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The laboratory of literary architecture

I have always marveled at the ability of great architects to envision construction in terms of pure space. Shapes, materials, and technology are all elements necessary to define emptiness — what we, the visitors, ultimately perceive. Just think of the Pantheon in Rome and its monstrous empty space “covered” by the open eye above; or imagine any building designed by the Italian structural engineer Pier Luigi Nervi, in which you can almost see the physical effort made by its trusses to expand the sensation of space. These structures make us feel enclosed, liberated, or suspended. They lead us through space, making us speed up or slow down in order to contemplate. Great writers, in devising their literary structures, do the same.

When we read a novel, a short story, or a piece of nonfiction, there is often a moment when we have the feeling that we have entered a structure built, knowingly or unknowingly, by the writer. I am not talking about our ability to picture in our minds the locations or the architectural settings described in the text but rather the sense of being immersed in a space designed by someone else.

A concatenation of words doesn’t feel like something solid at first, but anyone who reads a lot or has ever attempted to write knows that “constructing something” is an accurate metaphor for the sort of building one does when trying to put words one next to another. Every writer recognizes the sense of satisfaction that comes when a paragraph finally “stands up” by itself.

Five years ago, I was asked by the Scuola Holden, a creative writing school in Turin, Italy, to come up with a new course. Given my architectural background, combined with my curiosity about the writing process, I started to wonder about the role that structural, wordless thought plays in writing before the writer actually writes, or in lieu of writing. So I replied: “Why don’t we ask students to create a piece of architecture that embodies the structure of a literary work they admire?”

Beppe Fenoglio, Una questione privata (A Private Affair)
Project by Luca Vallese In collaboration with Andrea Revello and Giulia Di Marco

Each student brings to class a novel, a story, or an essay whose inner workings he or she knows intimately. We start by discussing the story, the plot, the subject, or simply a feeling the student has about the text. We break it down into its most basic elements and analyze the relationship of each part to the overall structure, making sure to avoid any literal spatial translations of settings, locations, places, or architecture.

We deal with questions that architects must always address: What is space? How does one design and build using the void as a construction material? How do we perceive space? And how does it affect us?

It is a process of reduction toward a wordless spatial structure. As in architecture, once you remove the skin — the “language” of walls, roofs, and slabs — all that remains is sheer space. In writing, once you discard language itself, what’s left?

Since the students are not expected to have any previous experience in design or building models, halfway through the course we bring in architecture students to help the creative writers construct their designs in three dimensions. Each time I have taught the class, this moment has had an element of magic: two very different disciplines coming together, sharing a language they now both understand, knowing exactly where to meet, and why. They discuss spatial relationships, repetition, reflection, sequence, transparency, tension, pacing, chronology, and so forth. Any architectural issue is resolved from a literary point of view and vice versa: Any literary issue must be addressed by a spatial idea. There is no room for arbitrary moves.

For someone like me, who was trained and has practiced as an architect, but has spent much of his life drawing, reading, and occasionally writing, there is great pleasure in watching the students nervously approach the early moments of the course — when paper, cardboard, scissors, and pencils sit neatly untouched on a side desk — then end up not only making the tangible out of the intangible but also mastering highly sophisticated design decisions with liberating fun. For someone who uses words all the time, being able to think wordlessly about literature, at least once, must feel refreshing, revealing, and even empowering.  ■

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Project by Monica and Anu 10th grade English students from George Mayo’s class at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring (Maryland)


James Joyce, Ulysses, Project by Katherine Treppendahl

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