An Architectural Print Outfit Revived in SoHo’s Heart, Meet a83

An archive, gallery and print shop, a83 uses vintage technology to disseminate and preserve experimental contemporary architecture.

Elizabeth Fazzare

Photography by Vincent Tullo

a83 owners Phillip Denny, Owen Nichols and Clara Sym at work.

At a83, a new gallery in New York’s SoHo, the Risograph machine is often whirring. It seems a strange sound in the year 2020, but for gallery founders Phillip Denny, Owen Nichols and Clara Syme, this 1980s Japanese technology remains essential. The trio took over the Manhattan real estate this past winter to create a trifold space for architecture: part print shop, part gallery and part archive, it is dedicated to showing experimental designs and does so via the Riso. Architects send their work digitally to a83, and the team uses the machine—a cross between a mimeograph and a screen printer—to reproduce it on paper, making high-quality prints for installations in the gallery and to send a kind of version of the exhibition through the mail.

“We’re producing conditions in which experimental, unprofitable work can be supported in equitable and sustainable ways,” explains architecture writer Denny, noting that the projects they highlight are often conceptual, made to advance discourse in the profession rather than be built physically. When a83 opened its inaugural show, “Working Remotely,” this past July, as the New York pandemic curve had flattened and was beginning to trend downward, this process served its purpose well for social distancing. The open-call exhibit saw works by up-and-comers like New Affiliates, Young Projects and Somewhere Studio hung next to designs by more established practices like RUR Architecture. Appointments were made for in-person visits for some, and the United States Postal Service did its part delivering the show to others. Now, records of all of those projects enter a83’s archive, headed by artist and architect Nichols, who has a personal connection to the project and gallery space.

The origin of a83’s physical abode runs in Nichols’s family. From 1978 to 1992, it was home to his father’s print shop, John Nichols Printmakers and Publishers, where he amassed an archive of work by now well-known designers like Steven Holl, Frank Gehry, Michael Graves and Elizabeth Diller. “At first, the shop worked with prominent artists but quickly shifted over to the architecture world and began making fine art-quality print editions,” says the younger Nichols, explaining that the prints were used for both “paper projects and competition entries.” The a83 archive now encompasses these contents, and the trio plans to continue in the footsteps of the space’s earlier occupants—with a twenty-first-century twist. “We have a gallery that is mostly not selling work for commercial purposes, but instead creating experimental installations for architects and designers and serving as a printmaking workshop for people to produce editions,” he says. In its three- pronged organization, a83 supports exhibition-making by selling editions of the archive material printed on the Riso. “But we’d also like to open up the printmaking workshop to people to use and have educational workshops, and to open the archive for researchers.”

Team a83 is hoping that by providing the infrastructure to print high-quality editions of architectural designs, they can also catalyze a contemporary market for it. The next show, planned for spring 2021, is a survey of architectural printmaking since 1980 that will draw heavily from the former John Nichols Printmakers and Publishers archive material as well as newly sourced archival documents from star figures like Rem Koolhaas and Madelon Vriesendorp. Future shows may not rely so heavily on the beloved Risograph, however. As the team delves into their archive, they have found that a lot of the work is mixed-media or multidimensional, unable to be reproduced via printing. The mailed packets for “Working Remotely” was a solution “very specific to the kind of pandemic condition,” explains architect Syme, who takes the lead on translating designs to exhibitions. “It might not be something that we would do otherwise.” The goal, she maintains, is to show as much of this experimental work as possible, whatever the medium. As she sums it up: “We’re providing a platform for other voices within architecture.”