For the past month, Boston’s experimental design exhibition space Pinkcomma Gallery has hosted Publishing Practices, an exploration of architectural publishing throughout the last century. Designed by architect and editor Michael Kubo in conjunction with gallery directors (and fellow architects) Mark Pasnik and Chris Grimley, the exhibit provides an in-depth look into the relationship between reading, writing, and design.
I spoke with Michael Kubo about the exhibit and its history.
How would you describe Publishing Practices for people who won’t get to see it in person?
It’s broadly an exhibition about the production of books in architecture and what their role has been for the people that have produced them. The second half is about the reception of those books; what books have mattered to people that have gone through some sort of formation as an architect.
How did you decide on the specific way that you were going to explore those issues?
On the one hand, it came out of my professional background as somebody trained as an architect but who’s worked almost exclusively in editing and publishing. Having coming out of that background, one of the sources was just a self-reflexive question: to try to sort of track the broader history of architects who have operated through publishing and find a place for myself in the history of the field.
More directly, a big part of the case studies of books written by architects came out of my teaching last year at the University of Buffalo, when I was doing the Reyner Banham fellowship there. I was doing research on publishing as a form of architectural practice. It was primarily through teaching a seminar there that I built up the research on these case studies. It was very much conducted as a teaching exercise to look with students at examples of publishing practices by architects and, in a way, track the history of architectural theory in the last hundred years through these books.
The third source was this survey that we had conducted over the summer. That survey came out of the questions that were generated through the teaching. I realized that a big part of the question was about the reception of books and their influence, and, in a way, about the status of the book today—whether anybody reads books anymore and how they even matter. And I realized that the only way for us to really know the answer to those questions was just to conduct a huge survey. We asked people to name five books that mattered to them in their formation as an architect, and then asked them a series of general questions about their reading habits—about what they read, how they read, where they get their information from, and then what they think is going to happen to books in the future. And that generated all the information that the data graphics in the exhibit come out of.
What was your methodology for the survey?
We did it in two ways. We sent it out by email to about 450 people, and that came out of sort of who we knew and who we had access to. That ended up being sort of a curated list of practitioners, teachers, academics, writers, people involved in publishing—in a way, it was sort of a slice through the key people in the field. But we also got it posted in a lot of blogs and design websites where we were trying to get it out to a much more general public. We ended up having about 150 people replying, split almost exactly evenly between ones that we were getting from websites and ones that we were getting from people that we had more direct contact with.
What surprised you most (or least) about the results of that survey?
I think the thing that surprised me the most was how flat it was. I wasn’t surprised by the ones that were the top hits; S,M,L,XL was number one, Delirious New York was number two. The top five listed books basically reaffirmed the case studies that we had chosen already. So in that sense, there was no surprise in the books that turned out to be the most popular. But the big surprise for me was that after those first four or five books, the survey was incredibly flat—no book was listed more than eight or nine times out of 150 people. That was a little surprising. And also that they didn’t seem to be tied to particular moments in time. I was expecting that different books would emerge as having been very popular either at the moment they were published or in a particular era when people were in school. That was also totally flat. S,M,L,XL was listed equally by people who went to school in the 70s or the 80s and in the 90s and the 2000s.
In the exhibit statement, you say that “architects and critics have exploited the specific combination of publishing and building practices to perform together as a critical double form of architectural practice, as parallel strands of work that are assumed to support each other, but which in reality often reveal a provocative (and in some cases deliberate) misalignment.” Can you give me an example?
Through the case studies, it became clear that some architects who have operated just as much as publishers have understood very well the difference between publishing a book and making a project, and they never wanted those two to reinforce each other in a one-to-one matchup—Le Corbusier is one of them, and Rem (Koolhaas) is another one of them. They both used their books to sort of excavate a space in which they could stake out certain kinds of architectural projects, and in their publishing they used their architectural projects to make certain kinds of theoretical arguments, but they were never completely aligned. For example, Corb does a lot of things in his architectural projects that don’t correspond to his theoretical statements, and that’s quite deliberate. On the other hand, he makes certain kinds of general claims in his books that aren’t backed up by anything he does in his architecture. So he kind of exploits the freedoms in each of those two spaces rather than trying to get them to match up exactly, where the books are 100% explanations for the buildings, and the buildings are kind of 100% literal examples of the things he talks about in the book. Eisenman, for example, is somebody who does want that kind of integration—he wants them to be perfectly aligned.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Sarah Wesseler
Publishing Practices can be viewed at Pinkcomma until October 15, after which it will travel to Vamos Architects’ New York exhibition space.