My interest in buildings is, after all, primarily a literary and not a constructional one. I’m not ashamed to admit that I came to know most of the buildings I love from books and magazines. This is true for the Egyptian pyramids, Aya Sophia in Istanbul, the Escorial in Madrid, the major part of Aalto’s work and Frank Lloyd Wright. But it also applies to most buildings by Jean Nouvel and even to those of Koolhaas. That isn’t to say I have never seen them nor want to see them, but I frequently find the physical, spatial experience a poor thing in comparison to the aesthetic pleasure of that first, unexpected encounter in a filmic, literary or verbal form.
The part magazines have played and continue to play in the qualitative selection of buildings for inclusion in a nation’s collective memory is grossly underestimated. Let us restrict ourselves to the present day. I would not go so far as to argue that buildings are currently designed largely with the aim of looking good in magazines, but one thing is undeniable: architectural magazines have taken possession of certain architects and their buildings in the same way as fashion magazine editors have pounced en masse on the top designers and top models. And, just as I would not dream for as much as a split second of buying let alone wearing a single one of those oddball suits, plus-fours or tweedy jackets you see in the ladies’ and gents’ magazines, neither do I feel in the least obliged on closing the covers of yet another architecture magazine to pay a personal visit to any of those buildings that have been so beautifully fleshed out for me in words and images. The sensation of opening a magazine like Casabella has, at least at present, much more to do with the overwhelming consciousness that `architecture’ has a rich, cultural geography and that it is a discipline with an autonomous right to exist that is quite separate from the buildings themselves. Obviously, the buildings have to be there since they are more or less the reason why the magazine keeps appearing issue after issue. But their relevance is more one of sponsorship than of subject matter. The greatest proportion of the magazines is about books and symposia, about exhibitions, about museums and the capers being cut by their staff and directors. And about one another.
Nowhere is so much written about architecture magazines as in those very magazines. They share this bitter fate with other media such as radio and television. The magazines, in short, transform the buildings into culture. As Carel Weeber recently put it, `People often think that a beautiful building is architecture. That is not necessarily so, of course. A building only becomes architecture when someone writes about it, when people talk about it. That is the verbal component’. Writing about architecture used to take the form of a painstaking critique in which the relationships a building entered into with its surroundings were scrutinized with the greatest possible precision. This rather arduous approach to architectural criticism – as a gateway to the official history of architecture – is becoming rarer all the time. Nowadays it is enough for a building to be admitted to the pages of Casabella; a few sumptuous photos, five lines of Gregotti and a summary at the end hold out the prospect of a reserved seat at the Euro-Asiatic debate on architecture and urban design. Or at least a workshop in the Berlage Institute. This function of being an exquisite testing station for contemporary architecture – having the capacity to perceive and to appreciate, to be ahead of the crowd in distinguishing and naming something that is in the air but has not yet really penetrated to the collective conscious – is something I find a desperately attractive aspect of the architectural magazine. It has an addictive effect, at least on me.
Another far from negligible attraction of the modern architecture magazine is brought about by the gusto with which such architects as not only Nouvel and Koolhaas, but also Libeskind, Eisenman and Johnson, allow themselves to be interviewed within their pages – or, to put it even better, to enter into a debate with those magazines. Some magazines have gone so far as to publish posthumous interviews with long-dead architects such as Leon Battista Alberti. This enthusiasm for granting interviews among architects dead and living doesn’t really come simply from a penchant for cheap publicity or from a clearly misplaced populism (`educating the surroundings’). It is, rather, a catch-up exercise on the part of reflection; of cogitation, of doubt; of the paradoxes. It is more like an undermining of the linear process, of the logic normally attributed to the production of the visual environment. The ideas on architecture of Rem Koolhaas (for example) can be followed on several channels so to speak: the texts in his latest book are far from being a summary or repetition of the countless interviews he has given in recent years. Those interviews are apocryphal texts, one could say, non-authorized accounts of conclusions and theses that Koolhaas would preferably attribute to others. Often they are mere injections – that is, attempts to lull architectural critics, clients and government authorities by a kind of verbal therapy into a temporary state of consciousness characterized by a considerably higher critical acuity than their IQ would normally permit.
Architects also use interviews as a way of drawing the attention of the interviewing magazines to where the real debate is taking place; to the themes and problems that are really at issue in the production of the environment; and to the kinds of strategies that have to be invented in order to set in motion the development of such megaprojects as Euralille or the gigantic football stadium that Nouvel is currently working on in the plain of St. Denis.
Architectural magazines have, in other words, become part of a media-dominated culture. They criticize less but fascinate and dazzle to the extent that they succeed in giving an impression of being part of the professional circuit about which they write. In many cases they had their origins in specific socio-critical outlooks (as did Archis) but have become more neutral with the passage of years, if only to preserve their broadcasting licenses. It is therefore pointless to look back with nostalgia to the angry layout of the Swiss magazine ABC; or to the casuistic insistency of De 8 and Opbouw; to the aggressive tone of Willem Sandberg and Mart Stam’s Open Oog; or even to the nauseating snobbery of the seventies New York magazine Skyline, which has apparently borne progeny in the form of a so far unsalable journal answering to the name of Any. As with architecture itself, there is no way back to the barricades; the magazines have precious little to seek in the rebellious neighbourhoods; and every bond with specific political ideologies and stances has vanished (although this is not at all the same as saying they are politically or socially apathetic). In analogy to the world-wide explosion of architecture as a cultural discipline and the corresponding mushrooming of associated institutions, there is no way back for the architectural magazines. The haven of comforting commitment has silted up and is closed until further notice.
What I mean to say by this is that the modern architectural magazine long ago stopped its critical following of developments architecture, but exists solely by virtue of its grasp of the rich spectrum of events, organized happenings and (especially) incidents that go together to form today’s architectural culture. There is simply no point in asking an enthusiast like me about my preferences in the area of architecture magazines: I love and read them one and all! I also look passionately forward to the year ahead, in which at least one new architecture magazine is bound to appear on the market and stake a claim to some so far undiscussed segment of culture.
The anonymous architect
Supposing that some tired or underemployed historian were to enter into such a venture, what would a new architecture magazine look like? Note that I have used a time honoured literary trick, the hypothetical premise, to suppress my almost perverse preference for the more pornographic temptations of the contemporary architecture magazine, yes, even to sublimate it while still making it productive for a rather broader professional circle. The said historian would make a magazine that provides insight, both now and in the future, into the way buildings or urban ensembles currently come into existence around the world. It would be a magazine that was less obsessed with exceptional cases (for that is what occupies all the present architecture magazines, without exception) and more with the structures and conditions that surround the commissioning, financing, process development, design and construction of our everyday environment. You could look at it as follows: now that the trend in architectural magazines is for more and more publications to write less and less from the point of view of architectural history, surely it must be commercially attractive to start a magazine that on principle writes about more rather than less? I mean a magazine that deals not with quality but with quantity. This would of course be a radically different kind of magazine and not one that simply adds a pinch of history to the customary ingedients.
In defining his editorial strategy for this hypothetical architecture magazine, the above mentioned historian could make use of a paper written by the Italian architectural historian Carlo Olmo for a symposium organized by the NAi on the occasion of the opening of this building but alas cancelled. In his paper, Olmo called for a demolition of the foundations on which the historicization of contemporary architecture rests, and an end to the writing of an architectural history that is chiefly preoccupied with qualitative exceptions, a position that makes it eminently unsuited to dealing with an architecture based on quantitative parameters. Is there any sense, Olmo asked his invisible audience, in describing the development of present-day architecture using techniques and methods designed by Panofsky and Wittkower for architecture prior to 1800?
Can we actually understand contemporary architecture – i.e. that of the whole twentieth century – in terms of traditional categories such as patronage, commissioning, the studio, architectural handbooks and tractates, when these concepts have changed or have acquired new meanings, or no longer play any part at all in a largely quantity-oriented building production process? Here are some examples: historical studies on decision processes and on commissioning policies invariably talk of the role-patterns of the patron and the architect. But who are these architects? And who are we talking about when we refer to `the’ patrons? In this respect, the huge, media-conscious architecture shows in recent years at Centre Pompidou and the MoMA about Le Corbusier, Tony Garnier, Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright were misleading and mythologizing. They reinforced the convention that `the’ twentieth century architect studied under someone like Peter Behrens, Perret or Tessenow, then went to Rome, and then to Greece and Turkey. On the threshold of the twenty-first century, would it not be better, Olmo wonders, to debate how we can get to grips historically with the anonymous architect who had his training at a polytechnic rather than a prestigious academy, who made his first acquaintance with architecture through magazines and books, and who thereafter has relied principally on the unceasing flood of images disseminated by the modern media of communication? We have to stop writing monographs and go on, at last, to the writing of prosopographies, i.e. studies that concentrate not on the personality and work of the individual, but on the force fields in which individuals are constrained and on the sundry forms of influence to which they are subjected.
Another example. An architecture magazine that doesn’t try to exploit the concept of quality in architectural and urban design, so strongly devalued as that concept is by politics and bureaucracy, but on the contrary succeeds in interpreting the ambivalences of the historical datum of quantity, must inevitably also pay close attention to the quantitative aspects of patronage. From Bestegui to Gualino, from Kahnweiler to Getty or Alessi, or, to keep things local, the Dutch gasworks – the commissioning oligarchy of modern architecture still contributes to the myth of quality of the individual patron. In reality, the anonymous architect works for various markets, and these are virtually without exception impersonal. In other words, most architects do not uphold a personal contact with a patron. The history of twentieth century architecture, including that of today, can not be written from the viewpoint of the quality ideal. Patronage and the choice of architects are generally embedded within complex structures – examples that spring to mind are the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Greater London Council and, in the Netherlands, the decision and planning processes around the five major teaching hospitals, and the planning and preparations for building large comprehensive school clusters under the `Mammoth’ Secondary Education Act in the late sixties. All these have been building projects with a complex `cantieri’ on a quantitative scale comparable only to that of the Delta Works. Yet, in the case of the Dutch examples at least, they have practically never been discussed critically in the magazines and have so far not been given a decent place in any published history of architecture.
Finally, an architecture magazine that is fixated on the unknown mechanisms of quantities and the way they control architectural production will not only have to concern itself with the role of the architect and patron and of their mutual relationships, which have changed so greatly during the last century, with the disappearance of the traditional structures of education and training and with the influence of the media on the iconographic image arsenal of the average architect. It will also have to deal with the question of the role played by architectural magazines in the intellectual and aesthetic development of young architects. Has anyone ever done any research into this? And, in a more general vein, what impact has architectural history (books, magazines, training) had on the public conception of the meaning of architecture in the twentieth century? We don’t know! To quote Carlo Olmo once more: from the twenties until the late sixties, books on the history of that same architecture have had great significance. Architecture was modern as long as it was recognized and interpreted as being so. In those years, the success of a certain series of building types was firmly bound to an explicit iconographic repertoire, to the dissemination of quite a low number of visual images in an edition of unknown size. The early (`white’) work of J.J.P. Oud is a crass and ultimately tragic example of this. Today we know exactly how many copies were printed of Salomon de Bray’s Architectura Moderna (1631), and we know the value of contemporary sales of Diderot’s Encyclopédie and the famous l’Esprit Nouveau to the centime. But nobody has yet devised a method of measuring the impact of the Architectural Review, of Bouw, of the Architectural Record and of Archis on postwar and current architectural production.
I would be happy to make a start, not with a quantitative history of modern architecture, but with the history of an architecture that consists essentially of quantities – of many buildings and many architects. It would be a history with multiple and diverse interpretations, one that takes account of the numerous intangible and barely traceable spheres of influence within which the commissioning, design and production of buildings has taken place during the last fifty years. The magazine that deals with this area is not one I have come across. It must be tucked in somewhere between all kinds of publications, not uninteresting in their own right, about the activities of municipal housing and planning departments; about commercial project development and real estate; about public sector housing; and about the construction of urban projects, parks, roads, railways, harbours and so on. In short, it would look more than anything else like worldwide review of architectural history such as Willem Elschot’s utopian `Wereldtijdschrift’. But who, in this country that is already wallowing in its own surplus of architectural quality, would rush to buy it?
This is the text of Ed Taverne’s speech as requested by the eidtorial board and delivered on 13 January last at a meeting held for those who have worked for Archis during the past year.