Building in Words, Writing with Bricks
What do a poem and a building have in common? Not very much, you might be thinking. A poem is just words on a page; but a building is practical, material, useable. It's a place to stay, a roof over your head. It's your home, it's your school, it's your local shopping centre.
But look again – there's more to poetry than meets the eye; and more to architecture than bricks and mortar.
When we talk about poetry, we often talk about feet: that's the number of syllables in a line, which add up to a given metre – that's the number of syllables and the rhythm of how we stress them. Sometimes we call it measure. It sounds complicated, but it's really quite simple. Take any two syllable word; 'building', for example. Most of us stress the first part of the word ('building'), rather than the second ('building'). We do that in everyday speech without thinking about it; the only difference with poetry is that the poet does think about it, in order to create stress patterns that make poems enjoyable to read out loud.
There's more to poetry than meets the eye.
The terms 'feet' and 'metre' and 'measure' may be technical poetic terms – but they're not unfamiliar words. Most people are born with two feet, and when they walk, they sometimes measure their distance in metres - or, indeed, in feet. Because 'feet' and 'metres' are also both units of measurement, which we use in lots of aspects of life – including the design of a building.
Words can be revealing. On the architecture side of things, the terms 'plot', 'rhythm', 'gesture', 'language', 'vocabulary', 'vernacular', 'allusion', 'quotation' and 'metaphor' are all used at various points in the design process – and they are all words that come from poetry. This is because in Britain, until the 17th century, architecture was largely though to be a practical craft. A number of architects, however, decided that they wanted people to treat it as an art. So they borrowed words from the language of poetry – which they considered one of the purest art forms – to make architecture seem, well, a little loftier, a little more beautiful, and a little more elegant.
As the years rolled on, architecture enjoyed its newly artistic status, and buildings became more and more beautiful, or interesting, or experimental. Architects could play around with different materials, different shapes, different spaces. Architecture, they discovered, didn't have to be purely practical – it could be like sculpture. It could be poetic. And the more artistic architecture became, the more poets began to look to buildings as sources of inspiration.
At first poets had enjoyed simply describing buildings. William Wordsworth, for example, gazed at the ruins of Tintern Abbey and described what he saw; or Thomas Hardy wrote about Hampton Court Palace; or the American poet Frank O'Hara wrote poems about the Empire State Building in New York. But in the 20th century, poets became intoxicated by the idea that a poem could do more than describe a building – it could be like a building.
So poets started experimenting with the structures of words, or with the spaces created by them. Just as a builder builds with bricks, so poets began building with words, developing an approach known as concrete poetry. A very early example is George Herbert's 1633 poem 'The Altar'. Herbert didn't just describe a church altar – he constructed his poem in the shape of one. In the 20th century, Herbert's approach was inspirational for concrete poets, who were looking for ways to make their poems more material.
The Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, who was also an artist and landscape gardener, was fascinated by the ways that layout and typography could transform a poem, as well as the different surfaces that a poem could be written on to (not just paper, but stone or metal or wood). By pulling words off or around the page, Finlay pushed them to the limits of materiality, asking his reader to think about the ways that we dwell in langauge.
Poems and buildings will always have their differences – try as they might, poets still can't write a poem that we can live in; and buildings still don't have the linguistic power of a poem. But poems and buildings need one another. They have spurred each other on throughout history: architecture learning from the pure art of poetry's uselessness; poetry channeling architecture's pragmatic usefulness, to find new forms of expression. Where will they take each other next? That's up to the next generation of poets and architects to decide...