The Art of Living (Inside)- An Homage to Saul Steinberg for Arquine #92

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Today would have marked Saul Steinberg’s (Râmnicu Sărat, June 15, 1914 – New York, May 12, 1999) 108th birthday, so, since I haven’t posted anything since January, I thought this could be a great occasion to do so, with this little homage I sneaked in Arquine #92: Common Spaces (Summer 2020). There are many Steinberg cartoons I would like to homage in one way or another, but on top of that list has been Steinberg’s ‘Double Up’ (or ‘Doubling Up’), which I’ve been wanting to draw a version of for ages -proof of this can be found in my sketchbooks.

‘Doubling Up’ was one of four cartoons that Steinberg published in Architectural Forum from February to May, 1946. It was also one of several riffs on the same motif by the architect-turned-cartoonist, as shown in the section ‘As Steinberg Sees Us’ of the catalogue for the exhibition ‘An Exhibition from Modern living’ (1949), which included a few similar examples. After years sitting in my sketchbook, the unfortunate lockdown of 2020 finally gave me the opportunity to dust it off and make my ‘starchitectural’ version of it (apparently, someone at The Architectural Review made the same connection). You can also compare Steinberg’s graceful line with my cluttering mess. On the upside, there’s the habitual ‘who’s who’, for those amongst you prone to playing the game of finding all referents. An English version of the text published alongside the cartoon in Arquine’s ArquiNoir section can be found below these lines. Unlike the usual texts published in my column, which tend to deal with timeless topics, this one is quite attached to the time it was written, so it felt a little weird to re-read it now (even more so, because I rushed the translation into English -so, be kind). Oh, well.

[And here, a pic of the cartoon and text as originally published].

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These days of mandatory agoraphobia (I am writing this in mid-April, 2020) are revealing particularly propitious for the proliferation of meaty reflections on housing, the home, the urban habitat or, in short, the house: those cubicles that these days, possibly more than ever before in History, define our living environment, an artificial habitat whose shortcomings also become now more apparent than ever. Unfortunately, dear reader, you won’t find any of that here. For thoughts, either high or deep, but nonetheless substantial, I’ll forward you to more reliable columnists and articles such as ‘The House as an Extension of the Body’, by Sabrina Gaudino (paradoxically published in such an unexpected location as the website of the Architasa Valuation Company) that tackles, without specifically referring to it by name, the problem of the Existenzminimum, and its transformation from ‘lowest admissible standards’ to ‘standard size of your typical dwelling’ after its introduction in Architecture’s official discourse during the interwar period1.

In my case, by mere professional deformation, these times bring another type of material to mind. These confinement days have also sparked the proliferation of a common joke among cartoonists, regular practitioners of (voluntary) confinement and remote working, is that quarantine does not differ too much from our normal (ha!) life. Used to seeing the computer screen as our almost exclusive window to the outside world, with Twitter being our default mode of interaction with other human beings, we are perhaps the best-trained individuals to cope with this situation. After all, we have spent our whole lives getting ready. If anything, this is, on the contrary, a period of feverish social activity, with the creation of online ‘challenges’ aimed at them that grant them an unusual prominence: they benefit from the increased attention they receive now that ordinary mortals find themselves trapped in a situation which, for them, is just their daily routine: a) at home, and b) plugged to social media 24/7. Here we have, for instance, the #SixFanArts, or, more relevant to this article, the #CoronaMaison, a challenge where French illustrator Pénélope Bagieu asks the participants to draw, on a template designed by Timothy Hannem, what they envision as their ideal living space to spend the lockdown2.

As I said, being the old-man-at-heart that I am, reviewing the thousands of entries of the latter that have been produced to this day immediately brought to mind the numerous, well-known, fictional cross-sections of apartment buildings with which the architect-cartoonist par excellence, Saul Steinberg, seasoned his collaborations with several various magazines in the 1940s. Most of them collected in the second volume compiling his cartoons, the very appropriately baptized The Art of Living, from August 1949, would be included just a month later in “An Exhibition for Modern Living” (Detroit Institute of the Arts, September 1949), consolidating the figure of Steinberg in architecture’s cultural scene. Among all of these, the best known would surely be ‘Doubling Up’, the second of a total of four cartoons published in Architectural Forum between February and May 1946, which would go down in history for inspiring Georges Perec’s La Vie, Mode d’Emploi (1978). The latter was a further development of Perec’s earlier ‘l’immeuble’ (Espèces d’espaces, 1974, pp. 57-61), where he, following his usual modus operandi, made a list of all the elements that appeared, in this case, in Steinberg’s drawing. The cartoon depicted a typical New York block whose sectioned facade let the reader see the multitude of apartments behind it, and the rooms they were subsequently divided into. Here, the draftsman-architect was portraying the subdivision that large pre-war apartments had suffered during the post-war depression, and, if anything, it stood out amongst other similar cartoons by the same author for its spatial complexity and degree of baroquism; a trait, on the other hand, none too unusual in a draftsman whose passion for congestion is sometimes covered up by his economical, linear and abstract style -which he indulged into with passion, here. The drawing showed what appeared to be 8 dwellings, subdivided into 22 rooms adjacent to the façade, with several additional spaces opening up in the background. However, what captured the attention of the viewer was the customization, bordering on ‘horror vacui’, in places, that each of its occupants had carried out in their small private plot, making Steinberg part of that genealogy which, from Le Corbusier to Koolhaas (and somehow, James Wines), rejoices imagining the infinite microverses stored in those uniform, stacked units that make up the blocks of the modern city.

‘Double-up’ introduced, however, a twist in this lineage. With its crowded spaces, Steinberg seemed to wonder to what extent this personalization (humanization?) of urban housing was possible when the living space suffered a drastic reduction in its usable area (and volume). These last few weeks have made this a timelier question than ever, in an age of ‘micro-apartments’ and ‘loft-type houses’ that are actually single spaces which, if they have no interior divisions, it is because, otherwise, they would become unlivable. Moreover, on these days where TV shows leave their sets and enter the homes of their regular collaborators via Skype, what that other window is showing us is a reality made of small cubicles painted white and scantily filled with different combinations of a few pieces of furniture; an IKEA galaxy which, in turn, has perhaps introduced a perverse twist in the dream of modernity, revealing itself as a true international style. At least, in my case, the piles of books in my den hide the reality behind them, helping make my cartoonist confinement practically imperceptible.

This better end before I exhaust my reserve of drawing materials, though.

[1] Gaudino di Meo, Sabrina. ‘La Casa como Extensión del Cuerpo’. Arquitasa, April 1, 2020.

[2] I would encourage readers to dig into them by introducing the #coronamaison hashtag, either on Twitter or Instagram, or click here, here, and here, to see my own contributions to the series.

Klaus: ‘The Art of Living (Inside)’. Arquine #92: Common Places, Summer 2020.

Saul Steinberg, ‘Doubling Up’, first published in Architectural Forum, February 1946.

Published by klaustoon

Klaus is a frustrated cartoonist that lives in an old castle in Europe. In his other life he is also a frustrated architect and scholar who...

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