08-07-2021

COMICS & ARCHITECTURE

Frans Masreel, DC Comics, Chip Kidd & Dave Taylor, Hugh Ferriss , Comics, Winsor McCay.,

abstract



<strong>COMICS & ARCHITECTURE</strong><br />
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Comics and graphic novels have provided architecture with the means to democratize its communication process. Initially, utilized as a subversive language by radical movements, they were gradually adopted as alternatives to methods consecrated by tradition and trivialized by standardization. Forms characterized by a different originality and personality, that some architects have used due to their peculiarity capable of synthesizing and simplifying concepts, expressing them with extreme clarity and immediacy, and affirming the author’s individuality, perhaps a little eccentric and irreverent, but certainly distinct and unconventional. The chrono-spatial graphic narrative techniques they use have many similarities with the architectural ones and are particularly suitable for the sequential representation of a project in its evolutive dynamism. The genre, however, remained limited to a small group of passionate and enthusiastic supporters, without academic recognition until the early 1970s. Decidedly more abundant are the ideas that architecture, in a relationship, so to speak, inverted, inspired, especially in the last thirty years of the century, to illustrators and cartoonists with various material, from the intriguing proposals of fascinating buildings to disturbing urban visions, lives of real mythical, charismatic and controversial protagonists belonging to its history to be narrated or fictionalized, metropolitan and environmental situations source of great discomfort and malaise, that have been not only formally reproduced but deeply analysed for the consequences they have caused. A very prolific exchange has been activated that has made it possible to weave social stories in which the context has been exalted or denigrated, suggesting powerful opportunities for wonder and evasion but mostly for reflection and rethinking conditions in absolute need of change. The work, the fatigue and the danger stand out against the background of a modern skyline, which echoes the American one, and constitute the concise but eloquent summary of the cover of the Denver 2006 edition: the buildings rise towards the sky, leaning against each other, as evidence of a growing well-being in contrast with the man in the foreground, who, belonging to the working class, challenges the dizzying heights, equipped with means not quite adequate. Images have more force than words and sound like cries of protest. The black and white contrast is used with very dynamic visual effects and Thomas Mann himself will introduce a work by Masereel emphasizing the narrative process close to that of a cinematic sequence: “Darken the room! Sit down with this book next to your reading lamp and concentrate on its pictures as you turn page after page. Dont deliberate too long! It is no tragedy if you fail to grasp every picture at once, just as it does not matter if you miss one or two shots in a movie”.


 
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. 
The United States had witnessed a real boom in the automotive industry and high productivity with the end of World War I. Unfortunately, a sudden fall in stock prices will force the stock market to collapse, bringing the difficult years ahead of the Great Depression. In an attempt to overcome the recession and restart economic activities, the initiatives of the New Deal program, wanted by President Franklin Roosevelt, will see the support of a group of businessmen who, at the height of the crisis, in 1935 decided to organize an international exhibition. They worked with a character, who will be of great relevance in the construction history of New York, later often identified as the builder for excellence, with the nickname ‘Master Builder’. Robert Moses, New York City Park Commissioner at the time, having absolute confidence in the importance of the project, took care to convert a vast garbage dump in Queens, making the site suitable for various pavilions and guaranteeing a city park at the end of the exhibition. 
 


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. The parallelism between architecture and the adventures experienced by Superman and Batman has developed a succession of progressive changes and transformations in the contrasting solar and night visions of Metropolis and Gotham, the cities respectively home and background to the actions of these two masked superheroes. Despite the various attempts and hypotheses the more convincing interpretation perceives in the antithetical dichotomy the contradictions of the same urban reality. A condition that we can notice common in any major American metropolis, especially emphasized within the capital. Metropolis, the city of opulence, where everything is bathed by the sun and perfect in every aspect, would be the location, with its prestigious, high skyscrapers, of those activities, not always ethically exemplary, carried out by men of power who, hidden with their mighty corporations behind glass facades, apparently of great transparency, can annihilate anyone. The kind of crime that Superman fights against, that dominates the area stretching from 14th Street upwards. The streets, on the other hand, poorly lit at night, dominated by criminals and delinquents, would represent the slums of Gotham, exaggerated by the theatricality of the noir tones.  From the very beginning the black and white charcoal drawings re-proposing skyscrapers covered at night by shadows formed by the spotlights in the fog, inspired by the iconic perspectives and emotional effects studied by Hugh Ferriss, and more recently by the gothic fantasy of the Oscar-winning set designer Anton Furst, a collaborator of Tim Burton, are the elements that contribute to the 'goth' of the city, an "embodiment of the urban fears ... a dark place, full of steam and rats and crime ". It is always night in Gotham City and everything evokes that ancestral fear in man for the darkness, making every next step so difficult, so dangerous to plan.
  Gotham City in 2012, in the four-hands work between the writer, Chip Kidd, and the artist, David Taylor, becomes the scene of a relevant moment in the American history, referring to the adoption of a surprisingly radical measure in a decade with little respect for the past, regarding the ruins of a building considered one of the most valuable monuments in Manhattan. It’s about the law approved in 1965, by the will of the conservationist movement, which sensitised the public opinion, leading to the creation of a commission entitled of the protection of works worthy of preservation. In graphite black and white version where the contrast is dissolved in a dominant grey atmosphere, enlivened by direct and indirect reflections of the beams of intense golden light or the weak and cold illumination of the dreary glow of the street lamps, Gotham comes to life. Background of an extraordinary construction boom is witnessing many renovation plans appointed to prestigious international star-architects, authorized to complete their new proposals, swarming almost in every corner. 'Batman: Death by Design', centres the narration on an architecture commissioned to the narcissism of figures who, satisfying their own self-referential vanity through their works, do not respect the character and personality of a certain urban fabric. Plans are being made for the demolition of the Old Wayne's art deco style Central Station, which will be replaced by a project that appears to be a replica of a massive whale’s rib cage. Author of the renovation of this railway hub is the renowned Kem Roomhaus, ironic and not veiled allusion to the Dutch architect, but with evident similarities and references, apart from the eyeglass’s frame, to Libeskind or Calatrava, in the personification envisaged by the hand of Taylor. Bruce Wayne, as the son of the station’s patron, has to deal with of the transformation approved by his own company but opposed by wealthy representatives of high society and the beautiful, conservationist, Cyndia Sil, who would like to see the magnificent artifact restored.

In the identity of his alter ego, Batman must face a series of incidents that are occurring and triggering troubles in several construction sites. The wealthy heir of Wayne Enterprises and the nocturnal hero have in this occasion to fight two situations that can be traced back to the same problem: a configuration of the city ​​that is being distorted, gradually losing its character and a sense of belonging to a community, due to "a heartless monumental urban intervention”, favoring buildings conceived as a sort of self-ostentation by acclaimed architects, who just love to steal the show. The other consequential phenomenon refers to malfunctions, explosions and failures due to design errors that are putting the construction sector in serious crisis. 
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

In the graphic novel, the condemnation of these extreme experiments that play on minimalism pushed to maximum spectacular effects is expressed by a synergistic collaboration between the explicit visual denunciation and the dense ironically sarcastic comments contained in the famous 'balloons'. The story goes back to the demolition of the Penn Station in New York, which took place in 1963, while the series of disasters occurring would allude to collapses that happened in Manhattan in 2008. Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1910, one of the greatest examples of Beaux-Arts Architecture in the United States, is revived in the graphic novel exactly with the same interior and exterior borrowed from the Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tusla, Oklahoma, designed by Adah Robinson and Bruce Goff, which fitted the Gotham gothic-deco perfectly.
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. “Its more or less a fluorescent-lit airless basement below Madison Square Garden, just horrible” …”and almost as a cruel joke, when youre down there, they have these pictures up on the grimy tiled walls of the old Penn Station – this big, glorious space. Theyre 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 comics

The 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.
 

Virginia Cucchi

Credits

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 

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