Arts and Design

Bold Ventures by Charlotte van den Broeck review – architects of their own demise


Late afternoon, Friday 27 January 1922. The sky unzipped and snow began to fall in Washington DC. It came down steadily all night and right through the next day, shrouding the city. Trains were evacuated, cars abandoned in the street. By 8pm on Saturday, 28 inches had fallen. Undaunted, 300 citizens decided to brave the translated streets to see the silent film Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford at Crandall’s Knickerbocker theatre, a picture house so luxurious that the chairs in the orchestra pit were upholstered in silk. The audience howled as Wallingford sat on a tack. A second later the entire roof collapsed under the accumulated weight of snow, coming down in a single slab of stone and steel and crushing the people below. Ninety-eight died and more were mutilated or injured.

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This sounds like the very definition of an act of God, but the coroner’s hearing concluded that the disaster was a consequence of faulty design on the part of the architect, Reginald Geare, who had failed to correctly recalculate the load-bearing capacity of steel after the contractor, Harry Crandall, insisted on a last-minute change to cheaper material. Five years later, Geare took his own life. In 1937 Crandall too killed himself. In his heyday, he had run a whole chain of cinemas, and in a letter explaining his decision, he wrote: “Only it is I’m despondent, and miss my theaters, oh so much.”

Everyone fails every day, but an architect’s failure is inescapably visible, a public humiliation, even when it doesn’t occasion loss of life. To make a building that doesn’t work, that’s regarded as ugly, or runs vastly over budget, isn’t just painful and embarrassing. Architects have to master material reality in a way that functions practically, not just aesthetically. What they make outlives them, so their disgrace is accompanied by the knowledge that it cannot easily be erased, but stands instead as a public epitaph. Perhaps this explains why certain buildings are dogged by rumours concerning the architect’s suicide.

That the relationship between creator and creation can become so deleterious is a source of obsession for Charlotte Van den Broeck, a young Belgian poet. “My real question is: What makes a mistake larger than life, so all-encompassing that your life itself becomes a failure? Where is the line between creator and creation?” She visits 13 architectural failures, an elegant conceit. All are by men (no mention, say, of Lota de Macedo Soares, the Brazilian architect and partner of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, neither of whom were strangers to creative disaster). Her investigation takes her from a faulty swimming pool in her home town of Turnhout, in Antwerp, all the way to Colorado Springs.

There’s the “perfect, perfect” Vienna State Opera, subject to such an unrelenting hate campaign in the press that one of the two architects, Eduard van der Nüll, killed himself. There’s Pine Valley in New Jersey, now the most exclusive golf course on the planet, which ran so far over budget and was so inhospitable to grass that its creator – you get the picture. And there’s Fort George in Ardersier, whose chief engineer is supposed to have rowed out into the Moray firth to admire his finished creation, only to end it all there and then when he caught sight of a chimney and realised his hidden fort was visible from the water.

This last, of course, is pure myth. William Skinner, the engineer in question, died at his drafting table on Christmas Day 1780, decades after the fort was completed. Nearly half the stories Van den Broeck uncovers similarly dissolve away. The death in question happened later, or as a consequence of bereavement, or for reasons that cannot truly be pieced together (little is said here about mental ill-health or early life adversity).

Slowly, it becomes clear that this isn’t really a book about architecture at all. The central character isn’t Francesco Borromini, the genius of the baroque, or the visionary Lamont Young, who wished to create a miniature Venice in Naples, but rather Van den Broeck herself. The subject isn’t twisted church towers and sinking swimming pools so much as a melodramatic and hyper-personal topography of creativity, a landscape that for Van den Broeck appears seamed with danger and fraught with risk. Never mind the hundreds of thousands of artists whose work does not destroy them but serves as a source of pleasure and joy. Surely the ones who die in misery, flat broke, reveal the truth of creativity’s sinister contract.

Lest all this sound too glum, it’s a road trip, too: libraries in a sundress, fried chicken at a diner, wisdom from a passing waitress. The dead architects are set against a chorus of living women Van den Broeck encounters on her travels: Airbnb hosts and Uber drivers whose scepticism about her calling serves as a robust plainsong in counterpoint to her own aria on the exalted peril of the artist’s life. In Naples, Giulia cooks her an elaborate dinner and then startles her by asking for money to cover the groceries. Imagine creative labour having a price!

Browsing in a used book store in Washington DC, Van den Broeck buys a copy of Oranges by John McPhee, a classic of reportage. “My hope is to learn from him how to be less present in the book I’m trying to write … he’s anything but a runaway extra blocking the view of his own subject matter.” I think it’s safe to say that McPhee himself might have excised this scene. Bold Ventures more closely resembles a pop version of Iain Sinclair’s psychogeography or Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s anti-biography of DH Lawrence; works in which the author is present and the journey lists inward.

There’s no law against finding yourself interesting. The real structural flaw here – a misplaced strut, a failure to calculate load-bearing capacity – is to do with a kind of imaginative overreach. As the desire to build a romance of creativity exceeds Van den Broeck’s interest in her real cast, their status as props becomes uncomfortably clear. One, she admits, bores her. “Yes, I’d like it to be true. His alleged suicide would at least lift him out of his colourless slot in history.”

Others require embellishment. In what appears to be a fictionalised episode, the cinema architect, Geare, is given a horrifying recurring dream of a young boy, caught in the wreckage of the theatre. This is a poet’s touch, to trim a scene from a newspaper and insert it into a real person’s psyche, but I’m not sure how easily it sits with the desire “to rehabilitate those architects, to pick up their lost faces and stick them back in place”. There’s such a thing as too much creativity, I guess.

Olivia Laing’s latest book is Everybody: A Book About Freedom (Chatto). Bold Ventures: Thirteen Tales of Architectural Tragedy by Charlotte van den Broeck is published by Vintage (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com.



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