Interview with Will Wiles
Will Wiles is the author of two novels: Care of Wooden Floors, in which a man is driven mad by a minimalist apartment, and The Way Inn, a horror story set in an anonymous chain hotel. He is also a contributing editor at Icon magazine and a freelance design journalist. He has a very nice British accent and sounds disarmingly intelligent.
P!: How did you get interested in writing about architecture? And how did you decide to not only write architecture criticism, but to also write fiction about architecture?
W: At university I shared rooms with an architecture student and gave serious thought to switching my degree. I’ve had a lifelong interest in architecture but always wanted to write. Once I left university I realized that I could combine the two and write about architecture for a living.
While I had written fiction as a hobby, I did not think of it as having anything to do with architecture. It was only late in the process of finishing my first novel, Care of Wooden Floors, when I realized that the book was all about architecture—my interests and my day job had completely pervaded my imaginative work as it were. My second novel, The Way Inn, on the other hand, was very consciously an architecture novel.
P!: What would you characterize as an architecture novel? When does a book switch over from just taking place in an architectural environment to being about that environment?
W: Architecture has a much closer relationship with literature than people would imagine. For fields of activity that have so little obviously in common in terms of their making or the shape of their output, they have a very close allyship. I think that connects back to the Gothic. In the 18th century, quite near the birth of the modern novel, suddenly you see people rooting a story in a place rather than it being a more timeless affair, and that’s particularly key in the Gothic. One only has to look at the connection between Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill—this act of defining one’s environment around oneself in a particular way to create particular emotions, and at the same time composing narratives that promote those same emotional responses. I forget who said it, but the fundamental formula of the Gothic novel is a victim, a victimizer, and an evocative setting. The setting is a vital part of the formula. From The Castle of Otranto onwards, it is the setting that generates the atmosphere of oppression and threat—place is as important as anything that happens in the Gothic novel. Though we have never directly confronted The Castle of Otranto in the Book Club [Will Wiles has presided over sessions of the Architecture Association’s Night School Book Club]—we were worried that no one would come if they had to read a fairly long and difficult early Gothic novel—we did take on William Beckford’s Vathek. That’s just a fabulously architectural story, filled with limitless palaces, horrible towers, and mad, opioid visions of excess and debauchery.
P!: As you know, we work primarily in drawings and renderings over here. What do you think a literary description of a space allows you to communicate that a drawing or a plan does not?
W: I’ve written a lot of studies and reviews of buildings over the course of my career, and have certainly edited a lot of them. It seems like there could always be new things written about architecture from a critic’s point of view. But what can be written about architecture that cannot be revealed through a drawing or a plan? An effective description of a building allows you to inhabit it, which is something that requires not three dimensions but four—a place set within time, within a living time that can be animated around you. It is that sense of inhabitation that drawings do not automatically possess and plans certainly do not. But I’m interested in the role of plans in novels. Sometimes they are included, often to the detriment of stories. It can be a bit of a distraction at times if you can overly set a place within a plan—always skipping back to the the flyleaf to see the situate yourself within a map. It’s almost better to keep place conjured and perhaps inconsistent in the mind.
Quite deliberately, there is a subtle inconsistency in the layout of the apartment within Care of Wooden Floors. If you went back and tried to construct a floorplan from the descriptions, you would encounter a stumbling point—two things intersect. While I wanted to thwart planning all together—I didn’t want floorplans to exist—I did have a sketch plan that I referred to. But when I realized that the plan diverted from what I had described, I discovered the potential for introducing an inconsistency. The layout of the building wouldn’t quite work in the way that I had described. That is also just the way that I think, and perhaps the way that a lot of writers think. As I write I am constantly surrounded by doodles of layouts of rooms—where people are sitting around a table and things like that—which are handy for memory and continuity purposes. It’s not necessary for the reader to know these details, but the author should understand them.
P!: You’ve written about how Postmodern designs were used in film in the 80s and 90s to signal a character’s out-of-touchness. Do you see any current design trends being encoded in fiction now?
W: Just as Modernist architecture was used for the supervillain’s lair, for corporate psychopaths and so on, there is now quite an extensive filmography of New Urbanism providing sinister utopias—from The Truman Show to The Walking Dead, which has a kind of chocolate-box heritage neighborhood that turns out to be a haven for the absolutely ghastly. I’ve recently been watching The Good Place. One of the characters, played by Ted Danson, is the architect of a portion of heaven. He has designed a neighborhood within the afterlife, from the ground up. It’s this kind of New Urbanist development, something like Portmeirion. Do you know Portmeirion in Wales? It’s this fantastic kind of village by an architect called Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis. Did you ever see The Prisoner? That was set in Portmeirion. Well, anyway, the neighborhood in The Good Place is a twee little township. It is an interesting choice for heaven and becomes steadily more interesting as the show goes on. I don’t want to spoil it for the readers, but it turns out that this town is not designed in the way that one immediately expects. If you ever end up in a bit of film or TV New Urbanism, you should run like hell.
But there is another trend that may be just around the corner. There have been quite a lot of flashy buildings inhabited by goodies in recent films—I’m thinking particularly of the various Marvel superhero films. Tony Stark’s skyscraper in Manhattan, which becomes the Avengers’ headquarters, has this kind of Neil Denari, Zaha Hadid, Bjarke Ingels aesthetic. Given the changing nature of Robert Downey Jr.’s character in that franchise, it’s only a matter of time before this style ends up being used exclusively by villains.
P!: That’s definitely on the horizon. In your work, especially in The Way Inn, there is this connection between banal spaces, or non-spaces—conference rooms, motels, hotels—and horror. Why do you find that those spaces create feelings of unease?
W: I think it’s the sheer flexibility and versatility of these spaces. They are very comfortable spaces, but they are utterly purged of identification or humanizing influence because they are intended to be used by any number of people. The chain hotels of the mid-twentieth century demonstrate a kind of balance: they have the comforts of a home but lack the accumulated spirit or elan of a home. They are never going to be your home and you don’t necessarily want to spend your time in someone else’s home. While these environments are purged—they are a kind of zombie environment—they are fascinating and often very comfortable.
The Way Inn derives very heavily from Rem Koolhaas’s Junkspace. When I first read it it seemed to have the cadence and tone of something by Edgar Allan Poe or HP Lovecraft. There is hardly a full-stop in it and it has these endless run on sentences—no paragraph breaks or anything. It reads like a breathless report from someone who has glimpsed a cosmic, interdimensional horror and has only just survived with shreds of their sanity. It felt to me like Weird Fiction, so I wrote the novelized version. The sense of that kind of banal environment being boundaryless, sprawling, endlessly multiplying, and essentially unstoppable came from Junkspace.
I’ve rambled a bit. But there are a lot of microaggressions within these environments that give them a certain sense of hostility—static shocks, the keycard that doesn’t work, the menu system on the welcome TV screen, the sound of the air conditioning…. That’s what I wanted to convey. Truly I wanted to write a Gothic novel that had none of the tropes of the gothic novel. There are no creaking floorboards, cold drafts, or cobwebs. Instead the setting is created through 21st-century building services.
P!: In both your works there is a tension between what we want from a space and what it can actually give us. Do you think that always characterizes our relationship to spaces?
W: We have an unhealthy attachment to authenticity. There is a sense that you can only have a really meaningful good time in a 200-year old barn—you have to have roses around the door for an experience to mean something. J.G. Ballard said of the Hilton hotel at Heathrow terminal 4—which is a really interesting, hyper-modernist building with a gigantic Portman-esque atrium—that its atrium lobby—which was his favorite space in London—was a space that no one could ever fall in love in. I thought he was dead wrong, so one of the things that I wanted to do in The Way Inn was have someone fall in love in a space like that, which is what the protagonist does. A mysterious woman. An unrequited love.
P!: If you could come up with a book list, recommendations for people studying architecture…
W: I would recommend that they read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, as well as Ballard’s High Rise. There is also a Ballard short story “Report on an Unidentified Space Station”—the characters are looking around a space station and constantly have to revise upwards their sense of how big it is. There’s a lot of science fiction that addresses architecture. There is a novel by Greg Bear called Eon which is about a spacecraft appearing in orbit around Earth. The station is an asteroid with seven hollowed out chambers within and appears to be a space habitat that was built by humans and has come back to us from the future, but there is no one on board. The seventh chamber of the craft has has an extraordinary mystery within it. I don’t know if you want to include the spoiler or not, but the mystery is that the seventh chamber goes on forever—it extends out of the back of the asteroid and goes on to a infinite distance. What else… Oh god, there are hundreds of architecture novels. Let me look behind me at my bookshelf…