When a poster is a work of art

MIT’s José Luis Argüello and the AKPIA posters (2001–2016)

By Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT

For sixteen years, José Luis Argüello has been the administrative assistant of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture (AKPIA) at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. From day one, it was clear that José Luis was not a typical administrator. Gregarious, engaging, and an indefatigable conversationalist, he is also an aesthete, in a nineteenth-century sense. An accomplished pianist (although too reluctant to share his music) with a prodigious knowledge of the lives and works of the great classical musicians, José Luis, who holds a degree in art history from Boston University, is also an aficionado of Baroque and Neoclassical European artistic cultures. He vividly and passionately remembers every building he visited and every painting he saw in his European travels more than two decades ago.

This introduction helps us understand the series of posters that José Luis designed for the events sponsored by the Aga Khan Program since 2001. For although José Luis had studied graphic design, his sensibilities were shaped more by the aesthetic experiences and tastes he acquired as an avid Euro-trotter than by his formal training. This is how one can appreciate his selection of images, as background for his posters, from the rather circumscribed traditional repertoire of Islamic art and architecture. He always went for the historically powerful, tactfully expressive, and spatially filling, favoring Neoclassical- and Baroque-feeling images of monuments with which he was unfamiliar until he started educating himself about Islamic art and architecture and its visual extensions into modern Islamic cultures.

His posters’ colors too are those of someone attuned to the neoclassical harmony of nineteenth-century European architectural interiors and also music, with touches of the vernacular that seeped into it with the rise of quests for national identity in the late nineteenth century and flavored its melodies. He also has a penchant for black-and-white photos, with their sharp clarity and coherent gradations. But when he goes to colors, he prefers the earthy, warm ones, possibly also a reflection of that nineteenth-century European sensibility that equated the Orient with the sun and the desert.

Take, for example, his design for the Spring 2009 lecture series, which included two lectures on planning cities in the modern period. He selected a beautifully colored plan of the “Dynapolis” for Islamabad, the new capital of Pakistan designed by the visionary planner Constantinos Doxiadis in the 1960s. Dynapolis, in the elaborate terminology devised by Doxiadis, means a dynamic city that can grow along an axis. The linearity inherent in the architectural idea is echoed in José Luis’s poster, with its bold crimson lines latitudinally cutting across the paper and defining its two fields of image and text. The colors of the original design are cleverly reemployed in the type.

Or let us consider his dramatic design for the poster of the Spring 2010 lecture series. The marble bust of the Arab Roman emperor, Philip or Philippus Arabs (r. 244–49), from the Neues Museum in Berlin, is rendered in slightly pixelated gray tones. A grayish band with the text in white type runs over the middle of the poster field, leaving the head free and harmonizing with the general tonal scheme. The name and acronym of the Aga Khan Program are executed longitudinally in red strips for maximum effect. The solemnity of the design is alleviated only by the name of the program and the single clause titling the lecture series, rendered in light sky blue.

A similar feel obtains in the poster José Luis designed for a presentation by the Arab-American rapper Omar Offendum, sponsored jointly by AKPIA and the MIT Arab Students Organization in May 2010. Omar in black and gray and brownish shades is standing defiantly on a rooftop drenched in rain in the Old City of Damascus, which extends somberly behind him until it hits a modern minaret and then, at a distance, a contemporary high-rise office building. The color range is deliberately subdued so that the forceful red and yellow lettering stands out. The mood of the poster so well fits the art of Omar Offendum — rebellious and nostalgic, brash and lyrical, with an overall temperamental ambiance.

When he uses architectural photos, José Luis tends to look for the close-up, the unusual angle, or the kinetic, even cinematic, effect. This is clear in his posters for the Symposium on New Frontiers in Gulf Urbanism of March 2016 and the lecture series of Spring 2012, Fall 2010, Fall 2009, and Fall 2008. The Spring 2011 poster, however, best illustrates this quality. An overexposed wide-angle shot of the brightly lit and strongly contrasted steps of the Madinat al-Zahra Museum near Cordoba, Spain, designed by Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos in 2009, is complemented by a gray triangle that mirrors the shadow triangle of the image. The lettering — a mix of gray, seaweed green, sky and navy blue, and white — resonates with the color gamut of the image and allow it to stand out as an almost real three-dimensional object.

José Luis can also be enigmatic in his architectural posters, as illustrated in his poster for the Fall 2015 lecture series. A wonderful upward shot of the Adalaj Stepwell (built in 1499) near Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India, by Professor James Wescoat defines the entire poster. A wide octagonal oculus, open to a blue sky with a tuft of a cloud, is the only source of light on the surface of the poster, which is otherwise black. Only an elliptical segment of the intricately carved two galleries can be seen, highlighting the delicacy and perceived ephemerality of the architecture, however resiliently cut in stone. José Luis’s trademark red “AKPIA” slices across the oculus and connects it to the text in the lower third of the poster.

All along, José Luis Argüello makes sure that he is not boxed in a retro, possibly Romantic, aesthetics. He overlays his pictorial historicism with a strong textual contemporaneity — simple, slender, and slick — suggesting that the message is of today even if the image is of yesterday. The lines and planes that frame and separate his compositions are very modern, owing their angularity and basic geometric shapes to the post-Kandinsky experiments in painting and architecture. His lettering too, which fluctuates between the Arial, Avenir, and Century typefaces, ­endows his posters with a contemporary feel despite the classical aesthetics that informs the images and their designer.

At the end, José Luis Argüello’s posters do not only visually document the activities of the Aga Khan Program at MIT for the last fifteen years; they also reveal the refined sensibilities of their designer and his evolving mastery of the communicative potential of the art and architecture of the Islamic world.

The MIT School of Architecture + Planning: Design is the space between people and their environment. This is our territory.