Winter is inevitable, but it still feels like an unwelcome surprise each year. To architecture journalist Anjulie Rao, it’s a season of reevaluation, reflection, and transformation.
Fascinated by what winter represents, Rao has started a small publication on the topic—a “grand experiment” whose biweekly publishing schedule will follow the length of the season, December 21, 2021, to March 30, 2022.
Through Weathered, a newsletter hosted on the platform Substack, Rao commissions reporting and essays about winter from writers of all backgrounds. In the past few years, newsletters have become popular amongst writers with offbeat interests or underrepresented perspectives—for some, it’s become a viable full-time job or a news outlet itself. Weathered is one of the first, if not the first, indie newsletters in Chicago with aspirations of publishing new voices. It’s supported by subscriptions starting at $5 per month and a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts to help pay writers and illustrators.
So far, Weathered has attracted nearly 400 paid subscribers and published three editions. A recent publication was a meditation from writer Marianela D’Aprile on the New York subways as third spaces and the injustices forcing the unhoused to shelter inside them. Other planned pieces include a profile of an urban arborist, a report from northern California’s controlled-burn areas, and an essay on radiators.
Most recently the editor of Chicago Architect magazine (the bimonthly publication of the American Institute of Architects Chicago), Rao writes frequently about design, public spaces, and the effects of urban policy on marginalized communities. Her desire to create independent media stems from turmoil in the industry. “As publications focused on the built environment shutter, and opportunities for new voices become slim, Weathered wants to try to keep some hope alive,” Rao writes.
I spoke to Rao, who is a Reader contributor, about starting the project, the state of architecture journalism in Chicago, and how we can deepen our understanding of the built environment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Taylor Moore: What made you decide to start Weathered?
Anjulie Rao: When I left my full-time job [at Chicago Architect], a lot of people reached out and said, you know, if you wrote a newsletter, I would subscribe to it. I read Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study religiously; she has a wonderful way of dissecting the world around her, but I love it when there are other voices included [in her newsletter]. I was thinking like, do I want to l write a newsletter where it’s just me? And then I realized I could just actually put out a call for pitches.
And what’s interesting about having spent a lot of time at SAIC now—I teach writing in various departments—is that I come indoctrinated into this weird world of interdisciplinarity. I wanted to make sure that other types of nonfiction writers could also pitch.
And why the focus on winter?
I am really fascinated by how we talk about change, especially in cities. I think what’s interesting about winter is that we really learn a lot about ourselves. If you live in a place where there is a winter season—whether it means just getting colder or you get ten feet of snow—our habits change, our way of operating in the world changes. Our personal ethos about how I feel about my friends, how I feel about my family, what is worth traveling for—all of that is motivated in the context of winter change. Winter is a microcosm of what happens to us when we’re forced to confront change that we don’t control.
Can you describe the work that you wanted to do [in your last job] but now are able to do?
What’s hard about having a full-time job in architecture is that you can’t be publicly critical of decisions made in the architecture field in Chicago. I feel like the architecture community is really amazing [here], but I’ve been looking for communities who are interested in holding the city accountable for actions, like [its support of the] Southside Recycling facility or the botched Hilco implosion that took place in 2020.
I feel like a lot of architecture journalism has been, for the most part, defined by [the same types of stories]—you have a building review, a profile of a designer or a feature. There have been people like Eva Hagberg who have been able to break away from things like that, but It’s suffocating to have one type of voice. But my thought now is, how can we be more expansive of what constitutes architectural criticism or architecture writing? And that’s where this project started coming together in my mind.
What is the state of architecture media now, in Chicago and nationwide, and whose voices are missing?
When I was working at Chicago Architect magazine, we watched Curbed Chicago close, along with [Curbed’s] other city sites. The midwest editor position at The Architect’s Newspaper was terminated, and it was communicated to me by one of the people who was running Architect’s Newspaper at that time that they didn’t see value in having a midwest editor.
The thing that’s missing is new voices. I think there has finally been a recognition that having diverse voices is important. Architecture is consistently 20 to 50 years behind on changing the actual profession, and I think that also happens with architecture writing.
So it doesn’t surprise me that only recently did the Architectural League [of New York, a design nonprofit] launch fundraising around a fellowship for new architecture writers. I think it’s really great, but if you get ten amazing BIPOC writers, we need to make sure they can still sustain a life for themselves [after receiving a fellowship]. It feels like we’re competing with each other for the same maybe five to ten publications. We can bring in all of the amazing diverse voices we want, but at the end of the day, if they can’t pay their bills, why are they doing this?
What do you hope readers take away from Weathered?
I want people to think differently about architecture writing. Part of me is hoping to send a signal to editors and readers that there’s a lot more to writing about the built environment than what Blair Kamin or Paul Goldberger or Michael Kimmelman focused on. The issues of the built environment touch a lot of different social and political happenings and issues, so it’s not just writing building criticism.
On the personal side, I hope we’re able to see ourselves as parts of change—that change isn’t something that happens to us. Change is something that we cope with, and we adapt to. How can we apply that lens to some of the more dangerous futures that we’re facing right now?
The current edition of the festival poses two possible directions its organizers can take.
The birds are flocking to the city for survival.
Thousands have survived one pandemic winter, only to now face another, still waiting for shelters to have spaces for them, to hear their names called for a public housing unit.