Architects in fiction, Part 2
Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor’s graphic novel Batman: Death by Design features the Dutch architect Kem Roomhaus, pioneer of a new style known as Mini-maximalism. As Batman says, “Roomhaus may be an insufferable, narcissistic creep, but he’s also a genius.” His design for the Ceiling nightclub consists of a single enormous sheet of glass suspended way up above the streets of Gotham City. The City’s fashionable society assemble on the glass floor for cocktails. But Roomhaus has miscalculated the structural loads, and as the guests sit down for dinner they hear the sound of a huge
Just in time, Batman fires two suspension cables with his Grapple-Tron to stop the structure completely collapsing, while the guests scramble to safety.
Despite this disaster, Roomhaus goes on to give a public presentation of his prize-winning design for the new Wayne Central Station. This, he says, is ‘The Future of Architecture’. The station’s main hall “was conceived as a massive replica of the Megaptera Nivaengliae, more commonly known as the humpback whale.* Think of it! Thousands of commuters, each day transformed into Jonah himself, swallowed by the Leviathan of mass transitional vortex, only to emerge again, spat out onto the very sidewalk of their destinations, their faith in a mobile society restored!”
What is more, the whale will absorb the carbon monoxide from the ‘sea’ of surrounding car traffic, absorb it through apertures in its dorsal layer, and transmogrify it into pure oxygen. The character Exacto is hovering in mid-air outside the window, listening. Unfortunately, as he explains, Roomhaus has miscalculated again. The ‘ionization processor’ described in the building’s specification will never work. “Didn’t the Ceiling teach you anything?”
*Note: Roomhaus is also wrong about the humpback whale, which is Megaptera Novaeangliae.
Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit builds nothing; Otto Silenus in Decline and Fall is contemptuous of the occupants; the characters of Howard Roark and Peter Keating in The Fountainhead are flawed in their different ways; and Kem Roomhaus’s buildings fail technically. An extreme point is reached with Anthony Royal, who presides over the complete social and physical disintegration of his major architectural work.
Royal is the anti-hero of J G Ballard’s grotesque parable of the fragility of civilisation, High-Rise. The building of the title is a 40-storey block with a thousand apartments, a supermarket, swimming pools and a nursery school. Royal has had special responsibility for the 10th floor concourse, the school, and a children’s sculpture garden on the roof-top observation terrace. He lords it over the building in a penthouse next to this terrace, dressed in a white safari jacket – “the kind of garment that might be affected by an eccentric camp commander or a zoo-keeper’ – accompanied by his white Alsatian.
The tenants are all moneyed, but are stratified vertically in the building by subtle differences of wealth and social status, the higher the more prestigious. Gradually over the course of the book they become organised into warring tribes, barricading themselves in their own floors, and trashing those above and below. They pass the nights in debauched parties. Bottles come flying past from above, the parked cars below become covered with debris, garbage fills the corridors, graffiti cover the walls, and dogs roam uncontrolled. The elevators stop working and the air conditioning fails. The water in the swimming pools turns yellow and fills with floating rubbish. One by one, the staff leave. The children’s garden is soaked in blood.
Royal comes to believe that the residents’ hostility is directed specially towards those features he has designed. The decay and collapse of the building’s ‘vital functions’ mirror his own declining health and resolve. He and his wife pack to leave, but their courage fails them. He hosts candlelit dinners with silver cutlery and gold plate, while in the shadows around the oak table the bin bags are stacked six deep. A marauder from below breaks in and shoots him through the chest.
The book ends with Dr Laing, one of the few survivors, tucking into a dinner of roast dog, flavoured with garlic and herbs, cooked on his balcony on an open fire of telephone directories. The dog is an Alsatian.
Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor’s Batman: Death by Design was published by DC Comics in 2012. J G Ballard’s High-Rise was published by Jonathan Cape in 1975