The monograph is a popular platform for dissemination and debate in the art and design world, yet architectural monographs are often treated with suspicion – viewed more as a self-serving PR exercise. But do monographs actually have a more substantive role within the practice of architecture? This was the backdrop for a discussion entitled ‘Why a Monograph?’ held at Waterstones Piccadilly as part of this year’s London Festival of Architecture. The participants included Jay Merrick, architecture correspondent of The Independent; Simon Henley of Henley Halebrown Rorrison (HHbR); David Grandorge, architectural photographer and Senior Lecturer at London’s CASS; and Ros Diamond of Diamond Architects. The session was chaired by ArchDaily Editor James Taylor-Foster.
In the highly competitive and contested landscape of contemporary urban construction, the role of the architect is being increasingly marginalised – and by extension the voice of the architect is increasingly drowned out. According to Merrick, the monograph presents an opportunity for architects to express their own ideas and opinions and to situate their projects within a personal worldview. These thoughts were echoed by Henley when he spoke about how journals and other digital platforms often could not contextualise a practice’s projects within the architects’ own body of work, tending rather to focus purely on “its own time and what’s in the news”. He also felt that the act of looking back at ones own work brings about “resonances between different projects,” allowing for a deeper understanding of the work.
It would be reductionist to state that all monographs could follow a similar pattern. Fundamentally, there is a dilemma of definition. The term ‘monograph’ seems to encompass a wide range of publications: a Closed Monograph – reflections on a complete set of works, most often about the work of a deceased figure; or an Open Monograph – an evaluation of a growing body of work, usually instigated by the practice or architect themselves. Within these, Taylor-Foster noted, there may be further subcategories of plain catalogues or what could be described as a ‘book of ideas’ – a burgeoning genre emanating particularly from young, upcoming practices.
Deconstructing the idea of the monograph destabilises its very definition, which is something Diamond alluded to when questioning whether each of these subcategories could actually be called a monograph. She noted that the question then moves from ‘why a monograph?’ to ‘what is a monograph?’
Talking specifically about an upcoming publication on HHbR, Henley said that although their book talks specifically about their own work, they want it to have a “general purpose” which makes it relevant to a wider audience. It is this impossible delicate balance that a lot of monographs have attempted to find but few have managed to do so successfully. It is, as a member of the publishing industry from the audience pointed out, impossible to think of a “general audience” for an architectural monograph. For a publication of this kind to be successful, it is imperative to identify and target a particular kind of reader. The question of ‘who will buy this?’, along with other pragmatic considerations about ‘16-page sections, 4-colour/2-colour’ invariably enter the discussion – one could draw a similar analogy between architectural drawings on paper versus real-world building projects.
Historically, the more successful architectural monographs have tended to be polemical statements rather than simple catalogues of projects. Referring to Le Corbusier’s Oeuvre Complete, Grandorge stated that there is, of course, an omnipresent streak of vanity in any such project – which isn’t necessarily a negative. Contained within every publication of this type is a personal statement that needs to be brought to the fore for it to really make sense.
And “making sense” is another of Henley’s preoccupations with his practice’s forthcoming book or, more specifically, with the printed book in general. Even with the advantages of digital publishing, monographs are almost exclusively seen in print. This perhaps has to do with the ephemeral and imminently pliable nature of the digital – which can be cut, pasted and reassembled – as opposed to the more permanent and haptic qualities of a bound volume.
An edited volume can be said to ‘make sense’ of a practice’s work, connecting different strands of their work to provide a coherent narrative. It provides the author with a level of control over the message that is perhaps impossible in the digital realm. But print can never match the reach, economy and immediacy of a digital platform, so perhaps the answer lies somewhere in-between. What is clear, however, is that the monograph is here to stay. The question is perhaps no longer why but how?
Read more about this event on IconEye:
Even the worst architectural monographs gain interest over time, even if the speakers at a London Festival of Architecture panel on such publications were undecided as to their immediate merits. John Jervis provides necessary reassurance A packed house assembled for last week’s panel on monographs at Waterstone’s Piccadilly to witness an occasionally combative discussion on the “open” monograph (practicing architects rather than dead ones).