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Radical Dreamers

A dynamic exhibit at the Canadian Centre for Architecture asks: Is there a role today for the little magazine?

The term “little magazines” arose in the aftermath of World War I to describe the proliferation of maga- zines publishing aesthetically daring, often controversial writing. Titles like Blast indicated not just the tenor of those publications, but their intended effect: the literal bombs may have stopped in 1918, but throughout the 1920s the literary ones kept falling.

Taking their cue from that period’s revolutionary spirit, editors, thinkers and architects in the 1960s returned to the notion of outsider art and ideas. The magazines that resulted—beautiful, shocking, funny, eye-catching and above all engaged—have been collected for the fi rst time ever in a fantastic exhibit, now showing at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal until September 9.

Called Clip/Stamp/Fold 2: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X–197X, the exhibit chronicles the architectural and social concerns of the time through the cover art of seventy international little magazines. First shown this past winter at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, the show at the CCA expands upon that one (hence the open-ended dates in its subtitle) with archival material added from the CCA’s own archives. Magazines range from Pianeta fresco, which only produced two issues, to Architectural Design, which is still around (and much bigger) today. There are magazines from England like Polygon alongside Internationale Situationniste and Melp! (French), Arquitectos de México (Mexican), Op. cit., Casabella and Angelus Novus (Italian), Bau (Austrian), Nueva Forma (Spain), Design Quarterly and Perspecta (USA) and Kenchiku Bunka (Japan). The word “international,” so often employed as a superfi cially high-minded sales pitch, is no exaggeration here. This is top-notch intellectual spelunking by a dynamic, multilingual group.

Clip/Stamp/Fold began at Princeton University as a seminar project directed by architecture professor Beatriz Colomina. Finding little or no scholarship on architecture magazines of the 1960s and 1970s, Colomina and her graduate students waded into the research themselves.

They secured rare interviews with the magazines’ original editors, designers and theorists, turned up copies of short-lived titles such as Megascope, satirical efforts like ARse (“Architects for a Really Socialist Environment”), protest zines like Archigram soaked in the social activism of the day—and even titles such as the Japanese ArchiteXt that hadn’t been seen or heard from in over thirty years. The picture of the tumultuous era that emerges—often in its own words—is fresh and unnostalgic.

“What one sees here is a stretching of the boundaries of architecture magazines to address the social issues implicit within architecture,” says Craig Buckley, a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton who researched and wrote many entries in the exhibit timeline.

Spacemen, rockets, superheroes, gorillas and other images of incomprehensible scale and power are recurring motifs on the covers of these magazines and in the era’s architectural thinking. The 1960s and 1970s have more in common with the revolutionary 1920s than one might expect: a mixture of awe and uncertainty about technology permeates the art of both. “These were frightening and attractive images in the 1960s,” says Buckley. “People were optimistic and pessimistic at the same time.”

It is almost a shock to recall that the NASA space program was happening alongside this kind of intense political and social upheaval. Indeed, architect Ron Herron’s kooky Walking City of 1964 concept seems directly inspired by Sputnik, rockets and the space race. “The vertical assembly building—the large scaffolding that held up the Apollo rockets—was the biggest project of its kind,” says Buckley. “It was one of the biggest buildings ever conceived or built. And it was on wheels. And it launched a rocket ship.”

The world outside architecture’s window was casting a longer and longer shadow. “Not all architects have social issues at the forefront of their minds, then or today. But the young generation of architectural thinkers in the 1960s and 1970s felt that architecture should deal with daily life, and used their magazines to make an argument for this way of thinking about the profession.”

Those issues included ecology, the energy crisis of 1973 and a housing shortage on a worldwide scale. “All city populations around the world went up dramatically from 1950 to today,” says Buckley. “In Paris in the 1960s, the population had risen, with no parallel growth in city building. Only the suburbs around the city grew. So the architecture magazines developed a critique of the suburbs, looking at what interests were at play, which included immigration.”

Le Carré bleu, a collaborative French-Finnish publication addressed these concerns regularly. The exhibit displays a special Montreal issue (also put out by Le Carré bleu) on the nature of suburbs: whether they represented a better, more habitable future, or an emergency solution to immigration and overcrowding. The roving curiosity seems typical of the time.

“Passionate beliefs motivated these people. There was a feeling of isolation in the moment, a sense that no one knew what was happening in other architectural circles in London, or around the world, so people set out to create a network internationally.”

Prescience is on display, as well. Stewart Brand’s 1969, Whole Earth Catalogue—a sincere attempt to join ecologically sound goods and materials to their natural audience—is forerunner of the vast network of Internet services devoted to connecting people and goods today—minus the passion, of course.

“The exhibit is an exercise in history, and a debate about publishing today. Why don’t we see this kind of experimentation nowadays?” asks Buckley. “In some ways, we’re more earthbound now.” Buckley has a good point. Clip/Stamp/Fold demonstrates how implacably economic forces have shaped publishing and architecture from the 1980s onward. Just as surely as politics has moved away from idealism, magazines have become leaner, more focused vehicles for advertisers’ needs and readers’ specialized interests. Squeezed out of the mainstream today are the quasi-artists and whimsical editorial visionaries who produced the little magazines in the first place.

Magazines have become more sophisticated, but something indefinable—a sense of play, amateur hour at the draftboard—no longer reaches readers. A defensive, harassed and stressed-out professionalism is instead what underlies most magazines today. Money and prestige have become far more important forms of compensation. Otherwise, why do it? Constant chatter about keeping one’s “passion for the job” is itself an indication that that very thing—passion—is increasingly hard to sustain in today’s magazine industry.

But while it may be tempting to launch into various eulogies, little magazines—from “zines” to virtual versions in the form of blogs to slightly more sophisticated websites—are alive and well, and still show the same occasional flashes of brilliance and trenchant commentary. (Adbusters, the ultimate lefty bible, produced an issue with a large hole knocked through its center. Close to one hundred uniquely designed pages interpreted the presence of that hole—and its subversive implications—in distinct, fresh ways. Founder/art director Kalle Lasn made it look easy.)

What’s more, the radical design ideas seen in the Clip/Stamp/Fold magazines can be found everywhere today, breeding indiscriminately with fuchsia borders from the 1980s and the clean style of the new millennium. Far from being trapped in a box of visual conventions, there is a vast and ongoing proliferation of digital design tools happening at the moment. Technically, the tricks, fonts, shading, boxes, layering and other basic design techniques used in today’s computer-based design programs (Quark, InDesign, etc.) are based upon the requirements and desires of the previous, non-digital art directors.

Unfortunately, the nightmares that motivated the hands-on experiments of those earlier designers are boiling over today as well. Namely, urban overpopulation and (as we saw last spring in France) angry, explosive immigrant populations—the very issues presented with such alarm forty years ago.

So where is our Archigram, our Room East 128 Chronicle, our Global Tools? Ultimately, the greatest impact of the economic belt-tightening mentioned earlier has not been on magazines themselves, but on their role as a marketplace of ideas, the place where the value of competing social visions are debated and plans launched. This has always been an important source of magazines’ value and relevance. Leaner economies have made it harder for them to reflect the subtle grain— the texture, potential and outcomes— of their readers’ desires. Over time, readers learn not to expect blood from Rolling Stone—but never learn how to turn off their disappointment and desire for something better. The ubiquitous phrase “Whatever” encapsulates this feeling. It suggests that everything has already been tried and that hopes for things like an expanded civic conversation (including younger and more diverse voices) have not been satisfied, and may never be. In such a penny-pinching, know-it-all, apathetic context, idealistic thinking and acting can seem positively exhausting.

That’s where little magazines becomes relevant again. Idealism and a sense of boundless energy are their lifeblood. “[Their] ambition… is to change the big mags, to change the profession and ultimately to change the world,” says Buckley. A tall order. But then little magazines’ unacknowledged, unspoken mantra—“launch, live fast, die young”—ensures that they will continue to surprise us long after the publishing giants of today turn off the office lights for the last time.