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The City That Never Existed

By: Luis Miguel Lus-Arana, Harvard University

“(…) The series les cités obscures have become a milestone (…) Due to the density of their atmospheres, their meticulous setting (…) And, in short, because of their seductive power, that manages to take us to highly suggesting and evocative environments. (In them) we can behold the voluptuous and arabic art nouveau architectures, loaded with decorative taste and ecological sensitivity (…) Or tightly rationalist constructions. We are presented with mixtures of styles where the sewing line that would make their design incoherent can scarcely be appreciated; and an endless series of leaps into the void of a delirious utopian construction.”

Francisco Soler. Schuiten and Peeters. Building Utopia

Born in Brussels, in a family of architects, comics artist François Schuiten grew up fascinated by the Art Noveau architecture with which Victor Horta, Antoine Pompe, Paul Cauchie or Henri van de Velde had created a characteristic urban scene. Introduced into art by his father, architect and painter Robert Schuiten, François decided to channel his interests on architecture, drawing, and the aesthetics of the XIX Century into the realms of graphic narrative. As early as 1977, François and his brother, architect Luc Schuiten, collaborated on the first short stories that would evolve into the very architectural series Les Terres Creuses, where the preference for a decimononic refine- ment in the graphic style, as well as for a veg- etal stylization of the shapes and a concern with ecology combined with a critique of alienation in modern society. These aspects would be further developed in the parallel careers of the Schuiten brothers in the fields of architecture (Luc), and graphic narrative and scenographic design (François). In both cases, the vegetal impulse of Art Nouveau would have a major presence, being elevated to an urban scale.

In the subsequent series Les Cités Obscures, created along with nouveau-roman writer Benoît Peeters in 1983, Schuiten depicted an eclectic world made up by carefully designed cities that combined his multiple architectural references with inputs from magic realism. Due to their decimononic filiation, the cities created by Schuiten/ Peeters departed from the contemporary science fiction imaginary to join the tradition of those designers (architects, draughtsmen, artists and illustrators) of speculative cityscapes that had recreated the turn-of-the-century Utopia in the first decades of the XX Century. However, in cities such as Brüsel, Calvani, Alaxis or Alta-Plana Schuiten shows both the fascination for and the critique of this Old City of the Future that we also find in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In fact, the relevance of François Schuiten’s work goes further than just recovering for today a past architectural imaginary, but rather develops and reinvents it, showing a continuous effort to find cohesiveness in fragmentation. This disciplinary work is especially visible in cities such as Xhystos or Blossfeldtstad, where an expanded Art Nouveau became the tool to mask the eclecticism inherent to the dense accumulation of the multi-layered metropolis designed by H. Wiley Corbett, R. Rummel or Moses King. In these cities, François developed Horta’s and Guimard’s decorative style beyond a merely epidermic use, offering a Ferrisean depiction of the XX century that could have been, in a world where the modernist revolution had not taken place.

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