Comics and Architecture, Comics in Architecture: A (not so) short recount of the interactions between architecture and graphic narrative

December 2, 2013

Essay by Koldo Lus Arana.


“It is true that mass media propose in a massive amount and without previous discrimination several elements of information where valid data cannot be told from the pure entertainment. But denying that this accumulation of information can become formation equals to having a clearly pessimistic opinion of human nature, and to not believing that an accumulation of quantitative data, bombing with stimuli the intelligences of a great amount of people can become, in some, a qualitative mutation.”1
—Umberto Eco

“Why do you want to drag me here and there, you illiterates? I did not write for you, but for those who can understand me. One person to me is worth a hundred thousand; and the mob, nothing.”

Academic disdain notwithstanding, the exploration of the relationships between comics and architecture has been a not quite visible yet recurring phenomenon throughout the history of the medium. Beyond its low key appearance, it has fascinated architects with its unique capacity to gather together communication, space and movement. A look at the architectural publications of the last thirty years points in that direction, showing a discrete but steady flow of articles, as well as an increasing number of exhibitions covering the different overlaps between architecture and graphic narrative. It is unquestionable that this growing interest takes place in the context of a general rediscovery of comics in cinema and other media, paralleled by the increasing appropriation of the products of (mass) visual culture by architecture, a discipline always hungry for new images and concepts. New representation modes have rapidly been absorbed within the mechanics of a discipline where, since the last decades of the last century, there’s been a growing tendency to understand projects as (inter)active processes rather than as objects.

From Peter Eisenman and his autonomous evolutions to Bernard Tschumi’s sequential designs or Zaha Hadid’s kinetic morphings, architecture has kept moving (pun intended) towards the capture of that object-movement that Peter Cook and Warren Chalk felt common practice was unable to grasp. The introduction of time as a constituent part of the architectural artifact has reinforced the narrative dimension of designs, which, via a functional prosopopoeia, are now treated as living organisms subject to different metamorphoses. In our design narratives, projects and buildings often become characters of their own stories (buildings move, bend, tilt, touch, cling…) because, in its ideal state, architecture is, let us not forget, the result of fiction. We, as architects, need to create—from the outlining of the program to the shaping processes—fictions: narratives that guide our designs, tell us what our buildings are and aren’t, and help us outline the itinerary the shaping process has to follow. All this makes it less surprising that, along with the drift towards virtual scenarios and animation, today’s architecture, still primarily represented as lines and colors on printed paper, shows a renewed interest in, and a particular affinity toward, the techniques, strategies and aesthetics of graphic narrative.

I. La Ligne Claire de le Corbusier and the beginning of Amazing.

The overlaps between comics and architecture are not a recent phenomenon. Today’s renewed interest in graphic narrative can actually be traced as far back as Le Corbusier and his storyboarded Lettre a Madame Meyer2 (1925), wherein the Swiss architect introduced the client to his design concepts for the never-built Ville Meyer through a series of footnoted sequential vistas of the house. It can actually, though, be traced even further, back to his first renderings of the Ville Contemporaine in L´Esprit Nouveau (1922), where he presented the in a few panels with captions in the tradition of the pictorial stories that had been published in European humor magazines for the better part of the XIX century. In both cases Le Corbusier drew his sequences with austere lines and dots, a trademark style very close to the sensibility of the ligne claire that would characterize French bande dessinée after Hergé, on the one hand, and the synthetic spirit of American cartoons, whose resemblance to other illustrations he drew for L´Esprit Nouveau is even more remarkable.

Both of those apparently surprising connections—the use of a graphic sequence and the synthetic style of the representation—can easily be explained by Le Corbusier’s early and well-documented infatuation with the figure of Rodolphe Töpffer, an artist, pedagogue and scholar better known for being one of the Swiss fathers of modern comics. Töpffer was the subject of one of the first articles on a comic strip artist to be found in an academic magazine (not to say an architectural magazine): “Toepffer, précurseur du cinema”, written by Le Corbusier himself in issue 11-12 of L’Esprit Nouveau (1921). In it, De Fayet (a pseudonym he shared with Ozenfant) enthusiastically vindicated Töpffer’s role as a precursor of cinematographic montage and published excerpts from some of his proto-comics, including Monsieur Pencil (1831/1840) and Le Docteur Festus (1831/1846), whose clean, linear drawings were certainly akin to the graphic simplicity Jeanneret would adopt decades later as an identity trait. Töpffer was, in fact, a main agent in the definition of some of Le Corbusier’s trademark obsessions, shaping the imaginary of a young Jeanneret who, among his childhood readings, reserved a privileged position for Voyages en Zigzag (1846), a book written by Töpffer that aroused his passion for traveling and drawing, as well as his obsession for its author, which would lead him to toy with the idea of writing a doctoral dissertation on the Swiss artist.

Le Corbusier’s early interest in a medium still in the making3 had a definitive comeback in the 60s, a moment whereat the convulsive cultural scene would rediscover comics as a cultural interlocutor. Either through pop art banalization in the Anglo-Saxon world, or by trying to bring them into the academia, in the case of the Francophone scene, which saw the creation of the first institutions dedicated to the study and preservation of bande dessinée, comics steadily made their way into high culture. Architecture was not alien to this cultural revitalization, and in 1964, at the same time Umberto Eco was discovering comics as an object for academic study in Apocalittici e integrati and the situationists used the decontextualization of these very comics as a tool for subversion, Archigram filled their own claim for the medium by drawing attention to their capacity for image production.

They were not alone in this claim. Comics and pulp culture had broken into the hi-cult British scene via the likes of Reyner Banham and the Independent Group, and certainly, science fiction comics such as Dan Dare had a prominent role in shaping the architectural imaginary and the intellectual interests of a whole generation that included figures such as Norman Foster,a main actor in the creation of that “Hi Tech Britain”4 Stephen Hawking, and Arthur C. Clarke. Science-fiction obsessions aside, Archigram stood out among this general enthusiastic embracement of the future by taking a surprising stand for comics that certainly shocked the architectural scene and helped launch the group into the international scene. If “Amazing Archigram 4: Zoom Issue,” the science fiction-related issue, became to a great extent the epitome of what the group represented, “Space Probe!”, the collage of comic book panels pasted together by Warren Chalk indisputably provided the images that came to define the magazine, group, and common agenda, to a great extent.

”Amazing Archigram” signaled the moment when comics finally entered mainstream architectural imaginary, spawning the interest of the discipline in the medium, as Paul Virilio’s 1968 article “L’Architetture dans la bande dessinée” (Art et création nº 1, January-February) came to confirm. Comics, graphic narratives, sequential drawings became, in a way, a schtick of the visionary scene, a sort of default mode of representation. Scanning through the issues of L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, AD, or Casabella of those years, we find a continuous flux of “architectures en vignettes”, such as Rudolph Doernach’s Provolution (1969), Archigram-offspring Mark Fisher’s dynamat adventures, or Archizoom Associati’s and Superstudio’s transcriptions of their own narratives (most notably Superstudio’s storyboards for Viaggio nelle regioni della ragione, or the advertisements for the AEO chair Archizoom Associatti did in collaboration with Cassina in 1975). The postmodern revision of the modern dream and its legacy was particularly akin to the fluid, uncompromising aesthetics of architects such as Piers Gough, who effortlessly turned his funny cartoons into ironic building designs, which stand now as a vivid portayal of it. No surprise, then, that the period also saw the start of a migration towards comics of professionals with an architectural background, such as Guido Crepax and Milo Manara, Joost Swarte, Spanish authors Daniel Torres and Miguelanxo Prado in the 80s, or, more recently, Japanese mangaka Tsutomu Nihei.

Mas issue narrative comics and architecture comics in architecture 01

“Space Probe!,” the montage of American pulp-comic book panels Warren Chalk put together for “Amazing Archigram 4: Zoom Issue.” © Archigram.

II. Words and Pictures. Drawing and Diagramming

Deep into the communication era, comics have become an increasingly valuable asset, and a desired “other” for architectural representation. In terms of drawing, the strong iconicity of the cartoon style has been used by postmodernists such as Robert Venturi or neo-moderns such as Neutelings & Riedjik, whose diagrammatic caricatures, appropriating the graphic and design patterns of the artists of the Style Atome (most notably Joost Swarte, but also Eddy Vermeulen and Yves Chaland), showed the potentialities of synthetic caricature as a vehicle to capture and transmit the very essence of the design, to grasp the ideal dimension of architecture thanks to their conceptual transparency. A similar spirit lies behind Mikkel Frost’s CEBRA toons: one-page colorful vignettes, drawn after a project has been completed that try to distill the ideas within the design in a sort of “wordless manifesto.”5

These are not the only cases, or the only aesthetic mode of comics’ drawing that has made it into architectural representation. In 1983, Norman Foster, whose hi-tech persona had been developed in Dan Dare stories, Eagle covers and the cutaway drawings of technological inventions drawn by John Batchelor in the centerfold pages of the magazine, tracked down the legendary Eagle artist in order to draw a sectioned axonometric of the Renault Distribution Centre resembling those for its publication in The Architectural Review.6 This is not the only time Foster hired a professional coming from the comics’ world to illustrate one of his buildings. In 1975, Foster hired Franck Dickens, author of the popular comic strip Bristow, to draw several cartoons on the Willis Faber & Dumas headquarters in Ipswich, in order to show the workers, who would have to leave their offices in the City of London, “the spirit of the building and why it might be different from the traditional office.”7 And more recently, Jean Nouvel commissioned different comics artists (legendary RanXerox’s creator Tanino Liberatore among them) to illustrate the Dreams for the City section of his Louisiana Manifesto (Louisiana Museum, Denmark, 2005), where they used comic-book scenarios to recreate urban fantasies dealing with different non-built designs of the office and/or Nouvel’s world in general.

The mechanics of graphic narrative have also been a common subject of experimentation in the different ways of telling the characteristics of architectures with an intrinsic narrative quality. This was most notably used by Archigram’s members themselves in Archigram/Cook’s successive Instant City (1968), Metamorphosis of an English Town (1970), or Addox Strip (1971), project-events whose narrative aspects were an integral part of their very ethos and, I would add, found in the fictional worlds of graphic narrative the perfect ecosystem to recreate the realitas ludens they progressively constructed in their works. Here, Archigram faithfully followed Buckminster Fuller’s 1927 mimeo-sketch for his 4-D Tower Apartments, where he presented a 6-panel sequence of a dirigible delivering one of the buildings, which have been echoed in recent practices particularly focused in drawing/representation, such as Morphosis in their sequential 9-panel cross section sequence for their Lawrence Residence (1984), in the construction kit for their 2-4-6-8 house (1978), or, in a less formulaic way, in late Enric Miralles’s illustrated, diagrammatic recounts of his design processes.

Mas issue narrative comics and architecture comics in architecture 02

A zeppelin activating the life of a small village in Instant City, 1968. © Peter Cook.

III. Transgender Transgression

Paired with their new presence as a source of ideas for other, ‘higher’ media, the reconversion of comics from childish “funny books” into the more intellectually palatable concept/form of graphic novels has paved the way for the use of different conventions of the comics’ form for a general architectural audience. Koolhaas himself resorted to comics in several parts of his excessive S,M,L,XL (Monacelli Press, 1998), where among images cropped from baseball manga, his son Tomas drew an 8-page comic story, Byzantium8 that took advantage of its “underground comix” aesthetics to illustrate the difficult negotiations which took place in the making of the eponymous building in Amsterdam (1985-91). Willem Jan Neutelings (also an OMA kid) and Frank Rodbeen used comic-book techniques, even if in a more eye-pleasing ligne claire style in their competition for the never built European Patent Office at Leidschendam (1991).9 Wes Jones, who published the comic strip The Nelsons in ANY from 1994 to 2001, continues producing idiosyncratic short comic stories with a certain regularity (see Re:Doing Dubai in Beyond: Scenarios and Speculations, 2009).

A different chapter should be reserved for photo-romans, a genre that is also living an undisputable revival as a marketing tool. Today, digital techniques and digital communication have made photographic images and/or their simulations immediately accessible, ubiquitously available, and extremely easy to manipulate, which has favored a return to collage as a preferred tool, as appealing as it is operative. This is the case with Herzog & de Meuron’s MetroBasel: ein Modell einer europäischen Metropolitan-Region, Olivier Kugler & Fletcher Priest’s children-book-looking Freethinking (2009), or BIG’s self-proclaimed “archicomic” Yes Is More (Taschen, 2004). Put together by today’s youngest starchitect, who defines himself, among other things, as a “wannabe comics artist”, Yes Is More appears as an architectural marketing tool done very much in the fashion of Scott McCloud’s visual essay Understanding Comics. Here, Ingels became both the narrator and the main character in a sort of conference in visual and printed form, directly addressing the reader and explaining the specifics of a bunch of projects throughout four hundred pages of photographs, diagrams, renderings and other imagery encased in panels and seasoned with captions and balloons. In Ingels’ case, the use of graphic narrative works well within the philosophy of the office, which relies less on highly intellectualized discourses than on a proactive, very straightforward approach to design. It also connects with Bjarke’s mediatic persona, always eager to explain, communicate and sell his products, an architect whose enfant terrible image clearly benefits from the (still) transgressive aura of comic books.

Mas issue narrative comics and architecture comics in architecture 03

Nemo’s trip through a hyperbolic Manhattan in Little Nemo in Slumbeland. All plates from September 1907. © Winsor McCay.

Mas issue narrative comics and architecture comics in architecture 04

Nemo’s trip through a hyperbolic Manhattan in Little Nemo in Slumbeland. All plates from September 1907. © Winsor McCay.

IV. Building Stories

But most interestingly, this interdisciplinary overlap happens in both ways, in an exchange that becomes particularly visible in the Franco-Belgian scene, where finding the participation of comics authors in the design of buildings, set designs, scenographies, or architectural installations has become a rather habitual situation, one that underlines the changing role of the medium in the cultural status quo and as its increasing “design” component. Excursions into architectural grounds are frequent in cases such as Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s or especially François Schuiten’s, whose designs, bred in the two-dimensional, fictional realm of comic books, have been translated and adapted into exhibition spaces, interior designs, and outdoors architectural ornamentation. The restoration of the Maison Autrique, Victor Horta’s first Art Nouveau building in Brussels, is a particularly illustrative example. Stemming from François Schuiten & Benoit Peeters’s infatuation with the Belgian architect, both comics authors, who enjoy great public recognition within Belgium’s cultural scene, became the promoters and main supporters of the project, which they then integrated within the mythology of their series Les Cités Obscures, via an inner scenography designed ad-hoc. This same interdisciplinary tack can be found in Joost Swarte’s collaboration with Mecanoo on the design of the De Toneelschuur theatre in Haarlem (1996), later turned into a book and further architectural works, or in the development of the Nederlands Stripmuseum in Groningen (2004), whose exterior redesign was undertaken after proposals by artists such as Schuiten or Henk Kuijpers.10

All these interferences and exchanges underline the particular affinity of comics with the exploration of space, and, more specifically, architectural space, a fondness that was born with the medium itself, as Winsor McCay’s work in the medium’s first stages, clearly show. The concomitances between the role and work of the architect and that of the comics artist (narrator, draughtsman and set designer, all at a time), are particularly vivid in Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1911), where McCay vented many of his architectural obsessions, either introducing recurrently detailed architectural ensembles usually designed in a rich art nouveau, or by means of frequent games of distortion of architectural space. The same can be said about the city, a main character all throughout McCay’s work, both in the form of detailed perspective representations of real XX Century metropolises, and of complex urban fantasies that rivaled the awe-inducing capacity of the most sophisticated urban imagery produced by the architects of the time. He was not alone in his interference with areas owned by the hi-cult: Cliff Sterrett, creator of the comic family strip Polly and Her Pals (1912) toyed frequently in his with experiments on the representation of space similar to those that cubism was unveiling at the time; and Frank O. King, who often played with correlations of time and space created by the comics grid on the comics page. Most notably, in March-April 1934, he published his three consecutive Gasoline Alley Sunday pages wherein he documented the fictional construction of a house with the particularity that the nine panels in which the page was divided composed, altogether, an axonometric view of the building. Each panel became, then, an individual timespace, both a fraction of the story and of the whole space, that retained its individuality and at the same time made part of the greater unity of the whole house/story.

Mas issue narrative comics and architecture comics in architecture 05

A house is built throughout several Sunday pages in Gasoline Alley, March 1934. © Frank O. Kingy.

Mas issue narrative comics and architecture comics in architecture 06
Mas issue narrative comics and architecture comics in architecture 07

A house is built throughout several Sunday pages in Gasoline Alley, March 1934. © Frank O. Kingy.

Adding to the procedural and idiosyncratic adjacency of the architect’s work and the work of the comics artist as a space designer/depicter, there is also a deeper structural synergy between architectural space and the comics page as a system for the articulation of time and space (of spaces-moments). In comics, time perception is intimately linked to space. Time is literally kept within the space of the panel and in the space between, while panels represent different spaces which add to make a supraspace in the context of the whole page, making the comics’ page an interesting alternative to the representation of timespace provided by cinematographic sequence. In the comics sequence, each consecutive moment does not disappear, nor substitutes for the next one; on the contrary, it stays as long as the page is not turned, cohabitating with the preceding and the next ones as part of the architecture of the page. Thus, it constitutes a topology of time (a Bergsonian “architecture of time”) that allows for a total visual encasing/perception of the time lapse that escapes the directionality of sequential-only narratives.

This singular imbrication of time and space that makes topological, nonlinear sequencing, or intersecting narratives, possible, has been a source of inspiration for comics artists that operated out of the juvenile, low-cult encoding of the medium, fostering experiments that play with the architecture and the spatiality of the page. This is the case with Lewis Trondheim’s experiments on multireadability, Patrice Killoffer’s 3D narratives, and, above all, of Chris Ware’s, diagrammatic comics stories, composed of pages where each panel-moment is surrounded by a panel matrix that portray in-between moments, alternative ex-courses, or complementary points of view. Here, the complete experience of the narrative requires combining the itinerary outlined by the main sequence (if there is one) with other excursions where the reading eye explores the page in successive drifts. The flipside of this timespace conflation is that comics introduce into the perception of space a temporal dimension that comes closer to the spatial experience of architecture. And this extent, along with the ambiguities and paradoxes that arise in the two-dimensional recreation of three-dimensional space, notably present in M.C. Escher’s spatial ambiguities or John Hejduk and Peter Eisenman’s figure-ground blurring in their respective Houses, acquire a new dimension with the addition of time and the multi-spatial nature of the comics page. A quick look at Victor Moscoso’s works for Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix in the 1960s-70s, or the more sophisticated and bloodcurdling works by ero-guro artist Shintaro Kago, shows both authors toying with the disruption of space that arises when making explicit the concomitances between the grid of the comics page and the structural frame of a building.

Noting the relationship between the cadence and rhythms of music and those of architecture has been a long-time tradition in the history of architectural criticism, often qualifying architecture (Le Corbusier, Xenakis) as “frozen music.” It is difficult, however, from a non-dogmatic position, to fail to note the parallelism that exists between the techniques of architectural composition, along with their spatial syntaxes, and the very architecture of graphic narrative, an arthrologic system11 which, through its games of alteration, deformation and evolution and its establishment of connections between chronospatial units, often appear to the viewer as the diagrammatic representation of an architectural process. The work of a new generation of architects, such as Mathias Gnehm, who combines his work as an architect with the publication of traditional graphic novels, and particularly Jimenez Lai, who uses the ambiguous spatiality of comics to conduct explorations he seamlessly integrates in his architectural practice, underline the renewed position that such a demodé medium is gaining in the architectural scene. In a moment when the crisis on the concept of the profession that architecture has been avoiding for thirty years has finally struck us (by way of the general Economic Crisis), storytelling, satire, humor and cartooning are finding an expanding venue. And newer generations, bred in the communication era are eager to explore the products of architectural narrative, terrain vagues located in the periphery of a discipline that now, more than ever, faces the urgent need to reinvent itself.

Because, in the end, architecture is fiction.


An earlier version of this text was used in the exhibition Architectural Narratives held in the gallery New Projects in Chicago in October-November 2012. A different take, with a greater focus on Le Corbusier’s use of graphic narrative can be found (in Spanish) in Jorge Tárrago Mingo, compiler, RA 15 (Pamplona: Universidad de Navarra, 2013).

1 Umberto Eco, Apocalittici e integrati (Milano: Bompiani, 1964), 53-54.
2 For other comments on the Lettre a Madame Meyer, see Judy Loach’s “De nouvelles formes naissent: Le Corbusier and the bande dessinée” in The Francophone Bande Dessinee, eds. Charles Forsdick, Laurence Grove, and Libbie McQuillan (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), and Bruno Reichlin’s “Jeanneret-Le Corbusier, Painter-Architect” in Architecture And Cubism, eds. Eve Blau and Nancy J. Troy (Montreal: CCA; Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1997).
3 Töpffer’s early influence in a young Jeanneret is explicated in several documents: a personal communication by his brother Albert (Le Lac, Corseaux, 1968) mentioned by Stanislaus Von Moos in Le Corbusier, Elemente einer Synthese. Frauenfeld (Stuttgart: Huber, 1968; 13), or in an undated letter from 1911 to August Klipstein, where Le Corbusier asserts that he “would love to write a doctoral dissertation on Töpffer” (FLC E 26-145). See: Stanislaus Von Moos: “Voyages en Zigzag” in Le Corbusier Before Le Corbusier, eds. Arthur Rüegg and Stanislaus Von Moos (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).
4 As was shown in the exhibition Dan Dare and the Birth of Hi-Tech Britain, Science Museum, London SW7, 2008.
5 Mikkel Frost, partner at Danish architectural office CEBRA comments on his website, “I usually say that if you can’t tell the story in an A4 sheet (21 by 29.7 cm) you are either doing too much or too complicated stuff. So the ’Toons’ as I call them are not sketches. They are done after the sketches when most of the architectural decisions are made. In this sense they serve as reminders of what the project is all about. …I believe that they quite clearly communicate the spirit of the office and our work…”
6 The Architectural Review (July 1983).
7 Quoted in Mark Pimlott, Without And Within: Essays on Territory and the Interior (Episode Publishers, 2007).
8 The Architectural Review (July 1983).
9 Neutelings & Roobdeen, European Patent Office (010 Publishers, 1991).
10 See Hans Ibelings, “Opengeslagen stripboeken: voorstellen voor het Nederlands Stripmuseum in Groningen,” Archis (Deventer) 6 (1997): 24-25.
11 Thierry Groensteen uses the term “ arthrologic system” in his book The System of Comics (University Press of Mississippi, 2009) to define the internal relationships of the comic page.