When architecture meets literature- The Dante of Architecture

There are no rules of Architecture for a castle in the clouds.

G.K Chesterton

stained glass sagrada familiaAs I was reading an article on the creation and impending completion of the majestic Sagrada Familia, I was struck by how its architect, Antoni Gaudi, was once defined the ‘Dante of architecture’. It is indeed a very fitting name for this visionary artist. I then started wondering on the rather unique connection between two art forms that are incredibly different and yet surprisingly so similar. Admittedly, there are still very few studies on this topic but the ones that I managed to read blew my mind away.

In his book Architecture and Modern Literature, David Spurr asserts that there is a philosophical tradition that connects architecture and literature because they both relate to questions on what art is and how it functions. The main purpose of art is to give shape to the objective, physical world of nature and as such, architecture and literature, albeit in different forms, can be seen as expression of individual and social imagination.

While architecture gives concrete form to the world, literature generates symbolic form to it. John Ruskin, a leading art critic of the Victorian era, conceived architecture and specifically sculpted ornaments as a tangible trace of the artisan’s hand directly translating his imaginative power upon them. Like a writer or a poet who instills within his work his subjectivity, the architect gives external expression to his inner life. In fact, both forms of art work on a symbolic dimension to express the collective condition of a given historic period. Stories are part of and mirror human identity and as such enable men to deal with the different aspects of time and memory. Meanwhile, over the centuries architecture has also served as locus for mnemonic orientation and as intellectual edifice where literature, music, cosmology and mathematics intersect. Like storytellers, architects encode their works with the experiences and events taking place throughout history.

Stourhead garden

Stourhead Garden

When it comes to representation, architecture and literature work on similar principles and draw from each other. If architects have been fascinated by writers, story-tellers have been influenced by architects: from the depictions of haunting castles, Gothic ruins, cobblestones edifices to labyrinths dominating the narratives of Gothic, Romantic and modern writings. Architecture renders the idea of space as it is where action takes place. However, in many stories it also carries meaning beyond that of a realistic representation of a place as it can become a physical representation of the characters’ psyche. Within such texts architecture and architectural tropes are used to re-establish and create new concepts of the individual subject and of the world that he inhabits. Consider for example the role that the city of London- with its labyrinthine streets, divided spaces like the upper class and wealthy east contrasting with the decayed and poor west- played within many nineteenth-century fictions (Robert Louis Stevenson, Dickens, Oscar Wilde…), or the ways in which common places like libraries, train stations and even homes are used and depicted in many modern and contemporary novels (Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco…).  In same of these cases fictional and spatial narratives are inseparable from each other. As Sophia Psarra states, one cannot think of Joyce’s Ulysses without thinking about Dublin. Likewise, we cannot think of Hoare’s Stourhead Garden or Terragni’s Danteum without thinking about Virgil and Dante.

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey

As we move from Romanticism (Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Tintern Abbey’ is a perfect example) to Modernism, the analogical relation between architectural and poetic representation becomes more evident.  Because Modernists questioned the reality of experience and rejected, among other things, traditional values of culture, both writers and architects began to experiment with new forms and to endlessly work on new structures and perspectives in order to re-create the experience of life.  Among the most famous modern architects whose works influenced and inspired many writers and painters, Antoni Gaudi is arguably one of the most intriguing ones.

As an architect Gaudi was a very insightful man full of intricacies. Inspired by Viollet-le-Duc’s Dictionary of Architecture (a popular architectural tome of the time) and Ruskin’s texts, his design progressed from florid designs of Victorian to the historical and awe inspiring Gothic and eventually created his own style influenced by the organic shapes found in nature. As he once stated: ‘Nothing is art if it does not come from Nature.’

What characterises Gaudi’s works is his expressionist vision and his ability to capture the viewers’ imagination and to engage with their feelings. The boldness of the organic shapes and colors and the presence of natural elements in almost all of his works are thematic design motifs that makes each of his buildings a unique visual narrative. In describing Casa Mila, Vincent Scully gives us a poetic and captivating depiction of perhaps one of the most unusual and brilliant artists of the twentieth-century.

‘The casa Mila, both in plan and elevation, is like a sea-hollowed cliff, its rock cut façade water-smoothed and eroded, hung with metal seaweed and dug with windows like eyes. The whole “rolls round” like Wordsworth’s early nineteenth-century image or a late painting by Van Gogh. It seems to embody a total human participation in the rhythms that infuse the natural world. This is why the strange gods that crowd the roof of Gaudi’s sea-formed acropolis enjoy such an eerie life.

They come, as icons and guardsmen, from somewhere underneath- hollow, plated and helmeted- and take their places above and beside the broken stairs. Gaudi’s forms, like those of the best of Art Nouveau as a whole, are infused with the action of nature and are therefore somehow real.’  

 Vincent Scully

References:

Chris Abel, N. F. (2000). Architecture and Identity. Routledge.

Collins, P. (1998). Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture, 1750-1950. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Psarra, S. (2009). Architecture and Narrative: The formation of space and cultural meaning. Routledge.

Spurr, D. (2012). Architecture and Modern Literature. University of Michigan Press.

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