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The Architectural Mystique
by Izzy Ferguson

Architects are not, as a whole, particularly nice people. Architects are not given to group hugs. Self-absorption tends to get in the way-or egotism, or immodesty, or any one of a number of protective colorations. A rough bunch of people.
Yet not too long ago, the British film director Peter ("Pile-on-the-Symbols") Greenaway was willing to take an uncomfortable journey into The Belly of an Architect. If an exploration of the architect's belly is bad enough, consider the depth of unpleasantness possible when Douglas Cooper offers this invitation in his new novel, Delirium:
"Follow me, if you dare, and I shall lead you into the murderous place, the full bleak night of the architect's being."
And deeply unpleasant it is, both as a novel and as what the architect might call a "cultural artifact".
As a novel, it hit the bookstores only recently. It has existed, however, since 1994, serialized on the World Wide Web. Indeed, it is the first novel ever serialized on the Web, although this, as with the first emu ever born in Moosonee, may be more a comment on its novelty than its effectiveness.
In any case, the central character of the book/hypertext is Ariel Price, master architect and thorough rotter. His character and career appear to derive from those of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, two influential architects of the twentieth century who had unsavory pasts-and, in the case of Johnson, who is still practising at the age of ninety-one in Cooper's current hometown of Manhattan, an unsavory present as well.
Ariel Price, despite the Shakespearean lightness and spirit of his allegorical name, embodies all the arrogance of the master-builder. If he is an Ariel, it is only because he has the pure, if misguided, imagination to envision the modern city as a forest of pristine towers and underground malls. It is a novel freighted with symbolic names-Tom Sorrow, Signus Writhe, Stein Foregutt-that weigh heavily on a reader slogging through the mud of events. The book is, in its way, a construction site itself (justification, perhaps, for its serialization in the quicksilver electronic world), strewn with deep puddles after a hot rain of images, materials piled up everywhere. Intellectual steel-toed boots required.
As the plot gets under way, Price decides to murder his biographer, Theseus Crouch, for reasons that ought to remain unspoken here for fear of revealing the beginning. Suffice it to say that a complex play of ideas, characters, and architectural entities unfolds through a torrent of fragmentary scenes, snippets of historical tangentiality, and irruptions of inner monologue, never risking the smooth clear water of narrative flow. All is sensation and soul-searching. As one character portentously cries, "Bring me a leper, a cripple and a black woman. I am bored."
Somewhere at the heart of the book is a horrific event that attends the construction of Ariel Price's Letztesmann Tower, a fictional correlative of Mies van der Rohe's Toronto-Dominion Centre and a funereal symbol of the dark subterranean Toronto into which Cooper burrows in search of dirt. The tower serves as a jumping-off point for scattershot rambles into the cerebral territories of time, space, and architecture, territories that were also mapped in his earlier novel, Amnesia, some of whose characters come up for air again and join the frenzied dance of incident and rumination that shape Delirium.
And yet for all the frenzy of the format and the fiction, it is a very slow dance, a slow unveiling, Salome on Prozac.
This may be a function of Cooper's style. Amnesia, published in 1992, was widely praised, not least for its "elliptical narrative style", and Delirium is of a piece with its precursor (and, presumably, with two possible successors in a projected quartet). Ellipsis, however, is the omission of parts that are necessary to the comprehension of the whole, and praise for an "elliptical narrative style" might easily be mistaken for damnation. But there is a deeper problem than style.
Delirium is above all an architectural novel. Its subject is the mythology of architecture, the aggrandisement, even deification, of the structures that act as the skeleton of the living city. As Mies van der Rohe memorably expressed it, "God is in the details." Cooper responds, too patly, "Hell is in the details." Be it heaven or hell, the home of architectural mythology is surely a big place, with plenty of room for meanings inflated to ludicrous size in the hands of the mythologizer. The problem with Delirium may lie simply in this: that it is this unwieldy thing called an architectural novel, written by a former student of architecture, who, despite later estimable successes in journalism and screen-writing, can still be seen primarily as a student of architecture.

Now, students of architecture in the last twenty years have been brought up on a troublesome regimen that emphasizes the need for narrative. Narrative, in architectural education, is something that must embellish a design as, in a more ornate age, ornament once did. (Another memorable modernist architectural mantra, from the Viennese Adolf Loos in the 1920s, is "Ornament is a crime." We are headed here, perhaps, towards "Architectural narrative is a crime.") It is not enough, in the schools of architecture, to design a beautiful place. It is required, instead, that the student design a place that tells a story of some kind. It has to be a highly symbolic and even abstruse story because it is a story hung on the lifeless elements of a building rather than on the lives of the people who might actually inhabit it. In the story is the beauty.
And so the architectural student learns to weave ever denser and more complex tales around a building, a park, a city, and to call the process design. As Cooper says, in architectural student mode, "The city takes, inevitably, the shape of the mind itself."
It is as if the Empire State Building were to be designed not as a building but as a three-dimensional realization of man's aspirations to flight and world dominion, interwoven with a few subplots concerning angels on ladders and perhaps the vertical accretion of social and ethnic groups in the New World.
Or something like that. The Empire State Building may in fact have taken on some of those narrative elements through time and usage, but it was certainly not designed around them. Another mind-bite, highly instructive, is relevant: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
But the student of architecture is bolstered, in the belief that symbolic narrative gives life to a building, by the books that are the bibles of the schools. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote The Poetics of Space in 1958, but it is still prime among the bibles. When Cooper pursues his narrative of the black tower in Toronto up to the penthouse (where the leasing agent Tom Sorrow sees bright worldly success) and down to the climactic basement (where the cripple Cosimo finds darkness and death), Bachelard has already mapped the route: "Verticality is ensured by the polarity of cellar and attic.. Indeed, it is possible, almost without commentary, to oppose the rationality of the roof to the irrationality of the cellar.. Up near the roof all our thoughts are clear.. As for the cellar, it is first and foremost the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces. When we dream there, we are in harmony with the irrationality of the depths."
And much more in the same vein, most of it hewing close to the course of Delirium, a course in which the settings are force-fed with narrative meaning, in which the settings are more characters than the characters themselves. It is tempting to refer here to the famous inability of architectural students to draw the human figure, to their need to insert simplified and abstract suggestions of humanity into dead renderings rich with inorganic detail..
Another of the students' bibles is more telling still. In 1978, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas published Delirious New York, a marvellous book in which architectural congestion is treated as a cultural force, the towers of Manhattan as great repositories that breathe life into their occupants. Architectural students love this one. If Luna Park in Coney Island is lauded there as a place that "has blended the mechanics of sex with the imminence of death in a single respectable experiment," it is fitting that, when the cripple Cosimo engages in the mechanics of sex, we see "the bodies that pursue their slow progress of decay on the mattress below.the crisis as death nears, the slackening of all function, and sleep." The delirious Toronto of Delirium is not far removed from any of its delirious metropolitan cousins in the architectural student's pantheon.
Which is the trouble. The effects sought by the architectural novel-the plummy symbols arrayed against the urban backdrop, the narrative forced into the building until it shudders on the drawing board-don't serve even the architectural student well. They distract from the nobler aim of producing a refined architecture and then unleashing it on the world in order to earn life from the narratives that will flow from it later on. They are spurious effects, suitable only to convince the student that architecture has a titillating mystique.
They serve the architectural novelist even worse. They throw him into opposition to everything that has carried the novel this far. Of course, this sort of opposition is the architecture student's desired conceit-it is no accident that the intellectual discourse of architecture was carried on in the universities of the '70s and '80s most vociferously in a journal called Oppositions-but it is seldom useful to the novelist. As John Gardner says in his classic The Art of Fiction, "The most important single notion in the theory of fiction I have outlined-essentially the traditional theory of our civilization's literature-is that of the vivid and continuous fictional dream.. In bad or unsatisfying fiction, this fictional dream is interrupted from time to time by some mistake or conscious ploy on the part of the artist. We are abruptly snapped out of the dream, forced to think of the writer or the writing."
Still, it may be that Cooper's idea of the architectural novel is not without merit. His first venture into such a novel, with Amnesia, earned him a measure of fame. In Delirium, there are moments of clarity and truth. The cripple Cosimo and a young dancer named Bethany sit in a coffee shop on College Street in Toronto, for example, and share a conversation:
"What's the harm in just putting on a performance? It's a kind of opportunity. I mean, he's famous."

Izzy Ferguson pursues a largely fictitious architectural practice in Dundas, Ontario.


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