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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

For The Love of Brutalism and Destruction of Buildings

The Structure is Rotten, Comrade (La Structure est Pourrie, Camarade) by Viken Berberian and Yann Kebbi is a graphic narrative that appeared in France in January 2017. Berberian (51 going on 30 years) wrote it in English (though published in French) and Yann Kebbi (Breton) (31 going on 52) drew the 336 pages. The text is also handwritten. Frunzik, the hero, is a misguided architect inspired by brutalism (Berberian loves the work of Le Corbusier). He and his father, a builder, are bent on destroying all of the heritage buildings in Yerevan, Armenia, where Berberian lived.

Kebbi received his BA with honors from Ecole Estienne in Paris and his MA with honors in illustration from Ecole Estienne in 2008. He is a graduate of the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and studied under Ben Katchor as an exchange student at Parsons in New York. His illustrations regularly appear in the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Guardian, Télérama, Revue XXI, Suddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, Le Monde, Bloomberg, La Repubblica and Courrier Japan. His monotypes and drawings were exhibited at gallery Agnès b. in Hong Kong and Galerie Martel in Paris in 2017.

Born in Beirut, Berberian attended an Armenian elementary school until the start of the Civil War. He  grew up with stacks of Tintin, Gaston La Gaffe and Lucky Luke. These comic books were in French, but the spoken language at home was Armenian. He moved to Los Angeles and became fluent in English in his teens thanks to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. He studied journalism at Columbia University (MA, 1990). His thesis was about Armenia during the waning days of the Soviet Union, where he visited for the first time in 1989 as a graduate student. He then studied political economy at the LSE (MA, 1993). He stopped reading comics as a teenager, rediscovering them in Paris many years later after his first son was born. His two novels are The Cyclist (Simon & Schuster, 2002) and Das Kapital (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

Frunzik’s love for building and design leads him from Paris to Yerevan, a city in the process of reinventing its urban structure; however, its denizens are outraged at the destruction of the city and the erasure of its history, as well as the removal of many from their homes. And Yerevan is soon on the verge of a revolution. Berberian was inspired by a protest rally against the destruction of a heritage building in Yerevan during one of his trips there. It was an important moment. Dozens of protestors were pounding theirs fists against a metal barricade surrounding the now destroyed Afrikyan building, where an unfinished high-rise is being built. Berberian documented the protest and joined the chorus, and the activists made their way into the book.

I asked Berberian to explain more about this complex narrative. (Actes Sud were the first to publish it in French. The English rights are available and waiting to be published here.)

Viken, tell me how you and Yann joined forces to create this graphic novel? Yann and I were introduced by three Swiss and French journalists and editors who were visiting Yerevan and Tbilisi in 2013. I happened to be in Yerevan at the time. I had not met Yann but had embarked on a quixotic quest to write a graphic novel. But there was one very visible problem. While I had returned to reading graphic novels, I didn’t know anything about illustrating. I started with a 10-page story about an architect professor bent on destroying cities. I had always been interested in architecture in my fiction, and my two novels have architects, or would-be architects in them. I wrote my second novel inside Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles.

After the editors returned to Paris, they suggested a number of artists to me. I didn’t like their work until they shared Yann’s sketches: They were kinetic, full of vital energy and a subtle sense of the sardonic, beautiful but disturbing images that penetrate the carapace of one’s complacence. His color choice and characters look innocent and reassuring at first until you take a closer look and see that there is something off-kilter, unsettling and excruciating in his sketches. We published the 10-page story with six of Yann’s illustrations in a glossy Swiss design magazine called Dorade, like bream, the fish. We still had not met yet, and then we decided to work on a more ambitious project, a 336-page graphic novel I had not written. Yann wanted to see the entire manuscript before taking on the project.

In 2013, my family settled in Montréal, and soon after I started to work full-time at Aon, writing around my job, at night, early in the morning, and during lunch break. I was writing country risk reports at Aon and writing about a misguided architect in a post-Soviet republic during my off hours. Over the years, I met Yann during trips to Yerevan with a stopover in Paris. We first met at Atmosphere, a storied cafe—the name is inspired by Marcel Carné’s Hotel du Nord—along the canal Saint-Martin, where Yann shared his original panels-in-progress.

The canal Saint-Martin and its storied cafes occupy an important place in the book: I had lived there for more than five years, and it’s where Frunz’s—the protagonist’s—mom lives. In the summer of 2016, I spent five weeks along the canal, and we worked on finalizing the panels with Yann and our estimable editor, Thomas Gabison, at Actes Sud. So the book was illustrated and written in four cities over many years: Paris, Yerevan, Montréal and Moscow, where Yann led an illustration workshop. So the book is very much lived, but also very much invented. We worked mostly in different cities, but there was this intuitive connection between word and image. It was always there, and WeTransfer, emails and our iPhones helped.

What is the plot and where do you take the personality of your main character? Who is Frunz? Some would say he’s the son of Marianne and Sergei, an unassuming boy discovering Paris from inside his stroller along the Seine. As his parents separate, little Frunz turns inward, then to his Lego blocs for sustenance. He may look harmless and lacking in courage, but don’t be fooled—Little Frunz is a disaster waiting to happen. As he overcomes his family travails, Frunz grows up to become an architect and decides to leave Paris. He first heads to Moscow, then to Yerevan, where as a university professor, he lectures his students about the principles of good design‚—and his unremitting love of cement. Meanwhile, Yerevan is in the middle of a building boom. Wrecking balls swing through the city; cranes punctuate its skyline and cement trucks race through its narrow streets. Its denizens live in slums, outraged at the destruction of the historic city. Most of them have lost their homes to an ominous plan to reinvent the Soviet city. Yerevan is also a city on the verge of revolution as residents are flushed out of their homes with tragic results. Yet Frunz’s father forges ahead with his urban plan to rebuild the city anew—a city without memory or history.

After he suffers a head injury from a wrecking ball, Frunz checks into a hospital and upon waking up he finds the city is ablaze in revolution. Rebels overtake his father’s office and push him out the window for the architectural crimes that he has committed. They threaten to hit him with a three-legged Alvar Aalto stool. Soon, the oligarchs are overthrown and the regime crumbles. Frunz takes to the war ravaged streets. A homeless man turned rebel confronts Frunz in a city festering with rioters and gaping holes. Frunz, his head bandaged, finds his father dead in the rubble, sprawled next to his office with his architectural plans. A series of phone calls between Frunz in Yerevan and his mother in Paris follow. Frunz’s mom instructs him to abandon his architectural plans and flee Yerevan back to Paris. Frunz rushes to the airport and catches the first Air France flight to Paris. One year later, we see him working at a third-rate architectural firm inside a cubicle designing toilet seats for 26 square meter apartments. On his way to see his mom for dinner after work, our misanthrope, Frunz, runs into the homeless man from Yerevan pushing a shopping cart with his sundries. He recognizes the homeless man and asks him how he got to Paris before descending into the metro on his way to see his mom.

The drawing style has not typically comics, what drove this particular format? We wanted to avoid the classical codes of graphic narration like the bubbles which come across as fake and somewhat mechanical to us. I mean, when we talk, we usually don’t talk in bubbles. The few instances where we deploy them we do so ironically, to let people know that we know of their existence. There was a lot of cultural and political commentary outside of the actual dialogue that I would share with Yann, along with hundreds of photos of Yerevan, its statues and denizens. Not having seen Armenia in person afforded Yann a certain freedom to re-imagine the characters and the cityscape. The geographic distance actually gave him more creative space.

I was the mediating filter between Yerevan and Yann, but I also made adjustments. I would often rewrite my words, as most writers are prone to doing, to complement his sketches or sharpen a zinger, so that the words were more perfectly aligned with the visuals. The process was more organic than mechanical, and we both share a common cultural sensibility, humor and aesthetic, which helped. He’d intuit what I wanted to say in his studio in Paris, while I’d modify a line or two or three or four, or ten, in Montréal or Yerevan, and then we’d share our notes and images via electronic mail.

There is an undercurrent of the political, the cultural, and the transnational running through the story. There are  themes that range from poverty to censorship, to the preservation of memory in public spaces. There are oligarchic real estate promoters, and generals, and megalomaniac architects obsessed with recognition. A central trope is the importance of protecting architectural heritage against the vagaries of Trump-like developers. These are issues we feel strongly about because they impinge on how we live and how we want our cities to look like and be. I mean there is something patently wrong in a society when the wealthiest 25 American billionaires have more than  $1 trillion in wealth, the equivalent of the wealth of 56 percent of the rest of the American population, or 178  million people. The ratio is probably more skewed in Armenia, a country that has lost a third of its population  to migration like the homeless refugee in Paris at the end of our story. We couldn’t squeeze all of this into a tweet—even with the expanded 240 character format!—and so we worked hard for many years in different cities, documenting protest rallies, but also inventing a lot of the characters. It’s just our imaginations in the end exchanging ideas and trying to find common ground. It reads like a theatrical piece Yann has said, and I agree. It’s fiction, not a memoir, not reportage, not an empirical document.

And because this is a huge endeavor, I’ve asked about plot, but what are the levels of meaning? What is the back story and why do you want to tell it? There are different levels of meaning in image and text, yes. One is the phrase ‘less is more’ popularized by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who was associated with the Bauhaus movement. While it’s a precept for minimalist design and architecture, we appropriated that idea and turned it on its head so that eventually it becomes ‘more is more’ – more buildings, more wrecking balls, more money, more of the material, just like Trump, everything is about physical augmentation: the bigger, the taller, the more obscene. Never mind that the President has small hands. We completed the book before the presidential election. There are many such instances where we play on different levels of meaning. Another one is how we use designer Alvar Aalto’s stool  which is ubiquitous in our book. And you thought the 84-year old Alvar Aalto stool was only good for sitting on? In our graphic novel, the three-legged stool is used as a weapon against pro-government forces; as compensation to citizens kicked out of their homes; as a symbol of collective discontent, as a multi-functional object used to crouch on, or to break one’s head on.

It was during the 1920s that Aalto’s aesthetic evolved from a neo-classical style to a functionalist one. In the 1930s, he moved towards a less rigid Rationalism with an eye for nature’s organic models, ultimately embracing  modernism. We do not hold a grudge against the Finnish architect and designer and his penchant for birch, which we totally respect. We simply thought it was time to update the uses of his stackable stool for our troubled times. And so when a rebel threateningly breaks the iconic stool in front of Frunz’s dad, the architect and builder at fault for destroying his home and the collective memory of his city, Frunz’s father retorts, terror in his eyes: “Wait, do you have any idea how much an original Alvar Alvar stool costs?” The haples architect would never get an answer as the rebel and other inflamed revolutionaries close in on him, knocking him down with the wooden stool. With a sense of foreboding, Frunz’s dad jumps out the office window of a high-rise. Sorry we break so many of your stools in our graphic novel, Mr. Aalto.

An Alvar Aalto stool for Finmar circa 1930 can actually fetch 3000 euros, but in our book the stools are  omnipresent and ersatz knock-offs. They are substitutes of good taste.They adhere to the economic theory of declining marginal utility: each additional stool gives less pleasure than the one before it. They’re given to the homeless in exchange as payment for their apartments, and so this emblematic object of functional  and stylistic design is no longer a rarified commodity, but a bargaining chip between the urban oligarchs and the dispossessed. We use the stool as an object of revolt and change. It is a perennial favorite of the rebels who oppose modernization at the expense of the past, the collective memory of their cherished city. Hold on to your seat before reading! There are many other levels of meaning concerning the props and objects used in our book, including the statues in Moscow and Yerevan. There is an exchange between Frunz, the professor, and a policeman in Moscow. The officer asks him ‘What do you teach?” “Brutalism,” says Frunz. “Brutalism?” asks the police officer. “Architectural brutalism,” clarifies Frunz. “Solid answer,” says the Russian policeman and lets him off.

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