A guide to literary architecture for exploring books (and oneself) in an innovative way

by Andrea Fioravanti

For the past eleven years, Matteo Pericoli has been teaching students around the world how to analyze the narrative structure of a story and transform it with creativity and imagination into a building. Out of this experience came “The Great Living Museum of the Imagination” (il Saggiatore), itself written as if it were a museum to explore, complete with a map and bookshop

Dickow, Niddam, Porat, Topaz on a short story by Yonathan Raz Portugali | Hebrew University of Jerusalem

For Ennio Flaiano, great books are not those that we leaf through carelessly, that we consume out of envy or emulation, that we finish quickly, with anger, to keep up with the literary fashion of the moment; but those that we re-read so many times that we inhabit them, feeling them on us like certain corners of our home. We keep them on the bedside table, in the bag or on a specific shelf in the library to take refuge when we need them most. To seek answers to questions that life carelessly asks us. Some books are shaped like a tent, others like an attic, still others like a house on a hill.

However, it took the versatility of an architect, illustrator, teacher and writer to discover how to analyze the architecture of a story and transform it with creativity and imagination into a building. For eleven years Matteo Pericoli has been guiding students all over the world (United States, Italy, Israel, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates) in a game that has now become a surprising experiment where there are no errors, because there is no dogma to follow: the Laboratory of Literary Architecture. This multi-year work has become a book: “The great living museum of the imagination” (il Saggiatore), written in turn as if it were a museum to be explored, complete with a map and bookshop.

In this generous and careful guide to follow the reader’s step, Pericoli reveals the secrets to open up to the mysterious but continuous link between fantasy and construction. And so Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness becomes a slender inverted pyramid whose apex is tens of meters underground; Elena Ferrante’s brilliant friend is transformed into two buildings that support and reject each other. And so it builds. This cultural building site does not end in the book, butexpands to a sitebilingual constantly updated.

«Eleven years ago a flame lit in me, setting off a fuse whose effects I had not foreseen. I had just returned from the United States and when I was asked to do a workshop at the Scuola Holden, at the time a small space in via Dante in Turin, I decided to explore a concept that was whirling in my head. Why is it said that a story has a structure, has foundations or “doesn’t stand”? But I realized that talking to students about narrative structures words were not enough. There was a lot of information missing. So I asked them: “Why don’t you show me using cardboard, scissors and glue?”. This trivial question led me to make a surprising discovery».

We all have a giant underground lake of unexplored knowledge. A cauldron of creative energy given by reading that we often fail to access because if we go to search for it with words we only retrieve the same concepts that we had elaborated in the past by copying other people’s thoughts. Instead of continuing to use words to explain something that was made of words, let’s try to put our thoughts about the book into tangible form. In doing so I have noticed that knowledge increases tenfold. And that goes for everyone. From high school students who follow my courses to those who haven’t read many books or don’t know architecture well. This phenomenon is repeated in every laboratory.

Let’s stop for a moment at the entrance to this book-museum in which you invite the reader to leave bulky luggage in the cloakroom, which prevents a better understanding of the links between stories and architecture. What are the hardest obstacles to let go?
For example, thinking that the relationship between architecture and literature is an insurmountable intellectual effort; not feeling up to it and forcibly demonstrating that you are intelligent and prepared before reading a book. But above all skepticism; the same one I encounter at the beginning when I propose this game. At the first meeting of the laboratory I see some dismayed, terrified faces. Then on the second and third day I am overwhelmed by the crazy enthusiasm of someone who understands how wonderful it is to be on the other side.

Across from what?
Compared to preconceptions. Beyond our prior knowledge of style, narrative, the labels we give to books. Stories are not punctual roads to be followed according to the indications given by others, but buildings to be explored freely, immersing oneself in a literary space. Obviously this space is built by someone else, the writer, but in the end we make the constructions almost entirely ourselves, in our minds. The hope is that once the book-museum has begun, the reader will say: you know what? I leave these bulky bags there and go out lighter than when I entered.

So let’s go in lightly and make an example of an architectural construction derived from a narrative structure.
During a workshop I was struck by the different way in which Ernest Hemingway’s story “Hills like white elephants” can be seen. For architects, the emotional relationship between the two characters was squared, like a parallelepiped, while for high school students it was a cylindrical work, perhaps more idealised. These answers fill your mind and body with a positive feeling, because with a text they would not have been able to deepen the relationship between the two protagonists in such a way. The same happened to me with Amy Hempel’s extraordinary short story entitled “The Harvest”. In eleven years of the Laboratory of Literary Architecture there have never been two similar buildings. The point is that our thoughts have a pre-verbalized shape and feeling, different for each one, that we often ignore, immediately jumping to the next step to feed our inner monologue. The laboratory enhances what the written words deflate. There are continuous results because this process is something extremely natural that only comes out if you relax.

Could this innovative approach be used in schools to bring young people, but also older ones, closer to reading?
Certainly. Realizing that reading is equivalent to an exploration of a place whose definitive form is embedded in our synapses could be a push to approach stories in a different way. That is, by not trying to replicate what others have previously said or thought about that book. Since a work has been presented to us as beautiful, ugly, simple or complex, we must not look for a sensation in the text that others have already found. We know much more than we think we know. By going back to the source of ideas that have weight and shape, we can all find our spaces, building, deconstructing, tearing down and starting over. And mistakes no longer exist, there are no teachers and students.

In the book, you explore two important concepts that literature and architecture have in common: the void and the context.
Architecture is the constant companion of the whole existence. We spend our life crossing, passing through architectures and spaces one after the other. To understand them we talk about styles and shapes, but we often overlook the most powerful effect of architecture: what isn’t there. Our rooms are surrounded by walls but we live and work within the one space that hasn’t been built. And so even in stories we give so much importance to pages, paragraphs, sentences and words, neglecting how important space is within a story. An ineffable element that we must reconstruct in our minds. And how we do it necessarily depends on the context. Not only the one inside which the book or the building comes out, but also the mycontext: everything I have learned, heard, believed so far; my expectations and my ideas that always make me approach history or space in a different way based on my existential condition at that moment. Focusing each time on different details and spaces.

You talked about how much architecture is in literature, but how much literature is there in architecture?
Architecture is imbued with narrative. Every compositional choice of those who have designed the spaces we live in (from the sequence of volumes to their connections, from what is revealed to what is hidden, from the impact of light to the mystery of darkness, and so on) is actually a narrative choice, sometimes made consciously, sometimes not. The architecture then determines the narration of our day. Think of the moment you cross the threshold and leave the house in the morning: in your head you think something new is starting but that something doesn’t actually exist because outside the door nothing has started and nothing has finished, everything has always existed. Architecture is our ploy to box the daily narrative: open the window to change the air in the morning, leave the house, return home, go up the stairs, go down the stairs This interaction with architecture is unconscious but deeply narrative and determines how we pigeonhole the story of our lives. Each of our movements is a reading of the space and without knowing it we are already able to understand the concatenation of the narratives of the architecture that surrounds us. Why do we go right instead of left when leaving a building?

And instinctively knowing the architectural spaces are we able to analyze the narrative structures?
Yes, each in its own way gives meaning to different elements by favoring one over the other. The door has a clear narrative potential, but for someone the height of a ceiling may be important. The window put in the right place for someone is a revelation. But if you convey it to another narrative need it doesn’t work at all. Imagine the first time that in an architectural building of any kind, primordial or not, someone with a hammer or a sledgehammer knocked down a piece of wall and saw the world outside without being able to get past it. Who knows, maybe every architectural element has its literary counterpart, after all this is how stories are born

Castelli di carta | Guida all’architettura letteraria per esplorare in modo innovativo i libri (e sé stessi)

by Andrea Fioravanti, first published on Linkiesta, November 26, 2022: