The Importance of Impossible Structures

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Courtesy Chronicle Books

Two new, and very different, books—Sky High and Architectural Inventions: Visionary Drawings—each rely on illustration and imagination to make the case for how impossible architectural structures raise, and isolate, ideas that demand attention.

Sky High is a children’s book for adults, and especially for architects who have children. The slender volume, first published in Switzerland, tells the tale of two neighbors who enter a game of one-upmanship played through material embellishments and vertical additions to their respective homes. Each spread shows the new extravagances employed by the neighbors, as rendered in black ink by the illustrator Albertine. The minimalist text by Germano Zullo does its duty, succinctly showing how the two homeowners care only to outdo each other. On one page we meet Arthur J. Sciacallo, “the highest paid architect in the world”; a few pages later at the neighboring house, Horts Dubin comes on the scene, the “new highest paid architect in the world.” The levels, and absurdity, rise skyward in an ostentatious tit-for-tat filigreed with ivory railings, gold doors, an ebony bathtub; one man acquires a bust from the “official sculptress of the world’s rich and famous” while the other makes do with a portrait by the “official painter of the rich and famous.”

Courtesy Laurence King Publishing

In Architectural Inventions there are a number of designs that very much resemble the Sky High homes; both books embrace onion domes and precarious, gravity-defying extensions. But where Sky High is a parable warning against the dangers of material excess masked in the simple whimsy of a children’s book, Architectural Inventions is an indictment of a condition with symptoms as varied as the staggering designs that comprise this colorful tome. Borne out of the Visionary Drawing Building project, its authors, Matt Bua and Maximilian Goldfarb, have grouped illustrations and essays from numerous international multidisciplinary creatives into 16 categories—ranging from “radical lifestyle” and “worship” to “fort” and “misuse.” The work captures a collection of reactive imaginations trying to come to terms with a world of diminishing returns, where resources of all sorts are limited. As Bua and Goldfarb write in their introduction, “The drawings function as terminals for internal communication between vision and practice. . . . [They] become a hybrid workbook, repair manual, alarm signal, time capsule, escape pod.”

Courtesy Laurence King Publishing

Working with the designer Jessica Fleischmann of still room, Bua and Goldfarb have succeeded in compiling a book brimming with ideas; at times, it feels like the sketchbook of a paranoid polymath who might just be on to something. Needless to say, this is not a traditional architecture book. But its primary concerns—environmental and material sustainability; matters of economy, urban renewal, and public space—are the ideas that all architects, designers, and urban planners must be willing to face on this still fresh side of the 21st century. In one of the book’s introductory texts, “Design for the Apocalypse,” John McMorrough places a great deal of the work that follows in context, identifying our era as one in which the creation of utopia has been all but forgotten because we live during a time when “the consideration of the apocalyptic is no longer a matter of fantasy, but of policy (one recently referred to as ‘disaster capitalism’).”

Virtually none of the designs and illustrations contained in Architectural Inventions could ever be executed as actual 3-D structures. But their impossibility is the source of their vitality; they question and confront a world heading down a one-way street that might just be a dead end. This is not to say that the book is a pessimistic screed; in fact, the opposite is true. On page after page, the inventiveness on display pulls you in, and the more time you spend with the book the more valuable it becomes in generating new ideas and thoughts, some of which will inevitably have practical applications.

Courtesy Laurence King Publishing

Architectural Inventions contributor Daniel Berry reminds readers of the various definitions of the word “draw”—it is both leaving marks on a page and emptying something, the brandishing of a weapon and the reaching of a conclusion. “Thus,” Berry writes, “in the act of drawing there is constant tension. Giving and taking, movement and stasis, presence and absence all orbit around it in an unsteady balance.” Both these books utilize drawing to deliver lessons for today. The results take on very different shape, but both books examine how humans interact with the natural world and the structures we have imposed upon it. At the end of Sky High, only one of the homes remains standing, but its owner is isolated; in fact, the book’s final image serves as a reminder of how the natural world will always trump human invention over the long haul. True as this may be, Architectural Inventions: Visionary Drawings makes the case for rethinking convention in the name of making life better no matter how daunting the task.


Related viewing: Von Glitschka’s webcast Drawing Conclusions: How to Improve Your Design through Drawing