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Tales from Hellman

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If Archigram had not invented the name, it might have been snaffled by Louis Hellman, whose architectural telegrams have delighted and occasionally infuriated architects over four decades, mostly via the pages of the aj. The retrospective exhibition at Sir John Soane's Museum, which starts today, provides a potted history of issues that seemed important to the architectural profession at one time - many of them still do. But the choice of material has been partly influenced by the non-architect visitors to the Soane, so some of the obscurities of professional conflict (especially issues involving the riba and its presidents) make way for more general subjects: for example the aj cover featuring Prince Charles as King Canute.

I often use a Hellman cartoon in a lecture or talk to make a quick point, and to make it wittily. His 'Image of the Architect' panels, which have found room at the Royal Academy Summer Show, are a good example of the cartoonist both portraying (and pricking) the bubble of blinkered perception - including that of the architect himself. In the World of Hellman, the architect is indeed a man, that bow-tied, slightly portly, bearded, middle-aged professional based, it is said, on a fellow colleague in the yrm office in the 60s. That image, to some extent, has survived as much in real life.

The work shown here (there are about 50 images in the show) gives a feel for the range of Hellman's subjects: architectspeak in the 1960s; international relations in the 70s; royalty in the 80s; the collapse of Russia in the 90s; and now, of course, the Dome. It has been a period which has seen British designers scaling the heights of world architecture even as they were reviled, but more latterly honoured, at home. The multiple ironies this suggests to long-term observers is part of the reason why Hellman has survived the vagaries of fashion, in cartoons, in the wonderful and ongoing Architetes series, and in architecture.

There are fewer strips in his work these days, and less clutter - the point is made economically. There is also less scatology and sex, which has memorably, on occasion, landed both architect and magazine in the hands of libel lawyers. But the acid eye is still firmly in focus - for instance in the brilliant Old Hellman's Almanac which appears in aj at the start of each year, satirising unmercifully every shade of architectural pretension. At the heart of the work, there is a humanist interested in understanding foibles and follies, but not necessarily prepared to excuse them.

'The First 40 Years', a retrospective of the work of Louis Hellman, runs from 13 April to 27 May at Sir John Soane's Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP


I drew this cartoon as a student at the Bartlett. It was published in the AJ in the early 1960s in the BASA (the long defunct British Architectural Students Association) section


Another from the 1960's (although it was not in the AJ until 1970) which stemmed from a general disenchantment in practice with the doctrines of the Modern Movement I had previously followed


The AJ wanted comments on topical news items and my style changes from the strip to a more political form. This was after the 1973 oil crisis when architects, as ever, flocked to where the big money was.


The 1980s were a great time for cartooning with Post-Modernism, Thatcher and Prince Charles. This Charles and Canute was the one and only AJ cover I have done (though I was asked to make his ears smaller)


The big event of the 1990s was the break-up of the Communist empire. This cartoon also symbolises the deconstruction of the Modern Movement into stylistic pluralism.


We cartoonists thank the powers that be for the Millennium Blairdome, a perfect symbol of New Labour's seamless continuation of Thatcher's policies.

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