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Eleanor Young steps up to edit the journal

Helen Castle

How will RIBAJ's new acting editor apply her deep understanding of the publication? How might readers expect it to evolve?

A human voice for the profession and a rigorous journalist – Eleanor Young.
A human voice for the profession and a rigorous journalist – Eleanor Young. Credit: Abi Bansal

When a new editor takes over a publication, there is speculation as to how their influence will play out. How might editorial interests and treatment shift? This crystal ball gazing is even cloudier for the journal with the succession of Eleanor Young as acting editor because her presence already permeates its pages. Part of the editorial team for almost 20 years, she has been executive editor since 2006. She is an established and powerful voice in the architectural community. Hugh Pearman, who retired as editor in December, describes her as ‘a force for good in architecture, known and admired across the profession.’ 

As executive editor, Eleanor has been the engine of the journal for 15 years, planning and organising it, commissioning the Intelligence section and key initiatives such as Rising Stars, as well as contributing building critiques, practice profiles and interviews. Architects recognise her journalism for its mix of passion, acumen and curiosity – simul­taneously championing and questioning. ‘Eleanor has a keen eye, a brave approach and a way with words,’ says Sasha Bhavan, co-founder of Knox Bhavan. ‘Her approach is open minded and fair while also challenging, encouraging and applauding.’ Architect and broadcaster Piers Taylor adds: ‘Eleanor has a natural and infectious enthusiasm for architecture, and brings the same energy to interviewing a Gold Medal Winner as she does to a muddy site visit. Her frame of reference spans the historical, philosophical and the practical, and her inquisitive and “can do” attitude means that she is a brilliant journalist and brings a breadth to her role at the RIBA Journal where she understands the diverse components of architecture.’

So how might the editorial direction of the journal shift with Eleanor at the helm? What are her architectural passions and penchants? How do her existing influences on the journal manifest themselves? 

In 2001, Eleanor left The Architects’ Journal to join RIBAJ under Amanda Baillieu’s editorship. The magazine was based in Docklands, not far from the new Millennium Dome, one of a crop of generously funded lottery projects. ‘It was a time that was very much about what was new,’ Eleanor says. ‘Herzog & de Meuron was coming into the public’s consciousness, as Tate Modern opened on Bankside. There were big press trips organised by northern cities, showing off their latest acquisitions.’ These included cultural landmarks such as The Lowry and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester and the Baltic Centre in Gateshead.


The beautiful calm of connective space at Architype’s UEA Enterprise Centre, Norwich.
The beautiful calm of connective space at Architype’s UEA Enterprise Centre, Norwich. Credit: Dennis Gilbert/View

Eleanor recalls the drama of Foster + Partner’s Great Court at the British Museum and its inventive opening up of an existing institution. It was, however, smaller scale innovations that captured her imagination. For her Cottrell and Vermeulen’s Cardboard Classroom and Afterschool Club for Westborough Primary School in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex stood out as brave for its community focus and use of alternative materials –  recycled laminated card.

She remembers fondly ‘conversations with 6a and Sergison Bates for the technical pages and writing about their door handle designs for Izé, the ironware company co-founded by the Financial Times critic Edwin Heathcote.’ This was epitomised by ‘the delicate touch’ of the Budapest apartment handles that 6A used in its South London Galleries.

One project, though, represents a turning point for Eleanor,  shifting her attention from the novel to the contextual and historic: Haworth Tompkins’ refurbishment of the Royal Court Theatre, London. Here not only was a new basement created to accommodate a restaurant, bar and bookshop, but the walls and layers of history were confidently exposed and celebrated in what is a now-
familiar style.

Unlike many journalists, Eleanor is less interested in interviewing well-known names – she recollects waiting an hour to speak to Zaha Hadid. For her, ‘the buzz remains from visiting a really good building’. She is excited by good design in all its forms and seeks out buildings that have a strong consideration of sustainability. She appreciates the tactility of timber and stone with their ‘established history of use’. 

It is, however, that uplifting ‘sense of space – air and calm – of the world stretching’ that distinguishes the most interesting architecture for her. Attracted to Architype’s University of East Anglia (UEA) Enterprise Centre in Norwich by its more superficial elements (the thatch cladding), she was surprised and exhilarated by ‘its materiality – the cleanness of its walls –  it didn’t have the plastic, glue smell of a new building’, and moreover by ‘the beautiful calm of its internal spaces’.


Cottrell and Vermeulen, Cardboard Classroom and Afterschool Club for Westborough Primary School, Westcliff-on-Sea, 2001. A stand-out project for Eleanor from her first year on RIBAJ.
Cottrell and Vermeulen, Cardboard Classroom and Afterschool Club for Westborough Primary School, Westcliff-on-Sea, 2001. A stand-out project for Eleanor from her first year on RIBAJ. Credit: Peter Grant


When the journal was redesigned in 2013, it was reorganised into three sections – Buildings, Intelligence and Culture.  Eleanor, who contributes to all three, became responsible for commissioning Intelligence, which in her words provides ‘analysis and insights on construction and property markets, informing how practices can build their businesses’. 

She has antennae for what is topical, but also relevant to her readers, as highlighted by Mark Kemp, director of Place Architects and chair of the RIBAJ editorial panel: ‘If like me you’ve recently found yourself drawn more and more to the Intelligence pages of the journal, it is because Eleanor’s editing of this middle section has found a way to relate the contributions to each other and to the architect readers. Issues of the moment have obviously been featured heavily, but many of the articles resonate directly  with what I actually do day to day and what I often find myself thinking about.’

The Intelligence pages have never been in more demand online than in 2020, amid the pandemic, a challenge that Eleanor rose to. ‘Last year in particular she demonstrated her commitment and agility of thought,’ says Hugh. ‘The journal had to respond to a rapidly changing world and provide a highly relevant response for readers in everything from the RIBA’s Rethink 2025 post-Covid competition to the vital issue of real diversity of talent and opportunity in architecture – while still foregrounding the urgent issue of the climate and biodiversity emergency. In all these areas she led from the front.’

Rising Stars

Another area which Hugh recognises as a particular success for Eleanor is the Rising Stars initiative. ‘That identifies, celebrates and encourages the emerging generation of talent in architecture,’ he says. It’s something that is crucial to the future health of the profession, and ‘is now being echoed by others, the best form of flattery’. Rising Stars alumni Úna Breathnach-Hifearnáin (2017) of McGregor Coxall and Kieren Majhail (2018) of Karakusevic Carson Architects explain what it has meant to them. It gave Úna ‘the opportunity to be heard as a project architect working in a larger firm, instilling confidence to express my architectural thought in a new way.’ It is the follow-up opportunities that Eleanor generously volunteers, though, which are as valuable to the cohort as the initial recognition. Kieren explains: ‘She always has words of encouragement and instils a sense of confidence, inspiring the Rising Stars to push themselves, whether that be writing pieces for the journal or to challenge themselves in their future careers.’

By showcasing different types of talent, not just project architects in large practices, but start-ups from a broad range of cultures and background, Rising Stars has championed emerging and diverse voices in the profession. Tara Gbolade of Gbolade Design Studio (2018 alumnus) recognises how refreshing and encouraging Eleanor’s proactive and consistent approach is ‘to reaching out to a diverse range of contributors’.

Eleanor is emphatic that a much broader perspective is required in practice and society, addressing the triple bottom line, taking into account people and the planet as much as profit. Though the journal has achieved greater gender parity over the last decade with speakers at events, for instance, she recognises there is still work to be done in achieving diversity. She remains on the lookout for eloquent and talented diverse voices. One is Gurmeet Sian, a British architect of Indian descent, who in a moving personal account in July 2020 articulated the racism he has encountered in the profession. In 2020, Eleanor and the team also developed a takeover slot in which a contributor collaborates on text and design and is given the opportunity ‘to insert a more diverse voice, changing the narrative of design’. Already we have seen Part 2 Rosa Turner Wood exploring how recruiting more women in construction could be the answer to the UK’s ageing and declining, largely male workforce, and Ben Holland on the groundswell of students changing the conversation on climate emergency.

Sadie Morgan, founding director of dRMM and chair of the Quality of Life Foundation, commends the manner in which Eleanor has ‘continued to champion the under­represented and give a human voice to a profession in dire need of one’.

With Fergus Feilden at a Camp Fire Talk in the woods around Invisible Studio near Bath.
With Fergus Feilden at a Camp Fire Talk in the woods around Invisible Studio near Bath. Credit: Piers Taylor

Climate change

For Eleanor, one overarching preoccupation is critical to the journal: the climate emergency. It is a movement that in the last couple of years has gained traction with the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge and Architects Declare. She seeks out the voices of leaders in design to explore provocations: one example is Piers Taylor’s critical review of Jonathan Porritt’s Hope in Hell. In September 2019, all the articles in the Intelligence section were dedicated to the topic – most memorably Duncan Baker-Brown on how architects should tap into the circular economy in their buildings and Steve Webb’s engaging feature in which he measured carbon dioxide emissions in Range Rovers Shopping Trips (RSTs)

The journal’s treatment of sustainability is holistic. It spans the latest ideas presented in the context of architects’ work to the choice of buildings. For Eleanor ‘multi-faceted performance is important – buildings have to respond to the climate emergency and work for those living in them. With the anticipated rise in energy costs, it is going to be increasingly important that they are affordable to run. Building to Passivhaus standards will also help avoid fuel poverty.’
Steve Webb, co-founder of Webb Yates Engineers, has experienced the level of scrutiny she exercises in her selection and review of sustainable buildings. 
‘I met Eleanor at our York House project. I was rather proud that we’d managed to make quite a big office refurbishment out of wood. She kind of sniffed and said “lot of layers”. She was right on the money. She meant, mullions and columns and external load bearing screen. We need to be more succinct with our buildings. It’s rather fabulous that someone who cares about climate change and the environment can see so clearly through all the fluff and is now editor of RIBAJ.’

So what can we expect from the new acting editor of the RIBA Journal? Fergus Feilden, founding director of Feilden Fowles Architects, pinpoints ‘her powerful personality and approachability’ as key, combined with her ability to make ‘powerful connections into broader contexts of politics and motives along with concerns of place making and how projects serve the people who use and inhabit them’. Eleanor’s work is characterised for Fergus by its ‘passion, rigour and occasionally uncomfortable inquisition’. It is this ‘ambition and commitment’ to the good in architecture, combined with the talents of the wider editorial team, that ‘will continue the journal’s high standards and drive forwards excellent journalism’.  

Helen Castle is publishing director at RIBA