Ben Katchor’s comics of bygone New York

I'm going to read a few strips. These are, most of these are from a monthly page I do in and architecture and design magazine called Metropolis. And the first story is called "The Faulty Switch." Another beautifully designed new building ruined by the sound of a common wall light switch. It's fine during the day when the main rooms are flooded with sunlight. But at dusk everything changes. The architect spent hundreds of hours designing the burnished brass switchplates for his new office tower. And then left it to a contractor to install these 79-cent switches behind them. We know instinctively where to reach when we enter a dark room. We automatically throw the little nub of plastic upward. But the sound we are greeted with, as the room is bathed in the simulated glow of late-afternoon light, recalls to mind a dirty men's room in the rear of a Greek coffee shop. (Laughter) This sound colors our first impression of any room; it can't be helped. But where does this sound, commonly described as a click, come from? Is it simply the byproduct of a crude mechanical action? Or is it an imitation of one half the set of sounds we make to express disappointment? The often dental consonant of no Indo-European language.

Or is it the amplified sound of a synapse firing in the brain of a cockroach? In the 1950s they tried their best to muffle this sound with mercury switches and silent knob controls. But today these improvements seem somehow inauthentic. The click is the modern triumphal clarion proceeding us through life, announcing our entry into every lightless room. The sound made flicking a wall switch off is of a completely different nature. It has a deep melancholy ring. Children don't like it. It's why they leave lights on around the house. (Laughter) Adults find it comforting. But wouldn't it be an easy matter to wire a wall switch so that it triggers the muted horn of a steam ship? Or the recorded crowing of a rooster? Or the distant peel of thunder? Thomas Edison went through thousands of unlikely substances before he came upon the right one for the filament of his electric light bulb. Why have we settled so quickly for the sound of its switch? That's the end of that. (Applause) The next story is called "In Praise of the Taxpayer." That so many of the city's most venerable taxpayers have survived yet another commercial building boom, is cause for celebration.

These one or two story structures, designed to yield only enough income to cover the taxes on the land on which they stand, were not meant to be permanent buildings. Yet for one reason or another they have confounded the efforts of developers to be combined into lots suitable for high-rise construction. Although they make no claim to architectural beauty, they are, in their perfect temporariness, a delightful alternative to the large-scale structures that might someday take their place. The most perfect examples occupy corner lots. They offer a pleasant respite from the high-density development around them. A break of light and air, an architectural biding of time. So buried in signage are these structures, that it often takes a moment to distinguish the modern specially constructed taxpayer from its neighbor: the small commercial building from an earlier century, whose upper floors have been sealed, and whose groundfloor space now functions as a taxpayer. The few surfaces not covered by signs are often clad in a distinctive, dark green-gray, striated aluminum siding. Take-out sandwich shops, film processing drop-offs, peep-shows and necktie stores.

Now these provisional structures have, in some cases, remained standing for the better part of a human lifetime. The temporary building is a triumph of modern industrial organization, a healthy sublimation of the urge to build, and proof that not every architectural idea need be set in stone. That's the end. (Laughter) And the next story is called, "On the Human Lap." For the ancient Egyptians the lap was a platform upon which to place the earthly possessions of the dead — 30 cubits from foot to knee. It was not until the 14th century that an Italian painter recognized the lap as a Grecian temple, upholstered in flesh and cloth. Over the next 200 years we see the infant Christ go from a sitting to a standing position on the Virgin's lap, and then back again. Every child recapitulates this ascension, straddling one or both legs, sitting sideways, or leaning against the body.

From there, to the modern ventriloquist's dummy, is but a brief moment in history. You were late for school again this morning. The ventriloquist must first make us believe that a small boy is sitting on his lap. The illusion of speech follows incidentally. What have you got to say for yourself, Jimmy? As adults we admire the lap from a nostalgic distance. We have fading memories of that provisional temple, erected each time an adult sat down. On a crowded bus there was always a lap to sit on. It is children and teenage girls who are most keenly aware of its architectural beauty. They understand the structural integrity of a deep avuncular lap, as compared to the shaky arrangement of a neurotic niece in high heels. The relationship between the lap and its owner is direct and intimate. I envision a 36-story, 450-unit residential high-rise — a reason to consider the mental health of any architect before granting an important commission.

The bathrooms and kitchens will, of course, have no windows. The lap of luxury is an architectural construct of childhood, which we seek, in vain, as adults, to employ. That's the end. (Laughter) The next story is called "The Haverpiece Collection" A nondescript warehouse, visible for a moment from the northbound lanes of the Prykushko Expressway, serves as the temporary resting place for the Haverpiece collection of European dried fruit. The profound convolutions on the surface of a dried cherry. The foreboding sheen of an extra-large date. Do you remember wandering as a child through those dark wooden storefront galleries? Where everything was displayed in poorly labeled roach-proof bins. Pears dried in the form of genital organs.

Apricot halves like the ears of cherubim. In 1962 the unsold stock was purchased by Maurice Haverpiece, a wealthy prune juice bottler, and consolidated to form the core collection. As an art form it lies somewhere between still-life painting and plumbing. Upon his death in 1967, a quarter of the items were sold off for compote to a high-class hotel restaurant. (Laughter) Unsuspecting guests were served stewed turn-of-the-century Turkish figs for breakfast. (Laughter) The rest of the collection remains here, stored in plain brown paper bags until funds can be raised to build a permanent museum and study center. A shoe made of apricot leather for the daughter of a czar. That's the end. Thank you. (Applause).

Rachel Armstrong: Architecture that repairs itself?

All buildings today have something in common. They’re made using Victorian technologies. This involves blueprints, industrial manufacturing and construction using teams of workers. All of this effort results in an inert object. And that means that there is a one-way transfer of energy from our environment into our homes and cities. This is not sustainable.

I believe that the only way that it is possible for us to construct genuinely sustainable homes and cities is by connecting them to nature, not insulating them from it. Now, in order to do this, we need the right kind of language. Living systems are in constant conversation with the natural world, through sets of chemical reactions called metabolism. And this is the conversion of one group of substances into another, either through the production or the absorption of energy.

“The little bag is able to conduct itself in a way that can only be described as living”

And this is the way in which living materials make the most of their local resources in a sustainable way. So, I’m interested in the use of metabolic materials for the practice of architecture. But they don’t exist. So I’m having to make them. I’m working with architect Neil Spiller at the Bartlett School of Architecture, and we’re collaborating with international scientists in order to generate these new materials from a bottom up approach. That means we’re generating them from scratch. One of our collaborators is chemist Martin Hanczyc, and he’s really interested in the transition from inert to living matter. Now, that’s exactly the kind of process that I’m interested in, when we’re thinking about sustainable materials. So, Martin, he works with a system called the protocell. Now all this is – and it’s magic – is a little fatty bag. And it’s got a chemical battery in it. And it has no DNA. This little bag is able to conduct itself in a way that can only be described as living.

It is able to move around its environment. It can follow chemical gradients. It can undergo complex reactions, some of which are happily architectural. So here we are. These are protocells, patterning their environment. We don’t know how they do that yet. Here, this is a protocell, and it’s vigorously shedding this skin. Now, this looks like a chemical kind of birth. This is a violent process. Here, we’ve got a protocell to extract carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn it into carbonate. And that’s the shell around that globular fat. They are quite brittle. So you’ve only got a part of one there. So what we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to push these technologies towards creating bottom-up construction approaches for architecture, which contrast the current, Victorian, top-down methods which impose structure upon matter. That can’t be energetically sensible. So, bottom-up materials actually exist today.

“The protocells are depositing their limestone very specifically, around the foundations of Venice, effectively petrifying it”

They’ve been in use, in architecture, since ancient times. If you walk around the city of Oxford, where we are today, and have a look at the brickwork, which I’ve enjoyed doing in the last couple of days, you’ll actually see that a lot of it is made of limestone. And if you look even closer, you’ll see, in that limestone, there are little shells and little skeletons that are piled upon each other. And then they are fossilized over millions of years. Now a block of limestone, in itself, isn’t particularly that interesting. It looks beautiful. But imagine what the properties of this limestone block might be if the surfaces were actually in conversation with the atmosphere. Maybe they could extract carbon dioxide. Would it give this block of limestone new properties? Well, most likely it would. It might be able to grow. It might be able to self-repair, and even respond to dramatic changes in the immediate environment.

So, architects are never happy with just one block of an interesting material. They think big. Okay? So when we think about scaling up metabolic materials, we can start thinking about ecological interventions like repair of atolls, or reclamation of parts of a city that are damaged by water. So, one of these examples would of course be the historic city of Venice. Now, Venice, as you know, has a tempestuous relationship with the sea, and is built upon wooden piles. So we’ve devised a way by which it may be possible for the protocell technology that we’re working with to sustainably reclaim Venice. And architect Christian Kerrigan has come up with a series of designs that show us how it may be possible to actually grow a limestone reef underneath the city. So, here is the technology we have today. This is our protocell technology, effectively making a shell, like its limestone forefathers, and depositing it in a very complex environment, against natural materials. We’re looking at crystal lattices to see the bonding process in this.

Now, this is the very interesting part. We don’t just want limestone dumped everywhere in all the pretty canals. What we need it to do is to be creatively crafted around the wooden piles. So, you can see from these diagrams that the protocell is actually moving away from the light, toward the dark foundations. We’ve observed this in the laboratory. The protocells can actually move away from the light. They can actually also move towards the light. You have to just choose your species. So that these don’t just exist as one entity, we kind of chemically engineer them. And so here the protocells are depositing their limestone very specifically, around the foundations of Venice, effectively petrifying it. Now, this isn’t going to happen tomorrow. It’s going to take a while. It’s going to take years of tuning and monitoring this technology in order for us to become ready to test it out in a case-by-case basis on the most damaged and stressed buildings within the city of Venice.

But gradually, as the buildings are repaired, we will see the accretion of a limestone reef beneath the city. An accretion itself is a huge sink of carbon dioxide. Also it will attract the local marine ecology, who will find their own ecological niches within this architecture. So, this is really interesting. Now we have an architecture that connects a city to the natural world in a very direct and immediate way. But perhaps the most exciting thing about it is that the driver of this technology is available everywhere. This is terrestrial chemistry. We’ve all got it, which means that this technology is just as appropriate for developing countries as it is for First World countries. So, in summary, I’m generating metabolic materials as a counterpoise to Victorian technologies, and building architectures from a bottom-up approach. Secondly, these metabolic materials have some of the properties of living systems, which means they can perform in similar ways.

They can expect to have a lot of forms and functions within the practice of architecture. And finally, an observer in the future marveling at a beautiful structure in the environment may find it almost impossible to tell whether this structure has been created by a natural process or an artificial one.