The essays collected in Michela Rosso's edited volume Laughing at Architecture chart diverse historical trajectories of architectural satire and humor from 1750 to the present. In this field, there is no dearth of material, even if the nexus between the built environment and the rhetorical strategies of the comic remains largely unexplored. Mobilizing an impressive array of instances of visual and verbal invention, these essays show how the architectonic and the humorous intersect in unexpected and often explosive ways, exposing ideological fault lines and critical subtexts that are not always obvious at first glance.
Drawing on recent historiographical developments that have moved the focus of scholarly attention away from buildings, their architects, and their clients and toward a general public of readers, Rosso adopts an approach that produces new insights into shifting patterns of reception and changing ideological pressures. In conditioning the collective perception of architecture, both methods can help the historian to track the vicissitudes of the discipline at a provocative, recurrent, and variable point of juncture with its audiences. This point is the moment of laughter, which allows for a recognition of previously hidden aspects of the performative in situations where its presence is least expected. Perhaps the most promising avenue of inquiry covered by Rosso and her contributors follows from the editor's suggestion of the usefulness of breaking down the boundaries between the baroque, the Enlightenment, and modernity, while tracing continuities and ruptures between eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-century discourses on architecture that center on the infraction of codified norms governing familiar concepts of form, function, domesticity, and the spaces of urbanity.
As the book's essays suggest, laughter marks the moment when architecture enters into productive contradiction with these norms, enabling not only the historian but also the diverse audiences of satire, irony, and wit to identify problematic areas where the discipline deviates from commonly held assumptions, or where it finds the critical resources to resist emergent orthodoxies. The reasons to laugh at architecture are many, yet the volume's critical objectives are more fine-grained and specific: it focuses on salient points of articulation between such contexts, broad ideological formations, and more specific interpersonal exchanges implicit in acts of ridicule and satirical strategies.
In her own contribution in chapter 7, on the irrepressible, often volcanic, pasquinade of the Italian architectural scene launched by Mino Maccari and Leo Longanesi in the journal Il Selvaggio and other print forums from 1924 to 1942, Rosso exposes the complexities of the reception of Italian rationalism, tracing the fissures and discrepancies between Fascist architecture and its publics at a key moment in that architecture's historical trajectory. In this context laughter became a wide-ranging expressive instrument able to turn the power of ridicule against the cause of those who wielded it, as in those instances when Fascist uses of satire threatened to overwhelm the sorcerer's apprentices of reaction, Maccari and Longanesi themselves, by pitting one Fascist faction against another.
Following an introduction by Rosso, the first three essays in the volume focus entirely on Europe and are devoted to the period extending from the late baroque to the mid-nineteenth century. In chapter 1, Susanna Pasquali analyzes the satirical imagery of the Austrian neoclassical painter and printmaker Joseph Anton Koch, comparing his artistic excoriation of late baroque and rococo ornamental excess to the stringent theoretical considerations of the rigorist architectural thinker Francesco Milizia. Conor Lucey adopts a different approach in chapter 2, concentrating on the often sharply ironic anonymous complaints and comments about the Irish building industry published in late eighteenth-century Dublin newspapers. Chapter 3, Daniela Roberts's perceptive essay on George Cruikshank's satires of John Nash's All Souls Church in Regent Street, whose spire serves as a pointed—and inevitably quite painful—means of impaling the suspended figure of the hapless architect, highlights the role of visual metaphor in conveying the barbs of criticism meted out against an urban landmark that at the time of its construction was widely regarded as an affront to proper architectural taste.
The next three essays address the urban and architectural transformations of the nineteenth century, primarily in Western, Southern, and Central Europe, viewing them through a comparative lens while making extensive use of the rich visual material found in the popular press. Chapter 4, by Guy Lambert, deals with the explosion of urban construction in Paris in the wake of Haussmannization and the defeat of the Commune of 1871, concentrating on the dialectical tensions among urban renovation, technoscientific rationalization, and architectural standardization, as expressed by the ridicule, satirical imagery, and mocking discourse generated by a single building project, Julien Guadet's Hôtel des Postes (1886–88). In chapter 5, Josep-Maria Garcia-Fuentes reconstructs the controversies swirling around Antoni Gaudí's architecture in late nineteenth-century Barcelona, mining the seemingly inexhaustible vein of caricature generated in the popular press by such wildly inventive works as the Casa Milà and the Sagrada Família. Ruth Hanisch's chapter 6 essay is devoted to the satirical intentions and strategies of Adolf Loos's theoretical and journalistic writings.
Following Rosso's contribution in chapter 7, two essays deal with various facets of the modernist project in terms of both urban impact and individual architectural expression. Alan Powers analyzes Osbert Lancaster's witty 1920s and 1930s caricatures of English modern architecture and design in chapter 8, and in chapter 10 Evert Vandeweghe shows how inherited ethnic stereotypes and grotesquely transposed colonial allusions were used strategically to dismantle the functionalist and collectivist presuppositions of postwar social housing in Belgium. Considered together, these essays demonstrate two extreme sides of the same phenomenon: on the one hand, the inventive coupling of visual and verbal modes of humorous expression, and on the other, the unusual, even violent, lengths to which such combinations can go when directed at the perceived excesses of individual architects no less than at the controversial idioms and styles in the trajectories of modernism.
A final group of contributions covers the period extending from the era of postwar modernity up to the threshold of the present. Expanding the scope of analysis to include a number of comparisons of the architectural cultures of modern interiors, in chapter 9 Gabriele Neri provides a synthetic overview of caricatures of and satirical responses to these spaces. His essay covers a wide range of modernisms—from prewar Bauhaus models of domesticity (with a fascinating sidelight on Erwin Piscator's commissioning of Marcel Breuer to design his domestic interior) to the attacks on the Weissenhofsiedlung (including the notorious Orientalist tropes comparing it to Arab villages), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's architectural interiors and furniture (though without any mention of Lilly Reich), and finally postwar Corbusian housing—charting what the author suggestively calls a “counter-history” of modernism made visible and ideologically legible in its “cartoon legacy.”
In the book's final chapter, Angela Becher analyzes satirical representations of Chinese contemporary urbanism by Chinese artists. Her highly original analysis offers, on both critical and ideological levels, striking parallels with, as well as understandable divergences from, the intermedium discussions in the two preceding chapters: Christopher Lueder's investigation of Saul Steinberg, in all likelihood the best-known, as well as the most accomplished, architectural caricaturist of the modern era; and Olivier Ratouis's examination of Jacques Tati's wry cinematographic sendups of the obsession with technology in postwar France. Lueder's discussion in chapter 11 is marked by close attention to Steinberg's use of a preexisting medium (graph paper) that served as a neutral ground for the cartoonist's metaphorization of the abstract redundancies of standardization and urbanity that stood at the heart of the postwar American, and in particular the Miesian, version of the modernist project. Lueder reconstructs an unanticipated web of contacts and impacts, an entire Venn diagram of overlapping circles of reception emanating from Steinberg's meticulous parodies of postwar modern architecture and urban experience.
Ruth Hanisch's essay on Loos's trenchant deployment of critical humor stands out from the rest of the contributions in that rather than focusing on the modern architect as a target of irony and ridicule, it centers on the way a modern architect satirized other architects. Hanisch's approach reverses the usual emphasis on such works as the Michaelerhaus and the violent critiques launched against them by a reactionary press in favor of a reconstruction of the intellectual, cultural, and theoretical bases of the irony, wit, and humor used by the members of Loos's circle, including Karl Kraus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Peter Altenberg.
Despite the thoroughness of the essays in this volume, a few omissions stand out. Absent from Hanisch's discussion is any scrutiny of period satirical representations of Loos's specific built projects, even apart from the often-discussed Michaelerhaus. One is also justified in pointing out in this respect that Hanisch overlooks a well-known cartoon comparing the unadorned upper façade of the Michaelerhaus to a sewer grate. Another cartoon, almost as famous, shows the controversial structure in all of its formal austerity rising behind the elaborate baroque outfit and trailing wig worn by a reborn Johann Fischer von Erlach, a figure whose ornate legacy Loos admired yet whom he had betrayed, at least in the views of many Viennese at the time.
Laughing at Architecture contains many lessons for current architectural history and criticism. One of the most important is that satirical humor, presented as a critical instrument situated at the crux of architectural reception and production, is inherently paradoxical. This reading results from the fact that while such humor has the effect of strengthening and making more vivid the sense of social reality to which architecture, in attempting to be truly modern, must constantly answer, it also distorts this very same reality by deploying the techniques at its disposal: exaggeration, ironic distancing, ridicule, and bathos. Rosso's book will thus be of use not only to those readers within the discipline but also to those outside it who study interactions among the built environment, the cultural and social phenomena that inform it, and the multiple codes of political and aesthetic expression associated with them.