Part 1 – From Figure to Con-figuration: Generative Architecture Through the Prism of Literature


This is the first part of a talk I recently gave in Figurations, a History and Theory conference at the Bartlett School of Architecture, organised by Jane Rendell, Sophie Read and Robin Wilson (25 April 2018). It is fortuitous that that the conference took place at the same time with the opening of this blog, which also has the title Con-figurations. In my talk I addressed the role of con-figuration as a generative mechanism in architecture and literature. The purpose was to shed light to the question:

If literature is enriched by architectural con-figuration, how can the architectural imagination find expression through the con-figurational mechanisms of literature? 

We only need to think of key episodes illustrating the role of architecture in shaping poetry and literature. In the Divine Comedy1 Dante conceived the cosmos through architectonic properties, a tripartite structure of three realms: Hell visualised as a conical pit; Purgatory described as a conical mountain on the exact opposite side of the planet, and Paradise consisting of infinite spheres.

In The Library of Babel2 Jorge Luis Borges presented a model of the universe as a library of infinitely expanding hexagonal galleries. Inspired by Borges, Umberto Eco’ in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods3, described literature as a wood of forking paths where one can choose alternative routes and draw ramified conclusions.


While writers are inspired by architecture, architects are also fascinated by narrative. From Henry Hoare II’ s Stourhead Garden, overlaying key moments from Virgil’ s Aeneid to a Romantic English garden, Steven Holl’s competition entry for the museum of Ile Seguin, inspired by Stéphane Mallarme’s poem, A throw of the dice will never abolish chance, and Koolhaas’ Delirious New York,4 retroactively imagining Manhattan as a scriptwriter, poetry and literature have provided architecture with many figures and constructs.


Architecture has not furnished only these symbolic forms with models. Over the centuries it has served as the intellectual edifice where channels of thought in mathematics, cosmology and philosophy intersect and poetically unite. A keen observer of the heavens, Dante followed in the Comedia the Aristotelian model of the universe, enclosing all knowledge of the world in a circle.

Each ethereal sphere in Paradise becomes more perfect as he travels to the highest heaven, the Empyrian, the centre where God resides. Borges’ universe on the other hand, followed Pascal’s dictum, the centre of the Library is in every hexagon and its circumference is unattainable. In The Name of the Rose5, Eco’s Library takes after Borges’ Library, a matrix of interconnected rooms. It has a void at the centre and some dead ends, but is in essence rhizomatic. Even Koolhaas in the City of the Captive Globe (1972) saw Manhattan as an archipelago of blocks that also contains the world. From centralised churches in the Renaissance to the architectural promenade of modernist plans, and from the bricolage of historical fragments in Postmodernism to the contemporary conception of buildings and cities as networks, architecture and literature have been exchanging figurative, linguistic, philosophical, scientific and cosmological models.

The architectural theorist Robin Evans describes two models of understanding in Dante’s universe: the one is a complete nest of spheres seen from the outside, the other a partial view of the same from within.These two modes impinge on the essentiality of information, one corresponding to Dante the poet, and the other to Dante the person that moves through the three realms.7

It is not surprising that writers and philosophers are fascinated by architecture, and architects are attracted to speaking and writing. Poised between what the eyes see and what the intellect knows, between sensual and mental perception, architecture is an actual real world application of philosophy. But, as Bill Hillier suggests, ‘if architecture had an overarching theory about these binaries, it would be as though it had solved all problems in philosophy at once. The aim in architecture is to see these not as formulas or problems to be solved but as research questions or as creative tensions, opening up possibilities for new concepts.’8

The question of the relationship between seeing and knowing has been addressed by Evans, who explained that productive of a three-dimensional reality that would end up outside the drawing, drawing in architecture has had a hegemony that is rarely challenged9. If drawing flattens and dominates three dimensional space with its visuality in architecture, the textual abstracts and homogenises the warp and weft of language. In a reverse analogy to Evans’ concerns about drawing, François Lyotard discussed the repression of the figure in language. In Discourse, Figure10, he explained that ‘discourse organizes knowledge as a conceptual system of units of meaning in a flat and homogeneous space of relationships. The figure on the other hand, is corporeal connected to the eye and repressed in linguistics.’11

To illustrate the points he was making, Lyotard turned to Mallarme’s A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance, calling attention to the visuality of the poem and the physicality of the marks on the page which rolls and bounds from page to page, leaving gaps and spaces. ‘On the white pages the figural emerged to confront the reader with the dark ink that runs erratically like a tossed die against the winds of chance’. For Lyotard, ‘the figural is never discourse’s Other but always its ghost, vision separated from concept by a mere comma’.12

Stephane Mallarme.jpeg

Architecture and language have a productive relationship, not only because they are exchanging metaphors and analogical models, but also because of having similar concerns. These refer to their mode of operation and representation, how they order experience and structure the object of knowledge. Approaching the visuality of the figural and the spatiality of language with literature and architecture as frames of reference, I will ask: How does figuration infuse language and discourse, and how does the spatiality of language inform architecture?

In the next blog entry I will explore these questions first, through Borges fictions, and second, through some architectural examples, where I will argue how the distribution of social programme and spatial relationships can generate serendipitous social encounters, occurring probabilistically by the acts of performing our daily activities in buildings.  


1. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. Allen Mandelbaum, (New York; Toronto; London: Everyman’s Library, 1995).

2. Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions, trans. By A. Hurley, (London: Penguin, 2000).

3. Umberto Eco, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1994)

4. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York – A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, (New York: Monacelli Press, new ed. 1994)

5. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver, (London: Mandarin, 1996).

6. Robin Evans, The Projective Cast – Architecture and its three Geometries, (Cambridge Mass: The MIT Press, 1995).

7. This is an observation by Matei Mitrache’s who has recently completed his Masters dissertation at the Bartlett under my supervision.

8. Bill Hillier, unpublished introductory lecture, MSc Spatial Design, Architecture & Cities, 2015.

9. Robin Evans, Translations from Drawings to Buildings, (Cambridge Mass: The MIT Press, 1995).

10. Jean François Lyotard, Discourse, Figure, trans. Anthony Hudek and Mary Lydon, (Minneapolis ; London : University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

11. Jeanette Willette, ‘Jean-François Lyotard and the Figural, Part One’, Accessed: 14 May 2018

12. Ibid.


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