…And when they found our shadows grouped ’round the TV sets they ran down every lead. They repeated every test They checked out all the data on their lists and then, the alien anthropologists admitted they were still perplexed.
But on eliminating every other reason for our sad demise They logged the only explanation left: ‘This species has amused itself to death.’
(Roger Waters: Amused to Death, 1992)
Late as usual, but later than ever: Have a Happy New Year. Not from Andrew Tate.
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].
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.
So, late as usual, let me wish all of you a happy New Year. This cartoon was started within a reasonable time in advance of January 1st, but some crazy times at the Klaus household have prevented it from being finished till yesterday. So much so, that I was seriously considering to throw it again in my virtual drawer of unfinished stuff. However, that would make it the second time in a row (I did the same last year), so I decided to upload it on this Epiphany day which has recently become an unusual anniversary (Capitol Riot, anyone?). If someone peruses the blog, he may notice that this drawing seems like a follow up on the one from two years ago, but a slightly abrupt one at that. The explanation to that hiccup is that, if you feel there’s a piece missing between both, that is because there actually is one. More on that later.
Anyway, enough with the chit-chat: Happy 2022, everyone! Make the best with what you’re given!
Later than ever (as usual), here’s my annual, not very enthusiastic Season Greetings, with a nod and a tip of the hat to K.C. Green‘s ‘On Fire’ (‘Gunshow’ #648 strip), better known as the ‘This is Fine’ meme.
Today would have been Albert Uderzo’s 94th birthday, had it not been for the unfortunate heart attack that took his life in March 2020, at the ripe old age of 92. On this occasion, I thought it would be timely to recover this column from my section ‘Arquinoir’, published in Arquine magazine last Autumn, which was intended both as an homage to the artist and his oeuvre, which had a great influence on my fascination both with comics and with architecture. The text featured here is an extended version of the published one, also originally in Spanish.
Perhaps the number has not been greater than in any other year, but the particular situation we are living in these months has possibly made us more aware of the losses that this fateful 2020 is leaving behind. In our particular corner of reality, there have been several of these that have orphaned us in one way or another, with some of them being particularly close to some of us for varying reasons. In my case, I will especially miss Vittorio Gregotti, who shaped some of my favorite corners in contemporary Venice, Michael McKinnell, whom I will always never be able to thank for creating the background for my strolls across the Boston City Hall plaza, and another Michael, Sorkin, passionate draftsman, brilliant creator of paper architecture, and, even more interestingly, architecture critic for The Village Voice in the 1980s.
Personally, however, there are two losses which, even if originating outside our airtight ecosystem, have affected me possibly even more, due to their foundational role in my life (and career). The latest, which took place in late April, was the decease of Marcos Mundstock, ‘the voice’ of comedy-musical Argentinian ensemble Les Luthiers, who stand at the top, either in a draw or even slightly above the Monty Python, in my personal Mount Olympus of humor. Marcos, whom I met through my TV set on a Summer late night while still a pre-teen opened my eyes to a world of double-entendres, word play, and obscure referents, whose comfort, for better or worse, I never managed to exit. The other one, which happened a month earlier, takes me even further back, to a time when this language that gives me so much satisfaction was still foreign to me in all its forms. By chance, the peculiar (lack of) judgment of a close relative -God bless her- made an Asterix album, Asterix and the Soothsayer (1972) reach the hands of my babysitter. In 2008, with the occasion of the Dan Dare and the Birth of Hi-Tech Britain exhibition at the Science Museum in London, Jonathan Glancey noted the extent to which Frank Hampson’s comic had helped shape the interests and careers of an entire generation, from Stephen Hawking and Ridley Scott to Nigel Coates, Laurie Chetwood or Norman Foster. It’s difficult to overstate how many not just passions, but vocations Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny contributed raise with their series about a tiny village of indomitable Gauls who still hold out against the invaders. Their seminal influence on several generations of comic authors from multiple latitudes is obvious, but the sorrowful reactions of a multitude of historians, art historians, archaeologists, and others to the death of Uderzo suggest that his capacity to inspire career paths might be, at the very least, comparable to that of the English Pilot of the Future.
Since his sad and premature death halfways through the making of the twenty-fourth adventure in the series, Astérix Chez Les Belges, there has been a unanimous agreement on the irreplaceable shadow that the enormous creative genius of the René Goscinny (1926-1977) had cast on the series would have over it, and the unsurmountable loss that his disappearance would mean. It would be banal to insist on the brilliance of the scripts that this Frenchman of Jewish descent produced for this series: except for the first album, which, while still funny, lacks some of the depth of later ones, the series’ stories are a lesson in writing in the broadest sense of the word. Goscinny’s stories were always impeccably constructed, holding the reader’s attention through a sense of suspense which is kept all the way through. Asterix’s adventures were always agile but also eventful, action-packed but also filled with witty dialogues full of irony, replete with interesting, perfectly constructed characters whose distinctive personalities were sometimes developed in the lapse of just a couple of panels… Goscinny’s genius became particularly apparent with his ability to create stories that worked on several levels: as a thrilling adventure, full with humor and empathy, for the kid, and as sharp social satire for the adult, who could find incisive comments on reality in them: the out-of-control development of the coast and the destruction of the landscape by tourist resorts in Le domaine des dieux (1971), the free market and the perils and absurdities of late capitalism in Obelix et Compagnie (1976) perhaps stand out amongst the multitude of allusions, explicit or veiled, to an endless list of historical events and contemporary trends. Asterix is a series that can be reread on numerous occasions over the years, and the reader will get something different each time. I cannot remember how many times I have reread my collection (the latest, right before writing this text), and every single one I discover something I hadn’t noticed before.
However, this should not outshadow Uderzo’s essential role in the shaping of all these virtues. Again, any praise for Uderzo’s drawing is unnecessary due to its redundancy. Of course, Asterix was not the first thing he drew; in fact, the Gaul’s adventures were the last in the rather extensive production of this cartoonist, who by 1961, when the first one started its serialization in the pages of Pilote, had already produced several series. One of his longest achievements was, actually, a pseudo-realistic comic series, Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure (1959-1967), created together with Jean-Michel Charlier. Asterix, on the other hand, was the latest in a genealogy of humorous adventure comics by the Uderzo-Goscinny tandem that included Jehan Pistolet (1952-1956), Luc Junior (1954-1957), Benjamin et Benjamine (1957-1959), and, of course, Oumpah-Pah (1958-1962), a series that many of us outside France discovered with fascination later than Asterix, only to find out with horror that the success of the Gaul had forced the authors to abandon it after only five albums. Uderzo would ultimately be the main agent in making all the inherent qualities of Goscinny’s scripts shine on the comic page, with his precise and detailed drawing style, his ability to create distinctive characters and especially for caricature -what would have been of Le Domaine des Dieux without the character of Caius Saugrenus covered with the unmistakable features of Jacques Chirac?- and, last but not least, his ability to create fictional but credible historical backgrounds.
Combining a few morphological and structural elements of Celtic domestic architecture, such as the pitched roofs covered with hay, wood bearing structures and masonry or wooden board walls, Uderzo generated a well-stocked typological variety for his fictional Gaul villages and cities, ranging from the most basic one, simply covered with a gabled roof, or those one with a circular outline and an ellipsoid roof, to the open façade of Ordenalfabetix fish shop, Cetautomatix’s two-floor house/blacksmith’s workshop house-workshop, or the tree house of Assourancetourix, the bard (the tribe’s blackbird), standing somewhere in between a birdcage and a cuckoo clock. Still, it is perhaps on the urban scale that Uderzo’s mastery is truly overwhelming. It is a visual treat to behold the aerial views of the Gallic village, or some of its streets, in the half-page panels that usually open each episode, or in special pages, such as the diagram that illustrates ‘The Battle of the Village’ in La Zizanie (1970), as well as in all the variations on the Gaul village theme created by Uderzo. In this category belong fictional settlements such as the mountain village of Moralélastix in Asterix et le Chaudron (1969), or the ‘twin villages’ in Le Grand Fossé (1980), with its two halves separated by a sunken imitation of the Berlin Wall, but also the fictitious recreations of the Celtic ancestors of some present time cities. Here, the prime example would be Lutetia, in its original location in the present Île de la Cité in Paris, which Uderzo recreated with its bridges, streets and houses adapted to the language of his version of Gaul architecture. All of them vividly illustrate Uderzo’s ability both to design seductive historical speculations, and to visualize them in urban vistas that the reader could imagine him or herself strolling through.
Of course, the History and Architecture of antiquity had been prominently featured in the world of comics long before Asterix: there we have Prince Valiant (1937-), by Hal Foster (no, not the author of The Anti-Aesthetic: the original one), a paradigmatic example of the syncretic reconstruction of the past that Hollywood has accustomed us to. Postwar bande dessinée would correspond with series such as Les Timour (1953-1994), by Sirius (Max Mayeu), and especially Jacques Martin’s Alix (1948-), which would definitely kickstart the development of the historical genre in bande dessinée, a genre still in full force which would introduce an archaeological attitude in the representation of history. This is a tradition that Asterix would help to create, in which Uderzo would achieve the strange feat of making antiquity both more spectacular and more accessible at the same time. In a time with no Wikipedia, Google Images, or Movies on Demand, Asterix was the first window to classical times for many children, which they discovered through its meticulous reconstructions of great architectural ensembles: the Acropolis of Athens and the Altis in Olympia (Astérix aux Jeux Olympiques, 1968), the necropolis at Giza (Astérix et Cléopâtre, 1963-64), Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon (L’Odyssée d’Astérix, 1981), and, first and foremost, Rome.
In the adventures of Asterix many of us discovered the Eternal City portrayed through its crowded and grimy streets, its tabernae, the Subura neighborhood (Le Cadeau de César, 1974), but also in impressive aerial views showing a historical center which, unbeknownst to us, was not that of the year 50 BC. Often presented to the reader through the buildings that stood on either side of the Palatine Hill, the Rome of Asterix introduced some of us, for the first time, to the Circus Maximus and the Flavian Palace (Le Domaine des Dieux, 1971). On the other side, we could see a crowded Roman Forum (Les Lauriers de César, 1972, Asterix chez Rahàzade, 1987), complete with the house of the Vestals and the Basilica of Maxentius -and Constantine, yes- at one end. On the other, the buildings on top of the Capitoline Hill stood in the background, with the tabularium and the three temples that complete the head of the Forum at its feet. In between these, the trained reader could identify the two basilicas, the Temple of Divus Iulius, ordered to be built by Augustus shortly after Caesar’s death, or the Arch of Septimius Severus, erected when good ol’ Julius had been dead and buried for almost two and a half centuries. On the right, behind the Curia Iulia, which César would never see finished due to some fatal health problems originated and concluded in the Curia Pompeia, one could glimpse a good chunk of the Imperial For a, of which César only knew, still under construction, the one that bears his name.
The reason behind these anachronisms is that Asterix’s Rome sprang from the most complete documentary source that Uderzo could have access to in an era -I insist- before infographic recreations, Mary Beard’s documentaries, and the History Channel: the impressive model of the Imperial Rome (Plastico di Roma Imperiale) commissioned by Benito Mussolini to archaeologist Italo Gismondi in 1933. Based in part on the Forma Urbis Romae drafted by Rodolfo Lanciani in 1901, Mussolini commissioned it for the 1942 EUR exhibition, which marked the two thousandth anniversary of the death of Augustus. Exhibited since 1950 in the Museo della Civiltà Romana, the model, which would be continuously expanded by Gismondi until 1971, showed the city as it would have been looked, approximately, in the times of Constantine at the beginning of the 4th century. Its appearance, as Frédéric Montmayeur points out, is less that of late-republican Rome than that of the Aelian-Antonine era (that of Hadrian) with all its surfaces covered in luxurious marble .
But this is, at the end of the day, irrelevant. On the one hand, because Asterix does is not intended as a treatise on classical architecture, but rather a work of fiction aimed at captivates the reader’s imagination. It is just because of the excellence of its workmanship that this has not only been achieved at a very high level, but also that it has managed to do so with several generations of them. On the other hand, because despite its historical inaccuracies, many of those (us) who today devote our working hours to teaching the architecture of this period first learnt of the configuration of a Roman Castrum, what insulae were and the fact that, apparently, they were prone to fall down, or the structure of a prototypical domus (incongruously presented, yes, as an exempt building), with its atrium, impluvium and peristyle, its cubiculae, triclinium and tablinum, in the pages of an Asterix album (Les Lauriers De Cesar, 1971, in the latter’s case). In them we saw, for the first time, the interior of a Roman theater, an amphitheater or a circus, as well as multiple and anachronistic architectural speculations: from the fictional palace of Julius Caesar (who we would later learn was never an emperor) to a ‘classical’ version of the Palace of Nations at Geneva (Asterix chez les Helvètes, 1970), archaic service areas overlooking the Roman roads, road motels, ‘drive-in’ amphitheaters… A fictional vista within a fiction, we were even presented with a glimpse of a possible but undesirable future of the Gaul village, fully surrounded by a touristic development in a beautifully terrible aerial view; well, actually two, since Uderzo took the time to draw both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ stages, shown in the comics as a spectacular but heartbreaking model. Reality itself.
Rest in peace, master.
“El Hombre que fue Roma. Albert Uderzo (1927-2000).” Arquine. Revista Internacional de Arquitectura. Campos de Juego. Autumn 2020. Nº 93, pp. 10-11.
Below is the shorter version of the text as originally published (in Spanish) in the magazine:
At last! And about time, if you ask me (to wish you a Happy New Year, I mean). It’s been quite a while since I last drew a political and/or no-architectural cartoon. Well, it has the White House in it, so, what the heck! Paging the divine Monty Python: “…and there was much rejoicing”.
Late as usual, but later than ever, here’s finally that cartoon I’d been teasing with (here) in the last days of 2020. In my defense, I have to say it was mostly ready in time for the December 31st deadline, but due to recent developments, I’ve been considering whether it would be timely or not. Back in early Summer, when the pandemic seemed to have been more or less successfully contained -at least in the part of the Globe where I live-, I thought this might be an image that reminded us of how we made it through tough times which were fortunately over. Numbers rapidly increasing since mid-December, and a slower vaccination process than we had hoped for made me reconsider it. But in the face of a, perhaps not imminent -but more likely as day goes by- lockdown, I finally decided to dig it up.
As someone who was on the receiving end of the 2008 crisis (2009 in my case), I can’t but be particularly aware that I’ve been amongst the lucky ones in this one we, unfortunately, just started. So far. Back in March, I ironized in my column for Arquine (in this issue; I’ll soon make it available online), titled ‘The Art of Living (Inside)’ that I, as many other cartoonists, hadn’t really noticed much of a change during the lockdown: spending the entire day at home, beholding the outside World through the computer screen and communicating with other people via social media is pretty much a regular day for most of us. Heck, endless hours of watching TV series, old films, and reading is a dream come true for us, nerds. We’ve been getting ready for this our entire life. Now, lame attempts at joking aside, I must admit that, together with my training, it helped that I lived through a not very severe lockdown: as an academic, my job was unaffected in a broad sense. Of course, changes had to be made, especially when you’re teaching a Film & Architecture course where part of the point is to watch and discuss films in the classroom. Certainly, the experience was not the same for my students, and I had to fill those hours with other materials that ended up taking a lot of my time.
However, that’s a really minor issue in the context of things: I was lucky enough to have few teaching hours and a small group of students, all of which made it more than feasible. In the end, I was able to go on with my teaching and get paid at the end of the month; none among my beloved ones were affected by the disease, and my two dogs, both the old one and the little Labrador we adopted a few weeks before everything exploded, kept me from sleeping all night through, but also allowed me to go for short walks that made those three months much easier. [I won’t comment on how soothing occasional empty streets are to irredeemable grumpy misanthropes like me]. My only quip, and I’m the only one to blame for it, is that I was less productive than most of my colleagues, who seemed to have used this prolonged time at their home offices to finally get to grips with some long-postponed personal projects, create brand new ones, or produce work to entertain others during lockdown. In my case, outside my usual collaborations with Arquine (this time making it on to the cover, though), which I plan to post here in the next few months, I just managed to finished a cartoon about Mextropoli 2018 (which had been in the works since March of that year), do a couple variations on the Coronamaison Challenge (here, and here, plus an unfinished third one), and respond to an invitation from the Architectural Review -that was a fun (and time consuming) one! I also made available my homage to Robert Crumb (and an article about his famous cartoon), but that had been produced in 2019, so it doesn’t count. Also, I gave a couple of conferences (here and here), was one of the speakers at an online course about architecture and drawing. And, together with a Happy New Year toon (ya see I have lowered my goals) , I was able to produce a Christmas cartoon again after many years without (and scratch an itch that had been there for a while). But again, those took place either before or after the lockdown. Oh, well. First World problems.
So, if you belong in my group, please, don’t complain, show some empathy for those who were less fortunate than you, be responsible, and enjoy what you have. This will be over, sooner or later, and you’ll be able to go on with your life more or less as it was before. Be glad about it.