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The Power of Drawings: Architecture Videos Borrowing From Animated Cartoons.

Mélanie van der Hoorn

Duration clock 46:04 min

IN THE LAST DECADES, technological developments have enabled unknown levels of photorealism in the realm of architecture visualizations. This has also resulted in some critical stances from architects, (graphic) designers, creative or advertising agencies who feel tired of this incessant call for more and more realistic images. They find conventional plans, sections and models too limited, technical, 'sterile' or impersonal, and do not find computer generated images – be they still or moving – a satisfying alternative. In the latter, it is the representation of human beings in particular, which they find disappointing. Especially in videos about buildings that have not been realized yet, or already demolished, computer generated images can, perhaps, give an extremely realistic impression of the non-existent spaces yet it still remains much more difficult to create avatars that look, move and express themselves naturally.

SEARCHING FOR DIFFERENT MODES of representation and communication, the makers and commissioners of architecture videos attach great value to narrative aspects and alternative visual languages to express the stories and thoughts behind the architecture in itself. In terms of imagery, one option is to resort, at least for certain sequences, to (hand) drawings as a counterpart to the glossy worlds of computer generated imagery, or to include computer generated cartoon-like figures – in other words: to borrow from animated cartoons. The narrative potentials of such films is well illustrated, for instance, by a series of six short films realized by The Neighbourhood in 2011 – four of them with elements borrowed from animated cartoons. Each of those films is telling a different story on one and the same housing project in Saxton, Leeds. Typical elements from animated cartoons include imaginary figures (often a bit caricatured, humoristic but nonetheless with a serious significance), onomatopoeias ('sound words' like 'Bang!' or 'Crack!'), peculiar sounds or voices as well as diagrams or icons to explain complex ideas. In particular, opting for animated cartoons can help to overcome certain difficulties related to the representation of human figures.

Most of the films evoked in what follows have been realized in the third Millennium, after software had become more accessible and easier to handle, also for non-specialists. Yet predecessors can be traced many decennia back. A relatively well-known, early example is "Charley in a New Town" (1948); another, much more recent, experimental one, "Manhattan" (1992) by driendl * steixner.

AN IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENT OCCURRED in the field of architecture videos in the third Millennium: The traditional 'fly through'-form has continued to exist for mere visualizations, but is no longer considered appropriate for so-called marketing films. Several agencies have shifted their main focus of attention from photorealistic images to storytelling and branding. A typical product of this kind is "Nido Barcelona" (2006), in which a two-dimensional comic has been combined with a three-dimensional photorealistic visualization. It was followed by "Beyond Boundaries" (2009), in which there were hardly any photorealistic images anymore. The Liverpool-based firm Uniform is not the only one that started to experiment with hand drawn sequences in those years. Squint/Opera was very innovative with "Gardens by the Bay" (2008), a film including the preliminary architectural sketches that would eventually lead to a ready design for a competition entry, thus evoking a work in progress. Another film in which Squint/Opera borrowed from the visual language of animated cartoons is "Evolution Gateshead" (2011). Finally, The Neighbourhood was also active in this respect, with St John's Neighbourhood” (2014), as well as Assembly Studios with more socially or politically engaged films such as "Plumlife" (2010) or "Cooling Towers of Sheffield" (2012). In the United Kingdom, it was also the open-mindedness of property developer Urban Splash that contributed to the creation of a number of innovative architecture videos.

The potentials of animated cartoons for the presentation and narration of architecture are comparable to those of comic strips (also called 'the ninth art form'). They leave their authors much more freedom than more conventional means of representation: both the narration and the visual language contain more imaginary components; they are not so strictly regulated by technical norms. It seems quite obvious that such films are a good means to reach a relatively young audience. An episode of The Simpsons entitled "The Seventh-Beer Snitch" (2005) and another one of The Arthurs entitled "Castles in the Sky" (2004), both starring an alter ego of Frank Gehry, illustrate the didactic potentials of animated cartoons in raising interest and curiosity for architecture from a young audience. Yet it would be a mistake to solely perceive them from that perspective; they can just as well be highly philosophical ("Der Weltbaumeister", "Third Police Station"), abstract ("La Mort de Sisyphe"), poetic ("Building a Relationship"), evocative ("Bottled Message") and puzzling ("Los Topos"). The last two examples can be called 'slideshows': they do not consist of moving images but of a sequence of still images (except for some simple animations in the second case). As such, they form a kind of intermediate between animated cartoons and comic strips, clearly illustrating the strong affinity between the two.

Among other things, animated cartoons enable their authors to report about places that would otherwise remain inaccessible. Some of these places are confined to the imagination, as in the previous examples, others to memory, as in the case of dismantled buildings, still others are awaiting to be constructed. For instance, Chris Ware's "Lost Buildings" (2004), a slideshow evoking the significance of demolished buildings by Louis Sullivan, is an important reference for many architects. With similar intentions, "Last Dance on the Main" (2014) is an impressive example of the emerging genre of animated documentaries: films reporting on real situations with fictive images (hand drawings or other manually created images). "The Microrayon Tomorrow" (2010) has a clear documentary character as well, but in a more didactic and politically engaged manner. Photorealistic visualizations could also give an impression of the places at stake, yet the people concerned would be much more difficult to evoke, especially in a direct visual combination with the architecture.

FROM REPORTING ABOUT SPECIFIC PLACES, it is only a small step to criticizing some of their aspects. "Kort Rotterdams" (2010), for instance, is quite a morbid story that (indirectly) sheds a critical light on the social impact of certain mass housing projects in The Netherlands. More often, it is the irony and humour of animated cartoons that enable their authors to express critique in a more acceptable way, no matter how serious it is. "Making City, la Défense Seine Arche" (2012), for instance, is a joyful film with a critical point of view based on sound research.

The narrative and graphic potentials of animated cartoons can be of great help not only in the (sometimes critical) analysis of existing situations but also in the presentation of design proposals and the concepts or philosophy behind them. The explanatory potentials of cartoons are well illustrated by "Worldcraft", showing architect Bjarke Ingels explaining the philosophy of his office while drawing an oversized comic strip. The City of Rotterdam commissioned animation company Studio Analoog to explain the 'watersquare'-concept of De Urbanisten in the form of an animated cartoon entitled "Watersquare Benthemplein". In "The Story of Straw", Make Architects, filmmaker Sara Muzio and scriptwriter Lee Mallett dared to opt for an even more unconventional form and told the story of a sustainable building in the form of a hand drawn fairy-tale. Italian office TAM Associati, who are frequently using comics, have also experimented with animated cartoons, for instance to present a design for street lighting in an unusual way in “Le giraffe hanno il collo lungo... e sono curiose (Giraffes have long necks… they are truly curious creatures).

In some cases, the makers of animated cartoons pursue an objective that reaches beyond the mere presentation or explanation of a concept or design. C+S Architects, for instance, are frequently searching for ways to stimulate participation of the people concerned by their designs. In so doing, they have experimented with various media, including an animated cartoon entitled "The Kite". Since several decades, Yona Friedman has made great efforts to enable future users a much more direct influence on architectural design and construction. One of the main tools he developed are so-called 'manuals', first in the form of comics and more recently in the form of slideshows such as, for instance, "Urban Space".

TO SUM UP, ANIMATED CARTOONS have great narrative and graphic potentials that make them very suitable for the presentation and communication of architecture-related concepts and stories. Much more than conventional means of representation, they enable their authors to suggest human presence, express emotions and include humour. Yet their makers also emphasize that their production can be very time-consuming. Also, their visual language is obviously not a neutral one, which does not make them suitable for every kind of audience. For the presentation of concrete design proposals, perhaps clients are ready to accept stylized illustrations of potential users-to-be, but a depiction of the building itself in that same style would be much more risky. More generally, the success of an animated cartoon seems to depend, to a large extent, on finding the right balance between realistic and fictive elements.

Speculating on the future development of animated cartoons in the field of architecture, one recent example is of particular interest: "Lunar Economic Zone". Its author, instead of opting for animated cartoons to distance himself from computer generated imagery, seems to embrace and reconcile the narrative and graphic language of both, thereby giving his video a unique visionary and critical impact.

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Nido. 22 @ District


The designed building is the scenery of a funny comic story.

A comic book style animation presents Uniform's digital tour through the "Nido" student accommodation project, designed in Barcelona by TP Bennett architects.

The building is the scenery of a story - illustrated by the comic Artist Jamie McKelvie - about the typical day of an hypothetical student, in order to recreate the fun and modern atmosphere of a students' place, as well as to involve a young and international audience.

"Nido. 22 @ District" perfectly expresses the image of the architecture envisioned by TP Bennett, which was conceived to become "a contemporary expression of the modern spirit of Barcelona".

Nido, also the Spanish word for "nest", was planned to provide accommodation for 900 students in Barcelona, as part of an international student community there, and is located in an area that was being regenerated as an innovation district.

Authors icon Credits

Architect: TP Bennett
Mentioned project: 22@DISTRICT
Project location: Barcelona, Spain

United Kingdom 2008
Duration: 2'27''

Selected for VISIONS, the 2009 edition of BEYOND MEDIA Festival organized by Image.