Literature is figurative space-making. Architecture, in a similar yet contrasting way, is literal space-making. The former only to be thought of in an abstract sense, relegated to the world of ideas and fictional myth. Architecture, on the other hand, presents itself as tactile, alive to the real world and to human sense perception, a device for our own daily use and of our own making. In both literature and architecture, we seek escapism from the exterior to the interior- as it relates to the boundaries between inside and out, us and them, me and you, here and there.
All art is an experience, a personal reflection on the nature of humanity and the many ways we choose to express our inward selves to others. David Spurr’s Architecture and Modern Literature pits the two, literature and architecture, against the other. The two cultural activities, cites Spurr, are on a par as not only defining the world in which we live in, but also being the most unlimited of all art forms in their comprehension of human existence itself. Literature, increasingly finds itself marginalised as we give over to the world of images – a new building by star architects such as Hadid with her sculptural motifs or Libeskind’s World Trade Centre, create a greater symbolic and lasting impact on the public’s consciousness than any great work of literature can achieve.
The arts are ultimately untranslatable and things spiritual can be built that cannot be sung or expressed through words alone. Architecture, in the present moment concerns itself too much with the Modernist dictum of form and order, our modern-day precedent and philosophy for all things concerning life and how we live it out daily. In literature the physical landscape is attributed with human traits as an expression of emotions we find ourselves in or can at the very least relate to. If mountains can look gloomy and rivers can sing, in the same way, why can’t architecture be allowed to have some feeling attributed to it? Houses can be discreet or smug, hotels pompous, hospitable and churches stoic and monumental. The feeling of a space has more to do with more than just form and order.
Architecture, above all art forms, is the perfect metaphor for the interiority of any subject. It combines both the outward form with literal interiority. Pure spatial, wordless thought is an essential impact of both literary and architectural structure. As the eminent writer, Alice Munro states; “A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”
Julian Pallassma, an eminent architect, theorist and critic said the renewal of any art means rediscovering its deepest essence. Therefore, to speak of the ‘style’ of a building says nothing of its mood, its character, its effect on the inhabitant. The effect of contemplation reached is the true making of space, of architecture, in the same way literature offers new insights into new experiences, scenarios we would not have been able to fathom before. A new perspective on life itself is reached. Can architecture do the same? Can it make us question old orders in exchange for new ones? Can we trade twentieth century modernist principles and ideals for new ideas tied up in the new age we find ourselves in? If literature is so quickly disappearing, being given over to static images that only command respect out of their form and order alone, will there be new words, new theories to create a new type of architecture?
For nineteenth century writers architecture was not only a mere framing or punctuation of a given space or the scenery that served as the backdrop for plot, rather it was produced, permitted and concretized as a concept of history, of the daily staging of life and everyday rituals which expose social behaviour. All literature and architecture is inherently social. The very act of dwelling within a given space relies heavily on living within a distinct social setting and inhabiting a set of values in accordance with that present time. Time and history play a central role in the making of any space, we fit our bodies (the physical) and our minds (the mental, the conceived) in the notions and ideas of the time periods we find ourselves in.
As Martin Heidegger, the renowned German philosopher cites: “Poetically Man dwells.”. Taking the case of the everyday, as presented by Henri Lefebvre in his theories of daily living and ritual, we create meaning for ourselves by ourselves. To dwell poetically is to be conscious of the everyday, to make experiences in the spaces we inhabit and being aware of those spaces as they are presented to us. This is space making, not through the eyes of the original maker, whether it be the writer or architect, but through the eyes and senses of the reader, the occupant walking the rooms and experiencing those spaces as the beginnings of Place and Self and how it is they relate to each other.
Amber Williams is doing her final year in architecture at the University of Cape Town. She has lived in Cape Town for the past 20 years. Drawing daily inspiration from her city and culture, she is involved in the mediums of line illustration, videography, photography and writing to express the landscape in which she grew up in.