505 West Pico Boulevard
Through June 4
Paper architecture—that is, speculative architectural work designed to exist in two-dimensional media—has a history that stacks on top of itself. Young architects in the 1960s, tired of hearing the swan song of Late Modernism, drew up Suitloons and New Babylon in line with the sharp countercultural swing of the decade. Short on job opportunities amid global financial, political and energy crises, many architects of the 1970s turned to paper as a venue for criticizing the culture of late capitalism. And those of the 1980s and 90s—still short on jobs—went back to the drawing board to assert architecture’s autonomy as a practice while toying with newfangled digital tools and Gilles Deleuze.
We are two decades into the 21st century and three years into the COVID pandemic—what makes paper architecture tick?
In search of an answer, or even a direction, I scanned the walls of Pressing Matters, the current exhibition on view at Modest Common, curated by Patrick Geske and Cody Miner in collaboration with Clara Syme and Owen Nichols of the New York–based gallery and printmaking studio a83. Modest Common is a Los Angeles–based gallery that happens to be owned by Wes Jones, a virtuosic part-time paper architect in his own right, while a83 is the former home of John Nichols Printmakers and Publishers, a gallery/printmaking studio that printed some of the most exemplary late 20th century paper architecture.
Pressing Matters showcases the printmaking of eight architecture practices that together reveal one possible answer: Young architects these days are simply in far less cultural consensus than they once were. “Perhaps the one thing that unites these practices,” a83 cofounder Syme posited to AN, “is that they all see the utility of working in the print medium.”
But if this is the case, then the works on display are likely a consequence—as well as a critique, in many cases—of the cultural fracturing wrought by the internet, as well as the pressure social media places on all creatives to forge unique identities.
With an interest in “self-design and the human body’s interface with its environment,” for instance, the one piece on display by Common Accounts (Miles Gertler and Igor Bragado) composes lingering, bodiless hands against a sea of emojis that recalls a screenshot of an online collaboration platform—if business software was far more tender. “The co-directors live far apart these days,” Owen Nichols, the other a83 cofounder and son of John Nichols, told AN. “Hands of Longing is their way of visualizing the mix of connection and loneliness of internet software that makes it possible to collaborate on visual work across a great distance.
A series of serigraphs by Architensions collectively re-present The Playground, the firm’s installation of towers and scaffolds featured prominently at Coachella 2022. As one of the most photographed events in world history thanks to its cache on Instagram and Tik Tok, Architensions went out of their way to take ownership over the imagery of The Playground by depicting its towers as abstract compositions to draw them closer to the radical compositions of Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette.
Owen Nichols throws his own design firm, Chibbernoonie, into the mix to combine a wide variety of screen printing techniques that bear the digital markings of online software. “We use digital tools that offer a lot of possibilities, but the drawings produced from them were crafted with just as many constraints as any other object when they become serigraphs,” he explained. A series of squiggly drawings, Contrast 1-6 (2019), at first appear like quickly produced gestural Photoshop markings. Playing a color game using the rules set by Bauhaus artist Johannes Itten, their sharp contrasts demonstrate the subtle details of the transition from digital to physical imagery made possible with the careful hands at a83.
The act of printmaking that unites all of the practices, then, can ultimately be seen as a form of resistance against the endless scroll enabled by social media pages. Ravenous for content, the internet is now an arena for architects to compete against short attention spans and each other in the process. Exhibitions like Pressing Matters, in other words, draw architects out of the boundlessness of the computer screen and into social space with one another, as well as into a discourse on space that unites paper architects across decades.
Shane Reiner-Roth is a lecturer at the University of Southern California.