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In novels, a character flaw

Why are there so few convincing architects in fiction? Lawyers and doctors abound, for obvious reasons: their professional lives are filled with conflicts and mortal outcomes. It’s harder to summon drama out of long hours seated at a drafting board or a computer screen; and confrontations over zoning approvals or cost overruns lack the excitement of a murder trial or a deathbed scene.

Faced with this challenge, few writers try to depict what architects actually do. In books, as in movies and television shows, a character is often labeled “architect” as shorthand for “talented sensitive male.” Querry, the protagonist of Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, is a famous architect who has renounced his art and taken refuge in an African leper colony — but he could just as easily have been a concert pianist or experimental physicist. Donald Barthelme’s Paradise starts with some acknowledgment of practice. The protagonist is obsessed with Louis Kahn, his former teacher; he even fantasizes that a car-bomb discovered under his Volvo was planted there by Kahn’s jealous ghost. But the novel turns into an exercise in anomie and soft porn. (Three lingerie models move in with an out-of-work 53-year-old architect? Really?)

Equally unconvincing is the other extreme, the architect as larger-than-life hero, flailing against an uncomprehending society (i.e., Frank Lloyd Wright). This is the theme of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and of Wright’s own Autobiography, which may well be considered a work of fiction for its evasions, deceptions, and flat-out lies about his actual sources of inspiration and methods of practice.

Even Thomas Hardy, the greatest writer ever to have practiced architecture, couldn’t create a believable architect-hero. Hardy, who lacked the money or connections to attend university, pursued architecture as an alternative path into the professional classes. He continued to practice into his early 30s, mostly as a restorer of rural Gothic churches, until the success of his books allowed him to write full time. Yet his novel A Laodicean, which depicts the relationship between a rising architect and the rich young woman who is his client and his beloved, manages to be simultaneously melodramatic and dull — it has none of the passion and drive of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure.

I have found three memorable portrayals of architects in fiction, one from the 19th century and two in recent books. Each writer explores the inherent tension in the roles of architect and client, looking at questions of agency and control: Whose building is it?

When William Dean Howells wrote his 1885 novel The Rise of Silas Lapham, he drew on an intimate knowledge of practice (his brother-in-law was William Mead, of McKim, Mead & White) to create a slyly satirical depiction of the architect-client relationship. Silas Lapham, a rich but uncouth paint manufacturer, is building a mansion in Boston’s Back Bay:

“He [the architect] entered into that brief but intense intimacy with the Laphams which the sympathetic architect holds with his clients .... He knew just where to insist upon his own ideas, and where to yield. He was really building several other houses, but he gave the Laphams the impression that he was doing none but theirs.”

The architect simultaneously elevates his client’s taste (elegant white-painted trim, rather than heavy black walnut) and incites him into doubling his budget. The rising cost alarms Lapham’s wife, but Lapham, who has made big profits in the stock market, is intoxicated: “He had come to feel almost as intimately and fondly as the architect himself the satisfying simplicity of the whole design and the delicacy of its detail. It appealed to him as an exquisite bit of harmony appeals to the unlearned ear . . .” Yet Howells’ architect is only an agent in the story, not its central character. The drama revolves around the client, Lapham; the house comes to symbolize his aspirations, his temptations, his rise and implied fall.

Amy Waldman, in her 2011 novel The Submission, imagines the political furor if the competition for the memorial at the World Trade Center site had been won by an architect with a Muslim name and heritage. The story moves briskly, though with relatively few plot surprises. Its real strength is the evolving portrayal of the architect. When he wins the competition, Mohammad Khan — “Mo” to everyone who knows him — thinks of himself as entirely secular and American. Khan is an ambitious designer working for Emmanuel Roi, a Frank Gehry–like starchitect (“he molded paper, or cardboard, or tin from which his young architects generated computer images”), and he hopes his victory will propel him to a comparable level of professional success. Instead, Khan feels a mounting rage and despair, as the political maneuverings rob him of control over both the execution and the meaning of his own design.

Simon Mawer undertakes a more profound historical reimagining in The Glass Room, published in 2009. He depicts a real building — Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House, built in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1930 — and invents a fictional architect and clients. Loosely following actual events, the novel tells how the Jewish industrialist Viktor Landauer and his wife, Liesel, work with the Modernist architect Rainer von Abt to create a work of voluptuous austerity. We experience the flight of the Landauers and von Abt to America upon Hitler’s rise to power, followed by the expropriations and new uses imposed on the house under the Nazi and Communist regimes. The one note in this very fine book that didn’t always ring true for me was the characterization of the architect. I found myself impatient with von Abt’s spouting of Modernist manifestos, comparing him unfavorably with Mies, who was reticent about theory with his clients and more attentive to their functional needs.

Yet I came to appreciate that in the context of the novel, these passages serve an essential purpose. The house ultimately becomes the book’s most complex and enduring character. For all of von Abt’s blather about transparency in architecture, the house’s fate shows the power of privacy, secrecy, and lies; for all his brave talk about how Modernism will free us from the past, over time the house becomes a receptacle for the tragic weight of history.

And what is true of The Glass Room is true of literature in general. There may be few convincing architects in fiction — but there are innumerable great works of fictional architecture, from Manderley to the Little House on the Prairie, from the Tower of Babel to the House of Usher. In novels as in life, buildings free themselves of their architects and owners. They endure vicissitudes of fate, accumulate meanings that their makers may never have intended. They offer themselves to us, their readers, their inhabitants. We step inside these fictional buildings; we explore them, occupy them, make them our own.  ■

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