On Calvino’s Invisible Cities
As cidades invisíveis com ilustrações de Matteo Pericoli Companhia Das Letras
On Invisible Cities
In Italy, if you study architecture (but not only), sooner or later you’ll end up having to read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It is usually among most design courses’ required readings — and rightly so.
When I had to read it, I felt what probably most architecture students feel: a sense of relief; the kind you breathe in when you walk out the door after spending hours in a crowded restaurant. Ah, some air, finally!
Finally architecture and cities that are alive, free from formal constraints, from styles or trends. And finally architecture that, although “only” told with words, conveys the energy and the idea that physical places need a narrative essence of their own.
As far as I was concerned, after that sense of relief, a sadness of sorts followed. Why — I wondered during my studies — do I feel the discipline of architecture so distant? So cerebral, rigid, and especially so hard to “understand”?
It took me a long time to come close to an answer. Or, rather than an answer, to a clarification of that very sense of relief that had struck me upon first reading the book. It’s now eight years since I’ve begun holding a workshop, the Laboratory of Literary Architecture, during which I work with students to give a tangible, architectural form to the intrinsic structure of novels, poems, and stories. They are all literary texts and there’s never anything explicitly “architectural” in them. We do not try to represent the locations described in the texts, but rather we try to understand — by actually building them with cardboard — the perceived reasons why a story works, why and how it stands, and the emotions it makes us feel.
For architecture students, it is a chance to get closer to narrative. If the participants are instead not architects — but writers, literary scholars, high-school students or simply readers — once the initial fear of the “for-experts-only” discipline (i.e. architecture) fades away, their spatial and design ideas evolve in a surprisingly rich and free way revealing how accustomed we all are to perceiving and understanding the structure of a novel and how expert — in the sense of experience (experiri) — we are at “reading” the space around us.
It was during the first workshop’s final student presentations that I again noticed that sense of freshness and pureness I hadn’t felt since my first reading of Invisible Cities. In translating a story into space, architecture comes to life. At some point of their creative process, spatial and literary narrative share a similar forma mentis, which isn’t made of bricks and concrete or words and syntax, but of essential compositional ideas.
When assigned to architecture students, Invisible Cities is mostly read, studied and used in a literal way, i.e. from an architectural point of view. Wouldn’t it be great if this wonderful book could also serve as inspiration to dive into narrative and discover how the effort of constructing a story closely resembles that of designing a building? What does a threshold, a step or a window represent from a narrative point of view? How do we “read” or anticipate space? What gives us a sense of continuity? And of ephemerality? How can I control the pace of revelations?
Alice Munro said that “a story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house” to explore. A house that, according to its proportions, room arrangement, and openings will alter both the reader/visitor as well as how we view the world outside. She adds that every time you return, the house “always contains more than you saw the last time. … It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity.”
Writing has been used forever to describe and analyze architecture. Architecture, too, can in turn be used as an analytic tool to explore narrative and discover those aspects that are unreachable only with words.
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