Poetry and Architecture
At a formal banquet, Simonides of Ceos sang a poem in praise of the Gods and his host. Afterwards, the host, the nobleman Scopas, berated Simonides for the poem, saying he would only pay half of the agreed-upon wages because only half the poem was for Scopas. Let the Gods pay the other half, intended for them. Shortly after this encounter, a messenger came into the banquet and informed Simonides that two men on horseback were waiting for him outside. But when he went outside there was no one there. Upon returning to the banquet, he found everyone dead. In his absence, the hall had collapsed into rubble. When the relatives of the deceased came, they could not identify their dead. And so Simonides of Ceos restored the banquet in his mind and, walking past each table setting, remembered the guest who had dined there.1
The method of loci (or the memory palace technique) grew out of this myth about memory. According to this mnemonic device, someone can remember a list of things by placing each item, via a strong image, in a distinct, familiar location (whether it’s a series of rooms in a building or a route through a city) and then simply walk through this location to recall the items. Historical accounts record Seneca the Elder retaining 2,000 words in the exact order he received them.2 An orator could also recite a text backward by simply reversing the direction he walked through his memory palace. St. Augustine writes of his friend Simplicius being able to recite Virgil line by line backward.3
Both the method and the myth speak to the latent connection between poetry and architecture. There’s the obvious connection that many poems rely on the built environment as memorable, resonant backdrops for their narratives and lyrics. But the more powerful, subtle connection relates more to structure. In Chinese, the character for poetry is composed of two symbols: “word” and “temple.”
Words are the stones, precisely chiseled and laid, to create the sacred, culturally resonant whole. Both poems and buildings achieve their effects through attention to detail, texture, and structure; awareness of cultural and historic resonance; and spatial and temporal (not to mention emotional and conceptual) development.
The latter, spatial and temporal, connection can be seen in the dual meaning of “stanza”: a group of lines in a poem and a room in Italian. By this combination of meanings, a poem is a walk through rooms. Some poems have only one stanza and thus occupy one room. But what happens when a poem has several stanzas? What happens in the spaces between rooms? An architecture professor might say, “You need to articulate the joint.” Let us know you have stepped from one room to the other. This can be as simple as giving a door its jambs or as complex as Frank Lloyd Wright’s play of contraction and expansion. Poets love thresholds and allowing things (temporal, emotional, among other transformations) to occur within them, within an enjambment between lines and stanzas. Here are some examples of clairvoyant enjambment from Louise Glück’s famous poem “The Wild Iris”:
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.4
In this depiction of a flower’s annual resurrection, Glück uses vivid imagery that engages multiple senses: sight (the reader can “see” these images in her mind’s eye); sound (the unique voice of the speaker, this wild iris; the sounds of the language itself); and arguably, taste (salt of the “seawater”) and feel (water; but also the overall cold, crisp feel of this poem, like most of Glück’s work). Such imagery evokes Finnish architect and professor Juhani Pallasmaa’s call in The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses5 for an architecture that engages all the senses. Gluck’s final water image, which delights in the shadowy differences within an overall category of color6, also brings to mind Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows.7
Architecture and poetry share a paradoxical sense of “room.” A poem has both space and boundary: room within a room. Similarly, a building achieves a perception beyond its limits. As Louis Kahn once said, “A great building must begin with the immeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be unmeasured.”8 This quote makes one question what is the difference between “immeasurable” and “unmeasured.” A dictionary will say the first means impossible to measure, while the second means not able to be measured. There’s a sense that the first perception or provocation is something beyond the final building’s reach. According to an architect in Kahn’s office9, Kahn often didn’t want to visit his buildings after they were built. Kahn was always disappointed with his buildings because they could not compare to his conceptions of the buildings. This frustration often occurs in poetry between the said and unsaid. Louise Glück writes, “The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary.”10 Though Glück goes on to relate the unsaid to the unseen and unfinished, the unsaid also has resonance with the immeasurable. Poetry’s relationship to the unsaid is as architecture’s relationship to the immeasurable.
Structure is essential to both architecture and poetry. As mentioned above, words are the stones, bricks, concrete blocks, and wood studs used to hold the poem up, to create meaning and an experience. Structure can be readily recognized in closed or inherited forms—such as the sonnet, sestina, and villanelle—with their organized rhyme, meter, repeated lines, and stanza lengths. In Poems for Architects, Jill Stoner likens rhyme to edge conditions (using the examples of sidewalks and waterfronts) and meter to architectural bays.
In her investigation of drawing villanelles, Stoner also encourages readers to flip a poem 90 degrees counterclockwise so that one can see the poem in section, with the left margin forming the ground for the poem, the repeating lines forming the columns, and the right side with its rhyme scheme forming an “undulating roof.”11
Such a vertical adjustment is reminiscent of the Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser line “I prefer the skyline of a shelf of books.”12 Whether on the urban scale of a skyline or the building scale of an acoustical room (with its undulating roof helping to dissipate standing waves), a book or a poem can quite literally be made into a built form through adjusting one’s visual perception and imagination.
On January 21, 1910, in a lecture in Vienna, Adolf Loos declared ornament a crime. Loos, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and many other architects helped establish a stripped-down13 modernist aesthetic in architecture. Because of new advancements in building materials, architects had more freedom with façades and the floor plan within a building;14 loadbearing columns (often reinforced with steel) became the structural skeleton of a building. A parallel movement occurred within poetry as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, H.D., Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and many other poets broke from conventional forms and started to write in free verse, or poetry that neither rhymes nor has a regular meter. If you will, this freedom in the ends of lines and phrasings in poetry was akin to the freedom of façades and the open floor plan in architecture. Within such freedom, there was also discipline as buildings became more streamlined and functional and poems more concise, with, on the whole, fewer adjectives.15
In an echo of Adolf Loos, Ezra Pound wrote in 1913 in Poetry, “Use either no ornament or good ornament.”16 While some—like Frost who famously quipped, “[w]riting free verse is like playing tennis with the net down”17—dismissed the new movement, others—like T.S. Eliot who wrote “[n]o verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job”18—insisted on free verse’s underlying structure. The musical phrase, the integrity of the line, and/or the rhythms of everyday speech and modern experience became the governing principles behind the structuring of poems. Because of different emphases within these organizing principles, you got such disparate practitioners of free verse as Wallace Stevens, with his flights of imaginative fancy and his high lyricism (his often esoteric, ornate vocabulary), and William Carlos Williams, with his insistence on humble, everyday subject matter and the colloquial. Similarly, within modernist architecture, you have such contrasting practitioners as Le Corbusier, with his more ethereal pilotis and refined machine-aesthetic, and Frank Lloyd Wright, with his more grounded and organic nature-aesthetic.19
Critic Simon Unwin identifies a basic “temple and cottage” attitude within architecture. He explains that, at heart, the temple attitude changes the world while the cottage attitude accepts and responds to the world.
The temple is an idea, based on geometry, “[detached] from the found world.” It claims its territory and often sits on a plinth or other raised platform to separate itself from the ground. It strives to be “timeless.”
The archetypal cottage is also an idea, but, in contrast to the temple archetype, is based on connection with the ground and its surroundings, often takes a “complex and irregular” form and layout based on topography and human needs or “pragmatic requirements.” It expresses time, with its patina and worn surfaces.20 In other words, the cottage is cozy, while the temple is formal.
After establishing these dichotomies, Unwin complicates them by exposing their overlapping realities. He uses the example of the church on Corfu to show how even though a building might be “functionally a temple [it] is architecturally a ‘cottage’…” and, inversely, if a cottage has “geometric order and axial symmetry” and a “small plinth [it] is architecturally a ‘temple.’”21
Furthermore, many architects and their buildings combine these attitudes. Prime examples are Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright mentioned above. On first blush, their eponymous buildings Villa Savoye and Fallingwater readily identify Corbu as having a temple attitude and Wright a cottage one. But, as Unwin exposes, the floor plans of the Villa Savoye, despite their underlying grid, are highly irregular and the cantilevers in Fallingwater defy rather than accept gravity.22
This mixture of temple and cottage attitudes can easily be applied to poets and their poems. An easy example is Robert Frost: his neat, rhyming iambic pentameter is part of a temple aesthetic, while his humble subject matter and dark layering of existential human conditions is, arguably, part of a cottage aesthetic. Reread the often-quoted “The Road Not Taken” for its intentional self-deception and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” for its weary repetition of “And miles to go before I sleep” and then decide if Frost’s themes belong to an orderly, idealistic world.
In a final pin-up for an architecture project, a professor I admire read my description for the project and rolled his eyes. “Ugh, metaphor,” he said. “Buildings are things you live in. They’re not metaphors.” The more I thought about this comment, the more I agreed with it. Despite poetry and architecture’s overlaps, there are some obvious differences. You cannot live in a poem, nor would you probably want to, especially if the poem were very refined or quirky. A friend and former neighbor of mine once said about her modern apartment: “I’m well aware that I’m living in an art project.” She did not seem to mean this comment in either a positive or negative way; she willingly sacrificed her comfort for the aesthetic appeal of the place.
But I do think my professor’s advice about metaphors does relate back to poetry, ultimately. Don’t get me wrong: I revel in metaphor. I love a rambling conversation that feels like a horse bucking and starting to gallop away but then at the last conceivable moment the speaker throws a lasso that makes sense of the whole seeming digression and brings the horse and conversation back under control. But often our metaphors (and our lyricism) don’t have a charioteer. We poets get distracted by a strange metaphor or a wonderful phrase within the metaphor at the cost of the poem’s overarching meaning and coherence, at the cost of losing our reader. The poem becomes just a play of words. When I teach poetry to undergrads, I always try to say in the first class that poetry is not a diary entry because it’s about communication; it’s about reaching another person, not necessarily to persuade them of anything but to involve them in the action of the poem, the poem’s enactment and creation of a unique experience.23 Poems can be so well dressed in their metaphors, patterning, and language. But when you strip away the layers of the poem, there should still be something there. In this way, a poem is a kind of place: the poet invites the reader in to see and experience. And if the poem and the place are memorable, you will want to return.
(A Brief) Reading List
[Please add to this list in the comments below]
The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Lessons for Students in Architecture by Herman Hertberger
Between Silence and Light by Louis Kahn
The City in Which I Love You by Li-Young Lee
In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses by Juhani Pallasmaa
Poems for Architects by Jill Stoner
Architectural and Poetic Doppelgängers
[Again, I invite you to create your own or disagree in the comments below]
Frank Lloyd Wright and Robert Frost
Herman Hertzberger and Italo Calvino
Luis Barragán and Pablo Neruda
Robert Venturi and John Ashbery
Maya Lin and W.S. Merwin
1. Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Oratore: Book III, edited by David Mankin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
2. Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (London: Penguin Books, 2011).
4. Glück, Louise. The Wild Iris. New York, NY: Ecco Press, 1992.
5. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2012). Here is but one of many quotes that apply: “We should encounter architecture with our senses, not on an intellectual level. In much architecture today, the conceptual emphasis is too strong.”
6. “Blue,” incidentally, as Glück who is well-versed in the classics knows, does not occur in many ancient texts; the most famous example is Homer and his use of “wine-dark” instead of blue to describe the sea. Listen to Radiolab’s “Colors” episode for more on this topic.
7. Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (Maine: Leete’s Island Books, 1977). The title has also been translated as “In Praise of Darkness.”
8. Unfortunately, I could not find the original source for this often-referenced Louis Kahn quote. Perhaps, it is from one of his many lectures at the University of Pennsylvania.
9. Gary Moye, lecture on Louis Kahn at the University of Oregon (4 August 2015).
10. Louise Glück, The Wild Iris, (New York: Ecco Press, 1992) 1.
11. Jill Stoner, Poems for Architects: An Anthology, (San Francisco: William Stout Architectural Books, 2001) 146, 156.
12. Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser, Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2003).
13. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more.” According to Wikiquote, this famous aphorism was actually quipped by Robert Browning, in his poem “Andrea del Sarto,” who in turn borrowed from German poet Christoph Martin Wieland who wrote “less is often more.”
14. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1985).
15. Ellen Bryant Voigt, “Rethinking Adjectives,” The Flexible Lyric (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999).
16. Ezra Pound, “A Few Don’ts,” Poetry, Vol. I. 6 (March 1913).
17. T.S. Eliot, “The Music of Poetry,” the ‘Third W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture’, Glasgow (24 February 1942).
18. Robert Frost, address at Milton Academy, Massachusetts (17 May 1935).
19. Both Corbusier and Wright owe a debt to Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who identified in 1875 in his two-volume Discourses on Architecture the best guiding metaphors or organizing principles to be the “machine” or “organism.”
20. Simon Unwin, “Temples and Cottages,” Analyzing Architecture (New York: Routledge, 1997) 84–97.
23. Robert Lowell: “A poem is not about an action; it is an action.” Source unknown.