What is architecture about?

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The Backs, along the River Cam, in Cambridge. (Terence Kwan/500px.com)

Stephen Fry, celebrated British actor and humorist best known on this side of the pond for his portrayal of Jeeves, manservant to Bertie Wooster in the TV series Jeeves and Wooster, published his first novel, Liar, in 1991, which also addressed issues of class, to say the least.  The television series is based on the Jeeves and Wooster novels by P.G. Wodehouse. Below is an excerpt from Liar in which Fry’s protagonist, Adrian Healey, crosses a lawn on the Cambridge University campus, mulling its beauty’s influence on his life.

It was Adrian’s last summer, but whenever he crossed the bridge, no matter how occupied he might be, he could never prevent himself from looking across at the Backs, the green train of lawn and willow that swept along behind the river behind the colleges. With a late afternoon mist descending on the Cam, the absurd beauty of the place depressed him deeply. Depressed him because he caught himself failing to react properly to it. There had been a time when that blend of natural and human perfection would have caused him to writhe with pleasure.

Architects believe that their work improves life on this planet. Here is a simple evocation of that belief. I’m not sure what to make of it. The beauty of the Back depresses Adrian because he no longer reacts to it properly – with pleasure – as he once did. I am relieved to suspect that most observers of the scene will not be hobbled by such nuance. Not sure the word “writhe” is the best one to place next to “pleasure,” but maybe it is if you understand the character that Fry creates in Adrian. (Readers may consider that as a “trigger warning.” Liar is not for the squeamish!)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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