Open Letters Conference Follow Up

Zachariah Michielli

This past Thursday, the editors of Open Letters, a student run bi-weekly publications at The Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, hosted their 50th issue release party in Cambridge. The event included an open forum discussion panel, editorial Pecha-Kucha sessions, and publication display mixer for editors of student run publications at architecture schools from the US, Canada, England, and Germany. Bringing together editors from 27 journals, the Open Letters release party represented a unique opportunity for students from schools around the world to collectively address the questions of how and why we publish student journals.

Bryan Norwood opened the discussion with the following quote extracted from “An Opinion on Architecture,” which would serve as the founding manifesto for the journal TASK, the student run publication of the GSD from 1941 – 1948. “Poverty of personalities, absence of a standard, confusion in principles are the characteristics of our time… Modern Architecture faces the danger of becoming a style that we like better than others, but that has no particular reason to be defended…” [1] The provocation may stand as well to represent the contemporary landscape of the discipline if the word ‘Modern’ is removed and ‘a style’ replaced with ‘an anachronism’

The conversation oscillated between two fundamentals of publication, process and content, throughout the day, but ultimately served implicitly as a means of facilitating discussion between what are most often isolated satellites of the so called “Academy of Architecture.” From our own academic journal Perspecta, to the exclusively digital format of VAM at UVA, to the event planning team of Underscore at SCI-Arc, the journals represented a dramatic range of formats and content some questioning the act of publishing itself. Two things, however, became abundantly clear early on: First, students are producing discourse with and without faculty at most architecture schools today, something that indicates a strong commitment to the discipline despite whatever ugly realities we me might face after graduation. And second, each of the journals represented wildly different perspectives, which highlights the variety available in “capital A Architecture” being pursued by a diverse collection of student groups.

With a few exceptions, the majority of the publications represented have been around for no more than 7 years. It would be an interesting exercise to investigate what the journal-scape looked like before 2010. Has there been a significant rise in the number of publications since 2000 for any specific reasons? Alternatively, were there just as many publications then that have merely passed their expiration date? If these were all digital publications, it might be easier to answer the former question. Counter intuitively, however, most of the new publications are printed for issue, if many of them also include a website archive. The latter question suggests an examination of the evolving character of not only the disciplines a whole, but the various schools represented. As I don’t anticipate these questions ever finding their answers, perhaps they are simply food for thought. I will conclude with an additional topic for consideration that was put forth by moderator Chelsea Spencer, founding editor of Open Letters during her time at Harvard as well as current managing editor of Log: “How do you anticipate using the skills you’ve developed as editors of student publications after graduation?” (Excuse me for paraphrasing a bit.) If statement could sum up the event on its own, it would have to be that single question. And so I will follow it up with a further question on the heels of Chelsea’s very eloquent interrogation: “How does writing change the discipline, profession, and institution of architecture?”

[1]  Hudnut, Joseph, John Barrington Bayley, and Bruno Zevi. “An Opinion on Architecture.” May 1941. Boston: Century, 1941. Print.