Tag Archive for: writing and architecture

With his drawings of Manhattan, Matteo Pericoli won New Yorkers over (and then the rest of the world), then went back to Italy, to Turin, to work on architecture, stories, and their relationship.

by Manuel Orazi

Many in literature have used the metaphor of architecture, especially to shape the structure of a novel; however, very few have done the opposite: imagining architecture as a narrative structure. This is the original interpretation of Matteo Pericoli, a man who, after leaving his profession in architecture, backed into it again.

After graduating from Politecnico di Milano university under Wolfgang Frankl – one of Mario Ridolfi’s historical collaborators – right before his passing, Pericoli moved to New York to work for Peter Eisenman for a brief period and then for Richard Meier. Between 1995 and 2008, the Big Apple was the setting for his metamorphosis from architect to illustrator; he conquered the city that never sleeps, which he drew from the outside first and the inside after (in Manhattan unfurled and Manhattan within).

What if the architecture of a novel were a real building – that is, it had a physical, tangible structure made of more than just words – what shape would it take?

Annie Ernaux, Les années

Paul Goldberger, then critic for The New Yorker, wrote that Pericoli managed to win New Yorkers over because he was the first to gather the entire urban profile of the island in a single roll, to draw Manhattan as if it were a town from his birth region. After many years and many other literary adventures that brought him to work with some of the most renowned international newspapers, Pericoli went back to Italy, but not to Marche, the region where his family is originally from, but to Turin.

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale)

There, he found the Scuola Holden, where he proposed a completely new way of perceiving literature: “stories need to be experienced mentally before they can be written.” So, are stories landscapes, are they doors? “Not really, a story is not like a road to follow… it’s more like a house. Like the Nobel price Alice Munroe explained, you go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished.” 

So you can even go back again and again, of course, “the house, the story, 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, not just to shelter or beguile you.” The result is a collection of curious drawings, now gathered in a book, The Great Living Museum of the Imagination, which is probably the most ambitious of his books, the crowning achievement of this second Italian life of his. It certainly is the most theoretical of his publications.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (Mattatoio 5)

Pericoli’s intellectual candor echoes that of Gianno Rodari and his The Grammar of Fantasy: An Introduction to the Art of Inventing Stories, published over fifty years ago, the only theoretical text by Rodati, which makes it particularly significant. In the back cover of the 1973 edition, Rodari wrote: “I insist on saying that, although Romanticism surrounded it with mystery and created a sort of cult around it, the creative process is inherent to human nature and therefore it is within everyone’s reach, with everything this entails in terms of happiness to express and play with one’s imagination.”

Similarly, Pericoli encourages everyone to this exercise, trying to unravel some of the big, abstract questions without ever wanting to present himself as a philosopher or a critic, but suggesting practical solutions that are accessible to everyone. And he does so, for instance, by posing the question: what if the architecture of a novel were a real building – that is, it had a physical, tangible structure made of more than just words – what shape would it take?

It’s a question that Pericoli has been trying to answer for more than a decade together with his students at the Laboratory of Literary Architecture, which started at the Scuola Holden and then extended to other universities as well: “Reception creates interpretations that translate into shapes that are completely different depending on the student that conceives them, no two are the same.” The drawn, often bizarre, structures stress a fundamental fact: the process of reading of a text is just as creative as the process of its writing (maybe even more so), “the choices that are made when building architectural structures are very similar in quality to those made by a storyteller…It has the same feeling as a collaboration between two active sources rather than being a monodirectional transmission > reception process.”


An essay by Matteo Pericoli

Architect, illustrator and author, in his new book the author offers a true guide to exploring literary architecture

by Lara Crinò

That the act of narrating can be likened, metaphorically, to that of designing a building, a neighborhood, even a city, is something we all know. We know it from having experienced it, as amateur or professional writers from a very young age: were we not perhaps encouraged, when we are about to put our thoughts on paper, with an expression that comes from architecture itself: “fai la scaletta,” (make a ladder) as if writing were placing rungs to climb higher? We know this, too, from studying it. What are literary theory and semiotics talking about, if not how we “construct,” again a metaphor of sorts, the text?

In his new book The Great Living Museum of the Imagination (il Saggiatore), however, Matteo Pericoli, an architect, designer and author, takes it a step further by offering, as the subtitle suggests, a true Guide to Exploring Literary Architecture.

Stemming from the experience of a workshop with a group of creative writing students from the Scuola Holden in Turin, this essay is a real experiment, starting with the format. Indeed, in the first few pages, the reader is asked to approach the reading as if exploring a museum, complete with a map, moving from a “ground floor,” which serves to introduce the book’s purposes, to a “first floor” and then to a “second floor” in which these purposes are spread out and then applied to a series of literary works. The basic thesis suggested by Matteo Pericoli is this: since when we read we are always, more or less consciously, visitors of an imaginary space, then it is possible to attribute to our impression of a certain text a certain form. If we can explore its various parts with our minds, then we are not only able to describe them verbally but also to create spaces, voids and solids, that are the architectural equivalent of the story we are reading.

It is no longer a matter of merely visualizing settings: indeed, as Pericoli immediately clarifies, he is not interested in the “so-called locations” of a novel, because “focusing on them means, in general, missing an opportunity.” What the author proposes is something different: working out an architecture that reflects the structure of the text. How is it done? To find out, one must first get up to the first floor of this museum book, where, with a historical overview, Matteo Pericoli explains how every architecture, from the primitive hut to the Parthenon, from Brunelleschi’s dome to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, is in itself a story that needs to be interpreted.

Then, by continuing to the second floor, we can explore twelve interpretations of literary architectures: twelve works that are transformed into buildings. The catalog is varied and interesting, so much so that any good reader will want to read or reread the texts being discussed: from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Judge and His Hangman to Annie Ernaux’s Les Années, each work is drawn as if it were an installation or a building. There is also Italo Calvino, with his The Baron in the Trees.

These are evocative projects, mind games, ideal palaces and cities that overlap with the real ones in which we live and move. If you like the game, is the message, you can go ahead on your own, accumulating new literary architectures. And you will find that the books you love are cathedrals, humble courtyards, or invisible cities. Perhaps, the places where you will feel most at home.


Matteo Pericoli’s book stems from his “Laboratory of Literary Architecture”
From Dostoevsky to Ferrante, drawing becomes a form of alternative reading

by Mario Baudino

Conceiving and drawing houses and buildings starting from great literature is not just a game, although maybe we have even done it, sometimes, fantasizing about a novel or a short story: perhaps, however, we have never gone further on this interpretive road, we have not made it concrete. Matteo Pericoli, on the other hand, has been working on this intuition for years now. He had started out with an idea borrowed from Alice Munro, the Canadian writer much admired for her short stories, who had once described ́”stories” not as roads, that is, not as vector narratives, one-dimensional paths with a beginning and an end, but as ́”houses,” entirely three-dimensional – and to be inhabited, and has now come to construct a book of fantastic texts and buildings, The Great Living Museum of the Imagination (Il Saggiatore) a very elegant book that ideally summarizes a long process of workshops around the world (and started at the Scuola Holden in Turin) and presents a wide range of results: stories turned into buildings, reading as a way of living.

Transfigurations that narrate their relationship with the world as living characters

Many avid readers know that they have often had the experience of ́”falling” into a book, and of changing dimensions. Writers, just as often, invite them to precisely this space-time dislocation, when urban architecture narrates their relationship to the world as if they were characters. The examples are countless, some as memorable as the incipit of Ferragus, the first story of History of the Thirteen, where Balzac gives the floor to the Parisian streets, those disgraced or noble, murderous or “older than certain very old ladies,” respectable, clean or always dirty, working-class, trading; because ́”the streets of Paris have human qualities, and by their physiognomy they imprint in us certain ideas from which it is difficult for us to escape.” He is not the only one, of course. Something like this happens in Dickens (read perhaps Bleak House, where a dilapidated and infamous London street behaves like a human being).

Matteo Pericoli has gone further, that is, he has decided instead to make the works of literature speak as if they were as a whole pieces of architecture, aiming not, as he says in the preface of his book, “at that natural instinct we have to imagine or visualize the settings described in the novel, but at that distinct impression of feeling immersed in a kind of construction that has its own functioning and structure.” Drawings, models, fantastic buildings, like Calvino’s cities, are in turn embedded in a super-architecture, that of the “book-museum” (“This is not a book like any other,” he writes, “It is a building”) that houses them: without temptations of “realism” or flat verisimilitude. If we take Heart of Darkness, the magnificent Conradian tale, it is certainly not transformed or described as a hut in the forest: instead, the building into which it is transformed is an inverted pyramid down to many feet below the ground. So for the twelve authors on whom Pericoli worked: they are not arranged as nativities, but as symbolic transfigurations.

“Cuore di tenebra» di Joseph Conrad diventa una piramide rovesciata conficcata nel suolo (dal libro di Pericoli)”
“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad becomes an inverted pyramid down to many feet below the ground (from Pericoli’s book)

Elena Ferrante (My Brilliant Friend) splits into two buildings that perhaps support each other (and this representation, all things considered, is perhaps the most obvious), Dostoevsky’s White Nights becomes a skyscraper tilted above a kind of labyrinthine checkerboard, Beppe Fenoglio’s Ruin is a house entirely made of roots, a building that grows “underground,” Italo Calvino’s The Rampant Baron is something that contains a sense of unbridgeable distance, a house with a gap visible only from above (because as Cosimo Piovasco’s father says, “rebellion is not measured in meters”). There are also, regenerated and displaced with the work of spatial construction, Annie Ernaux, William Faulkner, Junichirο Tanizaki, Kurt Vonnegut, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Emmanuel Carrère, Juan José Saer, testifying that the process can work on any narrative, on any “story” – with one eye toward the other story, that of architecture, and another toward the possible paradigm of “architecting.”

“We have a natural instinct to imagine and visualize”

“These structures you will encounter,” Pericoli writes, “will take the form you want them to … that is, the form based on your reactions, intuitions and ideas. Each one different for each of you, a multiverse of forms.” The result is a very stimulating reading path-because then Pericoli’s Museum of the Imagination is indeed a “museum” but meanwhile it is a book, not a catalog but a history of stories, especially if one thinks of the sometimes casual and ideological use that one tends to make in public discourse of the classics of today and yesterday: a very bad habit because the risk then becomes that of making of them not free and fantastic constructions, but sad and very boring prisons. —