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An Literary Architectural Competition?
at 5:45pm on 20th December 2016

Interior of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Hong Kong


I am reading Madeleine Thien’s 2016 Booker Prize-shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing and this evocative paragraph was compelling:

"The candlelight grazed all the objects of the room. The waiter spoke to us kindly, as if we had come from very far away, from a place where words waited for their echo. I feared my childhood would pass before he finished a sentence. And even when I answered him in my impeccable Canadian accent, he continued with the slowness of ages, until I, too, felt my pulse slow, and time became relative, as the physicists had proved it was, so perhaps Ai-ming and I are still seated there, in a corner of the restaurant, waiting for our meal to come, for a sentence to end, for this intermission to run its course."

Visual artists, musicians, film-makers and composers are inspired by words, literature and poetry. Words assist them in their own creativity. Are architects similarly inspired by words?

I’ll let you think about that for a few moment as I briefly discuss Thien’s paragraph.

You can picture this scene despite it being only a few words and no given context to the time, place or characters. A restaurant, a candle-lit corner in a restaurant; a waiter, a waiter speaking slowly; two people, one – a women – named Ai-ming; the other, the narrator, unknown (actually a ten-year old girl); waiting together; and time, time, time, passing “to run its course.”

An interior of an entire restaurant could be designed around that paragraph.

The most obvious example of buildings and structures designed with words as inspiration are religious. The word of God.  Such words as in The Bible or the Holy Koran. A Gothic Cathedral’s height, gilt and sparkling coloured leadlight windows built by unknown architects and craftsmen, and no doubt women, whose construction spanned centuries. Or, the magnificent, mathematically symmetrical mosques built throughout the Ottoman Empire, best expressed by the prolific Mimar Sinan (Sinan the Architect, c 1489-1588) – who lived at the same time as Michelangelo. Architectural expression was culturally specific, but communications between the East and West was incredibly fluid with knowledge, expertise, manpower and engineering and construction techniques freely crossing borders.

The Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Parmuk wrote the poignant The Museum of Innocence, he then designed and opened a real museum in Istanbul based on his book.

I propose a new architectural design competition; to be inspired by literature, books and poetry. Any takers?

Link for further info:
The Museum of Innocence

Originally published in Perspective architectural magazine, December 2016


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