The AR archive illuminates the story of modern architecture
In a magazine as long lived as the AR (founded in 1896), there is a perpetual sense of being a privileged witness to the history of modern architecture. In a fascinating sub-plot, you can also track the changing ways in which this history is presented; the medium as well as the message. When the AR came into being, photography was still in its infancy, so drawings were the main means of conveying all kinds of subject matter, from architecture to the decorative arts. The cover of the first issue featured an ink drawing by the then editor, Henry Wilson, depicting the Spirit of Architecture, a sort of Arts & Crafts goddess, heroically leading her sisters of the other arts towards the future. Now Wilson’s goddess would be brandishing an iPad, showing the way to new digital opportunities for both architects and publishers.
Since that first issue there have been another 1,402. The buildings, ideas and discourse that shaped and defined the modern architectural era are now contained in 234 bound volumes occupying around 9 metres of shelf space. To our knowledge, there are only two complete collections in existence, one in our London offices and the other in the RIBA Library. Leafing through our back pages is always a compelling experience, but clearly future generations of architects, scholars and other interested parties will not necessarily have the opportunity or patience to engage with a physical entity resembling a medieval chained library. So a key ambition, starting this year, is to digitise the entire archive in order to disseminate more widely the AR’s rich repository of ideas, insight and intelligence and in a way that chimes more aptly with the technology of the times and the needs of our readers.
Making our past more accessible will intensify the AR’s relationship with architecture and the global community of architects. Rather than a static physical entity, the archive’s myriad digital currents will feed into and sustain a complex and evolving organism in ways our predecessors could only have dreamt of.
As part of this engagement we are introducing a new section, Archive, which will examine key moments in architectural history and bring to life the changing relationship between the message and the medium. Curated by Steve Parnell, the first article (p96) considers ‘Towards Another Architecture’, a 1970s campaign to encourage architecture to recover its ‘grip on social imagination’, in the same way as the AR’s recent Big Rethink attempted to redefine the correlation between architecture, society and ecology.
Being a journal of record is a crucial part of the AR’s mission and appeal. But it’s not enough just to be a passive witness, ‘an architectural Debrett, the recorder and illustrator of an established aesthetic’, as Parnell notes, quoting from an AR editorial of 1976. Now more than ever, architectural magazines must be relevant and engaging, propositional rather than reactive, cultivating an agile and fertile reciprocity between different media to illuminate the past, present and future of architecture.