Architecture and narrative: a postscript

Carlo Scarpa, Olivetti Showroom. Photo S. Psarra

In the Fall Semester 2020 I was invited to contribute to my friend and colleague John Peponis’ design studio Architecture Perception Curation in the School of Architecture in Georgia Tech. Having given a lecture to John’s students in October, I soon joined a stimulating programme of reviews with John, the art theorist Barbara Stafford (University of Chicago), the architectural critic Michael Benedikt (University of Texas at Austin) and the theorist Yves Abrioux (University of Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint Denis). John’s programme asked students to integrate analytical and design knowledge – a subject which I frequently address in teaching and research and have made it the special subject of my book The Venice Variations (UCL Press). The brief engaged a museum of very special objects, maps and jewelery and was to be situated either in a large park or an urban site in Atlanta. As Michael Benedikt said, John had created a “2×2” experimental design. Based on John’s invitation to contribute to the studio booklet at the end of the semester, I produced the text which follows. Entitled Architecture and narrative: a postscript, the text provided me with the opportunity to reflect again on my book Architecture and Narrative (Routledge 2009), and on the relationship between buildings and language, arguing that both classifiy and structure our knowldge.

Architecture has both interactive and analogical relationships with language. A designed building originates in a linguistic document, the design brief. In the case of libraries, museums and art galleries, the classifications of contents in space are preceded by classifications recorded in texts and reflecting the history of thought. The analogical relationship between the two media goes back to the 19th century and the idea that works of architecture should be read like books, narratives or texts (Forty 2000). Quatremère de Quincy likened historical monuments to libraries – public inscriptions or records of the people. The idea came under strong criticism in the 20th century after modernism asserted that buildings were to be read as autonomous works. Yet, as Forty explains, even if architecture is not a language this does not lessen the value of language for understanding architecture. Hillier (1996), for example, has made a productive analogy between the syntax of space and the syntactic and semantic structure of language. The characteristic spatial relationships that define the cultural inhabitation of space are similar to linguistic rules we ‘think with’.

There are other aspects of the relationship between architecture and language to explore. If the principles of spatial structure function similarly to those of ordinary language, what about narrative motifs or rules used in literary texts? Or what about buildings as social objects, relying on social context and the ordering mechanisms of language to organize cultural messages and relations of power?

I will explore these questions through works by John Soane and Carlo Scarpa. Separated by a century and a half, both architects had a strong relationship with history and context as inspirational resources. A recent competition organised by the curators of Soane’s Museum asked participants to name their favourite object in the building. A winning entry drew attention to relationships intentionally created by the architect: the nymph by Richard Westmacott in the Picture Room Recess overlooking and tempting ‘padre Giovanni’ in the Monk’s Parlor, the Gothic lair in the basement. The fictitious monk was the satirical alter ego of John Soane. Visitors to the Museum come across the nymph first in the Picture Room, when the hinged panels open revealing the statue in the Recess presiding over a void that connects with the Monk’s Parlor. The interface of the statue with the hermit takes its true meaning only at a later moment when they look up from the monk’s cell with the Picture Room panels open. The incongruous encounter between the Classical sensuality of the nymph and the Gothic melancholy of the monk is dramatized through the synchronous viewing of the two spaces and the sequence in which they are visited.

Foreshadowing an encounter or event, space-time manipulation is frequently found in literature, film and drama. It communicates that life is not framed by rationality and predictability. Characteristically, the opening paragraph of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcias Marques reads: ‘Many years later as he faced the firing squad, colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice…’ (1998, 5). Known as prolepsis and analepsis, the motifs of flash-forward and flash-backward often structure a large part of a narrative. The Odyssey begins in media res when Odysseus having escaped from Calypso’s island and her amorous advances, is shipwrecked among the Phaeacians and tells his tale. The story moves backward in time as the hero narrates his many adventures, and only in book 13 does the text return where we were in book, 8 as he sets sail for Ithaca. In the Soane Museum, rooms are strung in linear sequence, from the front to the rear of the building and back, while diagonal vistas reveal distant parts of the interior. Circumnavigational time – the time it takes to walk through the circuit – is in this way juxtaposed with synchronic time, where rooms and objects are instantaneously linked by cross views.

The reading of architectural prolepsis and analepsis suggests an analogical relationship of architecture with literary language. The interactive relationship defines a building and its meaning in a real-world context (Markus and Cameron, 2002). Exhibiting a large collection of historical objects and building fragments, Soane’s Museum has history as its thematic cultural context. Soane’s view of history, however, is fanciful, ‘smitten with love of novelty in animated by direct defiance of all established rules of the architectural schools’ (Soane 1830, 1832, 1835). Domes, colonnades, crypts, vaults, sky-lights, recesses, niches and ante-rooms treat history as a pantheon of forms and a repository of combinations. Like the interplay of space and time, history for the Neoclassical architect is an interchange of past and present that is both sequential and synchronic. From the Georgian front rooms to the back areas and the basement with their Classical, Roman and Egyptian displays, the Museum thematizes history as an imaginative, unbounded and directly accessible supra-historical world freed from the constraints of historical, stylistic and museological knowledge.

Carlo Scarpa’s relationship with history is also based on the notion that the past is malleable. He lived all his life in Venice, a place where, over the centuries, historical forms, types, materials and methods of construction have coalesced into a single urban artifact like a fossil ‘petrified in layers of rock’ (Howard 2002, 3). In the Olivetti Showroom, Scarpa’s inspiration for the linear vertical slicing of space, the narrow walkways in the mezzanine, the sculptural staircase, the water in the central zone and the glass mosaics comes from that great catalogue of forms that is Venice, with its narrow passages, fondamentas, sottoporticos, bridges stretching over the water, water flooding the edges of spaces, the range of colorful materials and the rich surface decorations.

Left: Carlo Scarpa, Olivetti Showroom. Photo S. Psarra; right: Ponte dell’Malvasia, Venice. Photo S. Psarra

By extending circumnavigational time through twists and turns of circulation, Scarpa contrasts the synchronic views from the front and back ends of the showroom with the sinuous progress of the viewer through the interior. There are many similar views in Venice extending over the linear stretches of the canals, to link places that are reached only indirectly, by the meandering and intersecting canals and alleys. Staging movement through a long sequence is a device frequently used by Scarpa even when spaces are not linearly shaped, as in his extension to Canova’s Museum in Possagno, where the varied positioning of statues of different size and height requires the visitors to walk around them crossing their own paths multiple times.

Another linguistic motif used by Scarpa in the extension to Canova’s Museum is mise-en-byme, which means placing a copy of an image or object inside itself, like the snow globe in Orson Wells’ Citizen Cane. Metonymically referring to the clerestory windows at the corners of the tall space in the Canoviana extension, the glass cabinets containing figurines function as mini galleries inside the larger gallery, linking the scale of the building as a whole to that of the windows and the displays. Mise-en-byme has a strong presence in Soane’s Museum too. The vault sail in the Breakfast Room, the cork models of Pompeii and Gandy’s paintings of the Museum are demonstrations of Soane’s desire to embed his own architecture into the historical ancestry.

 Markus and Cameron (2002) explain that language is a neglected subject in discussions of architecture, conventionally approached as a visual rather than verbal statement. Any social practice, like architecture, has both verbal and aesthetic dimensions. While the syntax of space structures social relationships, these relationships, their meaningfulness, and the subtending relations of power are also a function of the ordering systems of language. These operate in the interactive production of the architectural brief as well as of the drawings and conventions that enable exchanges between architects, clients, contractors and builders. As to the aesthetic function of the linguistic analogy, any epic or myth from the Odyssey to Ariadne’s thread demonstrates the age-old relationship between space and language as symbolic media that interlace in imbuing our experience of buildings with narrative sense.

Forty, A. (2000). Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson

Hillier, B. (1996) Space is the Machine: A Configurational Theory of Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Howard, D. (2002) The Architectural History of Venice. Yale University Press.

Markus, T., Cameron, D. (2002) The Words Between the Spaces, London: Routledge.

Marques, G. G. (1998). One Hundred Years of Solitude. London: David Campbell Publishers, p. 5.

Soane J. (1830, 1832, 1835-36). Description of the House and The Museum on the North Side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Residence of John Soane, London.

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