PRINT May 2007



THE STOREFRONT FOR Art and Architecture is a small wedge of space, tucked behind Vito Acconci and Stephen Holl’s unfolding facade on Kenmare Street in Lower Manhattan. Barely fifteen feet deep, it was the perfect opening venue for “Clip/Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X–197X,” an exhibition on view there through last February and dedicated—as its title suggests—to the explosion of small publications produced in architectural circles in the 1960s and ’70s. Across one long wall was a time line featuring covers of significant issues printed on curving, backlit panels, each image accompanied by a short explanatory text. On the opposite wall, its folding partitions kept closed against the cold of late winter, hundreds of covers were digitally collaged into a wallpaper grid. In the remaining space, Plexiglas bubbles on spindly telescopic legs contained actual magazines—some open to particularly interesting interior spreads, others flaunting off-color images or iridescent materials on their covers. Overhead speakers broadcast interviews with many of the publications’ editors and contributors. And, finally, tethered to the walls were a few—too few—facsimile copies of magazines available for closer study.

Organized by the architectural historian Beatriz Colomina (with Craig Buckley, Anthony Fontenot, Urtzi Grau, Lisa Hsieh, Alicia Imperiale, Lydia Kallipoliti, Olympia Kazi, Daniel Lopez-Perez, and Irene Sunwoo at the Princeton University School of Architecture), the show—by virtue of its sheer density and the range of countries represented—lent credence to the implicit contention that this surge of small-scale production was a significant departure from the modes of architectural communication prevalent in the two decades following World War II. An accompanying brochure reminded us that these little magazines were modeled on the literary chapbook-style journals published since the ’30s, and that, thanks to the development of inexpensive offset lithographic technology in the late ’50s, architects, academics, and students were among those who for the first time could produce their own short-run, small-scale pamphlets featuring both word and image, breaking the monopoly of large publishers over printed graphic production that had held in the era of movable type.

Nevertheless, it was perhaps unfortunate that the curators did not include examples of conventional architectural publications from the period. The radical outpouring of text and image that was on view at the Storefront is difficult to situate without an appreciation of the modernist orthodoxy that dominated architecture in the early ’60s. Even if the British architects Peter and Alison Smithson and the Situationists had already broken ranks with Le Corbusier’s Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), hardline modernism still dictated the prevailing attitudes, whose inflexibility was reflected in the mainstream architectural publications of the time. Had the exhibition included some of these books and periodicals, it might have rendered with more specificity the cracks in the established methodologies that were opened by new printing technologies. And it would have given a stronger sense of what this countercultural generation was against: the certainties and ideological purity of a modernist project that was already being visibly undermined by its co-option as a style by a nascent neoliberal capitalist order.

The scope of graphic and material inventiveness that typifies the publications in “Clip/Stamp/Fold” is, even to an eye jaded by the diversity on display at the local Barnes & Noble, astonishing. Copies of the Internationale Situationniste were printed with plasticized metallic-fleck covers. The fourth issue of Archigram, published in 1964 by the group of architects of the same name, adopted a comic-book format, complete with an architect as caped crusader. A cover from Architectural Design—hardly a little magazine but clearly under the general influence—shows one robot straddling another, making an outré visual pun out of Walter Benjamin’s “art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” Inside the covers, most conventions of magazine design—the grid, the column, legible typography—were either discarded altogether or bent to unfamiliar purposes.

One of the strangest publications available for closer examination has to have been the inaugural issue of the 1971–72 ’zine Street Farmer, produced by Peter Crump and Bruce Haggart at the Architectural Association in London in response to the techno-fetishism of the Archigram circle. Even after one turned its pages, which are covered with stylized monochrome illustrations of British hippies leaning against roadside trees, what this object actually was remained indistinct: Was it art? Was it even about architecture? Was it an artifact intended to produce pure affect without recourse to decodable representation at all—a kind of paper riposte to Ron Herron’s infamous “enviro-pill” project, which had proposed the idea of architecture-as-hallucinogen? Oddly beautiful, all green ink, youthful anomie, and amateur draftsmanship, the publication exemplifies, I think, the basic goal of these little magazines, which was, paradoxically enough, fundamentally architectural: the creation of space. Not architectonic space—modernism had that down well enough—but intellectual space, an opportunity for misreading, a caesura in a discourse that had become trapped in a closed loop of self-examination and doctrinaire infighting.

Clearly, the entire question of how best to communicate architecture had been thrown wide open. Whether the method was purely graphic à la Archigram, with its space-Pop imagery, or largely textual, as in publications such as Le Carré Bleu and Design Quarterly, which modeled themselves on mimeographed samizdat broadsheets and contained hardly any illustration at all, the idea that—absent the actual experience of occupying one another’s built work—architects could only speak to one another through regressive layers of abstraction was on the table. Not surprisingly, irony, which had been largely absent from high modernist discourse, became a favored technique—and not only because Miesian gravitas demands a bit of irreverent skewering. By creating a space between apprehension and contextualization, irony allows one to derive multiple meanings from binary ontologies; in this context, freedom becomes the opportunity to operate in the gaps of signification, in the place between the received and the potentially implied that allows for creative misinterpretation.

Of course, one of the subsequent criticisms often leveled against much of the work of the period—and against Archigram in particular—is that it lacked specificity and sacrificed clarity for immediate effect. This can hardly be seen as a complaint about the particulars of the draftsmanship—some of Ron Herron’s collage-drawings of the Walking City (published in Archigram 5), which depict robotic arcologies wading through New York’s East River, are in fact astonishingly detailed architectural renderings. Rather, what is at issue is how the means of translation from paper abstraction to built form remains unexplained. The implication, compounded by the use of imagery and rhetoric lifted from science fiction and other forms of popular fantasy (advertising copy, for instance), is that technological development would fill the credibility gap and, more important, that adherence to forms bounded by specific tectonic methodologies—bricks and mortar, say—prevented an escape from normative models of architectural production.

By the beginning of the ’70s, however, the war in Vietnam, successive energy crises, the nuclear standoff between the superpowers, environmental problems (the first Earth Day was held in 1971), and the consequent dislocation of Western economies had dampened enthusiasm for unquestioned technological progressivism. Furthermore, many of the rhetorical and visual techniques used by the counterculture in the ’60s had been subsumed into the consumer-driven material culture of the ’70s. This co-option of revolutionary rhetoric muddied the dialectic between the establishment and its discontents, attenuating the shock of the new in a revised paradigm of undifferentiated capitalist spectacle. Seen in this light, the progression evident in the evolution of these magazines—from the playful graphic sensibility of Archigram and other publications produced in the ’60s in the orbit of the Architectural Association, to the cerebral and text-dominated Oppositions, founded in 1973 and classically designed by Massimo Vignelli— begins to make some degree of sense.

In fact, the Storefront’s exhibition made it clear that around the end of the ’60s, borrowing images—for ironic purposes or not—from industrial science and pop culture tailed off, and the borrowing of ideas from Continental philosophy ramped up. Architectural discourse became more academic, more explicitly political, and increasingly inwardly focused as disillusionment with the perceived excesses of the ’70s spread. This produced a curious bifurcation within the profession at large, as theorists such as Peter Eisenman and Manfredo Tafuri turned to deconstruction and Marxism as an impetus to production, while mainstream architecture embraced postmodern historicism.

It is therefore somewhat incongruous that many of the reviews of “Clip/Stamp/Fold” to date cast the exhibition as an implicit rebuke of contemporary architectural culture, which is, in fact, more outwardly focused and attuned to the potential for technology to create performative effects than at any point since Archigram split up in the mid-’70s. A stark contrast between the slick and the hand-drawn is obviously evident when one makes initial comparisons between architectural publications then and now, but this difference in graphic production techniques masks similar attitudes to the design process. It is no coincidence that Peter Cook, impresario of Archigram and later head of the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, recently completed (with Colin Fournier) an art museum in Graz, Austria, that looks like it was built using a lost issue of Archigram as a blueprint. One key factor in the revival of these preoccupations is that architectural technology has advanced, through the use of computer-aided design and manufacturing, to a point where the gap between the drawable and the buildable is getting ever narrower.

Still, the cultural landscape has changed radically in the past thirty years. Without the straw man of high modernism to play against, work that attempts to extend the discourse of the early ’70s—nowadays often focused on complexity and biological analogy—risks being drowned out by the recent explosion of baroque formality. Hans Hollein, architect and one-time editor of the magazine Bau, points out, in an interview with one of the curators, that the spirit underlying his famous 1968 cover featuring an Emmentaler cheese skyscraper pasted into Vienna’s skyline would not be grasped by the present generation “because they think it is very good—it could be a building by Herzog & de Meuron, or something.” Of course, this kind of misreading is in some sense the point of the whole exercise—one generation’s pointed critique becomes the next’s built reality through (often intentional) misappropriation in the space of abstraction.

Such productive malapropisms have a long history in the development of architectural practice. English Neoclassicism developed in part out of a misreading of Classical Greek architecture depicted as idealized (read “abstracted”) ruins in books like James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s Antiquities of Athens, which was published in four volumes between 1762 and 1816. Given that modern information technologies have radically compressed our perception of historical time, it should come as no surprise that the disillusioned draftsmen of the ’60s and ’70s have become the modern-day equivalents of Ictinus, Callicrates, and Phidias. One only wonders how the increasing aware- ness of this pervasive and compressed cycling of historical precursors might impact the architectural designs of tomorrow. As all precedent loses temporal differentiation and is accessible at the click of a mouse, will the result lead to networks of eclecticism, or a devolution into ever briefer self-referential movements and trends? I guess we will have to wait for Herzog & de Meuron’s fall collection to find out.

A modified version of “Clip/Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X–197X” is on view through Sept. 9 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

Kevin Pratt is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design in Philadelphia.