Writing Architecture Project: A Printed Thing. AP+, 2012. pp 160.
In an article for the Design Observer in 2011, Mark Lamster wrote that the architectural monograph was in no great need of reinvention.
His piece, entitled The Architectural Monograph: A Defence, proposed that the genre could be used as a mode of assertion – a vessel for self-recognition and thereafter, dissemination of ideas.
An architectural monograph is a peculiarity in that it attempts to reconcile two artistic disciplines existing as, perhaps, the most polarised of all the arts – writing and designing buildings.
The reason they are so far removed from one another is speed. Both disciplines are governed by ideas, yet each must execute them within very different time frames.
With writing, an idea is barely allowed time to gestate before its creator has articulated and added to it within its formal arrangement. In this case, text.
A Printed Thing journeys through various different architectural moments in an attempt to convey the ideas that have floated through AP’s creative mind
With architecture, ideas require a greater period of nurturing and development before they are able to materialise into the form of a building.
The architectural monograph, therefore, is an object caught in a temporal frenzy. It is read in the fraction of time it takes an architect to imagine, design and construct a building, much less a collection of them.
It has the responsibility of quite instantaneously communicating the essence of the practice of architecture. A practice wherein the act of evoking contemporariness is an eternal challenge.
Architecture Project (AP) has sat with that challenge for 20 years. To mark this period of time, their publication – entitled A Printed Thing – seeks to uncover precisely what Lamster attests to: communicating the essence of an architecture firm.
The book does not label nor present itself as a traditional monograph. It is a compact object, far removed from the lavishness of the latter typology, which has been described by Martin Filler as “little more than glossy hardcover promotional brochures to entice an uninformed and impressionable lay clientele” (source: Is the architect’s monograph our latest endangered species? Architectural Record, March 2011). On the contrary, this publication is, above all, an exploratory thing.
A Printed Thing journeys through various different architectural moments in an attempt to convey the ideas that have floated through AP’s creative mind throughout the practice’s life. It begins with a dust jacket – strategically removing itself from the category of the glossy brochure through its matte, laminated finish, muted choice of typeface colour and sober fonts.
It is here that the book’s temporal schizophrenia starts with a text-overlaid image of Vittorio Boron’s early 20th-century images of the Maltese islands, fashioned by Rory Apap Brown.
Once inside, the notion of ‘the present’ in the eyes of AP is obscured through the complex layering of historical versus quasi-futuristic ideas.
Unwittingly (or not), this chronological weaving mirrors the sensibility of the way in which AP has steadfastly chosen to operate when designing buildings. It bounces from past to present to future without prejudice or singular allegiance, but still always in relation to one quest – creating buildings which are symbols of contemporariness according to the ideas of the practice.
The undulating quality of this publication does not lie solely with its temporal meandering. It is also an exploration of materiality.
Firstly, the materiality of content – while Bettina Hutschek’s Columbidae possesses a dream-like quality, existing in between the realms of memory and reality, Ephraim Joris’s Between Research and Practice has the feeling of a completely realistic scientific analysis.
Secondly, it also lies in the materiality of structure, with variation in paper thickness and texture occurring throughout the sequence of essays. This refusal of material linearity echoes once again the tension between the idea, its capture and its articulation.
Again, book echoes practice, as AP has dabbled in varying structures in order to parlay its ideas. Its history includes not just the creation of buildings but writings, exhibitions, symposia and more.
The stylistic quality of A Printed Thing consolidates the unconsolidated nature of the book. From Hans Ibelings’s clinically articulated interview with the founders of the firm, entitled Being Maltese; to Konrad Buhagiar’s account of his Thoughts on a Liberetto for a Maltese Opera, which is written in a creative, non-fiction style of memoir, mingled with historical fact and fantasy.
Like the rest of its fluctuating nature, the voices expressed within the publication are varied. The somewhat adolescent discovery of self in Franziska Von Stenglin’s photographic essay Portrait of an Office, echoes at a completely different pitch to Guillaume Dreyfuss’s lucidly informed piece on Novelletta, a theoretical-cum-physical vision of Valletta as projected by AP itself.
Not even language can be held still within the publication, as it jolts from English to Maltese, to line drawing, to photograph, to elevations and so on.
Indeed, A Printed Thing buttresses Lambert’s defence of the architectural monograph in its role to “provide something beyond what might be found on a firm’s website, perhaps expanded content or a special attention to the physical experience of the printed page”.
Yet, this publication does also that which Lambert does not ask it to. It reinvents the monograph genre. It does this through its unapologetic refusal to stop asking questions, to tie itself down to one moment, one texture, one style, one voice, one idea.
It does it through its refusal to abandon its search for what it means to be contemporary. A search which has occurred in parallel (albeit in a different speed) through the architectural output of the practice which this thing seeks to represent.
Ann Dingli is author of www.criticalspeak.wordpress.com, a site for commentary on art, design and urban issues.
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