Archive for May, 2007

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Thank you AM for recommending me this article from the New York Times earlier this week, reviewing the recently completed Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum in the Netherlands.

Willem Jan Neutelings and Michiel Riedijk stand out from the usual Koolhaas clones. Still relatively unknown in the United States, their firm has steadily built a reputation in Europe for bold designs that draw on everything from primitive temples to comic-book illustration and the decorative ephemera of Andy Warhol. They also have something as rare in architectural circles as raw talent: a sense of humor.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, Encased in Glass
The New York Times, 26 May 2007, retrieved 29 May 2007

No… it’s not just the reference to comic-book illustration that interests me, but (still fresh from reading about Joost Swarte and Mecanoo building the Toneelschuur in Haarlem) the idea that a sense of humour can be conveyed in a building. How interesting that this should be found in a major public building dedicated to archiving, exhibiting and celebrating the broadcast image and sound.

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Big news folks… “no words no action” (i.e. myself, wearing my dissertation hat) will be coming to the United States of America in September to conduct some primary research and to do an interview or two. I don’t want to go into the specifics, but all will be revealed here in due course. I’m both honoured and excited to have the chance to meet the people I’ll be meeting.

Meanwhile, if you’re going to be around in either of the following cities, please drop me a line…

10 – 16 September 2007: New York City, NY

17 – 28 September 2007: Chicago, IL

My special thanks go to: L.N. in NYC and A.M. in Chicago for graciously offering to accommodate me; the US Government for maintaining such a bankrupt US dollar; and US Airways for continuing to price trans-Atlantic flights in dollars, thereby allowing me nab an absolute bargain for my flights with my British credit card…

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Ordering Toneelschuur from an online bookseller in the USA, I had expected this book to be no exception the rule that architectural monographs are almost universally big and glossy. But when the long awaited package came, I was in for a surprise. The book is compact (about 15 x 20 cm), textured and superbly designed (by Lex Reitsma for NAi Publishers, Rotterdam). The book charts an fulfilling story about the gestation, birth and first steps of a unique building: the new Toneelschuur Theatre in Haarlem, designed by the Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte and realised in partnership with Mecanoo Architects.

The book is the combined work of five principal contributors. Firstly, Joost Swaarte’s drawings and images of the theatre illustrate the entire book. Secondly, Henze Boekhout revisited the completed building to photograph it with a eye not disimilar to Swaarte’s, focusing on the eccentric details and fleeting moments. And then in between their bright pages, come three colour coded texts. Printed on yellow paper is a chapter by Jan Tromp, the chair of the Toneelschuur board; on green is Henk Döll, the project architect who worked with Swarte for Mecanoo Architects at the time; and finally on violet is a chapter from the art and architecture critic and historian Paul Hefting. Almost perfectly, the book is tied together with the personal accounts of the participants and observers of the building’s creation. If there is only one regret, it’s that Swaarte’s input has not been expanded to include a similar piece of narrative recounting the process (it would not necessarily have to be text – a continuing cartoon story would have kept me happy). For while his images are beautiful, the book seems to lack what I would consider the most interesting story of all from this project: that of the cartoonist who was thrust into the role of architect by the Toneelschuur board.

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Above, the Toneelschuur as imagined by Joost Swarte.

Those reservations aside, though, this book has found a near perfect balance between written and visual content. Press cuttings and other published images are included in the book not by scanned images, but by photographs, which have no shame in including spines, staples of overlapped pages. Combined with the rough texture of the paper on which the book is printed, it’s a convincingly coherent and appealing sketchbook style of design, and suits the book perfectly.

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Above, the Toneelschuur as designed by Joost Swarte and Mecanoo Architects.

I have more or less now realised that the Toneelschuur will become a vital case study in this project, and I’m trying to make arrangements to go to Haarlem some time late this year to see the building and to meet some of the people involved in its conception. It’s particularly interesting to find the theatre’s development recorded in such a well designed and unconventional book. A traditionally glossy large format architectural monograph printed on heavy weight smooth paper between hardback covers simply wouldn’t have suited either the building or the process of its creation. The narrative is strong, and the combination of Boekhout’s photographs with Swarte’s cartoons is utterly beguiling. This is a book that makes me want to go and see the building for myself. The key is, again, that narrative content, which is Boekhout’s photographs means a roving eye for populated views of the theatre in use, and considered snapshots of the humdrum working parts of the building: door handles, corridors and toilets for instance. These same details are the same ones that Swarte imbued with life from the outset: his visual wit comes across not only in the images of the finished building, but also the drawings he created during its conception.

What Swarte had always visualised in two dimensions, the comic, dramatic side of everyday life, could now be materialised in three dimensions – in every respect, since his architecture would become the tangible décor for the play of life that is played inside, with film and theatre…

Paul Hefting, Toneelschuur
Rotterdam: NAi, 2003, p. 201

 

 

 

Apologies…

…for the prolonged absence, I’m swamped with work that has a much more immediate deadline than this project. Normal service will resume shortly.

During my visit to Sheffield the week before last, I was able to squeeze in a brief tutorial with my supervisor, Renata Tyszczuk. Out of the conversation come a number of new themes and directions which will hopefully be picked up on in this blog and in my studies as the project progresses.

> wit: William Hogarth’s morality tales are loaded with subtle visual humour and wit. So too are the cartoons of Joost Swaarte. For an example, look above at two of Swarte’s drawings for the Toneelschuur Theatre. The people standing by the staircase are wearing bizarre metre-tall hats. And in the photo on the right, a dog is drinking an espresso on a radiator. Have you ever seen an architect drawn a building with this subtle passing wit? Where does this come from, and does wit have a place in the visual depiction of architecture?

> time and space: I think that I have already said this before in almost as many words, but it seems worthwhile to clarify it more openly. Comics generally always offer a precise depiction of time and space as two combined elements. Whereas there is no apparent distinction or separation between the two in comics, there is in architecture. Architecture is frequently taught, presented and discussed as a practice that creates and manipulates space alone. Time is dismissed because it is out of the control of the architect, and is most often symbolised visually in depictions of the built environment by dirtiness,and erosion. Some background reading on the subject of space is needed, most notably on its cultural separation from time by those who depict it. I have been directed to Doreen Massey on this topic.

> the complicity of the reader: quite simply, the reader of a comic strip is made complicit in the story by the involvement that comes from reading the story. This becomes especially interesting with artists such as Ben Katchor, whose work I’ve been reading lately, where protagists act as both storytellers and representatives of the reader in the story. Can architecture be presented in a similarly complicit manner?

> the ancestors of the coupe anatomique: without trying to condense a history of the comic strip into the introduction of a 15,000 thesis, it would be helpful for me to trace the images that lead to the creation of the coupe anatomique that I studied earlier in the project. The allegorical subjects of Renaissance frescoes, for instance, which would be a refreshing trip down memory lane to my A-level art history studies.

All this, and much more, coming soon. I have a number of particularly demanding studio deadlines to attend to between now and the end of June, but any slack in this blog will be picked up in the summer, when I relocate to London and begin the main phase of concerted research writing for the dissertation.

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A couple of weeks ago Comics Journal message board user billym directed me towards the work of Ben Katchor. Katchor is the New York based artist behind the long running syndicated comic strip Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer.

Knipl lives in a city not unlike New York City. It looks and feels like New York City, but it’s certainly not the New York City that we might recognise. It is, as Michael Chabon explains in the introduction to the 1996 collected volume of Julius Knipl strips, a “crumbling, lunar cityscape” and…

…a world of rumpled suits, fireproof office blocks with the date of their erection engraved on the pediment, transom windows, and hare-brained if ingenious small businesses; a sleepless, hacking-cough, dyspeptic, masculine world the colour of the standing lining of a hat.

Michael Chabon, Julis Knipl: Real Estate Photographer
New York City: Little, Brown and Company 1996, introduction

So the setting is a dreamlike interpretation of a familiar urban environment. In one (unusually) extended story, Knipl discovers a copy of a nightly newspaper called the The Evening Combinator, which publishes the dreams of the city’s sleeping citizens; one such story in the newspaper, for example, is entitled “Incest Party Resumes at Synagogue Laundromat”. Even in this dream like world, Katchor introduces another layer of dreams to remove us one step further from any actual city we might be thinking of.

As the title informs us, Knipl is a professional real estate photographer: a photographer of buildings that are about to be rented or sold. One imagines that this places him a lower down the pecking order than a wedding photographer.

The seeds of my dissertation project were sown a couple of years ago when I submitted my undergraduate dissertation on the subject of architecture and photography. At the time, I was particularly interested in the way that newly completed buildings were photographed for architectural journals and exhibitions. It was this lifeless representation of the building after completion and before occupation (as a pure, static piece of art) that inspired me to consider looking at the difference between comic book narratives and the presentation of architecture. Knipl, however, reminds me of a type of architectural photography that I had not considered: the images of buildings that are used to advertise them as commodities. Although we never see Knipl doing his job in the course of the comic strips, we can imagine him attaching a wide angled lens to his camera and contorting himself into the corner of a room to capture an image that depicts a space in its most spacious and illuminated form.

I would be interested to discover why Katchor chose Knipl’s profession, especially since we never see Knipl in action. I would suggest that it is because Knipl’s role in the strips is that of the detached observer – similar to that of his job. He is both a protagonist and an observer, and a recognisable figure (with his two camera bags, one in front of his slightly portly frame and one behind) who admits us into these strange personal encounters, justifies our presence and who involves us. Not only is he a casual observer, he represents us, the reader, bringing us right into the surreal urban landscape that he explores. With Knipl as our guide and alter-ego in this nameless city, we are even closer to the people and and places that Katchor depicts.

There is, as with almost all comic strips, an occupation of time and space in all of Katchor’s strips. But what is much more sophisticated is the inferred nostalgia of Knipl’s city, which Chabon discusses at length in the book’s introduction.

Katchor carefully devises a seemingly endless series of regrets in the heart of Juliuis Knipl for the things not only gone or rapidly disappearing, such as paper straws and television aerials, but also wholly imaginary: the Vitaloper, the Directory of the Alimentary Canal…

Michael Chabon, Julis Knipl: Real Estate Photographer
New York City: Little, Brown and Company 1996, introduction

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The passage of time in Kathor’s comic strips is not expressed solely through the momentary changes from panel to panel, but by the subtle and underlying expression of emotion and regret with regard to the passing of time. What is fascinating about Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer is the almost tangible comprehension of time before the narrative in the comic strip began. The occasional appearance of dates and years on calendars in the comic strip remind us that this strip is contempoorary, but it often feels more like a nostalgic vision of New York City in the fifties or sixties than an imagined modern day world.

Did Knipl’s city ever really exist in reality? Or is it just imagined nostalgia? I’m not American, but along with Garrison Keillor’s weekly tales from northern Minnesota, Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer is one of the closest renditions that I have encountered to my romanticised vision of middle America. The streets are lined with independently managed retailers and diners, above which one room businesses occupy tall red brick tenaments. Starbucks, McDonalds and Maceys have yet to invade and destroy the characterful enterprises of this American city. For me, a highlight of any visit to the USA is a $3 breakfast special sitting at the zinc-topped bar of a diner, drinking endlessly refilled cups of weak-as-water black coffee. But what inspired this nostalgic streak in me?

…Katchor is more – far more – than a simple archaeologist of out-moded technologies and abandoned pastimes. In fact he often plays a kind of involuted Borgesian game with the entire notion of nostalgia itself, proving that one can feel nostalgia not only for times before one’s own but, surprisingly, for things that never existed.

Michael Chabon, Julis Knipl: Real Estate Photographer
New York City: Little, Brown and Company 1996, introduction

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An unexpected last minute phone call from a friend inviting me out this evening meant that I finally managed to watch the 2006 film Renaissance in its entirity. SUAS presented it earlier this year in Sheffield as part of our occasional film night series, but after setting up the evening I only got to see part of the film. Christain Volckman’s thriller is a dark (literally) animated thriller brought to life on the screen with a rich monochromatic comic book feel. The animation is superb, part based on live-action shots and part derived from fantastical visions of Paris in the year 2054. If Blade Runner was a revealing insight into eighties’ visions of a futuristic North America, then Renaissance is a similarly fantastical vision of what France might be like in the next century.

The film has now been widely released with two soundtracks, the original in French with Patrick Floersheim, Laura Blanc and Gabriel Le Doz providing the voices, and in English with Daniel Craig, Catherine McCormack and Jonathan Pryce. It is definitely worth hunting down.




  • ABOUT THE PROJECT

    "no words no action" was an experiment in academic blogging. The blog recorded the progress of reading, research and investigations that lead to a Masters in Architecture dissertation at the University of Sheffield in autumn 2007. You can find out more about the author's interest in blogging here.

    To find out more about the thesis, download the original dissertation proposal (pdf format) from February 2007 or the semi-formal first chapter (pdf format) from April 2007.

    Further research projects are in the works, and their dependence on human interaction and networking suggests more blogging will be inevitable when the time comes.


  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    At the time that this blog was created, James Benedict Brown was a fifth year Masters of Architecture student at the University of Sheffield. James' personal blog is here.

    James graduated in 2008 and now lives and works in Glasgow.


  • ABOUT THE TUTOR

    This project was supervised by Renata Tyszczuk at the University of Sheffield


  • ABOUT YOU

    If you want to correct me on something, offer an opinion on a particular artist or building, or if you'd like to recommend someone or something to find out about, please feel free to leave a comment. Just click on 'Comments' under the headline of the relevant post...


  • BOOKSHELF

    Click here to browse James' bookshelf, and to purchase books being used in this project.


  • CONFERENCE DIARY

    I've managed to miss almost half a dozen compelling conferences around the world so far this year, simply because I have no (more) money to travel and no time to escape my studies in Strasbourg and Sheffield. However, if I had a magic plane ticket and plenty of time, here's my selection of essential conferences to attend. Hopefully I'll be there for more of them next year... click here for the diary (updated every time I miss another one).


  • NOTE

    All images are used for illustrative purposes only, and the copyright remains with the artist and/or creator. Please contact me if I have misappropriated an image or incorrectly credited it. Thanks... JBB


  • SOME RIGHTS RESERVED

    Creative Commons License
    The content of this blog is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.


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