ISSUE #1 THE IMAGINED, AUTUMN 2012
REVIEWS AND CRITIQUE
From the Structure to the Page: The Return of the Architectural Journal
ARCHIZINES at the Architectural Association (AA). Photograph by Sue Barr. Courtesy of the AA School of Architecture, London.

In the last few years, print publishing, al-ways a risky business, has faced a perfect storm of nemeses. Alongside declining print runs and fragmented markets, the industry is faced with the rise of aggres-sive, monopolistic distributors, growing competition from both free content and piracy, rising costs for offshore produc-tion, and chronic indecision about how best to exploit new technologies. Yet one genre is proudly defying the trend – there has been an explosion of independent architectural journals. Elias Redstone’s magisterial ARCHIZINES show at Lon-don’s Architectural Association,1 for instance, brought together a selection of sixty such journals from a far wider pool. Most had been launched in the last five years, and their print runs range from a mere thirty copies up to twenty thousand or more.

A cynic might ascribe this prolifer-ation to architects twiddling their thumbs during a prolonged global recession. The onward march of affordable short-run printing and desktop publishing certainly make the architectural journal an attrac-tive outlet for young architects, frustrated by their roles as over-trained, underem-ployed cogs in large machines that are increasingly focused on survival rather than creativity.

Yet there is more to this burst of activity than economic woe. The term “architecture” has long embraced writing, drawing, and photography, and many of the journals among this new outpouring could also be classed as architectural projects – their concern with both the details and the totality of effect produced by materials, design, and internal organi-zation is certainly reminiscent of the achievement of built form. The appeal of creating a coherent, attractive physical package is obvious, allowing architects to make an aesthetic statement at a mo-ment when many are denied this oppor-tunity in their primary role. The resulting journals are thus a delight to handle – thick matte papers abound, formats and internal structures are inventive, and the quality of layout and typography is gen-erally high. Karel Martens’s designs for OASE, the renowned bilingual Dutch/ English journal on architecture and urban design, published three times a year, are an obvious touchstone. Even “lo-fi” examples, spewed out of cheap digital printers, are often witty homages to their fanzine predecessors from the 1970s music scene.

At the same time, ambitions are more extensive than mere delight in tactility. Existing architectural publica-tions have ossified: architecture books are widely perceived as fit only for the coffee table; the self-selecting, opaque world of the peer-reviewed journal is inaccessible to all but a few; mainstream journals are now little more than decor magazines or promotional brochures. In addition, most of the new breed of editors, despite acknowledging the role that blogs have played in introducing new voices to architectural discourse, actively reject the medium as prioritizing instant gratification, lacking the permanence, depth, or selectivity of the print journal. Now, it is claimed, an exciting new crop of outlets for innovative architectural writing and image-making has finally emerged.

Does the reality match up? The range is broad, so generalization is risky. Some examples, such Preston Bus Station or the America Deserta Revisited series, are slim yet likeable art projects. PIDGIN, run by Princeton University School of Archi-tecture’s graduate students, embraces an alternative approach to imagery with a pleasing lack of reverence. The polished magazine Block attains the inclusive appeal of The Architectural Review of the 1950s, with its diverse range of subjects couched in elegant, jargon-free prose.

There are numerous political jour-nals, many somewhat polemical, but the best do ensure that Western dominance – so prevalent in both architectural wri-ting and practice – is briefly overthrown. In Canada’s Scapegoat, for instance, Mona Fawaz of the American University in Beirut gives a revealing interview on Hezbollah’s recent approach to urban planning in the city. Another subset of journals act as lively publicity brochures for their practices – What about It? from WAI Architecture Thinktank includes a witty taxonomy of “shapes of hardcore architecture,” including “Blow-Up Fonts,” “Stacking Boxes,” and “Ziggurat-Polis.”

The real, substantive core of the journal boom, however, is made up of variants on the text-driven compilation dedicated to a single theme. These often gather articles through a call for entries, and most reject overly prescriptive ap-proaches to length, images, language, footnotes, formats, and even fictionali-zation. Few of the articles thus assembled would find natural homes in academic journals, yet the very inventiveness that contributes to this exclusion also ensures their interest to the reader.

One of the best of these “forums” or “compendiums” is Bracket, a collabora-tion between the Archinect website, which serves as a network for the archi-tectural community, and InfraNet Lab, a blog that studies the relations between infrastructures and materials. Bracket’s first issue, “On Farming,” is styled as an almanac, collecting over 40 articles that provide perspectives on the interaction between contemporary farming and globalization, on alternative economies, on resource management, and more. The range is sometimes overwhelming, but the existence, diversity, and ambition of the magazine is something to be cele-brated, whether your eye happens to fall upon an enlightening historical introduc-tion to agricultural urbanism, proposals for fog farming in Luanda,2 a more poetic piece about a poplar plantation in Oregon, or a quick-reference food matrix for the small producer, all ingeniously illustrated.

Slightly more frayed at the edges, but enjoyably so, is San Rocco, a collaborative journal based in Venice. Its first issue adopted the theme of islands, a rather baggy concept that allowed for the inclu-sion of, for instance, an illuminating history of the Architectural Association in the 1960s before the arrival of Alvin Boyarsky, and in particular its “Depart-ment of Tropical Architecture.” At the other extreme, it stretched to accommo-date an entertaining cautionary tale de-tailing a final meeting between Francisco Scaramanga and his architect to discuss plans for his island base in The Man with the Golden Gun.

There are many other worthy exam-ples, but this type of journal also provides areas of concern. A primary aspiration often cited by editors is a desire to take discussions about architecture out of the university or practice and on to a wider audience – to engage in a real conversa-tion with society. Another is to move away from the superficiality of recent discourse, providing a platform for more substantial, considered writing about the role of architecture in society. These goals have a tendency to conflict, perhaps most obviously in the area of the language.

The refreshing diversity of content and tone in these journals is welcome. However their editors, seeking to justify the theme of their own particular issue or journal and, on occasion, wishing to enhance academic or professional résu-més, have a tendency to ape the language of established peers, adopting academic jargon. In addition, names such as Guy Debord, Gilles Deleuze, and Georges Perec are cited with prodigious frequency to add intellectual luster but, thanks to their ubiquity, succeed only in raising a wry smile. In 1988 the celebrated American-born, Scottish-based theorist and landscape architect Charles Jencks offered a partial defense of the then recent increase in the opacity of architec-tural discourse, or “incomprehensible architalk.” This new combination of in-dustry terminology and post-structuralist theory was, in Jencks’s view, a mixed blessing. Despite its ungainliness, it served as necessary protection for the creative freedom of the architect against the overbearing power of the developer and planner in the construction industry.

Such self-analyses in the matter of language have largely been abandoned in the years since – academic parlance is firmly established and has become almost an end in itself. The temptation for editors of new journals is clear, and there is an associated risk that journals will gravitate into the academic orbit. The beautifully produced and conceived Candide from Aachen University and MIT’s admired Thresholds have now become peer-reviewed at risk of being subsumed into wider academic publish-ing, attracting credibility and heavyweight contributors but losing the freedom that gives them much of their vivacity and any real possibility of achieving wider conversations.

A related matter is that of design. Bracket’s elaborate appearance is impres-sive, complete with special color, die-cut chapter openers, multiple paper stocks, and a large belly band wrapped around the cover, yet contributes little to clarify-ing the structure (one that is supposedly inspired by web design). Nor does it aid legibility, with the text – the supposed reason for all this care – taking a back seat amidst astonishingly long paragraphs and shifting typefaces. This is not a small point: the journal may have been reward-ing to produce, but the approach adds significantly to production time and expense, doing little to ensure that the finished product reaches out beyond like-minded colleagues with time and money to spare, their buttons pressed as much by titillating design as by unusual content.

Apartamento, founded in Barcelona in 2008 to provide an “alternative per-spective on interiors,” is rare in having an astonishing print run of twenty-two thousand. It has achieved distribution in Barnes & Noble and glamorous depart-ment stores; most journals are not as lucky in their distribution channels. Almost all rely solely on their mailing list and one or two specialist art shops in university centers. This raises the question of what is achieved by lavish-ing so much care on the physicality of these immaculate objects, which carry their precious cargo of words on an occasional basis to a small, immediate, and privileged audience already engaged in similar architectural conversations. Contact with wider society, or even with architects outside of Western institutions, is seldom realized.

The past impact and continuing allure of the “little magazine”3 was bril-liantly explored by a traveling exhibition that began in 2006 at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York, and culminated in the book, Clip/Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines, 196x–197x, in 2010. Yet to attempt to replicate this movement today is a retro-grade step. The new wave of such maga-zines exists in a world where the role of print has changed – it is becoming neces-sarily a luxury product, an add-on to or collaboration with the digital environment.

Many of the new journals do have some degree of presence on the web, and almost all utilize it as a marketing tool. However, most defend the print format with passion. With news websites now providing rolling headlines, print journals are championed as a forum for the ex-ploration of subjects in depth, shaping debates rather than reporting them. The prolonged, collaborative process of their production is seen as the ideal mecha-nism for reflection, discussion, experi-mentation, theory, or discourse, neglected by so many in popular architectural prac-tice and print. Even restrictions of repro-duction quality are embraced as allowing space for the imagination.

Citing the creative benefits of this “go-slow” production ethic bolsters the intellectual primacy of print. Despite the intelligence and leadership evidenced on-line by bloggers such as Geoff Manaugh or Owen Hatherley, the message seems to be that “real” writers, whether aca-demics, critics, or architects, have as their ultimate goal the medium of print, only achieving final validation when they leave a permanent trace. Yet, as the ongoing enthusiasm for the ARCHIZINES exhi-bition and, more particularly, its website among the editors of these very print journals proves, it is the joy of recogni-tion – of leaving behind the micro-world of the physical magazine and conversing with a global network that shares the same passions – that can guarantee that this movement attains the same vibrancy and force as its 1960s predecessor.

Challenges remain to achieving this wider communication, but the internet must now play a fundamental role, whether through exploiting existing eBook and website formats or pioneer-ing new models, redirecting the capacity for innovation so evident in this new generation of print journals. Architecture is witnessing an explosion of excellent and diverse writing and image making, linked to a newfound confidence in its own centrality as a discourse. It seems unfortunate that much of this finds its outlet in a series of beautiful scrolls, to be lodged in the libraries of a few architectural professionals, practices, and schools. Having been created more through enthusiasm than financial probity, their content deserves to be shared in a similar, inclusive vein. The process may be riskier, failures may result, but the goal is so much greater.

 

1 ARCHIZINES was exhibited from November 5 through December 14, 2011.

 

2 Fog farming, which relies on the condensation and collection of fog to obtain potable water in mainly rural settings, was hypothetically applied to the arid urban environment of Luanda in Angola.

 

3 Aided by the rise of small presses and new technologies, an upsurge in literary magazines or “little magazines,” as opposed to the larger, more commercial variety, took place in the 1960s and 1970s.

ABOUT AUTHOR

John Jervis is United Kingdom Editor of ArtAsiaPacific and is currently writing about cities in the 1960s.

MORE BY THIS AUTHOR
Exploring the Modern
ethKnowcentrix: Museums Inside the Artist
CURRENT ISSUE
FOREST
AUTUMN 2014
Stories
Critical Writing


ORDER NOW
PREVIOUS ISSUES
All Stories
All Critical Writing
The Square
Fiction: Contemporary Arabic and Russian Pursuits
The Imagined
ARCHIZINES at the Architectural Association (AA). Photograph by Sue Barr. Courtesy of the AA School of Architecture, London.
  
If you would like to order the first issue of Portal 9, please submit your name, full mailing address, and phone number to order@portal9journal.org, and a member of our staff will respond to your inquiry.
Submission Form
    


Thank you for submitting a request to order Portal 9