09 September 2006

query : fiction as architecture

I'm planning on writing an AWP talk (which I hope to grow into an essay) concerning fiction as architecture, and am hoping contributors here might be able to offer a few suggestions about what questions I should be contemplating, and what I should be reading by way of novels, stories, theoretical perspectives, and so forth that enact or address this notion.

Usually the metaphor of architecture is applied to fiction in order to italicize craft in its creation. Or occasionally one mentions the use of architecture in fiction—in, say, some of Borges's short stories.

But I'm interested in asking how it is illuminating and stimulating to conceptualize fiction's structures and discourses as spaces one lives in and moves through as one might, for instance, a Bauhaus building, a tenement, a cathedral.


James Ryan said...

Interesting question. It's a stretch to make the metaphor work, maybe. Buildings are structured in space, whereas narrative is structured in time. So I think one would have to emphasize the experience of *moving through* buildings of various kinds in order to make the metaphor a match. We move faster or slower through different novels, and buildings likewise. One moves slowly through an emergency room, quickly through a McDonalds. Physical space is also capable of creating mood, as is narrative.

But building don't really tell a story, except in an abstract, cyclical sense. Buildings are build around cycles of human behavior: Shower in the bathroom cook eggs and eat 'em in the kitchen sleep in the bed, repeat.

One interesting example of a "narrative" structured in this way: In *An Anecdoted Topography of Chance* by Daniel Spoerri (available from Atlas Press, 1995) the author charts the contents of his breakfast table and then tells the story of each item and its arrival. Each story is then footnoted by the author's acquaintances, thus mapping out the confluence of their lives around the mess in his flat. It's not the story of the cycles per se, but the little variations and the impression they make on the space.

Debra Di Blasi said...

One of the sections I teach in my experimental writing class is the architectural space of fiction, i.e., the 4D "design" of literature. We study Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye and read texts on architecture. Students eventually create a work of fiction based on architectural design prinicples and present it with a statement of intent, just as would an architect. Of course, what they learn is taht all fiction has an architecture -- some better considered than others. A few of the books I've found useful regarding literature and architecture are: Colin Rowe's Transparency; Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiciton in Architecture; Louis Kahn's Conversations with Students; Ada Louis Huxtable's The Unreal American: Architecture and Illusion; Steven Holl's Parallax. I also like Robert Harbison's Thirteen Ways: Theoretical Investigations in Architecture. Good luck!


Davis Schneiderman said...

Well, the book that comes to mind for your final para. is Sebald's _Austerlitz_.

Also, of course, almost all of Proust.


Steve Tomasula said...

As I'm sure you know, William Gass has a whole body of writing related to the architecture of writing, but one of my all time favorites, and most interesting pieces I've ever read on the subject is an essay on the architecture of the sentence, accompanied by drawings by his architect spouse, Mary Gass. It first appeared in CONJUNCTIONS 32 (Spring '99). Just a great piece, opens up your mind about the subject as so many of Gass's essays do (I'm doing a bad paraphrase here, but a Henry James sentence is laid out like a baroque palace, while a Hemingway sentence structure has a lot more in common with a Frank L. Wright). I'll paste in the blurb from CONJUNCTIONS below. More recetnly there's his essay collection A TEMPLE OF TEXTS (if you're interested in 'architecture' in a more metaphoric way) -- then again his whole body of work is a temple of text. Hard to enter and not become a believer.

William and Mary Gass,
"The Architecture of the Sentence."
In the first-ever collaboration between architect Mary Gass and her novelist/literary theorist/philosopher husband, this visual essay explores the very essence of how images become verbalized. "Our investigation," writes William Gass, "wonders whether it is possible to think or plan or design at all without a representational space in which to do it...a book is a building for what a brain has spun." This brilliant work ranges from Aristotle to Chomsky to Calvino to Barth, and beyond, in its inquiry into the dance between architecture and language.

Marc Lowe said...


Although I'm no expert on the subject, perhaps you might consider having a look at Maps of the Imagination: The Writer As Cartographer by Peter Turchi.


Lee said...

Though not precisely what you have in mind, this interview with Jeff VanderMeer nevertheless touches on several relevant points:


Carol Novack said...

Lance --- I'm wondering if you've read Gaston Bachelard's "The Poetics of Space" - http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-0807064734-0. While the reverie could be considered tangential, perhaps you'll find it relevant.

-- Carol

Trevor Dodge said...

Nice one, Carol. Bachelard makes perfect sense here.

Paul Auster's City of Glass also seems particularly relevant to the discussion at hand, with the Stillman character effectively trying to rebuild the Tower of Babel by reclaiming its language. Maps take the shape of letters which lead Quinn right back into the creative consciousness, epicentered in his apartment above the street.

Joe Amato said...

Lance, if you haven't seen it already, below is info on a relatively new book I've been wanting to get to, but haven't had a chance yet -- it radically re-theorizes the architectural (I'm cutting & pasting from the U of Alabama Press site).



Architectural Body

by Madeline Gins, Arakawa

This manifesto is a verbal articulation of the authors' visionary theory of how the human body, architecture, and creativity define and sustain one another.

This revolutionary work by artist-architects Arakawa and Madeline Gins demonstrates the inter-connectedness of innovative architectural design, the poetic process, and philosophical inquiry. Together, they have created an experimental and widely admired body of work -- museum installations, landscape and park commissions, home and office designs, avant-garde films, poetry collections -- that challenges traditional notions about the built environment. This book promotes a deliberate use of architecture and design in dealing with the blight of the human condition; it recommends that people seek architectural and aesthetic solutions to the dilemma of mortality.

In 1997 the Guggenheim Museum presented an Arakawa/Gins retrospective and published a comprehensive volume of their work titled Reversible Destiny: We Have Decided Not to Die. Architectural Body continues the philosophical definition of that project and demands a fundamental rethinking of the terms human and being. When organisms assume full responsibility for inventing themselves, where they live and how they live will merge. The artists believe that a thorough re-visioning of architecture will redefine life and its limitations and render death passe. The authors explain that "Another way to read reversible destiny . . . Is as an open challenge to our species to reinvent itself and to desist from foreclosing on any possibility."

Audacious and liberating, this volume will be of interest to students and scholars of 20th-century poetry, postmodern critical theory, conceptual art and architecture, contemporary avant-garde poetics, and to serious readers interested in architecture's influence on imaginative expression.

Arakawa is an architect and artist, and Madeline Gins is a poet and novelist. Their work has been exhibited internationally at major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Tokyo's Museum of Contemporary Art. Arakawa and Gins have a house under construction for a client in East Hampton, New York, and have recently received a commisssion to build a community of several hundred residential units in central Japan. Both live in New York where they continue to make "reversible destiny" central to their efforts.

Lance Olsen said...

You guys are the best. These are all terrific leads, and I look forward to following them all. I'm especially taken with your course description, Debra, a version of which I hope to appropriate, and your rec on the essay by Gass, Steve, since it seems to address head-on my interest in fiction as architecture.

For those of you who might find this topic appealing, I might also suggest two essays. First is Milorad Pavic's “The Beginning and the End of Reading—The Beginning and the End of the Novel.” There he makes the distinction between what he calls reversible and nonreversible art. Reversible art is that which, like architecture or sculpture, can be entered at several points, wandered through without a sense of beginning, middle, or end, and visited and revisited from a number of considerably different points of view. Nonreversible art is that which, like a piece of music or most fiction, is made to be experienced linearly from start to finish. Pavic’s goal as a writer is to transform at least one species of fiction from nonreversible into reversible art.

The other essay is Michael Joyce's "Cafe Cul-de-Sac: Made-Up Spaces," in which he explores the relationship between hypermedia and liquid architecture. You can find it here:


Please keep those resource suggestions coming, should anything else strike you, and thanks again!

david raphael israel said...

Also recommended: Ellen Frank's book Literary Architecture: Essays Toward a Tradition (University of California Press)

jdeshell said...

I must confess to a conceptual blindness here, as I've always had a difficult time with the literature-as-building conceit. I haven’t read the Gass essay, but the difference between a James sentence and a baroque cathedral is, for me, irreconcilable. The architecture metaphor also brings with it others, some of which I find troublesome. If we say that a story is a building, for example, then we say that a story is an object, and can be studied like other objects (phenomenology replaces ontology), and this is something I’m not willing to accept or take for granted. There’s also the inside/outside metaphor, which is rather limiting. I’m also suspicious of the house/home metaphor (this is the foundation, these are the walls), with its attendant baggage (hearth, home, heimat, (un)heimlich) and nostalgia. I can understand most of the other sister arts conceits (literature as music, as painting, as sculpture, as performance, even as photography), but the architecture one has always troubled me. But maybe it’s just me.
Davis, Proust as architecture? How so?
Conceptually challenged, Jeffrey

Debra Di Blasi said...

I think the misconception here is about architectural design, not literature as architecture or vice versa. That architecture is simply a "building" is a sad fallacy -- sad for real designers like my beloved award-winning spouse, Mark Shapiro, who taught a.d. for nearly 30 years, is a specialist on Le Corbusier, and mentored under the great Werner Seligman.

Architectural Design is a time-based art form, about spatial-conceptual relationships that occur from "entry" to "exit." Many of the most interesting designs have never been built nor will ever be built, but that doesn't lessen one's ability to "read" them on paper and understand their gorgeous, often lyrical aesthetics.

I re-recommend reading the books posted earlier, as a start.

Trust me: Architectural designers get as frustrated with the ingnorance of their art form as most folks on this blog do about their literature.

Let us now praise famous architects!


jdeshell said...

I understand the difference between architectural design and ‘built’ architecture: I was responding to Lance’s initial post, which seemed to me to be about ‘built’ (actualized) architecture. But if the medium (material) is important, as we likely agree that it is, then theoretical architecture, which would be drawing and writing, would be, in a sense, non-architectural, in the same way that all artistic theory, with the exception of literary theory, is performed in a different medium than its ‘object’ of study. This is not to diminish or denigrate architecture, theoretical or otherwise, in any way. I have some knowledge and appreciation of some architectural traditions, and can appreciate and comprehend the influence architecture, both actualized and conceptual, can have on literature. My object or objection is that the too-easy metaphorical leaps we make contain aesthetic (and other) presuppositions that can be problematic. For some reason, with architecture, the metaphorical jumps (as far as my limited reading goes) are unexamined. I mentioned a few in my earlier post. And we can agree to drop the ‘building’ metaphor; that still leaves us with inside/outside question (indeed the whole question of the ‘space’ of literature), as well as the no-place-like-home question. Again, not to suggest that all architecture is heimlich, but I would argue that there is something in the metaphor of space that contains traces of the home.
I take your point about the frustration of architectural designers. In fact, it must be even a more radical disconnection at times, knowing that your work will not be actualized in its intended medium (barring a great influx of cash). Or, that your designs are not designed to be built, are designed as pure conception. Is this a negation, a limitation or a freedom? Is it contradictory (an architecture that will never be built) and is this contradiction fruitful? I think that is a pretty interesting ‘space.’
Anyway, I’ll buy you a drink at the Loos Bar.
Lance, do you know Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, which focuses on the house Wittgenstein built for his sister?
Anyway, rendering death passé, and praising famous architects, although not in the same sentence,

Lance Olsen said...

I wonder, though, Jeffrey: can't we--shouldn't we--launch the same fleet of caveats any time we compare apples and pears, metaphorically speaking? A hundred and fifty years ago Nietzsche reminded us that it is difficult enough, if not impossible, to compare one pear with another. Game, set, match. In other words, isn't it the case that as soon as one employs a metaphor of any type, one immediately bumps one's nose up against various limitations housed within the comparison? This thing is never that thing. This thing isn't even itself at two moments in time.

And yet isn't it also the case that as soon as one employs any sort of metaphor, one also opens up a space of opportunity to make connections one hasn't made before, to see objects or ideas in a new and thereby revealing light?

Also, I wonder: aren't certain sorts of fictions especially apt for comparisons with architecture, others perhaps less so? I'm thinking, for instance, of certain multimedia/assemblage/hybrid works.

Also also, I wonder wonder: isn't it interesting to imagine how a work could be architectural in the sense Pavic above wants it--i.e., reversable?

It'll be fun to figure.

P.S. No, although I enjoy Bernhard, I haven't read Correction yet. Why are there so damn many texts in a temporally finite world? Have I mentioned that I don't find that particularly fair?

Marc Lowe said...

...Without hopefully getting myself too deeply embroiled in this (albeit interesting) conversation about the (perceived) validity of drawing metaphorical comparisons between architecture/literature and/or the lack thereof, I will say that this idea Lance has brought up of one's attempting to create a work of fiction that can be entered and/or exited from any "doorway" and in any sequence (Cortazar's Hopscotch, anyone?) intrigues me very much. Might not this worldview, if you will, be fairly applied to much of Robbe-Grillet's experiments with the nouveau roman (the Alain Resnais film "Last Year in Marienbad" also comes to mind -- ironically enough, and as an aside, I am at this very moment listening to a work by Stephen Stapleton/Nurse With Wound entitled "Echo Poeme [sic] No. 2," which is a cyclical, aural collage/labyrinth of French chanteuse vocals purportedly inspired by the aforementioned film). Also, and in addition to the Bernhard, which certainly seems to be obsessed with architecture in its own right, what of George Perec's Life: A User's Manual, wherein the entire Oulipian structure of the novel itself begins/ends with the grid for a building? Surely the "construction" of this work, at least, could be said to parallel, in some sense, the act of "constructing" a (physical) dwelling...?

Another reason I'm commenting now is that I'd like to suggest a film I recently had the good fortune of seeing on DVD entitled My Architect, a documentary about the mysterious life/death of architect Louis Kahn, whose work (not to mention the vast number of unrealized ideas/sketches he drafted, which of course goes back to what Debra said vis-à-vis this being the norm for most architects who are true artists--) I found to be extremely inspiring to behold, even on film. It's worth having a look, even if it only relates to this particular topic obliquely.

Thanks for allowing me to ramble...


Debra Di Blasi said...

Lance makes the point I wish to make: The more you study architecture (not just architectural history but theory and practice) and its peculiar literal and visual vocabulary, the more metaphorical paths open up for writing. And remember, we’re talking metaphorical (flexibililty), not literal (rigidity). To an architect, a window is not just a window. It’s defined by what surrounds it spatially and what precedes and succeeds it chronologically – the latter indicated not by what the designer has set forth but what the experiencer recognizes as having chosen. Hypertext is most obviously an architectural parallel, with readers choosing their own paths, just as would a visitor to one of Tadao Ando’s museums. A writer/designer therefore must keep in mind not the linearity of relationships – it is not a single tunnel, after all – but the three-dimensionality of interconnections. You enter a narrative (whether architectural or textual) the moment (not the place) you gives yourself over to it. This may include even the expectation of entering. (Book jacket artwork or a blurb or literary award sets up expectations that taint whatever experience you have actually reading the book.) Now, the savvy visitor/reader will not only give the self over but contemplate the self’s giving over, keeping a mental, aesthetic record of every relationship within the experience.

Architecture is narrative, holistic, and good architects design with the approach and surrounding landscape in mind, too. Now I ask you: What is the approach and surrounding landscape of a fiction? How do you adapt these concepts (after really studying what they mean and how they’ve been handled in architecture over the years) to a narrative of words and, perhaps, images? That’s one exploration. Another example: Transparency. That term holds rather finite connotations for writers – physical clarity, psychological disingenuousness, etc. – but the term is complex in architecture. The fact that there are entire books written on this one subject suggests just how complex an issue. (Read the Colin Rowe book; it’s brilliant.) And the concept of the parallax: I love this one and am still wrestling with it, in terms of my writing; specifically the parallax effect that occurs while looking out at a rutted field from the window of a moving train, how the rows bend, fan out, appear to be spinning around you. How does a writer adapt that physical reality to language? (Adapt, not translate. Important distinction.)

Bill Gass is an architectural aficionado, likely because of his friendship with postmodern architect Peter Eisenman. (Just take a gander at Eisenman’s Frank House, in which the master bedroom design included a chasm in the floor that prevented husband and wife from sleeping in the same bed. ) Because I live in Missouri, I’ve been fortunate to hear Gass lecture brilliantly on architecture and its relationship to many things, including literature. He’s sees it as metaphor, too, a metaphor of possibility. Thanks to my husband, I’m continuously exposed to great architecture and discourse with great architects. And the more I learn about this terribly elaborate field, the more my writing shifts. The study of architecture, like the serious study of any other art forms, provides a perspective impossible to attain otherwise.

And that, she says, be just the dusty threshold.


jdeshell said...

It’s always fraught to argue metaphors, but since I started the argument. . .
My point is not that there might exist “a space of opportunity to make connections one hasn’t made before,” I mean, who could argue against that? My argument is that the metaphorical leap has already been made, and, following Nietzsche, this metaphorical leap has solidified into a “truth.” And that this “truth,” this mobile army of tropes, metaphors etc., works to limit our thinking, and, to my mind, works to inhibit the radical and peculiar nature of literature (big-ass statement).

I’ll repeat some of my examples. If we take actualized architecture, that is architecture that has been built in the world, rather than architectural design (which would be another discussion) as a metaphor for fiction, then there are a number of different presuppositions that you are making. First of all, you’re presupposing a craft aspect to fiction, something that can be taught and learned (with mentors and apprentices, eh Joe?), and something that can be “polished,” something that can be “well-made,” “solid.” I understand that not all actualized architecture sees “solidity” as a value, but I do think that in built architecture we strongly desire stability and strength, on some basic level (we usually don’t want the thing to come down on our heads). Much of this metaphorical baggage, I think we’d both agree, is problematic.

Along with this, and to my mind perhaps the most damaging or limiting concept or connection, is the metaphorical connection of built object and fiction. Or, to be more precise: can actualized architecture explicitly question its own existence? Actualized architecture may have many interesting questions, including questions of becoming, of change, of space and of context, but it can’t seem to ask the question of its own being in the world. In other words, a building is a thing in the world, a thing in Being, and can be studied like other things in the world, whereas literature is not completely a thing in the world. Literature is not like other “things”: literature is that which explicitly questions its own existence, enacts its own negation, in ways actualized architecture cannot. I would (and have) argued that this is the peculiar “power” of literature. One might bring up tromp l’loeil and other ‘fictional’ techniques, but the wall or material still ‘exists.’

Another is the inside/outside metaphor. This connection seems peculiar between architecture and literature: we don’t get ‘inside’ a painting, a performance, a sculpture or a symphony.

There’s also a certain nostalgia and ethics to actualized architecture. Heidegger, reading Heraclitus, argues (and he gives this a positive value) that building is in a sense a dwelling, where there is a hearth (“There are gods here too”), where we care for each other, where there is an ethics. This is a lot of pressure on actualized architecture (does it always contain traces of the hearth?), a pressure literature can do without.

All the best, keeping death passé, Jeffrey

blonde said...

ha--great discussion you guys. and lance, SCORE on the suggestions.

i've only this to add (besides the applause that YOU lance are exploring this idea)--my father was an architect. when i was five he took me to a college in Canada designed by FLR. he narrated the importance of the spatialities and showed me how the detail work created layers of meaning to the whole--explained part / whole relationships to me. none of which i understood then, but it did seep into my psyche.

so too he used to point shadow and light out to me in our various homes--and shapes and patterns created by walls and windows.

he drove me around to various homes he had designed when they were built and finished, and we'd sit out there in the car while he smoked and narrated the angles and textures and meanings, and i'd sit listening, understanding almost all of it as story.

i understand what j. is saying about getting fast and loose with metaphors. honest. but my hard-wiring and imagination are so fundamentally intertwined with art, writing, and architecture that i almost can't disentangle them to think straight.

so there is that--the psychic and imaginative landscape--not necessarily bound to scholarship or high theory--that i'd like to include here. even as it is entirely subjective.

and i've even read some of them books mentioned, obsessed as i am with both dead fathers and architects of all sorts...

oh and my SECOND novel (ha assuming i ever finish this current bad boy) is all about architecture, so i'll be needing to drink with you, my friend.


jdeshell said...

I'm not trying to denigrate the study of architecture: I'm sorry I'm not making myself clearer. I agree that architecture is important, complex and vital, and the study of architecture can only help one’s writing. I also believe that painting is complex, as is music, film etc. (all different), and the study of the sister arts is extremely useful, one might even say necessary, to the development of one as a writer.
I am saying that serious study always brings up differences as well as similarities, and it brings up the dangers of eliding differences in favor of similarities. One of the differences that can get elided in the metaphor of writing as architecture is the material, the stuff of both. And, as I’ve tried to argue, if we don’t question the similarities (or at least make the differences), then we end up with a sort of deep ideological baggage. But again, I’m not trying to say that literature is more, less or even equally complex compared to architecture.
I’m still not satisfied with the inside/outside metaphor, but I’m making ginger ice cream tonight.
Hey, let’s use everything.

blonde said...

ginger ice cream trumps most things, love.

jdeshell said...

Don't forget Kafka's "Burrow" (although I'm more of a "Josephine" guy myself), and Benjamin's Passengen-Werk as well as his Paris, Capital of the 19th Century. I'll pipe down. J

Debra Di Blasi said...

Jeffrey, et al.
I have just a minute before I run out the door, cross the threshold, exit this space... hardeeharhar!...and want, first to apologize if I seem like a woman wielding a sledgehammer over her head. (Well, I am, but it's just for show.) I am very passionate about the topic of literature intersecting with other art forms, and so sound like the intense school teacher that I am. This is my abiding interest and I realize may not be / should not necessarily be others'. My fiction falls in the interstice between visual art (in which I was educated) and literature (in which I was educated). Your issues are well put, Jeffrey, and it occurs to me that the differences also can be used as a [re]source].

I'm just hoping to get adventuresome writers creating literary intersections so I can, selfishly, obtain more inspiration for my own. And, should I get the Andy Warhol grant, I will have some folks to interview/work to expose for the vlog on Architecture + Literature and other topics.

(Lance: keep this in mind, please, when/if you create your proposed piece. Same to others. In fact, I will be putting the word out to writers in October regarding hearing about completed conceptual writing that goes beyond ink on paper, so be looking for it!)

debra, the hammer, di blasi

Lance Olsen said...

Lid's right about the ginger ice cream, Jeffrey, which, to my mind, actually has a lot to do with buildings by Gehry.

Only kidding.

Seriously, I really appreciate your caveats. It may seem like we're worlds apart on this issue, but I don't think so.

Essentially, I'm saying: I'd like to think about the metaphorical connections between architecture and fiction because I sense there are some interstitial revelations to be found there beyond the obvious.

Essentially, you're saying: be attentive, be subtle, be thoughtful, be careful, watch for falling objects, stay away from open windows, don't mistake the description of a house of leaves for the house of leaves.

Essentially, I'm focusing on similarities while granting differences, you on differences while granting similarities.

The two positions, I hope I'll discover, won't be mutually exclusive.

But, if they are, well, that'll be illuminating too.

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