The Last Five
This week’s five remaining titles on our architecture in fiction list moves away from last week’s Sci-fi dominated theme and lands back on earth, where we can spend some time people watching from invisible windows, through modernist glass panels and why not also from secret hiding places. In today’s list, we present you architecture with the power to shape-shift historical events, wars, jigsaw puzzles, paintings, ethical dilemmas and what makes us essentially human. As usual, if you want to read any of these novels during the long bank holiday weekend, you can pop into our shop today and tomorrow Saturday until 5pm to pick up a copy. Otherwise you can also order them online.
Number six on our list is Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room. When Victor and Liesel Landauer meet architect Rainer von Abt during their honeymoon in Venice, the Landauers, enthused by von Abt’s radically modern architecture ideas, commission their new friend to build a house for them, a 1930’s modernist glass and steel house on a hillside outside a Czech town.
The Landauer house soon becomes the central character of the novel and draws direct inspiration from the famous Tugendhat villa built by Mies van der Rohe in 1930 in Brno. The story of the glass room mirrors very closely the history of the Villa Tugendhat, which after only 8 years of serving as a home for the Tugendhat family, was confiscated by the Gestapo, who turned it into an office. The Villa’s ownership changed hands again at the end of WWII when it was turned into quarters and stables for the soviet military. As the story of war in Europe unfolds, the glass room metamorphoses into different kinds of buildings, reflecting some of the most significant historical events that took place between the 1930s and the 1980s.
Life: A User’s Manual was first published 1978 and soon became Georges Perec’s best known literary work, giving him international acclaim. With the help of a jigsaw puzzle and a well known chess problem known as the knight’s tour, a sequence where the knight is required to visit every square of the chess board only once, Perec used a 10 storey apartment building at the fictional Parisian address, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, as the setting to weave together 99 seemingly disconnected life stories.
In similar fashion to the way Hitchcock showed us the apartment building as a container for the urban living microcosm in his 1954 mystery thriller “Rear Window”, Perec moves closer into the lives of the apartment dwellers, shaping characters through detailed descriptions of room interiors and the scenes that unfold inside them, painting a picture of everyone’s and no one’s life with his words.
Charles Belfoure is an American architect, writer and historian who takes us into the city of Paris during World War II with his latest novel. In The Paris Architect we meet Lucien Bernard, an amoral individual trying to live through the German occupation unnoticed by turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the German soldiers against the Jews. When the architect finds himself short of money, he faces the dilemma of whether to accept a generously paid, but also the most challenging and dangerous design job of his career. A wealthy Jewish man wants to commission Bernard to retrofit buildings with hiding places, where persecuted families won’t be found by Nazi soldiers.
Full of fascinating architectural problems and their solutions, The Paris Book is a gripping story about ingenuity, skill, clever detailing and the question of ethical values in the face of danger.
In Building Stories by Chris Ware we follow the lives of the inhabitants of a three flat apartment building in Chicago. More than a book this is a graphic novel presented in the form of eleven pamphlets inside a beautifully designed box, where the reader is invited to build his own narrative by changing the order of the pamphlets. Like Perec’s Life: a User’s Manual this is a puzzle and a painting where the stories are told through detailed illustrations of apartment interiors, as well as plans, sections and elevations inhabited by an array of characters and the objects they own. If you pay close attention to the street view vignettes, you might be able to spot one or two apartment buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Number ten and last on our list is Italo Calvino’s modern classic Invisible Cities. In this work of experimental fiction Calvino sets out to describe the city of Venice many times over in every short chapter of the book. More than a story, this is collection of impressionistic sketches of the same city in the guise of several imaginary places visited by Marco Polo, the narrator of the book. The descriptions are made of poetry, ideas, meditations, feelings, perceptions and all the things that stir inside when we contemplate something that moves us. If you haven’t read this yet, this is a beautiful book.
…or a respite from that JCT
Quite often an architect will approach the bookshop till with an armful of books about contractual procedures and CDM regulations and a look of resignation. Placing the books on the counter with a heavy thud and a nostalgic smile, we’ll hear the now familiar phrase “I’m only buying boring books today, I’m afraid”.
Beyond the maze of planning applications, endless varieties of contract administration forms and keeping up with the latest change in Building Regulation Part L, exists a world of architecture fiction that explores ideas, philosophies, dreams and fears that lurk behind the facades of buildings. These are some of the books that spur our imaginations, and set us free to explore the often ignored psychological depths of the empty space between four walls, the symbolic meaning of a glass façade, or the power struggles inside an imposing concrete structure.
We’ve put together a fiction list of books written by architects, about architects, or where the architecture becomes a central character of the story, that we hope will persuade you to treat yourself to a “non-boring” book next time you find yourself browsing through our building contract shelf.
Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel is an intergalactic utopian fable that takes place in Pallas, an asteroid where its worm-like shaped inhabitants enjoy a quiet, orderly life, dedicating their time to artistic pursuits and redesigning the asteroid’s interiors into extraordinary architectural patterns, infused with music and lighting. The sensory contemplative existence of the Palladian creatures gets interrupted when visionary engineer Lesabéndio hatches a plan to build a 44 mile high tower to join the two sides of the double asteroid.
Paul Scheerbart was a writer and visionary proponent of glass architecture, whose architectural fables were admired by architects Bruno Taut, Walter Gropius, and Hans Scharoun, as well as by influential thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Gerschom Scholem. After the now out of print The Grey Cloth: A Novel on Glass Architecture, Lesabéndio is Scheerbart’s most widely acclaimed work.
Number two on our list is The Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles. It tells the story of a friendship between Oskar, a minimalist music composer best known for his “Variations on Train Timetables”, and an old university friend, whose name we never get to find out. When Oskar has to travel to America to finalise his divorce proceedings, he leaves the care of his flat and his two cats in the hands of his trusted friend. Although Oskar remains absent from the story throughout the book, we get to know him intimately through descriptions of his apartment, and the carefully composed notes with care instructions left around his home. As we read his friend’s narration over the next eight days, we gradually start to learn about Oskar’s neurotic obsession with perfection and neatness. As the days pass, a series of comic domestic accidents snowball into a chain of catastrophes that threaten to dismantle Oskar’s friendship, while the rest of his life falls apart elsewhere.
The City and the City by China Miéville is a classic detective noir thriller that takes place in a familiar and simultaneously surreal setting. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad police unit of Beszel is called to investigate the murder of a woman. The city’s most unusual characteristic is that it shares the same topographical space as the city of UI Qoma. Although the citizens of both cities converge every day routinely, it is against the law to acknowledge each other’s existence. If a citizen accidentally makes contact with someone from the other city, he has to learn to “unsee” them to avoid punishment. As Inspector Borlú delves deeper into his police investigation, he’ll find himself having to cross the perilous physical and psychic boundaries of these two cultures separated by a shared space.
J.G. Ballard’s classic High Rise takes us into the belly of a respectable city tower block where minor disputes amongst the residents start escalating until they reach disproportionate heights. Civility and social order gradually degenerate into savagery when neighbours start organising themselves into several rival camps, and life in the tower block regresses into a ‘Lord of the Flies’ type of society. One of the central characters of the story is the building’s architect Anthony Royal who, believing in the power of architecture to organise and shape societies, tries unsuccessfully to rule the tower block from his penthouse apartment. This is one of Ballard’s most chilling and uncomfortable dystopias that uses architecture as a metaphor of how we construct societies, and how fragile those social structures are.
From the hand of the master of metaphysical horror, number five on our list is H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House. In this short story we meet mathematics student Walter Gilman. When he moves into an attic room of unusual and nearly physically impossible geometrical characteristics, Gilman becomes increasingly bewitched by the possibility of travelling to other dimensions with the help of structures of particular spatial proportions.
The Dreams in the Witch House is one of the finest examples of the use of architectural spaces to create unearthly worlds and disturbing psychological perceptions of unreality.
Next Friday we’ll publish the five remaining titles on our architecture in fiction list. Since we know that most of you have come across it countless times already, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead won’t be on it. If you’d like to find out how our selection ends, keep an eye on our blog. In the meantime, if we’ve succeeded in stirring your curiosity, you can find all of today’s list in our shop at 66 Portland Place and also on our website.