Friday, March 11, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: Of Words and Bricks

Today’s guest blogger is Philip Briggs, an architect and reader. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his family and many books.

For many, an ideal getaway from their workaday world is to lie on the beach with a good book. Personally, I would keep the book but ditch the beach in favor of an urban space: maybe the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal in New York, a café on Venice’s Piazza San Marco, a bench in Saint Paul’s Rice Park, or under the canopy at the Menil Collection Museum in Houston. Well-designed places, both grand and modest, are a source of joy for me.

Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy –
Napoleon called it the ‘finest drawing
room in Europe.’ I think I agree.
I am an architect, and long before I knew the word “architecture,” I was interested in and inspired by the built environment of cities and towns. The study of architecture, either as a hobby or a field of study, involves a respect for history, recognition of visual composition, and an appreciation for functionality. Architecture is unique in that it is a synthesis of many disparate elements, and it can be a window upon the culture at a place in time.

Although I can hardly describe myself as a writer, I have also always loved reading. Both fiction and nonfiction serve as my portal into many different worlds. Works of literature in particular create inhabited and realized worlds, not unlike a work of architecture. It occasionally occurs to me that these two realms of creativity are further related: that the experience of architecture has parallels in the world of the narrative for both the creator and the audience.

Visual arts such as painting or sculpture can concern themselves with a singular expressive idea, not unlike the effect of a short poem or a lyric. In contrast, a meaningful fictional narrative brings together many elements – the characters, the settings, dialogue – to create a compelling and plausible world for the story to occur. None of these crafted elements are intended to stand alone: they exist to serve the larger purposes of the story.

Grand Central Terminal, New York – Majesty and serene
proportions for the harried daily commuter.
Original photography & stitching by Diliff, horizontal correction by Janke)

Similarly, a work of architecture consists of many constituent parts but ultimately it is to be appreciated and experienced as a whole, an integrated entity. Architectural design considers many issues such as constructability, programmatic functions, aesthetic considerations, and (unfailingly) the budget. If any of the critical aspects are weak or unsatisfactorily resolved, the building usually fails in its mission as architecture. A well-designed building combines its elements gracefully, achieving harmony and order that belies the great effort made during its design.

Landmark Center- Rice Park,
Saint Paul, Minnesota – An elegant urban space framed
by lovely buildings – a current destination on sunny days.
In the novel form, I expect most writers would say that the single most important element must be the story line itself. I look upon the storyline as the structure of the book, the invisible backbone within the binding. During the architectural design process, it is similarly essential that a strong diagrammatic plan be developed early on. The term often used for this diagram (especially in academia) is “parti,” which might be best described as the proverbial napkin sketch. It is often very simple, and it deals with the core architectural issues at an elemental level. As the building design develops, with its many refinements, details, and decisions, this main idea should be reinforced. It can evolve and change, but it must not be lost. Details do matter: They flesh out the story and give the building its texture and life. But, as with literature, they are of secondary importance, to be addressed after the essential parameters are established and understood.

I have heard it said by many a critical reader that a particular book “did not flow.” Interestingly, this is a comment I also hear in architecture: it can be directed at a disjointed building exterior, an uncomfortable interior space, or a confusing pathway of circulation (lots of signs = bad architecture). The true measure of architecture is not its impressiveness or the fame of its architect. It is how it serves as a setting for the lives of people. Once a building or a novel is created, it is no longer the home of the architect or the writer. This new creation will now be defined by perceptions and experiences – by the building’s occupants, the story’s readers. In the built environment you, dear reader, are ultimately the protagonist of the story. And if it isn’t working – doesn’t “flow” – you can’t help but notice it.

Menil Collection, Houston, Texas – An esoteric front porch,
an artistic shelter from the Texas sun. (Photo by Lian Chang)
For me, spending time in a beautiful urban space or a well-designed building is not unlike getting immersed in a great book: senses are heightened, the mind feels quickened, and I am thoroughly engaged in the rich experiences of the moment. There is an energy, a sense of exploration and a desire to linger. Some of my most treasured places were visited long ago, and yet my mind recalls them vividly. If I do get a chance to return, it is like picking a favorite book off of the shelf: I recall not only its qualities, but also my original reactions and emotions. To those I add my new experiences of the place: it grows anew in meaning, memory joined with a joyful rediscovery.


  1. Philip, what a fascinating take on architecture and storytelling. I will never look at buildings the same way again! Thanks for blogging with us today.

  2. Great piece of writing, Philly! Now if we could all always work on such well-designed buildings, much less experience them on a more often than occasional basis...

  3. Great picture of the Grand Central, Philip - was it done from the catwalk? They've closed the catwalk ever since 9/11 just in case some nutcase with a gun would wander in... but I stood there once, it's such an awesome view! Thanks for blogging with us.

  4. Wow. I never realised how books and architecture are so alike. Philip, thank you so much this amazing post. Just fabulous. I especially loved this line i"t can be a window upon the culture at a place in time". Wonderful!

  5. An interesting idea, one I'd never thought of. I do like the pleasant urban spaces but reading may fall by the wayside--I'd be too tempted to watch people. You have a unique outlook. I enjoyed it.

  6. Thanks for reading, everyone. And thank you Novel Adventurers for the opportunity to contribute.
    Lina, the photo of Grand Central was not my own, but I think you are right re: the catwalk - I've stood there a few times too!
    El - too true, but we do what we can, eh?
    Ellis, Alli and Heidi - I am so glad you enjoyed reading my post and found something to appreciate.

  7. A beautiful post. I've lived in lots of different houses and several apartments. I've felt so uncomfortable in some. The ones I don't like probably didn't have the flow you describe. I love big grand places like Grand Central, too! And the Venice Piazza. Something to think about.

  8. I love your point about bad design requiring extraneous signage. So true. And good design is simply inviting, no matter whether the occupant can identify the exact elements that create harmony. A well-designed space restores your soul.