, theorist, and cultural producer based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and a native of Flint, Michigan. He received an M.A. in Liberal Studies from the New School for Social Research, a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Humanities from Michigan State University, served as an editor at Metropolis, and has received awards from the Warhol Foundation, Creative Capital, ArtPlace, Graham Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell Colony, NY State Council on the Arts, and the Newtown Creek Fund.