The Plot Thickens
AN INTERVIEW with Novelist Douglas Anthony Cooper.
(This dialogue was published in Architecture magazine, which is no longer with us. The piece never appeared online. I did not own a copy for years, but I recently stumbled over this transcript: the conversation looks a bit quaint, in this century, but it’s a nice time capsule.)
The few architects we find in popular fiction are predictably likable. For an antidote to the fashionably sensitive, yet terminally bland architect, adventurous readers can turn to Douglas Anthony Cooper’s new novel, Delirium (Hyperion, 1998).
It obliquely traces the fate of a sinister practitioner and his malevolent biographer. This tale bears the imprint of Cooper’s degree in philosophy, two years of architecture school, and collaborative forays with architects Peter Eisenman and Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio.
ARCHITECTURE: How do the structures you find in philosophy and architecture inform your writing?
DOUGLAS ANTHONY COOPER: I believe that program and narrative are analogous. These structures all map onto each other in a way that’s intelligible. I make novels in the shapes of the plans of cities and houses; arguably, this makes me a structuralist. Now that Deconstructivist heaven has arrived, my position is not chic. I call myself a Structuralist, but esthetically I’m very much drawn to post-structural and Postmodern ways of delaminating things.
ARCHITECTURE: Describe the philosopher’s need for structure.
COOPER: It’s what prevents flux and chaos. Look at the so-called Deconstructivist movement, which is an attempt to capture flux and chaos in built structure. Someone suggested that the problem with Deconstructivist buildings is that they don’t move. Zaha Hadid says, “I believe my buildings can fly until my engineers tell me otherwise.” Well the fact is her buildings don’t fly. They don’t crawl; they don’t whirl; they don’t move an inch. They exist as structure. Every once in a while, an architect will design a floor that moves in his building. But that’s a gimmick. Structure is how architects impose their will on chaos. They make things that stand and are ordered in a specific way, with a sequence of rooms that mean something or dictate the way human beings move through them. This is exactly what a novelist does when he or she structures a narrative. You dictate the way in which somebody experiences a story. It’s a way of taking the flux we’re working from and paring it down to something significant.
I like Decon. It’s architects experimenting with the unmoving and the built, seeing how far they can push it before it ceases to make sense, how close to chaos they can make a building and still render it meaningful. That is what I do with a narrative. My books always have a story, but they’re about as far from traditional storytelling as you can get without lapsing into meaninglessness.
Philosophy is a point of contact for me with the people I respect most in architecture today: John Hejduk, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, and Daniel Libeskind. There are other architects who just shovel philosophy into their work; sometimes I think Peter Eisenman is guilty of that. They simply take philosophy and transform it automatically into a building. But there are those who actually think their way through building; Peter sometimes does that as well.
Someone like Liz Diller will not make an architectural or an artistic gesture without understanding extremely rigorously why she is doing so. We have worked together on some projects; I’ve watched her in a state of intellectual paralysis, which is wonderful to watch. She just won’t move until I can explain to her why we are doing what we’re doing, or until she can come up with an explanation. It’s deeply frustrating. Sometimes you get nowhere for a couple of hours and then you break through in a rigorous manner. That’s how I work as a fiction writer.
ARCHITECTURE: Compare reading your novel and walking through a building.
COOPER: Delirium is serialized on the Internet, where people can decide how to read it. I am asked, “Doesn’t it appall you to give so much artistic will to the audience by allowing them to navigate your text as they choose? Doesn’t this diminish your powers?” It doesn’t. I consider the works of architects analogous. The architect designs a floor plan; he doesn’t dictate the order in which the rooms are to be experienced. He gives over the options of navigating that building to its occupant. This doesn’t make the architect any less of an architect, any less the author of a building. The walls are set in place. The plan is the plan. Similarly, my book on the Web has an unvarying plan. You can navigate it any way you like, but I wrote it.
ARCHITECTURE: The built environment does not reveal the mind of one creator. Does your analogy extend there?
COOPER: Yes. Our experience of the congested city, to borrow a term from Rem Koolhaas, is closer to a fragmentary consciousness than it is to the heroic modern vision of the city created out of a single will. The city described by Jane Jacobs or Koolhaas involves an esthetic of accretion and a collision of wills and the celebration of accident and moments of chaos. All of that is in this novel.
ARCHITECTURE: Given what you’ve learned from architecture as a writer, do you see a reciprocal process? Can architects learn from a novelist?
COOPER: Absolutely. Peter Eisenman imagines a building that is inextricable from its text, one that is not just inspired by a text, but is wedded to its text. There’s no reason an architect can’t look at a text to give him or her the structure for building. There’s a Paul Celan poem at the heart of Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. But in an even more rigorous way, I can imagine constructing a building like a sonnet. A sonnet is an extremely rigid metric structure: a mathematical grid, really. The novel, while less mathematical, is structurally capable of producing potent analogs to the city. I always look at Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, which architects look at as well, as the first significant architectural novel. (It’s not a great novel actually.) It is built in the same way the city of Paris was, with a description of the cathedral at the center from which the story radiates outward. Cathedrals did this with Biblical texts; they were built books.
ARCHITECTURE: Didn’t Hugo also say that the book would defeat the building?
COOPER: Yes. He said the printing press would render all of this obsolete. This will kill that. Of course it didn’t. I think one of the great recurring comic themes in every art form is the exaggerated rumor of its death. Every 10 years, poetry is dying. Every 10 years, drama has died. Architecture dies a thousand deaths. It makes a nice story to argue that something will kill off something else.
I see Delirium as an optical novel – not simply because one section is based on the Panopticon, the most explicitly optical architectural type, but because it is about judgment and shame, both of which are conditions predicated on the optical. You are judged because you are seen. My two antagonists are optically determined: Ariel Price, the architect with hiddenness at the core of his opaque structure and life, and his corrupt biographer, whose life’s work is to peer into the hiddenness, into the dark spaces.
I think that the optical is becoming important in architecture: The Museum of Modern Art’s recent, and much maligned Light Construction exhibition will define architectural practice for the next decade or so. People will look back at what it says about the mutability of opacity and how that alters the Vitruvian universe. It suggests that we look at buildings in a way that is more nuanced and profound, more paranoid and complex, than the Modernist obsession with glass. Delirium plays with these kind of things, with the idea of being able to partially see something. One of the ways the optical is resolved in the novel is in Ariel Price’s prison cell, which grew out of the project I did with Peter Eisenman for the Milan Triennial.
ARCHITECTURE: Delirium is layered with Biblical allusions. Is it a modern morality tale? Do you present Ariel Price to comment on the profession or to comment on human nature more generally?
COOPER: Both. I don’t see my novel as highly moralistic. Delirium is an antidote to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which is a highly moralistic book. It plays with moral constructs that Modernism itself erected, and has fun with those. My novel plays with the idea of the moralistic construct of the hero, and tries to unlayer that notion within the context of Modernism.
ARCHITECTURE: What is the modern hero?
COOPER: Well, he looks a lot like Le Corbusier. In Delirium, I’m taking Le Corbusier apart and even more so, Mies Van Der Rohe and Philip Johnson. I thought it would be interesting to conflate Mies and Johnson, the great man and his plagiarist, and analyze that dual figure who is both genius and mediocrity, a great man and his mirror. That’s what Ariel Price is. He looks too much like Mies to be Johnson and too much like Johnson to be Mies. He embodies both the heroic and the ludicrous aspects of the heroic Modernist.
ARCHITECTURE: What are his ludicrous qualities?
COOPER: Well, ludicrous is the wrong word for this, but it is deeply ironic and morally and esthetically disturbing that Philip Johnson, Nazi fellow traveler, is the most powerful architect in our democratic empire and has Jewish patrons. At least Mies and Le Corbusier had a core of genius. I find Johnson to be like a statue of Lenin. He’s this empty construct who has managed to assume a great deal of power. And that points to idolatry, to the evil and nihilistic aspect of Modernism.
The first of two stories that got me started was the story of Philip Johnson, who famously has said: “I am a whore.” We build for anybody. We go for a client, no matter who the client is. In Delirium, I tell the story of Philip Johnson, the whore who remains unredeemed, and Mary Magdalene, the whore who is redeemed; I rhyme these stories in parallel strands on the Web. That’s how I started this book. So I suddenly had my heroic Modernist and my Old Testament icon occurring in parallel, winding around each other. It became an analysis of whoredom.
ARCHITECTURE: For whom was Delirium written?
COOPER: My ideal reader is an architect or an art student or people who share a way of thinking about the liberal arts. Architects read differently from other people. They are some of the few people who read theory in a practical manner. That sounds like a contradiction but it’s not. Architects read theoretical books to determine how to make buildings and how to think esthetically.
– Ned Cramer, July 1, 1998