Subjectivity

If subjective perception and narrative structures are key to the architectural experience, as I argued in my last post, how then do we approach them?

Traditional architectural discourse has been somewhat limited in these regards, in a way I find frustrating. John Ruskin’s descriptions of Venice are a hallmark of architectural history, as more recently are Nikolaus Pevsner’s architectural guides. But that is what these writings are: guides, guides which take an empirical approach and seek to draw the buildings and places in largely objective terms. They are ekphrastic in that words are inherently representative, bringing with them their own context and associations and thus layers of meaning. In the guides, though, the emphasis is on the account of the place, not in its recreation. While they doubtless add a layer to its context, they do not show us how the world is perceived by those not preoccupied with the material fact of architecture. Pevsner is famously dismissive of the bicycle shed, and Rolf Hughes suggests this discrepancy can be traced back to the Augustinian distinction between the ‘voice’ and the ‘word’ in Western thought: the distinction between the account of an individual and that of an authority.

Architectural books and journals, meanwhile, are perhaps examples of the latter, and are known for their uniformity of style and the way in which traces of human inhabitation are typically either carefully curated or erased entirely. Maybe we should not be surprised that the architectural orthodoxy does not engage readily with fiction beyond its own acts of ekphrasis – notional or otherwise.

There have been examples of more exploratory approaches to documenting space which have been adopted into the architectural canon (Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, to name but two). Perhaps the best known approach to subjectively writing the urban environment, though, is that which evolved from the tradition of the flâneur, the wanderer who roamed aimlessly around the streets and recorded his (invariably his) impressions. These movements and their literary manifestations from Baudelaire and Henry James to their culmination in Joyce’s Ulysses are typically taken by theorists to show the shifting conception of time and the changing urban experience reflected in the development of literary modernism. I might also point to Michael Moorcock, Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, whose books aim to capture something of the essence of London as a city by mixing cultural landmarks with new-Gothic content. Little detailed analysis, though, is devoted to the architectural content itself.

Academics have long looked at how the description of place can be used as a literary device, say to create a certain atmosphere or to support character development. When this line of investigation has begun to engage with places in the real world, though, it has typically been to do with the influence of a certain place on a writer’s development (think of Dylan Thomas’ hut) or what the writing can tell us about the society of the time (Charles Dickens’ London). Nevertheless, the demarcation of place offers key qualities to a work of fiction – not only verisimilitude, but a framework upon which to map the events.

In an ongoing research project academics at the University of Zurich are mapping fiction onto the real world. Their work has highlighted the various ways in which places can be reinterpreted: their boundaries are vague; they might be shifted in their spatial relationships; they are inevitably shifted in time (since a novel has its own temporal situation). It promises to be a valuable body of work, but it is operating primarily on a cartographic scale rather than an architectural one.

Some of the scholars and writers whose work comes closest to the kind of study I’m hoping to produce for my dissertation come from the world of literature. There is James Donald’s Imagining the Modern City, which traces the way cities have been reflected through – and influenced by – ekphrasis. David Spurr, meanwhile, is the author of one of the most ambitious texts, Architecture and Modern Literature. His discussion encompasses familiar touchstones from Dickens and Ruskin to Joyce, Kafka and Ballard, and he also references a range of architectural theorists including Benjamin, Heidegger and Derrida. It is perhaps unsurprising that the focus of his book is largely on the representation and interpretation of architectural space in modern literature, rather than on how the built environment has been shaped by literary texts. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that it rarely seems to have occurred to architects to look at (or learn from) the ways in which space is depicted and inhabited in fiction beyond their usual sphere of reference, and so the influence of intersectional fiction on architecture is rarely overt. I hope to address this – or, indeed, to start to find out whether it’s possible and, if so, how it can be done.

Rolf Hughes, ‘The Drowning Method’, Critical Architecture, ed. by Jane Rendell, Jonathan Hill, Murray Fraser and Mark Dorrian (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007), pp.92-102

James Donald, Imagining the Modern City (London:The Athlone Press, 1999)

Anne-Kathrin Reuschel and Lorenz Hurni, ‘Mapping Literature:Visualisation of Spatial Uncertainty in Fiction’, The Cartographic Journal, 48 (2011), 293-308

David Spurr, Architecture and Modern Literature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012)