Gotham City Architecture: Gotham’s Architectural Historian Supervillain

One of the great storylines in the Batman comics was “Destroyer” published in 1992. Written by Alan Grant, the premise is sure to please any disgruntled architect or uncompromising disciple of Howard Roark: an overzealous architecture historian / Navy SEAL bombs abandoned and derelict “soulless concrete” buildings that obscure the Neo-gothic architecture of the city’s original designer, Cyrus Pinkney, on whom the Mad Bomber wrote his thesis. While carefully planting explosives, our antagonist’s inner monologue is rampant with polemics decrying the conformity induced by the contemporary architecture of Gotham. “Live in a box, shop in a box, die in a box. Robots, that’s what they want. Not people. Robots that consume. Straight lines – sharp angles – square boxes. No wonder the city’s gone mad.”

As the world’s greatest detective begins to uncover the motives for the seemingly random guerrilla demolitions, he discovers another Gotham, “an older city, of improbable curves and angles – a city forgotten, that had been overshadowed and buried, suffocated by the towers of the 20th century.” Suddenly, in the type of realization that can only be expressed in with thought bubbles, the Caped Crusader understands the bomber’s motive. “He’s doing it…for art!”

Although it works quite well as an independent story, “Destroyer” is perhaps most notable as lead-in to Tim Burton’s first Batman film. By aggressively redesigning the skyline of Gotham, the Mad Bomber was conveniently creating a cityscape more comparable to the Gotham envisioned by Tim Burton. Thus, when new readers, attracted by the movie, pick up a Batman comic book, the Gotham City they see on the pages resembles the Gotham of the movie. The story was really all about attracting new readers and selling more comics.

Batman Destroyer

The cover of each issue in the “Destroyer” series features a traditionally drawn Batman swinging in front of a harsh, black & white charcoal drawings of Gotham City. Drawings that channel the spirit of famed architectural delineator Hugh Ferris, filtered through the Carcerci etchings of Piranesi. Where Ferriss eschews detail for monumentality, the renderings of Gotham City by Academy Award-winning production designer Anton Furst, are bursting with a detail and chiaroscuro that put the “goth” in Gotham, creating an unmistakably Burtonesque world: shadowy Neogothic spires dripping with gargoyles and danger. It’s populace on the brink of insanity.

In the “Destroyer” storyline we learn that the religious fanatic architect Cyrus Pinkney was hired by the equally moralist Judge Solomon Wayne, an ancestor of Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne. For Solomon Wayne, a city should be a sanctuary, a fortress protecting culture and civility from the “godlessness of the wilds.” For Pinkney, Gotham needed structures to defend itself from the evil spirits responsible for corrupting man. Through a mystical epiphany, the Mad Bomber came to believe that Pinkney’s buildings literally kept “the demons” at bay. Cities have the power to effect the consciousness of its inhabitants and the ubiquitous gargoyles of the “Gotham Style” were intended to frighten people onto the path of righteousness.

Ferriss himself acknowledges such emotional and behavioral effects of architecture, saying in his book The Metropolis of Tomorrow, “it has been our habit to assume that a building is a complete success if it provides for the utility, convenience and health of its occupants and, in addition, presents a pleasing exterior. But this frame of mind fails to appreciate that architectural forms necessarily have other values than the utilitarian or even others than those which we vaguely call the aesthetic. Without any doubt, these same forms quite specifically influence both the emotional and the mental life of the onlooker. Designers have generally come to realize the importance of the principle stated by the late Louis Sullivan, ‘Form follows Function.’ The axiom is not weakened by the further realization that Effect follows Form.” Ferriss’ iconic and much sough-after renderings were specifically designed to communicate the emotional influence of architecture – not necessarily what the building is, but the power it has.

Through the filter of the bomber’s insanity, Batman is, ironically, seen as one of the demons corrupting the city. Indeed, as drawn in this series, Batman is a kind of expressionist demon; cloaked in shadows and violent movement of swirling of cape and cowl. But is he a demon, or is he a living manifestation of Gotham’s gargoyles? Of its stone protectors? A man shaped, perhaps unconsciously, by the gothic vaults and flying buttresses and monstrous sculptures of Cyrus Pinkney. A man who, like the city he protects, frightens the citizens onto the path of righteousness.

“Destoyer” closes with The Mad Bomber, ex-student / historian / Navy SEAL Andre Sinclair, surrounded by police and demolition crews, shooting defiantly at a wrecking ball swinging towards him. A futile, final act in defense of the individual dream against the unstoppable assault of society’s progress. As the wrecking ball rushes towards him, his earlier thoughts echo across the scene, “man is such a temporary thing. He lives, he sins, he dies. But a city can stand a thousand years. And a dream can last forever.” Unfortunately, the issue’s closing narration casts little hope for the nightmare that is Gotham City. “Cyrus Pinkney’s Gotham – gargoyles, to frighten people onto the path of righteousness – rounded edges to confuse the malevolent beings – thick walls to lock in virtue. The work of a madman!”

In fact, Gotham City really is the work mad men. First, a fanatically religious architect and his equally radical benefactor, who by shear force of will and moral certitude willed Gotham into existence in the hopes that the city would, in turn, will morality into its citizens. Then, years later, the Batman has his influence. Shaped by the perverse forms of the city itself, Batman has had as much effect on the psyche of Gotham as the spires and gargoyles of the city’s architect. Like Gotham, Batman is an indeal, a force of nature, an effect. But what effect is he having? Bruce Wayne’s ancestor realized too late that he may actually be responsible for the criminal fate of Gotham City. “I wished to lock evil out of men’s neighborhoods and hearts,” Solomon Wayne lamented on his deathbed. “I fear that instead I have given it the means to be locked in.” Let’s hope that his descendent doesn’t have the same regret.

So what came first, the city or the crime? the hero or the villain? The architect or the city?

In closing, another quote from Hugh Ferriss seems appropriate:

“The contemplation of the actual Metropolis as a whole cannot but lead us at last to the realization of a human population unconsciously reacting to forms which came into existence without conscious design. A hope, however, may begin to define itself in our minds. May there not yet arise, perhaps in another generation, architects who, appreciating the influence unconsciously received, will learn consciously to direct it?”

Text via Life Without Buildings