A Blast from Architecture’s Past: A Review of Pidgeon Audio Visual: Architects Speak for Themselves at the Graham Foundation

A Blast from Architecture’s Past: A Review of Pidgeon Audio Visual: Architects Speak for Themselves at the Graham Foundation

Founded by Londoner Monica Pidgeon in the late 1970s, Pidgeon Audio Visual (PAV), a multimedia publication that served as a mailable lecture in a binder, was immediately a notable presence on the world stage. After all, Pidgeon had served as the editor for nearly thirty years of venerable industry publication Architectural Design, and was a world-renowned, well-respected architecture and design figure by the time she launched PAV.

Pidgeon Audio Visual catalog series 1–13, cover, 1985. Courtesy Graham Foundation

She put that renown to work right away. Pidgeon Audio Visual—or “Pidgeon Audiovisual,” as Worldwide Microfilms, the publication’s distributor for more than twenty-five years, had it—was started when Pidgeon enlisted her friend Leonie Cohn, an “esteemed BBC Radio 3 producer,” to record interviews with architects. She then launched a letter-writing campaign with questionnaires that she sent to schools across the U.K. Eventually, this resulted in distribution of PAV to “220 academic institutions in thirty countries.”

“Pidgeon Audio Visual: Architects Speak for Themselves,” Graham Foundation, Chicago/Photo: Nathan Keay

It’s little wonder why they were so widely sought out by educational institutions. Each edition of PAV came packed in a small, roughly six-by-nine-inch white micro-binder which, when unfolded, revealed a slide transparency casing holding twenty-four slides along with an audiocassette placed in the middle. The color-coded slides, when placed in a projector carousel, were matched to the audiocassette exactly to paginate the slides as the audio advanced through its standard thirty-minute recording. Design and architecture departments, who couldn’t often afford the travel costs for visiting lecturers, would at times substitute and shore up their lecture programs with an edition of PAV instead. By the time Pidgeon wrote then-director Carter Manny of the Graham Foundation for support of the series, it turned out he had already purchased two.

“Pidgeon Audio Visual: Architects Speak for Themselves,” Graham Foundation/Photo: Michael Workman

Organized by Graham director Sarah Herda, program and communications director Ava Barrett with program officer James Pike and advisor Alexandra Lee Small, the exhibition was “originated at Disponsible in Buenos Aires.” At the entrance to the Graham Foundation building’s second-floor galleries where the exhibit is located, one standalone, top-mounted slide monitor plays through one of her lectures. Sample letters between Pidgeon and schools and institutions, as well as the letters between her and Manny, are mounted on the wall above short, slanted vitrines within which editions of PAV are displayed. Their contents are laid out in an exploded view; there are also sample editions of Helmut Jahn on “Romantic High Tech,” Tom Beeby on “Scales of Imagery,” and Stanley Tigerman on “Dualism in Architecture” … it goes on and on. Each is a bite-sized morsel in an intellectual feast. A side room is decked out with hanging projectors and display screens, each from different historical lecture collections.

James Wines and Alison Sky (SITE), “Apocalypse and Utopia” title slide, “Pidgeon Audio Visual PAV 13/8511,” 1985. Courtesy Pidgeon Digital

It’s important to note how this exhibit is more than a fascinating look into an archaic format: at the time, it represented an innovative, problem-solving approach to disseminating the material these editions contain. It was a system for knowledge-sharing that emerged out of the new-age infancy of telecommunications, one when the world was perhaps less connected and much smaller in many ways. Indeed, Pidgeon remained devoted to the project, and continued working on it through her late eighties, before finally passing away at the age of ninety-five. After which, PAV was preserved by Stephen Albert, her old friend and founder of World Microfilms Publications, who established a website, Pidgeon Digital, with back editions and where new recordings continue to be made to this day. New notable voices, including Zaha Hadid, Will Alsop and many others, are available at the site.

“Pidgeon Audio Visual: Architects Speak for Themselves,” Graham Foundation, Chicago/Photo: Nathan Keay

In its design, formatting and exacting editing standards—each edition was twenty-four slides, thirty minutes of tape, no more, no less—it represents what, at the time, was ingenious problem-solving to the barriers of sharing insight and knowledge throughout academia, as well as among those practitioners and lovers of the design and architecture fields at its cutting edge. It also represents how Graham and Chicago figured into that legacy, and serves as an archive of these materials, of the ideas and worldviews of those subjects who appear in their media. Really, it’s a must-see for fans, not just of design and architecture, but also of publication histories, especially those seeking to examine the unique media challenges of an internet age at the break of dawn.

“Pidgeon Audio / Visual: Architects Speak for Themselves” is on view at the Graham Foundation, 4 West Burton Place through February 4, 2023. Visit grahamfoundation.org. Pidgeon Digital, with a complete archive of Pidgeon Audio Visual, is at pidgeondigital.com.

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