Art, in its various forms, has been considered a touchstone of civilization. All the different types of art are interconnected. Amidst them, architecture and literature form a special bond with humans. They reach out to humans, encompass them, and mold them. Architecture and literature form a divine bond wherein together they become a medium of expression for society. The spatial configurations in architecture utilize the evocative essence of literature to speak out to us. Similarly, literature builds upon the architecture’s visual and spiritual link with the reader.

Nobel laureate Alice Munro illuminates this very connection through these lines from her 1996 anthology, Selected Stories“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.”

Let us now follow the yellow brick road towards understanding the different ways in which architecture is used in English Literature.

1. Genre and aura 

Fiction belonging to the horror and mystery genre frequently used the visual imagery of architecture to convey the aura. The dark and enigmatic ambiance of the work is set through the description of the architectural background. In ‘The fall of the house of usher’ by Edgar Allan Poe, his picturization of The Usher house itself sets a spooky aura. The house is said to have ‘bleak walls’ and ‘vacant eye-like windows.’ The further portrayal of the house and its surroundings convey a sense of decay, disease, and despair.

On the contrary, Jane Austen used architecture to invite the reader into the world of elitism and nobility of the landed gentry of Victorian Britain. The architecture of the manors and mansions in her work, provide an insight into the status quo and character of the inhabitants occupying it. This sets the tone of the entire narrative.

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Illustration of The House of Usher by artist Matěj Čadil © www.medium.com

2. Sense of place and period

The description of the architecture of the city gives an idea of the place the story is set in. In historical fiction, the architecture will also tell us the time period it is set in and the socio-cultural background of the characters.

Tara”, from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the wind is a well-known example. The family home of Scarlet O’Hara is a picture-perfect example of Antebellum architecture. The descriptions of the homestead conjure in the reader’s mind, the image of time before the civil war in North America; the changes that affected the characters during the civil war and after it is also embodied by “Tara”. The grandiose house slowly degrades and shows off the destruction it suffered during the course of time and socio-cultural upheaval. This informs the reader regarding the location and changing time period of the narrative.

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The Hollywood version of ‘Tara © www.architecturaldigest.com

3. Symbols and metaphors

In some works of literature, the architecture of the buildings and the urban design serves as a symbol. It is used to convey various concepts and perspectives. The architecture in this scenario becomes a thematic representation of the central storyline or of a character.

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the design of the fictional city Oceania symbolizes the social hierarchy within it. The large and imposing architecture of the four ministries (i.e., Ministry of Truth, peace, love, and plenty) towers over the rest of the city. This shows their power, infallibility, and immortality of authority.

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Depiction of ‘Oceania’ by WAI Architecture Think Tank © www.architizer.com

4. Character and actor

Architecture is not merely the tool to create a setting in literature. Many a time, it takes on the part of a character in the narrative. In this case, the architecture is anthropomorphized through the story, and it begins to express human qualities.

The London in Charles Dickens’s works is one such example. The city is not merely a background here. It expresses itself, succumbs at times, and even oppresses the protagonist. For instance, in his works, The Old Curiosity Shop and Oliver Twist, London take on an antagonistic nature, and the characters struggle to escape its hold.

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Illustration depicting Charles Dickens view of Seven Dials in London © www.smithsonianmag.com

5. Link of narration

Changes are an essential element in storytelling. In most of the works in literature, a change is what triggers the advancement of the plot. Despite this, the changing elements must have a common link. Architecture takes on this responsibility in some works.

The renowned Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling portrays this link. Throughout the story that spans over eight books, the characters undergo various arcs. The dynamism in the story is complemented by the whimsical quality of the architecture of Hogwarts and the rest of the wizarding world.

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Pen and paper illustration of architectural styles in Harry Potter © www.archdaily.com

6. Trigger for Transformations

The protagonists of any significant work of literature transform as the work progresses. This transformation imparts a major development in the story and the character. Architecture is imbibed as the stimulus for such transformations.

One of the prominent works in which this interaction is portrayed is Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’. It is set around a family. The lighthouse and the family’s summer home become important stimuli in the narration. Throughout the novel, they trigger the thought processes, introspection, and the resulting transformations in each of the characters.

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Illustration of the symbols in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the lighthouse’ © www.coursehero.com

7. Emotions

In literature, emotions play an important role. The proper depiction of these varying emotions cements the work’s connection with its reader. Various devices are used to convey this, and one of the well-used devices is that of architecture. Architecture is known to affect the emotions of its user. Similarly, it is used to convey the same in literature.

An example of this is the novel Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. The architecture of a kitchen holds special meaning for the protagonist. Throughout the work, the character wades through the emotions accompanying the loss of loved ones, building up self-reliance, creation of camaraderie, and development of hope. Throughout each of these, the various kitchens and accommodations she encounters portray her emotions to the reader.

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Conveying emotion and genre using architecture; Design concept by Shannon Lynette Buchanan © shannonlynettebuchanan.wordpress.com

8. Heralder

English literature does not confine to depictions of the past and present. It also utilizes imagination and creativity to conjure futuristic views. These might seem like a fantasy at a specific time period. Still, it opens a treasure trove of possibilities for the creative thinker. To depict these scenarios, architecture becomes a powerful tool.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams uses sci-fiction and comedy to discuss various issues that are close to our reality. The entire story is set in a fictional scenario after the destruction of planet earth. But the architectural details of the different worlds described in the series add verisimilitude to it.

Conceptual art showing the architecture of Milliways from ‘The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy’ series; Illustration by Adrian Mark Gillespie © www.deviantart.com/adrianmarkgillespie

Let’s bid adieu to the yellow brick road with these parting words. The warp and weft must synchronize beautifully in order to impart a pleasing texture to the fabric. Similarly, the architecture must be weaved into literature seamlessly whilst letting it shine through.

Author

Namita is an architect. Her experience at COSTFORD paved her interest in the architectural philosophies of Laurie Baker. She has a passion for writing. Her mother, a preceptor in English literature instilled in her the passion for books and languages. She also loves to explore new places and wishes to be a globetrotter.

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