Written by Michael Johnston
Okay, you’re not likely to read that title in the New York Times—not any time soon at least. But I have my hopes for the future. See, I’m trained as an architect, and this foundation has played a crucial role in furthering my other creative endeavors. Mainly, my novel writing. All of the great ideas in my novel, Soleri, came from my study of architecture.
What we call “world building” in fantasy, architects have been doing for hundreds of years. Many architects draw buildings and oversee their construction. They build skyscrapers or fancy modernist homes. I’ve done that. But there’s another kind of architect. Some call them “paper” architects; I prefer the term “visionaries.” They imagine spaces through drawing or computer modeling, building ideas in the virtual realm or the blank space of the page. The drawing or the computer model is the building—it contains the whole idea and that’s the end of it.
One of the earliest and most well known of the “paper” architects is a guy named Piranesi. He created something called the Carceri d’invenzione (or if you prefer English, the ‘Imaginary Prisons’). Google it. If you want to know where M.C. Escher got the idea for his staircase drawings, look at Piranesi. These drawings don’t tell a literal story; rather, they suggest an idea for a place in an incredibly compelling way. For hundreds of years they’ve inspired artists and architects to imagine dark and labyrinthine spaces, ones that are impossible to build. That last part inspired me the most.
Authors can do the same. We can suggest and imply the impossible, and that’s something I tried to do in Soleri. That’s why novel writing is so exciting for me: real architects can’t do this. In fact, it’s just about the opposite of what they do in daily practice, which is why I found the practice of architecture a bit boring. I always prefered the “paper” architect approach.
Étienne-Louis Boullée is another interesting example. Boullée practiced something called architecture parlante or “talking architecture.” He and his contemporaries thought buildings could actually say things with their forms and compositions. His most famous building is his Cenotaph for Isaac Newton. The building replicates the cycle of a day, displaying everything from a nighttime sky twinkling with stars to a sunlit afternoon. It’s worth a moment on Wikipedia—check it out. He thought buildings could communicate ideas, that they could speak, which to me sounds like storytelling. The cenotaph tells the story of a day. Again, I found this idea to be a lot more compelling than my daily practice, which mainly involved things like making certain there was enough legroom in front of the toilet (trust me, this is drawn incorrectly all the time).
You can probably see where I’m headed. I liked the narrative component of paper architecture. I’m a visual person, but I wanted to communicate ideas and tell stories that involved provocative and deeply compelling places. So the cities and building in Soleri are also characters. They aren’t just backdrop. They inform and interact with the people in my novel. And they tell their own stories, they suggest, confound, and inspire.
So, while I might not have tackled the problem of time travel, I did take my knowledge of architecture and put a lot of it into a novel. And I think that’s pretty interesting.
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