Reading: Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer (part two)

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This is the second installment of my thoughts on Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District. You can find the first part here… I’ve uploaded it very much as a finished piece of work in progress; that is to say I could go on re-reading, editing and changing it for weeks, but I want to record this point in my thinking now before it gets overwritten with subsequent thinking.

My intention on this sunny Sunday afternoon was to walk from my apartment, in the centre of Strasbourg, to a grand old bistro on the other side of town where students, families and married couples all find a place on shiny stainless steel pavement furniture; where extra toxic French cigarettes send trails of smoke into the air; and where the imminent descent of Monday morning is not remembered. It’s the perfect place to read and work, especially when you’ve got two comic books to flip through. But with the weather being so nice, I kept on walking, and kept on going until I reached Germany (don’t worry, it’s not far). The late afternoon sunlight is now falling through the dense leaves of the old trees in Kehl’s town square. The gold painted numbers and arms of the church clock are sparkling, and across the sandy square from water is spraying out into a liquid sphere from the dozen of pipes that make up a recently installed public fountain. I have also managed to order a coffee and piece of apfelküchen. In developing my French to level which is just acceptable for studying in France, I have seemingly erased almost every word or phrase I once knew in German.

Comics Journal Messageboard user billym put me onto Ben Katchor, and also recalled a lecture that Katchor gave at McGill University’s Architecture Department in Montréal in 2002.

The name of the talk is “The Great Museum Cafeterias of the Western World.” The profession of the speaker is A) an architect B) a food critic C) a comic book artist.

The answer is C, but Ben Katchor is no ordinary graphic novelest. The creator of “The Jew of New York” and “Julius Kniple, Real Estate Photographer” is lauded internationally for his wry examinations of daily life.

With a regular strip in the design-focused Metropolis Magazine and a book titled Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay, Katchor’s preoccupations are somewhat different than purveyors of spandex-clad “zock! pow!” narratives.

“There’s a growing interest in the architecture field for his work,” said Greg Hildebrande, an architecture master’s student who, along with fellow student Jan Schotte, invited Katchor to speak at McGill as the William Hobart Molson lecturer.

“Architecture texts tend to be very dry – what’s refreshing about his stories is that he deals with things that architects think about all of the time.”

Hildebrande isn’t entirely sure what approach Katchor will bring to the topic of museum cafeterias – Katchor seems to be rather spontaneous in his lecture style.

“It’s an examination of art theory and the effects of cafeteria design and the consumption of food on the appreciation of art,” said Hildebrande. “I’m really looking forward to what he has to say. He seems unpredictable.”

As to why a comic book artist was chosen for an architecture lecture? Hildebrande admits that he’s a fan, but also felt that Katchor could bring a new perspective.

“That’s something we want to do more of – get more cross-pollination between disciplines,” he said.

McGill Reporter: On Campus
http://www.mcgill.ca/reporter/35/05/campus/ retreived 4.6.2007

In my earlier musings I’ve already touched on Katchor’s subtle toying with nostalgia, and the powerful and effective way in which this can reach a reader. His interest in museum cafeterias, however, takes this one step further. In much the same way that Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer ends with The Evening Combinator, the second compilation of single or multiple page Julius Knipl stories (The Beauty Supply District) concludes with an extended story of the same name. In it we meet some inhabitants of Katchor’s fictional city who enjoy descending the stairs to the basement cafeteria of the Tenfoyle Museum of Art. For one character in particular, it’s a very special place that nurtures his vital skills of aesthetic appreciation.

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It was this particular subterranean environment, with its clacking of dishes, laughter of guards, small of steam-table food and slightly dank, coffee-soaked floors, that instead of distracting him, permitted him to enter into unique relationship with the object of his choice.

Ben Katchor, The Beauty Supply District
New York City: Pantheon Books 2003, page 94

Later in the same story, two unrelated characters jump in a cab, telling the driver “To the Tenfoyle Museum – and step on it! They close at nine”, where they seek out pound cake, cherry pie and tapioca pudding.

“It was,” he proclaimed,”the perfect point from which to mediate the longstanding hostility between subject and object – a point situated directly between the appetive urge to consume a work of art and the disinterested gaze of the cafeteria patron choosing his lunch.”

Ben Katchor, The Beauty Supply District
New York City: Pantheon Books 2003, page 94

I can only imagine a museum cafeteria such as this one existing in the nostalgic tales of Julius Knipl. It is, in fact, a complete opposite of the art gallery eateries one normally finds, where financial pressures (imagined or not) have turned art gallery canteens into trendy cafés, and dusty museum bookshops into boutiques. Even remembering the sublime Art Institute of Chicago, or the vast Tate Modern in London, I can’t help but think that the art gallery of today is now largely patronised by a public that gazes with disinterest at the art, and which consumes in the museum’s gift shop with an ‘appetitive urge’.

The Beauty Supply District charts the rise and fall of that neighbourhood in Katchor’s imagined city. Time passes, luck runs out, and businesses close for good. The urban landscape changes subtly, each erosion contributing to an imperceptible yet unmissable evolution. Yet more reasons to hunt down those out-of-print copies of Katchor’s earlier book Cheap Novelties: The Pleasure of Urban Decay.

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Returning to The Evening Combinator in Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer, we meet the architect Selladore. Whereas in The Beauty Supply District we witness the gradual evolution of the urban fabric, here we get to see a brief glimpse of a ‘visionary’ architect. After almost three decades of buidling almost nothing, he’s starting work on his greatest project: a massive mixed use development that will tower over the city, where residents will travel to and from their apartments by means of elevated railways that pass directly through each and every residence. The troubled architect finds his building plans scuppered when The Evening Combinator (a nightly journal of the city’s dreams) publishes perverted tales from Mr. Selladore’s strangest dreams.

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The depiction of the architect as a mad and disconnected visionary with unworkable designs on his city is nothing new in popular culture (see the Fountainhead for one), but his situation in Katchor’s parallel universe makes him somehow more believeable and more receptive to our pity. I want to come back to Selladore the architect in due course, but I’d appreciate some alternative interpretations of his character – is he a figure of mockery or sympathy? He – or rather his imagination of the what the city could be – seems somehow at odds with the loving feel of the tired and jumbled city that Julius Knipl usually explores.

Part three will follow in the next couple of weeks, but feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

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  • 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.


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