Left on Read

A look back at the literary explorations of architecture released in 2019

When it was introduced ten years ago, Jakob Tigges's The Berg was seriously discussed by some as a replacement to Berlin's former Templehof Airport. The plan is realized in Elvia Wilk's novel, Oval. (Courtesy Jakob Tigges/Mela Architects)

Architecture serves as more than just a backdrop—in our lives or in literature. In the four books below, released in the past year, the domestic and urban environments are just as central to the stories as the human protagonists. 

Oval by Elvia Wilk

Art and architecture writer Elvia Wilk’s debut novel Oval (Soft Skull Press) takes place in a parallel-present Berlin—a weird version of our already strange techno-unreality where atop of the defunct Tempelhof Airport a great mountain, The Berg, has been placed. (The idea for 1,000-meter artificial mountain is borrowed from a 2009 proposal by Mela Architects.)

A light-blue book cover with a purple oval cutaway featuring the title OVAL written out in plant-like text.

(Courtesy Soft Skull Press)

What was once the largest open space in a rapidly-changing urban Europe is now an experimental eco-village of supposedly sustainable houses. Oval’s scientist protagonist, Anja, lives in one of these houses with her partner Louis, a sought after “consultant,” meaning that in this semi-dystopian world he’s Berlin’s version of an artist, someone who serves as more or less a decorator to a corporation or an NGO’s reputation. The already dysfunctional home, itself revealed to be a piece of radical architecture (no spoilers here), decays and becomes wild as the narrative progresses, while the urban topography of Berlin is radically transformed by gentrification and other disasters.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

The origin of the word “archive” can be found in the Greek word for a house for superior magistrates. It is this etymology, by way of Jacques Derrida, that opens Carmen Maria Machado’s forceful In the Dream House (Graywolf), a memoir of an abusive relationship between two women and an essay on how stories are and aren’t told and remembered. “I was taken with the use of house (a love of haunted house stories, I’m a sucker for architecture metaphors),” she explains in the introduction to her own archival intervention.

A book cover featuring a home with a cutaway hole and a woman staring out.

(Courtesy Graywolf)

Each brief chapter is titled “The Dream House as […],” a blank most frequently filled by a genre or form, but also architecture: “A Barn in Upstate New York,” for example. The walls of this “dream house” are flexible, able to contain and constrain so much. “Places are never just places in a piece of writing,” writes Machado. “If they are, the author has failed.”

Morelia by Renee Gladman

Reading Morelia by Renee Gladman (Solid Objects) feels like coming to in a foreign city, head rich with the haze of several-doses-too-many of cough syrup. It is a city where you are maybe unwanted but maybe belong. It is a city of much violence and some wonder. This short novel uses many misunderstandings and misrememberings to create a linguistic geography, spatializing the process of reading and writing fiction to take the shape of a fictional, dislocated city perhaps called Sespia. “Could syntax become a city?,” asks Morelia’s protagonist as they try to recall the meaning of an errant foreign word, one discovered in a book of medieval architecture.

A book cover with a sketched out black skyline on it.

(Courtesy Solid Objects)

If not for her protagonists, syntax nearly always can become a city or something like one for Gladman herself. Her writing has an abiding interest in the way language and bodies move through urban space. Her Ravicka novels tell a story about its eponymous city as much as anything else and Morelia’s cover is decorated with one of Gladman’s “prose architectures,” drawings that render sentences into skylines. A volume of her architectural drawings accompanied by a text from theorist and poet Fred Moten, One Long Black Sentence, is forthcoming in 2020.

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

Sarah M. Broom introduces her then-incomplete memoir project, published as The Yellow House (Grove Atlantic), to her brother, nervous of her digging into family matters, in intentionally vague terms: When he asks about my project, I am imprecise, lofty, saying I am writing about ‘architecture and belonging and space.’”

A white book cover with color blocks and black and white photos taking the shape of an abstract map of a city.

(Courtesy Grove Atlantic)

This characterization is not entirely disingenuous. The National Book Award-winning The Yellow House is not just the tale of a house—now gone—but of New Orleans as an urban and social palimpsest. Moving out from the yellow shotgun house and her own life and the lives of her family members, Broom maps New Orleans across history to unpack the complex and fractured narratives of race and class embedded in the city’s architectural logic. 

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