July 1, 2007
by Canadian Architect
TEXT ADELE WEDER
As a kind of archaeological excavation of 1960s design journals, Clip, Stamp, Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X-197X reveals the pathos of an icon-busting generation. When you first enter the exhibition, currently on display at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the overwhelming impression is one of visual riot: boisterous colours, heavy fonts, irreverent imagery, manifesto-like screeds displayed in futuristic Plexiglas bubbles. However quaint their shadowblock fonts and close-crop whimsy may seem, one thing is clear: these journals were raging against the status quo.
Beatriz Colomina created the exhibition Clip, Stamp, Fold as a kind of provocation in itself, offspring of the erstwhile renegades. Colomina, who heads the PhD program at Princeton’s School of Architecture, recruited her graduate students as co-curators, providing an injection of youth that energizes rather than fossilizes the display of journal covers, texts and accompanying context. The exhibition originated at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, and generated a welter of debate on its opening night.
For Colomina, this exhibition is a continuum of her ongoing exploration of the interrelationships of architecture and media. Her most recent book, Domesticity at War was preceded by Privacy and Publicity: Architecture as Mass Media. “Never since the early avant-garde in architecture had there been such an explosion,” said Colomina at the exhibition opening, “so that you can say that in that period”–the 1960s and ’70s–“publications are competing with buildings.”
From chest-thumping gorillas to the then-new–and shocking–contraceptive pill, the radical journals of the 1960s and ’70s and the cover content of these avant-garde design journals–“little magazines,” as the exhibition humbly dubs them–bespeak a will to confront a pre-established order. The current design press, for all its other merits, rarely displays this kind of raw verve. The world boasts plenty of thoughtful and beautifully produced publications, including–we like to think–our own nation’s architectural journals. But Clip, Stamp, Fold is an uncomfortable reminder that impassioned social debate is pretty much in remission within the architectural press. Thirty years ago, magazines did not merely analyze social dissent; they actually fomented it. Many assume that the journal Archigram, for instance, was named for the eponymous group of architectural activists, but in fact, Archigram the journal came first. The group came to be known by the title of the journal in which they splayed their dissent.
Rather than showcase the literal bricks and mortar, these vintage journals display action or imagery that are metaphoric of the effects of architecture. In the September 1969 issue of Casabella, an elephant charges down Fifth Avenue, his tusks poised to eviscerate Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim. A gorilla–with the words “RADICAL DESIGN” emblazoned in red across his chest, brays over the cityscape. A cartoon superhero swoops through the downtown corridor, accompanied by the slogan “Archigram to the rescue.” The point of these publications was not to play kingmaker to architects nor to catalogue the pontifications of the already-crowned, but to send brief, urgent messages. Many of these small journals were volunteer or student-run publications, some of them more pamphlet than magazine: their brevity helped fuel their impact. (As Archigram founding editor Peter Cook says in the exhibition literature: “The key thing was that it was not a mag; it was ‘gram’.”) But even the higher-budget, industry-supported glossies like Casabella boast a particular irreverence in this show. As Craig Buckley, part of the Princeton curatorial team, puts it: “Professional magazines sometimes have what we call ‘a moment of littleness’.”
It is rare to discern this sense of urgency today, partly because we have less need of it. The contraceptive pill is (usually) widely available; it’s acceptable to hate Frank Lloyd Wright; politicians take environmental issues seriously. Perhaps only the 1960s could have spawned such constructive irreverence among architects: a universal sense of rebellion was happily coinciding with the mainstreaming of offset lithography. They had the motive, and they had the means.
If we zoom forward to our own era, one would expect that the Internet might trigger a new boom in countercultural design media, both in the form of low-cost websites and blogs, or even in a new golden age of small magazines, which are considerably easier and cheaper to produce now than 40 years ago. This hasn’t happened, partly because the kind of media arenas in which young architects innovate have changed. The outlets for creativity, bold statements and social participation have proliferated–a positive development, but not fertile ground for countercultural media. As Clip, Stamp, Fold opened at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, the students at the McGill School of Architecture down the road were busy showing wildly inventive film shorts for their end-of-year crits; young architects-about-town were busy putting together websites which aim more for information-sharing than confrontation, like Martin Houle’s kollectif.net. And perhaps most pertinently–architects are getting too many commissions these days to devote much time to plaintive community discourse.
For the time being, media discourse might well be dominated by coronations of the willing and polite quibbles about style. We can always hope for and appreciate those occasional “moments of littleness” to countervail our collective proclivity to smugness. CA
Clip, Stamp, Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X-197X continues at the Canadian Centre for Architecture until September 9, 2007, and travels to various international venues afterward.
Radicalism, utopias and political manifestos preoccupied editors of design journals in the '60s and '70s.