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'Collaboration is the secret life of architecture': Beatriz Colomina and the value of collective authorship

Pyjama party performance beatriz colomina architectural review

The internationally acclaimed feminist writer shines a spotlight on sexual prejudice and representation in architecture

Is there still a place for history and theory in architectural education, and in architectural culture more broadly speaking? Three years ago, Joan Ockman wrote that the reflective siblings of practice were being squeezed out of the academy in favour of ‘research’, which, with its intimations of scientific rigour and monetisable results, is more appealing to increasingly market-oriented universities. Thankfully, although a generation of big theoretical beasts are drifting into emeritude across the Atlantic, this is not the whole picture. 

One of the most enduringly vital voices in the field belongs to Beatriz Colomina, who has been at the forefront of the discipline since the publication of her texts on sexuality and the mass media in the early 1990s. The subjects they tackled have only grown more urgent in the intervening decades, and yet these books remain touchstones in what have become considerable bodies of literature.

Sexuality and space beatriz colomina architectural review

Sexuality and space beatriz colomina architectural review

In her book Sexuality and Space Colomina asks how space is ‘already inscribed in the question of sexuality’

Cca exhibition beatriz colomina architectural review

Cca exhibition beatriz colomina architectural review

Source: CCA

Interested in the media as a site of innovation and debate, Colomina exhibited magazines from the 1960s and 70s in Clip/Stamp/Fold 2: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines at the CCA in 2007

After completing her architectural studies in Barcelona, Colomina arrived in New York in 1980 to take up a fellowship at Richard Sennett’s recently established New York Institute for the Humanities. It was a formative experience, where she found ‘great support for new directions coming from all disciplines, film, art, history, cultural studies, feminism, a rich mix for incubating new ideas’. Her engagements with the other fellows, such as historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, and Susan Sontag, who had recently published Illness as Metaphor, were to be particularly significant, with repercussions for Colomina’s work to this day.

Two years later, Colomina was teaching at Columbia University (including a class on magazines, a theme to which she would later return), and in 1988 she went to Princeton, where she has remained since. Her first book, 1992’s Sexuality and Space, is a collection of texts that grew out of a conference on the same subject. Queer theory and gender studies were then flourishing, and Colomina and her collaborators illuminated a variety of ways in which such questions could be brought to bear on spatiality, including her own essay on Loos and Le Corbusier, which was based on her dissertation and which would shortly become her important book Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media (1994). 

Are we human beatriz colomina architectural review

Are we human beatriz colomina architectural review

Are we human exhibition beatriz colomina architectural review

Are we human exhibition beatriz colomina architectural review

Source: Sahir Ugur Eren

To understand the state of design and architecture today, she asks Are we Human? at the 2016 Istanbul Design Biennial, curated with Mark Wigley

To some extent, it can be said that Privacy and Publicity takes Reyner Banham’s 1986 book, A Concrete Atlantis as its point of departure, radicalising its central argument. In Banham’s reading, modern architecture was a European response to photographs of industrial architecture in North America. Perhaps with a nod to Schivelbusch’s work on rail travel and perception, Colomina turns to the resulting buildings, considering them not only as the objects of media, and indeed as media creations, but as media technologies themselves: ‘Modern architecture only becomes modern’, she wrote, ‘with its engagement with the media’. Viewed through this lens, the Modernist house becomes a machine for seeing. 

In 2000, Colomina established the Program in Media and Modernity at Princeton, which she regards as an attempt to ‘reconstruct that rich interdisciplinary hospitality’ in which her own interests were forged. Her work in this period, culminating in the book Domesticity at War (2007), refocused on her adopted home, considering the relationship between the Second World War and the houses that followed. These two apparently separate spheres – represented by a book severed horizontally into image and textual parts – are bridged most clearly by the Eameses, whose incessant grins are both easier to understand and harder to bear when you realise that they were generously funded by the military industry. The apparently pacific haven of 1950s domesticity is thereby cracked open, David Lynch-style, to reveal the chasm that lay beneath. As before, the building is a medium, but this time it is more explicitly political, a vessel of Cold War propaganda.

On education beatriz colomina architectural review

On education beatriz colomina architectural review

Introducing the ‘Education’ chapter of the AR’s 120th anniversary edition (AR December 2016/2017) Colomina wrote about the relationship between protest and pedagogy 

Radical pedagogies beatriz colomina architectural review

Radical pedagogies beatriz colomina architectural review

Source: Imagensubliminal (Miguel de Guzman + Rocio Romero)

As the profession slowly starts to embrace collaborative practice, in opposition to the lone master architect, Colomina continues her ongoing research project Radical Pedagogies undertaken with Princeton students. Examining and experimenting with the ways architecture is taught and practised, Radical Pedagogies was exhibited at the Lisbon Triennial in 2013

In the following years, Colomina established herself as a curator, putting together a number of shows which have travelled widely. She often did so in collaboration with her students, of whose work she is a generous champion. Continuing her interest in architectural magazines of the 1960s and ’70s, Clip/Stamp/Fold was first shown at the Storefront gallery in New York in 2006 and in 2014 she edited a book on the same theme, with facsimile excerpts from the publications in question as well as transcripts of discussions with the figures involved. 

Returning to the question of sexuality, an exhibition on Playboy magazine followed in 2012, in which she explored that magazine’s perhaps surprising place in the architectural public sphere. Central to this project was the macabre image of Hugh Hefner working on layouts in his massive circular bed. This led to an exhibition in Vienna in 2014 on the theme of the bed, and a book, The Century of the Bed (2015). Since then Colomina has continued to work on – and in – the bed, staging a series of John-and-Yoko-esque ‘bed-ins’ in which she interviews prominent figures while clad in pyjamas. Besides the engaging theatricality there is a serious point here, too, about the invasion of spaces traditionally seen as sanctuaries from the logic of labour: the bed is becoming, as Colomina wrote in AR July/August 2018, a ‘fucktory’.

Pyjama party beatriz colomina architectural review

Pyjama party beatriz colomina architectural review

The bed as a place of work, protest, creativity, sexual gratification as well as slumber is explored in ’Pyjama party’

Colomina’s rejection of that atomised mode of practice is demonstrated by her work on architectural education. Together with her students, she contributed a display on Radical Pedagogies to the Lisbon Triennale in 2013, which also appeared at the next year’s Venice Biennale. This ongoing project demonstrates a practical engagement with the postwar rethinking of teaching that it documents by involving graduate students in its production: ‘for me teaching is collaboration or it is not teaching’, Colomina insists. This was also the case with her most ambitious curatorial project yet, 2016’s Istanbul Biennale Are We Human?, which she co-curated with her partner Mark Wigley. This took an archaeological approach that responded to current crises by looking back to the origins of humanity and our defining entanglement with design.

The model of collective authorship that Colomina has increasingly embraced evinces something like the kind of lab-based research model that Ockman decried. But unlike Ockman, Colomina sees developments in the field as no cause for alarm. ‘I think the new generation of scholars is better than mine’, she explains. At the same time Colomina demonstrates that this approach, while dispensing with the solitary Moses-like figure of the great theorist, does not reject criticality – indeed, by enacting collaboration, it may be more critical than critique itself. This is not to say that Colomina has abandoned traditional forms such as the monograph.

X ray beatriz colomina architectural review

X ray beatriz colomina architectural review

Colomina looks at the dominant obsessions with illness and the latest techniques of imaging the body in her 2019 book X-Ray Architecture

Her latest work, X-Ray Architecture (2019), returns to themes that have concerned her since the early ’80s and her encounter with Sontag. Here Colomina asserts that the subject of modern architecture has always been the unwell body, a reframing typical of her enduring commitment to putting the overlooked centre stage. As well as publishing a book based on the Radical Pedagogies project later this year, Colomina’s next project will thematise this collective work, departing from an article she wrote for the AR in March 2018 in which she claimed that ‘collaboration is the secret life of architecture’, ‘now greatly expanded’ she adds ‘into all forms of co-labour situations, which are super diverse and fascinating’.

The Jane Drew Prize

A spirited advocate for women in a male-dominated profession, Jane Drew graduated from the Architectural Association in 1929 into a profession that was unwelcoming to women at best. She started her own practice after the Second World War, and her work played a substantial role in introducing the Modern Movement into the UK.

Last year, the prize was given to Elizabeth Diller. Previous winners include Amanda Levete, Odile Decq, Grafton Architects’ founders Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, Zaha Hadid, Kathryn Findlay of Ushida Findlay and Eva Jiřičná.

The Ada Louise Huxtable Prize

Ada Louise Huxtable made history by being the first full-time architecture critic at a US newspaper when she joined the New York Times, and was later awarded the first Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1970. Swiss-French artist and architectural photographer Hélène Binet won in 2019. Dutch artist Madelon Vriesendorp won in 2018. Sculptor Rachel Whiteread, former Serpentine Galleries director Julia Peyton-Jones and client and architectural patron Jane Priestman are the previous recipients of the accolade.

This piece is featured in the AR March 2020 issue on Masculinities + W Awards – click here to buy your copy today