Radical architects and their magazines

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Such Cheek! Those Were the Days, Architects
by Nicolai Ouroussoff
New York Times, February 8th, 2007

IF YOU ARE revolted by today’s slick and fashion-obsessed architecture scene, hurry over to ‘Clip/Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines‘ at the Storefront for Art and Architecture. You’ll feel even worse.

Organized by the architectural historian Beatriz Colomina, the show examines the world of those small magazines from the early 1960s to the end of the 1970s, when the field of architecture was still marked by a playful intellectual and political independence. It’s packed with gorgeous cover images, from copulating robots to an elephant attacking the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan to a skyscraper made of Swiss cheese. Often thrown together on a shoestring budget, the magazines have an intoxicating freshness that should send a shudder down the spine of those who’ve spent the last decade bathed in the glow of the computer screen.

But this is not an exercise in nostalgia. It’s a piercing critique, intended or not, of the smoothness of our contemporary design culture. These magazine covers map out an era when architecture was simmering with new ideas. You’re bound to leave the show with a nagging sense of what was lost as well as gained during the electronic juggernaut of the last three decades.

Part of the magic of this show, which was recently extended for three more weeks, is in the works’ crude immediacy. One side of the gallery is wallpapered in hundreds of colorful magazine covers. On the opposite wall a more detailed timeline maps out the evolution of the culture of architectural magazines, from an obsession with politics and pop culture to a descent into increasingly abstruse and self-involved theoretical debates. The rarest magazines are encased in clear plastic bubbles (made of cheap plastic skylights that the show’s curators bought on Canal Street), evoking time capsules descended from outer space.

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The World in 2030

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The incomparable Culture Archive presents an embarrassment of riches in scanned form; if only there were more sites as good as this. Easier for you to go and look for yourself than waste time reading a poor description of the place.

Random browsing turned up pages from the Earl of Birkenhead’s study of the state of the world a century from 1930. But it’s not the Earl’s prognostications that concern us here, rather the book’s airbrush illustrations by E McKnight Kauffer, an artist and designer better known for his Art Deco poster designs like Metropolis (1926) below.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Metropolis posters
Frank Lloyd Wright’s future city

Enormous structures I: The Illinois

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural genius rather overreached itself with his 1956 proposal for a mile-high skyscraper of 528 floors situated in Chicago and to be named The Illinois. A building of this size would have severely tested the engineering capabilities of the time (bear in mind that the world’s tallest skyscraper was still the Empire State Building) and would provide difficulties even today. Aside from the obvious fire hazards, the topmost floors would need some form of weighting in order to prevent their swaying violently in the wind. Then there’s the question of moving around the people who live or work there. So many elevator and service ducts are required for a structure of this size that the lower floors are almost entirely taken up by the core shafts that run through the building which makes very tall buildings uneconomical when so much valuable rental space is lost.

Wright was 89 years old in 1956 so The Illinois represented his last hurrah; having changed the face of 20th century architecture he’d obviously decided to go out on a high point, as it were. I often wonder whether he expected that it might eventually be built, just as the medieval cathedral builders drew up plans that they knew they’d never see completed in their lifetimes.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Frank Lloyd Wright’s future city