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Local Luminaries Chat (LLC): Renée Loth

December 13, 2012

The LLC is a new series intended to expand the notion of the SMPS Boston community. Our first interview is with Renée Loth, editor of the Boston Society of Architects’ quarterly ideas publication, ArchitectureBoston. Ms. Loth joined the magazine in 2011 and was formerly editorial page editor of The Boston Globe. This interview was produced by Karen Euler with questions contributed by SMPS Boston members Sarah McGillicuddy, Matthew Hawk, and Erin Carlon, CPSM. We are always interested to hear from volunteer writers offering ideas for unique subject matter. To contribute, please get in touch with Outlook Editor Karen Dyer.

SMPS Boston: The BSA has undergone such an incredible transformation in the past two years, becoming much more visible. Last year, the new home at Atlantic Wharf was unveiled around the same time that you began your tenure at ArchitectureBoston. What would you say these two changes signal for the organization?

reneeRenée Loth: It is a very exciting time to be at the BSA. While the venerable institution has been around for well over a hundred years, it is now at a pivot point, looking to be somewhat less of an insular membership-only organization and more public-facing. The gallery, BSA Space, is absolutely a big part of that change. Last summer’s exhibit, “Let’s Talk About Bikes,” attracted all kinds of bike community members, tattoos and piercings included. Clearly, this is not your grandmother’s BSA! Similarly, I am interested in taking what is already such a beautiful and well-regarded publication and broadening its appeal to a larger audience beyond the practitioners. Already we are read by a lot of the opinion leaders, such as politicians and media people, and I want to continue in that direction by welcoming what is a large yet untapped audience for the ideas that are presented in the magazine.

SMPS: What sets Boston apart in terms of design innovation? What can practitioners and marketers do to help Boston emerge as a city that embraces and celebrates design? Local architectural enthusiasts are used to a certain tension between historic preservation and leading-edge design.

RL: I must preface these comments by advising your readers that I am not an architect, I’m a journalist. That said, I feel that what distinguishes Boston for the architectural profession is respect for the stability and commitment of the mid-sized firm. As in journalism, the middle is falling out of the profession as large firms swallow up the mid-sized firms, yet in Boston there is an interest and commitment to a type of firm with which the client can expect to have an anchored relationship. I think this originates from the non-profit sector. The universities, hospitals, and cultural institutions are not going anywhere and they want to work with firms that are committed to Boston. Peter Kuttner from Cambridge Seven Associates said to me recently that working with the so-called “meds and eds” provides a lot of opportunity for firms here. That is something that is unique to Boston.

Given Boston’s reputation for being a preservationist town, it’s surprising how much representation we do have of mid-century modern design. The controversial building movement that came through in the 1960s in Government Center and Harvard Square is distinctive and to my eye quite beautiful. We do have a reputation for being stuffy, perhaps as having a fetish for brick, but that is not necessarily well-deserved.

As a citizen I do have some concerns about the newer neighborhoods of Boston and Cambridge, the Seaport District and Kendall Square, as they do seem to lack coherence and distinction. In the Seaport there are physical constraints of the site and there was a need to move quickly when the economic opening came along in order to get things in the ground, but perhaps things were accomplished with not quite enough thought. It seems somewhat anonymous, like the district could be in Phoenix or any other boom city. It would be a shame if we allow that to continue.

SMPS: Help us understand Boston as a media town. How can we get attention upon our best local projects?

RL: Well it’s true that there has been a lot of media consolidation; even the Boston Globe has lost some of its local ownership position. That is not to say that Boston doesn’t care about its own. Whether the issue is architects wanting to get attention for their projects or people working on homelessness or the ambassador to France, media needs to be approached as a human endeavor. So I advise architects to pick up the phone and call an editor and talk to him or her about their recent pieces. It’s rare for a writer or editor to get a compliment, so offer one! Develop a relationship with writers; pay attention to bylines in the paper and taglines on the radio. Usually it’s not the editor making assignments or decisions; it’s much more likely that you’ll get published if you go to the reporter first. Ultimately, a personal relationship is what is going to get you noticed. Certainly Bob Campbell (architecture critic at the Globe) is the obvious choice. Yet as my friend Ellen Goodman used to joke, the Globe is like a Middle Eastern bazaar. You go from tent to tent to tent peddling your wares looking for someone to buy. So if Bob Campbell is not available, you might consider a profile for the magazine, an opinion piece, or a letter to the editor. There are many different points of entry to major media. Similarly, do not discount community papers that may be desperate for copy. Present a well-thought-out, well-crafted idea for a story to the small and burdened staff of a small paper. There are lots of ways in which architects and society interact, so there is no reason why architects themselves cannot pick an issue and promote themselves through op-eds. The challenge there is to avoid speaking too theoretically and making assertions without backing them up with examples or facts and figures. Architects should write as if writing to a smart college roommate or other educated professional.

SMPS: How do you balance creative writing and the critical eye needed by a editor?

RL: Each discipline teaches you a lot about the other. In daily journalism in particular you have to get to the point quickly. I became a much better writer after just a few months at the editorial desk. If you’ve been on both sides you also understand deadlines much better. Anyway, a good writer is constantly editing her own work. The only difficulty really is time. I want my columns in the Globe to have real reporting in them, which takes time. I had been writing a column weekly, but now as editor of ArchitectureBoston I’m only writing alternate weeks.

SMPS: As an editor, how do you like to be approached by marketers? Do you prefer illustrative, graphic emails or straight text press releases?

RL: I want the press inquiries I receive to be customized. A pitch that is tailored for the audience is always a good bet. ArchitectureBoston is an ideas publication, a policy publication, so press releases about individuals or projects are not appropriate. Likewise, when pitching to the Cambridge Chronicle, tell a story about Cambridge, not Brookline. Blanket press releases are almost not worth the paper they are printed on. Consider your pitch in terms of the editor’s schedule and focus.

SMPS: How does ArchitectureBoston get made? Tell us a bit about the process each quarter.

RL: There is a volunteer editorial advisory board that helps a great deal, made up mostly of architects. They are a rotating group of 18 members. Every year six rotate off and six new ones come on so each member participates for a three-year term. I have asked 12 people so far in two cycles to be on the board and nobody has ever said no. People love this meeting because for architects especially it is an opportunity for them to get out of the weeds and think the big thoughts that drew them to the profession in the first place. We hold monthly discussions based on how architecture can relate to the theme of the upcoming issue, whether “sound” or “memory” as in recent issues. (The themes themselves sort of bubble up, that’s the easiest part. There is no lack of ideas.) The advisory board brainstorms a number of different angles to get at what pieces we might want to have in the magazine and who could write each one.

Thankfully there is a template to the magazine: each issue has basically four feature stories, a gallery, a photo essay, and usually an interview. Most of the compiling and editing is done by me (there is no full-time staff yet). We have a terrific design team (Stolze Design) that frequently help with photographic research and artwork rights. There is an advertising team that works in concert with the trade show (ABX, formerly known as BuildBoston). Then there is a lot of tinkering before it gets to the printer. Pamela de Oliveira-Smith, communications director of BSA and publisher of the magazine inspects it, as does Deputy Editor Gretchen Schneider. Gretchen is responsible for the “Unstructured” section of the magazine, six pages of material not related to the theme including exhibits, lectures, and her column on magazines and media. Miraculously each quarter, it finally goes to the printer and comes back for distribution.

The magazine is always distributed to all of the BSA members, schools, individual professors, and media and political figures who subscribe or who are given a copy. The aim for next year is to broaden distribution quite significantly. We are targeting independent bookstores in the region. We have several hundred subscribers beyond the four to five thousand BSA members and we think that number could grow. We are available in all the school libraries. Since very recently EBSCO (a publisher and database provider) has put all of the content from ArchitectureBoston online to make it available for any library nationwide.

SMPS: What is on the horizon in 2013 for you and ArchitectureBoston?

RL: One thing I do want to do is bite the bullet and lay down four themes for the next four issues of ArchitectureBoston. I have been resistant to holding onto a theme nine months in advance, even though I do have some magazine experience. (Ms. Loth was a founding editor of New England Monthly, which won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence in both 1986 and 1987 and was a finalist for many other National Magazine Awards in its brief existence).

Our spring issue will be an examination of the state of architecture education. Not unlike the rest of eduction, it is going through roiling change. There is a lot of challenge from the online world, financial challenges, and even demands from the students to be more citizens of the world. We will have profiles of people who have taken the specific architectural education, including 3-D thinking and collaborative work, and applied them to other fields, such as filmmaking. We also have a piece on the architecture of education: designing for public schools using some of the new brain science that’s been developed on the way children learn. It’s going to be a good issue and we are in the throes of it right now.

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