Frans Masreel, Bookcover for 'The City', 1925.
"This is the city and I am one of the citizens, whatever interests the rest interests me ....”, Walt Whitmann wrote in the preface, ethically involving everyone in an essential participation and sharing of responsibility. Without a trace of the classic plot, the great city unfolds by painting society in its multiple aspects through the variegated moments following throughout the day and night. Many snapshots displaying insights into an existence conducted privately or under the eyes of everyone, depicting with detailed precision the house’s interior of a poor family, gathered for dinner, in front of a window open to the smog exhaled by the nearby industries, or a lifeless body of someone who doesn’t have an identity and no one is mourning, flanked by the crowded funeral ceremony for some important representative of state, prostitutes and factory life. It is with melancholy or perhaps with a longing for a better world that the story starts “with a figure seated on a grassy hill staring at the smokestacked cityscape before him” and closes “with a solitary woman staring from her attic into a star-filled sky”. Knowing the author's social commitment, this is certainly not the aspiration to an environmental-friendly context, but rather, with a reference to the myth of steel production and the multiplication of its industries, to a more equitable condition for the working class, which he has always sympathized for, unable to find redemption from the harshness of a miserable state of precariousness.
Little Nemo, Winsor McCay, inspired by the International World Colombian Exhibition of 1893 / Image WikiArchivi/PublicDomain
Expo and International Fairs will be an interesting source, from which the imaginative and critical strength of the artists will draw, translating into images aspirations or condemning ambitions. For Windsor McCay, the Colombian World Exposition of 1893, in Chicago, will provide a rich repertoire of fantastic models that will form part of the fantastic, dreamlike kingdom of King Morpheus, backdrop for the nocturnal adventures of little Nemo. The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925, will also exert a powerful influence, with a general trend summarized in the Art Deco style, that will characterize the entire following decade. The applied arts prevailed over the decorative arts, dominated by the Art Nouveau taste and the new movement combined fine craftsmanship with linear geometric decorations, deriving not from nature but from a faith in the technological and social progress. American skyscrapers mark the pinnacle of this style: they are the tallest and most recognizable modern buildings in the world.Their height, shape, color and an extraordinary night illumination will become important elements for extremely suggestive contexts, recurring in several comics of the period, and in subsequent editions. The architectural design of the 1930s will represent a characterization aimed at enhancing the expressive power of the graphic settings.
Perisphere Globe at the International World Exhibition of 1939 / Image WIkiArchivi
A huge advertising campaign gave resonance to the second most expensive American fair of all time, whose opening was fixed for 1939. 'Building the World of Tomorrow ' was the theme of an agenda focused on the future and marked by the opening slogan 'Dawn of a New Day '. 'For Peace and Freedom' instead was the motto for 1940, claiming with confidence a desire for a possible resolution of the new world conflict, unexpectedly broken out. The two white buildings that dominated the scene in size: the huge globe of the Perisphere, containing the reproduction of a utopian city of the future, Democracity, and the Trylon, that along with Futurama, financed by General Motors, intended to represent the city of the future in 1960, dominated by cars, although temporary installations, constituted two really popular symbolic references, frequently recurring in comics. The event, that promised to celebrate innovation and modernity, offering to the visitors a great vision of the 'world of tomorrow', provoked a strong impression, influencing an entire generation of Americans. Literature, film and television drew abundant inspirational material, and DC Comics published a highly successful long-running series dedicated to 'Superman at the World's Fair', joined the following year by Batman and Robin. Architectural references linked to this precise event will alternate over time and Superman himself, in his evolution, from a normal man to his alias, "Man of Tomorrow", allows us to easily understand how clear the allusion is to "World of Tomorrow", the theme of the Fair.
Among the bizarre realizations that are erasing the distinct uniqueness of the place stands out "the world's most glamorous nightclub, 'The Ceiling'”, a huge cantilevered glass platform, designed by Roomhaus, suspended above the bustling city traffic. Beautifully reproduced "high in the sky”, makes us attend the opening night, "a real show, where customers can feel as if they are dining and dancing suspended in the air ". According to its designer, “a reductive design taken to its ultimate extreme, introducing a brand new school of architecture he calls Mini-Maximalism”.
Its destruction, followed with the subsequent construction of Madison Square Garden, provoked movements oriented to raise awareness on modern historical preservation. The story was extremely controversial and caused an international indignation. “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat “, wrote the architecture historian Vincent Scully about the transformation, and the criticism continued over the years, finding an almost total unanimity even today. “It’s more or less a fluorescent-lit airless basement below Madison Square Garden, just horrible” …”and almost as a cruel joke, when you’re down there, they have these pictures up on the grimy tiled walls of the old Penn Station – this big, glorious space. They’re hanging around on the walls practically mocking you with how beautiful it used to be, as opposed to how shitty it is now”.
Batman: Death by Design, Chip Kidd & Dave Taylor / Courtesy of DC comicsThe comic genre gradually gained the respect due, leaving the sphere of pure diversion, where it has been relegated for a long time, attributing a marginal role to its narration. With great visionary skills it has amply demonstrated, even when it draws contamination from architecture, to go far beyond mere citation, introducing and using buildings as tools and a pretext for deepening a discourse on the city and society. Especially in those countries where absolute freedom of expression is not well accepted, such as in Japan, that cares very much about the image that the world perceives of its country, manga demonstrate their dissent, leading their readers to places apparently distant in the space and time, but revealing traits very similar to contemporaneity. There are many graphic designers, in ever increasing number, who accepted the revolutionary lesson of some daring architects of the past, dedicate themselves to representations of imaginative urban contexts, so detailed to become totally immersive with their hyperrealism, accurate portrays of extremely sophisticated taste which have also been the settings for famous sci-fi films and interactive games, belonging to the world of videogames, showing that they can be a real source of inspiration in regard to the interactive relationship that architecture must nurture with society.
cover- Unsplash, Marjan Blan
01- Wayne Tower Center Sketch, Studies on the Tower / Image WikiArchivi/CC
02- Frans Masreel, The City, Bookcover. / Image Bookcover
03- Proposed Tower in Madison Square, Hugh Ferriss / Image WikiArchivi/PublicDomain
04- Drawing Study, max massing 1916 zoning, Tower, Hugh Ferriss / Image WikiArchivi/PublicDomain
05- Science Center, Hugh Ferriss / Image WikiArchivi/PublicDomain
06- New York, Daily News, Tower Sketch, 1930, Hugh Ferriss / Image WikiArchivi/PublicDomain
07- Little Nemo, Winsor McCay, sezione takes inspiration from the lnternational World Colombian Exhibition of 1893 / Image WikiArchivi/PublicDomain
08- Perisphere Sphere at the International World Exhibition of 1939 / Image WIkiArchivi
09-11- Anton Furst's Sketches for Batman, Gotham City / Images : All rights reserved to the author- Anton Furst
12- Batman: Death by Design, Chip Kidd & Dave Taylor, Image Bookcover / DC comics
14-17- Batman: Death by Design, Chip Kidd & Dave Taylor, Image Courtesy of DC comics