La Tour (1987) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters is the third story in the Cités Obscures series, although it’s the fourth volume if you want to be strictly canon about things, L’archivist, a guide to places in the Obscure World, having preceded it.
Carcere Oscura by Piranesi (1750).
This is another book where Schuiten and Peeters’ interests tick a list of my own obsessions, being a tale which seems to originate in the question “What would it be like if you crossed Piranesi‘s Prisons etchings with Bruegel’s Tower of Babel?” The protagonist of La Tour, Giovanni Battista, has his name borrowed from Piranesi’s forenames and his appearance taken from Orson Welles’ Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight. The story owes something to Kafka, although it lacks Kafka’s drift towards paradox, concerning a colossal building referred to throughout as The Tower, a structure we only ever see in close-up—and then mostly from the inside—but whose height must reach several thousand feet.
Battista (above) is one of the Keepers, a group of men charged with maintaining small sections of the Tower whose structure suffers continual decay and collapse. Tired of years spent in complete isolation, and concerned that other Keepers aren’t doing their job, Battista goes in search of the Tower’s feared Inspectors, only to discover that the lack of maintenance is endemic and few of the Tower’s scattered residents have any idea of the origin or purpose of the vast building where they’ve spent their lives, never mind a concern for its upkeep. There are no Inspectors, and while Battista is worried at the beginning about vines in the stonework, we later see small forests growing among the ruins. Kafka resonances come with the mention of the mysterious Base, and the equally mysterious Pioneers, those builders and engineers who went ahead years or even centuries before, climbing skyward.
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La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters is the second volume in the Cités Obscures series. This was the one which captured my attention the most when I first saw it. The book opens with a foreword by the central character, Robick, chief architect of the city of Urbicande, in which he discusses his plans to unify the city’s separate halves by extending the design of the city’s southern half into the chaotic northern section.
Urbicande is built on the steeply-sloped banks of a wide river. The rational, rectilinear southern bank is exposed to the sun while the northern bank is a place of shadow and mists; traffic between the two halves is strictly controlled by the administrators of the south who fear the chaos the north represents. The style of the southern region is a superb imagining of an Art Deco metropolis, the physical and psychological opposite of the north bank which is revealed as an older place of winding lanes and dishevelled buildings. In Robick’s foreword he refers to former “masters” who happen to be people from our world: architect Étienne-Louis Boullée and architectural renderer and theorist Hugh Ferriss. Mention of Ferriss was a surprise since he isn’t so well-known outside the architectural sphere. I’ve previously discussed his Metropolis of Tomorrow which is an evident influence in the style of some of Schuiten’s skyscrapers.
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The Obscure World.
Les Murailles de Samaris (1983) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters is the first of the stories which explores the world of Les Cités Obscures, a “counter-Earth” on the opposite side of our Sun with a continent of separate city-states, each with their own distinct architectural style. Having discovered these stories first in their French editions it wasn’t immediately apparent how much the Obscure World was supposed to be connected to our own; a number of the books contain references to people or places in our world, while the city of Brüsel, subject of the book of that name, is a kind of parallel Brussels. The counter-Earth explanation isn’t given in the early books but seems to have evolved later, as does Schuiten and Peeters’ introduction of portals between the worlds which imply a two-way leakage of influence. Writer and artist encourage readers of the series to suggest or “discover” new portals to the Obscure World.
A view over Xhystos.
The distant city of Samaris is the mysterious destination of Les Murailles de Samaris (The Walls of Samaris). The story begins in the city of Xhystos whose style is fully Art Nouveau in a manner reminiscent of the celebrated Belgian architect Victor Horta, if Horta had been allowed to design a city where every building is decorated with wrought-iron curves and glass-canopied roofs, and where trams go by on elevated roads several storeys high. The narrator, Franz, is informed by the city authorities that he’s been chosen to go on a perilous mission to discover whether rumours about the nature of Samaris are true or not. Previous explorers have failed to return so Franz’s friends and girlfriend regard his acceptance of the mission as suicidal. What follows is a journey by steam train out of the city into a surrounding zone of lawless ruins, then a journey by “altiplane” and “aerophele”, the latter being a kind of multi-winged sand yacht.
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Paris au XXieme Siecle by Jules Verne (1994).
Following a comment I made last week in the post about the Temples of Future Religions by François Garas I’ve decided it’s time to give some proper attention to one of my favourite comic artists, François Schuiten, a Belgian whose obsession with imaginary architecture resembles the earlier endeavours of Garas and others. Schuiten’s parents were both architects which perhaps explains his predilection. In addition to a large body of comics work, he’s produced designs for film—notably Taxandria by Raoul Servais—Belgian stamps, and a steampunk makeover for the Arts et Métiers station of the Paris Métro. In 1994 he created cover designs and a series of illustrations for the publication of Jules Verne’s rediscovered manuscript, Paris au XXieme Siecle.
Cover for Spirou (2000).
I first encountered Schuiten’s work in a 1980 issue of Heavy Metal magazine which was reprinting translated stories from the French Métal Hurlant along with original work. Schuiten’s story, The Cutter of the Fog, was an erotic and futuristic tale of a small community and the obsession of the local “fog-cutter”. François’s brother Luc wrote the piece and it bears some similarity with JG Ballard’s Vermilion Sands story, The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D. Unusually for Schuiten, the architecture was downplayed in this one although the small homes with their geodesic roofs are like extrapolations of architectural plans from one of the Whole Earth Catalogues.
The next time I saw his work was several years later when artist Bryan Talbot showed me some of the comic albums he’d brought back from a European convention. Among these there were several of the Cités Obscures books that Schuiten had been creating during the Eighties and Nineties with writer Benoît Peeters. These knocked me out with their apparently effortless creation of an imaginary world comprised of several city states, each with their own unique architectural style, and a wealth of retro-future technology, from dirigibles of all shapes and sizes to ornithopters and huge motorised unicycles. One of the many things I liked about European comic artists, and something which made me favour their work over their American counterparts, was the creation of richly detailed imaginary universes with inhabitants one could expect to meet in our world, not facile superheroes or vigilantes. Schuiten went further than his contemporaries by making the architecture meticulously believable and foregrounding its design to an extent that in some of the Cités Obscures stories architecture itself is the subject.
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Jours de Lenteur (1937) by Yves Tanguy.
Behind it, the ark of his covenant, stood two photographs in a hinged blackwood frame. On the left was a snapshot of himself at the age of four, sitting on a lawn between his parents before their divorce. On the right, exorcizing this memory, was a faded reproduction of a small painting he had clipped from a magazine, ‘Jours de Lenteur’ by Yves Tanguy. With its smooth, pebble-like objects, drained of all associations, suspended on a washed tidal floor, this painting had helped to free him from the tiresome repetitions of everyday life. The rounded milky forms were isolated on their ocean bed like the houseboat on the exposed bank of the river.
The Drought (1965).
Following my observations yesterday about Ballard’s Surrealist influences, this post seems inevitable. By no means a comprehensive listing, these are merely some of Ballard’s many art references retrieved after a quick browse through the bookshelves earlier. I’d forgotten about the Böcklin reference in The Crystal World. The Surrealist influence in Ballard’s fiction is obvious to even a casual reader, less obvious is the subtle influence of the Surrealist’s precursors, the Symbolists. André Breton frequently enthused over Gustave Moreau‘s airless impasto visions and many of Ballard’s remote femmes fatales owe as much to Moreau’s paintings as they do to Paul Delvaux. The Symbolist connection was finally confirmed for me when RE/Search published their landmark JG Ballard in 1984; there among the list of books on his library shelves was that cult volume of mine, Dreamers of Decadence by Philippe Jullian.
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