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Reyner Banham

A short History tOTAL SM.BN

Klaus (2019). A Short (Architectural) History of the 20th Century. Click to enlarge.

As you’ll probably know, if you’ve been following my work in any capacity, one of the main reasons why I persist in my cartooning career is that it provides me with a vehicle to channel my need to draw. Or, putting it the other way around, my cartoons and occasional comic stories usually start as excuses to draw something I’m interested in at the moment. The things that make my fingertips tickle come from a wide variety of sources: comics, literature, scifi in its many faces, tv, cinema, and, generally speaking, anything I may have encountered at some point in my life and I’ve developed an obsession with, which typically makes it into my cartoons in the form of a flabbergasting constellation of details which are for the most part winks, nods, references to other works, or even plain private jokes. Being an architect and (under my secret identity) an architecture scholar, a frequent source is the very history of architecture, which has no shortage of inspiring buildings, projects, texts and illustrations, sometimes overlapping with these other fields.

Filed under this latter category falls possibly a story I’ve been obsessed with for quite a while now. I’m not alone in this fixation; Chris Ware once declared this is possibly the single comic story he’s been most influenced by. The difference is that, in my case, instead of using it as an inspiration to create something new and different I’ve just been waiting for an excuse to redraw it in my own style. The comic in question is Robert Crumb’s universally well-known 1979 4-page story ‘A Short History of America’. Originally published in the Autumn 1979 issue of Stewart Brand’s CoEvolution Quarterly, the spiritual heir to Brand’s own Whole Earth Catalogue which would run from 1974 to 1985. Crumb was a frequent contributor to the magazine from issue #13 (1977) through #44 (when it became The Whole Earth Review), in a period where he had otherwise abandoned the production of comics (or comix) for the most part. In fact, after his short Mr. Natural run for The Village Voice (February-November 1976), and until the creation of Weirdo in March 1981, CoEvolution Quarterly was pretty much the only place where his fans could find their Crumb comix fix. Out of all the varied stories he created for CEQ, ‘A Short History of America’ and its sequel, published in the back cover of The Whole Earth Review in 1988, stand out not only as the best known of the bunch, but rather as Crumb’s best known work in general, with the permission of Fritz the Cat.

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R. Crumb. ‘A Short History of America’. CoEvolution Quarterly, Fall 1979.

To this popularity certainly contributed its edition in the form of a poster by Kitchen Sink Press in 1981, reissued with the additional material from 1988 a few years later (a more recent version here, available for purchase here), or its inclusion as a musical coda in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb. However, none of this would have happened if the story hadn’t had the wide appeal it did, appearing as a both accurate and melancholic commentary on mankind’s impact on the environment that surpassed the niche of the underground in which Crumb’s work usually rejoiced. As the title announced, the comic presented a silent chronicle of the evolution of a part of the American landscape, from its pristine state as a natural ecosystem until it became a generic corner of a suburban area. Consisting of 12 panoramic panels organized in 4 pages, the story showed not only Crumb’s skills to draw the environment (urban or otherwise) with both an abundance of details and a staggering legibility, but also his sharp eye when it comes to capturing the elements that characterize an era, making the collection of wordless snapshots a lucid and somewhat bitter commentary on the (sub)urban development of America and its parallel destruction of the landscape. The story, if we understand a gap of 10 years between consecutive panels, worked well as a portrait, decade by decade, of the evolution of the USA between 1850 and 1960, with some topical references falling in the right places. The ‘coda’ published almost a decade later, fell outside this attachment to historical reality, and toyed with three possible scenarios for the future of this scene: a post-apocalyptic one, consequence of ecological disaster, a ‘Fun Future’ with flying vehicles and curvy architectures, and a happy-hippie ‘Ecotopian Solution’ with bicycles, pedestrians, and cabins scattered throughout a gigantic forest.

With both the strip’s 40th anniversary and the very dystopian date of November 2019 looming in the horizon, I thought the time had definitely come. So, after pondering which way to go, I contacted Pancho Díaz, professor at the School of Architecture of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and editor-in-chief both of Ediciones ARQ and ARQ magazine, submitting him a proposal for a double-feature: On the one hand, it consisted of an essay, written but my usual partner in crime, which offered a close examination of the content of ‘A Short History…’ framed within the bigger context of Crumb’s work for the alternative, ecological scene of the 1960s-70s, and his many depictions of architecture and the built environment. After the article, however, the piece also included an addendum: a 4-page revision of Crumb’s story by yours truly that began with the sixth panel (corresponding to 1900, according to the above interpretation), and took a different route. The basic idea was answering to the question: what would the story have looked like if it had been told by an architect? -You know, this particular sub-species of humanity which sees history as a succession of architectural climaxes. Once this starting point had been set, all the pieces fell easily into place, and the story became the recount of the competition between two families, each living on one side of the street created by Crumb in 1979, who, decade after decade, keep retooling their houses to be more á-la-mode than that of their neighbor.

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Klaus. A Short History of the 20th Century. Page 1. Things hadn’t started going wild yet.

This gave me the opportunity not only to try drawing in a slightly bolder version of my own style, somewhat closer to Crumb’s thicker line and more organic hatching (if, of course, executed in a much less skilled way than his), or to play with architecture styles and make my own versions of some very well known houses of different periods of the XX Century. It also allowed me to introduce a thousand different referents and winks to architecture, History, popular culture (comics, cinema, tv). I even had to draw period-accurate vehicles, which, used as I am to drawing cars that look nothing like real cars, was an… interesting experience. Of course, in this case the strip had to end with a punchline, which appeared in the leap between the last two panels. If the first panel took place in 1900 the last one should have been 2010. Instead of that the last panel jumps from 2000 to 2019, showing a world shaped in the image LA 2019 in Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner.

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Klaus. A Short History of the 20th Century. Page 2. …and modernity unleashes chaos.

Of course (again), unlike Robert Crumb I am no genius, so whilst the panels in ‘A Short History of America’ look perfectly balanced, and can be clearly read from a 10-meter distance (provided you have good eyesight), their counterparts in ‘A Short History of the XX Century’ are characteristically overstuffed and wonkily composed. Also, given Crumb’s eponymous speed, it probably took him from breakfast to lunchtime to complete the four pages directly in ink in his sketchbook. In my case, it was a few weeks’ work, with a lot of preliminary drawing, penciling and careful inking (see pencils in this  future post). For that reason, we’re planning to release a fined-tuned edition, with my typical shading and, in a larger format and including all this extra material in the near future. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, enjoy finding all the easter-eggs if that’s your sort of thing.

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Klaus. A Short History of the 20th Century. Page 3. …postmodern explosion.

A big thank you to Pancho Díaz and ARQ for providing me with a venue for this project, and to R. Crumb for creating his masterpiece in the first place, and giving permission to reprint his story as part of the article.

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Klaus. A Short History of the 20th Century. Page 4. …This Dystopian Life.

 

 

NK 24 50 Years

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2014 marked the 50th anniversary of one of those ubiquitous landmarks of the 60s visionary scene, Amazing Archigram 4: The Science Fiction Issue, which saw a truncated attempt at a big-scale celebration on my part. Again, 2015 marked another 5-decade anniversary: this time, it was the publication of Reyner Banham’s ‘A Home is Not A House’ in the April 1965 of Art in America. ‘A home is not a House’ is an inevitable go-to place for any fan ´(I’m including architectural scholars here) of the capsule, expendable, or ephemeral architecture movement of the 1960-70s and beyond -and a nice counterpart to Banham’s own Megastructure.

Also, the article featured those simple-yet-captivating illustration/collages by François Dallegret (I mistyped ‘Dallegreat’ and was on the verge of leaving the typo as it worked so well) which have become a visual sine-qua-non of the time. Dallegret’s pictures were as much responsible for the success of the article as Banham’s always witty, subtly (and not so subtly) ironic and sometimes inflammatory prose. Another installation in Dallegret’s works dealing with complex machines (the article also featured some items of his ‘Automobiles Astrologiques’ series) and intricate detail, the ‘Environment Bubble‘ displayed an immediate, on-your-face rawness that contributed to its lasting appeal. The naked Dallegret and Banham clones inside the bubble were just the icing on the polemical cake. It is a pity that the ‘Banhams’ were just paste-ups of the writer’s head on the artist’s body, although, according to Mary Banham, it was the right choice -aesthetically speaking.

Anyone who’s been following this blog for a while has surely noticed I have a little more than a slight infatuation with Banham’s work and figure, in general, as well as for his collaboration with Dallegret -see ‘A Home Is Not A Mouse’ to ‘Full House vs. Full(er) House’, ‘Banham Style’, and several others published here and there. [‘There’ standing for architecture magazines not yet featured in the blog]. So, when I noticed an issue of Uncube entitled ‘Commune Revisited’ was in the works, I didn’t miss the occasion to fit in a little nod to Banham&Dallegret’s work before the year went by. [Another homage was included some months later in Arquine magazine, and it will show up here at some point, I guess]. I also contacted Mr. Dallegret at the time, and his response included some surrealistic talk about going to the supermarket and eating a banana. But I’m not going to comment on that.

For those interested in reading Dallegret’s actual thoughts, I’d strongly recommend revisiting this interview delivered on the occasion of the 2011 exhibition at the AA school of Architecture (curated by Thomas Weaver and Vanessa Norwood). ‘A Home is Not a House’ is all over the internet, and can be either checked online, or downloaded in pdf form. For those of you too lazy to click on links, you can find the full article below.

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The original cartoon can be found as originally published in the “Klaus Kube” section of Uncube Magazine #34: Commune Revisited, edited by Sophie Lovell, Florian Heilmeyer, Ron Wilson and Elvia Wilk et al. I’d check it right now, if I were you. Honest.

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Banham, Reyner, Dallegret, François: ‘A Home is Not a House’. Art in America, April 1965.

 

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As some of you who have been around here for a while will remember, some time ago (years, actually) my beloved Peter Reyner Banham made his entry into this blog by means of a cartoon that sprang from a suggestion by Kazys Varnelis, who was doing his annual re-reading of  Banham’s ‘The Great Gizmo’ along with Alison and Peter Smithson’s ‘But today We Collect Ads’. That cartoon led to another (A home is not a Mouse), and then it became a series entitled “The Bubble Adventures of P. Reyner Banham”. But only in my mind. I sat down, took some notes, drew and colored the next cartoon in the series… and then my volatile attention flew somewhere else and I completely forgot it. 

Finally, it has been put to much better use as part of MAS Studio’s last issue of MAS Context: OWNERSHIP, where editor Iker Gil and his team were so kind as to feature it on the cover. All the contents of MAS Context: OWNERSHIP can be read online on their just-revamped website here, including an essay by Denise Scott Brown. Make sure to check it if looking for a compelling read.

Cover of Mas Context: Ownership (I actually lifted the image from a post by our friends from Spanish Magazine METALOCUS, who voiced the news in their blog)

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MAS Context, a quarterly journal created by MAS Studio, addresses issues that affect the urban context. Each issue delivers a comprehensive view of a single topic through the active participation of people from different fields and different perspectives who, together, instigate the debate. MAS Context is a not for profit organization based in Chicago, Illinois.  The concept of ownership, the exclusive rights and control over a property of any kind, has existed for centuries and in all cultures. Whether state, collective or personal, ownership is probably one of the most determining factors not only in defining our built environment but in the way we have shaped our society. But what if the way we live has changed? Can we redefine ownership to adapt it to the needs of the society? Can that redefinition provide new opportunities for our built environment? This issue will be dedicated to examining ownership in our current culture, ancient traditions, legal system and physical environment.

MAS Context: OWNERSHIP fatures contributions by Martin Adolfsson, William F. Baker, Kate Bingaman Burt, Eleanor Chapman, Santiago Cirugeda, Killian Doherty, Kirby Ferguson, Pedro Hernández, Jeanne Gang, Iker Gil, Network Architecture Lab, Quilian Riano, Denise Scott Brown, Richard F. Tomlinson II, XAM, and KLAUS.

MAS Contex is published by MAS Studio | Editor in Chief: Iker Gil | Editor: Paul Mougey | Contributing Editor: Andrew Clark | Art Director: Plural | Graphic Design/Layout: Iker Gil | Website: Plural

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“When your house contains such a complex of piping, flues, ducts, wires, lights, inlets, outlets, ovens, sinks, refuse disposers, hi-fi re-verberators, antennae, conduits, freezers, heaters -when it contains so many services that the hardware could stand up by itself without any assistance from the house, why have a house to hold it up. When the cost of all this tackle is half of the total outlay (or more, as it often is) what is the house doing except concealing your mechanical pudenda from the stares of folks on the sidewalk? Once or twice recently there have been buildings where the public was genuinely confused about what was mechanical services, what was structure-many visitors to Philadelphia take quite a time to work out that the floors of Louis Kahn’s laboratory towers are not supported by the flanking brick duct boxes, and when they have worked it out, they are inclined to wonder if it was worth all the trouble of giving them an independent supporting structure. (…)

I was standing up to my chest-hair in water, making home movies (I get that NASA kick from taking expensive hardware into hostile environments) at the campus beach at Southern Illinois. This beach combines the outdoor and the clean in a highly American manner – scenically it is the ole swimmin’ hole of Huckleberry Finn tradition, but it is properly policed (by sophomore lifeguards sitting on Eames chairs on poles in the water) and it’s chlorinated too. From where I stood, I could see not only immensely elaborate family barbecues and picnics in progress on the sterilized sand, but also, through and above the trees, the basketry interlaces of one of Buckminster Fuller’s experimental domes. And it hit me then, that if dirty old Nature could be kept under the proper degree of control (sex left in, streptococci taken out) by other means, the United States would be happy to dispense with architecture and buildings altogether.

Bucky Fuller, of course, is very big on this proposition: his famous non-rhetorical question, “Madam, do you know what your house weighs?” articulates a subversive suspicion of the monumental. This suspicion is inarticulately shared by the untold thousands of americans who have already shed the deadweight of domestic architecture and live in mobile homes which, though they may never actually be moved, still deliver rather better performance as shelter than do ground-anchored structures costing at least three times as much and weighing ten times more. If someone could devise a package that would effectively disconnect the mobile home from the dangling wires of the town electricity supply, the bottled gas containers insecurely perched on a packing case and the semi-unspeakable sanitary arrangements that stem from not being connected to the main sewer – then we should really see some changes. It may not be so far away either; defense cutbacks may send aerospace spin-off spinning in some new directions quite soon, and that kind of miniaturizationtalent applied to a genuinely self-contained and regenerative standard-of-living package that could be towed behind a trailer home or clipped to it, could produce a sort of U-haul unit that might be picked up or dropped off at depots across the face of the nation. Avis might still become the first in U-Tility, even if they have to go on being a trying second in car hire.

The car, in short, is already doing quite a lot of the standard-ofliving package’s job-the smoochy couple dancing to the music of the radio in their parked convertible have created a ballroom in the wilderness (dance floor by courtesy of the Highway Dept. of course) and all this is paradisal till it starts to rain. Even then, you’re not licked – it takes very little air pressure to inflate a transparent Mylar airdome, the conditioned-air output of your mobile package might be able to do it, with or without a little boosting, and the dome itself, folded into a parachute pack, might be part of the package. From within your thirty-foot hemisphere of warm dry lebensraum you could have spectacular ringside views of the wind felling trees, snow swirling through the glade, the forest fire coming over the hill or Constance Chatterley running swiftly to you know whom through the downpour.
(…) But … surely this is not a home, you can’t bring up a family in a polythene bag? This can never replace the time-honored ranch-style tri-level standing proudly in a landscape of five defeated shrubs, flanked on one side by a ranch-style tri-level with six shrubs and on the other by a ranch-style tri-level with four small boys and a private dust bowl. If the countless Americans who are successfully raising nice children in trailers will excuse me for a moment, I have a few suggestions to make to the even more countless Americans who are so insecure that they have to hide inside fake monuments of Permastone and instant roofing. There are, admittedly, very sound day-to-day advantages to having warm broadloom on a firm floor underfoot, rather than pine needles and poison ivy. America’s pioneer house builders recognized this by commonly building their brick chimneys on a brick floor slab. A transparent airdome could be anchored to such a slab just as easily as could a balloon frame, and the standard-of-living-package could hover busily in a sort of glorified barbecue pit in the middle of the slab. But an airdome is not the sort of thing that the kids, or a distracted Pumpkin-eater could run in and out of when the fit took them-believe me, fighting your way out of an airdome can be worse than trying to get out of a collapsed rain-soaked tent if you make the wrong first move.

Reyner Banham: A Home is not a House (Art in America issue 2, April, 1965)

The Environment-Bubble

Transparent plastic bubble dome inflated by air-conditioning output. In the present state of the environmental art, no mechanical device can make the rain go back to Spain; the standard-of-living package is apt to need some sort of an umbrella for emergencies, and it could well be a plastic dome inflated by conditioned air blown out by the package itself. Illustration by Francois Dallegret.

Charles Jencks also had something to say about it in 1969.

“The purpose of technology is to make the dream a fact… The end is to make the Earth a garden, a Paradise; to make the mountain speak”. –Arthur Drexler

“… it is difficult not to suspect that presented with scenes from cultures that he does not understand he hopes to gizmo them into comprehensible form… There is (…) a distinct visual and cultural shock in suddenly coming on a Coca Cola dispenser in Latin America or the Arab States, it is apt to look like a visitor from Mars (…)”  –Reyner Banham, ” The Great Gizmo”

“Traditionally the fine arts depend on the popular arts for their vitality, and the popular arts depend on the fine arts for the respectability. It has been said that things hardly “exist” before the fine artist has made use of them, they are simply part of the unclassified background material against which we pass our lives. The transformation from everyday object to fine art manifestation happens in many ways; the object can be discovered – objet trouvé or I’art brut – the object itself remaining the same; a literary or folk myth can arise, and again the object itself remains unchanged; or, the object can be used as a jumping-off point and is itself transformed.

(…) For us it would be the objects on the beaches, the piece of paper blowing about the street, the throw-away object and the pop-package.

For today we collect ads.

(…) Mass-production advertising is establishing our whole pattern of life – principles, morals, aims, aspirations, and standard of living. We must somehow get the measure of this intervention if we are to match its powerful and exciting impulses with our own.

— Allison and Peter Smithson, “But Today We Collect Ads”

“The man who changed the face of America had a gizmo, a gadget, a gimmick – in his hand, in his back pocket, across the saddle, on his hip, in the trailer, round his neck, on his head, deep in a hardened silo.”

— Reyner Banham, “The Great Gizmo” (1965)

As a kind of follow-up to Kazys Varnelis’ “Today We Collect Nothing”, which also found an interesting response here.

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