Architecture isn’t getting the critical eye in the print media it should and as Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic Blair Kamin told the Chicago’s Society of Architectural Historians not long ago, that’s remarkably short-sighted.
I’m with him. Architecture may seem like a remote subject, but it can be as everyday as structures in our neighborhoods. Architecture can even be a signpost for us. It certainly has been for fiction writers who create settings for their stories.
Daphne De Maurier set the stage in Rebecca with, “There it was, the Manderley I had expected, the Manderley of my picture post-card long ago.” Raymond Chandler did it in The Long Goodbye like this: “It was the damndest-looking house I ever saw.”
In their real lives, too, novelists have been known to pay attention to architecture. Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow loved fairy tales so much that he lived in a fairy tale castle-looking house with a thee-story tower inspired by The Alhambra, that closed world of gardens and palaces, where Muslim princes savored the gentle splash of their fountains and muted refinements.
Then there’s Russian-born Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was so soured with homesickness when he lived in Florence that he wrote letters to family and friends, calling it a “hell” worse than the eight years he spent in prison and exile: “worse than deportation to Siberia.”
Comparing the city where Michelangelo and Da Vinci honed their skills to a prison would have you think that he lived in some dead-end of hopelessness. But he had one of the most desirable addresses in Florence: Piazzi Pitti 21. As the street name suggests, a neighboring building was the Pitti Palace, the palatial residence of the grand dukes of the Medici family, complete with gardens of fountains, columns, and statuary. Imagine likening a place that boasts such a palace (not to mention the Duomo, Campanile Tower and the Uffizi Gallery) to a dump.
Dostoyevsky’s fancy address was also the place where he wrote the first draft of his famous novel The Idiot. It’s notable that the protagonist, Prince Myshkin, returned to Russia after a long absence – clearly a projection of Dostoyevsky’s own desires. He stayed in his rooms at Piazza Pitti 21 for the near year he spent in Florence, blaming the city for “lacking fresh Russian impressions,”
Apparently Dostoyevsky didn’t know that many of the palaces and churches of Russia were designed by Italian architects or influenced by them. Consider the two tiers of ogee gables around the main dome of Moscow’s famous Cathedral of the Annunciation, which are mere decorative devices that mask Roman arches. And the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the best-known structure in town, bears all the arches, pediments and pilasters of a High-Renaissance building. The Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli designed it without a single one of those onion-shaped cupolas that one associates with Russian architecture.
Dostoyevsky’s architecture illiteracy is the sort that prompts this call for more architecture criticism.