18 July 2008

Graphic Virtuosity

architectural posters as cultural artefactsArchitektur I Sovjetunionen 1917-1987
1989 27” x 39” (68 x 100 cm.) silkscreen Arkitekturmuseet, Stockholm
A celebration to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Constructivist movement in the Soviet Union. The poster incorporates a student design project by Nikolai Sokolov, drafted in 1928 and showing floors plans for a Communal Dining Hall at the proposed Holiday Hotel on the Black Sea.

Robert G Hill
An unprecedented exhibition of architectural posters at the Eric Arthur Gallery at University of Toronto (catalogue from anna.lightfoot@utoronto.ca) provides a unique opportunity to explore the historical and cultural impact of this print medium on both the profession of architecture and the broader culture of art and art history.

The methodology of collecting cultural artifacts such as architectural posters is not an easy one. Mandatory requirements include a broad-based knowledge of contemporary design and architectural history, powerful radar, gentle persistence, a certain fanaticism for the subject and, above all, a discerning eye. Surprisingly, deep pockets are not required, for many of the posters have been purchased at an astonishingly low cost (typically under $10), or have been sent free charge by galleries and museums intrigued by my interest from faraway Canada. Developed over a forty-year period from 1967 to 2007, this collection of 1,600 architectural posters serves as cultural barometer of the rise and fall and continuing shifts in the style and development of twentieth-century architecture. From modernism to post-modernism, from expressionism to deconstructivism, from brutalism to the new minimalism, the diversity of approaches to architectural design and theory have been recorded and promoted with the simple device of the printed poster. These have served as a tool and a forum for graphic experimentation, as a vehicle for the exploration of expressive opportunities in typography, and as a voice for new architectural imagery conceived by leading architects from around the world.
The history of the architectural poster is endlessly fascinating, yet a relatively short one. It was against the backdrop of the Art Nouveau movement that the Belgian artist Adolphe Crespin (1859-1944) can be credited with the design of the first architectural poster in 1897. It promoted the work of Paul Hankar (1859-1901), a Brussels architect who is shown at work in his atelier, hunched over a drafting board. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the number of European institutions that regularly produced architectural posters could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Their efforts were, with a few notable exceptions, modest in size, and made use of simple one-colour printing methods. The exhibitions were rarely monographic, focusing instead on building expositions or housing developments designed in the ‘New Style’ of architecture created by a young generation of modernists after 1920. The Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany was fertile ground for graphic designers and architects alike, but with the closing of the school in 1933, and the hiatus of economic growth before WWII, it was not until well after 1945 that architectural posters appear with any regularity.
By 1975 an entirely new generation of architectural museums and galleries began to emerge in Europe and North America. The creation of these publicly accessible collections can be directly linked to the growing appreciation of architecture as an art form and as a highly regarded profession, instead of merely a business. New architectural museums opened in Oslo (1975), Frankfurt (1979), Montreal (1979), Bordeaux (1980), Basel (1984), Washington (1985), Copenhagen (1986), Rotterdam (1988) and Vienna (1992). Each established their own ambitious exhibition programmes accompanied by scholarly catalogues, and heralded with impressive architectural posters conceived by gifted graphic designers.
It remains puzzling, however, why architectural posters still stand in the shadows of their more glamorous and coveted step-sister movie posters, travel posters, war posters and rock’n’roll posters, vintage examples of which easily command four figures at auction today. The answer is obvious. In North America, the architectural poster is, for the most part, perceived merely as an information device. In Europe, it is an art form, capably demonstrated by some of the posters here, which are drawn from the 22 countries represented in the Toronto exhibition.
Divided into six categories, the exhibit includes posters representing the landscape, architectural models, drawings, typography, lectures and symposia, and architects and their personae. The most inventive and memorable posters included in the display are those which do not use conventional building imagery, but instead make brilliant use of typography alone to associate the architect with his own style and era.
Among the most effective poster campaigns yet developed for an architectural school, credit must be given here to Robert Stern, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture who in 1998 hired Michael Bierut, partner in the New York office of Pentagram Associates, to direct a poster production programme using a standard sheet size and one colour of ink: black. The utter simplicity of this formula, combined with a strategy of folding and mailing the posters without envelopes, guaranteed the widest possible dissemination of Beirut’s designs announcing symposia, lectures and student exhibitions at Yale.

The very best architectural posters in the exhibition contain three key ingredients: clarity, simplicity and graphic elegance. Yet the content is often radically different from conventional broadsheets. Advertising posters sell product. Travel posters sell place. Movie posters sell escape and fantasy. Architectural posters do none of these. Instead, they invariably sell an idea, they may celebrate a body of work, or promote a personal philosophy and a highly idiosyncratic approach to design problems. The exceptional posters may even achieve cult status when married with a brilliant graphic designer who has the ability to portray the essence of an entire career with one potent image.

These posters are in many cases provocative, raising questions of why some talented architects, popular fifty or sixty years ago, have been unjustly eclipsed or buried under an avalanche of recent work by a new architectural generation. Projecting their own sense of immediacy during the staging of a current exhibition, posters often remain in circulation long after the exhibit has ended and the artifacts have been dispersed, underscoring the rightful place that an architect might deserve in the cross-currents of twentieth century architecture. For the uninitiated, or the uneducated, these posters are the entrée into the career and work of an architect who, languishing in undeserved obscurity, can be resurrected. Drawing attention to his or her work may inspire an entirely new generation of young designers.

Do architectural posters still have relevance in our new digital age? The answer is unequivocally yes. This most portable form of the visual arts continues to have value because it is such an effective instrument for communicating ideas about architectural innovation that cross international and temporal boundaries.

Hill, Robert G. 'Graphic virtuosity'
On Site review, no. 18 Fall/Winter 2007/2008
© Robert G Hill and On Site review

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