Jimenez Lai creates comics about architecture in Citizens of No Place
UIC professor creates “an architectural graphic novel.”
Sent back to Earth after a sojourn in outer space, Bob discovers he has been gone for 10,000 years. “Everyone’s dead,” he says, weeping. “I really should have redeemed my Costco points.”
Okay, so some of the jokes fall flat. But the dark humor running through Jimenez Lai’s Citizens of No Place: An Architectural Graphic Novel (Princeton Architectural Press, $19.95), as well as its engaging medium—black-and-white comics—make this collection of short stories more fun to read than one of Rem Koolhaas’s doorstop-size manifestos.
In his preface, the UIC assistant professor explains that the book continues the tradition of theoretical “paper architecture” practiced by architects such as Daniel Libeskind and the late John Hejduk when money for real projects was scarce.
Many of Lai’s largely nonlinear narratives recall the mobile cities dreamed up by the 1960s London studio Archigram. His crude drawings—mash-ups of manga, clip art and architectural plans—evoke the zines that Archigram and their cash-strapped peers used to disseminate their ideas. In one story, a character imagines wealthy bigots transferring favorite parts of their urban fabric to oceangoing barges “where no immigrant can invade their memories.” In another, Bob finds himself aboard “Noah’s Ark,” a vast, self-sustaining spaceship that evacuated human beings from Earth after the planet became uninhabitable.
Though set hundreds of years from now, Lai’s scenarios are realistic, particularly “Babel.” Almost 200 years after Dubai’s 2,723-foot Burj Khalifa was completed, a character tells us, New York built a 12-kilometer-tall skyscraper on top of what was once Central Park. A young man is hired to live in a stratosphere-level apartment for one year—to prove it can be done. (Apartments on the building’s upper floors have been hard to sell.) “We calculated a 90 percent survival rate,” his new boss tells readers with a smirk.
While “Babel” illustrates Lai’s point that “Yesterday’s extreme is tomorrow’s status quo,” it also addresses the human and environmental costs of development. Non-architects will appreciate the treatment of these issues in Citizens of No Place more than the book’s tales of projections and forms. Despite its refreshing lack of jargon, Lai’s graphic novel occasionally becomes incomprehensible to those outside his profession. “On Types of Seductive Robustness,” in which a man defends his illegal romance with an awkward-looking architectural form, is a convoluted comment on conformity and the mainstream. I’m still not sure how it relates to architecture.
Back on Earth in the distant future, Bob has little time to mourn the loss of his civilization before he’s interrogated by a 121st-century archaeologist—a chipper humanoid whose eyes are solid black circles. The creature demands to know why the lofty concepts described in our architecture books look nothing like the buildings we constructed. Given Lai’s awareness of the disconnect between paper architecture and the real thing, one wonders why his dystopia isn’t a little more accessible.
Citizens of No Place is out now.