:: Article

Embracing the Shadows

By Kerry Ryan.

Perfect Architect cover

Perfect Architect, Jayne Joso, Alcemi 2011

Perfect Architect begins with a quote from Charles Moore‘s introduction to In Praise of Shadows Junichiro Tanizaki‘s seminal essay on aesthetics:

“One of the basic human requirements is the need to dwell, and one of the central human acts is the act of inhabiting, of connecting ourselves, however temporarily, with a place on this planet that belongs to us and to which we belong.”

Finding a place to belong is Gaia Ore’s main focus after husband, Charles, the ‘Architect of the Age’, chokes to death on a piece of eel, leaving her alone in ‘the Construct’, a house where rooms are ‘units’ and clutter is banned. Rooting through her husband’s things, Gaia discovers intimate letters from the mysterious Selene, and in the midst of her grief begins writing to this ‘other woman’. Their correspondence leads to the organisation of an international architecture competition where four of Charles’ former adversaries – think Richard Rogers, Daniel Libeskind et al – compete to design a house his widow can call home.

Perfect Architect is described in the promotional blurb as ‘a love letter to architecture’, and as much as it is, it is also a love letter to the epistolary novel. In this brave new electronic world, there is something a little nostalgic about Gaia’s discovery of Charles’ letters and her postal correspondence with Selene. Joso just about gets away with it because of her characters’ ages and the fact that some people still prefer to pick up a pen rather than bash out an 80-word email populated with kisses, LOLs and smiley faces. Although it’s true that in a few years time, novels like this that feature letters rather than email will be classified as historical fiction.

The discovery of incriminating letters – that hoary old Macguffin used to good effect by the Ancient Greeks – functions well in Joso’s novel as an engine driving the plot forward. And it’s a real pleasure witnessing Gaia construct her sense of ‘self’ and begin to step out from her husband’s shadow in her correspondence with Selene, and eventually in her own life. The juxtaposition of third person narration along with handwritten missives helps highlight how letters mask and unmask, hiding and revealing true desires.

Despite the fact that it features neither a text message nor a Tweet, Joso’s novel is a modern work, examining the adulation of the contemporary architect and the superstar culture that surrounds him. It’s a hyper-masculine world of bourbon, blueprints and cigars, a grown-up version of a cock waving contest only with more spectacular results than little boys comparing their junk in the sandpit.

The four star-architects or ‘starchitects’ are an international bunch. Alessandro Cannizzaro is the Italian seducer, Carlos Santillana, the Spanish family man, Edwin Ray, the sozzled Brit genius, and Ralph Coover, the boorish American:

“In terms of architecture, Ralph would stun the world. As a student anything taught was negotiated, and put to use, but when it came to practice….out in the real world, well, that was a totally different ball game. Ralph was to achieve a level of power never before granted an architect. The man had a fearlessness and a will so compelling that things simply fell in line with his dictate, BIG THINGS!”

Joso’s depictions of these four megalomaniacs are often extremely funny, but after spending time with them and their Sydney-opera-sized egos, I couldn’t help but wish Gaia had taken Selene’s advice and designed her own home. Yet my wanting more for Gaia than the denouement allows, indicates how much she develops as a character as the novel progressed.

For a fairly short novel, there’s a lot going on. Letters help Gaia to build a connection with local postman, Tom, and chunks of the book examine his marital problems after his son’s death. There is also a brief section examining the great Charles Ore’s early life. Such frequent shifts from character to character left me a little breathless; I was just beginning to appreciate the view when I was pulled along to admire something new.

Despite the rapid changes in perspective and sometimes manic pace, Joso has constructed a persuasive, humane piece of work. Her close attention to the infra-ordinary, to the magic in the mundane, is always compelling, and her writing is often poignant and affecting. Perfect Architect is a novel that encourages us to look at where and how we live, while providing an insight into the destructive and yet sometimes ultimately constructive nature of grief and loss.


Kerry Ryan is a short story writer, novelist and 3:AM Co-Editor.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 20th, 2011.