- September’s issue of 05401, which features actor Wesley Snipes on the cover playing Harlem architect Flipper Purify in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever
A photo essay of nude elderly women. A collection of short poems about bacteria, biting flies and western black rhinos. An essay by Burlington author Greg Guma on the history of decentralists in Vermont. And a blistering critique of a new apartment building in Winooski, calling its architects "irresponsible" and their creation "a pathetic vision for the present, let alone future, of our cities."
No one can predict what might appear in an issue of 05401, the slick, noncommercial magazine published and distributed by retired Burlington architect Louis Mannie Lionni. Founded in 1995, the architectural and literary journal has long been a head-scratcher — to its readers and creator alike.
"For the first 20 or 25 years, I think it puzzled people. I must say, it puzzled me," said Lionni, who publishes 05401 on an irregular basis.
The latest issue of 05401, which came out in September under its standard tagline, "The Free Radical," won't necessarily dispel the confusion. At 116 pages, it's more than twice as long as any previous issue. And its autobiographical nature — a love letter of sorts that 91-year-old Lionni penned to the dozens of "friends, colleagues, mentors, idols, clients and students" who shaped his life and career — suggests that this issue may be among his last.
"I've done most of what I wanted to do with the magazine," Lionni said. After the current issue came out, he added, "A lot of people contacted me and told me it's a wonderful thing, which is very heartening."
Ordinarily, Lionni doesn't hear from his readers. Except for a two-year period when he published it monthly, 05401 has averaged only one annual issue, and few of them have generated letters.
This issue was an exception. Lionni read aloud from a letter he received recently from a subscriber: "'I've been reading 05401 since you started publishing it and I like it very much. This last issue was particularly terrific.'" The letter concludes with "'Please cancel my subscription.'"
"I don't know what to tell you," Lionni added with a chuckle.
Despite the dearth of feedback, Lionni has soldiered on with his vanity project for decades, printing 1,500 copies per issue at his own expense. He mails 1,000 copies to subscribers for free, then distributes the rest in Burlington-area bars and coffeehouses. Lionni wouldn't disclose what he spends on printing and postage, except to say, "I'm embarrassed by how much it costs."
September's issue — which, uncharacteristically, Lionni wrote entirely himself — pays tribute to a diverse cast of characters. They range from internationally renowned architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry and Buckminster Fuller to Vermonters David E. Sellers, Murray Bookchin, Beth Sachs and Blair Hamilton. Each tribute consists of five or six paragraphs of text opposite a full-page photo of its subject.
Lionni doesn't have a publishing background. A native of Genoa, Italy, he came to the U.S. at age 6 and grew up in Philadelphia. After studying architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lionni worked for years in New York City. In 1979, he and his wife, Barbara Zucker, moved to Burlington for her job as chair of the University of Vermont art department.
Lionni never intended for 05401 to be a moneymaker. In the mid-1990s, after four of his design projects failed to get built for various reasons, he threw in the towel on his 40-year architectural career and began dabbling in other pursuits, including writing and photography. 05401 became his creative outlet.
"When I first started it, I thought it should be about architecture, planning, food and sex," Lionni explained. "Because if you just do architecture and planning, nobody's going to read that."
Over the years, Lionni has enlisted the help of numerous local writers, artists and photographers. They include Burlington author and political activist Marc Estrin, Lionni's longtime friend, who described 05401 as "an architectural magazine for nonarchitects" and a community forum. Its contributors do not get paid.
"That's part of the success of the journal," Estrin added. "It creates a kind of fidelity among the people who write for it. They just want to see it work."
And it doesn't always work, said Lionni, who confessed that he's published some poorly written articles over the years. One goal of 05401, he said, is to represent alternative voices in Burlington, including those of people who might not always express themselves in polished form.
"It's about the things that interest me, basically. I know it's kind of an elitist magazine," he added, "but I am who I am."
In print, Lionni reserves his harshest criticism for the subject he knows best: architecture. He was initially furious when construction began on a new building across the street from his sixth-floor office on Pine Street above the Vermont Federal Credit Union.
However, as the building went up, Lionni came to appreciate its design, even though it obstructed his view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.
"As far as my view is concerned, I've had it for 22 years," he said, "so maybe it's appropriate that someone else should have it now."
Despite the sense of finality to the latest 05401, Lionni appears to have at least one more issue in him. Estrin noted that his old friend has asked him to contribute a piece about motorcycles — specifically, Lionni's observation that all the bikes he sees were built in countries that fought the U.S. during World War II.
What that has to do with architecture, planning, food or sex is anyone's guess.