Archis 2009 #4

Publishing Practices

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Throughout the last century, the practice of architecture has been closely related to the practice of publishing by architects. Just as architectures produce discourse in and of themselves, so the discourse of the book has often been used by architects to frame a related space in which (their) projects can be produced, received, and understood. Many of the most prominent architects of the past century have also been prolific publishers, whether as authors of book formats, including monographs, manifestoes, histories, pamphlets, transcripts, and catalogues, as editors of magazines and journals, or as the instigators of publishing houses or other channels of dissemination. Some of these architects have regarded the design process itself as a form of editing or curation, in certain cases assisted by prior backgrounds in journalism, scriptwriting, filmmaking, or other editorial practices that have informed their later practice within the architectural field. Their disciplinary agendas have also been influenced by operative critics – trained as historians or in related fields – who have sought to produce forms of scholarship that would have direct impacts on practice.

Architects and critics alike have seen books as strategic tools in the arsenal of the discipline, capable of producing effects independent of the constraints from traditional forms of architectural production. The specific combination of publishing and building has been exploited as a critical double form of architectural practice, as strands of work that are assumed to support each other, but which in reality often reveal a provocative (and in some cases deliberate) misalignment. Rather than simply seeing books as ‘guides’ for practice – still ultimately directed toward the production of buildings, with books either instructing, analyzing, or commenting – the most prominent architects and critics have well understood the strategic differences between publishing and building, exploiting both as parallel but distinct discursive modes of operation. In this history, publishing reveals itself as an alternative form of practice, parallel to and frequently more agile than other forms of production more typically understood as architectural.

The Publishing Practices project traces the history and influence of architectural publishing as an operative device, through an examination of books produced by architects and critics in the past century. Case studies present the origins, composition, and after-products of ten influential architecture books, each one representative of a particular era of architectural production and a specific conception of the role and performance of the book on the part of its producers. Beyond providing a particular narrative of the story of twentieth-century architecture through its publications, these case studies include reinventions and critiques of the privileged genres of the architecture book: the manifesto, the monograph, and the history.

The manifesto is typically seen as being closest to the traditional idea of the guide. It is by definition polemical, seeming to outline a theory to be projected onto practice, either to legitimize or to inform particular forms of architectural production. Its lineage begins with the prototypical example of the manifesto in twentieth-century architecture, Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture (1923), and includes a series of conscious inversions and revisions to the type throughout the last century, from the ‘gentle’ manifesto – Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) – to the ‘retroactive’ manifesto – Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York (1978). A related genre, also represented here, could be called the ‘city as manifesto’. This form emerged in the 1970s, halfway between the scholarly history and the traditional form of the theoretical treatise; it uses the description of a specific urban condition – its identification and presentation to architects, an account of its performances, or the deliberate retelling of its history – to construct a manifesto for rethinking architectural and urban practice in the present. Its foundational examples are Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour’s Learning From Las Vegas (1972), and – again – Delirious New York, which is both one of the first members of a new type and an explicit reformatting of an existing (Corbusian) precedent.

As we have seen, for these architects the manifesto has not been simply reducible to a guide. Though it is deliberately polemical as part of its strategic mode of operation, it is not subordinate to or exclusively directed toward practice. Rather, the manifesto tries to create a context for other forms of architectural production to be received and understood – just as buildings (often by the same authors) create a discursive context in which writing and publishing practices, like the manifesto, can be received in turn. Neither is merely a demonstration of, or guide for, the other.

The second privileged form of the twentieth-century architecture book is the monograph. It attempts to consolidate a body of work into a set of agendas constituted through practice, in contrast to the mani festo, which constructs its agendas by consolidating a series of theoretical or polemical statements. The monograph as a form is again initially dominated by the example of Le Corbusier, in the exhaustive form of his OEvre Complete, published in eight volumes from 1929 to 1965. The subsequent revisions to the genre have been innumerable. There is the inclusion of projects at the end of the manifesto to demonstrate that through theory ‘an architectural discovery has taken place’ (in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, and, less well-remembered, in the first edition of Learning From Las Vegas; the method is also reprised in fictional, delirious form in Delirious New York). There is Peter Eisenman’s Houses of Cards (1987), which mixes the processes of writing, drawing, and building (along with building as drawing, drawing as writing, writing as building, etc.) into a version of the monograph as a conceptual construct or form of architecture in itself. And there is the explosive S,M,L,XL (1995), by Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, whose promiscuous fusion of monograph and manifesto triggers a new type that is at once both a new genre of book and a massive new format.

The last genre of book included here is the polemical or operative history. Polemical histories attempt to reconstruct the past – to lay out the ‘canon’ of architects and projects anew – to provide a context in which particular ways of working in the present can be received and justified. Examples range from the universalizing ambition of Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture (1941), which purported to provide (and was largely taken as) the official history of the modern movement in architecture, to the more intimate (and certainly more humble) approach of the personal scrapbook of sources, as in Alison and Peter Smithson’s The Heroic Period of Modern Architecture (1965).

If we are going to talk about guides, then do we need to talk about these books as being canonical? How does one define the term? According to the conventional argument (typically made by those invested in the canon as something that needs to be defended), the identification of certain works as canonical is closely related to the very idea of architecture as a discipline. The fact of having and naming an identifiable canon – of being able to label works as canonical – is central to the idea of architecture as a distinct discipline, well defined unto itself (and not, for example, simply a subset of other practices). That is, if architecture is held to be a discipline, it must have a canon. In this formulation, the discipline doesn’t simply constitute its canon; we could say equally that the canon constitutes the discipline. The furthest consequence of this argument would be the idea that as an architect, it is not simply assumed that one is aware of these books. According to its exclusionary role, if one does not know the canon, one is not an architect. In this sense, canonical books are not merely reducible to being guides (though of course they attempt to act as such). They are part and parcel of the constitution of the discipline itself.

While this may sound like an extreme or outmoded definition, far from being simply an arbitrary designation assigned to works after the fact, the very idea of canonicity has conditioned the production of architecture books for at least the last century. Whether the idea of a discipline has any validity, and whatever other forms of media have been produced and circulated in and around architectural practice, ephemeral or permanent, the agility and durability of the book has made it a privileged format for architects attempting to construct this canonicity – of both their books and themselves. Far from being an outmoded idea, the question reappears today when we see even the newest and supposedly most agile forms of media, such as blogs and websites, still aspiring to their own canonicity – to engage with the canonical modes of architectural discourse or become canonical themselves – by adopting the privileged form of the book.

Rather than talking about the discipline – with all the boundaries and exclusions this implies – what if we were to talk about architecture as a ‘field’, and about publishing as one among its modes of practice, different from but no less important in its operation than the production of buildings? In this field, both publishing and building practices would be seen as equally necessary in creating the possibility for discursive modes of operation in architecture. A canonical book (if we still allow ourselves to use the word) would then be one in which this discursive operation is most clearly revealed in the book’s totality as a graphic object – a careful and deliberate construction of format, layout, images, and words – in relation to other discursive modes of practice. A list of canonical works defined this way might then correspond more closely to those works that have been the most instrumental in their operation. If a slice was taken through the field in a particular era – its major sites of discourse, production, education, and dissemination – works might be expected to be found consistently in those contexts, as forms of common knowledge or shared currency within the field at a specific moment. This definition of canonical is therefore less an assignment of quality or value than it is a function of the work’s instrumentality as a practice.

To get at this question of influence, it is also necessary to study the reception and influence of architecture books within the field, often very different from their agendas and intended performance. Along with the study of publishing as an operative practice (and its strategic role for its practitioners), the second half of Publishing Practices involved a survey of over 150 practitioners, educators, and students to gauge the impact of publications on those trained in architecture, from the time of their publication up to the present. The survey responses and the data graphics that were produced from them led to questions about the instrumentality and operation of books in architecture. On the one hand, the books that were listed most frequently by survey participants – S,M,L,XL, Delirious New York, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Learning From Las Vegas, and Vers une Architecture (five out of the ten case studies already chosen) – affirmed the influence of those works. On the other, their listing was consistent across the different ages, places, and periods of education and current practices of the respondents, from those trained in the 1970s until the present. Surprisingly, there were no peaks of influence for these books around the moment of their publication or for those trained in particular eras. Indeed, their consistent appearance in the lists of even the most recent students reveals the continuing influence of these publications up to the present, despite radical changes in the production and dissemination of both architecture and books and the emergence of other, competing forms of media in the digital era.

As the last member of this chronology, the survey raised the particular question of whether S,M,L,XL may stand as the final, definitive example of the canonical book. With its dramatic appearance at a moment of confluence between new modes of production, the rising cultural status of the architect, the first impacts of globalization on architectural and publishing practices, and the increasing influence of theory – but before the consolidation of history/theory and practice as increasingly separate disciplines catering to different audiences, the over-proliferation of architectural publishing, and the rise of digital media that would alter the traditional role of the book after the 1990s – its success may simply be impossible to replicate, in part the product of a historically unrepeatable set of circumstances. No publication emerged from the survey as a candidate for the next canonical book. It remains to be seen whether there will be one again, or whether the idea of the canonical and the role of publishing among other practices have undergone a definitive change in the meantime.

Graphic Design—Timeline: over,under / Chris Grimley
Graphic Design—Book Survey: over,under / Chris Grimley, Kyle Jonasen
Exhibition: pinkcomma gallery (Chris Grimley and Mark Pasnik), September 2009