Spring 2011

Tear it down, build it up

Clip / Stamp / Fold

Architecture of Little Magazines, 196X to 197X, Edited by Beatriz Colomina and Craig Buckley; image editor Utzi Grau, Actar / Media & Modernity Program, Princeton University, €45, £40, €95

In March 1966 the critic Reyner Banham wrote: ‘Architecture, staid queen-mother of the arts, is no longer courted by slick glossies but is having her skirts blown up and her bodice unzipped by irregular newcomers, typically rhetorical, with-it moralistic, misspelled, improvisatory, funny-format, art-oriented but stoned out of their minds with science fiction images of an alternative architecture.’

The creators behind these zines and pamphlets were bored of their teachers, bored of the staid architectural press and bored of the architecture they saw around them. What was firing them up, though, was paste-up lettering, offset litho, accordion folds, plastic clips, Roneos and Gestetners. ‘Little magazines’, to borrow a term, were flourishing.

Beatriz Colomina and the students on her Princeton phd programme on ‘The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines’ record this period. This beautifully produced doorstop is the project’s latest production.

The term ‘little magazines’ has pedigree: it pops up in 1920s literary criticism to describe the many chapbooks and small pamphlets produced in the early twentieth century whose primary purpose was artistic expression rather than moneymaking. Similarly, Colomina’s selected mags are characterised by impermanence, lack of polish and an energy not present in mainstream architecture magazines, which then, as now, were close to the distinctly non-revolutionary worlds of property developers, product manufacturers and commercial publishers.

Not all mainstream magazines were immune to the new, radical atmosphere. In the early 1970s, under editor Monica Pidgeon, Architectural Design switched to a book-publishing economic model (relying on subscription rather than advertising for revenue), and from letterpress to (cheaper) offset lithographic printing. This switch gave the previously strait-laced mag editorial freedom to run outlandish illustrated covers (two robots having sex being a memorable example) and articles on ‘how to run your car on chicken shit’, and to experiment with production gadgetry including cut-outs, tear-outs and fold-outs. As Peter Murray, who started his publishing career with a little magazine called Clip-Kit, and then went to Architectural Design as art-director, says in one of the book’s transcribed discussions: ‘We managed to subvert AD from being a Team10 primer to something with a rather different direction – it became a small magazine.’

At just under 2kg the book is very far from the flimsy mags it documents but the accompanying poster and inserts (small sheets of one-colour printed interviews bound in throughout) show that a similar love has gone into its production. A double-sided a1 poster showing a mosaic of more than 1200 covers comes with the book, aping the wallpaper of titles that was used in the 2007 travelling exhibition. Midway through the book, space is given over to a whole issue from eleven different magazines. They are photographed against a grey platen, emphasising the sense of them as material objects. It is a thrill to read these facsimiles, whether the anarchic cut-and-paste typewritten agitprop from ARse or the obediently Modernist setting of art criticism within Form.

Interviews and transcribed discussions save the book from becoming uncomfortably in thrall to the subject matter – and also record feuds, rivalries and skulduggeries along the way. For every ‘we hated each other’, though, there are several dewy-eyed remembrances of cutting out letters at four in the morning.

Excellent though these mags may be as specimens of print history, they were not brought into this world as eye candy for print junkies but as means of reaching an audience. Now there are new ways of doing that. Cheap hosting space, blogs and twitter feeds are the Roneos and Gestetners of today and they have emancipated a new demographic to kick against the pricks. But the beefs, the catholic approach to topics, the misspellings, the short shelf-life, the live-fast-die-young approach, the near-libel, the actual libel – all the elements of the little magazine are very much in abundance in today’s architecture blogs.

And, just as they did 40 years ago, mainstream magazine writers look on aghast, awkwardly fiddling with their flatplans and their schedules, not quite knowing what to do with themselves when faced with these new pretenders and their seditious ways.

First published in Eye no. 79 vol. 20 2011

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.