Charles Holland

Drawn Fiction

December 5, 2018

Learmont follows the path towards a passageway formed by hedges and a roof of trellis strung with poison berries and some kind of wiry, light-brown vine whose strands lead off to what look like stables. As he nears the passageway he can hear a buzzing sound. He stops and listens. It seems to be coming from the stables: an intermittent, mechanical buzz. Learmont thinks of going in and asking the people operating the machinery for directions, but, reasoning that it might be running on its own, decides instead to continue following the path. This forks to the right and, after passing through a doorway in another wall, splits into a maze-pattern that unfolds across a lawn on whose far side stands another wall containing yet another doorway. Learmont strides across the lawn and steps through the third doorway, which deposits him onto the edge of the orchard he saw as he first arrived[1]  

I attach a rough sketch here which will be useful in the light of after happenings, only sketching in such details as are necessary. [2] 

Does narrative exist in architecture? It has certainly become fashionable to say so. Architects often talk about narrative: sometimes this takes the form of a justification, a narrative description of how a design has evolved or an explanation for why it has been composed in a particular way.

And there are the stories that buildings themselves are thought to contain, a narrative embodied by or within the architecture. This can take the form of an overwhelming visual metaphor, a physical correlation with the site’s history, for example. The ‘upturned boats’ of Enric Miralles’ Scottish Parliament buildings or the patterned imprints that refer to the lace once made on the site of Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary Gallery are cases in point.

But if narrative is essentially episodic, a series of events, what about the architectural plan? Can it be seen as a form of narrative?

The Plan as Fiction

“Ordinary things contain the deepest mysteries”, wrote Robin Evans at the start of ”Figures, Doors and Passages”[3] an essay all about plans. In it, he examined the development of privacy within the domestic interior. Evans traces the invention of the corridor, a planning device that replaced the enfilade of rooms and that, in doing so, enabled a sense of privacy. The corridor both creates and is created by a need for separation. The architectural plan is not merely complicit in the development of this separation nor does it simply respond to a need. It is, and does, both.

As Evans suggests, if any aspect of architectural composition can be said to force a certain kind of behaviour, then it is the internal organisation of a building: its plan. The fact that this behaviour is–to varying levels–habitual or unconscious only makes it more insidious, more powerful. Evans’ narrative is also a historical one, in that it tells a story about the evolution of the domestic plan over time. But individual plans contain aspects of this narrative in miniature; short stories, perhaps, within a much larger, almost infinite anthology.

Homewood—the house Edwin Lutyens designed for his mother-in-law, the dowager countess Lytton circa 1901—is a master-class in concise storytelling. Its formal composition of Homewood can be read as a narrative, a story with a highly complex episodic sequence. It is one that begins at the driveway, an opening sentence which sets up an expectation. Turning onto it, the visitor may well assume the house lies at the end of its seemingly long, straight run. But this expectation is subverted by a plot twist in the form of a change of direction. The long, undeviating driveway leads nowhere and, instead, a short spur takes off in another direction towards the house.

Figure 1. Site plan of Edwin Lutyens’ Homewood, Knebsworth, Hertfordshire, 1901-1903 @ The Great Buildings Collection. Accessed 3 Dec 2018.

 

At which point we are presented with another seemingly obvious spatial sequence. This door of the house sits centrally in the façade, a symmetrical arrangement of windows and gables. But the door is not, in fact, a door but a void, an opening in the façade. The door—or pretend door—has a classical architectural character which is otherwise unconnected to the pseudo-rustic materials and arrangement of the façade to which it is attached. It is a clue, or a hint, of plot developments to come. The door-that-is-not-a-door (but-a-corridor) leads to a passage off to the side of which the real door now opens into a vestibule (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Floorplan of Edwin Lutyens’ Homewood, Knebsworth, Hertfordshire, 1901-1903 @ Archive of Affinities, 1 Nov 2013. Accessed 3 Dec 2018.

 

This diagonal movement—two steps forward, one step to the side—continues through the house, like a knight moving across a chess board. Each room is entered at one corner and exited through another. A series of seemingly stable but actually fluid symmetries are set up, consistent within their own terms but full of twists and turns when taken as a whole.

This complex compositional plotting means that the front and rear facades are both symmetrical, but not with each other. One enters on axis and exits on axis, but a subtle realignment has taken place in between. And if one exits the house into the garden and then turns around, one will be able to see that this garden façade is, in fact, almost entirely classical, symmetrically arranged with four ionic pilasters bursting through what’s left of the pseudo-rustic container we saw upon our arrival. The house has changed character, or indeed, its character has been revealed to be something quite different to what we initially imagined.

To travel through this house is to move through a spatial narrative that, like a detective story, contains a series of surprises. Like all plans, it is episodic; but it is not straightforwardly so. It introduces characters only to dispose of them swiftly after. It directs our attention to a particular detail before disclosing another that is far more important. Architectural language—the look of something—is merely one element in a sophisticated overall composition that is typological and spatial, as well as stylistic.

The Plan as Non-Fiction

At the start of Tom McCarthy’s novel C, [4] the writer describes a characters’ arrival at a country house. The setting is the very late Victorian period, contemporaneous with the design of Homewood, and McCarthy could be describing a house designed by Lutyens, with its drama of arrival and complex sequence from inside to outside.

McCarthy’s description of travelling through this sequence is very interesting; deliberately free of metaphor or novelistic interpretation. He could be describing a plan in its most technical sense, and so he takes us through a space, or a sequence of spaces, that may or may not make sense when added together. We see—or have described to us—this sequence of arrival and departure, of forward and reverse, in meticulous but technically dry detail.

In a novel obsessed with ambiguities of communication, of systems and signs of narrative and meaning, the writer attempts a spatial description that has the clarity of an architectural drawing, or a series of drawings that start with the site plan and end with the interior plans of the house. But perhaps only a novelist—or a non-architect, at least—would think that a plan contains no narrative.

In his introduction to Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays, the book in which “Figures, Doors and Passages” is published, Mohsen Mostafavi [5] compares Robin Evans’ critical technique to that of a detective. Sifting through clues in the detritus of ordinary life, Evans discovers profound truths in seemingly simple domestic plans. But there is another, more literal, way in which plans and detective-work intersect. In the novels of Agatha Christie, architectural plans play a strategic role. They contain the truth of the mystery in a way that Christie assumes writing cannot.

In Christie’s novel The Murder at the Vicarage, [6] the movements of the characters and how they are controlled by spatial dispositions is made clear by the inclusion of a number of drawings, which are revealed as the definitive clues in the investigation. They form an architectural set moving from the scale of a location plan showing the village in which the story is set (Figure 3), through a site plan of the vicarage and its immediate surroundings (Figure 4) to a detail plan of the library in which the murder takes place (Figure 5).

Figure 3. Location plan of the village in Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage @ William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1961.

 

The plans are intrinsic to the plot and to the deduction of the murder. The various movements of the characters and the possibility of these being witnessed depends on entrances to (and exits from) rooms and houses. The drawings provide the factual basis against which various dubious alibis and false claims are examined.

Figure 4. Site plan of the vicarage and its surroundings in Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage @ William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1961.

 

The drawings describe a place that is entirely consistent within its own logic. As it doesn’t actually exist, it can’t contain any mistakes and whatever is drawn becomes unchallengeable fact. The difference between an architect’s plan and Christie’s is slight but significant: hers don’t show wall thicknesses or detail, but they do include things that an architect might leave out, such as objects in rooms or someone’s movements.

Figure 5. Detail plan of the library/crime-scene in Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage @ William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1961.

 

For Christie, the drawings record actions and events, and because these are often improbable—stretching credibility to breaking point—the drawings form a kind of proof, evidence of what is and isn’t possible within the logic of the plan.

This is interesting because plans play a different role in architecture. For architects, they are not necessarily a source of truth, and their capacity for ambiguity can be a source of concern. We rely on them for accuracy in the form of surveys and dimensions and we can get into trouble if they are incorrect. But we also manipulate them for our own ends. They are not necessarily true, or logical or straightforward. For architects, plans contain as many ambiguities, subtleties and doubts as words do for the writer. They are not altogether to be trusted.

Architecture– unlike writing-is never merely mimetic. It is not a representation of reality but a form of it. As Robin Evans has shown, architecture does not just describe our situation, or even grow out of it. The individual corridor is not only a commentary on the role of corridors in general or on the way we organise our domestic lives: it is a corridor too. So if architecture is capable of being a representational art, it is never that only. To return, then, to the start, we might ask: to what extent is it useful to think of architecture’s relation to narrative?

Following Roland Barthes [7], we have learnt that there are many ways to read a book; ways not necessarily prescribed by the author. If we think of the user of a building in the same way as we do the reader of a book, then a plan can be ‘read’ in different ways: forwards, backwards, in parts and in varying states of awareness. We read and re-read plans everyday. Like a work of fiction, there is a prescribed route, but we are free to interpret it in any way we like.

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau [8] describes the act of walking as an interplay between physical constraints—buildings, streets, boundaries—and their re-interpretation through the infinitely individual routes that we take. The individual ‘reads’ the city through walking, in a creative act that is neither fully free nor fully constrained. As with the act of reading a text, the author’s intention is only part of the story. The architectural interior is a city in miniature and, when we use it, we re-imagine the space over and over.

Tom McCarthy’s novel tries to fashion writing into architecture. Lutyens’ Homewood attempts the reverse. Some critics have lamented that Lutyens’ houses suffer as a consequence. Peter Inksip [9] has observed that they can be overbearing in the degree to which they comment on their own situation. But if Barthes’ idea of the ‘death of the author’ is provocative, then the architect exists in a kind of intermediate state, both dead and alive. Architecture is both background and foreground, a generic condition that reflects habitual behaviour and the impetus for new ways to live. If it is narrative, it is fiction and non-fiction, representational and real, all at once.


[1] McCarthy, Tom. C. London: Jonathan Cape, 2010, pp. 4-5.

[2] Christie, Agatha. The Murder at the Vicarage. London: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1961, p 19. 

[3] Evans, Robin. “Figures, Doors and Passages.” In: Robin Evans. Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays. Cambridge / London: MIT Press, 1997, p 4-5. 

[4] McCarthy, ibidem

[5] Mostafavi, Mohsen. “Paradoxes of the Ordinary.” In: Robin Evans. Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays.  London: Architectural Association Publications, 1997, p 6. 

[6] Christie, ibidem.             

[7] Barthes, Roland. The Death of the Author. London: Macat International, 2017 [1967]. 

[8] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.   

[9] Inskip, Peter. “Lutyens’ Houses.” In: Dunster, David, ed. Edwin Lutyens. Hoboken: Academy Editions, 1986, pp. 19-26.

Charles Holland is a Professor of Architecture at the University of Brighton and the principal of Charles Holland Architects, a design and research practice based in Deal. His work has included housing, educational, civic and exhibtion projects. He has exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Venice Biennale, where he co-curated the British Pavilion in 2014.

He is a former Director of FAT where he was the partner in charge of a number of key projects including A House For Essex, the practice’s collaboration with Grayson Perry. He also contributes a monthly column on the subject of utopias to the RIBA Journal.