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Beatriz Colomina discloses why she finds Playboys so academically fascinating

As director of the architecture PhD programme at Princeton University, Beatriz Colomina has led research into experimental architectural publications from the 1960s and 70s

Opening in 2006 as an exhibition in New York, then travelling as a ‘growing archive’ around the world, this body of work was published at the end of last year as the book Clip, Stamp, Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X to 197X (Actar). In January, the AR caught up with Colomina to talk about publications past and present - and her new interest in Playboy

Architectural Review What made you pick little magazines as an area of interest?

Beatriz Colomina When I started directing the PhD programme in 2000, I saw the students really isolated in their own research and I wanted to do something collaborative to bring them together. Most of the students wanted to do dissertations on the 1960s and 70s, so I thought of the little magazines as a way to understand the culture of that period. Publications such as Archigram in London or Oppositions in New York and so many others had an incredible impact, about which people were having amnesia.

AR Why did you widen your research to bigger, commercial magazines?

BC We realised something extraordinary: that very traditional, established magazines of that period suddenly changed. For a time Hans Hollein edited the really boring Bau in Austria and produced an extraordinary series with unbelievable graphics and content. At Architectural Design [AD] in London, it switches from a very beautiful magazine edited by Kenneth Frampton that published the work of the Smithsons very well, to Robin Middleton and Peter Murray taking over and featuring the 1960’s radicals, losing all their advertising, using cheaper paper stock, and becoming counter cultural. Even Casabella and Domus changed. It was the small influencing the big rather than the other way round.

AR Do you think we’re witnessing second wave of that with the internet?

BC Certainly mainstream media like newspapers and television now rely on sources that are not your typical journalists. With the famous fire of Rem Koolhaas’s work in Beijing, CNN was relying on images from YouTube uploaded from cellphones. In architecture if all the images of a new building are immediately put online, either by the architect or even just people with a camera, what is the role of an architectural journal today? I’m sure there is one, but it has to change.

AR What do you think about the state of architectural education at the moment?

BC Nothing very extraordinary has happened in a very long time. In fact the project I started last year with the students is called Radical Pedagogy. So much has been done on the prewar period such as the Bauhaus, that we’re focusing on the post-war years, from Carbondale and the School of Venice to Peter Eisenman’s Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies, Alvin Boyarsky at the AA of course, perhaps Matthias Ungers at Cornell. I have the impression that around this time the most radical experiments in architectural pedagogy happened and that we’ve been spinning the wheel for a while. Even the most successful schools are now recycling techniques.

AR How come you’ve started researching Playboy?

BC It kept coming up in our work on the 1960s-70s. Hans Hollein, for example, mentioned in his Clip, Stamp, Fold interview that when he went to Moscow to see Leonidov for Bau they confiscated his Playboys. I began to realise that it was a very important journal for that generation and started to find it on lots of architectural bibliographies. Everyone says you could read Playboy for the features, but you could also look at it for the architecture. Nobody has studied this and I think it’s fascinating; as a woman I can probably get away with it more. The librarians at Princeton were very alarmed when I asked them to buy all
the Playboys from 1950 to 1970 - they keep them in the PhD room instead the library.

AR How does Playboy treat architecture in its pages?

BC Everything that happened in architectural discourse is presented in the magazine butit’s sexualised. They started featuring Mies and Frank Lloyd Wright, and then in the 60s and 70s they started Playboy Pads, a series that reshot existing buildings - such as the House of the Century by Ant Farm and the apartment of Charles Moore; at the time he was the Dean of School of Architecture at Yale, which could not be more stuffy, and to have his home presented as a Playpad is perverse, as he was gay.

AR Where is the project up to?

BC The Nai/Bureau Europe in Maastricht immediately said they’d take it as an exhibition and we’re working on a book with essays by the students. We’ve already been to the Playboy Corporation in Chicago to work in the archives and interview key players. For the photo shoot of designers such as Eames, Saarinen, and Nelson alongside their chairs, for example, the archive reveals fascinating correspondence with them worrying about what they’re going to wear. In the spring I hope to go to LA and interview Hugh Hefner. Of course, the magazine objectifies women, but it also embraced liberation too. It’s more complicated than you’d think.

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