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
11 OCTOBER 1967
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.
12 JUNE 1968
19 SEPTEMBER 1979
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.
16 MARCH 1983, 5 SEPTEMBER 1984
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.
2 March 1988
6 SEPTEMBER 1989
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.
29 JUNE 1993
19 MAY 2005
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.
27 SEPTEMBER 2007
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