Architectural Literature, Literary Architecture

A few years ago an architect friend and I used to fantasise about building and animating a model of a small but representative section of Borges’s “Library of Babel”. We wanted to incorporate the animation into a short film with a reading of Borges’s story, complete with lots of digitally-assisted indefinite zooming through the model. The library is described as follows:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bouded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below – one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon’s free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first – identical in fact to all. To the left and the right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one’s physical necessities. Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance. In the vestibule there is a mirror, which faithfully duplicates appearances. Men often infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite – if it were, what need would there be for that illusory replication? I prefer to dream that banished surfaces are a figuration and promise of the infinite…. Light is provided by certain spherical fruits that bear the name “bulbs”. There are two of these bulbs in each hexagon, set crosswise. The light they give is insufficient, and unceasing.

Jorge Luis Borges. “The Library of Babel”
Collected Fictions (New York: Penguin, 1998), p. 112


After much sketching, drafting, discussing, plotting, and puzzling, we ended up postponing the exercise indefinitely, concluding that, whether by accident or design (one would certainly not put the latter past Borges), constructing a model of the library was quite plausibly impossible.

A small yet astounding exhibition of some of the recent works of Ben Clement and Sebastian de la Cour in Berlin last week reminded me of the project, which I had nearly forgotten about. From the exhibition blurb:

Individually and as a whole, their highly-crafted pieces – including a wooden sarcophagus housing a mechanical theatre, a delicately collapsing staircase and a mountainous adjustable-height desk – not only transform the familiar spaces they tenant, but also ask provocative questions of the standpoints from which such spaces are seen. benandsebastian work from a need to explore, probe and question the world around them – through architectural constructions. For them, architecture is not only the buildings we inhabit, but also a way of thinking that can be explored through the spaces of mythical stories, utopian models, economic systems and power relations. Working through a process of serious play, they are not afraid to explore the dysfunctional and unfashionable. Their recent work has taken inspiration from mediaeval rituals, romantic ruins, office politics and a Manhattan urban legend.

Many of the works exhibited playfully incorporate an unlikely blend of textures, surfaces, and other decorative and visual elements alluding to a rich variety of styles and periods in art, architecture and design. Roman ruins conceal hieroglyphs. Often the context of the works is ambiguous, proportion is lost and scale is exploded – leading the visitor poised between interior and exterior, the micro and the macro, object and model.

One’s eyes wander across what is at one moment a public square, the next moment the seat of a chair, one moment a tabletop, the next moment a telescopically unfolding multi-story pyramid structure – with alternating floors of jungle plants and office units, prison bars and birdcages. Buried in a stack of newspaper, we see a scene depicting the notorious hoarders Homer and Langley Collyer, doomed by their obsession. Peering into through the cracks in a large box, we see a funeral procession for the last queen of Denmark. Visually some of the pieces are reminiscent of M. C. Escher, Piero Fornasetti, Giovanni Battista Piranesi or the Brothers Quay. Most of them are highly atmospheric, weaving their spaces with fragments of narrative.

Writers such as Borges, Calvino, Eco, Kafka, Perec, Sebald and others use architectural structures in their literary works to explore emotional states, metaphysical themes, or reflections on history or society. Clement and de la Cour seem to infuse this kind of architectural literature back into their pieces to create a kind of allusive, literary architecture.


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One Comment

  1. Posted March 18, 2011 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    I should imagine something fractal-based, like this video, would be the closest one could get to a simulated Library of Babel.

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