Click/Scan/Bold/CUT: Outtake #3: The New Materialism

I’ve been posting outtakes from my article on the materiality of architectural publication. Outtake #1 addresses the literal and metaphorical architectures of the little magazines of the early 20th century, and #2 focuses on reviews of the reviews of the Clip/Stamp/Fold exhibition.

In this section I consider the the contemporary context for all the recent exhibitions and discussions of architectural periodicals. Why is there such tremendous interest now in historical periodicals and contemporary publishing form?

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Architectural representation and publication are certainly not new concerns for architecture. There has long been interest in the history of the architectural book—but, Hélène Jannière & France Vanlaethem say, scholarly interest in architectural magazines did not begin in earnest until the 1960s, when architecture was emerging from under “militant” Modernism, when many scholars were theorizing the avant-garde, and when media studies was emerging as a field of study.[1] While much early research on the architecture magazine focused on its textual (and occasionally photographic) content, scholars are more frequently turning their attention to periodicals’ textual structure, bibliographic codes, physical forms, and the processes and politics of their production and consumption.[2] The magazine’s architectonics, its materiality, its mode of production are qualities best appreciated through direct, immediate reception of the printed object. The fact that over the past few years these historical media have been exhibited widely, rather than simply talked about in scholarly publications and conferences—where, at most, the periodicals might appear as disjointed, decontextualized pages or spreads—indicates an increasing awareness that the concrete form and material properties of these publications matter.[3] Meanwhile, the increasing number of worldwide architectural exhibitions, the development of architectural curation, and the proliferation of architectural museums provide a context for these exhibitions of architectural periodicals.[4]

Log 20: Curating Architecture Issue

We can also consider this increased attention to the materiality of media in relation to a widespread theoretical shift toward what has been called the “new materialism.”[5] “[A]fter the linguistic turn has yielded so many important insights,” literary and media theorist N. Katherine Hayles suggests, “it is time to turn again to a careful consideration of what difference a medium makes.”[6]Scholars dealing with media materiality include, aside from Hayles, David Bolter, Lisa Gitelman, Richard Grusin, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Friedrich Kittler, and Lev Manovich, among others. It is important to remember, Hayles cautions, that a focus on materiality requires more than a focus on the medium’s “apparatus”; materiality is “the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies”—both of which have been attended to in several recent exhibitions, through their display of the publications’ contents and presentation of magazines in their complete physical form.[7] I would add Fredric Jameson’s voice to Hayles’s in acknowledging that materiality is also an embodiment of social relations—an element that has again been attended to with some success in the exhibitions.

Undoubtedly behind this renewed materialism is the rise of the digital. Digital media have been credited with revolutionizing architecture and media production and consumption, in the process challenging conventional media hierarchies and taxonomies and calling into question basic premises of each of the fields it touches.[8] The digital seems to subsume all other media formats, and, at the same time, obliterate them. It is a “medium without materiality,” seemingly without properties.[9] “The challenge of digital media,” Mary Anne Doane says, “is that of resisting not only pervasive commodification of the virtual but also the virtual’s subsumption within the dream of dematerialization and the timelessness of information.”[10]

Architecture, too, confronts these threats of “pervasive commodification” and, in many design schools and studios, has already given in to the “dream of dematerialization.” Many who practice or theorize architecture, which we might think of as among the most massively material of all media, are particularly intrigued or concerned by the prospect of a “medium without materiality,” as evidenced by debates over software-driven design or data-driven “research architecture,” for instance.[11] It seems likely that the presumed “immateriality” of digital architectural media, and the abstraction of digital representations from the materiality of the architectural object, have sparked this recent interest in the mode or medium of architectural discourse.

Interest in the materiality of architectural discourse, the specificity of its forms, reveals parallel concerns with the specificity and materiality of architecture itself. As architecture has supposedly moved “beyond building,” and as architects have expanded into urban planning, cultural criticism, amateur sociology, filmmaking, data analysis, etc., we have to wonder what architects are uniquely qualified to do, what distinguishes architecture from other professions—or whether such distinctions are still relevant and worth maintaining. Architecture’s existential crisis isn’t new. Questions of professional identity have arisen for centuries, if not millennia. They played out through the development of professional organizations and educational institutions in the 19th century. More recently, K. Michael Hays argues, the “ideology of autonomy,” part of the “legacy of modernism,” was renewed in architectural theory after 1968.[12] Architecture adopted various strategies to “resis[]
a collapse into some other discourse, to be a medium related to yet different from all others.”[13] Conversely, much contemporary theory, Mark Wigley argues, takes for granted architecture’s “uncontrollable excesses” and functions not to rein architecture in, to “resist collapse,” but to “focus on the ways in which architecture exceeds the role that has been assigned to it.”[14] The varied models that architectural theory draws upon—and perhaps the varied publication forms in which architecture experiments with those theories—embody a “slippage from questioning the uncontrollable excesses of architecture to questioning the very category of architecture and its position in our culture.” Today, some architects are even advocating that architecture expedite this slippage by aggressively intervening in or co-opting these other discourses in order to reclaim architecture’s professional stature. Ole Bouman, director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute and former editor of Volume, called in an issue of the magazine for architects to perform “unsolicited architecture”; rather than waiting for assignments, they should “pro-actively see[k] out new territories for intervention, addres[s] pressing social needs and tak[e] advantage of emerging opportunities for architecture.”[15] Architectural periodicals offer a forum through which to probe these other opportunities—or, alternatively, to form architecture “back into its own discipline.”[16] In their specific material form or their slippage between forms, magazines, zines, and blogs offer a means of shaping architecture’s discourse, and thus exploring the specificity or openness of architecture itself.

Similar questions—about the materiality of discourse, about professional identity, etc.—are posed daily in publishing industry boardrooms. The rise of the digital has raised concern among publishers, architectural and otherwise, about the future of their industry. Architecture criticism and reportage, analysts say, have been threatened for years by the increasing divide between professional magazines and academic journals; by journalists’ dependence on the glamorized image, on the celebrity architect, on architecture “as event”; and by the increased speed of publication made possible by faster printing technologies and easier global distribution, which is often at odds with architecture’s relatively slow pace.[17] Beatriz Colomina argues that the entire institution of commercial publishing has threatened to rob architecture of its own material specificity:

Publishing, like ornament, by absorbing architecture into the universe of merchandise, by fetishizing it, destroys its possibility of transcendence. Architectural magazines, with their graphic and photographic artillery, transform architecture into an article of consumption, making it circulate around the world as if it had suddenly lost mass and volume, and in this way they also consume it.[18]

This was actually a good magazine.

But not only have mainstream publishing models failed to do justice to the architectural subject; they have also failed to sustain magazine publishing in general. Today, extremely volatile media economies and new media technologies promise to wreak havoc. Among the many publications that have folded in the past few years are several architecture and “shelter” titles, including Architecture, Blueprint, Domino, and House & Garden. Developing alternatives to ailing media systems, finding new ways to mediate architecture, seems to require a transformation not merely of media content, but of the medium itself and its production technique. Many of these recent exhibitions and discussions of architectural publication explore progressive precedents in order to find architectural publishing’s new “edge.”


[1] Hélène Jannière & France Vanlaethem, “Architectural Magazines as Historical Source or Object? A Methodological Essay” in Architectural Periodicals in the 1960s and 1970s: Toward a Factual, Intellectual and Material History, ed. Alexis Sornin, Hélène Jannière & France Vanlaethem, Proceedings, International Colloquium, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal, May 6-7, 2004 (Montréal:  Institut de recherché en historie de l’architecture, 2008), 41-61.

[2] See Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960); Beatriz Colomina, “L’Esprit Nouveau: Architecture and Publicité” in Architectureproduction (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1988), 57-99; Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Architecture As Mass Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994); Hélène Lipstadt, “Architectural Publications, Competitions, and Exhibitions,” Architecture and Its Image: Four Centuries of Architectural Representation; Works from the Collection of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, ed. Eve Blau and Edward Kaufman (Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1989), 109-137; Brian McLaren, “Under the Sign of Reproduction” Journal of Architectural Education 45:2 (1992), 98-106.

[3] Parallel advances have been made in library science and curation. In the past, periodicals were stored in libraries as bound volumes, which blurred the boundaries of the periodical as a specific genre of publication. We lost the ability to acknowledge the texture and size of its pages, its weight, etc., as integral parts of “what a periodical means” (Beetham 1989). Acknowledging this loss has inspired recent attempts at reclamation. Similarly, past exhibitions of the early 20th-century avant-gardes, although they acknowledged the illustrated book and other forms of print media as “alternative space[s] of artistic production, exhibition and reception,” tended to lock printed material away in vitrines—the result being that these media became “best known for [their] front covers.” Maria Gough, “Sound Design” Artforum, Summer 2009, 142. Recently acknowledging the significance of the paper quality and printing techniques of the avant-gardes’ printed media, curators have adopted new exhibition techniques. We will see the influence of these methodological and curatorial developments in the exhibitions under consideration here.

[4] Jean-Louis Cohen, “The Museum of Architecture—Illusion or Reality?” Hunch 1. The Berlage Institute Report (Summer 2006): 98-105. See also Log 20 “Curating Architecture (Fall 2010).

[5] N. Katherine Hayles, “Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis” Poetics Today 25:1 (2004): 67-90; Hayles notes that much of this work marks a return to the agenda set by Marshall McLuhan. “Thing theory” also reflects an increasing interest in the materiality of the object; see Bill Brown, “Thing Theory” Critical Inquiry 28:1 (2001): 1-22; James A. Knapp & Jeffrey Pence, “Between Thing and Theory” Poetics Today 24:4 (2003): 641-71.

[6] Hayles 68.

[7] Hayles 72.

[8] See W. J. T. Mitchell, “Addressing Media” MediaTropes eJournal 1 (2008): 4.

[9] Mary Ann Doane, “The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 18:1 (2007): 142.

[10] Doane 148.

[11] See Mark Foster Gage “In Defense of Design” Log 16 (2009): 39-45.

[12] K. Michael Hays, “Prolegomenon for a Study Linking the Advanced Architecture of the Present to That of the 1970s Through Ideologies of Media, the Experience of Cities in Transition, and the Ongoing Effects of Reification” Perspecta 32, Resurfacing Modernism (2001): 101.

[13] Archigram’s Peter Cook notes a similar trend: as communications and showbiz and industrial design have merged with architecture, some architects are fascinated by the convergence, while others now “want to be more solid brick than ever before. It’s as if the prospect of everything being architecture…well, that has now been realized. I think a lot of architects are scared by that.” Geoff Manaugh, “Equipment for Living: An Interview with Peter Cook” BLDGBLOG Book (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2009), 29.

[14] Mark Wigley, “Story-Time” Assemblage 27, Tulane Papers: The Politics of Contemporary Architectural Discourse (1995): 85.

[15] Volume 14.

[16] Hays 101.

[17] See Marisa Bartolucci, “Current Criticism” Architect’s Newspaper, November 16, 2005; Miriam Gusevich, “The Architecture of Criticism: A Question of Autonomy” in Drawing Building Text, ed., Andrea Kahn (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991), 8-24; Alexandra Lange, “Criticism Kerfuffle 2010Design Observer (November 24, 2010); Nancy Levinson, “Criticism Today: Chasing Celebrities, Globalization, and the Web” Architectural Record, March 2006, 63-5; Diana Lind, “On Criticism 7: Authority and ResponsibilityUrban Omnibus (November 23, 2010); Joan Ockman, “Current Criticism” Architect’s Newspaper, November 16 2005; “On Criticism” Architect’s Newspaper, November 16, 2005; Witold Rybczynski, “The GlossiesSlate (November 15, 2006); Mitchell Schwartzer, “History and Theory in Architectural Periodicals: Assessing Oppositions” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 58:3 (1999): 342-348; Suzanne Stephens, “Assessing the State of Architectural Criticism in Today’s Press” Architectural Record, March 1998, 64.

[18] Beatriz Colomina, Privacy, 43.

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