Archive for the ‘Urbanism’ Category

This blog post was started months ago but was abandoned due to other commitments. It is, however, a relevant account of one article that was particularly important to the dissertation. 

Welcome back to those loyal regular readers who have missed me for almost a month. My apologies for the prolonged silence, but with the end of the academic term in France I’ve been somewhat occupied submitting design projects and relocating back to the UK. I’m now settled for the summer in sunny London, looking forward to the convenience of the the capital’s various libraries and galleries. It’s been several weeks since I started reading Nathalie op de Beeck’s 2006 essay Found Objects, published in volume 52, number 4 (winter 2006) of MFS Modern Fiction Studies. The article is available online for most academic institutions via the Muse portal.

With just a few weeks left of my semester here in Strasbourg, there was time for one last weekend trip before the final push towards the end of term. So on a warm Thursday evening I was at Strasbourg station to board train 64 to Paris: a ‘proper’ train of sparkling white and red German Railways carriages en route from Munich to Paris. This elegant old train arrived with a full service restaurant car and a rake of first and second class carriages, each offering big open saloons or more private six seat compartments. Why the importance of this train? Because this would be one of the last days that train 64 would operate. Just three days later, Strasbourg was to be catapulted into the twenty-first century with the arrival of the TGV Est Européen. Every one of the old fashioned trains will be replaced by modern high speed trains. The restaurant cars are going, the old passenger compartments are disappearing, and fares are being cranked up – on average by about 30-35%. Even the once-mythical Orient Express – which once connected London with Istanbul – is getting another leg chopped off its once grand route: from this weekend it will only operate between Strasbourg and Vienna, barely an overnight shuttle.

With a lingering nostalgia for a soon-to-be-antiquated form of transport, I found my reserved seat in a compartment. As we left Strasbourg, I considered that this was the ideal situation for me to catch up on some reading – on a leisurely four hour train ride through rolling countryside. And as we passed through Lorraine, I splashed out on dinner in the restaurant car, and drank to the death of ‘real’ train travel. An atmosphere of lingering nostalgia was suitably established.

op de Beeck introduces her essay by explaining how she sees Jem Cohen’s film Lost Book Found and Ben Katchor’s comic strip Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer through the “contemporary interpretations [ … that … ] relfexively intersect with Walter Benjamin’s critical theory.” (p. 808). Cohen and Katchor “critique contemporary existence by remaining closely observant to overlooked details, outmoded artifacts, memory and forgetting … they attend to the passage of time, the gradual obsalence of machines and functions, and entropic repitition in the urban space” (p. 808). op de Beeck classifies Katchor’s comic strips and Cohen’s films as aphoristic formats: “we read it fast, but the melancholic sensation lingers” (p.808). Similar, perhaps, to the effect of a train journey. Reminiscent also of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings, and the cricket player seen from a moving train, running up to the stumps but out of sight by the time he bowls.

The essay has introduced me to a filmaker (Cohen) and a film that I did not previously know of (Lost Book Found). In Lost Book Found a wandering narrative is told by a pushcart vendor in New York City, who encounters a lone man fishing for detritus through street sewer grilles. The pushcart vendor is an invisible observer in the bustling city – an anonymous figure who becomes so recognisable that he is quickly overlooked and made part of the cityscape. Similarly, the real estate photographer Julius Knipl explores Ben Katchor’s re-imagined New York City as a near-invisible observer.

Their texts overlap in mutual appreciation of transience, futile gestures, and the human condition … both Katchor and Cohen contribute to a dialogue on the remembered past, with a critical eye on how antique artifacts and productive labor are understood…

Nathalie op de Beeck, Found Objects, MFS vol. 52 no. 4, Winter 2006

As an architect, I am interested in the narrative techniques of urban observers such as the pushcart vendor and Julius Knipl: participants in a complex urban geography who, because of their profession or social situation, become extremely well placed observers and even chroniclers of the passage of time in a city. The idea of adopting the role of such a person in order to re-map urban spaces is nothing new in more progressive schools of of architecture, but it also presents many exciting opportunities to consider the understanding and broader presentation of architectural environments as they are occupied and changed over time.

Katchor promts readers to recognize the significance of each tiny detail, and in that brief wakefulness, to sense the overwhelming intricacy of modern life.

Nathalie op de Beeck, Found Objects, MFS vol. 52 no. 4, Winter 2006

Cohen asserts his camera’s eye through the use of documentary-style cinematic techniques. Katchor, meanwhile, draws a complete fiction of a city with such attention to detail, and such a furtive and fast moving line that we are drawn into imagined but utterly convincing urban environments.

This false work of so-called memorializing – creating imaginary places, fake memorials to sympathetic people, and auratic objects analogous to actual artifacts – becomes crucial to storytelling, and to the cultivation of contemporary empathy despite mass distraction.

Nathalie op de Beeck, Found Objects, MFS vol. 52 no. 4, Winter 2006

Just like Garrison Keillor’s Tales from Lake Wobegon or Stuart McLean’s stories from the Vinyl Café, fictional environments and settings are vital to convincing storytelling. I extremely interested in Katchor’s tales of the city precisely becaue they invoke such powerful sensations of nostalgia and loneliness, even though they are set in places that never existed.



In addition to this week’s news that I will be travelling to the Netherlands in August to meet and talk with the comic artist and illustrator Joost Swarte, I can also now confirm that I will be in New York City in September to interview the artist Ben Katchor. This trip has also been supported by the Stephenson Travelling Studentship awarded to this project by the University of Sheffield. Katchor’s sophisticated evocation of nostalgia, memory in urban narratives are of particular personal interest to me, and I’m looking forward to discussing the techniques employed by Katchor in his popular serialised comics Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer and The Jew of New York.

I’m also going to be celebrating a birthday in New York City, before perhaps taking off for a mini road trip and vacation in the mid-west, so excerpts and highlights of the interview will probably appear online in late September or early October.

If any interested readers are going to be in New York City between 11 and 16 September or Chicago between 17 and 27 September, drop me a line, and I’d be delighted to say hello.

Even though I don’t speak German, I’m kicking myself for not finding out about this conference sooner. Thanks to Matteo Stefanelli on the Comix Scholars Discussion List for bringing it up though… as with all the others, maybe I’ll make it next year.

Comic und Stadt (Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence) 7-9 June 2007, Berlin, Germany.

Instead I’m going to Paris for the weekend, and I’m hoping not to be as sick as last time.

Youtube discovery of the week is this trailer for an ‘upcoming’ (someone smack the director with a dictionary) film, including an interview with Ben Katchor, author of Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District.


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.


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.


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.


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





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


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



realestate.jpg beauty.jpg

Two more books joined the bookshelf this week, both by the New York based artist and author Ben Katchor. Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District. I’ll blog more when I’ve had a chance to read them.


While responding to one of my earlier queries about Nihei Tsumoto, Chris Lanier (on the Comics Journal message board) put me onto another Japanese artist: Yuichi Yokohama, whose work is now being translated into French. Lanier suggested:

You might want to check out Yuichi Yokoyama (who has some books in french translation — the dialogue isn’t dense so if you don’t speak French it’s not a problem) — particularly his book “Public Works” (Travaux Publics). His work is “art” manga, not genre work; “Travaux Publics” shows the construction of various absurd and impossible public works projects. I wrote about it here:

I don’t get to talking about “Travaux Publics” until the last four paragraphs or so.

Retrieved: 11 April 2007

Lanier’s excellent article is well worth checking out for his analysis of some of Yokohama’s other books, which I hope to get hold of soon. I read Travaux Publics over the weekend, on board a pair of big comfy German trains en route between Strasbourg and Stuttgart. The Easter weekend finally heralded the arrival of some consistently warm and sunny weather, and I must confess to being usually at my happiest sitting with a good book on a comfy train, looking out at the landscape roll past under blue skies.

Before leaving Strasbourg I’d been to see a rare big screen showing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. It’s a visual, aural and alegorical feast of a movie – certainly one of my favourite films of all time. It reminded me of the strange impression that it made on me the first time that I watched it as a British teenager, several decades after it was made. The context in which I watched it, and the expectations that I had of film in general were very different from those in which it was originally made. Many western audiences continue to find the film very difficult. To film fans raised on Holywood or even European cinema, many scenes seem ‘too long’ or ‘too slow’; the entire pace of the film is different, and Tarkovsky wasn’t under any obligation to subscribe to any western cinematic standards or norms.

Reading a Japanese cartoon for the first time can be similarly disarming for a western reader. You might be bored of hearing it said, but it’s quite a shift in habits to learn to read a book from ‘back to front’, although the French editors have been kind enough to include a little explanation panel about how to read manga at the beginning of the book (that would be the back of the book for those of you not used to Japanese).


Note how that the French translation maintains the Japanese script: Yokohama acknowledges in the author’s note at the beginning of the book how important sound effects are to his strips, and even for a non-Japanese reader, the bold shapes become almost heirogliphical.

Put simply Travaux Publics is, without doubt, one of the strangest books that I have ever read. I tried to summarise the book, for this article, but subsequently found that Lanier explained it in his article much better than I could:

Its four stories show the construction of strange monuments and spaces. They describe huge mobilizations of resources for apparently useless ends. One “public work” is a fluorescent-lit room, set into a boulder, positioned in front of an absolutely straight (and also artificially constructed) canal. Another is a glass room, outfitted with chairs and a floor of Astroturf, set under the surface of a man-made lake. These constructions are not only absurd in themselves, the methods of construction are entirely impractical. The third “public work” is an artificial mountain, assembled from boulders that are dropped from airplanes, then coated with glue flowing from a single hose.

Chris Lanier, Fight! Fight! Fight! The High Hat

Retrieved: 11 April 2007

The book is, quite simply, bizarre. Picking up Nihei Tsutomu’s Abrama at the same time as Travaux Publics made me appreciate just how different Yokohama’s style is to mainstream Japanese manga. In absolutely contextless landscapes, massive machines, cranes and rolling elements charge through scenes to create rivers, lakes and mountains.


There is absolutely no suggestion where these machines have come from, where they are going or who controls them. It is (to me) almost terrifying.


The landscape is almost a stage, serviced by unseen machinery that drops down from the skies to cut, dig, excavate, pour, yank or tear into the surface of the earth. As soon as a mechanical arm, aeroplane or enormous rolling rock has left the frame of the panel, it is forgotten. The ‘public works’ of the title are the only consistent element in the story, gradually nearing completion. Yokohama explains in the author’s notes of the French edition:

Des manga sans l’histoire – Ce qui m’importe c’est de représenter le passage d’une scène à une autre. Il n’y a pas lieu de raconter une histoire. Le monde dans lequel nous vivons offre une multitude de choses intéressants: n’importe quelle situation peut être saisie et restituée en bande desinée. Si j’élaborais moi-même une histoire, elle serait entachée de la conscience et des intentions de l’auteur que je suis, et c’est que je veux éviter. Même si des personnages évoluent dans mes œuvres ce n’est pas le monde des hommes que je veux dépeindre. Je veux décrire des événements naturels qui progressent, comme un typhon ou un déluge, sans rapport avec la volonté humaine.

Yuichi Yokohama, Travaux Publics
Montreuil, Éditions Matière, 2004, p. 7

Which I would translate as:

Manga without stories – What is important to me is to represent the passage of one scene to another. It is unnecessary to tell a story. The world in which we live offers a multitude of interesting things: any situation can be seized and retold in a comic book. If I worked out a story by myself, it would be sullied with my own conscience and my own intentions, and I want to avoid that. Even if characters do evolve in my work, it is not the world of the men that I want to depict. I want to describe natural events which progress, like a typhoon or a flood, without relationship to the human will.



The stories are not without human characters. In one instance, the finishing touches upon a particularly strange underwater viewing gallery are made by a team of exciteable humanoids who appear to celebrate the completion of their project as if it had been part of a race. In the same author’s notes, Yokohama states:

Des personnages sans psychologie – Je ne m’intéresse ni aux sentiments des gens ni à leurs emotions. Je ne traite que ce qui est visible à l’œil. Mes personnages n’agissent pas pour la satisfaction d’intérêts collectifs ou individuels, mais pour atteindre un grand but, pour accomplir une grande mission.

Yuichi Yokohama, Travaux Publics
Montreuil, Éditions Matière, 2004, p. 8

Which I would translate as:

Characters without psychology – I am interested neither in the feelings of people nor in their emotions. I examine only what is to the eye. My characters do not work towards the satisfaction of a collective or individual interest, but to achieve a great goal, to achieve a great mission.

So emotion exists, but in a very limited and impersonal manner. The great mission exists only partially within the frame of the cartoon panels. The reason that the great missions have been started or the reasons that they are such great goals remain hidden, denying us an understanding of the motivation of the few characters that exist in these stories.

In the closing panel of the story about the construction of a new mountain (above) two passengers in a light aircraft seem to take delight in discovering the new geographical feature. This panel remains one of the most interesting to me in the whole book, especially since Yokohama claims not to be interested in the development of human characters. I can’t help reading this panel and wanting to know where these futuristic plane travellers came from. Why is the sight of a mountain so exciting? Do they not have any mountains where they come from? And is that why so much energy and effort is put into constructing these massive ‘public works’?

The idea of a comic strip without a story is interesting, but this just shows that even Yokohama has had difficulty not implying some kind of continuation: some kind of before and after. It is impossible for the reader to follow the construction of this mountain without asking ‘why’, ‘how’ or ‘where’.

I initiated this project because I was frustrated with the sterility of images of buildings that told nothing about ‘why’, ‘how’ or ‘where’ they were built. In Travaux Publics it seems I’ve found an artist who perhaps aspires to the disconnection of mainstream architectural photography: the isolation and purity of the subject that lies within the frame of the picture, and the simple progression from one image to another rather than the obligation what comes before and after, or outside the frame of the panel.

I naturally reserve the right to change or adapt my opinions as I continue to think about this one. Thanks again to Chris Lanier for recommending the book and for publishing his interesting profile on Yokohama’s work.

The sun continues to shine convincingly on Strasbourg, and my days remain conveniently free of scheduled classes. During my last visit to Sheffield, Renata Tyszczuk recommended that I read Diana Periton’s essay The ‘Coupe Anatomique’: sections through the nineteenth century Parisian apartment block (in The Journal of Architecture, Autumn 2004 pp. 289 – 304). Finally with some time to focus on it, I topped and tailed today with two particularly bohemian reading sessions: with a coffee this morning, sitting outside my favourite Strasbourg café, watching the theatre of the city’s busy streets; and then again this afternoon, in the warm early evening sunshine pouring into the bar beneath my apartment. With the sun perfectly framed between the tall buildings on the other side of the street, I made some really interesting notes that are beginning to gel some of my earlier ideas. Periton introduces the essay:

In French popular literature of the later nineteenth century, such as illustrated newspapers, or the ubiquitous guides to and didactic histories of Paris, the section through the Parisian apartment block becomes a familiar image. These sections reveal the anatomy of Paris at a glance. They use our understanding of the domestic interior, particularly the way it regulates activities and flows, to present a summary of the city through the ordering of its constituent elements.

A hybrid of the technical drawing, that shows construction and infrastructure, and of an assemly of pictorial tableaux, they are seductively banal. Seductive, because they give us an overview of the normally hidden world of the interior, made miniature and caught between the pages of a book or magazine. Banal, because in doing so, its mysteries are laid bare. The systems that structure the city, from its social divisions to its networks of electricity conduits, are explicitly set out.

Diana Periton, The ‘Coupe Anatomique’
Journal of Architecture, vol. 9, p. 289

The journal is illustrated with copies of the sectional drawings that Periton explores, however you’ll have to find a copy of the journal yourself to see them, since I’m not able to reproduce them here (the article cites the shelfmarks of the original publications in the British Library in London). At the very first glance, however, these prints are to my eyes instantly interpretable as comic strips; sectional cuts and perspectives that present each room as an individual panel with – as Periton explains – varying degrees of animated occupancy. There must be something in the Parisian water that encourages the French to look in on their urban environment so closely: I was instantly reminded of the wonderful novel by Georges Perec, Life, A Users Manual, in which the dozens of separate yet intermingled stories and histories of the occupants of a Parisian apartment block are told.

Periton charts a short history of three published Parisian ‘coupes’, or illustrated sections. The first to be examined is of a single five story Parisian town house by the French writer, photographer, illustrator and caricaturist Bertall, first published in 1845. The second is from 1769, and is a slightly earlier but wider section through an (idealised) Parisian street by the architect Pierre Patte. Periton introduces the third as a ‘hybrid’ of the first two: it’s by the writer and history Baron Alfred-Auguste Ernouf and comes from his 1885 publication l’Art des Jardins.

Today’s ‘lightbulb’ moment of sudden realisation came this afternoon, as the sun slipped out of sight and the rapidly shifting shadows on the white tiled floor of the café moved over my green-topped table. Bertall is approaching his section of the Parisian town house as a characturist, presenting a series of stacked vignettes. Patte, however, is an architect, showing the houses, street and even the drains below the surface of the paved street as a complete urban system. His rooms are noticeably vacant of human occupation. In these two sections, we already have what would appear to be the first seeds of the seismic gap between the way that architects and cartoonists present buildings. Bertall embraces the variety of human activity in the building. Periton describes the building’s activities and quotes from the caption that appeared with the picture in its first publication, a weekly newspaper.

On the ground floor, we read, the caretaker, a little over-excited, is dancing a mazurka with his wife, while mademoiselle their daughter plays something more like a sonata or a nocturne on the piano, with the kind of talent that will allow her to marry an elderly genetleman who has fallen on hard times. ‘On the first floor, we are yawning over the velvets and silks. This is the old morale of marble halls. On the [next] …, we are less rich, and more awake’; but we are warned, teh viture and happiness of this floor, the ‘entente cordiale’, show but one not entirely dependable aspect of the race that occipies it, the ‘bon bourgeoisie’. In the mansard, a man has just beaten his wife, and ‘a philosopher, a poet, perhaps, shelters his genius under a [home-made] … dome in the ceiling…’

Diana Periton, The ‘Coupe Anatomique’
Journal of Architecture, vol. 9, pp. 289-291

These images are a French parallel to the earlier sequential prints of William Hogarth that I saw earlier this month in London. Like Hogarth in the previous century, Bertall is styling himself as a moralist, and using the readily accessible and affordable mass media to present a series of vignettes, acted out by recognisable characters. These actors are partly recognisable in the wider and fractured French society by the levels of the building that they occupy; from the grand first floor rooms to the low and angled ceilings of the cheaper and unornamented garrets. Periton explains how Bertall was using the ‘coupe’ to explore contemporary changes in French society.

In another of Walter Benjamin’s examples of ‘panoramic literature’, Les français peints par eux-mêmes, Jules Janin writes that ‘the Charter [of 1830, which brough in Louis-Philippe as a constitutional ‘bourgeois king’, and removed the aristocracy from government] has, as it were by enchantment, created among us an entirely new set of characters, of strange and incredible manners’. French society, he declares, has become ‘an infinity of small republics’, each with its own customs, faults, ambitions, etc., and ‘the more [it] … has divided, the more difficult has its analysis become’. It is the job of the ‘moralist’, whether illustrator or write, to attempt that analysis, to observe and describe, but also to deduce some kind of scheme of specification through which it might be ordered. For Bertall, that scheme is the framework of the Parisian apartment block.

Diana Periton, The ‘Coupe Anatomique’
Journal of Architecture, vol. 9, pp. 291-2

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Bertall used a Parisian apartment block to provide a framework to his anthropological and sociological observations. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Chris Ware has begun to the use a Chicago apartment building as a framework for a series of interdependent and interconnected stories. There is, it seems, an acknowledged value in architecture as a structural and social framework to sequential art.

The second ‘coupe’ (that of Pierre Patte) is, however, very different. It is, in effect, an architectural treatise, but one that considers the compilation of the entire city rather than just one building at a time.

Patte uses his drawing to decompose the street, a section of the city, into a series of elements that can then be arranged to generate a new and ideal territory. If we allow our eye to move around the drawing by following the labelling system .. it is in order to understand how each element of that territory functions with the next. Patte’s ideal city is a system of instruments, designed to regulate the fire, water, filth and people that come into contact with it.

Patte frequently assures his readers that the aim of conceiving the city in this way is to ensure ‘the happiness of the inhabitants’, to bring about a ‘genuine sense of well-being’. But as he shows it, the city is unpeopled.

Diana Periton, The ‘Coupe Anatomique’
Journal of Architecture, vol. 9, p. 293

Patte is, like many other architects before and after him, well meaning in his desire tocleanse, simplify and re-organise the city into a more ordered image. But in doing his, drawings reveal the city without character or human marks.

Patte asks:

which of us would not imagine that it must be an evil genie, an enemy of the human race, who has foced men to live together [in such a way]…?

His drawing sucks this devil in the underworld, to leave the way for his haunting vacuum of well being.

Diana Periton, The ‘Coupe Anatomique’
Journal of Architecture, vol. 9, p. 295

Periton draws the inevitable connection from Pierre Patte’s section to the subsequent renovation and re-organisation of Paris by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Taking almost three decades, Haussmann’s plan for Paris sought to modernise, sanitise and redesign the entire structure of the medieval city centre. What is amusing to discover is that the massive building works undertaken to achieve this actually made real the previously imagined building sections of Patte and Bertall.

For witnesses such as Gautier, the incessant attempt to move from chaos to order meant glimpses of a ‘curious spectacle, these open houses, their floorboards suspended over the abyss, their colourful .. flowered wallpaper still marking the shape of the rooms’, houses whose ‘high walls, striped with the swarthy streaks of chimney flues, reveal, like an architectural section, the mystery of intimate distributions’.

Diana Periton, The ‘Coupe Anatomique’
Journal of Architecture, vol. 9, pp. 295-6

The third and final ‘coupe’ that Periton examines is that of Ernouf. The drawing shows the boulevard Saint Germain, in a part of Paris after Hausmann’s reconstruction. As such it is the only section that is in a specific place, but which remains essentially generic. It combines the characteristics of the first two ‘coupes’ to produce a new kind of image. Attempting to present both the narrative detail of Bertall’s house section and the technical sophistication of Patte’s street section, the image is a dazzling perspective view that cuts across a broad Haussmannian boulevard, into the soil, drains and cellars below, and up into a seven storey building.

The city that for Bertall was implicitly there, generating the fluid social hierarchies accommodated in its interiors, has become after Huassmann’s upheavals a metropolis consciously constructed through a complex interplay of networks, distributing ‘the people’, now anonymous, their provisions and their waste. In these image, it seems that the relationship of interior to street must be visibly articulated, to demonstrate that they are strongly differentiated, separately codified components of a continuous system of regulation. The city here is synthesised not by a notion of society, centred on the bourgeoisie, but by its elaborate infrastructure, which links and operates on all those who come within its remit.

Diana Periton, The ‘Coupe Anatomique’
Journal of Architecture, vol. 9, pp. 296-298


    "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.


    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.


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


    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...


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


    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


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

  • Stats

    • 40,796 unique hits recorded