A friend sent an email literally begging me to read the novel Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald, of whom I’d never heard, and it came in the mail just in the nick of time, preventing me from writing about the Super Bowl’s half-time show, which I am now already a day late in describing (the stage featured five white “rooms”), and of which I will say only that it must have been paid for by the GOP.
Austerlitz was published in 2001 and is said to have been written in one long paragraph of many complex sentences. But hey, I love Henry James. It seems that there is much about architecture in the novel, at least in the early going, especially Antwerp’s Centraal Station, part of whose description I quote below.
One of the projects thus initiated by the highest authority in the land [King Leopold] was the central station of the Flemish metropolis, where we [the narrator and his friend], said Austerlitz; designed by Louis Delacenserie, it was inaugurated in the summer of 1905, after ten years of planning and building, in the presence of the King himself. The model Leopold had recommended to his architects was the new railway station of Lucerne, where he had been particularly struck by the concept of the dome, so dramatically exceeding the usual modest height of railway buildings, a concept realized by Delacenserie in his own design, which was inspired by the Parthenon in Rome, in such stupendous fashion that even today , said Austerlitz, exactly as the architect intended, when we step into the entrance hall we are seized by a sense of being beyond the profane, in a cathedral consecrated to international traffic and trade. Delacenserie borrowed the main elements of his monumental structure from the palaces of the Italian Renaissance, but he also struck Byzantine and Moorish notes, and perhaps when I arrived, said Austerlitz, I myself had noticed the round gray and white granite turrets, the sole purpose of which was to arouse medieval associations in the minds of railway passengers. However laughable in itself, Delacenserie’s eclecticism, united past and future in the Centraal Station with its marble stairway in the foyer and the steel and glass roof spanning the platforms, was in fact a logical stylistic approach to the new epoch, said Austerlitz, and it was also appropriate, he continued, that in Antwerp Station the elevated level from which the gods looked down on visitors to the Roman Pantheon should display, in hierarchical order, the deities of the nineteenth century – mining, industry, transport, trade, and capital. For halfway up the walls of the entrance hall, as I must have noticed, there were stone escutcheons bearing symbolic sheaves of corn, crossed hammers, winged wheels, and so on, with the heraldic motif of the beehive standing not, as one might at first think, for nature made serviceable to mankind, or even industrious labor as a social good, but symbolizing the principle of capital accumulation.
This passage is embedded in a paragraph that opens the book and does not end until its 31st page. So, yes, Austerlitz has more than one paragraph, but not all that many more. Yet even with its long sentences it is quite easy to read.
Who knows what Austerlitz (or Sebald) meant by “the new epoch”? The new century, perhaps, or the new goofball quality in the arts and, just being noticed by the public, in architecture. But that came a decade or so later. Eclecticism was still in vogue for years beyond 1905, a pastiche of old styles, and one wishes that it had remained in vogue. Uniting the past and the future is fine, if the future is not considered a rejection of the past – as in modern architecture it has been, purposely, throughout its brief history.
It would be impossible to write anything about modern architecture that a reader might find both lengthy and readable. Most writing about modern architecture is as nauseating to read – twisting language into pretzels to avoid description – as it is to experience. Modernist writing is language designed to disguise thought. An interest in modern architecture would never sustain a book like Austerlitz.