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Sunday, March 7, 2010

On Dialogue

The November/December 2009 issue is the last one for Dialogue. On the one hand it is certainly sad to see the end of a magazine. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that the magazine actually lasted for 12 years. I have been involved with Dialogue on and off as a writer and editor for around 10 years.

My first encounter with Dialogue was actually not as contributor but as a participant in an idea competition that the magazine sponsored. This was in October 1997 and I was fresh out of graduate school and working as a junior architect at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in New York. Back then, I didn't know much about the magazine. I decided to submit something for the competition just for fun; moreover it gave me something to do at nights and weekends. Since the magazine was called Dialogue, I invited my good friend Emily Sun to work with me. Emily is not an architect but a scholar in comparative literature. I thought the two of us could engage in some sort of dialogue and generate some new ideas about architecture. For our submission, Emily wrote a text and I created an imaginary space. The work was titled Movement Towards the Forgetting of Architecture: Dialogue and Difference Between Theory and Architecture. Emily came up with the great title and we actually collaborated two more times, adding two more Movements. Ideas about movements in architecture remain a great interest of mine. We were awarded an honorable mention for our entry, which was published in the 12th issue of Dialogue, in March 1998.

A few months afterwards, as I was just settling into my job at Skidmore, I got a call from my good friend Gene King. He told me he had just become the Editor-in-Chief of Dialogue and asked if I was interested in being an overseas consultant. I asked what I had to do as a consultant. Gene basically said just keep Dialogue informed of new things in the U.S. and I was free to contribute anything I was interested in. With some hesitations, since I have actually never worked at a magazine, I said sure.

My first article for Dialogue was on Paul Rudolph’s own house. This was published in the September 1998 issue. Paul Rudolph had died in the year before and at that time his house was being sold. I have always admired Rudolph’s work and thought he didn’t receive enough attention. I took the opportunity to see the house on Beekman Place in New York City, with a broker no less. I thought the house was amazing and beautiful and those impressions formed the first article. This also shaped my desire to look for subjects slightly outside of the mainstream publications.

My second article, published in the October 1998 issue, was actually not on architecture, but on Rachel Whiteread’s Water Tower sculpture. At this point I had begun to formulate the idea that I wanted to write about things outside of architecture. Part of this was I didn’t want to keep thinking about architecture after getting off from the long hours at Skidmore. But more importantly, it was just a desire to engage other disciplines around architecture and to learn from them.

This line of thinking led me to the November 1998 issue on structure, my first one as a guest editor. I wanted to do an issue on structure because I felt architects knew too little about the subject, especially the cutting edge designs. Without awareness on what’s possible with structure, I felt architects were closing themselves off from new configurations of space. For the issue on structure, I first contacted my colleagues at the Chicago office of Skidmore for their work on the structure for Frank Gehry’s Bilbao. I then cold called Cecil Balmond’s office in London to see if he was willing to let us publish an article on his work; he readily agreed. Gene contacted Kunio Watanabe for the structural design of Tokyo Forum. Once we had secured these three major works, the magazine issue was mostly set. I would then write an editorial to explain concepts.

This first one I guest edited was the most difficult. First of all, I didn’t know how much work was entailed and working with a publication deadline was even more intense than one for a building. Second, because I was intent on doing things slightly outside of architecture, I didn’t have a network of previous contributors to draw on. Therefore, I spent a lot of time cold calling people and explaining the magazine as well as the ideas to them. Nevertheless, this first guest-edit issue would set the work process for producing subsequent issues that I did.

Besides guest editing issues and writing occasional articles, the other main thing I did was to interview people. This all started when Gene had the idea of featuring different schools of architecture in the magazine in 1999. Since I just graduated recently, we decided to start with Columbia University. I didn’t want to write about the School, so I thought, since the magazine is called Dialogue, let’s do an interview with my Dean Bernard Tschumi. While I spent three years at Columbia, I actually didn’t know the Dean well and didn’t have much contact with him. Therefore, I sort of cold called again. I was glad Dean Tschumi agreed without any hesitation. It was my first interview and I had absolutely no experience prior to that; I didn’t even have a tape recorder. I had little skill as an interviewer and I mostly read from a series of prepared questions. I wasn’t a good listener and therefore didn’t ask too many follow-up questions. I would gradually improve in my subsequent interviews but it took some time. Once the interview with Tschumi was published in May 1999, it became easier to land other interviews. In the subsequent years I did numerous interviews for Dialogue, including ones with Bruce Mau, Cecil Balmond, Ron Arad, Mary Miss, Ingo Maurer, Terence Riley…etc. Many of them were about topics slightly outside of architecture.

My involvement with Dialogue was greatly reduced starting in 2005. I did some interviews and guest-edited one last time for the July 2008 issue. Part of the reason was we had our first child in 2004 and I just didn’t have as much free time anymore. The other factor is I didn’t have too many new ideas and thought I was starting to repeat myself. I always remember when Le Corbusier closed down Esprit Nouveau, he said, “Five years is a lot for a magazine, one ought not to repeat oneself continuously. Others, younger people will have younger ideas.” Instead of five, I was involved for around ten years. I am extremely sad to see Dialogue cease publication, since it was not only one of the leading magazines on architecture, but one of the best publications in Taiwan. However, I also see this stoppage as an opportunity to think about some new ideas and to see how they can be expressed not only in print but also on the internet. Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to start again.


  1. Dear Michael,

    I am sad to hear that Dialogue is closing. Here's to your ten years of good work on the magazine! You should be proud. At the same time, onwards. There'll be new ideas and new forums for new stages.

    Your pal,

  2. Hi Michael. I don't think we've met, but I got to know Gene and Dialogue during a spell that a company I was involved with was active in Taiwan. I loved the magazine and considered Gene a friend. I have been out of the Asian marketplace entirely for about 6 years. I was just thinking about him, fired off an email that was kicked back, went looking for the magazine and found your post. Sad to hear about the demise of Dialogue, there is such a dearth of good architectural publications. I hope both you and Gene are well and on to new and great things!


    Mic Patterson