The Map-maker of Gotham City

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Eliot R. Brown’s hand drawn map of Gotham. (Eliot R. Brown)

Gotham City is the perpetually dark comic book metropolis of alleys, asylums, caves, mansions, and of course, Batman. The Dark Knight of DC Comics celebrates his 75th anniversary this year but Gotham didn’t become the hometown of the Caped Crusader until 1940, when Batman co-creator Bill Finger named the city for the first time inBatman No.4. In the early days of comics, cities weren’t much more than rooftop set pieces and vaguely defined skylines, and Batman was ostensibly fighting crime in a generic city with a vague resemblance to New York, but, as Finger has said, “We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it.” However, since its inception Gotham has gained an identity as complex and unique as any real American metropolis and is now more closely associated with a single character than any other city in comics. Capital-M Metropolis comes close perhaps, but Superman’s city is nowhere near as interesting as Gotham, in part because Gotham has something that makes it more fully realized and more consistent in its representation than any other fictional city in comics or film: a map.

Gotham City limits were defined in 1998 in preparation for the “No Man’s Land Story” story arc, during which the city was cut off from the United States after nearly being destroyed by a cataclysmic earthquake. It was the comic book version of Escape from New York. However, before DC Comics  could destroy Gotham City, there had to be a Gotham City to destroy. Enter artist and illustrator Eliot R. Brown, the cartographer of Gotham.

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An early sketch of Gotham City, courtesy Eliot R. Brown

Brown has no formal training in cartography, but he did study architecture and had previously worked as a technical artist for Marvel Comics, where, as he told me, he was the closest thing they had to an “in-house architect and architectural renderer (and weapons designer and aerospace engineer).” He dreamt up and drew tech specs for Punisher’s weaponsCaptain America’s experimental jet, and Iron Man’s armor, and the occasional superhero headquarters. But in 1998 when Brown was contacted by Denny O’Neil, a legendary comics writer and long-time Batman editor, he was faced with an even bigger request: design one of the most iconic cities in comics history. O’Neil wanted a map of Gotham as part of an in-house “bible” to help coordinate the various comics that would be affected by the earthquake. The first step for Brown was to meet with the writers and artists who shared their wish-lists for Gotham locales. As he recalls:

“The DC Comics editors made it clear that Gotham City was an idealized version of Manhattan. Like most comic book constructs, it had to do a lot of things. It needed sophistication and a seamy side. A business district and fine residences. Entertainment, meat packing, garment district, docks and their dockside business. In short all of Manhattan and Brooklyn stuffed into a … well, a nice page layout.”

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Early development drawings for the map of Gotham, courtesy Eliot R. Brown

With research materials in hand and a mandate that Gotham had to be an island, Brown began, like Bill Finger, with the idea of a fictionalized Manhattan. Having grown up New York, he knew it well and used his knowledge of the city to plan its fictional counterpart, sprinkling in familiar neighborhoods, parks, civic buildings, monuments, landmarks and transit infrastructure.

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The final, hand-drawn map of Gotham City by Eliot R. Brown

The city took shape in a week and, after some testy exchanges with editors and few back-and-forth faxes, Gotham’s rough coastline was finalized less than two months later. Brown’s final hand-annotated map of Gotham City included numerous bridges and tunnels ready to be dynamited by the U.S. government, as well as a few forgotten steam tunnels that might be useful to a crimefighter and his allies. Brown didn’t just design the city; he designed an implicit history that writers are still exploring.

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Left two images: Eliot R. Brown’s map of Gotham City, as it appeared in comics circa 1999; right image: Brown’s map appearing in a recent issue of Batman

A few issues of the “No Man’s Land” story arc opened with a map of Gotham, illustrating the shifting boundaries of a turf war that was slowly won by Batman and the Gotham City Police Department. When “No Man’s Land” ended in 1999 and Gotham returned to the status quo, rebuilt with money from Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor and buildings designed by Gotham planner and cartographer Eliot Brown, the map of Gotham City was officially made canon.

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Gotham City as it appeared in promotional materials for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Since “No Man’s Land,” writers and artists have worked within the confines of Gotham’s borders and many versions of the map have been published. And some have even expanded them, including the current Batman team of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. A simplified version is used in video games and, most visibly, Brown’s map of Gotham was used in the recent Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan, as can be seen above in Bane’s strike map. Brown had no idea his map had been used in the new film trilogy but told me he was “delighted that they helped further the ‘reality’ of the books.”

While a map may seem like a small thing, especially for a fictional city, it really does make Gotham feel like more of a real place. So why don’t more comics map out their cities? Why isn’t there a definitive Metropolis or a definitive Star City? Besides the amount of work it takes, Brown thinks the imposition of an official map might just be too limiting for some writers and artists. “If a writer wants Batman to face Croc on a glacier-bound treehouse for mutants—then that’s what he writes and gets drawn. If, the next month, Batman is now chasing Harley Quinn at a 24-Hour Endurance Sports Car Race Track—poof, there it is. All right in Gotham City. Put in a better way, it is about allowing the writers to have their freedom.”

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Ideally, a city would offer unlimited possibilities. But then again, restrictions can sometimes create the best art. Current Batman writer Scott Snyder has made extensive use of Gotham’s architecture and urban design as a reflection of Batman’s (and Bruce Wayne’s) consciousness and, in so doing, has told fascinating, layered stories rich with metaphor, history, and symbolism, including a mini-series, The Gates of Gotham, about the engineers who designed and built the many bridges that Eliot Brown created for Gotham. Brown no longer works in comics but since he created his map, writers and artists have continued to tell their stories within the confines of Gotham’s borders, and in so doing, have added to the city’s history, creating and exploring the nooks, crannies, alleys, and fire escapes of unique neighborhoods that were once nothing more than a name on paper.

Oh, and if you zoomed out a little on that map, where in the United States would you find Gotham City? New Jersey.

This article was original published at Smithsonian.com

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John McClane crawls through the mechanical spaces of Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard.
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The following essay  on Die Hard, Kafka, Deleuze, The Towering Inferno, Inception, James Bond, Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning originally appeared in Volume 37: Is This Not a Pipe?

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Design Decoded: The Architectural History of Pepsi, Part 2: Edward Durell Stone and the Corporate Campus

A view from the approach to Pepsi’s Purchase, New York Headquarters (image: “WhisperToMe” via wikimedia commons)

Sometime in the early 1970s, huge American companies like IBM, General Foods and Union Carbide fled the confines of the city for the greener pastures of the suburbs. The new corporate campuses built during this time were sprawling modernist complexes, designed for efficiency by some of the country’s top architects. In 1970, as the first shots were being fired in the cola wars, PepsiCo joined this corporate diaspora, relocating from their modest and much-adored 13-story building in Manhattan to a 450,000-sq-ft complex on a 168-acre former polo field in Purchase, New York. To design their new home, Pepsi recruited “modernism’s populist architect” Edward Durell Stone.

Stone’s name isn’t well known today, but he was once one of the most famous architects in the world. When he started his career in the 1930s, Ed Stone was a promising young designer and bon vivant who, it was said, “could draw anything except a sober breath.” He first made a name for himself in the 1940s, working on the designs for Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, which led to the commission for the new Museum of Modern Art building (1939) – Stone’s first foray into International Style modernism. Stone continued to work in the modernist idiom throughout the 1940s while also serving as chief critic at the Yale School of Architecture and, during World War II, a major in the United States Army Air Forces.  Some years before the war, he befriended Frank Lloyd Wright, who encouraged the up-and-coming architect to question the precepts of the International Style, and imbued him with an appreciation for ornament and vernacular architecture. Wright’s influence would manifest dramatically in the early 1950s when Stone was commissioned to design the American Embassy in New Delhi.

Stone’s design for the American Embassy in New Delhi helped launch him to stardom (image via WNYC)

The embassy’s modern design drew equal parts inspiration from Classical temples, European modernism, and local traditions. Its most notable–and most controversial– feature was a patterned concrete screen that minimized heat and glare while still allowing plenty of light into the building. The embassy was met with wide acclaim and honored by the American Institute of Architects as an expression of “serenity and power in government in terms appropriate for the country in which it is guest.” Although the building was an enormous professional and popular success, it proved to be quite divisive among the architectural community. While commissions were pouring into his office, staunch modernists and architecture critics focused on the patterned screen, calling it distracting and decorative – a stigma that would follow Stone throughout the rest of his career. But Stone had developed a fondness for decorative details and clients were clamoring for the his ornamental, romantic modernism. With the success of the embassy and a new PR-savvy wife who helped sober him up, Stone was quickly propelled from relative obscurity to the cover of Time magazine in 1958. He was in many ways a proto-starchitect

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An aerial view of the PepsiCo World Headquarters in Purchase, NY (image: google maps)

However, when he got the Pepsi commission in the late 1960s, Stone’s star was fading. By the mid-1960s, he had finally moved away from the concrete grillwork that had defined his personal style for so long, but the buildings behind the screens just weren’t as exciting. However, Stone never completely abandoned his love for decorative detailing, as evidenced by his design for the Pepsi Headquarters. The Purchase, New York complex, which is still the home of PepsiCo, consists of seven nearly identical inverted white ziggurat-like structures linked at their corners and organized around a cruciform central garden. It was supposedly designed to be expanded as the company grew, in a manner similar to, though less successful than, his friend Eero Saarinen’s design for IBM’s Rochester facility. Last year plans were announced that the facility was expanding for the first time since its construction, although it’s not certain if Pepsi will follow Stone’s original vision.

A closer look at Stone’s design for the PepsiCo Headquarters. Note the patterned concrete block. (image: “WhisperToMe” via wikimedia commons)

The new headquarters met with mixed reviews. Architectural Record described it as a “skillful blending” of architecture and nature combining elements of both the urban and the rural. Pepsi reported that after moving into the building, employee morale went up and work habits had improved. However, many critics still had a hard time accepting Stone’s work. Paul Goldberger, during his tenure as The New York Times architecture critic, called it “a world of utter blandness” that “is free of major vulgarities but also free of any excitement.” Much of the rancor towards his architecture can probably be attributed Goldberger’s precursor at The Times, the venerable Ada Louise Huxtable, whose dislike of Stone’s work merited two paragraphs in her obituary.

The landscaping, on the other hand, has been widely lauded. Initially designed by Stone’s son, Edward Stone Jr., to complement his father’s structure, the PepsiCo property is a verdant, luxurious sculpture garden filled with work by the likes of Brancusi, Alexander Calder, and Claes Oldenburg. And best of all, it’s open to the public.

Edward Durell Stone retired from practice in 1974 and fell into relative obscurity – a surprising reversal of fortune for a man whose face once adorned the cover of Time. Though his name is in the history books for his early work on Rockefeller Center and MOMA, his later projects are rarely discussed. Perhaps because they’re not easy to discuss; Stone’s work defies categorization. Some people have called Stone a proto-Postmodernist; some considered him a man ahead of his time while others thought he was struggling to keep up. In either case, his design for Pepsi’s HQ wasn’t attuned to the zeitgeist like their Manhattan offices. Stone may have been many things, but was certainly not a man of the Pepsi Generation – whatever that may be.

The final part in this short series will look at Pepsi’s radical pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World Expo.

via Design Decoded

Design Decoded: The Architectural History of Pepsi, Part 1: The ‘Mad Men’ Years

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The Park Avenue facade of the Pepsi-Cola Corporation World Headquarters, designed by SOM (image: Ezra Stoller, via SOM]

In 1963, Pepsi-Cola launched a new advertising campaign: The Pepsi Generation. Those three simple words represented a drastic rebranding for the company, which had previously marketed itself as a cheaper version of rival Coca-Cola. With the launch of “The Pepsi Generation” campaign, Pepsi claimed to be offering something new, something hip, something for the kids. While Coke continued to trade on nostalgia with traditional imagery of some idyllic yesteryear, Pepsi’s commercials featured snappy jazz numbers and young beautiful people riding motorcycles. “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation!” The soda maker’s rebranding also included a simplified logo featuring a modern, sans-serif typeface, the introduction of a diet cola –now famously immortalized in an episode of “Mad Men”– and, a few blocks from the offices of Sterling Cooper, a striking new modern building in New York City.

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Design Decoded: BIG Plans for a Lego Museum in Denmark

big lego house

Still from an animation illustrating the concept behind BIG’s design for Lego House (image: BIG)

Some architects played with Legos as a child. And some never stopped playing with them. Take, for instance, the Copenhagen and New York-based architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) –the architects currently developing a master plan for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C– who have designed two major projects involving the snap together bricks, including a new Lego Museum in the toymaker’s hometown.

Now, bricks are good for two things: building a wall and throwing through a window. Lego bricks aren’t any different, as illustrated by BIG. Though they may not have literally thrown them through any windows (that I’m aware of), the cool playfulness that pervades BIG’s work is a metaphorical brick thrown through the windows of modernism’s glass skyscrapers. BIG’s high-wire high-rise designs, which have more in common with mountain ranges than Manhattan, shatter architectural preconceptions and the aloof, over-serious sensibility that pervades the profession. In less than 10 years, the firm, founded in 2005 by Bjarke Ingels, have blossomed from a scrappy Rem Koolhaas-inspired startup with great PR to a widely recognized, innovative global design practice with major commissions in major cities the world over.

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