Who says print is dead? James Graham, who wears many hats at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), uses print as one of many platforms to promote architectural discourse. Graham is Director of Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, a founding editor of the Avery Review, a PhD candidate whose dissertation examines applied psychology in architectural pedagogy and practice, and an adjunct professor who teaches seminars on architectural discourse in the Master of Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices program.
A registered architect who still dabbles in design, Graham is edifying a new chapter in Columbia’s publishing enterprise that spans the supposed print-digital divide and critically examines the role of the academic press in today’s media landscape. Graham speaks with Point Line Projects about digging into the GSAPP archives, building new audiences, and editing essays that readers open in their internet browsers and don’t want to close.
Sarah Rafson: How did you get from your first day at Columbia to where you are now?
James Graham: I had been in the PhD program for four years by the time the opportunity to join GSAPP Books came along. I’d been working with Mark Wigley and the school on a research project and exhibition called the Extreme Cities Project and one thing led to another. I hadn’t been pursuing an editorial practice previously, although my parents are English professors so I guess the apple is rolling back to the tree.
The publications office as I inherited it was constructed by Craig Buckley, and he established an agenda I felt in tune with and wanted to support rather than change—his investment in championing research practices in architecture, his exploration of alternative formats of publication, his thoughts on how the physical format of the book has to do with shaping its audience and how it is received, and his interest in publishing things like translations or sourcebooks that commercial or even a lot of academic imprints won’t do.
It’s an odd thing to take over a well-formed apparatus, because it means that somebody has done something incredible and you’re just there to keep it running. So my collaborators and I started looking for ways to extend that project.
How did you begin?
In the first year of the job, I took stock of both where I felt the field was at that moment and how it could tap into the heritage of the school. My team dug around in the vaults and put together an exhibition about the history of publications at Columbia. This was the period when Assemblage was underway, and there were these parallels in the school with journals, anthologies of theory. We also found that there was a history of student and young faculty publications that really started flourishing under Bernard Tschumi. There was an amazing little series called, well, Miniseries, where issues were envelope-size and bound on the left. Practitioners and theorists wrote short statements about their work. There’s a really early Stan Allen booklet that later became part of Points and Lines. There’s a Zaha Hadid studio book from the early nineties. The publications in Columbia not only engaged with the formal theoretical currents of the time, but also had a very experimental one-off vibe, and that print ethos has been largely forgotten in favor of the more monumental publications.
At the same time, I was thinking about the nature of online discourse in architecture. Online discourse was so oriented around the promotion of practices, and remains so. But what do I read when I wake up in the morning and I’m procrastinating and I have all my tabs open? It tends to be more literary journals like the N+1, Public Books, and New Inquiry. And I’d been having similar conversations with some of my colleagues who were interested in starting new editorial projects together. That was where our renewed interest in the critical essays came from, and that’s what gave birth to the Avery Review. It was meant to be a strictly digital journal, but we have ended up experimenting with format a lot, and it finds its way into print on certain occasions. At the same time, the books we’ve been producing have been influenced by the Avery Review model and voice.
What have you learned from creating an online reading experience, and how do you think you might push that more down the line?
When we started the Avery Review, we were still in a crisis-of-print moment. It was a conversation you had to have—“where’s print going?” Now I feel like we’ve veered back into the crisis of the digital, as far as publishing goes. A lot of the most interesting digital experiments, in terms of new formats and technologies, have fizzled out. But we all still like to read printed books and websites.
Victor Hugo’s chapter “This Will Kill That” is such a cliché for architectural publishers to talk about, but I’ll always love the bit at the end where he describes print as an endless scaffolding, incessantly spewing out the history of humanity, that we’re all participating in the construction of. It’s a useful image of online discourse, for me. It all ends up in this weird structure that we’re all building—some of it matters, some of it doesn’t, some of it stays, and some goes away. With our Avery Shorts project, we’re interested in how fleeting those moments can be—you might just read it on your phone while you’re waiting for a sandwich and that’s it. But that doesn’t make it a less consequential encounter with an idea.
In our digital Reader project, for another example, we were trying to make a platform that operated seamlessly between different registers. We wanted it to look just as good online as it did in PDF, as it did in e-pub, as it would be if it were print-on-demand—a kind of totalizing dream of a cross-platform experience.
The format for Footnotes on Climate: a Reading List on Architecture and Climate Change stood out to me as a very dynamic way to extend the experience of a printed book.
Footnotes on Climate remains one of my favorite things that we’ve done this way. The Climates book, which we also love very much, was a project that was meant to be so open ended that we were reluctant to finish it and put the covers on it. The Notes on Climate project was a way to insist on it being open, still producing further work. In the digital reader format, note bubbles pop up over the text—the imaginary text feels like it’s still yet to be written.
The digital reader is the ideal platform for that, but I think it remains a really slippery platform, and we tend to use it in support of other things rather than on its own. We still haven’t figured out what the exact right project is.
Tell me more about your relationship with the school. Do you feel like a soapbox for the school or an independent platform working within it?
We have to figure out how to be both inside the school and outside the school at the same time. There’s amazing stuff happening at Columbia. It’s been really fun getting to participate in a lot of the initiatives happening right now, whether it’s with individual faculty or taking part in the school’s research interests—right now we’re working on books with all of the letters in the school’s acronym. GSAPP has a focus on environments and housing among other things, and we have our own particular angle on those topics. The intersection of the two is where we’ve produced some of our best work.
Part of our function is to make this research legible to a broader public. But it’s also really important that the work we do isn’t confined to the faculty at GSAPP, and that we’re finding outside voices to bring into these conversations. Part of the conundrum of this job is recognizing that we are a part of the institution. I’m unaccustomed to that. We have to wrestle with the dynamics of owning that and finding ways to be a counter-institutional voice within, while also championing other counter-institutional voices.
You took the helm in 2013. Five years later, what advice would you give yourself when you were getting the operation going?
When you’re given a platform or the chance to create one, it can come with an anxiety about production. If I’ve learned anything in the last couple of years, it’s to relax about the need to fill platforms with stuff.
It’s better to be an office that produces a few fantastic things than to be a relentless machine of production. When you’re surrounded by people who have ideas they want to get out, it’s important to support those ideas. But it’s also important for people to find the right scale for what the idea is. Often it’s one step smaller that helps clarify what’s really at stake.
What do you hope readers will get from your projects?
We’re most interested in facilitating communities of ideas that make people feel like they have some stake in it, and which can expand to include people beyond the catalogue of known names. How can we use the Avery Review, for example, to create on-ramps into the circle? How do we find the people who are going to help us see architecture differently because they have a perspective that hasn’t already been established in the field? Publication tends to privilege the already-privileged. When it comes to publishing houses allocating resources, you can see the discourse congealing around the already-known. I like to imagine us being something more like gardeners, and that making discourse is a way of participating in a slow, patient, very regular shepherding. A gardener open to—I don’t know if invasive species is the metaphor I’m looking for exactly—a level of uncertainty of what the outcome of a given project might be, and also who “belongs” within a particular platform.
I’ve been wondering whether the tools and platforms that we have at our disposal are agents of closure or agents of opening. They can be both, but it takes active self-examination and recruitment to make sure that they don’t turn into systems that close the discourse. We’ve started doing peer review for some of our books, not in the form of a scholarly gatekeeping, but to get colleagues who understand the field to offer their response to it. It’s been really productive for our books, because everything benefits from having a broader conversation.
Some of the projects that have been the most fun have really been driven by groups of colleagues who undertake a strange journey together, with research moving freely between exhibitions and events. As you bring in other writers, graphic designers, the people whose images you’re getting, they all sort of get wrapped into this funny snowball. In some sense even the attendees of the events become part of the project too. I like to imagine that it’s a project gathering steam as it rolls down a hill and by the time it reaches the bottom, there’s a book.