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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.

 

 

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I saw Blade Runner for the first time on the end-of-the-Summer Friday night of September 2, 1988. I remember it with such accuracy because, at a time where there were only two TV channels available, and I still had no VCR at home, the premiere on television of any movie was greeted as an event – and so did, on this occasion, the people I was having dinner with. Truth is, at my still somewhat tender age, I hadn’t heard of the film, but one of the main roles was played by the actor who had previously played Han Solo in Star Wars (the FILM; not ‘A New Hope’, not the Star Wars Universe or any of that mumbo-jumbo). So I sat in front of the TV, still some two years too young to truly enjoy it. Certainly, the film impressed me, although not in the way one would hope for. A couple of years before that I had fled from a morning projection of Blade Runner’s coetaneous Escape from the Bronx (1983), Enzo G. Castellari’s sequel to his own Escape From New York exploitation film 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1990: I guerrieri del Bronx, 1982), whose crudeness -incredibly tame for today’s standards, I’ll freely admit- proved to be too much for my youngster sensitivity. That experience had an echo that night, while watching Scott’s film, which granted me several disturbing moments. From that session I kept, engraved in my retina -and my brain- the indelible image of Zhora going through several layers of glass store windows in her plexiglass raincoat, which became less and less transparent as the blood escaping her body impregnated it. I also remember with a similar ambivalence the mixture of repulsion and morbid fascination that the grim porcelain doll look of a very young Sean Young caused on me; or the final scene with Rutger Hauer, majestic in full Norse god magnificence, reciting his semi-improvised monologue on a rainy roof surrounded by blue light.

None of this happened to me some -very few- years later when, also at night, but this time on my own  and with some more – although still meager – knowledge and maturity, I finally watched Scott’s previous film, Alien (or Alien, the eighth passenger, in my case , in one of those rare moments of brilliance of the usual ‘creative translation’ of original film titles for Spanish audiences). That is: the fascination was there, of course, but in this case, it was not a morbid mixture of attraction and repulsion, but the pure aesthetic delight of those who experience something for the first time with the growing awareness of being in front of a masterpiece. I must say that this did not happen to me with Blade Runner, not even some years later, when, in the somewhat more reasonable condition of having some previous knowledge of the film and being halfways -more towards the second half, really- of my architecture studies, I rewatched it in order to help a colleague with some coursework. Don’t get me wrong. Blade Runner is one of the films I have most extensively (and often) discussed, one of my favorite films, a milestone in the history of cinema -indisputable if we’re talking about science fiction cinema-, and an icon of postmodernism that has generated rivers of ink, with some minor branches fed by yours truly. I neither confirm nor deny I may have devoted a chapter to it in a PhD dissertation at some point in the past.

However, whilst Alien is a film that works with (Swiss) clockwork precision, Blade Runner is a more irregular effort. Scott’s second film -let’s not forget he had already directed the beautiful The Duellists, which provided him with the Best Debut Film in Cannes in 1977- was a prodigy in the control of cinematographic tempo and footage economy Blade Runner presents an uneven success in the handling of pace, and a clunkier narrative. Alien toyed with the spectator, presenting him with a morose pacing, slowly building tension and then throwing him into an adrenaline-boosted rollercoaster. Blade Runner, on the contrary, is burdened by an occasionally choppy montage and an erratic narrative, full with scenes that drag on screen, whose purpose is not always clear. When it first hit the theaters, viewers often complained about the difficulty to follow the otherwise ridiculously simple plot. Alien had been a filmic prodigy in many respects, ultimately upgrading what had begun as a B horror movie set in space to the category of small cinematic gem. Three years later, with a budget three times bigger, Blade Runner was conceived as a much more ambitious enterprise. Here, Ridley Scott left the megastructural but still somewhat modest inner architectural ecosystem of his second film, and took over the visual creation of a complete world: the megalopolitan continuum of Los Angeles in the -yet to be- future of 2019. However, this expansion in the scope did not lower its level of demand when it came down to the detail in which this fictional world had to be presented to the viewer. Blade Runner was built using the same layering1 method he had applied to the design of The Duelists (1976) and Alien (1979): an accumulation of data in which each frame of the film was crowded with layer upon layer of information. This diogenetic strategy of visual design overwhelmed a viewer unable to apprehend everything that on display, which ultimately resulted in an unbearable feeling of veracity. The images in the film did not look like a set, like a staged, but limited imitation of reality built for the eye of the camera. They looked like real environments whose complexity exceeded the viewer’s ability to apprehend them in their entirety. They were too full with information; they seemed to extend beyond the limits of the screen, equally detailed and complex everywhere the camera bothered to point at; like the real world.

This excessive ambition would also take its toll in the film. If Alien, despite its relative yet limited variety of sets, exuded coherence in his visual treatment, in Blade Runner the team led by Douglas Trumbull had no other option but use all the tricks in the book in order to address Scott’s growing demands, which ended up instilling the fictional reality of the film with a certain collage nature on2. Blade Runner/ Los Angeles 2019 is a film/ place made up of juxtaposed moments/ spaces whose connection, as in the Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, is left to the discretion of the viewer’s imagination.

And yet, it would be this multiple, oversaturated, fragmented condition that would ultimately result in the film’s seemingly inexhaustible ability to both represent postmodern reality, and fascinate audiences and the Academia alike. Back in 1982, Blade Runner shook the filmgoing world with a future-present (a 1980’s future) that was presented to the viewer with overwhelming physicality; a dark but palpable future, which would lead to paradoxes such as the curious Stockholm Syndrome described by Norman M. Klein in 1991, when he wrote that: “(i)n February, 1990, at a public lecture series on art in Los Angeles, three out of five leading urban planners agreed that they hoped someday Los Angeles would look like the film Blade Runner …It has become a paradigm for the future of cities, for artists across the disciplines3.” November 2019 is here, and the reality on the other side of my window is just as ominous as the one described by Scott, but much less fascinating. To make it worse, the same can be said of the one on the other side of the -now predominantly digital-silver screen.

See? See why I hate Blade Runner?

1 “Alien’s ‘environment’ was the popular filmgoing public’s first exposure to “layering”, Scott’s self-described technique of building up a dense, kaleidoscopic accretion of detail within every frame and set of a film. ‘To me (Scott Said) a film is like a seven-hundred-layer layer cake.” Paul M. Sammon, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (New York: HarperPrism, 1996); 47.

 2 Norman M. Klein, “Building Blade Runner” in Social Text, 1990, no. 28; 147. Yes, I know I’ve quoted this text at least as many times as Rowe’s ‘Introduction with Five Architects’. Well, as Eric Idle, in full Michelangelo attire would say: ‘It works, mate!’

“Por qué Odio Blade Runner.” Arquine. Revista Internacional de Arquitectura. ‘Lo que Falta / Missing Pieces.’ Mexico DF: Editorial Arquine, Julio 2019. Nº 89, pp. 23-25.

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So, now that November 2019, the year Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (you know, the REAL one) is set, is over, I thought it might be worth remembering the film through this installment of my section ‘Arquinoir’ in Mexican architecture magazine Arquine. I haven’t translated the texts in the cartoon so far. Later, perhaps. The Spanish version can be found online here. Although I strongly suggest buying a physical copy.

 

 

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Cartoon for The New City Reader issue VII: Real State, with contributions by Peter Tolkin, Mabel O. Wilson, Carmen Argote, Chloë Bass, Brigette Borders, John Cantwell, Catherine Ingraham (not this topic, this time), Marisa Jahn/CUP, Olalekan Jeyifous, Alexandra Lange, Elizabeth Lasater, Zoe Malliaros, Mitch McEwen, Minna Ninova, Daniel Payne, Alan Rapp, Cassim Shepard and Matthew Vaz.

Available since November 19 at the New Museum. A peek at the cover and contents here.

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Noone’s gonna get the cinephilic reference (otherwise, prove me wrong if you dare).

In any case, the Food Section of The New City Reader, curated by  William Prince, Krista Ninivaggi, and Nicola Twilley will “hit the stands” at the New Museum next Sunday. Be sure to get a free copy if you are in NY. Unless there have been last-minute changes, you’ll find four cartoons in it (Hence the overload of updates this week and the next one). Previous issues can be read here.

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