The cover of David Spurr’s Architecture and Modern Literature dramatizes some of the narrative opportunities and descriptive challenges involved in bringing together the two fields of cultural production in the title. The picture of a solitary man with a hat and briefcase, in the foggy backdrop of the empty Piazza San Marco in Venice displays, whips up a whole history of Venice-based stories.
The representation and interpretation of architectural space in modern literature from the early nineteenth century to the present have been immaculately cataloged in the book. It aims to show how literary production and architectural construction are related to cultural forms in the historical context of modernity. The book thoroughly examines the larger questions of the relation between literature and architecture. It seeks to understand the extent to which these two arts define one another in the social and philosophical contexts of modernity. David Spurr addresses a broad range of material, including literary, critical, and philosophical works in English, French, and German which will serve as a foundational introduction to the emerging interdisciplinary study of architecture and literature. The book proposes a new historical and theoretical overview of this area, in which modern forms of “meaning” in architecture and literature are related to the discourses of being, dwelling, and homelessness. (Spurr 2012)
The argument is for the centrality of “literature’s encounter with the built environment” in the emergence of modernity which in itself is a wide-ranging and intellectually ambitious contribution to an emerging field of scholarship. He cites a brief definition of the widely used term “modernity” that has had obvious consequences for his approach and object of study. It is widely based on the prediction of the notion that the early nineteenth century witnessed urban industrial change on a hitherto unprecedented scale. He furthers the argument that these conditions produced a crisis of meaning for literature and architecture, leading to two very different expressions of modernist aesthetics. The fifty-page introduction outlines an impressive grasp of architectural theory and traces the analogies between literary and architectural form in the European philosophical tradition. He goes out of his way to put the two cultural activities on a par as not only “defining the world in which we live” but being “potentially the most unlimited of all art forms in their comprehension of human existence itself”. (Spurr 2012)
The evolution of the concepts of “dwelling” and “home” from their “foundational myths” of Babel and the Odyssey are outlined along with the key concepts that structure his subsequent readings: namely, ruins, the fragment, interiors, the body, materials, and forms (Spurr 2012). Even though the themes are not new, the book convinces one with a detailed analysis of the literary and architectural work and their interactions lead to some innovative thought processes. Conscious efforts have gone into not allowing either art form to triumph over the other. This can be derived also from the paucity of illustrations in his book. A mere handful of predictable images, from a Piranesi drawing and a Victorian illustration for a Dickens novel to Buster Keaton’s proto-deconstructive architecture, architectural drawings by Viollet-le-Duc, and a picture of Proust sitting on a balcony in Venice. There is a literary scholar at work here, despite the way the key terms have been stacked in the title, and one might wish someday an architectural critic or historian would come along to address the same conjunction of disciplines. Although the author’s corpus is canonically Western, he has all the linguistic and cultural baggage to swiftly shuttle back and forth between writings in English, German, and French. There is a mixed discussion of primary texts with reflections inspired by Le Corbusier, Heidegger, Adorno, and Derrida.
With an established scholar, the little need to become defensive about the topic or clutter his text with notes is felt. Contrarily he spins out his ambitious narrative in crisp writing. He keeps the reader riveted and eager to ask questions along the way. With such a knowledgeable guide, one should not mind too much if the story takes big leaps on occasions, becomes fragmentary at times, and has a few conspicuous seams. It needs work for the listener to move mentally from Adolf Loos’s Vienna to Mies van der Rohe’s glass towers to Rilke’s Seventh Elegy to the writings of Jean Rhys and Samuel Beckett, all within half a page. Some of the occasional patchworks of Spurr’s abundant ideas may be taken to reduplicate the fragmentary logic of modernity that constitutes one of the organizing themes in the book. Case studies of key texts and historical moments follow in the subsequent chapters. The works of greats like Dickens, Proust, Woolf, and Beckett are explored in “An End to Dwelling. The analysis of Bleak House is an excellent example of how architectural theory can invigorate critical readings of home and space in Victorian fiction. Beckett’s use of theatrical space in addition to its attention to the text discusses both the nihilism and resistance to the nihilism of some modern architects. The final chapter on Ballard and Houellebecq is more disparate than the relatively coherent and extended narrative about the long nineteenth century.
The price for the eschatological thinking about the crisis of modernity forces the book to a dead-end. “In its annihilation of subjective value along with everything else,” he writes of Houellebecq’s Whatever (Spurr 2012). It leaves one wondering when that new way of writing and building is finally going to arrive, or whether it may do so at all.