Autumn 2002

File under Archis

A perverse assembly of borrowed layouts redefines this magazine

ARCHIS is a long-running Dutch architectural magazine, redesigned last year by Maureen Mooren and Daniël van der Velden after they won a two-studio pitch with their proposal for a total editorial and visual overhaul. They describe the blanket silence from both architecture and design camps following its relaunch as being a mixture of bafflement and uncertainty. This is curious, for the new approach seems too extreme not to have opinions about. It’s not so much a typical tidy-up redesign as a Frankenstein experiment. The result appears to be still stalking its true audience.

ARCHIS is the happy accident of a maverick triangle. First, its publishers Artimo, busy honing a niche for experimental art books – bought as much for their form as for their content – which embody, rather than survey, contemporary graphic design. Second, an editorial group who, prior to the redesign, were already steering the magazine away from the common showcase-portfolio format to something dealing with looser, wider notions of ‘architecture’ as a social science. Third a design partnership sympathetic to the aims of both the above. Although working across a broad range of media in the cultural sector, Mooren and Van der Velden’s work regularly involves writing fiction, exposing and subverting design conventions, exploring the visual and conceptual implications of interactivity, appropriating the vernacular, creating perversity and ugliness, building what they call ‘information landscapes’ and – perhaps overridingly – defining the moment.

ARCHIS is a summary of these preoccupations. Their attitude towards aesthetics is necessarily gung-ho, as if having made a pact to gleefully set aside all in-born or acquired notions of good taste and unreservedly accept the unrefined graphic result of each of the new concepts (which seem to roll up like buses every few minutes). This is somewhat removed from other notions of ‘un-design’, ‘non-design’ or ‘generic design’ cropping up in discussions these days. The magazine is not ashamed to flaunt its Graphic Design – its facial ticks, its ham acting, its accents and dialects. It is too plastic, too ‘glam’, to be considered in the same breath as dowdy un-design, which appropriates the generic to drearily worthy and soulless effect by comparison.

ARCHIS is constructed around the concept of filing. The cover of the first issue declared this principle graphically, with shapes representing a set of empty folders in sickly office pastels, later reappearing as stuffed section dividers. Content is then split into recurring base modules, of Research, Politics, Dossier, Innovation and Review – fashionably reduced by its designers to irritating abbreviations (A-Res., A-Pol., A-Dos., A-Inn., A-Rev.). This device is one of countless appropriations of interactive media, both linguistic and graphic, which most obviously manifests itself here in the complex layering throughout. In contrast to the vague, dumb stand-offishness of some of their contemporaries, Mooren and Van der Velden are happy to describe their work at length. They describe being ‘influenced by the “generic vernacular” . . . an anonymous state of non-design’, ‘. . . the way we experience information in interactive environments’, and that their work is ‘aimed at establishing a direct and unexpected relationship with the viewer’.

ARCHIS is founded on conventions. It quotes traditional ways of presenting architecture to offset its commentary on them, so the designers’ innovations rub up against the residue of regular compartments – editorials, features, book reviews, etc. With at least half the magazine taken up by the designers’ exploratory, often poetic, image-editing, the ‘old ways’ of presenting architecture stand out in relief. Photographs of buildings with false, stylised lighting, taken to emphasise rarely seen abstract perspectives, uninhabited by people, often prior to real use, are backed-up by site plans, elevations and façades. It often feels as if the editorial has demanded ‘normal’ ways of showing buildings, but in the context of psychedelic background patterns, and underlined by absurd statements, nothing escapes the general ironic wash.

ARCHIS is concerned with participation. Or at least the flavour of participation. One of the design’s two main riffs is the perforation of its pages to encourage audience response. This was deployed literally in the first issue, with prominent fax numbers of the editors, authors and designers alongside running prompts. Over the past year the device has become more suggestive. Stretched bank notes and credit cards, or collections of cut-up ransom-note sentences, along the bottom of recent issues implied they could be torn out and filed as a separate commentary, though the readers are not necessarily expected to do so – the inference is enough. Other graphic features are similarly recycled and twisted; the deadpan ‘backgrounds’ of pages drawn from standard pc and Macintosh desktops, for example, is an instance of the looping paradox of printing screen-based conventions.

ARCHIS is vampire-like. The second main riff is its appropriation of other magazines’ layouts. Grids, picture cropping and positioning, typefaces, colours and other page furniture are hijacked, from the generic (Newspaper) to the specific (Domus), plus hybrids (Details meets Foreign Affairs) or software standards (Eudora light). These sources are blatantly flagged alongside the title and author in each page’s ‘counterfoil’ strip beyond the perforation. These pirate aesthetics query the effect of form on our interpretation of content. They also draw from sources appropriate to the specific texts – so Domus for a standard project overview, incorporating the usual glossy architectural photography and drawings, Flash Art and Purple for reviews and EuroBusiness the basis for a section on European restructuring. A recent Africa-themed issue even cut-and-pasted other found magazine pages and (unpaid) adverts relevant to the subject, piling on more angles and interpretations.

ARCHIS is cacophonous. Whether these oblique strategies are being noticed by anyone other than its designers remains uncertain. This could be considered either selfish or autistic, but – importantly – the designers are fully aware of this obtuseness. The magazine avoids the sense of them having to stand over the reader pointing out the clever connections and references. Rather, there exists a space between what the magazine offers and what its readers receive, and this gap is its true character, as undefined and unstable as the notion of architecture under observation. Mooren and Van der Velden deal in scenarios – the creation of hypothetical facts and links around subject matter to provoke interest in and consideration of the material. Although existing subscribers might argue that they don’t need to be spoon-fed an interest they already have, this argument seems more tangible (and therefore convincing) than the ‘new reading strategies’ which were promoted by American design theorists a decade or so ago. Alternatively, a friend suggested that the magazine’s information overdose actually had what might be considered a reverse effect – that the form was so itchily present that it forced a focus on the content to blur its surrounding form. The graphic fireworks cannot be easily dismissed as a cover-up for flimsy or dry content, though, because the writing approximates the same reflexive level as its design. The various descriptions of the editorial processes gathered from speaking with Ole Bouman, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, as well as the designers, confirm this symbiosis. All parties lay claim to its various innovations. I imagine the truth lies somewhere in between, strictly chicken and egg.

ARCHIS is exhausting; tiring just to look at, never mind make. Where does this drive to go so far above and beyond the call of duty come from? The continued proliferation of graphic design’s coffee table books has recently swung towards documenting self-initiated projects rather than external commissions, or commissions which are taken as a starting point for realising personal projects. The designers admit a key premise was to avoid that ‘just-enough’ feeling of many magazines which quickly become formulaic and staid after an initial burst of enthusiasm. Instead, the idea was continuous overload. Different parts of each new issue are almost treated as individual projects by Mooren, Van der Velden and an ever-changing cast of contributors – usually friends. The counterfoil strip, particularly, has become their playground – displaying a margin of subtexts on each new theme.

ARCHIS is typically Dutch in its simultaneous respect for, and dismissal of its national design heritage. Van der Velden notes how the influence of Wim Crouwel was both good and bad. Specifically, he notes how Total Design elevated graphic design to a respected profession, with a distinct social position and ability to effect change, but in doing so separated graphic design from other aspects of publishing. Design and editing became distinct activities, carried out separately by different people, and wiping out the possibilities of symbiotic form and content that mark the most vital graphic design of the past century (McLuhan / Fiore, Toscani / Kalman, Koolhaas / Mau). ARCHIS is one attempt to reconcile divorced disciplines, to start again. The graphic outcome of this clean-break pioneering spirit is, however, the polar opposite of the sober neutrality that characterised the ‘Year Zero’ of Swiss-based Modernism and International Style.

ARCHIS is displaced. If it no longer fits the mould of existing architectural magazines, it is difficult to pinpoint who its new neighbours on the newsagent’s shelves might be. Lifestyle? Current affairs? Unlikely. Graphic design? Possibly. Recently Mooren and Van der Velden tackled this repositioning head-on with a proposal for reversing the ARCHIS is device: a single-word theme would replace the name at the head of each new issue -– ‘ARCHIS is Africa’ or ‘ARCHIS is Paranoid’ – true to its free-ranging nature. The proposal was rejected, but the ‘is’ remains key. ARCHIS attempts to explore alternative notions of space (the editor lists these as physical, mental, and network) and adjacent disciplines (its masthead reads ‘Architecture, Visual culture, City’), but rather than just reporting them, it now becomes them, hence the accuracy of the cover conceit: it just is. To borrow some new technology terms, the editorial system is closer to ‘peer-to-peer’ than ‘central server’.

ARCHIS is a plausible answer to the question ‘What is graphic design in 2002?’ It might also single-handedly define postmodernism (though by doing it so self-consciously, more like postmodernism-squared). It is an outspoken tour de force, following an original idea through to its fullest form and drawing on the particular qualities of the medium: permanently reflexive, changing its mind and morphing from issue to issue. The relative life spans of flyers, posters, magazines, yearbooks, catalogues, books (and the parallel universe of websites) reasonably dictate their form, but much contemporary graphic design appears to want to be something else. Books and catalogues, for example, regularly wear the styles of magazines or posters. This is also true of Mooren and Van der Velden’s wider body of work, but ARCHIS hits the right speed; the bi-monthly frequency of publication is in tandem with its knowing contemporanaeity. The accusations reportedly levelled at ARCHIS are appropriately paradoxical: too low-brow – puerile, gamey, childish; or too highbrow – obtuse, intellectual, smug. That it is difficult to read, or not to be read at all; to be looked at by graphic designers. Notably, Mooren and Van der Velden do not necessarily refute these accusations.

ARCHIS is apparently reactive (against what has gone before), but actually constructive (attending to the needs of its time). These terms are lifted from Robin Kinross’s Modern Typography, as is his near-closing comment that ‘. . . post-modernism may have done some service in its criticism of a manner that had become moribund. It does, however, open up the nightmare prospect of an endless series of “modernisms”, of multiple pastiche, and a sad, restless search for whatever might look new.’ In the designers’ own words, the magazine recycles ‘the “shared property” of design . . . the unclaimed territory that has become so common one almost doesn’t notice it anymore’. ARCHIS could be dismissed for trying too hard in these respects (it was recently spotted in the top ten of Paris’s fashion-index boutique Colette) but that would be to ignore a genuinely innovative heart, wired to the times; its multi-faceted, disorientating tactics mirroring a discipline in flux, and surprisingly critical of itself.