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Catherine Slessor: a trailblazer in male-dominated industries

As the editorial torch is passed, we look back at the career of Catherine Slessor and the AR under her leadership

Catherine Slessor, who has left the editorship of the AR after five years, first began working for the Architectural Press in 1987. When she set out as junior Technical Editor for The Architects’ Journal, publishing was a different world: cut and paste were not yet metaphorical terms, and copy was laboriously written out longhand.

In those days, the AR and AJ were both still housed in a knocked-through terrace of buildings at Queen Anne’s Gate. There was notoriously – gloriously – a pub installed in the basement, cobbled together from fragments of Blitzed gin palaces by the Press’s former proprietor, Hubert de Cronin Hastings. The Bride of Denmark, as it was known, was the beating heart of the AR, a nugget of eccentric Victoriana beneath the sober Georgian facade, which fostered ‘cosy familiarity without breeding contempt, the classic English boozer, tough, quirky, slightly sentimental’, as Slessor recalls. The bar – presided over by a stuffed lion supplied by Nikolaus Pevsner – hosted morning meetings and whisky-fuelled soirées, celebrity visitors (including Le Corbusier, Wright and Mies), and other events which must remain sub rosa.

It was a daunting launch pad for the career of a 26-year-old woman, not least because British architecture was then even more an old boys’ club than it is today, as indeed was journalism, yet Slessor made it her home: a testimonial to her steely determination and powers of endurance. An Aberdeen native, she had studied architecture at the University of Edinburgh before moving to London. After three years of rather dull work as an office junior at Covell Matthews Wheatley, Slessor replied to an ad in the AJ, and was taken on by its then-editor, Peter Carolin.

This adventure was prematurely interrupted when, in 1991, the Architectural Press was bought by Robert Maxwell, who asset-stripped the company shortly before taking his fatal plunge into the Med. The magazines were evicted from Queen Anne’s Gate to Clerkenwell, and Slessor (along with most of the staff) was dismissed. The Bride was dismantled and auctioned off, and Pevsner’s lion seized by customs officers. It was in this tumultuous and rather sad period, however, that Slessor met Malcolm Frost, who had succeeded Bill Slack as art editor of the AR in 1990. The two remained partners until Frost’s death in 2010.

In late 1991, Peter Davey – who was then Editor of the AR – invited Slessor to join his staff as Assistant Editor. She accepted, and rose through the ranks to become Deputy Editor in 1999, then Managing Editor in 2003. When Davey retired in 2005, Paul Finch took over but the crash of 2008 persuaded Emap to merge the personnel of the AR and the AJ, with Kieran Long as joint chief editor of both titles. He gave the AR a new look and an entirely new staff, with the indispensable Slessor the sole survivor of its former incarnation; but the economic climate was inauspicious, and Long too was gone by the end of 2009.

It was then that Slessor finally grasped the editorial tiara. In 2011 she relaunched the AR with an award-winning redesign by Art Editors Simon Esterson and Jon Morgan, and reinvigorated the team, hiring young guns Will Hunter and Phineas Harper. She leaves a magazine that is once more internationally renowned for the quality of its writing and the acuity of its criticism, with a successful and widely read online presence.

On a personal note, when I began working for the AR as a sub in 2012, I had little journalistic experience – and yet Cath put her faith in me, something for which I am enormously grateful. She has been the most supportive of employers, and an inspirational presence whose fleet-footed prose and ability to conjure a grabbing headline – even an enthralling advertorial – from thin air and at lightning speed is instructive to behold. Her concern for architecture of quality, and her fearless slaying of sacred cows in pursuit of the same, are equally impressive; as are her warmth and loyalty. The atmosphere that she created in the office went beyond convivial, it was familial – and her nurturing of young talent has, I believe, produced a magazine of superb energy and distinction. I hope that, freed from mundane editorial tasks, she will be able to write more about the things that matter to her most. I look forward to reading her future productions.

Slessor is a trailblazer in the male-dominated worlds of publishing and architecture, but she is also a gleaming link in a golden chain that joined the AR’s present to its glorious past, the AR of Pevsner, Betjemen, Nairn, and other luminaries. The questing spirit of the AR that she upheld – the search for an architecture of aesthetic and technical excellence that supports and nurtures, rather than crushes and exploits – will continue as incoming Editor Christine Murray takes up the role.

 

 

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