Poetry & Architecture

The poem as a place


To find an idea that can influence design is the unavoidable goal for a designer writing an essay on poetry and architecture. To unfold thoughts about buildings, to put them on paper without straightening them dead, reveals, or maybe creates, new understanding.

Poetry in architecture can be created without conscious effort or even human intervention. Abandonment and time can create poetry. The way of the poetic in architecture is similar to but ultimately different from narrative. It works by locating and positioning not merely in physical but emotional, political and cultural space. When standing in front of a building of a rich and specific culture you can sense yourself in relation to the world in which it belongs. When the position given by architecture enables new views that affect what or how you see there can be poetry. See is used in its widest sense: understand, find, project, regard, determine, examine, experience, interpret. Written poetry can also be seen as a place created by the poet. You visit this place when reading the poem. The place of the poem is not the environment it describes but a place from which you can see things you cannot from elsewhere. Every time you visit it is the same place but being a place you find new things by looking in a different direction.

Poetic devices in architecture

The poetic devices such as simile, personification, paradox and rhythm are also the architectural devices that allow a building to communicate.

Simile is quite common in architecture. Buildings or architectural elements are often made to resemble things of another kind. For years now skeletons and textbook visualisation of small scale biology has been popular choices of reference. Some schools of thought are reluctant to accept the figurative devices of architecture. Rhythm not being one of them makes it universally accepted.

Personification, endowing buildings with human qualities or appearance is often tenuous and rarely attempted by architects. Critics see it more readily which would suggest that personification should perhaps be attempted more often in architecture. The paradox is another device in difficulty. Direct clarity is often seen as beautiful but clarity suggests a rigidity that is not poetry.

Poetic Buildings

The Japanese gardens I have never seen

Although I have never visited Japan or even experienced a pale reproduction of a “Zen style garden” in any other country the original ones are useful to consider as examples of poetry in architecture. They are not strictly speaking architecture but have been absorbed into the discipline to such a degree that the fact that they are gardens almost passed me by. That they are indeed gardens enables them to achieve what could well be impossible for architecture. What makes them useful as examples of poetry in the context of this essay is that they offer a view of the world that is relatively easy to see and that can be agreed on as poetic. The gardens visualise and enrich the idea that all life and all things are part of a greater whole and that existing harmoniously within this world is a goal to strive for.

My understanding of the Japanese rock and stroll gardens is that they are designed to be a foreground to meditation. Many of the devices used work with the relationships between man, nature, near, far, large and small, in such a powerful way that the world does appear harmonious. The destabilizing of relationships through the placement of things in relation to each other.

The different types of gardens use different devices to achieve not the same effect but the same view of the world.

In Shakkei gardens it is achieved through the bringing into the garden of elements well beyond its reach through careful framing. The scales and forms near and far share formal qualities and are placed next to each other. One could say they show you the grain of sand in the world.

The Kare-sansui gardens create the same view of a connected world through making the world appear in a grain of sand. Or rather a collection of rocks. Small things are endowed with the qualities and depth of the very large.

The gardens are deigned for meditation, a repetitive act. As should be the case with poetry further attention produce further depths. Re-encountering the “poem” even if it remains in the same position has the potential to offer new views and new experiences. The film director Andrei Tarkovskij used the devices of the Japanese gardens in his films but created a different result. The house of the madman Domenico is partially filled with moss and water that through an opening in the wall blend into the vast landscape outside — an extreme version of Shakkei. There is a sense of harmony when panning the scenery but in the context of the film this garden seem created out of a desperate sense of disharmony. Where in Japan the gardens reveal the nature of the world, in Tarkovskis film the landscape is how the creator wants the world to be but is not.

The Ruin

Most architecture has many authors and is created through a process with many external pressures. Discussions about the poetic authorship appear again and again as the key to poetry. Without the concious author, they ask, how can there be meaning? If poetry is considered not to convey a precise meaning but to create a place from where certain things can be seen in ways they cannot be seen from where you initially stand many processes are capable of poetry. An example of this is the ruin, which has a past as a building. That past plays some part in how it is a ruin. It also has a process of becoming a ruin that plays some part in how it is a ruin. What the ruin used to be is never fully forgotten some faint traces of its qualities as a building remain regardless of how fragmented the remains are. Ruins are full of memories you never had. They make your vague and often superficial ideas about life at the approximate time of use mix with your very personal experiences of life. The result is that the often caricature like view of history, where customs and clothes obscure the fact that they were like you, is brushed aside for a personal communication with people that never existed. The physical presence of the ruin, whether ten or thousand years old, is a cultual artefact of unusual power. Objects as seen in museums or maybe as found can tickle the nerve the ruin grabs and pulls. Abandoned objects are intimate but false when compared to abandoned buildings.

Urban poetry

If poetry in architecture is when buildings allow for a new way of seeing the most interesting poetic architecture would be the one that reveal a beautiful “view” or understanding of the city. When students were asked to bring examples of poetic architecture there were many places of worship but I cannot remember any building with a strong sense of urbanity.

Churches and other places for contemplation or religion are always special. They are the setting for rituals which in themselves would secure a poetic position in peoples minds regardless of content or subject. They often acknowledge death and to do so today is very rare. Even disbelievers who do not believe in the ritual or the concept of god see the quietness and presence of death as poetic. However simplistic this idea of poetry is it appears to be prevailing. But he architect, or anyone interested in the poetic in architecture, cannot resign to the idea that the poetic is available only for religious buildings. The poetry of architecture would then be one dimensional in comparison to the written counterpart that appear to cover every subject known to man. The idea of poetry as a place from which things appear different. A place richer than the place we stand in without poetry. A place we can return to without exhausting its ability to make us see.

The Economist Building ( fig 1. )by Alison and Peter Smithson is one of the few buildings that reveal a way of looking at the city. It is of course not a building but three or maybe four if the podium they stand on is seen as a building. The three characters on the podium clearly belong together. They are made from the same materials in the same way but have different rhythms and scales. Maybe it is wilful to see personification in the small family of three but their vertical nature and the variation in scale and rhythm create a sense of intimacy between the buildings. The corners of the towers are cut destroying the ideality of the square plan lending them a human lack of grace. The significance of the cut corners is often mentioned in relation to the inbetween space of the Economist Plaza supposedly charging the space. The portland stone cladding is full of dead animals and is attached to the steel structure in such a way that the buildings have the appearance of crumbling the way a large fossil do behind glass in museums.

The almost scenographic gesture of adding a bay window in the style of the towers to one of the preexisting neighbours helps to suggest that the Economist Building is growing on the old city. Slowly consuming the existing fabric using its nutrients to fuel construction of towers from the structures that could not quite be digested. The rhythm of the floors reveal itself on the facade. Each floor to floor segment a bursts in growth. The banking hall must have come across some particularly useful nutrients producing grand floor to ceiling heights in two starts before peetering out into two much less generous floors. The pieces of stone marking out the columns on the facade are subtly wider at the bottom reinforcing the tapering created by perspective and adding to the sense of naturalness and growth described above.

The inappropriately named Plaza between the buildings provide a

“[...] pre entry space in which there is time to rearrange sensibilities preparatory to entering the building to visit or work. The city is left outside the site boundary; another sort of intermediary place in contributed to the city; if—as in the past—many owners contribute these pauses, then other movement patterns are made possible: the man in the street can choose to find his 'secret' way about his city and can develop further urban sensibilities evolving his own contribution to quality of use.” -- (Smithson and Smithson 2001, p248)

( fig 2. )

St Mark

There are no buildings I know of that conjures up more images than the church in Björkhagen by Sigurd Lewerentz. When considered with the common poetic devices in mind it appears as an almost to literal translation of poetry into architecture. But there is a paradox. The building is devoid of images and can appear to talk about nothing other than direct if eccentrically detailed construction. As often the case when visiting a building for the architectural experience I had read about the building and seen photographs of it before experiencing it physically. The relationship between the brick wall and the birch trees is one best seen in photographs where the similarity is striking. When visiting the building the sensation that it belongs amongst the trees is strong but that a thick expanse of brick wall and a fragile white tree with pale leaves look the same can only be seen after very careful looking or through the eye that flattens. I was given that image and would not have seen it otherwise. ( fig 3. )

An image seen without guidance was the dark reflection of the openings into the main space of worship. It was as if one of the dark forest lakes of Sweden had been poured into the building and was kept in place through exceptional surface tension. That the church is indeed situated where there was once a lake was not known to me at the time and I refuse to believe that my reading was ever intended by the architect. There can be no mistake that Lewerentz was interested in simile in architecture as shown by the flower lamp posts but when the disparity between the image created and the thing itself is too great it becomes unnerving to consider it intentional.

There is a constant tension in this architecture. Every statement about it seem to require a counterstatement. The flower lamps look very much like flowers, but then again, not really. Two lengths of tubular steel slotted into each other in an awkward fashion, painted black, bent slightly and crowned by a flattened plastic sphere has very little in common with a real flower. This visual weakness is counteracted through the design of the relationships between objects. By placing the lamps in tiny groups and spacing them casually the image is complete. Now the posts behave as flowers and look a bit like flowers, which is enough for us to see them as flowers.

For most elements of the design the figurative origin is hidden if it even exists. The insistence on designing everything from scratch has the result that one sees things in everything. The organ, perhaps the most peculiar and to my mind most fantastic part of the architecture, is placed on the floor like a miniature building. The organist sits between taller elements of complex forms in such a way that you expect her to lean over and pull the start cord before she takes off driving the organ like an old tractor. Again contradictions, it is highly unusual to drive a building. The visual appearance of a building is disrupted by the seat and its position. The way a person sits on it suggest a vehicle because when you see a person sitting in something of elongated proportions, facing in the long direction, it is either moving or it will be shortly.

I doubt this particular vision is of much help in understanding the architecture we are talking about, but the richness of images produced however, perhaps simply by refusing conventions, is interesting. The mind fills in all the blanks forcing an image onto the unfamiliar.

Where does these images leave the building standing? The view St Mark offers is one where mans presence is felt, but he is not omnipotent and not the only power on earth. Heideggers fourfold is out in force making itself felt even in the disbeliever. To have ones omnipotence taken away and be reminded of simple facts of life such as time, struggle and death could be seen as a neative experience. The way it works at St Mark in Björkhagen is that the building shows how beauty and dignity can exist in simple things. The sense of not being all that matters is comforting rather than disturbing.

The building forms are undisciplined and do not really relate to each other, neither do the individual details such as the windows, which are allowed to vary to an unusual extent.

There are no buildings I know of that conjures up images of so many things unrelated to architecture whilst talking about nothing other than construction than St Mark by Sigurd Lewerentz. Which is in itself a paradox and a poetic device.

The church in Björkhagen is modern but has a directness that is unusual in modern and sophisticated architecture. The building has many of the qualities of a non designed building. Every element seems to have been looked at in isolation, the design processes are revealed as evolving over time. Often architecture attempts at the crystalline moment of completeness where in fact there is less potential for poetry. Poetry cannot be a statement of fact unless some ambiguity is revealed.

The building appear to be of the earth. Whether the choice of brick was conscious in relation to the birch trees I don't know but when placed next to each other wonderful tension occurs. Again this observation is personal, but the windows of the main space of worship look from the outside strikingly like the surface of a small Swedish forest lake. The dark deep reflections in the fudgelike brown wall speak of the moss at the edge of the lake.

Designed Poetry in Architecture

To create a place where things are seen in a different light is ambitious. If the building is to be poetic when the doors open for the first time the designer has to have found a place of sufficient poetry and he must have articulated it in such a way that it is accessible to other people. This is of almost impossible difficulty. Society, client and other actors in construction can be responsible for the poetry through complex and entangled events. Besides struggling to find a view of the world worth communication the designer can always attempt to trick time and change to work in his favour. Techniques and devices from written poetry can be transfered to architecture. But as with all art technique is never enough and could even prevent accidental moments of magic.


Smithson, A., and Smithson, P., 2001 The Charged Void: Architecture, New York: Monacelli Press

Tarkovski, A., 1983, Nostalghia