Quotidian (T)errors: Hyperbole, Caricature, Deformation and Other Catalysts of Invention – Article for Bitácora Magazine

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As a way to celebrate this year’s anniversary (the 10 years of Klaustoon’s Blog, I mean, not the advent of Blade Runner’s 2019), the next months will see some posts looking backwards to past events. And amongst them,  a few will deal with events from last year, 2018, which was a rather busy period for me, full of Klaus-related lecturing, exhibiting, and traveling. This busy-ness had the less happy side effect of my neglecting my obligations towards this blog even more than I usually do (which has been a lot, in recent years).

Let’s start, then: as I was writing the 10-year celebration post last week, adding links to the text in the right places, I realized I had forgotten to include a publication that came late in the year, and followed the spirit of my contribution to Thresholds #46: Scatter! (which will be reprised again in an upcoming piece for Architectural Design). As things go, while in the Mextropoli Festival in Mexico DF last year, I happened upon Dino del Cueto, and Cristina López Uribe, from UNAM’s Bitácora Arquitectura. 

I had too much on my plate, but the topic of the issue (Error) was irresistible, and, instead of publishing something already done (as they suggested), I decided to call in my better half, and design a piece on the power of satire, cartooning and caricature. The piece, which has quite a lot of Gombrich, along with quite some Buster Keaton, some LC, Piranesi, Hollein, and (of course) many other referents can be found on the journal’s webpage here (in Spanish). Below you can find a quick English translation of the first couple of pages, interspersed with the pages as published, which have the specially-made cartoons (click to enlarge) in them (I did manage to oblige myself to repurpose a couple of earlier cartoons, one from Thresholds and another one from A10, but, unfortunately, I couldn’t help drawing four new ones; don’t laugh: it’s a curse).

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Twenty years ago, I attended a lecture given by Federico Soriano, who, armed with his trademark floral shirts and blank stares, began by showing several stills from One Week (1920) [1], the first film produced independently by Buster Keaton, which revolved around the disagreements of the protagonists regarding the construction of a house. This was a recurrent trope in the films of the first decades of the century, from Laurel & Hardy’s to Charlie Chase’s, particularly when the accessories of modernity came into play: specifically, the many mechanisms that literally transformed the house into a machine for living in. Keaton himself addressed this issue in other films, such as The Scarecrow (1920), and especially The Electric House (1922), adding to a genealogy probably started by Segundo de Chomón with The Electric Hotel (1908) which, some decades later, would find one of its most celebrated moments in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) [2].

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However, here the link with the architectural practice was even more straightforward, since the film portrayed the eventful construction -and later destruction- of a prefabricated house, conducted by the protagonist and his wife. The house was a simple two-story wooden structure which, according to the brochure, could be erected within a week’s time -hence the title-, merely requiring to be assembled, following the numbering on the boxes that contained the pieces. This apparently simple process goes off the rails, however, when Keaton’s rival – a spiteful suitor who had given the house to the newlyweds as a wedding present- sabotages the construction halfways by changing the numbers on the boxes. Oblivious to this ploy Keaton’s character continues the construction unperturbed, following what he believes to be the company’s instructions to the T -with hilarious consequences. The resulting building is a caricature of what a house of the time should look like, with uncanny angles, elements rotated and repositioned in absurd places, and many other defamiliarizing twists on the invariants of the typology.

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All throughout its footage, the film keeps showcasing these strategies that estrange the familiar, displaying floors and ceilings that suffer elastic deformations, rotating walls (a usual resource of slapstick cinema) and, in general, presenting an architecture which is anything but stable and/ or static. The second half of the film shows the house spinning vertiginously on its axis as a result of a storm and, afterwards, travelling on wheels (barrels, actually), once the owners realize that the lot they should have built it in is on the other side of the railroad. Of course, all this only helps make its deformation even worse. As could not be otherwise, the film ends with the eventual destruction of the building, when, following an unsuccessful attempt to move it to the correct plot, the little monstrosity is destroyed by a train, in a kind of benevolent euthanasia, after getting stuck on the railway tracks.

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In Soriano’s narrative, this film -which has become sort of a classic in modern disquisitions on architecture and housing- was used as an example of incorruptible commitment to a predetermined design process. Keaton’s character represents here the believer in following an a priori chosen method to its ultimate consequences, whatever these may be. This is an approach that understands architecture as a process -autonomous or otherwise- where the success of the final result may be more or less relevant, but is neither predetermined nor predictable when it is unleashed. Also, in Keaton’s film the process is triggered by error, but not by sheer chance. Error is not fortuitous, but premeditated (even if not by the executor himself), and although the initial change that triggers the process is both arbitrary and random (there is not an specific, but a generic goal behind the new arrangement: disorder itself), its execution, within the film’s narrative, is impeccably rigorous.

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However, and particularly with the advantage of looking back at it almost a century later, after the advent of protomodernity, modernity, postmodernity (and whatever we inhabit since then -liquid modernity, I guess), the film also exemplifies the creative potentialities of error as an automatic, uncontrolled and uncontrollable generator of new, unexpected ideas, or ideas-forms in architecture’s case. Other authors, such as Iñaki Ábalos have contributed less optimistic readings of the film, understanding that “although it soon become obvious that there is some kind of mistake, Keaton has no choice, no other thought model to oppose that of the manual, and blindly proceeds to a mechanical construction process in which the final result will become a cruel metaphor of the destiny of the couple and the institutional family in our days.”[3] Beyond these socio-architectural disquisitions, there is, however, an obvious overlap of the, then absurd, architectural form generated in/for the film and iconographies (and strategies) we are very familiar with today. The goal of the result of the architectural operation was, in the context of the film, exclusively diegetic, and undeniably humorous. In fact, the film was conceived as a parody of Home Made (1919), a Ford Motor Company-produced educational film on prefab housing -buildable in a week- which provided Keaton with many of the ideas on display in One Week. Consequently, it presented the viewer with a design that was, for all intents and purposes, a parody, or, better, a caricature of a known archetype, designed to arise laughter in the audience. The current validity of the gag [4] was proved by the unanimous laughter it raised at the lecture I mentioned at the beginning, in an auditorium exclusively populated by architects and students of architecture. [….]

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Luis Miguel Lus Arana: Quotidian [T]errors: Hyperbole, Caricature, Deformation and Other Catalysts of Invention. [Excerpt]. Bitácora Arquitectura nº 37 (2018); 120-135.

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