Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness


Literary Architecture

Matteo Pericoli is the founder of the Laboratory of Literary Architecture, an interdisciplinary project that looks at fiction through the lens of architecture, designing and building stories as architectural projects. In this series, he shares some of his designs and what they reveal about the stories they’re modeled on.


The skyscraper looming above us is composed of a clean, well-defined volume and a formless, organic, irregular mass that seems to be enveloping the volume while supporting it and, at the same time, oozing from it like a leak from a crack. The shape of the central, glass and steel building is that of an upside-down truncated square pyramid—tall and slender, bright and reflective like a spear stuck into the ground. The accretion is geometrically fluid, opaque, made of wood and with few openings. 

Between us and Marlow, the protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, there is a certain distance. His trip to Africa, told in the first person, is reported by an anonymous narrator through almost entirely quoted speech, like the transcription of an interview. The voice we hear while reading doesn’t originate within our mind, it’s just in front of us.

This detachment puts the reader in a safe place; we listen to Marlow already knowing that he survives the journey. During the narration, like a virus, a series of doubts insinuates itself into the reader, in a crescendo of mostly-unmet expectations. As soon as Kurtz’s name is uttered, a sense of unease begins—like an efflorescence seeping from the story’s fissures. Who is Kurtz? Why is he so “remarkable”? What happened in the jungle? What did he write in his infamous report? Why is he adored like a god?


The building exudes Kurtz—it exudes darkness and fog, horror and woodiness. But it’s a superficial effect. In the end we neither understand nor discover anything. Once inside the skyscraper, we realize that at its core is a disturbing courtyard—unreachable, unvisitable and with no geometric connection to its hosting volume. It exists, but we don’t know why and what it is for. More than a powerful presence, we realize that Kurtz is both a narrative and structural absence that cannot be filled, a cavity that erodes the story. On the one hand, we know (or, perhaps, hope) that when Marlow finally meets him, everything will be clear—the narration, the narrator, the context, the journey, Kurtz’s exceptional nature; and that we, too, will be an integral part of the story. On the other hand, we have a feeling (or, perhaps, fear) that it will never happen.

The nonexistent vertex of the tall, narrow upside-down pyramid lies deep below the ground, below the building’s foundation, unreachable and, like Marlow’s final lie, incomprehensible.

In collaboration with Giuseppe Franco.