Alexandra Lange | Essays

Introducing Strelka Press

Faithful readers may recall that I spent a week in the Bay Area in January, researching a story on the urbanism of Silicon Valley. The story, which grew into a lengthy critical essay, was born out of the comments on my post on the ring-shaped design of Apple's new headquarters. Commenters said, in nice and not-so-nice ways, that you can't accuse a Silicon Valley company of being suburban, because there's no other option. But why then, I wondered, were companies like Facebook importing the coffee shops and bike stores, cafe culture and farmers markets of the city to those suburbs? What did they see in the city and, seeing that, why wouldn't they move there? You can finally download and read that essay, titled "The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism" here, where it is part of a series issued by the brand-new publishing house Strelka Press.

Strelka Press will be devoted to long critical essays on architecture, design and urbanism, published initially as digital downloads, Kindle Singles or ebooks (pick your favorite term). The first release of six titles includes essays by Sam Jacob of FAT on architecture's instinct for repetition and replication; Dan Hill (better known to some as @cityofsound) on designers' need to engage with the "dark matter" of organizations and governments above and around a commission; and Julia Lovell on how cities are getting made in China. It is also part of a larger rethinking of how to get critical design writing into the hands of readers that includes a similar longform article series called Forefront, published by Next American City, and the Cooper-Hewitt's forthcoming venture into ebooks, called DesignFile, which includes a collection of writings by Steven Heller and the prescient hacker thesis of 2011 DCrit graduate (and current Metropolis editor) Avinash Rajagopal.

The editor of the press is Justin McGuirk, design critic for the Guardian. He also wrote another of the available titles, "Edge City: Driving the Periphery of Sao Paolo." I emailed him a few questions about the thinking behind creating Strelka Press in this form.

Why did you choose this digital model for the launch of Strelka Press?
Our decision to be "digital first" came out of various conversations I had, not least with the Strelka itself. We were trying to think how we could do something more experimental, something potentially disruptive. Clearly the challenge of this project was how to go into publishing at such a difficult time for the industry. Our major advantage is that we don't have the millstones of a printed back catalogue and an expensive print infrastructure to protect. We're much lighter on our feet.

And I've been frustrated by the recalcitrance of the publishing industry in engaging with the electronic book — there's still surprisingly little available (especially among older titles) for a Kindle because publishers are still nervously protecting their print sales. Being digital first obviates all the annoying distribution problems — we just want to publish great content and get it to as many readers as we can, and being digital makes us nimble and fast.

The idea of an iTunes model — buying the song rather than the whole album - was too compelling to ignore. There are other long-form e-publishing sites popping up now, but when we first started talking about this in early last year it still felt radical.

Will there be physical books at some point?
We'd love to produce printed books. In fact, in Russian we already have - translations of Delirious New York and Me++. We're curious to see how the digital series evolves and then we may well start to think about anthologies or annuals or even print-on-demand anthologies — where readers can select to bundle certain titles together by theme or author. That's an incredibly exciting prospect.
Why do you think the long critical essay is important for architecture? For criticism?
I think there are two perspectives on this: the reader's and the writer's. As a reader, I'm increasingly gravitating towards longer-form writing because I find it so rewarding. And there are less and less forums for it. If Walter Benjamin were alive today and he wanted to publish his essays on Berlin or Moscow, who would publish them? There are some academic journals that no one reads maybe. Word counts are being cut across the board, and the emphasis is on pictures.

Meanwhile, critique is increasingly coming in bite-sized forms, either as tweets or as comments or, most reductive of all, "likes" — we have a new critical economy of Facebook likes. I don't criticise any of this — I'm as seduced by the rapid power of images as anyone, and I think social media are tremendously powerful. All we're doing is offering another channel. Just because I'm addicted to Twitter doesn't mean I don't want to sit back and settle in to a nice long piece of engaging, thought-provoking writing.

And then, from the writer's perspective, it's just frustrating having to always squeeze everything into 1200 or increasingly 800 words — with all the journalistic devices and cliches that requires. At the same time, you don't necessarily want to dedicate two years of your life into turning your subject into a book. There's a whole wonderful world in between, where you have the room to tell a story AND to be critical AND to play with different structures AND to luxuriate in detail AND to notice the scenery. It's tremendously appealing — if you have the time.

Is there anyone you refer to as a model in terms of content, style or audience?
Honestly, my models were the London Review of Books and the New Yorker. I always imagined Strelka Press as an unbundled edition of the LRB. And I'm deeply encouraged that while wordcounts shrink and magazines watch their subscriptions decline, the LRB's subscriptions are going up.
How are you paying writers? Do you have expectations for how many downloads will sell?
We're paying them an advance of €1000 Euros and sharing the royalties with them 50/50 — which is frankly revolutionary. That was something else I wanted — a fairer publishing model for authors. The more I looked into it the more I was amazed what a raw deal authors get — publishers treat them as though they're doing them a favour (unless they're stars of course). Since we are a non-profit organisation, and because we're not supporting a whole print infrastructure, we can afford to give authors such a generous deal. As to how many we'll sell, I have no idea — it could be thousands or hundreds. I hope it's thousands but the whole thing's an experiment.

What do you have planned for the next round?
The first series was very much based on invitations and commissions. There are writers I've been talking to who couldn't get it together for this round but hopefully will for the next, but I'm also waiting to see what kind of a response we get. The aim is that this programme opens people's eyes to the potential and that we start to get writers approaching us rather than just me approaching them.
Thanks! And thanks again for letting me participate. It felt good to prove to myself I could write something not 1200 words.
I totally agree, it was liberating and daunting to take this on, a personal threshold crossed for me too actually. I'm also aware that there's a new generation emerging out of critical writing courses and I want this to be a platform that they aspire to. I'm convinced it can only enrich the discourse of architecture and design - especially in design.

Posted in: Architecture, Media, Technology

Comments [4]

First, Bravo! Strelka Press.

Second, Commenters said, in nice and not-so-nice ways, that you can't accuse a Silicon Valley company of being suburban, because there's no other option. But why then, I wondered, were companies like Facebook importing the coffee shops and bike stores, cafe culture and farmers markets of the city to those suburbs? What did they see in the city and, seeing that, why wouldn't they move there?

I haven't read the Strelka book, but I presume you said there is a fair amount of good urbanism in Silicon Valley. And that so much of Silicon Valley goes home to the San Francisco at night that they are making that urbanism as expensive as Manhattan's.

Steve Jobs lived in a beautiful English cottage in a wonderfully walkable neighborhood not far from downtown Palo Alto, which is a good downtown. The Google guys and lots of other Silicon magnates live a block or two away. Jobs understood the difference between where he chose to live and where he chose to build for work (although he also kept a small office in downtown Palo Alto, I think).

At CNU 20, Richard Florida forcefully and passionately made the point that what he calls the Creative Class (like Google employees) want to live and work in traditional urbanism. He believes the evidence shows they don't want all the shrink-wrapped condo towers for the 1% that we seem to be building on every available site in Manhattan. The way that Silicon Alley edges down Broadway away from the towers of Madison Square might support that, although the Bowery is becoming another example of what Rem calls "an architectural petting zoo."
john massengale

In my Strelka essay, my focus is on the workplace urbanism of Silicon Valley, rather than the residential neighborhoods. I agree that Steve Jobs's neighborhood is beautiful and walkable, though most people I know who live there get in a car to work, shop and even exercise. However, his neighborhood is not an option for non-millionaires, and the SV companies have started to realize that their own employees have to live far from work. Some do it by choice, and are bused from San Francisco, but others can't find affordable housing, or find it in unwalkable areas. Their solution so far has been to build Main Streets in their own office villages, so while you are at work you can get a coffee, get your bike fixed or buy a gift. But that does nothing for the larger public realm or even for the employees when they are not at work (which is part of the point). As companies like Google and Facebook consider building housing near their campuses, the municipalities need to make sure these denser, mixed use developments are truly public, and work with wider civic agendas. Some of the developments will probably include apartments and condos rather than single-family homes, and Facebook's new "Main Street" even embraces some traditional architecture. The office interiors, however, are pure industrial loft.
Alexandra Lange

A world-wide trend: good urbanism is often very expensive, and the most beautiful places are often very expensive. Nantucket, Aspen (where MD's get housing subsidies), Charleston, south of Broad, Cambridge, Mass., way too much of London, way too much of Manhattan ... IMHO, San Francisco is one of the most grossly overpriced places in the US, supposedly to some degree because of all the Silicon Valley Millennials who prefer SF to SV.

BTW, that's not disagreeing with anything you said. I do like downtown Palo Alto, though.

So the good news is that we should be building more good urbanism.
john massengale

As a native of Silicon Valley I feel that it is underrated as a suburban community. Not far from where Steve Jobs lives is an enclave of Eichler homes (called Greenmeadows) built in the late ’50s that are examples of mid-century modernism. These enclaves also exist in Mt. View, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, and San Jose. Most are within walking distance to work places, farmer's markets, and restaurants, and parks.

Jobs | July 15