A conversation with Jack Self
This was written after attending Limitations, a panel discussion between several editors of ‘archizines’ at the University of Westminster. The next day I interviewed Jack Self in regards to his work as editor of Fulcrum, a student archizine printed by The Bedford Press at the Architectural Association.
Printed with purpose, an ‘archizine’ is an independent, often low-budget, printed architectural publication. The website of the internationally touring Archizines exhibition showcases a steadily growing catalogue of these globally dispersed titles and has compiled a varied selection of styles, modes and agendas; a collection that is described as a series of ‘fanzines, magasines and journals’ and covers a broad spectrum of independent print publications. Within this variety, it is the archizine’s continued print format that is significant, as is stylistic simplicity and localised physical distribution. The archizine is characterised by a specificity of production and distribution within a much broader tradition of architectural communication and criticism, both in print and online.
By continuing to exist as a printed object despite the ease of online publishing, the contemporary archizine maintains a contentious historical link to the movement of ‘little magasines’ that appeared in the 1960’s and 70’s. A technological shift that facilitated the accessibility and cheapening of independent publishing allowed bristling young architects to self-publish. The best known and most cited example is the colourful Archigram, first published in 1961 using offset lithographic printing processes creating a style that now characterises the era. With ideas such as The Plug-In City, Archigram was a radical conceptual attempt to shake up British architecture. In a digital epoch characterised by a not dissimilar paradigm shift of accessibility to publishing technology in the form of the internet, the significance of the decision to continue a print tradition with a simple, even throw-away1, style of design, raises a series of tangential questions.
The creative potential within the apparent constrictions of archizine publishing was the focus for the panel discussion Limitations, held at the University of Westminster on the 24th January 2013 . It was organised by the universities own in house zine, PAPER (Platform for Architectural Projects, Essays and Research) who had brought together three generations of architectural ‘zine’ editors for the panel2, one of whom was Jack Self. Self is student at the Architectural Association, the author of the dystopian architectural novella Scatterbrain and co-editor of Fulcrum, a weekly single sheet zine published by the Bedford Press at the AA which presented the project, The Common Place, as part of the British Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. Before interviewing Self the next day on his own written architectural practice and the significance behind his chosen medium, I went to Limitations to see him in conversation with his peers, predecessors and professors in architectural communication and practice.
Unbeknownst to the audience at the beginning of the discussion, one of the perpetrators of the Pop ‘Zoom Wave’3 movement was actually sitting in the audience. Towards the end of the evening his prescence added a fourth generational voice to the conversation with interesting results. Although the question of nostalgia did not really need any underlining, the presence of David Greene as one of the co-founding members of the infamous Archigram group, brought it to the fore
Approaches to the historical tie between archizines and their predecessors, and the perceived level of import attributed to their connection was very much split amongst the group. PEAR, for example harnesses this nostalgia intentionally, even utilising a situationist font and submits to a paradoxically expensive printing process to maintain an old fashioned style. Conversely, PAPER states quite clearly that it is ‘not nostalgic’ within the very issue that was launched at Limitations.
Inspired by Self’s endeavours at the AA, PAPER has in many ways picked up upon the aura of Fulcrum, and Fulcrum most definitely does not have any time for nostalgia. Stating that “Fulcrum is pursuing architecture of the third millennium”, Self makes a clear conceptual break between his contemporary archizine and the thinking of the previous century. Whilst it may not be possible, or even desirable, to blind-sight ties to the past, Self and Fulcrum have a compellingly forward-looking agenda concerning the relationship between writing, criticism and architectural practice.
In contrast, Mark Prizeman, once an editor of a student-led AA publication himself in the 1980s, stated quite emphatically during the Limitations discussion that “nothing is new”. This somewhat dismissive sentiment was echoed by Greene’s more direct provocations to the younger generation’s sense of originality. The most vehement defence to these critical challenges was provided by Self. Denying his elder’s monopoly on any format, Self classed the zine as “a realistic intervention” that uses “existing mechanisms to put forwards different social agendas”. The repetitive debate between newcomers and their predecessors certainly isn’t anything new. Neither is Self’s demand for a heightened criticality within architectural practice. However, it is important to note that the polemics of Fulcrum are very much located in the present political, economical and social situation and whilst distrustful of utopias, Self is positive about a truly critical architecture’s ability to benefit society. With this goal in mind, he is experimenting with the format of a way of working located in writing that might be capable of bridging the gap between criticality and architectural practice.
The next day I was able to talk to Self directly about his thoughts on how this might occur and why the printed archizine is still a relevant medium in the third millennium.
Hannah Newell: As we saw last night, the moment of the late sixties and Archigram is almost impossible not to bring up when talking about archizines. Why do you think that is?
Jack Self: I had to completely ignore Archigram when I started Fulcrum, otherwise the intimidation and self imposed pressure is to great. It’s kind of a problem at the AA. Whenever someone starts a publication, everyone says “oh, like Archigram” and I don’t think we are going to be as super-cool as them!
None-the-less, I don’t see any reason why we should be intimated by it. I think there is a fetishisation of that era because those are the decades that our parents, the baby-boomers, had the most fun. It’s a kind of cultural inertia that has dragged behind the baby-boomer generation, heavily influencing our contemporary interpretation of the second half of the twentieth century. It was also, just in terms of demographics in the West, a time when the vast majority of the population were young. That allowed for popular culture to exist in a way that is impossible today because we don’t make up the majority of society. My hope is that as they age we will be liberated from a lot of the hang ups, especially the aesthetic and visual tropes of the twentieth century.
Making a clear break from the Zeitgeist and the paradigms of the twentieth century is very important for Fulcrum. Partially due to the internet all historical periods appear to be presented simultaneously and so the twentieth century continues to factor heavily into the way we understand nostalgia and the way we evolve our technologies. But I do think it will become less important as we move forward.
HN: One of the key topics of discussion at Limitations was the relevance of the zine in the internet age. What made you decide to put Fulcrum online and does that create any problems for you in terms of it’s intentions as a printed object?
JS: We didn’t initially think that Fulcrum would ever have an online presence. The idea was to communicate directly to a body of students. I see it as a form of spatial communication, perhaps an equivalent to standing on a soap box: people within reach of your voice are able to hear what it is you are saying and they may choose to ignore it or not, but you have a particular spatial occupancy. The internet is the complete opposite of that. It’s a completely aspatial form of communication. It’s not that you have no sense of control of who it is that you reach or who your audience might be, but it’s certainly a lot less specific about who it is that you are communicating with.
On previous iterations of the site there was no way to read Fulcrum on the screen, but eventually I had enough emails and Facebook comments asking me to please make it available that I caved and put it online. It was initially just an archival response, but then it began to become apparent that it was going to have another kind of life online as our readership increased.
As it is, the way that Fulcrum exists online is kind of unusual. It doesn’t exist as a completely digitised product. It’s just a scan of a piece of paper. The choice to scan the the printed object is important for me as that was always the intention; that it would be a physical thing. It’s still not an easy thing to share online. It’s not a blog post. There isn’t a little ‘share this’ button. So I still hope that people download it as a pdf and I hope that they print it out. I noticed that Dan Hill, who runs City of Sound, wrote a blog post about a month ago about Fulcrum and that he had downloaded all the pdfs and printed them out at full size in order to have a sense of what it was like to actually read a copy. I thought that was quite nice.
HN: So perhaps there is a possibility of it having a different kind of spatiality through the process of digitisation?
JS: I think that what is interesting for me is the feedback loops; to see that translation from the printed to the digital and then ideally back to the physical again. Actually a whole bunch of them turned up in Venice when I was there for the British pavilion’s Venice Takeaway project at the 2012 Beinnale with The Commonplace issues. I thought that they must have been downloaded from the site, but the people who had them said that they had photocopied them from originals that a friend of theirs had had at Princeton University in the US. As it happens, I sent some copies of Fulcrum to a guy I know at Princeton about a year ago and he made photocopies of them to give to people. Someone there had photocopied the photocopies and passed them on. It was a kind of weird process by which the physical object reproduces itself outside of the digital. My initial intention was always to have it as a physical thing; to be a spatial form of communication. I think that with Fulcrum there is a resistance against the complete digitisation of the publication and I’m glad to see that certain readers have picked up on that.
HN: I recently read your novella Scatterbrain, which had some interesting ideas about how technology can dramatically change the built environment. I wondered if there was a connection between the content of the story – how you think technology can change our relationship to the physical world – and the way in which you choose to express that concept as a downloadable novella?
JS: The way that I would frame that is to think about what constitutes an architectural project. Mark Cousins, who is head of history and theory at the AA, makes a very convincing argument that the beginning of architecture as a discipline was the beginning of the mass produced drawing. If you go back to Alberti and Polladio, the success of their architecture is not necessarily because they were the greatest architects, but because they were the first ones to really embrace the book and the reproduction of images. As a discipline architecture didn’t really exist before then. The idea that architectural projects exist in drawings rather than necessarily in buildings was very influential in the 1980s and 90s within the deconstructivist movement. For my own work, I do tend to think that projects can exist in texts, so something like Scatterbrain and Fulcrum are architectural projects, even though they may not include any drawings.
Really technology is integral to this whole question. Architecture as a discipline becomes possible because of the invention of the printing press. A different kind of architecture becomes possible at the moment at which CAD (Computer Aided Design) becomes wide spread. The plotter then becomes a common place object in the architectural office and the render becomes the stock and trade of the way in which we communicate ideas about the built environment. Our relationship to the internet is equally significant. What I wanted to explore in Scatterbrain was what the physicality of the internet really is and what would it look like if you built the internet with today’s technology, although it’s now already out of date as a project because the technology moves so quickly!
But then there’s the meta-concept as well: how can you present that kind of exploration in a way that is easily communicable to other people? I really don’t think that the best way to communicate architectural ideas is through the architectural portfolio. They tend to be these kind of rare, luxury, bespoke articles that you only show to your parents or your employers and otherwise all the richness of the ideas within them remain kind of locked up. For me, it is very important that whatever project you do, whatever proposition you are trying to make about architecture, is adopted, or is manifested through whatever prevalent technology might be at you disposal and to be as open and as easy to communicate with other people as possible.
HN: Thinking about the importance of communicating and sharing ideas, do you think that our use of the internet has shaped how we emphasise the need for networking, the platform and the discussion? All of these seem key to the architectural zines community.
JS:I think that’s true. In 2008, I suddenly found myself without a job after the developer went bust on a project I was working on. My previous stock and trade before, and while, I was studying architecture was as a sub-editor, so I started working in a publishing house on Fleet Street. Whilst I was doing that I needed to find other ways of expressing myself creatively, so I started a blog called Millennium People and through that became connected to an entire network of bloggers. People like Geoff Manauah from BLDG BLOG, Dan Hill, Jonathan Bell who co-edits things magazine and Rob Holmes from Mammoth. That’s also how I was introduced to my current tutor, Liam Young, who was blogging at Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today amongst various other locations. It has taken me five years to actually meet most of the people that I had day to day relationships with! Jonathan and Geoff recently did an issue of Fulcrum, which is was the first time I had had a face to face conversations with either of them.
That era of the blogosphere, the era of independent blogs, which I think is sadly very much disappearing, never had a physical reality. It never had a physical counterpoint for what it was doing. The zine culture on the other hand, perhaps because of the physical artefact, seems to be much more concerned with making it’s structures physically apparent. But of course, the only way you can do that is by bringing the people concerned together in physical locations. Where perhaps with blogs you had the kind of discourse which you could engage with in comment threads, with zines there is no possibility of that. You really do have to have these social meetings. Maybe something like Archizines could be considered as a kind of record store. You don’t necessarily buy or even look at the records, but it becomes a social space in which you can talk about a particular subject and meet like minded people.”
HN: During Limitations you said that you started Fulcrum because of a perceived lack of criticality amongst students at the AA and even a lack of agency within professional architecture…
JS:This is a real concern of mine: that the architects are not realistic about what they can achieve. Part of the problem was summed up last night by David Greene. David mentioned that Mohsen Mostafavi, one of the AA’s former directors, had said that he didn’t really care for English architects and that they were untheoretical pragmatists. I thought was a great phrase to express the incredible attachment to pragmatism – the functionality and the negotiation of the legal frameworks in which they operate – combined with a total lack of political or theoretical critique of their own work or of anyone else’s work.
I’m a great admirer of Rem Koolhaas OMA/AMO structure where an architectural office executes projects and a publication house essentially engages in research. It is a way of producing, in David Garcia’s terms, ‘a manual or handbook’ which helps you to then operate in the field of architecture. It’s a very important relationship and I think it’s no coincidence that Rem’s structure of publishing house/architectural office is becoming more prevalent. However, I think that it’s important to make a distinction between publications which are simply descriptive, that are primarily representative of the architectural office’s appearance, and those publications which are operative: publications which have an intention to be both functional in the advancement of the work of the studio, but also hope to be influential amongst other architects.
HN: Is this the kind of working structure that you would like to emulate in your own practice after you graduate from the AA?
JS: David Garcia’s MAP is an interesting example of a different way of operating. The publication has become much better known than David Garcia’s Studio initially was so the studio is now MAP Architects and you have an interesting kind of feed back loop between the two practices. I think it would be very interesting to explore this way of working more. This year, Fulcrum is making a ‘white paper’ to investigate how market mechanisms, specifically the bond market, can be employed to create more attractive, low cost social housing. It’s an important subject for me. I actually took a year out last year, between the 3rd and 4th year to do a Masters Degree in Philosophy. My dissertation was about the 50p tax rate and, more generally, about the morality of neo-liberal economic theory and the Debt relationship. Or perhaps more precisely, the Credit relationship between the citizen, the State and private enterprise. Over the last thirty or forty years, since perhaps the late seventies, this has become super toxic. The question for me became how can we flip the immorality of the system to think about how the markets desire for profit and stability can be transformed into a social requirement, which is the mass construction of vast volumes of housing.
HN: So, the white paper format might be a way of bringing just such a politicised critical discourse together with a practical outcome?
JS: For me the white paper falls nicely at the junction between those entities in that it explores an idea academically, researches a certain topic in a theoretical way and then makes pragmatic and realistic proposals in an attempt to influence or change a particular field. So yes, I would hope that the future of Fulcrum might be in the format of in-depth white papers, which are, after all, architectural propositions. It might be some other format. I might be that it becomes a design studio. It might be that it becomes a publication. I am a big admirer of people like Eyal Wiezman who always stress that architecture is a precipitation of conflict, whether that’s political, commercial or in Eyal’s case often military conflict. In my own practice, I hope to be situated around the design of financial structures, commercial structures and policy, which might allow the creation of an architecture which serves the purpose that I personally think architecture should serve: the social good.
1Archigram was archived at the University of Westminster in 2010 and has become a highly desirable object in complete contradiction to the intention of its production. Conversely, contemporary zines already exist in a world of digital archiving and are often produced digitally for print. Thereby they are twinned at birth with a digital ‘trace’, which also raises certain quandaries about the nature of their ‘physicality’.
2The panel included: Mark Prizeman co-founder of the magasine NATO at the Architectural Association in 1983; David Garcia MAP Architects who also produce MAP (Manual for Architectural Projects) first published in 2009; Matthew Butcher co-editor of PEAR ( Paper for Emerging Architectural Research) which also began in 2009; Jack Self co-editor of Fulcrum. The discussion was led by Nina Shen-Poblete, student and co-editor of PAPER.
3Reynard Banham, ‘Zoom Wave hits Architecture, New Society, 3rd March 1966