Fictions and mythologies: how architecture writes itself

This is a lecture I gave at the Royal College of Art in London, during my stint there in 2015 as Visiting Professor in Architecture. I got interested in how students presented their ideas narratively – the usual hurdle of having to communicate concisely an idea for a project which was still in process of formation, with various ideas being tested. Of course the best way to proceed is just to draw: the act of drawing, like the act of writing, is in itself a stimulus to ideas. Hence this lecture, making parallels between the making of architecture and literature. Represented above as Jellicles.

Fictions and mythologies: how architecture writes itself

I’ll set out my stall by explaining why I am an architecture critic but not an architect. Or to put it another way, how the worlds of writing and architecture are so very close. It’s an exploration of how what I know about writing and reading and looking and assessing might connect with what you are learning and making in architecture.

Architecturally speaking, I am ‘untrained’. An amateur. An arts writer who happens to have developed a specialism out of interest and found himself by degrees falling into being a critic. I can hardly draw, and I have great difficulty with mathematics. Consequently the prospect of being an architect never once occurred to me. I am constantly in awe of architects for being able to design and build anything at all. Your skill seems miraculous to me.

But then a lot of people can’t really write. Their writing can even be as bad as my drawing, though I assure you that is almost impossible. Still, they can read my writing. And happily, I can read their drawings and their buildings. As for those who can both write and design, as a monomath I am lost in envy but I think you have to lean one way or the other, have a major and a minor.

I am formally ‘trained’ which isn’t the word (“qualified” is even worse), in the analysis of English Literature. Specifically the 19th century novel and drama since 1660. It was a long time ago but I’ve intermittently kept it up in a hobbyish sort of way. I’m concentrating on the Edwardian novel now. I do read modern stuff as well, by the way.

This pursuit is all about understanding and analysis: of a novel or play or poem, analysis of a building or place or person. You are allowed to enjoy this. If you can do it for literature, you can do it for architecture, I found, it uses many of the same mental faculties. But can we take this further? Can we say that the making of a novel, say, is close to that of making a building?

What I’m NOT covering (much)

There are various directions one can take at this point so let me rule two of them out. First, the depiction of architects and architecture in fiction and film. There’s another lecture in that but this is not it.

Secondly, design by manifesto. It’s a bit of a neglected art, this, though in a way you all do it when you get to grips with a project. Corbusier and Wright, the Smithsons and the Futurists, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Ebenezer Howard, show us how you can talk and write your way into something that then emerges as a design for buildings and places. The designs are in a sense illustrated words – Wright’s Broadacre City, Corb’s Radiant City, Howard’s Garden City. This approach doesn’t differ so very much from literary accounts of various Utopias. Architects are nothing if not Utopian. But I’m not going there in this lecture.

But now – the evocation of place. This is getting closer. You know, Hardy’s Wessex or Ballard’s Shepperton or Shakespeare’s Illyria, or the Los Angeles of Blade Runner or, well, anything that’s made up and presented in such a way that we accept the premise. It’s the familiar business of writing worlds. Designing worlds in words that are convincing enough for us to inhabit them through that useful mental device described by Coleridge as “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

The marks on the page or the images on the screen take us there, and our brains do the rest. This is getting towards my theme today because the marks you make indicating architecture work in the same way as a writer’s marks or a film-maker’s frames. If it’s believable, if you can inculcate poetic faith in the viewer/reader/your tutor/external examiner, then you’re on your way.

So what I want to try here is to zoom in on the acts of design and writing to see if anything much separates them as works of fiction or fact. Spoiler alert: NO.
All architecture is narrative.jpg
Do we need even to discuss this? Especially here in the RCA where Nigel Coates was once Dean and various members of FAT have plied their trade? Of COURSE all architecture is narrative, it’s just that different architectures tell their stories differently. Without needing to think about it, we generally have a reasonable idea what a building is doing, by what it looks like. It can be playful or overtly story-telling, it can merely indicate its function.

This is why it feels a bit weird if architecture we might read as domestic is expanded to mega-scale, say: what (today’s) Robert Adam calls the “Monster Cottage” style. We can lose our poetic faith when we see such things built.
All narrative is architecture
We probably DO need to discuss this, which is just as well as that’s why I’m here. But first, let’s get down to basics.
Last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Lots of you will have gone. Here is Rem breaking architecture down to its component parts, gathering them into piles, and letting us do with them what we will.
Even better! Forster keeps it yet briefer than Rem. And I’ll be returning to Forster later.

So there are these components. Now let’s not get too matchy-matchy about this. Let’s not say that bricks are words, or that a wall or roof is a sentence or that the various rooms are chapters. No, let’s not do that because it’s just too easy. Besides, as we know, architecture is most famously compared to music, and I have no problem with that. You get theme and tone and rhythm and counterpoint in the written word as much as in music, and what is song but a combination of the two? Architecture is lots of things besides.

But yes, we can say that the designers of written things and the designers of buildings are people who have an idea for a….designed construction…. And that they have artisan means at their disposal to make this. Things. The elements, as Rem would say. 50,000 words, as Forster would say.


Should one believe maps? Again the matter of Coleridge’s poetic faith. This is from Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.


Maps. We trust maps, don’t we? Especially, we Brits, Ordnance Survey maps. This is Braintree in Essex in 1979.


And this is the same place as mapped in the mid 2000s. Shows the extraordinary spread of new housing in Essex by that time. See Great Notley village there – didn’t exist in the earlier map. Another ten years of development has happened since, this does not represent the present.

Maps are accurate or not in infographic terms but they are merely depictions and to an extent instructions. The world does not look like a map, a map is a business of relative locations represented by symbols. As becomes clearer when you zoom in:


If you’re there, of course you are not looking at green and yellow roads and enormous letters and numbers across the landscape. You are looking as something more like this:


And if you toggle between the two, notice how much more graceful the road layout actually is, seen from above, compared with the crude depiction on the map.

But even the satellite view is only one version of reality: if you are in it, on the ground, of course it looks utterly different. Especially if there’s a tree in the way, or it is night time, or you are drunk, or just preoccupied.

Then there are degrees of cartographic conspiracy. We are all familiar with the London Underground map in this context, which veers towards fantasy but nonetheless has its own strange graphic reality. Less geography, more circuit diagram. Don’t try to navigate on the surface by it. And in final proof of Stoppard’s “conspiracy of cartographers”, A-Z maps of London have deliberate mistakes dotted through them to make it easier for the publishers to spot unauthorised reproductions.

MAPS ARE THEREFORE FICTION. But like architectural depictions, they are fictions based on reality. It does not matter if that reality is actual or potential. If you take maps just AS maps, and read them for their own sake, the effect on you is very like a novel in that you can place yourself in that world, making your own constructions from the marks you read. In contrast, out on a walk, trying to make the map accord with reality on the ground, is a bit like trying to put a slightly wrong-sized lid on a jar.

Marks lead to other marks. So the marks on the page made by Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? made a world in the imagination of Ridley Scott who gave us Blade Runner (incorporating a Frank Lloyd Wright house), and that in turn fed through to any number of dystopian-themed student projects set in the rainy dark. Nothing new there of course, given that the origin of English high-tech came from this:

Dan Dare

Obviously it’s commonplace to remark that science fiction has a habit of becoming science fact, but Norman Foster has owned up to the influence on him of Dan Dare in the Eagle comic and in due course actually did get to design a spaceport, and for that matter a city with driverless cars. That generation of British architects lapped this stuff up.

Aspects1If designing architecture is an act of fiction, then perhaps this man can help us. Some of you will know it – Aspects of the Novel is an absolute classic of conversational lit crit, a series of lectures for students. If you don’t, it’s worth a go. David Chipperfield was quoting bits of it from memory the other week.

You need the idea. Your concept. Analysis is not the same as creation. You all know that there’s a point on your course when, having analysed the brief to death, you have to make that vertiginous plunge into design. I often find with students (and practising architects, for that matter) that they – you – are sometimes inclined to over-analyse the brief. Doing this becomes displacement activity.

I understand this fully because if there’s one breed of person who knows all about displacement activity and the lurking horror of the blank page, it’s a writer.

I also know that, for certain kinds of short-and-medium-form writing, you don’t want to know too much, or say too much if you do know it. Just enough is fine. Too much clogs. So we must select, refine.

For many writers, me included, it’s the act of writing itself that releases the ideas. But everyone differs, and it depends what kind of writing it is. Some plan things out, a kind of rough order of play. Others, like me, don’t. So for me with my niche specialism, it goes like this:

Let’s say I have been to see a building. Maybe alone, maybe I meet the architects and others involved . I have walked around the area. After a while, I go away. I do catch myself trying out phrases in my head, to see how they sound. And then I write, and writers of all kinds will tell you that they are often surprised at what emerges. At its most extreme I can start writing thinking I like a building, and end writing having discovered that I really don’t. It’s as if someone else had taken over. Does this sound familiar?

O'D + T_web

Here are two of the most lyrical architects I know, Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey. Lyrical I mean literally. If you hear Sheila and him explaining their work – especially together – it is like listening to lyric poetry. When they get going, it’s as if they were singing to each other, which is pretty much how they design. Indeed they explain this by making a comparison with an Irish form of ‘performed conversation” beween men and women, called Agallamh Beirte.

They also have formidable literary references in their armoury – Beckett, Rilke, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot – but I’m interested here in their mode of composition. Apart from anything else, they make maps of other things that help in their thinking. This is from an interview they did for the RIBA Royal Gold Medal they’ve just received.

John Tuomey: I think through pencil drawing – when you are working in pencil something leads you back. Pencil drawing is a form of handwriting if you know what I mean, because your hand goes round and round and round and you’re talking to yourself as you’re drawing but you return to the same point. It’s like a kind of acupuncture and you work out the lineaments of the scheme quite quickly and even if you don’t understand exactly what that’s meant to mean, some excavation goes on in the act of drawing. I don’t think any of us could imagine doing it any other way.

– and then he talks about pinning down the building’s form:

Probably every single building comes out of the air, he says. We are not happy until we feel that we’ve found a form to express, the word express meaning to push out, the project into the world. I would say (the form) is the subject, it’s the purpose. It’s more important than design.

So – drawing is handwriting. The form is the subject and purpose, more important than design. This is getting intriguing. But E.M. Forster in 1927 knows what John Tuomey is on about in 2015. Here’s Forster talking about how the great novelists of all periods write, and he should know. He imagines them in a big round room, all writing away together (he rejects a chronological approach to literature, as architects should with architecture):

E.M. Forster: …to those people writing in the circular room it is the feel of the pen between their fingers that matters most. They may decide to write a novel upon the French or the Russian Revolution, but memories, associations, passions, rise up and colour their objectivity, so that at the close, when they re-read, some one else seems to have been holding their pen and to have relegated their theme to the background. That ‘some one else’ is their self no doubt….all through history writers writing have felt more or less the same. They have entered a common state which it is convenient to call inspiration.

I could quote Forster all day – he’s all quotes, like Hamlet – but we’ll leave him reaching for an architectural metaphor to compare four merely good English novels with two great Russian ones.:

All four are little mansions, not mighty edifices, and we shall see and respect them for what they are if we stand them for an instant in the colonnades of War and Peace or the vaults of The Brothers Karamazov.

FLW Time cover

The most famous story in architecture is the one about Frank Lloyd Wright designing the house Fallingwater as recounted by his assistant Edgar Tafel. You should all know it but I’m going to recount it anyway. The one where he visited the site of the house, with its waterfall, and then waited for many months without drawing anything. Then his increasingly impatient client Edgar J Kaufmann rang up and said he was driving over to see the drawings. Remember? There were no drawings.

Everyone in the office knew that the journey from Milwaukee to Taliesin would take no longer than 140 minutes.

“Come along, E.J! We’re ready for you!” said Wright to Kaufmann down the phone. And sat down to draw. First floor plan. Second floor. Section, elevation. Side sketches of details. Erasures, modifications. And as he drew, he talked, quietly. He was telling a story. “Liliane and E.J will have tea on the balcony….they’ll cross the bridge to walk into the woods….”

And then Liliane and E.J, the characters in his story, arrived. Wright had done enough. He wrote the name – Fallingwater – on it. The name became it. He got up, left his assistants to tidy up, and went out to meet them. “EJ,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

After that, the design didn’t change much. The story had been told.

Mack skipping

It’s just a detail in a perspective drawing of a school, but this is Charles Rennie Mackintosh telling a story. Perhaps more than just a basic story, for here you have two characters, and that allows for dialogue. Literally flat characters, until you imagine their relationship, their lives, how they might change. The girls are playing, but they’re also going to school. And they have Art Nouveau uniforms, which brings a touch of the lyrical to the scene. Mackintosh has introduced an agreeable fiction here. Like his contemporary Wright, he may have muttered the story under his breath as he drew. Why shouldn’t they acquire names, pop up in other drawings, do other things? But they are a sketch, an indication: the architect is saying – this building is for real people – and he wants you to think it might even make them better, happier people.


Architects sometimes write novels, sometimes novels about architects. Thomas Hardy is an example. Although he gave up architecture, he maintained his interest. One of his worst novels, called A Laodicean, is an architect’s fantasy of being an architect. Now here’s Will Alsop at it. Will has written what he calls a novel – though I’m afraid it does not meet Forster’s 50,000 word definition. Short story meets novella, perhaps. It’s a self-indulgent thing in a self-indulgent but interesting book about a big old country estate in Spain, Las Heras, to which Will seems to be attached as a kind of evolutionary architect.

In “DIY”, the narrator tells a story about going to Las Heras to find a place to write a novel. He never does – he gets as far as one sentence, written a word or two at a time – but in the process builds two buildings, has sex, falls in love, and has a lot of wine and food. This is not great literature by the way. At one point he’s building a wholly ceramic hut, fired in one piece. He writes:

I still found myself slipping into categories of style, a limitation I was trying to escape. It was this worry that had stopped me writing my novel until I discovered the ‘one word at a time’ policy. I did not know where it was going and that allowed me to work. In my foray into architecture I must remember the same principle.

QED, as far as Will’s concerned: assembling an unconscious novel is the same as making an unconscious building. Don’t plan things out at all, and just see where the elements lead you. There is a happy ending, which happily comes soon.


This is T.S.Eliot’s manuscript of the first version of the greatest poem of the 20th century.


– and this is how he built it. The annotations are by Ezra Pound, famously described by Eliot in his dedication as “the better craftsman”.

It’s a symphony of course, The Waste Land, in five movements, and so we find again the importance of structure. Look at this page. Pound is giving it a real old pounding and by doing so has made what you could fancifully call a building within a building. Those marks of his are turning into drawing. And is that “Bollocks” he’s saying there?

Eliot was also a critic and he had a different version of Forster’s idea of the big circular room in which all writers sat together. It’s Eliot’s equally famous Tradition Timewarp and these words are hallowed:

Eliot: No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists…

…what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.

The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.…

…the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.

Apropos of this thinking, O’Donnell and Tuomey describe themselves as “Graeco-Byzantine”. For them the Pantheon in Rome is always new. But every new work of architecture shifts the tradition slightly as Eliot suggests of literature. What you build will readjust the Pantheon. So please be careful with it.

superstudio image 1

Superstudio 2

This is, or was, Superstudio. For Superstudio, architecture is pretty much all about fiction, in the sense that they never intend ‘real-world’ projects. I’m grateful to Adam Nathaniel Furman, a Rome scholar, for reporting back to me on this, as he’s met Piero Frasinelli of Superstudio, who sees himself as working in the tradition of Voltaire: architecture for him, says Adam, is “a powerful device for locating latent tendencies in society, one by one, and by drawing them out in a scenario to their logically absurd conclusion, highlighting to people the dangers or beauty of aspects of modern life that would otherwise go unquestioned or un-noted.” Frasinelli said this provided a kind of zooming out for his architecture, an overall framework of big questions within which he could then work.


This, their Niagara Falls project, really tells you everything about the idea of architecture as fiction. Fantasy fiction. For E.M. Forster, fantasy was an important aspect of the novel. So too was “pattern and rhythm” – the one borrowed from art, the other from music. Also there’s something Magritte-like about it. But it’s little different from one of J.M. Gandy’s fantasy perspectives for Sir John Soane.


Look very carefully and you’ll just make out Denys Lasdun there, at Epidavros, the great Greek theatre. Think of him there as he was planning the National Theatre which, as it was being constructed, looked like a noble ruin, which is how Gandy and Soane liked to think. Think of Lasdun’s famous roomful of discarded models, and then think of Pound brutally slicing away the fat from The Waste Land.

Lasdun said that every architect had to have his own “personal myth”. In his case it was the idea of stratification, of building as geology, expressing the imagined bones of the land. Influenced no less by the boneyard architecture of Hawksmoor, it worked for him: you don’t need me to tell you that Lasdun’s buildings are remarkable. But it doesn’t matter what your own personal myth is, he said: you just have to believe it. You have to believe that your design is better than everyone else’s because of this myth that only you know.

Nobody else has quite the same ideas as you, the same approach as you, the same response as you. You are imagining a world. If it is built, it will correspond to what you imagined, but always imperfectly. Architecture is architecture whether or not it is built however. If unbuilt, it is more like literature: forever perfect, as imagined and delineated, in drawings or words. If built, well, you are at the mercy of Mr. Koolhaas’s Elements, or BIM objects. Or as an architect friend of mine puts it: “In the end it all comes down to fat men on site swearing.” Everything built is to a greater or lesser extent bodged by other people. You don’t get that so much with words or drawings because you have more control.

Naming of Cats

Eliot, again, in playful mode but, hang on, how playful is this? The Naming of Cats is a Difficult Matter, after all. And one of a cat’s three names is known only to the cat, who will never confess.

The Waste Land’s official name is The Waste Land. What Eliot called it among friends was He do the police in different voices, a line from the poem and a quote from Dickens. If he had another name he gave it privately, that is, obviously, private. There is a house by O’Donnell + Tuomey that they call The Sleeping Giant, for instance, and that helped them in their mythology. Again, though, that name was only semi-private. Architects usually have such nicknames for their projects, but I’d argue that beneath that should be another layer. The Ur-name.

You may think this business of naming is superficial. It is not. Public names are important too. Don’t name lightly. Names influence the way your project is going and how it will be perceived. Any writer of books or headlines will tell you that. But I’d recommend you take Eliot’s advice and, when formulating your elaborately drawn fiction that could even approximate to fact, name it for yourself. A mythological name, I suggest. A name that sets you off in a certain direction. Be this cat.