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I’ve been neglecting posting this since April, when it was published, after teasing about it for several months on twitter. But, since it took me ages to actually deliver it to the editors, I think it’s kinda fitting.
To make a long story short: Over a year ago (almost two, really), Eli Keller, architect, researcher, and PhD candidate at MIT, contacted that guy for their upcoming issue (#46) of Thresholds journal, which was to be titled ‘Scatter!’. Knowing how scatterbrained I am, he thought a conversation with me about comics, cartooning, and their relationship with architectural practice and theory. Also, they asked me to provide them with some illustrations, so I sent them a bunch of already-published work. They, however, thought producing new material would be more appropriate. I agreed. However, it seemed like a lot of work, so, after arguing I didn’t think I could find the time.
However (again) the idea of producing some figures that worked as a parallel discourse to that of the conversation -not always coincident- stroke me, and… I found it too irresistible. It was also a lot more work than they had asked for, but, hey, it gave me the chance to play with the stuff (not in a dirty way) of Winsor McCay, François Schuiten, Katsuhiro Otomo, and friends such as Léopold Lambert and Jimenez Lai, so, what else could I do?
Below you can find some excerpts of the interview, along with the figures as published in the magazine. The whole article can be downloaded here for a ridiculously low price. So, if you want to read the whole thing (you should), go get it. Now. Additionally, you can also read a 5-page preview here.
Since his breakthrough in 2005, architect and cartoonist Klaus has been reveling in the light side of architecture with his drawings, comic strips, and cartoons. Published worldwide, his work usually tackles on the less uplifting aspects of the profession, criticizing its shortcomings and the excesses of its star system, usually coated with an array of educated winks to the many corners of architecture theory and history, science fiction, comics or cinema. In this conversation, he and architecture and popular culture scholar Luis Miguel Lus Arana discuss his work in the context of today’s digital culture, where the interactions between architecture and its periphery -media, popular culture, graphic arts- seem to multiply. Comics, architectural criticism, image production, the creative power of sarcasm, the reemergence of craftsmanship and traditional techniques, as well as the new directions of the profession are some of the topics that sprang through it.
LML: Since you went online in 2009, you have produced a variety of works related to comics and cartoons: from comic strips on the life at the Harvard GSD to single panel cartoons on the current events of architecture, or illustrations. In your series for A10’s section ‘Interchange’, you produced poster-sized illustrations with caricatures of the architects interviewed by Indira Van’t Klooster; for Uncube, a series of vignettes that commentated on news blurbs printed side by side with them. Lately you have produced some 2-page stories for Arquine… How would you define yourself? Cartoonist? Architectural satirist?
K: Whatever works, actually. I guess that cartoonist comes closer to what I do, even if it is not a conscious choice, but rather a result of my inability to commit to long-term projects. My first career goal always was to become a comic book artist, but then architecture got in the way, so when I retook it 10 years later, cartoons were an easier way to keep my comic-related urges under control. (…)
Well, there is a long-standing relationship between cartoonists and architecture. Editorial cartoons were a great source of impressive architectural and urban imagery in the late XIX Century and in the early decades of the XX Century; I am thinking of the cartoons that Harry Grant Dart, Albert Levering, or Grant E. Hamilton drew for Judge, Puck, Life, and other magazines, or Winsor McCay’s editorial cartoons for Randolph Hearst. (…) The list would be endless: William Heath Robinson, Hans Georg Rauch… Ronald Searle’s Paris Sketchbook is a joy to look at, for instance.
K: Oh, I find no fault with the definition, and I’m flattered to be placed, even if in the ephemeral context of a conversation, within such an illustrious lineage. I just mean cartoons are less a conscious choice than a result of my inability to commit to long-term projects. I never thought of myself as a cartoonist, but I’ve gladly adopted all these ways I or my work have been defined: ‘political cartoons for architects’, ‘architectural satirist’. Still, I am somehow reluctant to qualify my vignettes as satire, which in my mind in a place certainly more elevated than where I dwell. (…)
So, now that we are amidst all this discussion about the post-critical, I wanted to ask you: Would you qualify what you do as criticism?
K: Let me skip the discussion about post-critical. Don’t take me wrong: I love neologisms as much as the next man —the next man being Reyner Banham or Homi Bhabha— but I’d rather avoid getting too cynical. My cartoons are critical in the sense that they mock, often very arbitrarily, pretty much anything architecture-related. However, there is no attempt to build a cohesive discourse. That’s the beauty of satire: You can take issue, make fun, criticize, ridicule, one aspect and its opposite. You don’t have to settle for a specific reading or set of values, which is less committed, but also less limiting. Taking everything apart unabashedly can also be very productive. (…)
I would like to tackle on that ‘productiveness’ later. However, before we leave this ‘non-critical’ nature you claim on your work: I understand the ‘Klaus’ moniker was something you coined in order to differentiate your satirical (sorry) production from your scholarly work. However, at some point you also started writing under your ‘Klaus’ persona. You have a couple of articles out there, but I’m most interested in the ‘Arquinoir’ section you publish in Arquine, which consists almost invariably of a cartoon, or a short story, and a text, mirroring each other thematically and aligned with the issue’s topic. How does this differ from your academic output? Do you use a different voice?
K: Certainly. (…) There is an interview with Wes Jones where he points out how his comic strips allowed him to tackle on serious issues expressing very strong opinions without having to worry about the consequences, ‘because… you know, it’s just a comic book’. This is an exemption that applies to satire in general, not to comics per se—although the infantile aura attached to comic books helps. Also, this can be very productive, because the liberation from the obligation to construct a cohesive discourse, to provide answers to the questions you raise, can take you through paths you probably wouldn’t have even thought of if you were writing seriously. Relentless nitpicking involves a lot of analysis and argumentation. The same goes for humor, and fiction, of course. In my columns for Arquine, and in my scholarly production, I deal with the same topics: science fiction architecture, megastructures, and also Reyner Banham, whose articles for New Society are always a source for inspiration. But the tone is different, as is the chain of thoughts it unleashes.
So, if I understand correctly, these texts work as an extension of your cartoons, unleashing a sort of ‘automatic’ reasoning… (…) … My question is: do you think caricature, be it amicable or derisive, can play a similar role?
K: Yes. Caricature is a great trigger for creation. A few years ago, Jimenez [Lai] and I were chatting about how, when you copy something, if you’re able to do it poorly enough, it becomes something new. There are two key interrelated processes in caricature: exaggeration and deformation. Cartoons work in a reverse way: they tend to strip things down to their essentials. (…) Being comics a cool medium, the cartoon triggers a series of associative processes in the viewer, who fills in the blanks and perceives it according to his own preferences. (…)
Caricature plays a simultaneous game of familiarization and de-familiarization, keeping the subject recognizable while distorting it. It introduces new readings, makes associations and brings in intertextuality that only arises in the exaggeration. I think language is sometimes misleading: metaphorically ‘tearing something apart’ also involves constructing.Making fun is still ‘making’, after all. A satirical take on a topic introduces puns, doubletalk… it shows the benefits of reactive thinking at its best. Distorting, caricaturizing a design, can produce interesting results, design-wise. It is, in the end, a classic design strategy: choosing a certain direction and taking it to the limit. Only, this time, we start with something that’s already been designed, and take it in an extraneous way.
Earlier you mentioned the productive value of fiction. As we commented before, fiction has historically been a great producer of novel architectural imagery and concepts. In our short-term vision of History, Blade Runner is possibly the paradigmatic example, as a film that not only became an object of desire of postmodern writing, but has also influenced several generations of architects. However, this is also true of a ‘lesser’ medium such as comics. Academic literature usually brings up Archigram 4 (May 1964), and its appropriation of space comic book imagery from the 1950s and 1960s, but this image production has abounded all throughout the History of the medium, becoming more intense from the mid 1960s onwards, particularly in France. In fact, the comics of that period were particularly crucial in the development of the ‘architecturally conscious’ sci-fi in cinema from the 1970s onwards, and I would say they stayed way ahead in terms of architectural design. There are notable exceptions, of course, but filmic ‘world-building’ has always shown a tendency towards the generic, so you get a sort of standard ‘space age’, ‘post-apocalyptic’, ‘cyberpunk’, ‘post-industrial’ futurism, also in terms of architectural image. However, in comics you can find authentic ‘design exercises’ when it comes to creating the architectural backgrounds, particularly since the early 1980s.
K: Yes, there is a boost of ‘architectural consciousness’ in comics at that point, where a younger generation, which had grown up reading ‘Métal Hurlant’, entered the medium professionally. There is a mixture in those years: you find the members of the older generation, such as Moebius, Jean-Claude Mézières, and their followers -Enki Bilal, Tanino Liberatore- who cultivated the sort of metaphysical or surrealistic sci-fi that inspired Blade Runner. Then, you had the younger ones, who started their careers in the already ‘intellectualized’ scenario created by Métal Hurlant, and brought their own interests to the foreground in their comics. Architecture, for instance, is one of the driving forces in the work of Andreas [Martens], Marc-Antoine Mathieu, or François Schuiten. They were, and still are, very inspiring.
Do you think there is a niche for architects to work in? Browsing the net, there seems to be an upsurge in architects’ interest in comics: Bjarke Ingels’ Yes is More invariably comes up in every discussion about this topic -and we could argue whether it is really an ‘archicomic’- but there are many other architects using comics as a means to present their designs, as well as those who produce comic books as an end in themselves. Competitions such as Fairy Tales are fostering the appearance of those, and it has become frequent to see students using comics in their designs. Do you think comics are living an âge d’or in architecture?
I want to say that yes, architecture is finally looking at comics as a medium that has things to offer, and more people are interested in them. However, I also wonder if it is not a matter of exposure. There have always been exchanges between the worlds of architecture and comic books, starting with Le Corbusier, whose passion for Rodolphe Töpffer, the Swiss Father of comics, has been widely discussed. Many comic book artists have had an architectural background: Guido Crepax, Milo Manara, and more recently Tsutomu Nihei, or Manuele Fior.
It is true that comics and architecture have typically portrayed a love-hate relationship- Love on the side of comics, and a mixture of love and hate on architecture’s side-. I’ve always felt this emanates from a certain intellectual ‘inferiority complex’ on the architects’ side: The architectural establishment, at least in those places here the discipline is highly professionalized (Southern Europe, et al), seems to be very reluctant to allowing any mixture with anything whose cultural pedigree is not reputed enough; as if it could somehow endanger architecture’ respectability. Do you feel this is changing?
K: Well, we architects are very fragile living beings. I’ve often said -and I can oversimplify because I am a cartoonist- that architectural practice tends to move within a triangle defined by art, engineering, and philosophy. So, whenever we are attacked, we retreat to another corner: When someone says ‘You just design sculptures’, we counter-attack: ‘No, no, I’m also a technician’. Or: ‘You are aprioristic; you just design shapes’… – No, no, I’ve read Heidegger’. But we do not belong to either field completely, so in a typical case of superiority complex that stems from an undergoing inferiority complex, we overreact and behave like these arrogant demigods society is so fed up with. (…)
Lus Arana, Koldo: “Dancing about Architecture; a conversation with architect and cartoonist Klaus”, Thresholds nº. 46: Scatter!, edited by Anne Graziano and Eliyahu Keller. MIT Press, April 2018; 278-298.