Ephemeral landscapes: in the page . . .

Comic-book settings and architectural nostalgia


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The visual sampling in this paper represents a tiny portion of the comic-strip and book output that illustrates creators' attitudes to cities and architecture, to what geographers refer to as cultural landscapes.

In general, apart from filmmaking, the attention given to the artistic aspects of most forms of visual narrative as an art form (and not just comics) is far more a European rather than North American preoccupation (Couperie and Horn 1968).

In France, great effort has been taken to display to the public a wide range of architectural images from other media (CCI 1984). In 1985 the Institut français d'architecture (IFA) produced an exhibition of "architectures de bande dessinée" -- of architecture of the comic strip (de Busscher 1985; IFA 1985). In his preface to one of the catalogues (de Busscher 1985: 2), the French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, noted that while at first glance the exhibition might seem a risky bet, it provided an opportunity for two kinds of "writing" to enrich one another, as well as to introduce the public to the universe of architecture through the go-between of the comic strip. He also pointed out that comic strips sometimes offer accurate reconstructions of historical architecture (otherwise unavailable) as well as futurist visions that prefigure the anguish and the dreams that architects will have to face in building that future.

The common thread that runs through the settings of almost all comic narratives, European or American, is nostalgia. The American West, the mediaeval town, the colonial outpost, the Vernean utopia -- all share of necessity a root in the common cultural imagery of their readers, reinforced by other media. The romantic adventures trade on this nostalgia directly. The satires make use of nostalgia by setting up "straw-man" environments that suffer by comparison to our nostalgia for the better times and better places that we may have known or imagined.

According to Habermas (in Forester 1985), nostalgia is the central theme of the post-modern attitude to architecture, which he characterizes as essentially pre-modern. The present era has failed to learn from the nineteenth century's successes in developing new construction methods, new ideologies, and new building types, and sees instead only the historic "battles of the styles". Current movements in architecture are vainly seeking their own personae merely by distinguishing themselves superficially from any authentic past. There was a brief magic moment early in this century when functionalism and an appropriate new modern style came together, but the modern movement has never recaptured that moment despite (or is it because of?) the ubiquity of the International Style.

Though the concerns of comic art may seem at first glance to be far different from those of architecture, the nostalgic element is both important and shared.

Collectively, comics and other popular graphic narratives offer visual critiques of real places and environments in a very public medium. Drawings are able to simultaneously depict subjects and comment upon those subjects. However, such critiques do not circulate among the usual reading of architects and planners. Despite the power of drawings in general, such as the persuasive example of editorial cartoons, comics are not currently regarded as a useful medium for criticism. They "don't look serious."

Architects' graphic commentaries on cities

Drawings for architectural design, while ostensibly accurate depictions of potentially real buildings, hold their subjects in awe and respect in order to persuade a client of the goodness of the building project they represent. Comic drawings, often no less scrupulously accurate, may not hold their architectural subjects in such awe (and when they do, it may not be for the "proper" academic or professional reasons). Because architects know how persuasive good visual documents can be, most are apprehensive about using any technique that might make a building or planning scheme look less than serious.

But other practitioners -- often labeled post-modern -- have understood that comic-strip conventions may offer means for presenting architectural concepts that are also less than reverent to the canons of established modernism. This visually critical form of presentation will appeal to clients of similar attitude. It may also be more publicly "accessible" -- which quality may also be nerve-wracking for those trying to maintain control of public information and decision-making.

For example, English architect Terry Farrell (1984) used irreverent and unconventional angles of view to present his (irreverent and unconventionally populist) infill schemes for small sites in the City of London. For the Mansion House site, intended by a private developer for a glass and steel tower by Mies van der Rohe, Farrell prepared on behalf of a conservation group an alternative conservation-minded project as a visual critique of the tower scheme. Though the Farrell project was technically buildable, it was not necessarily meant to be built -- its purpose was polemical, and its intention to defeat the tower block mostly successful.

Terry Farrell's cityscapes

The rapid rise of computer-aided architectural visualization has demanded that architects and planners present their designs more dynamically. But animated computer-graphics flythroughs and hyper-realistic 3D lighting software may tend to obscure some more basic approaches that cinematic and comic artists still have to use, like scripts, diagrams and storyboards, that show and explain movement from a variety of angles . . . .

Kevin Lynch, Donald Appleyard, The View from the Road, detail

Storyboards for film design

T'ai-chi footwork

. . . . or show the passage of time. . . .

Evolution of central Ottawa

. . . . or show the passage of time and space together.

Urban analysis of Sheffield, England

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