§Graphic Realities
Streets in Strips. Understanding the urban contemporary through the frames of graphic novels
by Filippo Oppimitti and Yona Catrina Schreyer

Architecture – perhaps somewhat inadvertently – is a sequential art form, presenting its planning process through a series of sections and plans. Architectural drawings contain all the information necessary to envision and construct a future building, simultaneously addressing two audiences: insiders of the building industry, like contractors and operators, as well as the future inhabitants who usually don’t have any expertise in reading plan material. The architectural graphic novel, however, marks a much less considered medium of visual knowledge exchange. Amalgamating drawing and text, fictive spaces are filled with imaginary protagonists, their actions, and their conversations. Often in the form of comic strips or sequential collages, graphic novels allow architects to take their design to an excitingly different level through portraying atmospheres and adding time sensitive, sometimes critical, or wry contents. They can be understood as a mirror of architecture’s key role in forming our society.


Critical thinking – from paper architecture to graphic storytelling

Architects often turn to graphics when in need of a medium that can say more than a building ever could, in moments of discontent on current trends in the discipline, or whenever they are not able to give justice to their design capabilities amidst political era cultural repression. In Columbarium Habitabile for instance, architects Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin express a graphic form of criticism through highly wrought etchings on paper, as their reality of functionalism amid U.S.S.R. restrictions constrained their work as designers. Brodsky & Utkin’s opus as “paper architects” shows elaborate drawings that mark a remembrance of their architectural knowledge through realistic, subtly ironic, graphic and written elements. It is the unique way of composing these elements that sets their work from the 1990’s apart from other paper architects, as widely known and visually familiar aspects are turned into radically new perspectives [1]. Their graphics, however, were not produced as a series of images, yet they managed to embed stories within these multifaceted drawings that invite their viewers of their art into the architects’ realm of imagination through “whimsical cartoonishness”.

The work of the Italian architectural group Superstudio at the end of the 1960’s and beginning of 70’s, is largely considered even more radical. Dissatisfied and disillusioned with the discipline of architecture at that point, they turned away from building to paper, creating photo collages and comic-like images seeking to provoke the architectural scene through its futuristic and partly dystopian messages in an attempt to turn contemporary trends in architecture into absurdum. The choice of the graphic novel is not casual: allowing to exaggerate and to add contents to existing scenarios opened up scenarios for what architecture and urban planning could be: In the autumn of 1969, at the Trigon biennial in Graz, Superstudio present their project Continuous Monument for the first time and describe it as a “moderate Utopia for the immediate future”. While the first version showed as a series of collages, in the following years, the project was developed into a storyboard executed in a comic-strip style. Domus published an article devoted to Superstudio’s project as early as December 1969 under the emblematic title “Discorsi per Immagini” (Discourses in Images) and two years later, 1971, the complete storyboard of this project was shown in issue 358 of Casabella magazine. In his introduction to Superstudio’s project, architect and academic Giovanni Klaus Koenig points out that the choice of this type of representation is not random or extemporaneous, but strongly rooted in the architectural culture. In this regard, he mentions Bruno Taut’s work “Der Welt Baumeister” (The World Builder), a small booklet, published in 1919 and consisting of 28 drawings that were each accompanied by a short caption. Both of these works present a very similar syntactical structure and meaning, claiming the role of the architect in the construction of the world.

extracted from AA.VV. Superstudio: Deserti naturali e artificiali, in Casabella n.358, 1971.

Streets in strips – our cities as backdrop for graphic novels 

Several more of this kind of abstract or “conceptual” projects were produced in the 1960s-70s by various groups of young architects throughout Europe such as Archigram, Archizoom, the Smithsons and Superstudio. All of them are depicted in unconventional ways that do not involve ground plans, elevations, or cross sections. What they all have in common is their integration in lively cities, so it is difficult to read these works as a desire to escape from reality. Marie Theres Stauffer points out that those architectural groups «present Utopia as a conceptual framework for critical debate, in fact rejecting Utopia as a modern instrument in the progress of architecture. In so doing they deconstruct the modern type of Utopia — and replace it with their own: Utopia as a tool for critical reflection» (Stauffer, 2002).

The project that best exemplifies this concept is the “12 Città Ideali” (12 Ideal Cities) by Superstudio: a collection of twelve texts plus an epilogue, accompanied by illustrations, published in Architectural Design in 1971 and in Casabella in 1972. The cities described in these tales have mysterious names, such as 2000 Ton City, Temporal Cochlea City, Spaceship City, Conical Terraced City, and describe cities that could be located at any moment in time and space and in which its citizens find themselves living in very particular habitats; for example, in the first city (2000 Ton City): «Each inhabitant lives eternally in a cell which satisfies all his desires – but if he formulates thoughts of rebellion against this perfect life twice consecutively, the ceiling comes down with a force of 2000 tons, crushing him» (AA.VV., Casabella 1972). After describing the 12 cities, the authors break down the meaning of this story. The twelve cities are a test: “How many cities would you desire to see in existence, or how many do you think would be of use to humanity? According to your replies, you will be classified”. The only way to “win” in this test was to realize that the descriptions did not represent imaginary towns but rather our towns, now, in all towns. It will suffice to continue refining the logic of the system, to materialize fantasies far more hallucinatory than those attempted in these villages described by childish novellas. In other words: such cities do not represent distant, unreachable metropolises of the future, but are nothing more than a different way of seeing the world in which we already, in spite of ourselves unconsciously, dwell. With exaggeration and simplification, typical of the graphic novel, these tales very effectively capture the phenomena and transformations that characterized the cities of those years, such as “zoning”; “Industrialization”; “Users’ Needs”; “Housing Cells,” and which in many cases are still strikingly relevant today.

Also during the following decades, many architects followed Superstudio’s lead and kept exploring the medium of the architectural graphic novel in various ways and for different motives. Maybe taking inspiration from Superstudio’s explosive radiance, younger architects time and again took turns in experimenting with architectural comic strips when trying to take a critical stand on “supposedly wrong tracks in architecture”, or when exploring the relation between people and the built environment in what Mélanie van den Hoorn defines as a “poetic-philosophical” way [2].

extracted from AA.VV. Premonizioni Della Parusia Urbanistica, in Casabella n.361, 1972.

Beyond criticism – the open invitation of comic strips

While some are known to have used the graphic novel as a critique tool deliberately, others have found themselves being attributed to this category while having aimed for entirely different results, as claims American cartoonist Chris Ware, author of “Building Stories”. Many have seen his elaborate graphic work, composed of fourteen items (260 pages total comprising magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, books, and other), as a sarcastic condemnation of the conventional architectural representation. Ware, however, sees his graphic novel as a contribution for the important act of storytelling that he sees as key human feature. The “cartooned” version of buildings he creates is a tribute to the human perception of space, stemming from, so Ware argues, on our all remembrance of spaces (which is in turn part of our capacity to tell stories – about ourselves as well as the people around us). Ware fills his drawings with fictive emotions, inviting the reader to follow the protagonist’s life choices offering an unembellished look at her private sphere, at how she fails, takes decisions, and how fate strikes. Flipping through a person’s existence this way is like walking a tightrope act, balancing all sorts of emotions, compassion, sadness, shame, excitement, concern, reassurance. All of them are tightly linked to spaces, to a building and its neighborhood, to stairs, kitchen, and bathroom, to the furniture inside and perhaps this is what makes the reader particularly empathetic: the way we see a person linked to its spatial surrounding and objects while trying to make her life work, isn’t that what we all try to do?

Aside from being a way to express criticism (intentionally or not), many graphic novels are considered actual architectural designs. That is, a possibility of making design proposals more tactile or relatable through adding sequential graphic information in amalgamated text and images. Here, Mèlanie van den Hoorn lists famous names like OMA or Raumlabor and differentiates the graphics in such that present the authors (and their intentions while designing) and in those, who seek to transport a lively image within their design proposals (be it to convince developers or to bring their works to a higher design quality).

In the introduction of his graphic novel, Jimenez Lai writes that this medium «is an enticing way to convey complexity; it is more than just a rendering technique. If we distill the attitude of the collection of stories in this graphic novel into two words, they would be calibrated superficiality. It is the idea that something difficult does not need to rely on effects of obscurity; it is a celebration of impressionable thoughts – a visual impact that contains many layers to be unpacked and explored» (Lai, 2012). For the author the graphic novel is a medium that dances between the line of narrative and representation and facilitates experimentations in proportion, composition, scale, sensibility, and the part-to-whole relationship as the page becomes an object. More importantly, this drawing medium affords the possibility of conflating representation, theory, criticism, storytelling, and design.

A very fine example of applying this (seemingly simple) technique (while in fact dealing with particularly complex realities) was represented by the series of three small volumes that the Strum group, a collective of radical architects from Turin (Giorgio Cerretti, Pietro De Rossi and Riccardo Rosso, Carlo Gianmarco and Maurizio Vogliazzo) during the exhibition Italy: the new domestic landscape (MoMa New York, 1972). The three “foto romanzi” later published as inserts in Casabella issue 368-369, are true graphic novels to demonstrate the American public a general picture of the real urban problems and the Italian architecture – an indispensable term of reference for understanding the “Italian design” produced (and heavily exported) at that time. Titled “Utopia,” “Struggle for Housing,” and “The Intermediate City,” the booklets use data and documents taken from the class struggles of ’68 as base on which Strum group adds comic-like text-“balloons” that propose how the role of the architect should be redefined. This way, they let the architectural visions and the projects that were produced at that time by architects such as Aldo Loris Rossi, Paolo Portoghesi, Paolo Soleri and Giancarlo de Carlo tell their stories to the public; on other pages, a voice is given to the thousands of people who, having emigrated from Southern Italy, live in the big cities of the North in conditions of deep misery. In doing so, the architects manage to capture all facets of the city as aspace constantly mutating, a complex universe of “new and old tools” to be used, spaces to be conquered and forms to be “altered” in order to generate moments of community participation.

Up until today, graphic novels address pressing contemporary issues related to space, like the graphic novel Kiribati. Cronache illustrate da una terra (s)perduta (Kiribati. Illustrated Chronicles from a lost land), by architect Andrea Angeli and graphic designer Alice Piciocchi. This vibrant and moving visual story poetically and immediately recounts the Kiribati archipelago, a nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that, according to many scholars, is likely to be the first to disappear from earth, literally, due to climate change.

extracted from AA.VV. Utopia, La lotta per la casa, La città intermedia gruppo Strum, in Casabella n.368-369, 1972.

Utopia and the promise of understanding what is yet to come

Moving along the interface between societal utopia and critical reflection of trends, architects tend to visually simplify or exaggerate built environments through the graphic novel, which makes the medium similar to hand drawn concept schemes architects often produce to demonstrate their first design ideas. Freed from the limitations that technical plans impose on architects, the graphic novel allows comments on political or economic developments within the architectural culture.

Here, Citizens of no place by the aforementioned architect Jimenez Lai offers a wide range of reflections. The book with its subtitle “An architectural graphic novel”, is a collection of short stories that deal with various themes related to architecture, urban planning and living, but often in an estranged or utopian scenario: A group of men of the future who find themselves traveling in space on an immense spaceship become the pretext for suggestions on how to deal with contemporary issues such as vertical urbanism, building speculation, the Existenzminimum, etc. One of these stories, Babel, tells us about the construction of the tallest building in the world: it’s a skyscraper of 12,000 meters height – as high as the Stratosphere – marks the definite answer to the question “how high can we go?”, since beyond this point there is no air to breathe and no life possible. Reading this story, one can’t help but reflect, with a certain sense of irony, on the period of the early 2000s that saw the nations of greatest economic powers challenge each other in building the tallest skyscraper of the world. This absurd fight was ultimately won by the United Arab Emirates in 2009 with the construction of the Burj Khalifa. In Lai’s story, we then see the tale of the man, who is chosen as first inhabitant of the top floor of the fictive tower: even though the space he is supposed to live in seems perfectly habitable on paper, respecting all the common standards, the protagonist begins to feel increasingly serious discomfort. A sensation probably not too far away from the experience the inhabitants of the 432 Park Avenue skyscraper, designed by Rafael Viñoly, made in real life? The super-rich inhabitants of this enormous skyscraper reported “millions of dollars of water damage from plumbing and mechanical issues; frequent elevator malfunctions; and walls that creak like the galley of a ship ” – all issues related to the excessive height and thinness of the skyscraper.

Another remarkable author of comic books with a background in architecture is Tom Kaczynski; his works are extremely sensitive to the shapes of cities, to city planning, infrastructural issues and how they are interconnected. In an interview he once said: «The political systems that we have, the economic systems we have, someone at some point made decisions about policies that created the world we live. I want people to be aware they didn’t happen willy-nilly, that a lot of these choices are deliberate, and a lot of these choices can be changed. That gets reflected in the comics» (Kaczynski, 2012b). Kaczynski presents these reflections in the form of comics through the collection Beta Testing the Apocalypse. In 976 sq. ft., we learn about a small neighborhood that is upset by the construction of a high, ultra-modern luxury condominium in their proximity – the cause of for an epidemic of psychic disorders across the neighborhood due to its alienating and disturbing presence; slowly, the inhabitants leave their homes one after the other, and their buildings are slowly being replaced by new condominiums.

Cités Obscures by Francois Schuiten and Benoit Peeters is somewhat closing the circle of comic strips and city streets… Similar to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Superstudio’s Ideal Cities, each of the cities in which his stories take place are autonomous mechanisms with specific character. Among the many cities he creates, there is Samaris (described in the short story Les Murailles de Samaris); the facades of its buildings, the urban backdrops, are only sets and do not correspond to the rest, to a coherent interior environment. The facades are constantly moving and mirror an ever-changing image of the city. Seeing at this city made only of facades, the things they share with the reality around us are not hard to find – just think of the phenomenon of facadisme (the demolition of historic buildings where only their facades are preserved and during the construction of a new building get reintegrated), so characteristic of cities such as Brussels (where both authors grew up), but also and perhaps even more immediate, to the many shopping centers or outlet villages, whose interior spaces are all the same, while the facades imitate, from time to time, a small town, a medieval village or a village.

Having taken this survey of some of the most influential architectural graphic novels of the past decades, it feels safe to say this provocative art form will continue to reach a diverse audience across boundaries, ready to raise uncomfortable questions on the contemporary that only the future will prove valid or wrong. Yet the groups of architects concerned with this form of expression until now, have proven an excellent instinct: their works seem equally important today, some of the issues maybe even more pressing than ever.

Embracing the format of graphic novels in architecture, they afford the exciting possibility to welcome outsiders, yet with its manifold layers of criticism it’s also a way to challenge experts. They facilitate a knowledge exchange and invite a conversation on how we, individually and collectively, feel about and want to interpret the spaces we share, and: what we could try and change about it to shape a collective urban identity. According to Andrè Suhr, «various mediums have been designated the best tool to represent the state of life in our cities. A novel? A film? If this question really needs answering, the first rank ought to fall to comics» (Suhr, 2010).

extracted from Lai J., Citizens of no place. An architectural graphic novel, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2012.


[1] Together with a group of likeminded architects, Brodsky and Utkin assumed the term “paper architects” at the end of the 1970’s, allowing them to continue producing after the Socialist Realist movement and its restrictive consequences for the architecture and art scene during the 1930’s. See “Man in the Metropolis: The Graphic Projections by Brodsky & Utkin” by L.E. Nesbitt, in “Brodsky & Utkin – The Complete Works” (1991), New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
[2] In her thorough collection and interpretation of architectural graphic novels “Bricks & Balloons – Architecture in Comic-Strip Form”, Mélanie van der Hoorn divides the genre in two parts, architectural critique and architectural design. Under these categories she observes how architects have positioned themselves by the use of the comic strip, where its roots lie and how the synergy between word and image bridges design and its critique forms.


AA.VV. Twelve Cautionary Tales For Christmas: Premonitions Of The Mystical Rebirth Of Urbanism, in Architectural Design n.12, december 1971.
AA.VV. Superstudio: Deserti naturali e artificiali, in Casabella n.358, 1971.
AA.VV. Premonizioni Della Parusia Urbanistica, in Casabella n.361, 1972.
AA.VV. Utopia, La lotta per la casa, La città intermedia gruppo Strum, in Casabella n.368-369, 1972.
Ahrens J., Meteling A. (eds.), Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence, Continuum, New York, 2010.
Ambasz E., Italy: the New Domestic Landscape: Achievements and Problems of Italian Design, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1972.
Angeli A., Piciocchi A., Kiribati. Cronache illustrate da una terra (s)perduta, 24 Ore Cultura, Milano, 2016.
Brodsky A., Utkin I., Nesbitt L. E., Brodsky & Utkin. The Complete Works, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1991.
Brodsky A., Utkin I., Brodsky & Utkin: Revised Edition, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2015.
Cassarà L., D’urso S., Goodbye Topolinia, su architettura e fumetto, Malcor D’edizione, Catania, 2013.
Calvino I., Le Città Invisibili, Einaudi, Torino, 1972.
Derossi P., Per un’architettura narrativa: architetture e progetti, 1959-2000, Skira, Milano, 2000.
Kaczynski T., Beta Testing the Apocalypse, Fantagraphics Books, Seattle, 2012a.
Kaczynski T., interviewed by Tom Spurgeon, in «The Comics Reporter», 30 December 2012b.
Lai J., Citizens of no place. An architectural graphic novel, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2012.
Mastrigli G. (ed.), Superstudio, Opere 1966-1978, Quodlibet, Macerata, 2016.
Peeters B., Schuiten F., Les Murailles de Samaris, Casterman, Tournai, 1985.
Stauffer M. T., Utopian Reflections, Reflected Utopias: Urban Designs by Archizoom and Superstudio in «AA Files», No. 47 (Summer 2002), pp. 23-36.
Suhr A., Seeing the city through a frame: Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s Acquefacques comics, in J. Ahrens e A. Meteling (eds.), Comics and the City: Urban Space in «Print, Picture and Sequence, Continuum», New York, 2010.
Van Der Hoorn M., Bricks & Balloons, Architecture in comic-strip form, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2012.
McCloud S., Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art Book, William Morrow Paperbooks, New York, 1993.

Filippo Oppimitti and Yona Catrina Schreyer are doctoral candidates of Architectural Urban Interior Design at the Polytechnic University of Milan. Practicing a design driven research approach, they are concerned with the social responsibility of the discipline and the current trend in its visual representation.