Mark Lamster | Essays

Literature’s Harshest Criticism

What is the most brutal piece of architectural criticism in literature? With the attention devoted of late to Ayn Rand, one might point to some Ellsworth Toohey rant in The Fountainhead. (Not being a fan of Rand or that book, I will excuse myself from a search, but pose a question to those who treat Rand as a political model: why is Howard Roark, the architect who dynamites a public housing project on ideological grounds, a hero and not a domestic terrorist?) David Mazzucchelli's recent graphic novel, Asterios Polyp, might be another good source. And there's always Twain, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Nabokov....the possibilities are as diverse as literature itself. Post your own favorites in the comments section, and we can begin to develop a canon.

My own choice is from W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz, and it is remarkable for being one of the most bitter, sustained, and effective eviscerations of a building in print, and that includes criticism of the non-fictional variety. Its harshness is perhaps more remarkable because it is not aimed at an invented target, but a very real work of recent vintage: Dominique Perrault's Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. The critique is delivered, like much of the book, in the mediated voice of a narrator who recapitulates events as told to him by the titular character, Jacques Austerlitz, here visiting the library in search of information about his own past. Like many architectural critiques, it takes the form of a visit through the building, begining with the trip to get there.
In order to reach the Grande Bibliotheque you have to travel through a desolate no-man's-land in one of those robot-driven Metro trains steered by a ghostly voice, or alternatively you have to catch a bus in the place Valhubert and then walk along the wind-swept riverbank toards the hideous, outsize building, the monumental dimensions of which were evidently inspired by the late President's [ie Francois Mitterand] wish to perpetuate his memory whilst, perhaps because it had to serve this purpose, it was so cenceived that it is, as I realized on my first visit, said Austerlitz, both in its outer appearance and inner constitution unwelcoming if not inimical to human beings, and runs counter, on principle, one might say, to the requirements of any true reader.
The review continues for several more pages in similar fashion, always focussing on the very real consequences of Perrault's design on Austerlitz's experience. In that it is a model for any writer of criticism. 

Perrault can at least be thankful that he is unnamed. Still, it's one thing to get a nasty review in the local paper, another to be condemned in history books (although history does have a way of reversing its opinions, or at least blunting them), but to have your work massacred in one of the signature works of modern literature, one that will color readers' impressions for, perhaps, centuries? That's got to sting.

Beyond adding your own favorite pieces of fictional criticism in the comments, if you feel so inspired, I do hope you will join me for further discussion of Austerlitz next week, when I will be hosting the third Architecture and Design Book Club. The event is set for Thursday, August 23 at 6:30 at WeWork, 154 Grand Street. More info is here.

Comments [6]

While I can't differentiate in my memory from his fiction and non-fiction, there are some scathing architectural critiques in the works of Guy Davenport. One in particular I remember from one of his essay collections that critiques the thoughtlessness of modern architecture and city planning as exemplified by one horrible office building where he worked at a university in Kentucky.

"the hideous, outsize building,"... well you could say the same about the Eiffel Tower too?
In the case of fiction writing, harsh criticism may help the writing come alive. It doesn't mean that it is true, however. Words can just as easily be pretty lies. and at worst they are siphoning off the greatness of the work itself--as Jay-Z says, its easy to criticize what's popular.
I would have been interested to see what Hemmingway thought of modern architecture--because both were in pursuit of some kind of truth and greatness in design in the first half of the 20th century. Sebald is more current to our time, so I assume he is with the current strands of irony and decay of modern society, which aren't really constructive impulses in my opinion.

Ed Nai

Ever since reading Faulkner's 'Absalom! Absalom!' I've been haunted by his various descriptions of the mansion around which most of the story’s central tragedies unfold. Known as Sutpen’s Hundred, the 100 acre plantation is imbued with a personality and life that reflects the disposition of its builders and the futility of struggling against the destiny such a building imposes on its occupants. Some excerpts:

"…and so into the house (somehow smaller than its actual size –it was of two storeys– unpainted and a little shabby, yet with an air, a quality of grim endurance as though it had been created to fit into and complement a world in all ways a little smaller than the one in which it found itself) where in the gloom of the shuttered hallway those air was even hotter than outside, as if there were prisoned in it like in a tomb all the suspiration of slow heat-laden time which had recurred during the forty-three years...."

"He lived out there, eight miles from any neighbor, in masculine solitude in what might be called the half acre gunroom of a baronial splendor. He lived in the spartan shell of the largest edifice in the county, not excepting the courthouse itself…without any feminized softness of window pane or door or mattress."

"[Sutpen's] presence alone compelled that house to accept and retain human life; as though houses actually possess a sentience, a personality and character acquired not from the people who breathe or have breathed in them so much as rather inherent in the wood and brick or begotten upon the wood and brick by the man or men who connived and built them – in this one an incontrovertible affirmation for emptiness, desertion; an insurmountable resistance to occupancy save when sanctioned and protected by the ruthless and the strong."

Amazing. Through Faulkner's prose, we understand Sutpen's Hundred as a living, breathing thing that has a direct relationship with the lives of its occupants. I'd love to see such narrative evocations in contemporary architectural criticism.

this passage from faulkner brings to mind mervyn peake's gormenghast books, set in a fictional castle that is dark and redolent. actually, i have never quite been able to get through any of the books in that series, and i must admit i've never quite had much of an affinity for faulkner either. but that's more me than them.
Mark Lamster

It may be that Peake's Titus Groan and Gormenghast are novels that most haunt the teenage imagination, so you might have left it too late, Mark. But, still, the vast, rambling castle in those books is a spectacularly detailed and vivid creation. Those are two essential reads for architecture lovers with a gothic inclination.
Rick Poynor

Ernst Fischer, Robin Boyd and Nikolaus Pevsner need to be added to such a list.
Fischer, notably for his comment that the nouveau riche notion of good taste is classicism.
Boyd's most famous book is "The Australian Ugliness". Published in 1960 with witty succinct illustrations, his comments are, to this day relevant and accurate. It is a must to everyone's collection.
And Pevsner for his belief that architecture is the supreme art to which all others are subservient.
Peter van der Veer

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