Noticias de Arquitectura

Is there a poetry in architecture?
octubre 31, 2008, 11:42 pm
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Structure, rhythm, balance … the two art forms are very similar

  • Westminster bridge

    Westminster bridge, which provided inspiration for Wordsworth. Photograph: Martin Argles

    Is there a connection between poetry and architecture? I remember talking on this subject some while back at an Arts Council-sponsored evening at Somerset House. In preparation, I’d spent the best part of a fortnight walking through parts of London I’m particularly fond of and photographing buildings and places that seemed, to me at least, somehow poetic. I learned, by heart, a number of poems that seemed relevant to what I wanted to say. To me there was, and is, something in the structure, rhythm, balance, and the very language of architecture corresponding in certain ways with those of sonnets, odes and epics.

    I didn’t have an academically approved theory to back up my sentiments, yet I felt that what I had to say was in the spirit of architects, of all eras, with poetry in their souls and with the spirits, too, of poets like Hardy, Betjeman and Larkin, among many others, who have truly seen poetry in architecture.

    Yet, when I had said my piece, I was torn apart by the poet Denise Riley and the author Iain Sinclair. This unyielding twosome demolished not just the decorative superstructure, but the very foundations of my argument. Piffle! Nonsense! Poppycock! This was the most stupid, most utterly inane talk they had ever heard in their lives. There has never, ever been a connection between the two, they thundered. I crept out of Somerset House like a church mouse that had been spat out by cats. My pet theory was far more ruinous than Tintern Abbey.

    In foolhardy fashion, but without making a speech, I raised the point afresh last night at an event held by the literary charity, Poet in the City, in the concert hall of King’s Place, the Guardian’s soon-to-be home in King’s Cross close to where the young Thomas Hardy once worked as an architect, for Arthur Blomfield, before turning full-time to poetry and novels. Close, too, of course to St Pancras station and the Midland Grand hotel, an intrinsically linked pair of haunting Victorian buildings saved thanks to John Betjeman, a much loved popular poet and architectural writer greatly influenced by Hardy.

    The poets who spoke last night weren’t necessarily ready to agree that there is a connection between their art and architecture. Simon Barraclough, who had written poems inspired by King’s Place for the occasion (the one below is a particular celebration of the concert hall we spoke in), made it clear there isn’t a connection, yet did say that there is an affinity between the two.

    Jacob Sam-La Rose agreed, making the point with a poem he read about a building in Lewisham he and his childhood friends took to be haunted; the building was nothing to write home about from a strictly architectural point of view, but it became the stuff of poetry when infused with the fantasies of young Londoners.

    Paul Farley who was brought up in a brutalist council estate in Liverpool, yet steadfastly refuses to blame Le Corbusier (who wrote A Poem to the Right Angle, as only a truly Modern architect could) for any influence he might unwittingly have had on such terrifying forms of post-war English housing, has been inspired by architecture, but again made the point that the two arts might inform one another while being different beasts.

    I’m left, slightly unsatisfied, sensing that there has been and can be a more than associative connection between the two arts, but I’d need to make a proper study of this. I’d welcome your views. There is, though, no doubt that architecture, and a keen sense of place, has been good to poetry. Think of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, Wordsworth’s Lines Composed upon Westminster Bridge, whole poems by Larkin, snatches of TS Eliot, lots from Hardy, masses by Betjeman. Equally, there have been several architects or architectural enthusiasts who have been fine poets, from Michelangelo to Hardy. And, there have been, too, architects whose work surely deserves the name poetry – in stone – whether Hawksmoor, Borromini, Palladio and, yes, Le Corbusier.

    The subject is potentially as long as something by Tennyson, as complex as the Four Quartets (which feature quite a bit of architecture; Eliot was good on the subject), and as rich as The Divine Comedy. Neither Sinclair or Riley will forgive me for raising the subject again, yet I can’t help wondering if there’s something new we could be learning here; a way, at the very least least, of imbuing contemporary architecture with a poetic vision.

    Bounded in a Nutshell by Simon Barraclough

    Five centuries ago, a German acorn sweetened on the branch
    until it reached its crucial mass
    and blew the bolts to give itself to gravity.
    Then all it had to do was dodge the jay’s keen beak,
    the hedgehog’s truffling snout, shrug off the weevil’s drill.
    This lucky nut was squirreled away,
    a hedge fund for a hungrier day
    that never came and, planted in the soil, the work began:
    the cylinder of shell unscrewed, a taproot dropped,
    a pale shoot periscoped towards the light,
    extended leaves and rippled out its rings,
    trunk thickening as history hurtled by.
    Six thousand moons the shadow of the branches flew
    around its base through midnight, noon, until the day
    that brought the saw that bit into the bark
    and turned the tree into an acre of veneer
    to line this room, this snug nutshell, replanted in the earth
    in which we sit and feel the taproot of the bass notes shift,
    hear sonic tendrils lift.

    © Simon Barraclough 2008

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