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Frozen Poetry

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The Courtauld Institute’s conference on architecture and poetry is symptomatic of a new direction in practice

This month’s conference at the Courtauld Institute on the disparate worlds of architecture and poetry explored the intersection of the two arts. Cynics might write off such a conference as a dry academic exercise, or the cultural equivalent of town-twinning diplomacy. But notions such as architectural rhythm, or rhyme, are essentially analogous to poetry. Conversely, architecture is a rich source for poetic imagery and metaphor.

In the first paper, Jeehee Hong discussed the way middle-period ritual Chinese architecture reflects the everyday world and the world beyond, represented by internal and external space, thus sharing a similar subject to poetry. Next, Andrea de Meo and Myrtha Ehlert discussed a project in which poets chose sites in eastern Westfalia in which to write poems. The next stage of this project involved Peter Zumthor designing houses for each poem. Similarities to Zumthor’s catholic chapel, Bruder-Klaus Kapelle, completed at the same time, suggested affinities between poetry and liturgy.

Lisa Nobeta, appropriately engaged in research into synaesthesia, compared the architecture of the Japanese tea ceremony with haiku poetry,observing that both have modular organisation and related approaches to conveying ambience and mood through a formalised sense of refinement and brevity, the Japanese aesthetic concept known as wabi-sabi.

‘Structural elements in poetry and architecture are used to construct participatory spaces; formal devices that serve to manage and control readers or, in the case of tea ceremonies, guests,’ says Nobeta. This challenges the notion that architecture and poetry are disparate and no more than analogues of one another, although one might argue that only certain types of architecture can cross this division.

Tonkin Liu Architects showed projects, including 2011 RIBA Award-winner, Dover Esplanade, which, like romantic poetry, found inspiration in nature and explained how they used words ‘to home each project in on its archetype,’ a good example of designers’ use of word pictures. Mike Tonkin explained that Tonkin Liu’s work involves ‘embracing digital interactive tools, leading to optimised results, which is what nature would do.’

Berthold Lubetkin (centre) with members of the Tecton office

Berthold Lubetkin (centre) with members of the Tecton office

In his inspirational keynote paper, subtitled Architecture, Auden and the Ambiguity of Modernism, Alan Powers focused on similarities and connections between architectural and literary culture in the 1930s, but noted ‘the incommensurable nature of the two subject areas’. The 1930s witnessed a backlash against posturing and inflated claims for the potential of architecture to do good. He explained how poet, WH Auden and architect, Berthold Lubetkin illustrate this and that British architects in fact had little to do with the soft-edged and diluted romantic modernism of this era.

Fiona Anderson explored an example of architecture influencing poetry. Her subject was the poet and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz, for whom the crumbling piers of Manhattan’s Lower East Side waterfront were a backdrop to anonymous homosexual encounters. ‘The ruined buildings on the waterfront became props in the sexual encounters that took place there.’ Citing sociologist Laud Humphreys, she noted that these men seem to acquire stronger attachments to the building in which they encounter than to each other.

Co-organiser, Ayla Lepine, describes the conference as a rare foray of the Courtauld Institute into the realm of architecture. This, combined with the work on display at the graduate shows at British architecture schools this year, proves that the decline of the monolithic object building is making way for a whole new world of picturesque, lyrical and even hand-drawn architecture.

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