Sunday, August 26, 2007

Plug for Someone Who is Not Me

My friend Jessica Westhead launches her debut novel on September 25 at 7:30pm at the Gladstone. I would recommend you check it out.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Big Ideas in Little Packages

Due to space restrictions, my piece in the Star on Sunday about radical architecture magazines was trimmed slightly. I'm posting the full version here, but the only material that was lost was Ezra Pound talking about little magazines and a quote from Derek Webster's piece on the same exhibit in Maisonneuve.

Enjoy or ignore, as you see fit.


Nearly 25 years ago, in March of 1983, novelist Nicholson Baker published an essay in the Atlantic entitled “The Size of Thoughts.” Alternating between wit and lunacy, Baker argues that, “Each thought has a size, and most are about three feet tall, with the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine, or a cigarette lighter, or those tubes of toothpaste that, by mingling several hidden pastes and gels, create a pleasantly striped product.”

Baker goes on to advance three theorems regarding large thoughts. The first is that “All large thoughts are reluctant.” The third theorem is that “Large thoughts depend more heavily on small thoughts than you might think.” But it is Baker’s second theorem that is most relevant to radical journals, regardless of content or stripe, that being, “Large thoughts are creatures of the shade.”

Since the early 1900s, one of the most reliable instruments for the generation of idea shade have been little magazines. Referring to the literary and critical journals that appeared during and after World War I, the term little magazines refers not to the physical dimensions of a given title, but a small circulation publication that spoke with a big, confident voice that belied its size.

Publications such as The Little Review, Criterion, Broom, Poetry, The Egoist, Partisan Review, American Mercury and Blast provided shade for thoughts of various sizes and shapes, from ideas six-feet tall, to mid-sized and subcompact musings – even the floating of an occasional thought bubble. (Sometimes the shade was not sufficient, however – The Little Review was banned for its attempts to serialize James Joyce’s Ulysses.) Writing in The English Journal, in November 1930, Ezra Pound argued that a good little magazine provided a place where “tennis about ideas could be played.” Pound goes on to describe small magazines, variously, as “fugitive periodicals”; “impractical magazines”; “eccentric magazines” and “apparently tawdry and freakish.”

The mechanics of the little magazine remains remarkably stable across decades and genres: give an angry or impatient young woman or man enough shade, and they will try and change the world. Ulysses may have little in common with parabolic arches and crenellated roofs, but during the 60s and 70s, architecture dove into the shade. The result is Clip/Stamp/Fold 2, which is currently being exhibited at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in a show that runs until September 9. Subtitled “The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X – 197X,” Clip/Stamp/Fold 2 was born at Princeton University’s School of Architecture, and is the result of two years of seminars and interviews conducted by Ph.D. students, a project overseen by Professor Beatriz Colomina. The material and research collected by the Princeton students has been augmented by archival material from the CCA’s special collections.

Taken together, the exhibit offers, in the words of architectural critic Reyner Banham, a whole lot of “Wham! Zoom! Zing! Rave!” Banham’s onomatopoeia appeared in issue #3 of New Society in March of 1966, a left-leaning British magazine of social inquiry. Banham went on to explain that “these sound effects are produced by the erupting of underground architectural protest magazines.”

As if to acknowledge the volatile aspects of these magazines, the CCA has chosen to display some of its holdings inside a cluster of two dozen clear plastic bubbles that balance upon metal tripod legs. The bubbles evoke a fire alarm behind glass, and they seem to whisper: in case of architectural emergencies involve stodginess or ossification, smash the plastic and distribute the manifestos, ultimatums and colourful vocabularies of protest within.

The bulk of the Clip/Stamp/Fold 2 exhibit, however, involves an undulated wave of clear plastic that wobbles across the walls of the CCA’s Octogonal Gallery. The long wave serves as a timeline as it displays 70 different covers of key publications, along with contextualizing captions written by the Princeton students. (For a virtual version, visit The covers of these magazines serve as a window into their contents and attitudes toward architecture.

These magazines were avant-garde in both design and content. Issue #8 of the London-based magazine Archigram, for example, contained a Do-It-Yourself “Megastructure Model Kit.” As Dennis Crompton, an editor at Archigram during the 1960s explained in a recent interview for the Clip/Stamp/Fold project, offset lithographic printing allowed small publishers “to take either typewriting or handwriting or sketches or drawings or whatever, and to reproduce them. So small magazines only became possible when the printing technology became possible as well.”

Experimentation became an imperative and these magazines innovated through design, jiggling size, layout, format and typography. Wild colours and fonts abound, along with strange collages. Clip-Kit, a British magazine published during the 1960s, did Archigram one better– the entire publication required assembly. As Irene Sunwoo, one of the Princeton students involved in the exhibit writes, “the magazine was comprised of three installments of A4 pages published over a six-month period. Readers could ‘clip’ the magazine pages into a plastic binding manufactured by M&M Binding Ltd. Company, who paid for advertising within Clip-Kit and provided the editors with free samples of the clip in order to promote the new product to architects.”

Meanwhile, Marxism spilt across magazine pages like so much red wine, along with articles by cutting-edge theoreticians like Paul Virillo, Guy Debord, Umberto Eco, Charles Jencks, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard. And radical content meant radical editorial approaches. Craig Buckley, another Princeton student involved in the exhibit, writes that the first two issues of the Parisian magazine Utopie “emphasized dialogue: a marginal column ran though the magazine allowing members of the editorial committee to comment upon each other’s texts.” (At the risk of being snarky, it is telling that this innovation did not survive. Attaining utopia under most circumstances is tough enough. Utopia via committee is all but impossible.)

Not only did Utopie (which published its first issue in May of 1967) cut through its own text, it also attempted to cut across disciplines with an editorial board that mixed urbanists, architects and sociologists. Other magazines, meanwhile, debated fine gradations of topics and subtopics, burrowing deep into the shade.

But despite the serious work required to deconstruct mainstream architecture, some of these little magazines found room for humour. The cover of Bau #1/2, a Vienna journal that was published in 1968, included a photo illustration of a huge chunk of yellow Emmenthal that dwarfed the Vienna skyline. As Craig Buckley writes, “If the cubic globular structure of the cheese appears strangely contemporary from our own point of view, the selection of Emmenthal was at the time polemical, literalizing a local expression commonly used to describe ‘bad’ architecture.” (These days, contemporary architects, like Wil Alsop are inclined to take a huge chunk of marble cheese, elevate it with industrial strength toothpicks and leave it hanging over OCAD.)

The Italian magazine Casabella, meanwhile, featured a gorilla on the cover of its July, 1972 issue and two years later published a cartoon of the Chrysler and Empire state building laying in bed, clearly post-coital. And ARse (short for “Architects for a Really Socialist Environment”) was designed to give the Architectural Review a kick in the trousers.

Clip/Stamp/Fold 2 demonstrates that little magazines, be they architectural or otherwise, can act in ways that larger magazines are unable. Little magazines are more nimble and their smaller circulation and specialized focus allow them to fail gloriously, if the occasion demands it. As James Wines, a contributing editor to On Site, wrote in #5/6, the magazine’s final issues, “We were criticized for being too flippant, too serious, too esoteric, too radical, too ambiguous, too funky, too sleek, too big, too small.”

At their best, little magazines generate new conversations, and usher into existence writing and ideas that would otherwise not exist. Little magazines respond to, reply and challenge one another. In so doing they create the shade required for new approaches to germinate. Editors help cultivate ideas until they are ready to be released into a larger arena. The influence and success of little magazines is not earned in spite of their small circulation and relative obscurity, but precisely because of it.

The Clip/Stamp/Fold 2 exhibit also offers the notion that because of the “Zoom” and “Zing” generated by these architectural magazines, professional and mainstream publications also experienced “moments of littleness.” This challenges, in some ways, the notion that little magazines must, by necessity have a limited circulation, but it does reinforce the importance of the attitude and engagement a magazine has with its readers. Sometimes larger magazines and newspapers can offer a good game of idea tennis too.

After spending a few hours with these magazines, it’s hard not to leave the CCA wondering about the state of little magazines today. “Clip/Stamp/Fold demonstrates how implacably economic forces have shaped publishing and architecture from the 1980s onwards,” writes Derek Webster, in the current issue of Maisonneuve. “Just as surely as politics has moved away from idealism, magazines have become leaner, more focused vehicles for advertisers’ needs and readers’ specialized interests.” It’s a valid complaint, but not a particularly new one. Already in 1930, Ezra Pound was complaining that the system of publishing a magazine for less than its printing costs, and recovering the shortfall through advertising, was having a detrimental effect on the culture of ideas. “In the new system the contents were selected rigorously on the basis of how much expensive advertising they would carry,” he writes in The English Journal. “They leave a need for intellectual communication unconditioned by considerations as to whether a given idea or a given trend in art will ‘git ads’ from the leading corset companies.”

Little magazines, it should be pointed out, do not have a monopoly on shade. Nicholson Baker provides no explanation for where large thoughts come from, or how they form or coalesce, but he does observe that, “Small thoughts are happy to run around in their colorful swimwear under the brutalest of noons, but large thoughts really must have sizable volumes of cool, still air.”

What happens when we remove a vital source of shade? Perhaps it is telling that there are no Canadian architectural magazines included in the CCA exhibit. This might help explain, at least in part, the regrettable Toronto architecture of the 1970s. This is not to suggest that shade fixes everything, but a well-placed chunk of cheese can sometimes work wonders.