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Literary Architecture

August 16, 2013 | by

One Friday evening in March, I took the train to Columbia University and walked into one of the strangest and most interesting classes I’d ever seen. It was the Laboratory of Literary Architecture, part of the Mellon Visiting Artists and Thinkers Program at Columbia University School of the Arts, and a multimedia workshop in which writing students, quite literally, create architectural models of literary texts. For the past four years, Matteo Pericoli has led the workshop at the Turin-based Scuola Holden creative writing school, and this year, he brought the concept to New York. While the idea seems intuitive enough—each student chooses a text he or she knows inside out, and then builds it—the challenges arise in interpretation. “A text you love is not, necessarily, the best for this project,” said Pericoli. He adds that it is crucial that students work from another author’s text, rather than their own, to facilitate the true objectivity necessary.

And then of course there is the question of getting away from the literal. “One student chose ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again’ and thought she would just make a ship,” he explains, referring to David Foster Wallace’s cruise-ship odyssey. But then they learned the class’s mantra: “Literary, not literal.” The structure that ultimately resulted (because the writing students team up with architects to build models that must function as well as engage) was very different. Writes Elizabeth Greenwood of her final model,

I designed a rectangular structure with many floors. Bolstered by concrete brackets, the end pieces represent the hard, inescapable fact of heavy things in the essay: the Harper’s assignment, the ship itself. But the floors inside these brackets are made of glass to represent the clarity and truth Wallace sees during his time at sea. On the outer edges are two parentheses turned away from one another (which might one day be openings for stairs) representing the thoughts and connections between seemingly unrelated things. These cuts into the plexi allow light to filter through between the floors, illuminating their invisible links and also tracing seemingly disparate themes and digressions. As the floors ascend, these parentheses edge closer to the upper right corner, where an elevator shaft penetrates through the structure. This burst of continuity between floors represents the author’s presence, and the author himself, who cannot be contained even within the clearest of glass, and who stubbornly refuses to be subdued even in the most ostensibly light of occasions, like a vacation on the high seas.

As Pericoli explained to me, the process of examining structure, flow, interconnections, the author’s intentions, all managed to both mirror and illuminate the process of writing: rendering explicit that which had been intuitive, forcing students to deal in both interpretation and a little mental detective work. What is an author’s intention for how a piece is read, or experienced? What is a reader’s? As much as anything, the variety of interpretations—and, yes, over the years, Pericoli has seen multiple students take on the same work, with wildly differing results—is startling. J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace becomes a rectangular structure with a meandering path that evokes the protagonist’s unwilling shifts in perspective. To the Lighthouse bears no resemblance to an English country house by the sea, but rather becomes a structure that centers around a vacancy: that of the mother. The exercise demands both serious imagination and intense discipline—qualities essential to the disciplines of both writing and architecture but presented as dauntingly unfamiliar challenges that both force participants out of their comfort zones, and ultimately create new ones: different, yes, from the initial familiar comfort of a beloved text, but functional and fascinating all the same.

Carver

“The way out can only be seen from a specific perspective—the staircase back up to ground level is hidden behind a false wall—and once seen it cannot be unseen. Eventually, the staircase becomes too much of a curiosity. The participants will climb the stairs and exit the structure, and find themselves completely removed from it. To leave, first they have to go completely into the structure.” —Joseph Ponce, writing on Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

Coetzee

“Ultimately, I wanted this model to be interpretable from two perspectives: one, the perspective of the walker going through the path who cannot know what to expect next, and two, the perspective from above that is able to see the model in its entirety: to see the knife cuts, the single-minded yet zig-zagging path, and the reflection in the water at the end of it.” —Joanna Yao, J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace

Keats

“My idea was to have an entrance that you stumble upon, peep in, and find yourself within, without actively seeking it. It’s welcoming because it does not have a door, but rather an entry. You cannot see what is inside it without going in, similar to not perceiving the nightingale’s song unless you let the other thoughts fade away and listen. The building could also have an actual door on the ground level for the part below the elevated path that could be used as a café or restaurant. The elevated path is above and apparent for those who choose to see it and are curious about it.” —Zeynep Lokmanoglu, John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”

Sebald

“The structure is a tall and narrow space, reflecting both the vast scope of the book as well as the intimacy of the reading experience. An uneven path is suspended along metal supports, and gradually rises and falls across the entire length of the structure. The path’s shape is dictated by the fragmented and surprising nature of the narrative, in which the novel leaps from subject to subject through unconventional avenues, such as the documentary playing in the narrator’s hotel room. The path is covered in a translucent material so that these supports are visible, which alludes to the meta-fictional nature of the novel.” —Joss Lake, W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn

SSP_Pond_1

“The two structures are alienated by a space, a gap, but connected by a passageway, which, situated on the far left, spills from one building into the next. To get from one structure to the other, one must endure the trip through this dark, windowless space. To embody the cyclical nature of Woolf’s writing style, there is also a circular gesture created by the space between the two buildings, rounded on each side by the ramp and the passageway, respectively. This reveals itself only in a bird’s eye view of the design.” —Catherine Pond, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

The Falls

“When you are inside this structure, traveling back and forth, up and down, there is an imperious desire to discover the space as you become overwhelmed by its magnitude. I wanted to mimic the strong sense of spatial awareness that you experience reading the piece, thus I looked for a similar feeling while you navigate the structure. The sense that you have an active role in reading the space and that when you are traveling through it, you are ultimately ‘writing’ the space with your body.” —Javier Fuentes, George Saunders’s “The Falls”

Read more about the Laboratory here. You can read more about Matteo Pericoli on his website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

 

6 COMMENTS

1 Comments

  1. HillelA | August 17, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Well, I guess if you come to the conclusion that you really can’t teach writing, you’ve got to resort to some sort of mishigas or other.

5 Pingbacks

  1. [...] “To the Lighthouse bears no resemblance to an English country house by the sea, but rather becomes a structure that centers around a vacancy: that of the mother.” – Sadie Stein on the Laboratory of Literary Architecture at Columbia University. [...]

  2. [...] the Paris Review write-up on Matteo Pericoli’s workshop on Literary Architecture at Columbia. See also [...]

  3. [...] Making structures out of stories in a literary architecture class. [...]

  4. […] year, Sadie Stein wrote here about Matteo Pericoli’s Laboratory of Literary Architecture, a “cross-disciplinary exploration […]

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