The house I live in is warped. Its floors undulate as if built on unstable earth or designed by drunken architects. Pipes protrude at odd angles, capped at even odder points. Dutifully obeying gravity and the laws of physics, kitchen drawers and medicine-cabinet doors chronically hang open. I often wonder if the house slouched into this shape or if it was just built this way.
Peter Gabriel’s 1986 hit, “In Your Eyes,” was originally a song about buildings. It was called “Sagrada Familia,” and the idea stemmed from two people who were driven to build for very different reasons. “One of them was Antoni Gaudi building his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona,” Gabriel told Rolling Stone Magazine. The construction of the cathedral took ages and was left unfinished when Gaudi was tragically killed in front of it: “He stepped out into the road so he would have a better view of the massive spires on top of the giant building and was hit by a tram.”
Like the house of breath, the house of wind and voice is a value that hovers on the frontier between reality and unreality.
— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
“Cartoon is an enticing way to convey complexity,” opens Jimenez Lai’s Citizens of No Place (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), an architectural graphic novel, which “offers narratives about character development, through which the reader can explore relationships, curiosities, and attitudes, as well as absurd stories about fake realities that invite new futures to become possibilities” (p. 7). Using manga to map future forms and dropping references to everyone from Chuck Palahniuk to Robert Venturi, the book is only one facet of Lai and his firm‘s critical design program (see his Briefcase House and White Elephant for two more examples, both of which guest star in the book as well).
The stories of Citizens of No Place are poignant, funny, and based on Lai’s own architectural ideas and life experiences. Lai is a professor at The University of Illinois at Chicago, my current home institution, and I hope to take my copy of his book to him and have him fix the cover in person.
All buildings are predictions.
All predictions are wrong.
— Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn
The other subject of Peter Gabriel’s song about buildings was the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, Sarah Winchester. Gabriel continues. “After the death of her daughter, she became incredibly depressed and, after seeing a medium, became convinced she was being haunted by all the people who had been killed by Winchester rifles. She started adding rooms to her mansion to house these ghosts, a task which went on nonstop for 38 years until her death.” She held her own house of leaves inside her head.
Chris Ware‘s latest comic seems haunted in the same manner. It’s not actually a single comic book, but a box of them–broadsheets, single strips that unfold four times, a Little Golden book, a hardback, several almost standard comic books–a nonlinear yet interconnected collection of strange stories about the inhabitants of an apartment building. Ware, who has already proven he can design in and draw on any style he pleases, told Comic Book Resources,
There’s no mystery to be unravelled or any hidden secret that will explain everything; the book is simply an attempt to recreate, however awkwardly, the three-dimensionality of our memories and to try to make a story than has no apparent beginning or end, much like our memories, which we can enter from any direction and at any point, which is also the way we get to know people, i.e., a little bit at a time. And yes, the title points both towards the way we put together and take apart memories to make stories about ourselves and others, as well as to the structure of a building itself.
Like a velvet glove cast in concrete, its pieces blown apart and strewn about, Building Stories leaves us to (re)construct the story like so many memories past. It’s not exactly a choose-your-own-adventure book, but, like our own patterned pasts, some assembly is required. Fortunately the parts were designed by one of the best artists working today.
“Every building is potentially immortal,” writes Brand (1994), “but few last half the life of a human” (p. 111). The same can be said of our stories. Whether forced or built this way, the house I live in struggles to tell its tale. Straining against Euclidian geometry, its odd rooms and angles are haunted only by the expectations of its inhabitants. Bachelard (1964) writes, “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space” (p. 47). This jumbled house is certainly not inert, the current, humble site of my own building stories.
Bachelard, Gaston. (1964). The Poetics of Space. Boston, MA: Beacon, p. 60.
Brand, Stewart. (1994). How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. London: Viking, p. 178.
Danielewski, Mark Z. (2000). House of Leaves: A Novel. New York: Pantheon.
Lai, Jimenez. (2012). Citizens of No Place: An Architectural Graphic Novel. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Ware, Chris. (2012). Building Stories. New York: Pantheon.
Special thanks to Jeisler Salunga and Belem Medina for the tip on Lai’s book and to all of my other architecture students for reminding me how cool this stuff is.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.