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Marshall McLuhan’s Playboy Interview

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March, 1969. As the US was about to be distracted from the disaster that was Vietnam by landing on the moon, Playboy magazine published a lengthy interview with Canadian father of media studies and patron saint of Wired magazine, Marshall McLuhan.

In nearly 14 pages of solid text, McLuhan talks about how society is only able to be consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it and how new media simultaneously extend the senses and numb them: “Narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in.” He goes on to explain how “the visual function was overdeveloped” and how visual space replaced acoustic space of tribal man. He then gets a little hallucinogenic, predicting the return of tribal man living in “cosmic harmony”. There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. In another article in the same magazine, Arthur C. Clarke predicts that the solar system will become an extens…

The Hayward Gallery

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40 years ago, the Hayward Gallery opened and completed the trilogy that is the South Bank Arts Centre. The reception was almost universally poor. The Guardian of 17th July stated that “architecturally it is an expression neither of use nor site, that it is made of a material that was, years ago, proved odious in our climate.” The AJ reviewed it on 10th July 1968, reporting that “it has that secretive and repelling character that one associates with top security research establishments”. The review goes downhill from there.

In order to look good, Brutalism needs deeply contrasting, sun-drenched, hard-shadowed, well-composed, preferably black and white photography that depicts the concrete’s precise textural image of the formwork negative. The Hayward Gallery is a particularly striking example of this. It has almost no windows and is designed to control the internal light artificially to mimic an overcast sky. In other words, it demands sunshine on the outside and clouds on the inside.

Th…

Ted Cullinan

It’s hard to find somebody today who doesn’t have a good word to say about the latest RIBA Gold Medal winner, Ted Cullinan. So I thought I’d see how he appeared in the journals – the cutting edge of architectural historiography. His first new build was his Uncle Horder’s house (1958-1960) and actually published in House & Garden in May 1963. There were small appearances in the ‘70s, particularly with the Highgrove housing, but he really started attracting media attention around 1983 – half way between starting out and receiving his Gold medal.

In September 1983, the Architectural Review focused on “Romantic Pragmatism” – architects who “have a pragmatic approach to building organisation and construction, and a romantic sensibility”. Cullinan and MacCormac were put forward as the main protagonists, the former being called “the father of a generation of Romantic Pragmatists” in Brendan Woods’s article and both being called “The English Wet Brigade” by Peter Cook.

However, Cullinan’s r…

The Five Purpose Bath

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The 1930s was a golden era of apartment building. Fitted kitchens and bathrooms started to become normal, alongside the hi-tech luxuries of central heating and electric sockets.
In March 1935, Architectural Design and Construction (AD’s forerunner) published a reference section on “Bathrooms fit to sing in”. The author mocks the new-fangled kitchen appliances and asks “where ... is the automatic body washer?” One hears the clipped accent of the nascent BBC’s Queen’s English echo from the page: “It would be quite simple – just a matter of rotating brushes, scurrying flannels, and self-lathering soap” instilling a vision of a body-washing machine akin to a carwash sitting in the corner of the bathroom.
The market became flooded with manufacturers offering sanitary ware of multiple uncoordinated sizes. The International Bath Association (I.B.A.) was set up and called for standardisation to address these pressing problems. It worked: “even such tremendous trifles as tap heads and shields ha…

CHS Programme

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The dawn of a new year makes anything seem possible. In January 1945 John Entenza, the ambitious editor of a small-time Californian magazine called Arts & Architecture, conceived and announced The Case Study House Program that set out to “begin immediately the study, planning, actual design and construction of eight houses, each to fulfil the specifications of a special living problem in the Southern California area”. There was never a better example of the architectural press directing, rather than simply reflecting, the shape of the built environment. Acting as client, the magazine commissioned top US architects to design eight houses that would become inexpensive, replicable prototypes, demonstrating how good modern design, manufacturing methods and materials could help ameliorate the anticipated deficiencies in post-war housing. The houses would be built, furnished and temporarily opened to the public as show-houses, before being occupied. Of course, they would also be publish…
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In January 1947, the editors of the Architectural Review celebrated the magazine’s half-century by devoting virtually the whole issue to exposing its previously secret editorial policy: Its prime purpose, they claimed, was to “record with varying degrees of efficiency the more interesting buildings of the age”, thereby “providing the raw material of history.”

Their secret mandate didn’t stop there. The editors went on to admit that the Review had a more active role to play in the shaping of architecture – that of “visual re-education”. In fact, the AR had been playing this role over the previous twenty years, ever since Hubert de Cronin Hastings took control and, along with J.M. Richards as editor, essentially introduced modernism to Britain. The Review remained highly influential into the ‘60s.

By March of 2005, however, on leaving the Architectural Review after a quarter century of editorship, Peter Davey wrote, “a magazine must respond to what happens, rather than trying to set the…

Michael Ventris

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Michael Ventris (1922-1956) graduated from the AA in 1948. However, he will be remembered as the man who deciphered Linear B – an early form of Greek script used for writing Mycenaean. After hearing Sir Arthur Evans say that the Minoan tablets hadn’tyet been deciphered in 1936, he made it his life’s goal. By the age of 8 he spoke 5 European languages and throughout his life, he picked them up in a matter of months. He amazed his friends from the AA, Oliver Cox and Graeme Shankland, by slipping into the native tongue when they travelled to Italy and worked in Sweden together. Cox and Ventris’s entry to the T.U.C. Memorial Building competition were published in the AJ of 22.07.48.
Ventris’ mother was friends with the art world’s leading lights like Gabo and Moore. Breuer made their furniture and Gropius personally advised the young Ventris to go to the AA. But he had a brilliant, analytic mind that produced sterile architecture. The design for his own house, which appeared in Country L…