What we talk about when we talk about architecture

Last week I spent rather a lot of time in the company of architects. There was once a time when I used to panic in these situations and my conversation would diminish to the single line of, ‘Have you read The Fountainhead?’

The Fountainhead is a huge, trashy, very addictive novel. Its main character, Howard Roark, is a modernist architect who has arrived on the scene before his time. His visions of clean lines and functional architecture are scorned by critics, who prefer the mediocre, unoriginal, overly ornate traditional architecture practised by Roark’s friend Peter Keating. When a rebellious lady – Dominique – turns up on the scene, the plot thickens and becomes very engrossing.

I suppose what slightly undermines the novel is that it is all an extended metaphor for Rand’s philosophical beliefs of rational egoism, capitalism and objectivism. She uses the novel to say, essentially: the individual is important, sod the collective masses. I distinctly remember a long boring section towards the end where she goes off on an undisguised rant about it.

But, nonetheless, it’s a fun novel, Roark is a superb hero – he even spends time working in a quarry! – and it does provide something to talk about when one meets an architect. There are few architects who haven’t read it.

Now, after several years of accompanying the fiancé (who has just finished studying architecture) to all sorts of architecty things, I can normally manage some real architectural conversation. So spending so much time around architects last week was really fun. I didn’t panic once. Now I can talk a bit about buildings and cities, and drop in a few names of architects who I like, or who I don’t. (On the latter, I even wrote a post – here – about Daniel Libeskind.)

But, in spite of this, I occasionally find myself bringing up the old Fountainhead line. Ironically, this is because architects are less Randian and self-centred than The Fountainhead would lead one to believe, so they tend to take an interest in what I do. And so the subject of books arises. And, in order to make this common ground, it’s quite helpful to have an architectural book or two up one’s sleeve.

The next step up in architectural-literary conversation, I discovered, is to read a real architecture book – a book written by an architect, about ideas in architecture that are a bit more subtle than modernism versus traditionalism.

So, on an architect’s recommendation, I read Eccentric Spaces by Robert Harbison. This is one of those books that is rammed full of very intelligent, perfectly nuanced, original ideas.

I like these books but I find they require so much concentration and brain power that I can only manage about two-and-a-half pages at a time. I also continually suffer from the feeling that I’m not fully understanding them.

My tactic for these books is to concentrate particularly hard on the bits that discuss something – as in a building, painting or book – with which I’m familiar, and not to worry too much about the passages that discuss things that I haven’t seen or read. Especially if there aren’t any pictures.

So I found myself very much enjoying Harbison’s discussion of the Boboli gardens, which is one of my favourite places in Florence – and indeed was where we sought respite last summer, when the fiancé got sunstroke. This bit’s particularly good:

If we imagine the forms of a formal garden like the Boboli … in masonry instead of vegetation we get an unexpectedly bizarre construction which shows that people let themselves be confined by plants in ways they would endure uneasily indoors. In the Boboli there is proportionately so much corridor for the number or rooms one might think we came outside for the experience of confinement, which can be enjoyed at greater length there … At times it seems that gardens exist to give a controlled experience of being lost or trapped and the distance seems slight from the maze at Hampton Court to the horrid gardens of fairy tales with poison plants, poison fountains, traps, and cages.

Whenever I’ve been in the Boboli gardens I’ve spent ages wandering around – there never seems to be a good spot to sit down and I’ve always felt that I’ve got to keep going to the next bit, not unlike being in a maze. There is something undoubtedly overbearing about all those hedges and the surprising lack of open space. And there is definitely a resemblance to a fairy-tale, a feeling of having to get past all the obstacles to find one’s way out. I like the way Harbison writes in simple yet precise language, how he uses the word ‘horrid’ and gives the word its sense of ‘horror’ as well as the more common sense of ‘nasty’.

I also like Harbison’s description of what it feels like to wander among the Roman Forum and among ruins in general:

The vegetation softens and makes agreeable huge and sterile buildings yet the spectator longs for what is not there, tries to re-erect fallen pillars, to hold a decayed roof in place, to decorate and furnish before it all collapses into the present.

It seems particularly pertinent for me as I’m writing a novel about a derelict house and the stories which it has to tell. The entire book, I suppose, is an attempt, if not to re-erect fallen pillars, then definitely to ‘hold a decayed roof in place, to decorate and furnish’ it, to imagine what the ruin was like in the past.

But talking to architects about the novel I’m writing can have some unexpected results. Architects tend to like the fact that it’s about a building. Perhaps that lulls me into a false sense of security.

At a dinner thing the other day, sitting next to an architect, I tried to explain what I meant by saying the house in my book has stories to tell. I used the example of coal holes – holes in the pavement, covered by ornate metal discs, that go directly down into coal cellars. Although they’re now redundant, when the coal man used to come round with his deliveries, the coal holes meant he could deliver the coal straight into the cellar without coming through the house and spreading coal dust everywhere. The house in my novel has a coal hole. The story connected to it is when it was used to drop off bottles of paraffin to be used in a nearby arson attack.

The architect listened to all this. Then he revealed that he knew quite a bit about coal holes. It transpired that, when studying, he’d looked at coal holes as a now-defunct system which could be reimagined. He had proposed that coal holes could now be used as a way of delivering internet shopping. Rather than having to be at home to take the Ocado delivery, it could be safely deposited directly into the cellar. They would certainly be a good place to deliver all those annoying packages that are too thick for the letterbox and end up waiting for collection at the post office.

I told him that I thought his delivery idea was a good one.

‘Well now,’ he said, ‘you must include it in your book.’

I laughed. ‘I would, but you see the book’s all about histories and things that have happened in the past.’

‘About coal?’

‘Well no, not really.’

‘Well why can’t you have a future chapter?’


‘Like science fiction.’

During this conversation, my novel was unravelling itself in my head, spinning out of its tightly-plotted existence into a weird book that’s a bit like that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer finds his toaster has turned into a time machine, goes back in time, accidentally does something he shouldn’t, and then returns home to find that everyone has weirdly long tongues or that its raining doughnuts … or that people are delivering shopping into his coal hole.

‘It’s not really a science fiction book.’

‘But this is perfect for your chapter about coal holes.’

And that was the point when I realised that maybe the golden rule of architectural-literary conversations was only to talk about books that have already been written. Otherwise, there’s the danger that architects – who think about things like narrative in very different ways to us bookish sorts – will try to build the book themselves.

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3 Responses to “What we talk about when we talk about architecture”

  1. James Says:

    Robert Harbison’s book “Thirteen Ways” is another very good read.

    The most eloquent descriptions of buildings that I have read are in Edward Hollis’ “The Secret Lives of Buildings”. He links tales of the use and abuse of buildings such as the parthenon with ease, despite the fact that the stories are spread over centuries. I particularly liked the chapter on the Hulme estate in Manchester (not all the buildings are masterpieces, but they do have great stories attached).
    (reviewed here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/sep/12/secret-lives-buildings-review-glancey )

  2. James Russell Says:

    It isn’t really about architecture, but The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard is my favourite book about the interiors of buildings and the strange stories they contain.

  3. emilybooks Says:

    Thanks to both Jameses for the recommendations. I shall try to check them out for future architectural conversations … x

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