Click/Scan/Bold/CUT: Outtake #1: Little Magazines of the Early 20th Century

Several years ago I started to wonder why architects, who seemed to me so enamored with the digital future, had suddenly become interested in print — particularly in publication formats that were supposedly on their last legs. I watched the Clip/Stamp/Fold exhibition, which I first saw in New York in 2006 and then revisited the following year in Montreal, set off on a multi-year world tour, which recently culminated in the publication of a massive dossier.

In that same span of time we’ve also seen Urban China and New City Reader at The New Museum; Mimi Zeiger’s “A Few Zines,” “Newsstand,” and LGNLGN; Michael Kubo’s “Publishing Practices” project; the “Postopolis!” gatherings; and a bunch of other exhibitions and events. The online discussion emerging from, and often inspiring, these events has been just as vibrant. The recent blog-based “Criticism Kerfuffle,” in which I made a cameo appearance as a character from a classic of children’s literature, and which inspired the “Critical Futures” debate in London, focused ostensibly on the rightful place of architecture criticism. If magazines and newspapers are no longer dedicating staff and space to architectural criticism, does the responsibility fall to the blogs? In the end, though, I think the conversation in London ended up where I started, with my post from September: not with criticism, but with critical theory. One can’t ask who’s responsible for carrying the criticism baton without also critically examining the “formal ideologies” of the potential critics. As I wrote in that earlier post:

[W]e should at least attempt to make some sense of [the magazines’, zines’, blogs’, etc.] intellectual architectures and institutional infrastructures, their politics, their publics, their openness and accessibility, their modes of dissemination, their rhetorics, their techniques of self-presentation, their funding, etc.

In short, rather than faulting particular venues for not engaging in rigorous architectural criticism, especially if that’s not their raison dêtre, we might take a page from Adorno or Habermas and focus on evaluating and historicizing the “relations of production” (and distribution and consumption) and forms of authority in architectural discourse.

Speaking of Adorno: It was a bit disheartening to me to see how much the terms of this debate overlapped with and built upon long-standing research traditions in media studies (and the fields from which it draws — sociology, literary studies, the history of the book, etc.), yet didn’t seem to acknowledge that this debate had been ensuing elsewhere for nearly a century. Then again, I realize that popular debate doesn’t have the same obligations to “review the literature” as we do in academia.

I’ve been trying to keep up with these recent debates on architectural discourse, and at the same time I’ve been thinking about theoretical frameworks that might help us to think through what’s happening, and why. My research resulted in an obnoxiously long essay that now has to be hacked up for publication. I’m going to post some of the prunings here:

In one section, I responded to the fact that

many of these recent exhibitions and discussions of architectural publication explore progressive precedents in order to find architectural publishing’s new “edge.” Those exhibitions that present work from the late 20th and early 21st centuries have recognized their indebtedness to publications of the 1960s and 70s, and nearly all exhibitors and discussants have acknowledged the foundational influence of the little magazines of the early 20th century. Because no exhibitions have addressed in detail the legacy of those early little magazines, though, we will begin by examining what formal and ideological cues more recent publications might have taken from their predecessors.

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In The Culture of Time & Space, 1880-1918, Stephen Kern examines how cultural and technological changes and developments during this time period—time zones, film, x-rays, new theories of geometry—paralleled changes in the way people conceived of time and space.[i] Architectural historian Hyungmin Pai also describes how, concurrently, new building types (e.g., department stores, arcades, museums); “new modes of spatial, visual, and social experiences peculiar to a developed capitalist society”; the rise of the railroad network; the legislation of postal rates; advances in printing technologies (like mimeography and, later, xerography), together incited “radical change in the way printed discourse was produced and distributed.”[ii] Changes in spatial perception and production manifested themselves on the printed page and in the publication’s external form.[iii] Appropriately, many recent studies of late 19th– and early 20th-century “little magazines” employ formal analyses that attend to both the form of the publication and the form of its contents.[iv]

The rise of “big” commercial magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and McClure’s in the 1910s, Churchill says, can in part explain the emergence of many little literary magazines at this time.[v] Within the architecture community, we can assume, little magazines arose partly in response to new professional and commercial publications. As early as 1867, the American Institute of Architects acknowledged that “drawings and books, exhibitions and lectures were indispensable to the institutional settings and practices that composed what society and the AIA deemed to be ‘architecture.’”[vi] New turn-of-the-century professional publications helped to found conventions and promote professionalization, continuing a tradition begun with the establishment of the École des Beaux-Arts and continuing through the institution of new licensing laws that formalized the distinction between architects and builders, contractors, and engineers, thus “distancing…the architect from the material process of building.”[vii] Yet in the late 1920s, when some architecture journals were acquired by major media corporations, they underwent changes in format and form that seemed to reposition architecture within the larger cultural and economic landscape. Architectural Forum, for instance, reorganized its issues into three divisions: Design, Engineering, and Business; while American Architect, which joined the Hearst empire, came to focus on “architecture as business,” and began to include features on real estate, renting, remodeling, human relations within the architecture office, etc., and, as one might expect, increased advertising.[viii] Through their forms and contents, these publications, by the early 30s a part of the commercial publishing machine, traced or anticipated architecture’s becoming a business, rather than an art.

Avant-garde art and architectural magazines—L’Esprit Nouveau, ABC, Das Neue Frankfurt, G, De Stijl, Punct, Contimporanul, La Città Nova, ReD—along with some progressive cultural magazines of the time, provided space for architects to experiment with new designs and design practices. Several architectural historians have examined the forms of presentation employed in early twentieth-century architectural publications—in particular, their use of new graphic techniques and typefaces and the integration of photography—and how these publications shaped designers’ critical values and helped them determine their place in society, especially in relation to the dominant conditions of production.[ix] Architectural historian Brian McLaren acknowledges the potential impact of these periodicals on architectural practice: “[T]he conception and content of architectural production was itself being changed by the techniques and means of publication” of the 20s and 30s.[x]

The same claim could be made for literary production. Churchill notes that many little literary magazines, “to emphasize their spatial and social functions,” referred to themselves as “houses,” “palaces,” or other architectural forms designed specifically to house new forms of writing.[xi] Architecture served as a convenient metaphor to describe these transformations of poetic and literary form, of publication format, and of social boundaries. But it was also more than a metaphor. The architecture of the page and the periodical were undergoing renovation. Churchill argues that many modernist texts, including Joyce’s Ulysses and Pound’s Cantos, were originally published as fragments or “revisionist installments” in little literary magazines, “render[ing] the boundaries of the [tex]
indeterminate, amplifying the poetics of indeterminacy and dislocation developed within each version” of a narrative or poem.[xii] The form of many modernist texts thus “correspond[ed] to the magazine format”—its seriality, its brevity relative to the book, etc.—“in which [they were] first published.”[xiii] That format, Churchill notes, was “utterly new. Mass-market periodicals ‘ad-stripped’ the page, dividing it into columns to make room for advertisements and inserting poems as filler.”[xiv] Many early little magazines introduced more flexible layouts; Others, for instance, gave each poet his or her own page, thus “fram[ing] poetic identity as an autonomous, self-bounded unit.”[xv] While modern architects were promoting the “free plan,” Churchill argues, poets adopted more free forms and flexible divisions between lines and stanzas; both were turning the inside out, blurring traditional boundaries.

Further demonstrating that the “architecture” of the periodical was more than just a metaphor, literary scholars have explained how poetic communities were often defined in part by their geographical and architectural place. Others was founded in Ridgefield, New Jersey, but eventually moved to Greenwich Village, where “poetic and gender conventions were revolutionized”; these social changes were embodied at the turn of the century in the rise of apartment living that afforded female artists new autonomy.[xvi] “For free verse poets, the emancipation of the poetic line was a corollary dimension of this architectural revolution.”[xvii] Thus “the modernist drive to renovate poetic form”—through free verse, through the poem’s placement within the context of a little magazine—“was part of a cultural movement to re-form the boundaries of selfhood, gender, and sexuality.”[xviii]

Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry, envisioned her magazine “as a public space for literature capable of transforming both poetry and the public” (italics mine).[xix] Little magazines “set the stage for surprising collaborative efforts, wove webs of interaction and influence, set trends, established and ruined reputations, and shaped the course of modernism.”[xx] This stage, Mark Morrison suggests, may have in many cases been better conceived of as a counterpublic space, as an alternative or oppositional site where authors and editors—and architects—“attempt[ed] to ally literary [or design] experimentation with radical social and political counterpublic spheres….”[xxi]

These periodicals shaped not only modernist cultural production; they also cultivated new reading and looking practices. David Bennett, in his study of the serial form of the literary little magazine, examines the relationship of periodicals’ form to both modernist production and consumption:

The antithesis of the cultural monument, the magazine (its successive issues always conspicuously “dated”) affirms both its modernity and its ephemerality, offering its fragmentary materials for selective insertion into the everyday life-contexts of its readers. Both as phenomenal form and as mode of literary production, then, the magazine (a discontinuous, open-ended production of heterogeneous materials in provisional relations) would seem to lend itself to the [early 20th-century] avant-gardist project.[xxii]

Little magazines thus promoted a form of discontinuous reading that paralleled the fractured looking practices engendered by visual artists’ collages and filmmakers’ montages. The “open” text of a periodical, Margaret Beetham notes, “offers readers the chance to construct their own texts”; readers, we might say, reorganize the modular components of a periodical into a textual architecture.[xxiii]

The publications did indeed have a profound impact on literary, artistic, and architectural creation of their time, but, eventually, many of these counterpublic spaces were absorbed by the academy or co-opted by the market, their form reduced to a “style.” Time magazine ran an article in 1958 explaining how the little magazines of the early 20th-century had gotten “big”; the very presence of the article in Time attests to how mainstream the little publishing phenomenon had become:

…[T]he experimenters ran out of experiments; the four-letter words migrated to clothback books and the little magazines were left without shock value. The surviving quarterlies, usually backed by rich men or foundations and run by professors, have taken on the ivy-clad tone of a graduate faculty tea. Critics quarrel with critics in thin, querulous prose, and authors are made to feel unwelcome.[xxiv]

We will find that the formal experimentation and political missions—and, in many cases, the eventual co-optation and downfall—of the modernist little magazines also characterize later publications, including those on display in “Clip/Stamp/Fold” and perhaps even those immaterial publications at “Postopolis!”


[i] Stephen Kern, The Culture of Space & Time, 1880-1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983/2003).

[ii] Hyungmin Pai, The Portfolio and the Diagram: Architecture, Discourse, and Modernity in America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 13-14.

[iii] See Kern 72-5, 172-6.

[iv] Edward Bishop, “Re-covering Modernism – Form and Function in the Little Magazines,” in Modernist Writers and the Marketplace, eds., Ian Willison, Warwick Gould and Warren Chernaik (New York: St. Martins, 1996), 287-319; George Bornstein, Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Bartholomew Brinkman, “Making Modern Poetry: Format, Genre and the Invention of Imagism(e)” Journal of Modern Literature 32:2 (2009): 20-40; Suzanne Churchill, The Little Magazine Others and the Renovation of Modern American Poetry (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006); Jerome McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

[v] Churchill, The Little Magazine, 9.

[vi] Pai 13.

[vii] Pai 20.

[viii] Pai 143-4.

[ix] Colomina’s many publications on L’Esprit Nouveau address the journal’s adoption of the rhetorical and visual forms of mass media, particularly advertising. S. A. Mansbach also examines the editorial policies and visual and material forms of Romanian avant-garde publications, and the role they played in cultivating a creative identity for “outsider” avant-garde groups. S. A. Mansbach, “The ‘Foreignness’ of Classical Modern Art in Romania” The Art Bulletin 80:3 (1998): 534-54. And Andrew Herscher discusses Karel Teige’s graphic design in several early 20th-century Czech avant-garde publications, and the relationship between their radical graphic design and architecture. Andrew Herscher, “The Media(tion) of Building: Manifesto Architecture in the Czech Avant-Garde” Oxford Art Journal 27:2 (2004): 193-217.

[x] McLaren 103.

[xi] Churchill, The Little Magazine, 11. The word “magazine” derives from the Arabian word “makhzan,” meaning storehouse.

[xii] Churchill, The Little Magazine, 10.

[xiii] Churchill, The Little Magazine, 10. “A little magazine is not merely a passive background or blank page for a modernist text; its contents, covers, paper quality, illustration and prints, advertisements, manifestos, and editorials shape meaning and reception of a text” Churchill The Little Magazine, 9.

[xiv] Churchill, The Little Magazine, 11.

[xv] Churchill, The Little Magazine, 12.

[xvi] Churchill, The Little Magazine, 17. See also Sara Blair, “Gertrude Stein, 27 Rue de Fleurs, and the Place of the Avant-Garde” American Literary History 12:3 History in the Making (2000): 417-37.

[xvii] Churchill, The Little Magazine, 18.

[xviii] Churchill, The Little Magazine, 4.

[xix] Quoted in Suzanne W. Churchill, Review of The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception [Review] Modernism/modernity (2001): 533.

[xx] Churchill and McKible, “Little Magazines,” 2.

[xxi] Mark S. Morrison, The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception, 1905-1920 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 12. Morrison acknowledges his indebtedness to Oskar Negt, Alexander Kluge, Rita Felski, Nancy Fraser, Geoff Eley, and Mary Ryan for their reconceptualizations of Habermas’s public sphere. Of course Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics (Zone 2005) was published after Morrison’s article appeared.

[xxii] David Bennett, “Periodical Fragments and Organic Culture: Modernism, the Avant-Garde, and the Little Magazine” Contemporary Literature 30:4 (1989): 485.

[xxiii] Margaret Beetham, “Open and Closed: The Periodical as a Publishing Genre” Victorian Periodicals Review 22:3 (1989): 98.

[xxiv] “The Press: Big Little Magazine” TIME, August 11, 1958.

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