louis hellman

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The architectural cartoonist.

If by architectural cartoonist we mean architects who draw cartoons about
architecture then they are an odd and rare breed and often prone to foul
their own nest. It is not done, even today, for a professional to criticise
or mock his or her peers, whether they be medics, lawyers, politicians or
architects. Yet each profession probably has a humourist who satirises the
discipline they work in. At a cartoon event some years ago I met a doctor
who cartooned for a medical journal and we compared notes.

Medieval masons guarded the 'secrets' of their trade in their guilds to
deter outsiders as do the present day Masons. This continues to characterise
the professions, or the 'conspiracies against the laity' as George Bernard
Shaw cynically put it. Mystique, jargon and obfuscation protect our new
secrets. It is one area the satirical cartoonist can defuse and expose, if
indeed this is desirable.

It also depends on what form the cartoons take. Cartoons can be categorised
as 'single gag' (man on desert island), 'strip' (beginning, middle and end),
'political' (news item), 'caricature' or illustration. Each category can
cross over to another, e.g. a strip can include caricature, a gag can be
political and so on. Cartoons can be satirical, just funny or whimsical,
such as in-jokes only comprehensible to the profession. Ideally the
architectural cartoon would resonate both with the profession and the
informed public, a difficult tightrope act to perform.

The great cartoonist Osbert Lancaster's drawn and written histories of
architecture such as Pillar to Post not only sold to the general public but
coined terms like 'Tudorbethan' that have entered the language. Bliss. Other
major cartoonists such as Heath Robinson, Giles or Searle understood
buildings and drew them accurately and beautifully. Sadly, many cartoonists
display an ignorance of architects and architecture to match that of the
general public or royalty. Hopefully the architect cartoonist can bring some
understanding and knowledge to his or her parodies and lampoons.

When I started drawing cartoons about architecture for architectural
magazines it was with an underlying serious intent, an attempt to step
outside the narrow concerns of the profession. I had always drawn cartoons,
as a child and then as a student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, but
when I finally qualified I used them to express my disillusionment with the
doctrines of the modern movement which I had believed in and fought for at
university in the face of a fairly reactionary regime.

My first job was with a hard-line modernist firm who I naively assumed would
practice my idealised notion of modern architecture as the application of
rationalism, science and logic. I was soon disabused. It was clear that the
practice¹s idea of modernism was in terms of another architectural style to
be forced through in the face of reality and economics. But the modern
movement had supposedly reacted against the 19th century obsession with
styles in favour of a rational industrialised architecture.

My way of expressing my disillusionment was through the medium of the strip
cartoon. I would note down the dogmatic modernist shibboleths heard in the
office and turn them into strips with a beginning, middle and an ironic end.
The first one was 'People don't want to live in high-rise blocks, people do
not know what they need, we must educate them in new ways of living.' The
speaker was a small, rotund, bearded, bow-tied architect who I had the
misfortune to work with as co-job architect. He lived in a converted oast
house in Kent so I drew a stylised version of him walking through high-rise
blocks mouthing the phrase and ending up at home in his Georgian house. It
summed up the patronising and hypocritical attitude of my profession towards
those they were designing for.

My bearded friend became my stereotype architect from then on. It is always
useful to have an instantly identifiable passive character, a Tintin or a
Gulliver, who can react to events. Of course there is much of myself in the
character. I started to publish these strips in the Architects' Journal in
the late 1960s, that period of youth revolt and general questioning of every
social, political and cultural tradition. It was also around the time a gas
explosion in the Ronan Point tower block spelt the beginning of the end of
modernist hegemony, some time before the 1950s Pruitt-Igoe high-rise social
housing estate in St Louis in the USA was demolished.

The journal then wanted cartoons related to topical news items and my style
changed to resemble political cartoons in newspapers, often using collage to
avoid drawing those complicated buildings. Now I started satirising actual
architects and buildings, honing my skills as a caricaturist. So there were
occasionally angry responses from my 'victims' as well as a few incidents of
writs being served on the editor by the more powerful practices.
As I was also a practicing architect the accusation could be levelled 'What
are you doing that's so much better?' My barbs may, however, have contained
a pinch of self-criticism and self-education.

My own approach has always been to stress the political role of architecture
(one online critic described me as a 'Marxist female') something ignored by
architectural journals which tend to be confined to their hermetic
inward-looking world. To construct any building requires relatively large
resources whether an office tower or private house. Those with such
resources are inevitably rich and powerful individuals or corporations used
to getting their own way and over-riding rules and planning constraints.
Here is a rich source for cartoon satire by exposing how architects serve
power elites or build for all sorts of totalitarian regimes from China to
Saudi Arabia. Architecture has no moral imperative, no moral compass or
scale despite pretentions to improve society or the environment.

One cartoon I did many years ago to illustrate this point enraged some
architects. It featured an architect presenting a scheme to a committee
outlining the functional plan and up to date services. The final frame
showed that the scheme was the Treblinka concentration camp.

In Thatcher's 1980s my approach and style changed somewhat. Prince Charles
took over the role of applying dumb epithets to modern architecture and I
began to feel slightly sorry for the profession. Thatcher and Charles were
of course a wonderful sources of satire and humour as was Postmodernism with
its simplistic silliness and stupid semantics.

Now some 45 years on I am still going, just. Architects, and human beings,
will always fail to realise their ideals in the face of reality and the
infuriating insistence of people not to conform to expectations. The
banana will be slipped on for all eternity. The disparity between design
assumption and hard reality will always supply a rich vein of humour,
exploited brilliantly by Jacques Tati in the 1950s in films like Mon Oncle
or Playtime, despised by architects at the time but now recognisecd as minor
masterpieces in the observation of human behaviour.

Today we have a plethora of pluralism ripe for lampooning. Deconstruction,
Icons or Landmark buildings which exploit computer aided design to provide
the 'wow' factor. In reality these tend to be ludicrous self-deluding,
self-promotions or indescribably ugly. The current obsession is with
energy-saving and 'sustainability', a term like 'community' that everyone
pays lip service to yet nobody can define. How Swiftian can you get? Or to
quote Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass : 'When I use a word,
it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less'

Louis Hellman January 2012


finch on hellman
into to book


“Frozen music” is the most popular but most misleading definition of
architecture around. It was coined by Von Schelling and typifies a 19th
century German romantic formalist view of architecture as sculptural art. It
was gently satirised in the 1950s by humourists Flanders and Swann as “music
is defrosted architecture”. Von Schelling’s definition ignores
architecture’s utiltarian functions. Nearer the mark and equally popular is
“Commodity, firmness and delight”, Sir Henry Wotton’s 17th century take on
Vitruvius, though it sounds disturbingly like a 60s bra advert. In other
words, buildings must stand up, give pleasure and, in today’s parlance, be
fit for purpose. The Greeks had a word for it, but did they? The only
relevant Ancient Greek word is “architect” or “master builder, so
“architecture” is simply that which is done by architects. Clearly a case
for the ARB to pronounce upon.

It was not until the Victorians that definitions addressed the social and
political nature of architecture. For Ruskin it was “An art for all to learn
because all are concerned with it” and Morris saw it as “The moulding and
altering to human needs of the very face of the earth itself”. Participation
and eco housing no less.

The modern movement masters provided their own definitions. Le Corbusier’s
was ”The masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together
in light”, a conveniently vague definition for an architect who would work
for any regime, however unsavoury, no doubt echoed by today’s starchitects
whose moral compasses are equally obscured. Mies’ portentous “The will of
the epoch translated into space” also leaves plenty of room for political
manoeuvring. Hitler,of course, more demolition contractor than architect,
understood that architecture was a political tool, “Stone documents, the
expression of the utility and power of the nation”.

Today definitions seem to have gone out of fashion. Monumental architecture
during the profligate period from the 1990s to 2008 was more “commodities,
futures and deregulation” than Wotton’s sedate description. Or perhaps
“Frozen money” would be more apt.

Our current era’s obsession is with energy conservation and retrofitting,
much loved both by politicians, who see it as a source of righteous
taxation, and architects who take it as a neo-functionalist opportunity to
wallow in alternative technology. The best definition for this must be Ian
Martin’s ironic “Architecture is frozen carbon”. Praise the Lord and pass
the microwave.

Architecture cartoon prints

von schelling
flanders and swann
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