Told in a multi-narrator style that would make William Faulkner proud, Kelcey Parker’s novella, Liliane’s Balcony, is set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece Fallingwater, and is the finest piece of fiction I’ve read this year that stars a famous building. Since I’m such a big fan of both the novella and Wright, I asked Parker — whose incorporation of Fallingwater intrigued me even before I even cracked open the book — to list some of her favorite examples of architecture in literature. Click through to read her selections.
Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole
One could say that all gothic novels are about architecture, about how our minds are like castles and houses in ruins, about our fears of getting trapped in castles and minds. This book is often called the first gothic novel, and was inspired by a real castle in Otranto and by Walpole’s own architectural marvel of a home, Strawberry Hill – a Gothic Revival house with Walpole’s crazy collection of curiosities, from King William’s spurs worn in battle to a lock of Edward IV’s hair (“cut from his corpse”).
The Glass Room, Simon Mawer
The Villa Tugendhat, designed in the 1920s by Mies van der Rohe in Brno, is the real-life inspiration for The Glass Room’s Landauer House. In the book – and IRL – the sleek modernist house made of reinforced concrete and glass survives the upheaval of Eastern Europe’s 20th century, confiscated and looted by the Gestapo and later the Soviets. In an interview with Radio Prague, Mawer says, “Yes, one of the themes of the book – maybe it’s the principle theme – is the contrast between the transparency of the architecture and the opposite, the lack of transparency of the human lives that go on within it.”
Davis opens this short, dense dream of a book with an epigraph from Jean Le Rond d’Alembert: “Architecture is merely the embellishment with which we hide our deepest needs.” In the novel, told primarily from the point of view of Marie Antoinette’s ghost, Versailles and its Hall of Mirrors become the deluxe setting where Antoinette hides her deepest needs, ultimately losing connection to outside realities.
Building Stories, Chris Ware
Not only does this collection of graphic stories unfold into three dimensions like the Chicago buildings whose tenants’ lives are narrated, it takes place partially in Oak Park, where tourists block the sidewalk, pausing before one Frank Lloyd Wright house after another. Steve Almond calls Building Stories “one of the most important pieces of art I have ever experienced,” and Glen Weldon at NPR says, “Ware fills his pages with meticulous architectural detail and diagrammatic flourishes, producing what amount to cross-sections of sadness, floor plans of the broken heart.”
The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
As my teenage daughter says, “haters gonna hate,” and, like most people, I kind of hate The Fountainhead. But I also kind of love it. It’s ambitious and ridiculous and problematic even as it articulates some of the major debates about modern architecture, art, journalism, and social housing. Rand read Frank Lloyd Wright’s An Autobiography and modeled Howard Roark after the architect. Even Roark’s controversial commissions are very similar to Wright’s designs, including Unity Temple and Fallingwater.
The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton
Few people know that Wharton’s first book was The Design of Houses, a co-written manual of architecture and interior design. The Custom of the Country, which Julian Fellowes cites as a major inspiration for Downton Abbey, is about the way domestic architecture symbolizes wealth and class. The New Yorker calls it Wharton’s “architectural masterpiece,” in which “houses become the way we readers chart Undine’s climb, which is entirely accomplished by strategic marriage. With each husband, she changes city, house type, and architectural style, moving from brownstone to château to hôtel particulier.”
“Looking for Some Dignity” by Clarice Lispector (published in Short Stories by Latin American Women, edited by Celia Correas de Zapata)
In this twist on the gothic castle narrative, Lispector’s short story opens with a scene of the almost-70-year-old Mrs. Jorge B. Xavier lost in an empty Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: “in a vast light and a boundless silence, no soccer game, not even a ball. Above all, no crowd.” The stadium was opened in 1950 for the World Cup, had a partial collapse in 1992 that killed three and injured 50, and is being rebuilt for the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. In Lispector’s story, the aging Mrs. Xavier, filled with longing for a young television star, is aware that she is “[a] prisoner in the tangle of corridors of Maracanã. A prisoner of the mortal secret of old women.” At the end of the story, she doubles over, thinking, “there!—has!—to!—be!—a!—way!—out!”