Part 2 – From Figure to Con-figuration: Generative Architecture Through the Prism of Literature


Following from my previous blog, I explore here how architecture informs literature and how ideas can be transferred from literature to architecture.

In my book Architecture and Narrative13 I looked at the short fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer who used architectural models in his work. One of the most intriguing stories he wrote is The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero14. Borges opens this fiction introducing the narrator, Ryan, the great grandson of Fergus Kilpatrick, an Irish revolutionary who died mysteriously in a theatre during a victorious rebellion. Writing Kilpatrick’s biography, Ryan attempts to explain the enigma of his death. He thus, discovers parallels that link his murder with Julius Caesar. Ryan’s first interpretation concerns the workings of cyclical time. But there is new evidence: words spoken by a beggar the night of the murder were ‘prefigured’ by Shakespeare in Macbeth. Amazed by history copying literature, Ryan deciphers the enigma: Nolan, the oldest comrade of Kilpatrick, had ‘choreographed’ the murder. Following Kilpatrick’s orders to find a traitor, he discovered that the traitor was Kilpatrick himself. Condemned to death, Kilpatrick proposed to die heroically and save the rebellion and his reputation as a hero. Nolan, who was also a translator of Julius Caesar and writer of large theatrical performances, plagiarised events from Shakespeare to stage the scene of the assassination. Kilpatrick died in heroic ecstasy, in a rebellion that was a public performance. Coming to the end of a chain of prefigured events, Ryan realises that Nolan’s plan included the future discovery of the truth and that he perhaps, was also part of this plot. He silences his findings aware of the fact that this might have been also foreseen.

Like most mystery stories, this fiction is composed as a diptych. The first part presents the enigma, while the second one provides the resolution.

If we think of the fiction as a progression, we have a line that starts with Borges and finishes with Nolan. Figure 3.1Nolan is also found at the centre. If we ‘hinge’ the line to form a diptych, all characters are mapped onto themselves, while Borges and Nolan coincide. This transformation captures the dual identity of Kilpatrick, middle Nolan and Ryan. It also suggests that Nolan is Borges. Borges, Nolan and Shakespeare thus, belong to a class of authors, whereas Ryan, Kilpatrick and Caesar are characters in the authors’ plot. However, ‘authors’ and ‘characters’ have a dual identity also. Ryan is a writer of Kilpatrick’s story and character in Nolan’s plan. Nolan is Kilpatrick’s comrade and writer of theatrical performances. Finally, Kilpatrick’s improvisations of Nolan’s text during the rebellion establish him as an emerging author.Figure 3.2

If we superimpose the two triangles we have a hexagon. If the hexagon is reflected on its four axes or rotated six times by 60 degrees all vertices are mapped on each other and become interchangeable. This shows that every person is a phenotypical variation of the same entity, the category of ‘story-maker’ who has the dual identity of author and character.

Can we then re-construct the story from its generator? This is possible by two axes meeting at an angle of 60 degrees and a point that stands in the middle. Figure 3.5.jpgThis point is reflected three times and rotated twice creating the hexagon like in a kaleidoscope. The diagram can be seen as Borges in front of two mirrors. If we think of the book we opened to read the story and the fiction-diptych as made by mirrors, we see that at the moment of the reconstruction we coincide with Borges and that authors and characters are reflections of ourselves. Like Ryan we are captured in the plot. Author and reader discover each other in the process of writing and in the process of reading.

In the previous story reflections and rotations led to a single identity. In The Garden of Forking Paths15, a garden that bifurcates in time generating parallel universes, the geometrical pattern that captures infinity is shown in this diagram produced by overlapping circles each of which represents a character and the story he narrates. Figure 3.6This pattern can grow infinitely creating a network of nodes that express the pattern of forking paths. Death and the Compass16 follows detective Lonnrot and the mystery of a periodic series of murders that occur in different parts of the city on the 3rd night of each month.

In the linear progression of the fictions this structure is disassembled to achieve differentiation. The units are German spies, Chinese governors, police detectives, poets, chess players, or Irish revolutionaries. They are contemporaries or belong to different temporal moments. They come from other fictions or from historical events. Underneath this diversity of people, happenings and works of literature lies a network of relations establishing their homogenisation across the plane. As the stories advance the identity of character undergoes transformations: Heroes become traitors and their comrades become their judges, persecutors become victims and pursued criminals weave mazes that capture their hunters, Irish conspirators become play writers and fictional characters become historical figures.

The power of these fictions to stimulate the imagination lies in the capacity to convey a multiplicity of virtually embedded combinations leading to the generation of possibility. Borges created a type of computer, where meaning is encoded through the potential of the system rather than expressed as a static representation. This strategy exposes readers to a wealth of unexpected associations, and generates alternative worlds through a process of combinations, training their imagination.

The spatiality and the figural in language is not because of the empty spaces and gaps, but because of turning words into syntactic and semantic crossroads of forking paths so that meanings abound. Mallarmé does not show the figural in language but how the figural and the spatial are intertwined.

The figural enters the text in three ways:

  1. as figure, visual entity or image
  2. as network encoding a potential for transformations and new combinations among narrative units
  3. as topological structure of pathways, depending on which pathway we take, we encounter different permutations and potential for meanings

Yet, the construction of fictional spaces is just one aspect of Dante’s geographical imagination. The path through InfernoPurgatorio, and Paradiso is full of references to places in the “real” world. The portrait of Dante made by Domenico di Michelino in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence, 1465) visualizes this two-fold geography by having in the same frame the pit of Hell, the mount of Purgatory, the spheres of Heaven, and the city of Florence: this world and the other, together.

How does literature and the spatiality of language inform space and architecture? Space is a very complex term. For Bill Hillier, ‘…space seems to be the emptiness surrounding things rather than a thing in itself, and so does not participate easily in the processes by which entities are identified and named by human minds. If we try to say that ‘space’ is a universal term for the many individual spaces which we experience, in the same sense that ‘bird’ is a universal term for an unimaginable number of individuals birds, we find that the individual ‘spaces’ referred to seem not to be well-defined entities with recognisable shapes, but emptinesses with arbitrarily many shapes and sizes, sometimes continuous rather than discrete, and often lacking any property in common. We cannot easily indicate the spaces that we seek to express through this universal, as we can indicate the instance of ‘bird’. We don’t have words to describe space, as there are no spatial units of information – such as words – in the flux of experience. This is because space is about relatedness – ‘ideas we think with’ rather than discrete elements, words, or universal terms that capture ‘ideas we think of’17. Architecture is similar to language, in that in using language we may think that words are the carriers of meaning. In reality it is not the concepts signified by words, but the semantic and syntactic relationships among words that structure meaning. We understand, use and create relationships unconsciously even though we have no words to describe them. The relatedness of space is part of the apparatus we think with.

Figure 2


The spatiality of language enters space, first: through figures, voids, staircases, columns, etc. Second, through spatial relationships; and finally, through things we do unconsciously, without thinking of them while we are doing them, similarly to the ways in which we do not think of grammar and syntax when we speak. As with the relationships between words, spatiality in architecture is about relationships between spaces and between people: from frontal relationships between spaces and objects, to multi-directional vistas, which encourage informal and unexpected relations, fleeting views of people appearing and disappearing from vision, yielding unexpected, serendipitous social encounters, and finally, to encounters that emerge probabilistically by the acts of moving and meeting with each other in space and with objects.

MoMA_Fifth floor-paths+art copy

13.Sophia Psarra, Architecture and Narrative – The Formation of Space and Cultural Meaning, (London; New York, 2009).

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

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Bill Hillier, “The Art of Place and the Science of Space”, in World Architecture, 185, 96-102.

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: