Stories from Architecture

WHEN Tom Stoppard wrote his masterpiece Arcadia, he took a familiar English trope – the English country house and the eccentric, difficult, warring and occasionally delightful people who live and die there. He turned the familiar setting on its head, by creating a two-period story, with a great house, a fascinating library, a grotto that may have had a hermit, and the people who live and visit it in the 18th and 20th centuries.

You could call it a “story from architecture” – and Stories From Architecture is the name of Somerset writer Philippa Lewis’s new book, subtitled Behind the Lines at Drawing Matter, the remarkable architectural archive based in an old farmyard near Wincanton.

The book tells the imagined histories of 25 architectural drawings and models, through reminiscences, stories, conversations, letters, and monologues.

We’ve all done it – looked at a painting or a drawing in a museum, gallery or country house, and peopled it with our ideas of who might have lived there, even perhaps ourselves (Country Life magazine is very good for those of us who know we were born to live in a half-timbered Tudor manor house).

What Philippa Lewis, a writer blessed with a lovely style and a vivid imagination, has so cleverly done is to evoke characters from an architectural drawing, even when the drawing does not show any human figures. If she has original papers to use as her source –  such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s correspondence with Edith Carlson, a Wisconsin librarian who wanted him to design her $5,000 dream house – she brings the people vividly to life; if there are no clues, she creates them – architects, artists, clients, builders, philanthropists and even onlookers.

She uses her knowledge and the information and inspiration she finds within the drawings to tell stories from architectural history and to frame credible but fictional characters with their social context – such as the dilemmas facing a Regency couple who are considering a move to a suburban villa.

The stories include a request from the office of Richard Neutra for an assistant to measure Josef von Sternberg’s Rolls-Royce so that the director’s beloved car will fit into the garage being designed by his architect and a teenager dreams of a life away from parental supervision by gazing at a gadget-filled bachelor pad in Playboy magazine.

The drawings are all sourced from the Drawing Matter collection. The idea for the book developed when Philippa Lewis was working in the archives. She started writing about drawings that caught her eye on the website, and the project snowballed.

She says she didn’t necessarily choose the most beautiful, but “the ones that viscerally appealed to me.” Through her careful research and using her imagination, she not only tells the stories behind the drawings, but has adapted her language to suit the characters and their different periods. “I can’t tell you what fun I had doing it – I hope that comes across,” she says.

A review in the RIBA journal describes Stories From Architecture as “an antidote to more dry, academic architectural tomes. Lewis hopes that readers will enjoy her lively take on the drawings and the easy insight they give into the times that they were made.

Drawing Matter, founded by Niall Hobhouse, is an organisation that explores the role of drawing in architectural thought and practice, with an archive of new and historical writing on architecture and drawing. The Drawing Matter Collection is a major collection of architectural drawings dating from the 16th century to the present day.

Stories From Architecture by Philippa Lewis is published by The MIT Press.