Ethel Baraona Pohl and Cesar Reyes from dpr-barcelona interview Beatriz Colomina
If we think about the explosion of little architectural magazines in the 1960s and 1970s as the instigators of the radical transformation occurred in the architectural culture, enhanced by the access to new reproduction devices as xerography and photocopy; we can talk now about networking, supported by wide TIC access and 2.0 web phenomenon, as a new way to explore the world. Under these conditions media and information reveal as a new ship to explore the global map in several unexpected ways, a path to create new cartographies based on networking that generates this new terra incognita. As examples there can be stated some networking initiatives such as “Reading The Infrastructural City”1 or discussions like the “Glass House Conversations,”2 which are aimed to expand the concept of books and traditional publications. Colomina answers our questions on the idea of blogs and on-line conversation as the little magazines of our time and we discuss if it is the new adequate forum to speculate on the future of architecture?
We have invited Beatriz Colomina to discuss her research and focus not only on the past, but using this experience, to talk about the future; the network phenomenon as substrate to create a new relevant group of forward-thinkers for the near future.
The interview was done at the last Beyond Media Festival in Florence (2009), coinciding in time with the Clip/Stamp/Fold exhibition she curated traveling around the world.
DPR: Good morning Beatriz. First of all, and to start with a complete understanding of your work, we want to know how and why you started working on the little magazine’s subject?
BC: Well… with the little magazines, it’s easy to understand. They not only interest me as an external subject, the thing is that I was part of that movement. When I was in Barcelona, we started working on El Carrer de la Ciutat, within the political conflicts that happened in Spain in the times of Franco. Before El Carrer de la Ciutat, there was a bulletin called El Bulletí, focused more on political issues and we wanted to go on when they closed.
In this context, El Carrer de la Ciutat was halfway between political pamphlet and scholarly review.3 Expendable but necessary, the magazine was a consequence of the urgency of the Spanish political transition and the institutional renovation of the School of Architecture of Barcelona. With the experience of being part of the editorial board of the publication, I now try to explain how the communication media allows other ways of thinking and working.
DPR: We visited the Clip/Stamp/Fold exhibition in Barcelona and saw the original layouts of El Carrer de la Ciutat and Arquitectura Bis. How did you manage to work on each issue?
BC: We used to work with handmade DIY techniques and the thermal printing that were developed around 1972. Using this new techniques, we had a whole technique, we had a whole new world to explore. We worked every time in a different place, such as the room of the architecture department of the school, in a completely amateur way of working. All the team was passionately involved, people like Txatxo Sabater and Helio Piñón, who were of the same generation as Quetglas, but mostly all of us have been students of Joseph Quetglas and the generational gap was important at that time. He always used to have a team with young students.
“The determination of the authors of El Carrer de la Ciutat was visible from the very beginning. In 1977, they conceived a magazine that would coincide letter for letter with Das Andere, the Viennese magazine that Adolf Loos published in 1903. This began by clipping the ITC Golden Type from Das Andere’s pages to compose El Carrer de la Ciutat’s title block. Later, Carrer de la Ciutat would adopt some of the literary disguises of its model. Its advertisements, conceived as civilizing recommendations for the public, were cutouts from little architecture magazines of the 1910s and 20s rather than contemporary commercial sponsorships. By 1980, the process of replication reached its apotheosis, with issue 9-10 reproducing and translating Das Andere in its entirety.”4
DPR: Yes, Quetglas keeps on the same line; he’s still interested in students and fresh ideas…
BC: Yes, that’s why we can go on with the previous idea when we where talking about twitter, facebook and all the current media. Revolutions have always been linked to new media and communication formats, i.e., in Barcelona in those years, we had the opportunity to access print technologies such as hot pressing, that allows you to print in an easier and simpler way than before. This new technique allowed us to organize a political manifesto through the magazine. The first issue was an A4, black and white and typewritten publication.
DPR: Sometimes people wonder if it’s possible to control this kind of communication, what do you think about it?
BC: This is an interesting topic. People ask me how you can control networks like twitter or facebook, and I just tell them that is the same that happened in the 60s and 70s: you can’t control it! This lack of control is the great thing about this kind of network. For example, who could imagine some years ago the important role that twitter would have on political issues like Iran.5
That’s why I think a media revolution like the current one has also happened before. If you look back, you find the same relationship between politics and media, and relating this with architecture, you have to think that in the decade of the 1970s, the political agenda was almost part of our architectural curriculum.
DPR: This happened in some different countries at the same time, in Italy, France, the UK…
BC: Yes, but in the UK, the political agenda was not so important, i.e., like if May ‘68 simply didn’t happen. But a thing that was really interesting is how they fought for educational rights. If you look at the Architectural Association for those years, it was involved in an irreverent student movement and the only one who was “untouchable” was Cedric Price.
“As with the historical avant-garde, there were also networks of little magazines in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, Oppositions was in a network with Arquitecturas Bis of Barcelona and Lotus of Milan […] Likewise you can talk about the connections between London, Florence, and Graz. And it is also interesting to note that it is Florence, not Milan or Rome, and Graz, not Vienna. Many little magazines emerged in secondary cities. At some point we thought about a map that would track these networks of magazines…”6
DPR: It is interesting to analyze that it was almost a worldwide movement, but it had differences between countries, cities and the local context.
BC: It is completely true. I remember that Bernard Tschumi offered to the AD to write an article on the protests of May ‘68 and when they agreed, more than a year had passed. He was really happy with his article and going further, he proposed to write an article based on the political issues of Ireland and he was rejected. This is the kind of difference that we can find in the media of those years and that we wanted to document on the Little Magazine’s project, which was born with educational purposes from my PhD students on Princeton.
DPR: This is an issue that has always interested you personally, isn’t it?
BC: Yes. When I was teaching at Columbia, I gave a class on the avant-garde publications starting in the decade of 1920. L’Espirit Nouveau, De Stijl, all the magazines that are part of the historical avant-garde on art and architecture, because you cannot understand the avant-garde without their publications. The media cannot be dissociated from the artistic and architectural movements. On the contrary, they became the place where this movement happened.
DPR: What about Le Corbusier and the way he used media as an architectural marketing tool? How architecture is constituted in and through the media?
BC: I think that Le Corbusier was the first architect who really understood the media of the 20th century. By the way, this was the key research of my PhD thesis, about architecture and communication and was the starting point of the book Private and Publicity. In the book there’s a chapter called “Publicity,” which is based on the research I did among Le Corbusier archives.
It is anecdotal that when I asked at the Fondation Le Corbusier for their archives on L’Espirit Nouveau, they told me, “We have lots of boxes with material classified as L’Espirit Nouveau” and they brought the first box. I was amazed that I only found catalogues, advertising, trend magazines, etc. Researching box by box, I only found the same kind of material until I realized that it was exactly this that interested Le Corbusier. He used images of cars and planes to illustrate his articles and this point is what I found really innovative, to mix architecture with every day objects: the Parthenon with a modern car in front of it.
DPR: Do you think that marketing strategies at the beginning of the 20th century were related to the small publications of those years?
BC: It was an interesting experience to be researching in the Le Corbusier archives, because I had the opportunity to take a look at marketing pamphlets, flyers and all kinds of printed material related to marketing: the association of ideas with things that have nothing to do with each other, i.e., a Caribbean hotel and a pack of cigarettes.
Le Corbusier used the same strategies to create the feeling of modernity and luxury related with his projects.
DPR: This is something that in the US was a common practice on those years.
BC: Yes, and Le Corbusier used them to communicate ideas that were not only related to architecture, but to cities and history.
DPR: Can we say that the media acts as a site for architectural production?
BC: If you make a review on all the architects of the 20th century, they all have this in common, starting with Mies van der Rohe. Often people don’t even realize that the Mies we all know is basically produced through magazines and publications. His five famous projects (the two skyscrapers, the brick house, the concrete house, etc) are really paper architecture, produced within the context of some international exhibitions and are quite different from the projects he was building at the same time (the Mosler House, the Eichstaedt House) that were really conservative. All of the modern architects were involved in one way or another with the publishing industry.
DPR: And it is a cyclical part of architectural evolution.
BC: Yes, of course. At those years, in the decade of the 1920s, architects built themselves through the magazines. After that, in the 60s, the idea is the same. The better known case is Archigram. They were a group of architects working on this magazine, yet there’s not an Archigram’s office, they don’t even know themselves as “Archigram” on those years. Archigram is simply what they do, a magazine.
And it’s only when they realize that people were asking “who is Archigram?” that they started using the name to refer to themselves, as a group.
DPR: Nowadays, the relationship between media and architecture is an assumed fact. Architects are used to sending press releases to blogs and media. Around five years ago, we had the feeling that the new generation was more inclined to do monographs of their own work and in some sense, be less collaborative. Now, since 2007 and the real state crisis, we are witnessing again a collaborative movement, supporting DIY initiatives, unsolicited architecture and more, all of them using the social networks as their main tool of communication and research, in a similar way that the 60s avant-garde groups did. What do you think about it?
BC: I think that we are facing a very interesting era, because architecture always develops in a deeper way in moments of crisis. In the decade of the 60s and 70s, we had the oil crisis, the war, and other conflicts and we had the time to think about ecology, emergency housing, new materials, the space program, etc. And now that we are living in a similar state of the world, we can discover again some similar responses and recover the principles that we have lost.
DPR: What can you say about blogs as the new little magazines?
BC: Yes. We are also witnessing a whole new world related to media and communication formats. Blogs, twitter, facebook are these new tools. We can point to Marcos Novak when he talked about the Iraq War and the way that the US government has hidden information, but I think that talking about that is a common place within this discussion. We all know that there is hidden information, but it is more interesting to say that now we have new tools that help us to share information in real time. We cannot keep complaining about how the government acts; we need to analyze how the new tools leak all this information and take it to the population.7
When you look back to the 60s and 70s, this was the kind of information that motivated architects to create the little magazines as communication tools. In an era when the state controlled all the media, suddenly it was possibly to work on pamphlets and DIY magazines that you can do at home and express yourself without any censorship.
This is an example that there are always more ways to react than we think. Who would have thought that a television camera could be used as an element of civil protection? Now, beyond public surveillance we also have civil surveillance. Population is also able to control what politicians and police department are doing.8
DPR: In this sense, we think that in America, the feeling of civil surveillance is more powerful than in Europe.
BC: Yes, I think that the American people easily understand video cameras as a way of self-protection, too.
DPR: Derrick de Kerckhove always talks about the issue that now it’s not only the population who uses social networks as communication tools, but that everyday, more politicians are also using them to get closer to the people. What are your thoughts on this issue?
BC: I think this is the other side of the story. We talk about twitter and facebook as a tool that is only being used for activism, but we don’t talk about the state’s appropriation of these tools. We can expect that all governments that had been “attacked” by its population using these tools will start, sooner or later, using them, too.
DPR: So, talking again about the similarities between the little magazines and the blogs and social networks, is there any specific blog that you find similar to the Archigram or Casabella of the 1960s?
BC: This is a thing that you may tell me! I think it’s a bit soon for that. Maybe we need more time to see how this movement develops.
DPR: So, do you think there is a kind of nostalgia now for the theoretical movement of the 60s and 70s?
BC: As Walter Benjamin wrote, we always have nostalgia of what is left behind.
We can find similarities between little magazines, blogs and criticism. These two quotes refer to different moments of architectural communication, separated by more than forty years one from the other, but they are talking of the same topic.
“What I was trying to see is whether you will agree that criticism was already something that was difficult to achieve, even for Oppositions, and that it has only become increasingly more difficult.”
—Beatriz Colomina in conversation with Peter Eisenman. New York, January 23, 2007.
“There’s an interesting and provocative article in the most recent issue of Blueprint called “The New Establishment,” by Peter Kelly. In it, Kelly takes issue with the lack of formal criticism in architecture blogging today, writing that “one tends not to find rigorous criticism of significant new buildings” on sites such as Strange Harvest, things magazine, and BLDGBLOG.”
—Geoff Manaugh from BLDGBLOG on his post on critical condition.
4. Beatriz Colomina, from the book Clip/Stamp/Fold (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2010). ↵
5. The interview was done at Beyond Media Festival (2009). In this context, the reference to Iran protests were highly new. ↵
6. Beatriz Colomina. From the book Clip/Stamp/Fold (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2010). ↵
7. In some way, Colomina is anticipating facts as Wikilieaks started in 2006 and reached a world audience in 2010. ↵
8. In this case, Colomina’s observation can be directly linked with the most recent revolts at Arab countries enhanced by the use of social media tools. ↵
Ethel Baraona Pohl is an architect who develops her professional work linked to a number of technical publications in the architectural field. Her work shows a clear innovative way to bring the contents to the public transcending the boundaries between time and space.
www.dpr-barcelona.com | @ethel_baraona | @dpr_barcelona
César Reyes is an architect from Guatemala. Co-author of the book Sustainable Architecture, which was pre-selected for the prestigious Riba Book Awards 2008 in the category of Construction. He runs the architecture and design studio dpr-barcelona.
www.dpr-barcelona.com | @cerreyes | @dpr_barcelona
Beatriz Colomina is an internationally renowned architectural historian and theorist who has written extensively on questions of architecture and media.