When Writers Become Architects: An Experiment In Space And The Written Word

AJ Artemel AJ Artemel

Writing has long been intrinsic to the practice of architecture, from Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture to the theoretical essays of Peter Eisenman. Writing helps architects explain ideas that are hard to glean from drawings alone, and allows for the setting out of non-project-specific agendas in manifestos or magazines, such as Le Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau. Theoretical writers have engaged with architecture, as well; Jacques Derrida, for example, used architectural metaphors to describe the structures of texts and advised architects on the Parc de la Villette competition. Architects have also figured as characters in works of fiction, perhaps most memorably in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. But rarely has architecture served the same function for writing as writing has served for architecture: to analyze and clarify.

This past spring, Columbia University School of the Arts writing students set out to do just that, in Professor Matteo Pericoli’s workshop, the Laboratory of Literary Architecture (Pericoli has also tought the course at the Scuola Holden in Turin for the past four years). The thirteen students each started with a literary work they knew well, and carefully stripped away its language to reveal the structures and spaces that organize it. These hierarchies, sequences, and literary volumes were then translated into architectural models with the assistance of Columbia architecture students (see the projects below). Under Pericoli’s instruction, students strove to represent the literary, not the literal.

The inspiration for the models starts with reading. As Professor Pericoli writes, “When I read a novel, an essay, or some well-structured (other than well-written, of course) piece of writing, there is a moment when I have the feeling that I am inhabiting a structure that goes beyond its words, that was somehow built (I am not sure how consciously) by the writer. And I am not talking about settings described in the book.” But the hope is that analyzing literature with architecture will eventually help students become better writers. Pericoli adds, “What matters, I think, is that [students] realize that creating a piece of writing in your mind can be a spatial and structural exercise—before, during or after you have begun to put actual words on paper. For a writer, thinking wordlessly may turn out to be a positive experience.”

While the class is specifically intended to develop writers’ ability to think spatially, the architectural outcomes of the class show the students’ strong understanding of space, and how to manipulate it with surfaces and volumes. The designs range from sparse and ethereal pavilions to models that seem well on their way to becoming buildings. Many of the pavilion designs adopt a memorial-like simplicity, adhering to a few cuts in the ground or a group of walls. This similarity may stem from the need to create spaces for the narratives of the reader or the visitor (in the students’ explanatory essays, these are often one and the same), or from that elusive sense of architectural poetics.

The more building-like projects seem to stem from works in which the author sets forth a strong, repetitive or clear structure, as in David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” The power of this structure is more easily conveyed into floorplates, stairs, and elevator shafts, and sheds light on how architects themselves might go about diagramming an initial idea.

The Laboratory of Literary Architecture succeeds in bringing writing and architecture closer together than ever, by equipping writers with an architect’s vision and mode of analysis. Architects can learn from this experiment, too; perhaps architecture schools should reintroduce writing classes where possible, in order to teach architects how to think in narrative, in metaphor, and ultimately, to translate these concepts into imaginative spatial structures..

Basak Ulubilgen (SOA Fiction) in collaboration with Lorenzo Villaggi (M.Arch ’15)—“On The Road” by Jack Kerouac

“This side of the base is bigger because it has the Plexiglas cube on it, which stands for one of the two main characters; Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy), which is covered in water. I decided on water because it represents repetition and there are lots of repetitions throughout the novel. The reason I chose it to be made of glass is because, in the book, we can see right through him. He has a kind of character that is very open and lives dangerously, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Or, as Kerouac would have said, “Mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.” But in order to get into this cube, or see through it, we would have to go through Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac), who represents the cube made out of balsa wood, because he is the one who writes the book. So he is the one showing us the way, our protagonist. I decided to make them in the same shape and size because they are both people who want similar things in life, they share a dream, which is to simply live an interesting enough life. But they also have such different personalities, and that’s why I decided to build them from different materials.”

Brooke Larson (SOA Nonfiction) in collaboration with Kevin Le (MSAUD ’13)—“Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“To begin I condensed Nature into a few driving themes:
1) The spiral: the constant flux of moving inward and expanding outward
2) Transparency: openness, simplicity
3) Symmetry: mirroring, doubling
I tried to translate these concepts into patterns, lines, and textures. A spiral seemed the most obvious shape. At the same time, it prevented me from abstracting to the level of simplicity that the work called for. When I finally let go of the spiral fixation, a different shape emerged, one that, while not a spiral, performed the movement and energy of Emerson’s spiral ideal. The cylinder is a classical shape of religious architecture. This corresponds to Emerson’s deeply rooted spiritual affinities. Yet, Nature is a radical text. It sought to disrupt dogma. The curving ramp that interrupts the cylinder conveys this tension of old and new. The ramp moves from inside to outside, circling back to itself. Emerson thought self-discovery is always re-discovery—progress is recursive, not linear. And it is steep, challenging, as is the angle of the ramp.”

Clare Fielder (SOA Fiction) in collaboration with Stephanie Jones (M.Arch ’15)—“The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge” by Rainer Maria Rilke

“In my model I wanted to represent the fragmentary structure of the novel, so I created separate, isolated spaces within a larger structure. I arrived at the concept of sunken boxes, with various steps leading down into them. Submerged spaces, or cavities, seemed to reflect the way that we dip in and out of Malte’s psyche, through his journal entries, and also the emotional descent that he undergoes throughout the novel. The main plane of the model, where the viewer would enter, represents the present tense – the time in which Malte is sitting and writing – and the descending staircases are symbolic of the other multiple time frames that are suspended within each episode.”

Elizabeth Greenwood (SOA Nonfiction) in collaboration with Kevin Le (M.Arch ’13)—“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” by David Foster Wallace

“The structure of his writing and his sentences are parentheses within parentheses, a small observation triggering a larger fact about the human condition, nestled within each other like Russian dolls. Large brackets enclose the nestled parentheses. The brackets have the ability to both constrict and to confine as well as to bolster and to support.

I designed a rectangular structure with many floors. Bolstered by concrete brackets, the end pieces represent the hard, inescapable fact of heavy things in the essay: the Harper’s assignment, the ship itself. But the floors inside these brackets are made of glass to represent the clarity and truth Wallace sees during his time at sea. On the outer edges are two parentheses turned away from one another (which might one day be openings for stairs) representing the thoughts and connections between seemingly unrelated things. These cuts into the plexi allow light to filter through between the floors, illuminating their invisible links and also tracing seemingly disparate themes and digressions. As the floors ascend, these parentheses edge closer to the upper right corner, where an elevator shaft penetrates through the structure. This burst of continuity between floors represents the author’s presence, and the author himself, who cannot be contained even within the clearest of glass, and who stubbornly refuses to be subdued even in the most ostensibly light of occasions, like a vacation on the high seas.”

Joanne Yao (SOA Nonfiction) in collaboration with Chelsea Hyduk (M.Arch ’15)—“Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee

“The path, to me, represents the superficial shifts in Lurie’s attitudes, the temporary responses caused by the life-altering events he experiences. Because the events change his life but have little lasting effect on his principles, they’re shown here as knife-like slices that cut through the soil but only change the path insofar as to make it shift, to the left, or to the right. This is a game for the eye, of sorts. The slices do not affect the path in a meaningful way and ultimately, the path continues in the same direction.

The path itself is characterized by narrowness and a sunken quality. A walker going through the path would find her view of the outside world obstructed by the high walls. This is an attempt to distill Lurie’s path into a symbolic path – Lurie is set in the groove of his ways and unable to see past his own narrow vision of the world.

Eventually, when the walker reaches the last stretch of the path, after the last sharp corner, she will see a handrail that seems to have nothing on the other side of it. It looks like an abrupt blockade, but when the walker arrives at the handrail, she can look down and glimpse her reflection in the water below, before it flows away. This is the only time that the water will be visible. To me, the water element represents the consistent presence of the Byron opera and the development of Lurie’s empathy toward women, which becomes visible to the reader through the opera.”

Joss Lake (SOA Fiction) in collaboration with Stephanie Jones (M.Arch ’15)—“Rings of Saturn” by W.G. Sebald

“The structure is a tall and narrow space, reflecting both the vast scope of the book as well as the intimacy of the reading experience. An uneven path is suspended along metal supports, and gradually rises and falls across the entire length of the structure. The path’s shape is dictated by the fragmented and surprising nature of the narrative, in which the novel leaps from subject to subject through unconventional avenues, such as the documentary playing in the narrator’s hotel room. The path is covered in a translucent material so that these supports are visible, which alludes to the meta-fictional nature of the novel. The novel is constantly engaging with the very questions of memory and history that it is depicting. The darkness of the tall and narrow space is broken by clusters of light bulbs. The constellations of lights are not comforting; they too are disconcerting … These light bulbs are the core of the novel, the details that Sebald, and his narrator, use to recover the past.”

Kanasu Nagathihalli (SOA Fiction) in collaboration with Chelsea Hyduk (M.Arch ’15)—“Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

In the architectural model, the five main characters of “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand are represented by five distinct elements: the central strip represents Dagny Taggart; the parallel strip, Francisco D’Anconia; the two broken vertical strips, Hank Rearden; the cube, Eddie Willers; and the arc, John Galt. The space between these elements represents the relationship between the characters.
Text by Kanasu Nagathihalli for The New York Times.

Olivia Tun (SOA Fiction) in collaboration with Stephanie Jones (M.Arch ’15)—“Concerning the Bodyguard” by Donald Barthelme

“Three characters are translated into skyscrapers because of their modernity and the political world they are staged on. The three self-sustaining skyscrapers tilt, leaning and weaving around each other, yet they are interdependent, their form merges to complete a cohesive structure. Because the characters are of intrinsically distinct DNAs, the buildings representing them have three distinct shapes (square, pentagon, and an irregular five-sided shape). They are also constructed of three most distinct materials: glass, black marble, and stainless steel.”

The Laboratory of Literary Architecture was made possible by the Visiting Artists and Thinkers program at Columbia University School of the Arts supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

See previous coverage of the course by The New York Times and the Paris Review.