The cover of David Spurr’s highly enjoyable Architecture and Modern Literaturedramatizes some of the narrative opportunities as well as descriptive challenges involved in bringing together the two fields of cultural production in the title. It shows a picture of a solitary man with a hat and briefcase, viewed from behind while crossing a foggy and nearly empty Piazza San Marco in Venice. The image instantly displays narrative potential and conjures up a whole history of Venice-based stories. At the same time, it reminds us of the stark differences in how media are able to deal with material settings. All attempts at evoking the buildings surrounding the piazza in language are at a disadvantage from visual media, which provide a wealth of detail and an immersive, sensuous effect that are unavailable to ploddingly descriptive words.
In his fifty-page introduction, “Meaning in Architecture and Literature,” Spurr goes out of his way to put the two cultural activities on a par as not only “defining the world in which we live” but being “potentially the most unlimited of all art forms in their comprehension of human existence itself” (3). So [End Page 114]he mentions only late and in passing how the cultural weight of the two has in fact undergone a sea-change in our age of visuality and spectacle. Both the production and consumption of literature have become marginal in a global culture that
has been transformed into the production of images, so that a new building by a star architect like Frank Gehry or Daniel Libeskind, to say nothing of the destruction of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York, creates a much greater symbolic and perhaps more lasting impact on the public consciousness than any new literary work can hope to achieve.(43)
We live in a very different cultural context than the one that allowed Hegel to pit architecture against poetry—and let poetry trumparchitecture by calling it the “absolute and true art of the spirit” (qtd. on 2).
Spurr does not want his poetry (or literature) to be trumped by architecture. This may be derived also from the paucity of illustrations in his book. We get a mere handful of mostly predictable images, ranging from a Piranesi drawing and a Victorian illustration for a Dickens novel to Buster Keaton’s proto-deconstructive architecture, a few architectural drawings by Viollet-le-Duc, and a picture of Proust sitting on a balcony in Venice. There is obviously a literary scholar at work here, despite the way the key terms have been stacked in the title, and we might wish that someday an architectural critic or historian would come along to address the same conjunction of disciplines—and perhaps take us out of our comfort zone.
To guide us on this more conventional literary-critical trip through what is still underexplored territory, Spurr is eminently suitable. Although his corpus is canonically Western, he has all the linguistic and cultural baggage needed to shuttle back and forth between writings in English, German, and French (Spurr teaches in Switzerland), and he mixes his discussion of primary texts easily with reflections inspired by Le Corbusier, Heidegger, Adorno, and Derrida. He seems equally comfortable discussing the Marquis de Sade as Wordsworth, Dickens as Kafka, Ruskin as Proust, Joyce as Stevens, and in his final chapter throws in two enfants terriblesof contemporary fiction, J. G. Ballard and Michel Houellebecq. As an established scholar, moreover, Spurr feels little need to become defensive about his topic or clutter his text with notes. Instead, he spins out his ambitious narrative freely and in the smoothest possible prose. He is a guide who keeps us riveted and eager to ask questions along the way.
With such a knowledgeable guide, we should not mind too much if the story takes big leaps on occasion, becomes fragmentary at times, and has a few conspicuous seams. It can be a lot for the listener to move mentally from Adolf Loos’s Vienna to Mies van der Rohe’s glass towers to Rilke’s Seventh Elegy...