Montreal, April 19, 2019
Dear Le Corbusier:
The meaning to working as an architect is not always found in an architectural office. Can we truly feel like architects without always wanting or needing to assemble bricks and blocks? Can we sculpt the world with words and paper? I followed your adventures in eastern Europe through your journal descriptions. They say you first realized you wanted to become an architect when you saw the Acropolis. One hundred years later, it is my turn to write you this letter and tell you about my own experience. It was literature that led me to architecture. I made my journey eastward in the vessel of my library.
It all started some 20 years ago, as I navigated through a series of books. You see, it was Charles Perrault’s Blue Beard that introduced me to castles and their sometimes dark legends. It was Daniel Handler, under the pen name Lemony Snicket, who gave me the mental image of North American Victorian architecture in A Series of Unfortunate Events, 15 years before I set foot on the New Continent. I never saw the French hamlet of Liré the same way after memorizing Joachim du Bellay’s poem, Heureux qui comme Ulysse [happy those who, like Ulysses]; it comes back to me, intact, as soon as I hear its name. My childhood home, nestled in the Anjou countryside, had only one neighbour: the “Le Patys” manor where French writer Hervé Bazin was raised. Its surroundings were the inspiration for his popular novel, Vipère au poing [viper in the fist]. For me, that building never failed to evoke the written tale of the protagonist Brasse-Bouillon, and I glanced at it anxiously each time I walked by, as if it was still permanently haunted by the threat of the narrator’s tyrannical mother, nicknamed Folcoche [for “folle” (mad) + “cochonne” (sow)]. For me, all the fortresses in Scotland are potential Hogwarts, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised on visiting them if the staircases were to come to life. While I savoured the story of a 20th-century Parisian building in Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, I like the 19th-century Paris described in Maupassant’s novels even more. I started my education in Versailles, where I was never able to walk through the Palace of Versailles park without seeing La Fontaine reciting his Fables. I realized that the most beautiful legends of the Cyclades could only have been created on Amorgos Island while gazing at the azure vista and the horizon from a tiny room at the top of a magnificent monastery, sipping on ouzo and nibbling at rose-water Turkish delight. I believe you are familiar with this place; they say you have also been there. Some say that the white fortress and its tiny cut-out windows were the inspiration for several of your future projects – from Villa Savoye to Chapelle de Ronchamp. I am pretty sure when I think back; you could not have missed that monastery – please write and tell me if I am wrong about all this. In any event, I cannot visit a building in Rome without thinking about the myth of its foundation. Ever since I learned the story in Latin class, the enemy twin brothers and the she-wolf are present from the Forum to Capitoline Hill, in every stone, ruin, street and site in this millennial fabric. As a young girl, I approached the Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verità) in the Santa Maria church with trepidation, mindful of the legend according to which it clamps down on the hands of all those who lie. Today, even the name of my street in Montreal—Avenue de Chateaubriand—reminds me of the author whose house I saw in France - an immense collage in Vallée-aux-Loups. He, too, made his Voyage en Amérique [journey in America]. Lastly, Italo Calvino revealed still-invisible cities to me through his writing.
I could say that my Parthenon is made not of stones but of books piled one on top of the other. While there are eyes that do not see, I open my myopic eyes wide while reading from behind my glasses that give me a serious and professorial air. From my first years studying architecture, I have written competition briefs and pieces for architectural firms. You have probably noticed that reading played a key role in my “architectural childhood.” The texts I read taught me that writing is fuelled by houses, streets and cities– current, lost, destroyed or imagined–and that architecture finds its real meaning in the stories of humankind. The architectural discipline has been built, layer by layer, through history. I know I am not telling you anything new; the city is one big palimpsest: inscribed in space and inextricably linked to time.
As for me, there was no single “moment” but rather a series of instants of discovering architecture through reading, placed end-to-end, that revealed my calling. I wanted to become an architect to create the framework that building gives to fiction; so that the narrative that re-enchants reality never ceases. Literature made me understand that we can sculpt the world with words, and the real and imagined stories they depict give meaning to the most silent of places. Today, I am writing a doctoral thesis on the topic, exploring the definition of writing in architecture, which might well fall within the purview of literature.
It is a topical issue: the Notre Dame Cathedral was engulfed in flames a mere three days ago. You would not believe it! Something tells me that you would have sought to preserve this priceless monument, even in your most radical designs, because it is so entrenched in people’s lives and experience. However, the man of letters that you are would not be surprised to see that the flames failed to alter the memory of Quasimodo, the eternal resident of the cathedral rooftops. The chimeras remained on site during the fire. In fact, Victor Hugo’s story is more alive than ever, as seen in the renewed popularity of his literary monument, Notre-Dame de Paris. No, “this” will not kill “that”: the book will not kill the building. Rather, the paper book will reinvent the book of stone.