It may only rarely get built, but imaginary architecture is a crucial support for many stories, from Jane Austen’s Pemberley to Kafka’s Castle and Ballard’s High-Rise.
Rather as everybody supposedly thinks they have a book in them, I wonder if every novelist thinks their mind holds unbuilt architecture. I know I do. Not the technical stuff, obviously. The trigonometry and structural engineering. I mean the exciting freehand sketching bit at the start. The dreaming into existence of a building that didn’t exist before.
Of course, conjuring fictional structures on the page is about a lot more than simply satisfying unrealised ambitions: buildings have done an awful lot of work in many a fiction, shaping and expressing characters’ lives, concretising themes, rooting narratives in time and place.
My debut novel, Peterdown, involved imagining many such buildings. In the universe of the novel, a new five-runway airport has been built in the Thames estuary, and work is about to start on a Japanese-style bullet trainline that will connect the airport up to the regions. My fictional town, Peterdown has been chosen as the site of the railway’s splitter station, but to make way for the station a building in the town will have to be knocked down. On the shortlist – alongside a digital arts centre, and a dilapidated football stadium – is the Larkspur Hill, a sprawling brutalist housing estate that I was free to dream into existence without having to worry about budgets, planning restrictions, or whether or not it might blow over in the wind.
Needless to say, the estate is in fine company when it comes to fictional buildings. Here are some of my favourites.
The Cortlandt housing project in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
The architect behind Ballard’s high-rise is given a rough old time, but Rand is much kinder to Howard Roark. His masterpiece is the Cortlandt housing project, which he designs as “six buildings, 15 stories high, each made in the shape of an irregular star with arms extending from a central shaft … The buildings, of poured concrete, were a complex modelling of simple structural features; there was no ornament; none was needed; the shapes had the beauty of sculpture.” Unfortunately, when it is realised it has been traduced by a bunch of “second-handers”. Roark, being one of Rand’s typically ameliorative and compromising sorts, blows it up with a load of dynamite...