Great architects are like great writers. Our abilities to observe the world around us down to the tiniest details, and then make the most remarkable connections, have in time given humanity great stories and experiences - whether through imagined or real spaces. As Charles Eames put it, "Eventually everything connects - people, ideas, objects. The key to quality of the connections is the key to quality per se."
As architects, we have a nearly endless succession of connections to make, from materials, to geography, to time, to people, to experiences and statements of our own beliefs, all coming together in the design of a space. Novels are therefore a great way to remind yourself of the creative possibilities that architecture holds, encouraging you to dream about what architecture could be; and what experiences could be. These 7 non-architectural novels each have their own qualities that could open up the architectural world (and provide you with an enjoyable reading list in your time off). Enjoy!
1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Following a motorcycle journey of a father and son through the American Northwest, the novel is woven into a philosophical discovery of the true concept of Quality, something architects are constantly battling with. Is quality reached through perception, or rationality? Does it emerge from material properties; form; the designer? Pirsig begins to draw his own conclusions about quality and its necessity for a personal identification and relationship between creator and creation. In other words, quality can’t be faked, just as genuine investment can’t be faked. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" doesn’t just take you along on an exciting story; it will cause you to think deeper about what Quality really means to you, and in turn, to your architecture.
2. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Roy pays intense attention (as its title suggests) to the small things in life, but more importantly, how they connect to the bigger things. This understanding of the deep relationship between details and context is surely influenced by her education at The School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi, also contributing to her decisions on structure and space in the novel. As Roy explains, "The stories you love the most are the stories you already know... structurally as an architect, you don’t start designing a house with the entrance and end with the exit. There was a layered structure, narrative, that in itself was a challenge." This cyclical thinking results in a textured, wholesome plot that through words aims to materialise the intangible, creating her own language through which to process the world. Hopefully it will inspire you to do the same.
3. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
"The Little Prince" is known for looking beyond the world at first glance, made obvious on the first few pages, where "the grown-ups" mistake a drawing of "a boa constrictor digesting an elephant" for a hat. Saint-Exupéry takes you back to the beauty and wonder of being a child, and the power of emotions that can come with certain experiences. It’s a short read in comparison to the rest of the books on this list, but is successful in reminding us of what’s important to people, relationships, a healthy psyche, and what we should be contributing to all of this. "The Little Prince" encourages you to "think outside the box," or rather, "think outside the hat" and re-embodies the fascination with the world that is sometimes diluted with age.
4. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
Sebald constructs a story that revolves around the creation of identity through memory, born from the relationship between Austerlitz and the narrator that arises from their common interests in history and architecture. Hence, it’s not only the descriptions of memory, place and identity that are moving and complex, but also the descriptions of architectural spaces with images and illustrations to match. The novel is a tour through elements of architectural history with a personal story, making it informative as well as engaging.
5. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
A take on Rand’s ideal moral person is manifested in her depiction of architect Howard Roark, a man beyond corruption’s reach. It is a novel fighting for integrity and honesty, and against conformity and prestige. Whether one agrees with Rand’s philosophy of morality or not, "The Fountainhead" forces you to think deeply about the honesty of your practice, and communicating your beliefs on what you think is of importance in this world, through architecture. It questions everything about history, authority and tradition, in favour of uncompromising authenticity.
6. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
"A rose is a rose is a rose..." The layers that accumulate over a rose, an object, or a place over time working to shape something new is central to Ondaatje’s novel, where layers of time, place, history and culture slide over and around each other with immense fluidity. Following the narrative of a man whose identity and history is questionable, the relationship between space, memory and time is undeniable. These memories encapsulated within architecture are not only beautiful, but also thought-provoking from an architectural perspective. How do we use history and time to give form? How does the mapping and organization of space, nations, borders and labels fit into architecture?
7. The Aleph and Other Stories by Jorge Luis Borges
Imagining the unimaginable spaces, such as the infinite experienced in one point, Borges pushes the boundaries of what space, and consequently architecture, could be. Is it possible to create the experience of an endless space? Of a shifting space? The worlds that exist within "The Aleph and Other Stories" twist reality, perhaps beyond the point of what is possible, but open up to the potential evolution of our experiences and perceptions of space.