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  • Space as Storyteller: Spatial Jumps in Architecture, Critical Theory, and Literature by Laura Chiesa
  • Thomas L. Cooksey
Laura Chiesa, Space as Storyteller: Spatial Jumps in Architecture, Critical Theory, and Literature Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016, xii, 250 pp.

Much traditional architecture aspires to a unitary narrative of power, what historian Spiro Kostof terms "the Grand Manner": There the city is conceived as a work of art, a theater for staging spectacles or composing a space that makes urban experience itself a spectacle. It was the favored style of absolutism and colonial capitals, and not surprisingly the totalitarian regimes of the thirties, whether the Rome of Mussolini, the urban fantasies of Hitler and Albert Speer, or the Soviet Socialist Cities of Stalin. In her compelling book Laura Chiesa examines an alternative vision of architectural, urban narrative, and modernist space, arguing for a "spatial turn" that reconfigures the assumptions of space and time. Here architectural space is conceived as "space-impulse" rather than self-contained mass, more for opening the possibilities of experience, predicated on shifting relationships among the various participants—whether reader, spectator, or passerby. This polysemic space becomes a "storyteller," inviting our various contingent interpretations.

Drawing on Giuliana Bruno, Anthony Vidler, and Samuel Weber, Chiesa takes an original and ground-breaking transdisciplinary approach, exploring the intersections of architectural and urban experimentation, literary and critical theory, and the practice of writing. Rather than looking at stories that use architecture as their background or architectural projects, she is concerned with the literary and critical strategies at the core of these projects. Central here is what she coins "architecturablity," the ways and gestures by which architectural space draws upon and relates to other media, film, print, theater. Rather than arguing for a general theory [End Page 390] of space or foundational intention, she makes a series of disciplinary "jump cuts" among selected writers, architects, and performers engaged in confronting the tensions between narrative and performance, the experimental and theoretical, the map-able and yet-to-be-mapped. Her ultimate goal seeks to understand some of the ways that architecture can bring to being new and unexpected ways of understanding the space of modernity.

The abiding spirit throughout Chiesa's study, as might be expected, is Walter Benjamin, the Arcades Project the abiding inspiration. Noting the way the Parisian arcades marked a space that also dissolved the boundaries between interior and exterior, she looks at Benjamin's treatment of the experience of fleeting space in Baudelaire, Proust, and Aragon. She develops Benjamin's notion of the "col-portage phenomenon of space," where different occurrences happen in the same space. This, she suggests, is the essence of the flȃneur's experience where the chance and random experiences of the city invite multiple narratives. It represents a way of knowledge that resonates with Benjamin's interests in Surrealism and Le Corbusier. It also informs Benjamin's concern for the Futurism of Marinetti and the misuses of technology by the state.

Counter to Benjamin's critique of the first wave of Futurism, Chiesa argues that the second wave, including Giacomo Balla, Fortunato Depero, and Enrico Prampolini, open the potentiality of architectural space through their manifestos and the development of the "Synthetic Futurist Theater." She also offers a reconsideration of the later Marinetti. Broadly their goal was to construct a series of polysemic "entanglements" by creating extreme relations between space and structure, the tactile and optical, the stable and transient. These were often staged and filmed, drawing on different media and appealing to different senses in order to create allegories of possible cityscapes.

Chiesa next turns to the constructed cityscapes and their roles in the storytelling of Italo Calvino and Georges Perec. Sharing the experimental and epistemic commitments of the Oulipo Group, they deploy their use of architecture and space in radically different ways. Venice exemplifies a colportage of space, giving rise to multiple imaginary cities. By contrast Perec's La Vie mode d'emploi (Life A User's Manual) creates Paris from the closed interior of a room in a building full of such interiors, giving rise to the possibility of multiple stories. The unity of Perec's narrative derives from the web...


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pp. 390-392
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