:: Article


By Richard Marshall.

Bleak Houses: Disappointment and Failure in Architecture, Timothy Brittain-Catlin, MIT Press 2014.

‘If you’re so good looking, why are you sleeping alone tonight?’ – Morrisey.

Only the dullest can’t imagine the collapse of their world. For the imaginative it is the starting point and an incentive to stop living within one’s hopes. Why write well of losers? Sheer terror for our future selves, who remain both threatened and threatening strangers. Burroughs said that in deep sadness there was no place for sentimentality. But this book champions architectural sentimentality. It is justified on the grounds that some things are too important to be taken seriously, and triviality is the refuge of the serious. Such is the source of its mournfulness. Only sheer heartlessness would prevent a reader from laughing, as if it’s a Morrissey lyric about sad architects. And if there’s a shadowing resentment running through it’s nothing if not a redeeming vice.

How should we read? In circumstances where disasters are daily presented like a statement of accounts then the recommendation to read inattentively has appeal. Of course when Beckett did make the recommendation he read Proust as a writer on the prowl for laws and found Kafka plain alarming. ‘Nothing is sure but emptiness and error,’ writes Beckett, ‘ … nothing but this idiotic race that every man seems condemned to engage in for no gain and which seems rather, as in Kafka, to be the effect of some divine curse.’ Readers crawl over their pages like across a burning globe, and our futile wheels turn in dying fires. Not one in a thousand make sense of what’s there, what’s absent, what’s clear and what else mad in the soul. A readers’ life is passion where the mind moves and is moved, is an affective life of movement, spontaneous and reflective, is a hungry pathos. Pathos might literally be translated from the Greek into Latin as ‘morbus’ as suggests Cicero in his ‘Tusculan Disputation’ . In so doing the Stoic idea of suffering and fear and inopportune offense becomes an illness where vulnerability is passivity regarding the whole external pressure of a world. Cicero decides on ‘perturbatio’ instead. The affective life of the reader is one of perturbation.

The pathos of reading is connected in this with Stoic movement against Aristotelian moderation. With this movement is collapse, a leap, a plunge, a fall, a virility inflecting the irreversibility of the vocabulary of physics towards its moral pertinence. And Augustine translates pathos again as ‘affectus’. Hobbes made a further move: ‘These small beginnings of motion, within the body of man, before they appear in walking, speaking, striking, and other visible actions, are commonly called endeavours.’ This is the movement Giulia Sissa says ‘… is the condition of all desire and all repulsion.’ Readers desire to find themselves written as a kind of world. There is often only silence and a despondent absence. Listening to ‘Dido’s Lament’ sung by Jeff Buckley at the Meltdown Festival is to glimpse a correlative of the reader’s mode of existence. There is a quiet and terrible disappearance and disappointment in Purcell’s sound.

Octavio Paz writes: ‘ Death enters into everything we undertake and it is no longer a transition but a great gaping mouth that nothing can satisfy.’ This is the territory of suicide and identity burning to a thin crisp, the geography where isolation maps out loneliness, madness, horror and despair. How should we read? Carefully, with respect for the dread that creeps in and the risk that’s more an instruction than anything else. Heads or tails, you lose. The loser is the commoner, the everyman, the standard for our prototypical experience, though each of us has a different experience of it. Cockroaches get lonely, unlike ants. Elephants mourn. Whales stay with their dead calves. Monkeys nurse their corpse young and are sad. These facts taken together give you a solid example of how a reader creates a space in between. Sometimes it’s a fact that we need to screen ourselves off. Parts fall away so there are things gone and the images that are left are just those you have. Some books you read as a test. Sometimes you stay up all night and treat reading as an amputee.

This series of losers are treated as theatres. There is no significance in the sequence in which they appear. But if you stop reading and instead watch them then they become nearby spectacles. Some narratives mean more than what they seem. Even narratives that are not especially dark may be dark enough to call for an explanation. This book seems obvious. It seems to be about architecture and architects. Yet the narrative doesn’t quite fit that. The explanation seems to have only the appearance of an explanation. There is an obscurity in the narrative, a fey oracular shimmer, where an affective tone, a feeling, spreads over that’s not so much discovered as detected. Its sense of loss and regret points to mysteries the obvious explanations cover up. Yet the various sub-narratives tend to repeat and give the impression that there is nothing else to be seen. What we suspect lies underneath these is the secret master narrative. Each example of a loser – a key trope for the book – picks up a theme but distorts it somewhat, as if in a bad mirror. This may be due to the reader’s own restless search for development rather than repetition. But it may also be a concern or suspicion on the reader’s behalf that the narrator’s explicit exegesis of his own subtleties are too clumsy or half-hearted. There seem dense secrets being unfolded and then covered up. The stories are not to be taken at face value and like a riddle have explanatory traps attached. The straight-forward explanations lead us away from the real intentions.

Riddles and parables can provoke a simple question, and tempt a simple answer. We can ask; what is this book about? About this one the MIT Press put out this blurb to answer that question:

‘The usual history of architecture is a grand narrative of soaring monuments and heroic makers. But it is also a false narrative in many ways, rarely acknowledging the personal failures and disappointments of architects. In Bleak Houses, Timothy Brittain-Catlin investigates the underside of architecture, the stories of losers and unfulfillment often ignored by an architectural criticism that values novelty, fame, and virility over fallibility and rejection. Brittain-Catlin tells us about Cecil Corwin, for example, Frank Lloyd Wright’s friend and professional partner, who was so overwhelmed by Wright’s genius that he had to stop designing; about architects whose surviving buildings are marooned and mutilated; and about others who suffered variously from bad temper, exile, lack of talent, lack of documentation, the wrong friends, or being out of fashion.As architectural criticism promotes increasingly narrow values, dismissing certain styles wholesale and subjecting buildings to a Victorian litmus test of “real” versus “fake,” Brittain-Catlin explains the effect that this superficial criticality has had not only on architectural discourse but on the quality of buildings. The fact that most buildings receive no critical scrutiny at all has resulted in vast stretches of ugly modern housing and a pervasive public illiteracy about architecture. Architecture critics, Brittain-Catlin suggests, could learn something from novelists about how to write about buildings. Alan Hollinghurst in The Stranger’s Child, for example, and Elizabeth Bowen in Eva Trout vividly evoke memorable houses. Thinking like novelists, critics would see what architectural losers offer: episodic, sentimental ways of looking at buildings that relate to our own experience, lessons learned from bad examples that could make buildings better.’

So it’s obvious – it’s a book about British architecture. About how it’s a mess and useless. About how architectural criticism is to blame. About how sentiment needs defending. About Queen Ann and Mock-Tudor styles. About gay sensibilities and about being a loser. About disappointment. And attached traumas. As one astute critic puts it, ‘Bleak Houses returns, time and again, to sites of trauma, such as the Queen Anne-style master’s lodge at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where the author was “once refused admission to join (his) parents for lunch by the then master”. I think I would have returned with a petrol can and a box of matches. Had my nerve failed, the episode would certainly have instilled an irrevocable loathing of Queen Anne architecture. But Bleak Houses remains transfixed.’ And it is this oddness, this transfixed sadness that haunts every sinew of the stories in a cumulative strangeness of narrative that suggests that there is something else going on, offering more than the simple answer, and to varying degrees of opacity.

There’s the calculation of its straightforward meaning becoming part of the mystery. We have a literary example of such a narrative in Kafka: ‘ Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes part of the ceremony.’ The words mean more than they say but remain serene and are disposed to incorporate our interpretative designs upon them. In doing this, they create the disquiet of a contradiction where words, meaning exactly what they say, don’t.

Beckett was too much at home with Kafka, and disturbed by the serenity of Kafka’s catastrophes. The parable in Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ makes the enormity of these catastrophes a matter of devastating self-cancellation. When the doorkeeper guarding the shining law finally closes the door on the man who has waited for admittance all his life and is on the brink of dying he explains: ‘ … this door was intended only for you. Now I am going to shut it.’ Glosses on the meaning remain ‘unsatisfying or unfair’, as Frank Kermode puts it. The notion here is one of exclusion. The reader is excluded from what the narrative means and there is a sense that all Brittain-Catlin is doing is guarding a meaning without the need to have understood it. The regret and immense emotion in the book feels as if the meaning has already been lost and is irretrievable. What is being offered as an interpretation is an inferior substitute. Odd things happen in such situations. The force of the narrative keeps the mystery obscure. It is of little expansiveness as a narrative though there is expressiveness and coherence. It is a narrative that tends to circle and narrow down. It is a similitude and as such requires a comparison. But to what?

Perhaps the verisimilitude and realism of the soft voiced argument is a clue. After all, this is a non-fiction narrative, an exercise in historical specificity steering us to what we need now, not a vaguely impending situation suggested in a storybook. The characters are real characters, the architecture real buildings, the polemic addressing an actual crisis. The book is suggesting action and has no ostensive room for incomprehension. Further allusion to mystery of any sort is an unnecessary accessory. Blanchot writes that writing ‘…issues from its own absence, addressing itself to the shadow of events, not their reality.’ And it is sometimes unclear at the onset whether these stories are decisively comical or tragic. “A writer who writes, ”I am alone”… can be considered rather comical. It is comical for a man to recognize his solitude by addressing a reader and by using methods that prevent the individual from being alone. The word alone is just as general as the word bread. To pronounce it is to summon to oneself the presence of everything the word excludes.” Well maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but what seems right is Blanchot’s further recognition that when writing a writer remembers himself when not writing, so it becomes a memoir of himself ‘when he is alive and not dying and without truth.’ This book leans over the author’s shoulder, so to speak, contemplating a professional duty, a personal feeling and a profound misery that suppresses first something like a meaning and then something like reality. The book affirms everything in its obscurity like a road leading to itself. The reader, having read everything, remains puzzled, as if what they’ve read is a just a beginning.

So much is done in silence, in shadows, in what is a negative actuality. Concrete material objects are the denizens of positive reality. Me, you, chairs, mountains, planets are concrete material objects. Concrete immaterial objects are the denizens of negative reality. Shadows, holes, silence, the absent Napoleon in your room, these are examples of concrete immaterial objects. Social order turned on its head may lead to solutions, so we might opt for the fundamentality of a negative, immaterial over a positive, material reality. Negative truths may be more fundamental than positive ones. This may seem too obscure. But a photographic negative, though hard to read and seemingly opaque, contains all the information we see when developed. Assaults on culture have to consider that biases may be psychological and physiological. Human psychologies have difficulties processing negatives. But processing without the use of negatives is even more difficult. There are hazards to drawing metaphysical conclusions from psychological biases. To assume that the map of the London underground corresponds to an equally schematic reality would strike us as an obvious mistake. Computers, lacking psychologies like ours, wouldn’t have such problems. Given this lack of psychological bias, we might hand over metaphysics to the machines.

But philosopher Robert Kraut, commentating on Willfred Sellars, says; ‘the world depicts the demands we place upon ourselves.’ Ontologies, he goes on to say, are the shadows of social practices. This Sellarsian reversal of the traditional ontological view – which supposes the world is what is the case, and therefore a constraint on what we pick it out to be – hands us back a counter-culture. A Sellarsian is an inferentialist: constraints are placed only on her next sentences, and the world is the shadow of those inferences. Sentences are not constrained by the world. Kraut noted that shadows are real, but failed to note that their reality is a negative, immaterial concrete existence, as are holes and silence and cold. Shadows are immaterial objects we can see, as are holes, just as silence is an immaterial object we can hear, cold an immateriality we can feel. Kraut’s metaphor extends further than where he expected or desired to go perhaps. No matter; an immaterial ontology where social practices determine inferences – such as writing and telling stories –is numinous and uncanny. In reading, the uncanny silence that absorbs us can be the hole into which we fall, a vortex of absence and a dark that is lived. This is all a matter of getting a hold on the almost inevitable absurdity of our loser selves.

In writing about the losers Brittain-Catlin writes against the bias towards positive reality. In our lives, the absent , the missing, the lost, the losers, these are now as urgent and ontologically secure as the positive concrete material objects. The author, contrary to Sorensen, thinks that there is more information in the negative reality of the losers than in the triumphant positive reality of the winners.

How do we turn out to be who we are? How do we become losers? In this book the losers are all architects but they could be anyone of us. Many of them are losers because they had no sense or interest or understanding of what was going on. For these the world became a ground of unintelligibility where none but the presiding figures had any idea why anyone would want to build in the way the triumphant did. Brittain-Catlin wonders aloud whether the pre-Gothic revivalist Georgians felt the same as he does today, baffled and not interested by the prevailing orthodoxy . Georg Basevi did Tudor Gothic – pre-Pugin Gothic – but his design for Balliol College was rejected by Pugin himself and he became gradually a loser. ‘We do not know what he felt of the new, correct, ‘truthful’ version of the style, it is a fair bet that he could not produce it himself, because if he had been able to, he would have done.’ Basevi fell to his death off Ely cathedral roof in 1845 and has been forgotten. How do we become losers? One way is that cleverer, more talented, less principled, better-connected interlopers from cities take the jobs. Pugin swept aside all before him with his revival on a wave calling for ‘true’ buildings. If being good and right are the only criteria by which one can write about and explain architecture then the bad and the wrong are condemned to oblivion. But being good and right aren’t the sole criteria: this is one of Brittain-Catlin’s explicit points.

He discusses links to literary preoccupations, how the words describing architecture are chosen to link the architectural style to the client interest rather than to describe the actual style. Brittain-Catlin is dismissive of much architectural writing as publicity cant: ‘ … words used to describe their own buildings by some architects, across the twentieth century from CFA Voysey to Daniel Libeskind, is, although sonorous and inspiring, quite clearly daft and meaningless if interpreted literally.’ These architects grab words that are fashionable. When Gothic revivalists talked about truth and morality their clientele were a Christian intellectual elite to whom such words had traction. But was the architecture really truthful and honest? In our day, is modernism really functionalist?

Brittain-Catlin wants to write about architecture differently and tell a story of each example of architecture to create its secondary world . He finds joy in sadness when writing about the architects who fell outside the canon. His parade case is Horace Field who designed a Lloyds bank in Wealdstone. It seems desperately forlorn as a building and reflects Field’s own career trajectory of sadness and failure as he falls. His buildings speak of a freshness , optimism and innocence that he never fulfilled. His neo-baroque buildings were built before the style became popular via Lutyens moving to his ‘Wrenaissance’ in 1906. Although he designed some charming buildings he never became the bank architect for Lloyds. He came second in prestigious competitions. Early clients included cabinet ministers and a duke. He ended up in Rye building charming cottages for widows and a doctor. His hero Richard Norman Shaw visited one of his rooms but didn’t say anything about it.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 29th, 2014.