Comics have always shared architecture’s lexicon by combining text and drawing: For comics, the goal is to tell a story; for architecture, it’s to explain a structure. Both can be wildly fantastic or utterly banal while tracing narratives of the heroic, comic, tragic, and adventurous. Lately, it seems that architects increasingly have used comics to explore concepts or explain ideas, just as artists have used architecture to define a sense of place and set a mood.
Continuing the precedent that Archigram, the 1960s avant-garde architectural group, set during the 1960s, of employing “illustrated essays,” recent architectural comics include BIG’s best-selling Yes is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution and Jimenez Lai’s Citizens of No Place: an Architectural Graphic Novel. Even Chip Kidd and David Taylor have co-opted the style of golden age comics, producing Batman: Death by Design. Archigram, however, eschewed the category “comics” while this generation seems to embrace it.
Add Chris Ware’s recently anthologized Building Stories to the list of architectural comics. Previously published as the serial Building in various periodicals, including the New Yorker and Ware’s own Acme Novelty Library, the episodes have been collected in an oversized box reminiscent of a board game or box of memorabilia. The 14 volumes contained within come in a wide variety of formats—pamphlet, hardbound book, accordion-fold, tabloid, and a game board-like quadriptych—none of which has a correct or even defined order. Reading them is an act of putting together pieces of the puzzle: Histories are revealed, characters cross paths, and stories develop.
While Ware sets the story with some ambiguity, or at least multiple readings, the main characters are readily apparent. Taking place over 100 years in Chicago, the stories tell of a brownstone and its inhabitants and the changes in the neighborhood as it ages and goes through a series of demographic changes—the tale of many cities. The building’s elderly landlady occupies the first floor and rents out the upper levels to a bickering couple, and—the character around which many of the stories focus—a lonely, one-legged florist. There’s also an appearance by Bradford the Bee, a foil to the human characters. Each of their stories is weighted with depression, despair, abandon, loss, and melancholy, barely balanced with hope and brief moments of happiness. This is not a child’s comic.
Ware’s passing observations of the built environment dovetail with another of his projects, to reveal that he is no stranger to architecture. In 2003, he contributed to a special episode of This American Life called “Lost Buildings.” Ware provided the illustrations and visual pacing of Ira Glass’ and Tim Samuelson’s discussion of architecture in 1960s and ’70s Chicago, specifically targeting Louis Sullivan’s demise and Mies van der Rohe’s rise. In Building Stories, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio and the Arthur Heurtley House, both in Oak Park, make cameo appearances.
Although it appears prominently, Ware’s story is not about architecture. The three-story brownstone quickly becomes a character in the story, with its thoughts appearing throughout. The back of the quadriptych features axonometric drawings of each floor while the flipside panels depict the building through the four seasons; they are exquisitely laid out and surrounded by the progression of narrative. They also resemble a blueprint, featuring a main drawing, with details and notes filling the remainder of the page via directional arrows, thought bubbles, and arrangements left entirely to the reader. The building’s suspicions, observations, and comments appear as cursive notes in the margins. Like a classical choir, the building is the remote observer that reveals hidden stories to the reader.
Comics have a lowbrow association but can illustrate ideas for a wide audience. A couple of resources that explore the image and the word are Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which gives a thorough overview of comic conventions, and Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, which exposes leading figures of the medium and includes a chapter titled “Why Does Chris Ware Hate Fun?”
Whether the title Building Stories means creating tales, constructing levels of narrative, or establishing sagas about the house, Ware’s latest offering surely contains each, and his graphics, ability to pace the action, portrayal of time, and, more important, attention to detail are unparalleled. Despite the downer tone of the stories, Ware certainly knows how to tell a story, and show it.