The fantasy of architecture and architectural fantasies

Geoff Manaugh dropped me a line to say he had posted an interview with my chum, fine ale afficianado, defier of wild hogs and ace writer Jeff VanderMeer. Geoff run the BLDG BLOG, which is an architectural site and he and Jeff (Geoff and Jeff, sounds great, doesn’t it?) have an absolutely fascinating discussion about how ‘real’ world (if there is such a thing) buildings and cities (and natural structures) interact with the imagination of writers and readers, taking in Borges, Peake’s Gormenghast, Kafka and others and moving from bioluminescent Pacific reefs to the winding streets of Prague and then on into Jeff’s Ambergris, the City of Saints and Madmen.

I recall the Fringe before this one just finished where I looked out of the kitchen window at work. The front door of my work is on what looks like ground level but is actually a bridge with buildings almost all along it, with deeper levels of the Old Town below it. So when I go downstairs and look out the rear windows I don’t see the street but an alley leading downwards. Even lower down is an underground venue which is used during the Fringe. I glanced out one day and saw several spooky looking mimes sitting on the cobbles below smoking; they finished and silently returned to their subterranean lair. It made me think on the underground dwelling Graycaps from Jeff’s books and naturally I had to tell him about it.

I had a vision of a part of Ambergris protruding out of the realms of imagination and into the deepest levels of Edinburgh. Since then I’ve actually come to think that those mimes/graycaps weren’t going back into a literal Ambergris but that Ambergris is a city where we sometimes go when we dream, or even when we daydream or lose ourselves in a book so that we start to realise how elastic our surroundings are, how past and present and history, culture, imagination and perception all constantly alter supposedly solid, fixed streets and buildings of stone. I love the way Ambergris itself flexes and breathes and changes and alters because it is doing what a ‘real’ city does except most of the time we live in the middle of it and don’t notice.

It’s one of the things I like about living in Edinburgh, the way you can’t help but notice how the city, or even one building, can look different from day to day; how different it is in a long, copper, autumn sunset, brushed with fallen leaves, almost a different place from when snow lies along the battlements of the Castle; the same place and yet constantly and eternally different. The imaginary and the so-called real are both a construct of our senses and our imagination; today I was looking at pictures on the BBC site of three proposed new towers for the World Trade Center site and it struck me that until a new building is constructed it is in a sense still an imaginary, fictional building. Even after construction a building will still always remain partially imaginary because it exists in the perceptions and memories of the people who interact with it, each one of which will be slightly different and change over time.

The point? I’m not sure I have one except to say you can never treat the world on completely literal terms; people who insist on ‘sensible’ and ‘mature’ ways of looking at life and the world think they are better than those who indulge in imagination but really they are going through life with one of their senses blindfolded. Books like Jeff’s help remove those blindfolds.