Matteo Pericoli G-Chatting with LV. Exchanged October 10th, 2013 – October 17th, 2013LV: In the Laboratory of Literary Architecture your motto was “literary, not literal.” What does it mean and why? Could you explain what the major obstacles writing students had to overcome while designing space out of words were?
MP: It's probably more like a mantra than a motto. When writing students begin thinking about a literary text in terms of space and structure, there is an obvious initial instinct to translate more literally the portions of the text in which locations, buildings, and settings are described. For example, the students who worked on novels such as To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf or on essays such as A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace naturally started by thinking of structures that directly address lighthouses, ships, etc. Trying to be literary rather than literal means that we slowly move away from what the words describe to what the words hide, to how the text is structured. That's the hard part at first. Whenever we discuss any of the students' initial architectural ideas, we ask ourselves: "Are we being literal or literary?" And they instantaneously understand what I am talking about. We try to go even deeper by leaving the words behind and isolating those literary aspects of the text that each student feels are essential to conveying their interpretation and thinking of them in architectural and spatial terms.
It could be, for example, the way a character faces the events that are presented to him, the pacing in the text or the relationship between the reader and the protagonist. How can all of this be conveyed with architecture? How can space, materials, light, volume, etc. be turned into wordless literary devices? How can tension, or pacing, or a mood, be expressed with architecture?
LV: Would you define the architecture that your students have produced as literary architecture? Does literary architecture exist first of all? And where would this term be situated in the relationship between writing and architecture?
MP: I'll start with your last question, but unfortunately have to say that I have no idea where this term would be situated. The most magical and essential element of a piece of architecture is space. And yet space is the hardest thing to teach, and perhaps to learn. How does one teach that what truly matters in architecture isn't there? I have always been amazed by the fact that when I read a great novel or a great essay, I often have the feeling at some point that I am actually inhabiting a structure that has been constructed by someone else. A wordless structure, that is. So, I use Literary Architecture simply to clarify what the students' goal is: to construct a piece of architecture whose inner compositional mechanisms originate from a piece of literature.
Back to your first question, yes, I think the students have produced what I would call "literary architecture" because hypothetical visitors of their designs should experience them as architectural mirror of the students' structural literary interpretations. Does this make sense?
LV: Yes, it does, Matteo. You have talked about a "wordless structure" and also wrote in an article that "for a writer, thinking wordlessly, may turn out to be a positive experience"1. Do you think the reverse is possible? Would an architect benefit from thinking spacelessly? And with this I mean if thinking less like an architect and more like a writer would be beneficial to design processes?
MP: I'd like to answer your last question by reversing your reasoning one step further: I don't think that the writing students in my course think "less like writers" when they "act as architects." On the contrary, I think—actually, I hope, as this is another implicit goal of the course— that because they are writers they can think wordlessly like architects in order to address design issues. I have a reverential respect for writers, as I believe that writing is one of the hardest and probably cruelest disciplines. Anybody can try his hand at it, really. But to write something that is "constructed" in such a way that it can stand on its own is another matter altogether.
I think that architects could benefit from thinking narratively about architecture, which doesn't necessarily mean that they'd have to know how to write, just as writers don't need to know all aspects of architecture. Perhaps simply reading a lot and studying all kinds of literature, e.g. novels, essays, science-fiction, poetry, etc., and trying to determine what makes or doesn't make them "work" structurally, could be a positive and fun experience for an architect. In fact, knowing why the architecture of this or that novel is interesting, well-paced, precarious, unsettling, or structurally daring, and so forth, might help an architect in creating a structure that will successfully lead the visitor from one space to the next by working on volumetric relationships, proportions, materials, light, etc. in literary terms (e.g. tension, pacing, mood, etc.)
LV: In your last answer you used the word "construct" to explain the act of composing written words. Ergo, you believe that words can be built, sentences can even become promenades and series of words structures. To me this is an overlapping, or even better, a language's appropriation of a territory that it wouldn't traditionally belong to. If Ludwig Wittgenstein was right in claiming that "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world"2, what would this type of appropriation mean to architecture? And to other disciplines? Is this a possibility of a discipline's expansion/blurring of its own limits?: not to be sought inward, but out of its own territory?
MP: Actually, I didn't use the word "construct" to explain the act of composing written words. Rather, I was referring to writing a text in general. And I used "construct" because, like most disciplines in which you have a project that needs to be addressed both on a very small scale (a detail, a word, note, etc.) and on a much larger scale (the whole building, text, composition, etc.), there is a component of an almost physical effort needed to assemble it. You have to constantly take care of the details while never losing sight of the whole. Sometimes you get lost and have to scratch everything and start all over again. I wouldn't want to go as far as to talk about a language's appropriation, because I always insist in class that this is a game, and it has to be fun. But it's a game with very precise rules, which requires rigor to be played. There is no wrong interpretation of a text, but there are too-literal ways to transform ideas and intuitions into architecture, which we try to uncover and move away from. The idea for the course came to me when, after teaching a drawing class, a creative writing school asked me in 2010 to come up with a new course that had something to do with my other passion, architecture. (I am an architect by training and worked as one for some time, maybe I should have said that at the beginning.) Since I had noticed how writers and literary critics often use architectural metaphors to explain aspects of novels, essay, etc., I said: "Why don't we try to take the writing students one step further? Let's ask them to explain their most beloved books' structures and then build them!" That's all.
As for your choice of Wittgenstein's quote, I agree, language can indeed limit one's ideas. Imagination, the possibility of forming new ideas of any kind may benefit from even momentarily stepping out of your routines and ordinary mental state; it needs to be expansive and inclusive rather then narrow and exclusive. When you step aside to look at something anew, and step into another "territory," sometimes you end up on fertile ground (as it seems we were lucky to have done in this class) and sometimes you don't, and that's okay too.
LV: I’d like to go back to when you said that “architects could benefit from thinking narratively” and that “they [the architects] don’t necessarily need to know how to write.” In the article “When Writers become Architects,” Architizer suggests “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.”3 Do you agree? And how much of a role does writing play in the current education of a young architect?
MP: I really can’t say what kind of role writing plays in the current education of a young architect. I don’t have enough experience to answer. I studied in Italy a long time ago, when the system was quite different. There was no undergraduate/ graduate program like now, just a single five-year program plus thesis.
What I can honestly say though is that, as an architecture student, writing played unfortunately no role whatsoever in my educational experience. We were just asked to read some essays about architecture, of course, and read many books on the history of architecture, and that’s basically it. Our papers were mostly technical, therefore narrative, especially literary narrative, was a foreign entity. I recently had a small taste of the role writing plays at an architecture school in Italy, when I was invited to present the Laboratory of Literary Architecture at a design course at the Polytechnic of Turin's School of Architecture. A young professor had come up with an interesting reverse exercise: he'd asked his students, as part of a larger exercise, to write a text based on an existing building. They had to choose a building from any period and come up with a piece of writing of any kind (fictional, essay-like, etc.) that was inspired by, or that somehow was a literary translation of, that building. It was interesting to notice how almost all the students got kind of trapped inside the building itself. The variety of texts they produced ranged from a fictional story that took place inside the building to a fictional essay that described a made-up historical reconstruction of the building. I could not help but notice how their instinctive approach was limited and restrained by them being architecture students.
LV: I had a similar experience in my second year at the Politecnico of Milan.
During that semester's studio project, my professor, Oliviero Godi, asked us to write a poem about the site project as an alternative way of doing site analysis and, I feel that both your writing students and myself went through a similar process of finding, extracting and reducing in order to reach the conceptual structure that lies beyond the form of written words in their case and of a natural landscape in my case. Having said that, do you think it's possible to claim the existence of a sub-language that becomes universal and common to all artists (writers, poets, painters, composers, architects etc.) once stripped away from the form through which it is manifested (novels, poems, drawings, music, space etc.)?
MP: Of course. I think that this is exactly the point and the bottom line of our conversation: there is a core, a common thread that obviously runs through and links many of the creative disciplines you listed—and many more, of course. The challenges are finding it, as it's not always that obvious or easy to see through the outer layer of form, and knowing that in order to find it you need curiosity and humility to place yourself in some kind of unfamiliar territory. Professor Godi evidently wasn't concerned about this or, for that matter, about appropriation or "contamination."
In fact, I believe that teaching and learning rely on the very same idea of a "sub-language", i.e. that common ground or point of contact between the teacher and the student. My educational experience at the Polytechnic of Milan in the early 90s was instead one of total detachment: I sat, together with hundreds of other students, far away from a professor who stayed firmly positioned behind a large desk and tried to convey his knowledge to us. It was definitely not an ideal educational experience, but it helped me realize that certainties and erudition tend to hinder imagination and the discovery of that common ground. Or maybe I am completely wrong...
1 AJ Artemel. “When Writers Become Architects: An Experiment In Space And The Written Word.” Architizer. 28 Oct. 2013. http://architizer.com/blog/when-writers-become-architects/
2 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, trans. David Pears and Brian Mc- Guinness (London: Routledge, 1972), 56Routledge, 1972), 56
3 AJ Artemel. “When Writers Become Architects: An Experiment In Space And The Written Word.” Architizer. 28 Oct. 2013. http://architizer.com/blog/when-writers-become-architects/