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.