Behind glass Pamphlet Architecture is on view at a83 Gallery

Frozen in Time

Behind glass Pamphlet Architecture is on view at a83 Gallery

Exhibit A reading room, 1980 (Courtesy Stevel Holl archives and a83 Gallery)

Pamphlet Architecture
83 Grand Street
New York
Open through October 4

a83 Gallery’s most recent show, Pamphlet Architecture, attempts to reinvigorate the legacy of the experimental publication just in time for its new issue. The exhibition displayed all thirty-six previous issues since the publication’s founding in 1977 by industry heavyweights Steven Holl and William Stout.

While the editions themselves, along with archival ephemera from the project’s formative years, are protected behind glass, reproductions of architectural drawings originally featured in Pamphlet’s pages are elegantly displayed on the perimeter of the gallery’s main room. Each drawing, printed as a risograph (a83’s medium of choice), seemingly floats at eye-level, marching all in a perfect row. A gentle fold at the top of a sheet is held up in tension by a clear string, doing away with the need for frames.

The scabs and scarsof Lebbeus Woods’s postwar theory, published in Pamphlet 15. (Courtesy Steven Myron Holl Foundation)

From its conception, Pamphlet Architecture set out to assert imaginative architectural ideas from young and emerging architects operating at the margins of the field. As opposed to the mainstream architectural publishing at the time, each issue gave these authors—and still does in its newer issues—the freedom to dive into radical topics and niche personal research. The format and editorial reach of the founders proved to be a catapult for outstanding careers: Pamphlet Architecture boasts an incredible roster of authors/architects who went on to become household names; Lebbeus Woods, Zaha Hadid, Michael Sorkin, Michael Cadwell, and of course Steven Holl himself.

Today’s show, however, breaks the publication’s serial focus by putting every one of these individual perspectives together, suggesting an interesting dialogue between architects across very different periods—40 years’ worth. Yet, the viewer cannot appreciate this entirely through the covers alone, which is the only way to interact with them in the exhibit. a83’s hanging prints help in that regard, giving us some insight into the pages’ iconic drawings and images like Lebbeus Woods’s famous Einstein Tomb from Pamphlet Architecture 6 (1980) and more recent ones like Smout Allen’s Architecture for a Restless Landscape from Pamphlet Architecture 28 (2007).

Drawings from Pamphlet 1, titled Bridges. (Courtesy Steven Myron Holl Foundation)

Among the ephemera are letters and correspondence that offer insight into the founding mission of the publication. A 1919 letter from German architect Bruno Taut to his friends is quoted in one of Holl’s original notes, revealing the references around the early years of the publication in the 70’s and 80’s:

“Today there is hardly anything to build and when we can build something somewhere, we do so in order to live. Or are you fortunate enough to be commissioned to do something interesting?”

This is poignant to me as a young practitioner and recent graduate who is similarly trapped in the grind of designing for a paycheck. When will I get the chance to do something interesting? I ask myself. Many of my colleagues share this sentiment that seems to be recurrent among young architects of every generation. Architecture is a field in perpetual crisis. But it gives rise to the idealistic nature of the speculations that have fed these pamphlets.

(Courtesy Steven Myron Holl Foundation)

The publication’s multiple editions serve as a register of architectural crises, or rather crises that architects have been concerned with. Lebbeus Woods’ issue 15, War and Architecture (1993), is a notable example. Woods revises the process of reconstructing a city from the rubble, exploring the ties between architecture and violence in response to the ravaging of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War where the architecture itself was targeted for its cultural relevance. His monumental “new tissue” proposals for reconstruction as a metaphor for scabs and scars may lack the restorative qualities a city needs in practice, but the issue offers a powerful reflection on architecture’s role in the collective imaginary of a war-torn community. Pamphlet Architecture stands out in giving voice to such philosophical endeavors that have since percolated into the architectural lingo.

As for the show, I can’t say it does a great job at giving the public enough context on the publication’s legacy. The public is guided through the material with a leaflet that provides titles and citations, but little is said in the exhibit about the relevance or context of the material. In the brief we learn about the show’s reference to “Exhibit A” assembled by Pamphlet Architecture in 1980 (the original brief of which is included in the archives): the display cases, for example, were loaned by Holl’s upstate compound, ‘T’ Space Gallery, and resemble the reading table designed for the original exhibition.

The reading table at Exhibit A, curated by Pamphlet Architecture, 1980. (Courtesy Steven Myron Holl Foundation)

But the nod to this reading aspect makes it feel all the more absent in the show. The way the editions are presented as images, rather than books, reminded me of how we encounter many publications on Instagram, quickly scrolling images rather than writings. I was left wondering how publications should be exhibited, bearing in mind the challenges of exposing original, out-of-print copies to wear and tear. But there are ways around that; in this case, Princeton Architectural Press has published two volumes reissuing the first twenty issues, Pamphlet Architecture 1-10 (1998) and Pamphlet Architecture 11-20 (2011). They would have been a great supplement to the exhibit. Without being able to flip through its pages, Pamphlet Architecture felt frozen in time, a historical archive of a defunct project.

But in fact, the magazine is far from finished. On September 22, a83 hosted the launch of Pamphlet Architecture 37: Active Atmospheres. Prompted in October of 2021 in the wake of the global pandemic, issue editor Catty Dan Zhang and her design practice, Temporary Office, explore the transient space between the digital and physical spaces. According to Zhang, this line “has become evermore blurry since the pandemic.” With this second addition to the exhibit, we did get the chance to dig into the latest pages of this enduring publication—if you bought the copy, of course. I did so with the hopes of finding the same theoretical stimulation of some of its predecessors; I didn’t manage to find it.

The launch was kicked off with a conversation between Zhang and artist Anthony Titus that attempted to highlight the relevance of the issue, but was instead a bleak conversation that revealed little about the work. While I appreciate the exercise of intellectual conversation for its goal for greater communal understanding, I’m often paralyzed by the capacity of architectural thinkers to drift away into non-issues. Call me old fashioned, but I crave some of the good-old architecture in what we lovingly call architectural discourse. The conversation covered some observations about our new forms of spatial interactions in the age of remote work, but it didn’t go beyond pointing out the obvious. Titus’s revelations were the parallels between the pixel in Zhang’s practice and the pigment in his own as their most basic units of study. An interesting, but open, observation about the new colorful aesthetics born out of our exposure to multiple screens left me waiting for some sort of social commentary to close it. I struggled to find any relevance in the work despite their many attempts at presenting it as a clear response to post-pandemic life.

(Courtesy Steven Myron Holl Foundation)

So did the audience, it seems. Among the most engaged was an engineer whose seemingly off-topic questions about the growing role of BIM in the field somehow managed to feel more relevant to today’s challenges. Another person in the audience didn’t seem to buy the arguments either, even going so far as to ask whether designing for this transient space is a “cop-out” from designing in more detail. Just like me, the audience seemed to have a similar craving for the physical as I did.

Beyond my own failure to find the excitement I expected from Pamphlet Architecture, a83 continues to give us the space we need to examine projects in person and come to our own conclusions. Not all shows can be a banger, but a83 is a banger of a space.

Osvaldo Delbrey is an architectural designer in New York searching for excitement in architectural conversations.