It’s hard not to feel an overwhelming sense of nostalgia surrounded by the covers of the so called ‘Little Magazines’ on display at at the Clip/Stamp/Fold exhibition in the AA gallery. But, I realise it’s a nostalgia for a time I never knew. It’s what you might call a pseudo-Proustian rush at the sight of these fabled folded magazines.
There are airbrushed robots having sex, collages of Santa Maria del Fiore relocated to a forest with reel-to-reel data tape machines, comics, slogans and jokes.
It’s not my scene, because I wasn’t even born when a lot of this stuff came out, but for many reasons these things are so embedded in current architectural culture that they feel like part of my experience.
Those youthful faces staring out from these publications are – at least some of them – still around and (older, balder, fatter) staring out of much glossier publications these days. The ideas that seem to graphically detonate on these dog-eared copies are still around too.
Why? Because though these things look ridiculously over-excited and adolescent, they were the work of deadly serious obsessives, hell bent on changing architectural culture.
Perhaps there is another reason why the magazine is such an important medium – especially in UK architectural culture. In some ways the magazine is the origin of the post-war boom in architectural discourse. I’m thinking specifically of John McHale’s tin trunk full of American magazines that galvanised the Independent Group. The things that Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton cut up to make images such as ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So ….” . The kind of thing the Smithson’s were talking about in ‘Today We Collect Adverts’. The sort of thing full of products and lifestyles that enthused Reyner Banham.
(And of course – these are same techniques that we later see used in Archigrams collage-drawings. We also see Archigram inherit a set of interests from the Independent Group – at least Banham’s idea of Independent Group architecture and Richard Hamiltons man-machine-love. Magazine lovers become magazine makers).
[An aside: An earlier Strangeharvest post drew a comment from John McHale's son with claims for a different progeny for that iconic British pop image:
"You may be interested to know that R. Hamilton did not design the Pop collage 'Just What Is It That Makes Todays Homes So Different, So Appealing?' According to my father the collage was designed by John McHale while at Yale and the measured design specifying all the images was provided in advance to Hamilton. The visual items for the collage were in McHale's black metal tin trunk that was shipped over ahead of time to McHale's studio in London and which Magda Cordell helped Hamilton and his wife access. Hamilton did not design the work, he merely cut out and pasted down the Pop Poster collage, with the assistance of his wife Tery, and Magda Cordell. The collage is based on the layout - with a few transpositions - of the living/sitting room of the McHale Cordell atellier at 52 Cleveland Square in London."]
If you keep following this thread it will lead you to today’s architectural mainstream. Archigram were whizzier and hipper than the Independent Group architects, they also became the paper-architect template for a later generation – shaping a generation of AA alumni: Danny, Rem, Zaha and so on, whose patience at the drawing board was eventually rewarded in ways Archigram can only dream of.
Maybe McHales tin trunk is the reason the magazine assumed such a significant position at that particular moment. The magazine became the site for architectural reverie and conjecture. It was both the place that you could glimpse the exotic world of consumerist America and where you could manufacture new exotic worlds.
Magazines were a way of getting hold of culture and remaking it, of forming a critical position in relation to mass culture by manipulating its very essence.
Staking out positions, and transforming culture are exactly what these magazines are doing. Though tiny in circulation, their ambition (and ego) is gigantic. Though read by a few, their desire to communicate, provoke, debate is immense.
My all time favourite is almost included in the show – visible in the mag-cover wallpaper in the AA hallway- the New Society Non-Plan issue which proposed a radical version of city-making with humour, satire, common sense and awareness of the pressures and problems facing planning at that time in the UK. It brought together Cedric Price, Reyner Banham and Peter Hall (amongst others) – a kind of urban thinking supergroup. It’s amazing to think that this happened in magazine that wasn’t about architecture (and depressing to think that there’s been nothing like it since).
In many ways, they are not really magazines, but secret messages between groups: gang signs between brotherhoods. They are ridiculously utopian – visions of the world changed, kits and instruction manuals describing how to remake culture. They are independent, small circulation labours of love, and almost certainly bottomless pits which money disappeared into.
There are some strange anomalies in the show: A number of properly funded and distributed magazines sneak in – Casabella, AD and so on, which undermine the knocked together in student digs quality of true fanzines.
Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that you can’t read any of the content. It’s as though you’re in a particularly officious newsagents (‘its not a library, you know!) where you can only stare at the covers. Or perhaps it’s as tantalising and frustrating as a display of menus describing the most delicious and appetising dishes you’ll never taste.
There is a manifest thrill that is absent from contemporary architectural publications – which come in a number of sober flavours: journalistically corporate (regurgitating press releases), sensationalist (shock as roof leaks!), flip (where irony passes for knowledge), deathly serious visionless prose which reads as though written as a parody of 1950s criticism, academicese that strangles itself with linguistic garrottes, moralistic practicalism (most likely written by an architecture tutor who is exchanging romantic text messages with a student behind his heavily pregnant girlfriends back).
There is an argument that this kind of thing now happens on the internet. But I’m not so sure. Blogging allows people express themselves, to create audiences and so on. But it’s different: more isolated, and lacks the drama. It’s also – strangely – an inhibited form which has posts of a certain length, images of a certain size and type, stories of a certain kind. It is amazing how quickly the internet congealed into formal typologies.
But it does allow people to pursue their own interests in a way that commissioning editors would never tolerate. See this review of Strangeharvest by way of example:
Strangeharvest is …”like most blogs, something that exists in the mind of one person who lives in an aliased world where the voices in their schizophrenic head can actually BE heard by everybody else and their paranoid beliefs can be exorcised. In this public autotherapy everybody else can find true entertainment at the expense of the possessed.”