Why do we write about architecture? I think there are two reasons: why it is and what it is. The ‘why’ is political, to do with economics, legislation and cultural attitudes. The ‘what’ is a story, to transport the reader and help them understand why a space might be either powerful or appalling. To achieve this, we must do more than tell them how big it is, what the walls are made of or from which obscure branch of architectural theory it is manifest.
The best writing leaves room for the imagination; words that suggest rather than describe, to offer a different way of looking at something without ever being prescriptive. The English novelist, Magnus Mills, has an innate ability to paint a vivid picture in broad strokes, creating a world which is at once familiar and indefinable. His stories are like parables, fictional and with all of the freedom that entails but with an underlying message that is deeply philosophical without ever intellectualising – the reader always has agency.
This is fundamental, from our childhood introduction to literature. The writer Kate Bernheimer puts it best when she says that “fairy tales are exemplified by spare and abstract detail, leaving enormous space — big as the sky — for the reader to wonder”. Wouldn’t it be great if there was room for wonder in everything?
For me, the best architectural writing uses the devices of classic literature to seize the imagination. It is rare enough though; thoughtful, critical writing that captures the imagination. Tom Wilkinson’s esoteric pieces for the Architectural Review spring to mind, as does Mark Chalmers’ dense, investigative but also powerfully visual writing in his Urban Realm blog.
Some writing straddles the real and the imagined so that the reader is never completely sure, conjuring a sort of subconscious dream-state, but more commonly the imagined is divorced from the real, as if fiction has no place in serious discussion. Surely, they are the same and through a spoken and written exploration we can attempt to understand this complex relationship?
In an article for the Architectural Record in 1928, Frank Lloyd Wright holds that the architect must “conceive the building in the imagination, not on paper but in the mind, thoroughly – before touching paper”. If architecture begins as an imagined thing, then surely the completed work should retain something of that dream-state and be communicated in those terms – as a feeling or an emotion.
To some extent that is what Jonathan Meades does; deconstructing the real into a theoretical, philosophical and fantastical experience, resisting the urge to descend into tedious explanation, to describe what is there or, when describing a building, to second-guess the architect’s stylistic intention. Instead he attempts to capture the spirit of what he sees; his experience, shared through articulate prose that transports us temporarily into his world. We might not feel the same way, but the experience moves us to consider our own interpretation.
I’m not a writer – I am a lover of words. I love what they are capable of in the right hands; how they can make us feel, what they can make us see. My resolution is to make more use of them and to make better use of them.