The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 7 August 2018

Citizens of No Place

An Architectural Graphic Novel

by Jiminez Lai

Architecture is, of course, a largely visual profession. It is unusual among the arts, mostly, in that its form, at least in part, must follow its function. Successful architecture is not merely beautiful, not merely an expression of the artists' creative abilities, but it must also serve its purpose. Does that funky dome house actually work as a home? (Bucky Fuller's domes have a mixed history on that.) Does that moving roof over the stadium actually keep the weather out and is it sustainable? (Kinetic architecture rarely stays kinetic for very long.) Is that all-glass house cozy? (Homes for exhibitionists.) There is a lot of architectural theory going around. Some of it is pretty interesting. After all, it is a worthy endeavor to understand how humans relate to the spaces they occupy. As a rule, we live in rather bland boxes. For centuries, architects and artists have tried to imagine another kind of box, a better box, a more shapely box, organic boxes, transparent boxes, boxes in the sky, boxes underground, boxes without walls. A lot of these experiments have a certain appeal, but, in the end, the question we must always ask of architecture: does it work?

That doesn't mean that the thought experiments aren't worthy, but they can get rather esoteric. Visit the design department of any university, and the drawings in evidence can engender eye-rolling at their abstract (often trendily so) nature. You can't actually live in a lot of these things. Meanwhile, there will always be the iconoclasts who draw the theory back to some sense of reality. They do this without entirely abandoning academic interest in exploration. Here, in this "graphic novel" designer and artist Jiminez Lai places questions of architectural theory in the accessible context of witty and engaging drawings and a thin but coherent plot in which we explore what it means to have a building surrounding us. It is an unusual context in which to place the argument, but consider that those who construct graphic novels, comic books, animated films and live-action movies (the much-admired Black Panther or Blade Runner feature both positive and negative urban visions) all develop their own sense of urban style. To make a story work, its landscape must have some kind of humane rhythm and logic. On the other hand "No Place", after all, is literally Utopia.

Lai tells a story of a world in the future, in which we are intimately involved in the construction of the spaces that surround us, some of them urban in scale, but many of them small, intimate cubicles of space that evoke memories of Archigram, the Ant Farm, and other witty architectural experiments. Here, we have a vast Noah's Ark flying to a refuge ten thousand lightyears distant. There is a giant building rising from New York's Central Park, touching the troposphere. There are the beginnings of the space elevator to orbit. And there are efficient living pods, the kind architects have dallied with for close to a century. Along the way, his nameless characters discuss and argue the features of this esoteric environment. The book relies upon visual meditation rather than any long exposition upon theory. It is evocative in its language and lyrical in its artwork. Lai, who founded a design group called Bureau Spectacular, and whose work has appeared at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, works in the realm of the imaginary and theoretical, mixing the two and creating an oddly accessible document, witty and yet not overly simplified. Lai works in a hybrid realm of the comic and architectural, creating these emotive drawings and building complex and esoteric models. This small volume (which may have benefitted from being printed in a larger format) is just a jumping off point in this architectural exploration.

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