Publication Date
February 21, 2019

That architecture possesses linguistic characteristics is a well-established fact—amongst architects and architectural historians, that is. I am continually surprised by the surprise that greets my research outside of architecture departments—surely, I think, the relationship between poetry and architecture is not so remarkable, nor so mystifying, as the bemused expressions betray? The call for this edition of Paprika! asked contributors to focus on “the connections between architecture and text” but, explicitly, not “to explore the linguistic/syntactic/semiotic nature of architecture itself.” And just in case anyone was unsure, the call’s amusing last line underscored this point to perfection: “For more on the linguistic characteristics of architecture itself, see: everything else.” In other words—and to go back to where I started—the linguistic quality of architecture is not only established, but so established as to feature in every facet of design and practice; so ubiquitous, in fact, that it actually needs to be left out of the architecture-text conversation.

My own research has sought to address this imbalance from the literary side of the equation. With an attention to the semantic crossovers between the disciplines (i.e. the use of such terms as vernacular, grammar, rhythm, etc.), I have attempted not simply to illustrate poetry’s architectural qualities, but to find ways of articulating poetry and architecture in the same breath. Or, to put it another way, my project is not one of superimposing the distinctive qualities of one discipline onto another, in some kind of synaesthetic or analogous form, but to attend to the actual material and procedural kinships that exist organically. For example, what we might call the architectonics of poetic structures—the fact that verse forms are constructed, are built around a framework, and are designed according to the (page) space that they occupy—should be understood not simply as an instance of borrowing (from the language of architecture), but as evidence that the two disciplines share a fundamental property: that they exist, unfold, and are experienced, both temporally and spatially. This has long been thought of as architecture’s special quality, as that which sets it apart from the other arts; that poetry also possesses this space-time contingency, and that this has been largely overlooked—or at the very least, insufficiently addressed in relation to the architectural—is one of the great failings of literary criticism.

The poet Barbara Guest understood this relationship, and articulated it vividly in her tiny essay-poem “Invisible Architecture.” It begins:

                There is an invisible architecture often supporting
  the surface of the poem, interrupting the progress of the poem. It reaches
into the poem
in search for an identity with the poem,

its  object  is to possess  the poem for a  brief time, even as  an apparition
appears.An  invisible architecture  upholds the poem while   allowing a
moment   of relaxation   for the unconscious..  A period of emotional
suggestion,    of lapse, of reliance on the conscious substitute words pushed
toward the bridge of architecture. An architecture in the period before
the poem finds an exact form and vocabulary- -,

  before the visible, appearance of the poem on the page and the invisible
approach to its composition.[1]

Here, Guest at once describes and employs “invisible architecture,” allowing her to fluidly occupy two literary voices: critical prose statement and poetic utterance. Ghostly architecture hovers in the unexpected spacing of the text; it is not the words, Guest reveals, that form the architectonics of poetry, but the empty spaces with which they intersect. In this way, Guest gives voice to the space-time complex that I have described, as blank gaps gesture toward a sense of both duration and (s)pacing: “A   period of  emotional   suggestion, of lapse[.]” My use of the parenthetical “s” of (s)pacing is crucial here, because it illustrates the collapse, or necessary simultaneity, of poetry’s occupation of both time and space, while “pace” also describes the act of walking, of measured steps. Thus, the term encapsulates the experience of poetry as a movement through stanzas (or “rooms,” as the Italian term translates) both in linear time and in the spatial possibilities afforded by the page. Guest’s suggestion that this “invisible architecture” at once “support[s] the surface of the poem” while also “interrupting the progress of the poem” further articulates this duality. Within the text, she creates precisely this coexistence of surface and progress, this friction of support and interruption, by allowing the erratic spacing and excessive punctuation to both enable the writing and to jar with it. Quietly, Guest stages her own thesis even as she writes it, she makes visible the invisible architecture of poetry, she reveals traditionally embedded structures, like the high-tech designs of Richard Rogers, whose inner workings are famously exposed on their outward facades (see: Paris’ Centre Pompidou or London’s Lloyd’s building).

The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé is generally credited as the first writer to draw our eyes (and ears?) to the significance of the white space of the poem. His early Modernist composition “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard,” first published in 1897, made use of typographic possibilities, inviting the eye to roam across what Mallarmé termed “les blancs”: the white spaces. What followed was little short of a revolution in poetic writing: verse was liberated from convention and the page became a fertile site, a crucial part of the poem’s fabric, an invisible architecture. We build for many reasons, but perhaps the only constant in architectural design is the organization of space. New buildings create new spaces, material forms allow us to see space—or at least, to trick ourselves into thinking that we see it, since space is always invisible. This is what Le Corbusier means when he talks about achieving the “miracle of ineffable space” through “an exceptionally just consonance of the plastic means employed.”[2] When we talk about a building we usually talk about its materials, its shapes, its textures, and when we talk about a poem we talk about its words, its sounds, its meanings. But in both the building and the poem, it is always the apparition of the invisible, the ineffable, that imbues the material elements with meaning.

But perhaps you are left wondering why I have focused on the emptiness around or between the material that you, as architects, build from? Perhaps you still wonder what it is that I find so special about this nothingness, as if all the things we construct and write are themselves irrelevant? Let me end, in that case, with a small poetic illustration. The great New York School poet Frank O’Hara is known for his easy and intimate style because it seems to speak so directly to his readers, across both time and place. Half in jest, O’Hara developed a mock-manifesto for a “movement” that he called “Personism.” It began, so he describes, when writing a poem for someone he was in love with:

While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.[3]

The poem, like the building, reaches across space, it is enabled by space in order that it might exist socially. Poems create spaces, they occupy spaces, they take their meaning from the spaces around them, and this, as with architecture, is what brings the poem to life as a site of sociality. The poem speaks to you, the reader, existing between two persons, connecting in space: Guest’s “bridge of architecture.” In closing, I offer you a directive in empty space—both the space of the poem and the space that you, now, are in—from a line of O’Hara’s that seems to reach corporeally across time: “put out your hand.”[4]

[1] Barbara Guest, “Invisible Architecture.” December 1999. Barbara Guest Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, MSS 1185, Box: 84, Folder: 1471.

[2] Le Corbusier, New World of Space, (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1948), 8.

[3] Frank O’Hara, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press, 1995), 499.

[4] Ibid., 214.

Publication Date
February 21, 2019
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