A conversation with Ricardo Devesa

Ricardo Devesa

[Originally published in Mark Magazine #58]

Ricardo Devesa is editor in chief of Actar, a Barcelona-based publisher known for books on architecture, graphic design and contemporary art – and for ‘boogazines’, which typically feature brightly coloured soft plastic covers. Founded in 1994, Actar went on to become the world’s largest architectural publisher, thanks in part to its acquisition of Birkhäuser in 2010. Two years later, however, Birkhäuser and Actar were sold separately, victims of crises within the financial world and the publishing sector. Devesa, who has been associated with Actar from the start, is now leading the dynamic, adventurous publisher in a new direction. I met with Ricardo at the Hotel Borgia in Gandía, Valencia, on a lovely summer afternoon to talk about books in the age of digital reproduction.

How many titles, more or less, comprise your personal library?

Ricardo Devesa: About 4,000. Just counted them this morning. In this line of work, you accumulate many books.

Architecture books touch on many themes and disciplines. How is your library organized?

I keep the magazine collection separate from the books, which are organized mainly into categories: monographs and thematic subjects covering theory, history, construction technology, urbanism, architectural photography and so forth. Then there are the books that fall outside the discipline but are nevertheless related, such as philosophy, art, and sociology. The problem is that when I run out of shelf space in one section, I end up reorganizing the rest of the books to create space; it’s a never-ending process. I have a friend who got tired of organizing books according to themes, so she started organizing them according to colour. The colour of a book is something we remember, so this method works well. It also looks great.

Why is it that architects in general like to collect huge numbers of books and magazines? Is it because we seek inspiration from precedent, or do we have an innate need to be constantly looking over our shoulders to see what sort of work other architects are doing?

I think the main reason is fetishism. That’s certainly true in my case. Collecting is human. Those with lots of disposable income collect luxury cars; others collect books or stamps. But it all has to do with a fetishistic human desire to build up and maintain a collection of some sort. Apart from information that I’ve needed for research or whatever, I bought most of the books in my library because I was physically attracted to them.

Some say that books will disappear and that we will read everything online. But it’s evident that only physical objects can become fetish items. Is the digital-physical divide marking a divide in architectural knowledge as well?

Absolutely. The very tactile quality of certain kinds of book covers and papers attracts a certain kind of architecture, much the way vinyl today attracts a certain kind of music. Books are associated with memory, because they have to be physically structured and organized. I associate each book in my library with a period in my life, and I remember where each one was obtained. Digital information, however, is accumulated without memory of time or place. This is why the physical book is not completely dead despite a brutal decline in sales in the last years.

Luxury books seem to be a growing phenomenon.

We’ve been conscious of this trend for some time at Actar. We’ve always paid special attention to the graphic design, materiality, presence, volume and format of what we publish, and we are continuing in that vein. Digital and physical books are complementary, covering distinct needs and desires.

Traditionally, architects have been by far the biggest readers of publications on architecture, but the number of architecture aficionados has been growing. Is readership changing?

Yes, there is a growing interest in architecture books among non-architects, perhaps because architecture is discussed in the media more than ever, thanks to the ‘starchitect’ phenomenon. Just as architects like to dabble in other disciplines, people representing those disciplines are curious to know how architects are thinking about space. At Actar we’re receiving an increasing number of proposals from geographers, photographers and even biologists, showing that there is a reciprocal interest.

There has been a dramatic growth of architectural publishing on the web by a handful of sites that upload huge amounts of new work every day, confirming Andy Warhol’s prediction that everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes, while also speeding up the churn rate of architectural discussion. Do you see this as a problem or as an opportunity?

It’s both a problem and an opportunity. Digital architecture sites are huge, rapidly growing databases that accumulate information and provide novelty. Although it was once impossible to access that much information, these sites do not allow for any sustained and profound discourse. There is little editing done by these kinds of platforms. Topics change so quickly that there’s not enough time for a weighty theme to emerge. Remember how long the debate on postmodernism lasted? To construct a discourse, it’s necessary to negate certain topics – to separate what’s interesting from what’s not for the purpose of a discussion. Selected, edited, structured, articulated and narrated content is highly necessary. Theorization entails negation: if a theory is about everything, then it’s ultimately about nothing. And this is where there’s a great opportunity: editing all that information. The public values edited information. There are many publics, of course, and a majority of them are interested only in consuming imagery. But I’m convinced there’s also a public for a well-edited, discriminating, online architecture portal, which is what we are building at the moment at Actar. Media outlets that offer information indiscriminately but immediately are losing out on this opportunity.

Will the new Actar website be more than a book catalogue, then?

Yes. The new website and project, called UrbanNext, will seek to generate content through discrimination and editing – in a very precise manner. It will have a moderated social-media component that will allow ideas emerging from online forums and discussions to play a part in Actar’s ongoing research projects. Only internet enables this sort of immediate interaction between readers and content producers. In the past, the editor of a publication received minimum feedback and had little idea about who was reading it. Books were endorsed by other writers or academics in those days, but now readers will be able to provide feedback during the research stage, changing the way books are written. Actar’s new portal will permit communication among members of a public online forum, moderators, and Actar’s authors and editors. Information will be filtered and differentiated so that content is structured. Some publishers are already doing this sort of thing, but no architectural publishers as far as we know. We are very excited about this project.

So Actar will become more interactive and participative?

Exactly. Writers who are able to participate in forum discussions with their readers can incorporate certain ideas into their work. A reader who interacts and participates intelligently can effectively become a coauthor. We are talking here about network thinking, about working within and across networks. For this reason, UrbanNext will be a new hub – producer, editor, consumer and distributor – of content on urbanism, architecture and design. It will be a source of all kinds of studies and projects, which users will find interwoven, enriched and disseminated in multiple and diverse formats.

The task of the architecture critic has always been to discriminate: to differentiate between architecture and building as part of a larger historiographical process, usually in newspapers and magazines, while books establish a more permanent canon. But social media makes everyone a critic. Is the history of architecture being written differently now as a result of this shift?

It’s evident that magazines have always accumulated information and books have always consolidated knowledge. With Actar’s new multi-platform, content can come from anywhere: from a tweet to an academic paper, from a YouTube video to a feature-length documentary, or from a series of photographs published on a social network to a curated exhibition. But information in books will always outlast information in other media. YouTube videos and tweets have a better chance of disappearing. The editor’s task is to take ephemeral information that is important and to make it more permanent – in books, exhibitions and/or audiovisual recordings.

Architectural discourse is characterized by stages in which participants try to validate their arguments with information gathered from external but related fields such as philosophy, science, art, politics, sociology and literature. In terms of such discourse, Actar has been on the cutting edge from the word go. How do you manage to stay on top of an ever-widening field that’s advancing at such a fast pace?

Architecture is a cultural endeavour and is therefore intellectual and reflexive. Culture may have been divided into different disciplines or departments, but a philosopher can be interested in architecture, an architect can be interested in sociology, and a geographer can be interested in anthropology. Culture can never be divided. What is important is to recognize the specificity of architecture, which is the construction of spaces based on a knowledge of building techniques, social relations and so on. So architecture has to be open to all sorts of external forms of knowledge which, ultimately, have to be understood architecturally. Actar works with many writers from many disciplines, but all of them speak to the heart of the discipline we know as architecture. We architects understand other disciplines, but we are also aware that we are amateurs, even dilettantes, when it comes to their complexities. As long as we know that and respect the fact that we are not experts in other disciplines, what we find there can only be enriching. Take the current interest in understanding the laws of thermodynamics spatially. We’re publishing a few books by authors such as Sanford Kwinter, Iñaki Ábalos, and Philippe Rahm. Many architectural writers are interested in the subject, but none pretends to be a physicist. At the same time, it might never occur to a physicist to understand these laws spatially or architecturally. This is a good example of what I mean: each needs the other. At Actar we are trying to maintain this equilibrium.

One of the most memorable essays I’ve read in an Actar publication is by sociologist José Miguel Iríbas, who wrote about the Mediterranean tourist resort of Benidorm. The essay appeared in Costa Iberica: Update to the Leisure City: MVRDV.

Iríbas died earlier this year, sadly. A phenomenal essay by a great mind. We would like to compile his writings and publish them posthumously. He left behind a great legacy. The Benidorm essay spotlights the kind of interdisciplinarity I’m talking about. He exemplifies how architectural space, in this case tourist space, attracted sociological interest, and vice versa.

Architecture publications are nearly always a combination of text and images. In academic publications, images supplement text, but in most architectural publications, text often acts as a supplement to images that are not only dominant but often quite seductive. How can we encourage the reading of texts on architecture?

The most difficult task of an editor of architectural publications is to find the correct relationship between text and image, which requires the use of graphic design to convey a message. It’s different for every book. We read in a much more fragmented manner today than we did in the past, and an editor has to be aware of that fact and to edit accordingly. The graphic designer needs to take the same approach. Reading is a learned habit, and so is reading critically. Reading is not just absorbing information, but also associating what you’re reading with other ideas and understanding a book’s particular context. Reading critically is a hermeneutic activity that, interestingly enough, coexists with another kind of reading, that of tweets and posts. It all depends on what we’re reading, and why. Lying on a beach towel, we may be reading to pass the time. When reading for the purpose of research, we often sit at a desk. Reading styles have to do with writing styles. Architects tend to write descriptively and rather boringly, typically in a jargon hardly anybody understands. If architectural writing were better, it would be read more.


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