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Celebrating 50 years of AJ cartoonist Hellman

Hellman 10

Louis Hellman has been lampooning the world of architecture for half a century. Will Hurst interviews the venerable cartoonist – and Hellman describes a selection of his best AJ work. Portrait by Joe Hellman

Hellman 1

11 OCTOBER 1967

11 OCTOBER 1967
My first AJ Cartoon.The news item was to do with the proposed lumpen extension to the Houses of Parliament, one of many to come. The Ministry of Public Building and Works was the culprit on this occasion. This expressed my early disillusionment that the Modern Movement had degenerated into a mere style. (Note the lack of boxes around the sequence of drawings.)

Tell me about your early career as an architect.

I was at YRM between 1964 and 1967 designing lumps of Warwick University and I did have a Road to Damascus moment. At the Bartlett I had argued for modern architecture but actually in operation it seemed like another applied style. It wasn’t the rational approach I’d imagined. I was at the Greater London Council (GLC) from 1967 and that was around the time I started doing stuff for the AJ. I wasn’t very productive at the GLC and was also running an underground magazine. Later I joined what was then called the Spastics Society after seeing a nice advert in the AJ saying they were interested in designing for people. It was a little office of three architects, one student and one secretary. It was great and we got on with modernising places and building new centres. I did one near Salisbury. That was probably the best office I ever worked in … I felt I was doing something worthwhile and helping people. Most architects still design for the mythical ‘average’ person who can access everything perfectly well.

Hellman 2

12 JUNE 1968

12 JUNE 1968
Archigram-style imagery predicts the future demolition of failed tower blocks.

Hellman 3


The great socialist Richard Rogers had designed a massive commercial megastructure for the prime Coin Street site on the South Bank for Greycoats property speculators, backed by the RIBA. Following protests from residents, this proposal, and the Tory government’s support, was defeated with the help of Red Ken Livingstone’s GLC and a community housing scheme was substituted. A rare victory for ‘the people’. The cartoon draws on a current popular sci-fi film and Thatcher has just won the election. Scary!

How did your regular cartoon in the AJ start?

I did a lot of writing for the AJ on stuff like laboratory architecture and that’s how this came about. They [the editorial team] voted to have a cartoon and I got £15 for each. I thought ‘Wow, £15 just for doing a cartoon – my troubles are over!’ That was 50 years ago and the challenge has been to keep coming up with something truly original. You do find themes coming around again.

Hellman 4

16 MARCH 1983, 5 SEPTEMBER 1984

16 MARCH 1983, 5 SEPTEMBER 1984
There being no appropriate news item that week it was suggested in March 1983 I do a cartoon related to the newly published book by Andrew Saint, The Image of the Architect. I dashed one off in rapid time, thinking it was not too good, but it turned out to be the most requested cartoon. There’s a lesson somewhere there about not trying too hard. I managed to get more mileage out of the idea later with More Images, Even More Images, Historic Images and More Historic Images.

 What do you think has not changed in architecture?

My thing has always been the politics. I don’t think that has changed for centuries. To build even a private house you need massive resources. So I often draw the architect as a kind of poodle of the rich and powerful and of regimes. That’s a fact of architecture. They serve those forces. I’m not sure if those forces are for the good or not.Architects need work to survive and that’s where the work is. 

Hellman 5

2 March 1988

2 MARCH 1988
A strip I did in the ’80s featured a pair of young male and female architecture assistants in a small office. Visiting building sites with all those crude male workers was always a (male) argument against having women architects.

Hellman 6


Cartooning in the 1980s was dominated by Postmodernism, Thatcher and Prince Charles. This was the first AJ cover I did, showing Charles as King Canute trying to stem the tide of British Modernism. The editors asked me to make his ears smaller for some reason. This is the original version.

Tell me about your ‘Image of an Architect’ cartoon, as that one really struck a chord with the profession.

That was my most popular cartoon but I’m not sure why because I dashed it off in record time – there’s probably a lesson there. In Britain architects have such a low status and there’s that cliché that architects just design the outside of buildings, they are just a façade consultant. Maybe that is what they do now! In other countries they seem a lot more aware of architects. Years and years ago at the Interbuild Conference I remember meeting some Italian plumbers and they could identify the Italian architects and say what they had done. You meet people here, even in the chattering classes, and ask what architects they like and they can’t name one. That’s not to knock architects. They are valuable.

Hellman 7

29 JUNE 1993

29 JUNE 1993
An early Foster cartoon, after he recieved the RIBA Gold Medal. The great man had earlier been named Norman Frosted by yours truly.

Hellman 8

19 MAY 2005

19 MAY 2005
New Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme began in 2004. A feature of this was the Academy School, set up by private sponsors, who could dictate the school’s ethos. Exactly as it had done in the 1970s, the attempt to save costs by cutting out corridors and classrooms led to environmental problems. Not much of a learning curve there.

You have some well-known fans, I’m told.

Well there’s Prince Charles, who has given me a lot of material. He now sends me a Christmas card. I once sent him one saying: ‘Keep up the good work’ and I don’t think he realised what I meant. I meant that he kept putting his foot in his mouth and giving me great material. Now he and Camilla respond and Charles has some of my originals in his toilet! Norman Foster and Richard Rogers have also bought originals of my cartoons. I also met Seifert. He asked me: ‘Why do you do these horrible cartoons about me?’ I said: ‘Why do you do these horrible buildings?’ After 20 years of cartoons in the AJ, the magazine published a feature in which they got people I’d attacked in cartoons to comment. Seifert gave me quite a good review, which just shows: the only thing worse than being satirised is not being satirised.

Hellman 9


The ‘iconic’ Brutalist council housing blocks Robin Hood Gardens in East London designed by the Smithsons come under threat from demolition.

 Louis Hellman’s archive covering his 50-year career as a cartoonist is being donated to the RIBA, to be held at the Royal Institute’s collection at the V&A


Readers' comments (2)

  • All strength to king Louis and his half century! And great to see in colour for the first time one of the two images I stole from him (the other was from Design magazine I think), using them to introduce the two volumes of my student thesis in 1968 arguing for low-rise humane housing.

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    Dear Louis,
    Thank you for putting in perspective some naff - (pronounced næf)
    an adj. slang Brit. inferior; in poor taste [orig. C19: perhaps back slang for fan, short for fanny] - concepts and rodomontade. Keeping the garden and the gardeners in the park, avenues, squares and curtilage of the habitations gives such attention as they deserve. With kind regards, Colin.

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