- Architecture and Modern Literature by David Spurr
David Spurr’s assembly of lucid essays, attentive to the question of dwelling in the last two hundred years, explores the intersections of meaning produced by modern architecture and modern literature. Modernity itself is immediately designated by the author as a “set of material and symbolic forms that constitute the modern world and our experience of that world” (ix). Underpinning these forms, for Spurr, is a more fundamental question regarding the overall relation between literature and architecture. These two fields are given a kind of equivalence in the book, summed up succinctly when the author remarks that the “art of the built environment is architecture; that of language is literature” (49) or “for poetry does with the material of language what architecture does with the materials of the earth” (205). Throughout, one senses an admirable desire to relate the two at all costs: literature must have an architectural counterpart.
At the conceptual core of this work is an interest in describing architecture and literature in terms of forms and figures. Yet a clearer distinction between what is meant by an architectural form or figure and a literary one could have strengthened the argument, as the words form and figure have had differing connotations in each realm over the last two centuries. One feels as though the author’s remarkable effort to connect the two worlds has partially eclipsed the ways in which they speak differently to us. Despite this concealment, though, Spurr’s conviction that the architectural metaphor in modern literature is of prime relevance is eruditely and convincingly argued.
Central to Spurr’s account is the urgency of understanding the concept of dwelling today. The notion of dwelling alludes foremost to Heidegger, and in particular to the philosopher’s essay of 1951, [End Page 259] “Bauen Wohnen Denken” (Building Dwelling Thinking). To dwell, for Heidegger, is to know one’s place and to feel at home in the world. Only if one is capable of dwelling can one then proceed to build. Spurr draws from this definition in Architecture and Modern Literature, where learning to dwell in the wake of a world which allows for disorientation remains a key concern. In addition, referencing Walter Benjamin, Spurr agrees with the idea that the twentieth century has put an end to dwelling in the highest sense. Benjamin’s account in Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project) invites quotation:
The nineteenth century, like no other century, was addicted to dwelling. It conceived the residence as a receptacle for the person, and it encased him with all his appurtenances so deeply in the dwelling’s interior that one might be reminded of the inside of a compass case, where the instrument with all its accessories lies embedded in deep, usually violet folds of velvet … The twentieth century, with its porosity and transparency, its tendency toward the well-lit and airy, has put an end to dwelling in the old sense.1
Spurr follows this line of thinking to interpret the nineteenth-century attempt at building a home as a doomed effort and a paralyzed theme—one that must end in ruin and in a consequent homelessness. While Heidegger urges one to learn how to dwell and Benjamin urges one to abolish any trace of dwelling, Spurr combines aspects from both authors’ approaches and calls for a redefinition of dwelling, one that is adequate for the modern era and moves beyond traditional concepts. To assist in this reconstruction, he looks in particular to Marcel Proust’s Albertine disparue from A la recherche du temps perdu as a work suggestive of a displacing and destabilizing attitude toward architecture. Modern dwelling must accept its nomadicity, Spurr suggests, just as one must learn to live again with ever-present landscapes of nothingness. Likewise, the emptiness of modern space becomes a point of departure for today’s dweller and the possibility of creating that void his challenge.
Organizationally, the book moves largely from early nineteenth-century investigations to the writing and architecture of living [End Page 260] authors. The introduction...