Wiles’ decision to construct his narrative upon a direct reflection of the contemporary world makes for a very powerful and architecturally-compelling commentary on the alienating habitat we live in
Let’s start with some hyperbole: The Way Inn is the first Gothic novel of the junior executive suite. The first loyalty-programme based horror story. The first literary work in which composite laminates are a central plot device. But if that’s not enough for you, read on.
It’s the story of a ‘conference surrogate’ − the appropriately named Neil Double. Double is a body for hire who represents clients at trade shows. He’s a besuited phantom-delegate haunting the vast interior worlds of places like ExCel collecting intelligence, attending seminars, even assuming the identity of his clients. He attends all the -Ex’s, the WebEx’s, PetEx’s, EmEx’s and so on so you don’t have to.
Double is an empty shell with a schizophrenic array of business cards whose life is spent in a low earth orbit of chain hotels, motorway interchanges and convention centres, free from the gravity of kinship. Imagine Clooney’s Up In The Air by way of David Brent.
Some of you may know Will Wiles’ byline from trade magazine Building. Or from glossy design magazine Icon where he was deputy editor. You may know him too from more esoteric publications − from Cabinet, Dirty Furniture. You may know him from essays that explore the cultural meaning of Hi-Viz. Or you may know him from his first novel Care of Wooden Floors.
But it’s in his second novel The Way Inn that Wiles’ biography synthesises into a whole. A difficult, unsettling and nightmarish kind of whole. A hole that opens up and you find yourself falling into.
It’s a book that comes from a grand but perhaps unique lineage. A family tree that includes William Beckford’s Vathek, HP Lovecraft, JG Ballard but also Rem Koolhaas, Martin Pawley and Reyner Banham. In fact, Wiles acknowledges Koolhaas’s stream of consciousness essay ‘Junkspace’ as the seed from which the novel grew. And from this Wiles infers that perhaps Koolhaas − at least as a writer − and Lovecraft might not be all that different.
The Way Inn’s inversions of interior and exterior, of the world made up by multiple franchises of the very same place, suggests you can check in anytime you like but you can never leave.
But it’s also a book about the spaces of the 21st century − of transport infrastructure, chain hotels, conference centres and shopping malls. Places of giant scale and generic quality, places that feel edgeless, that go on for ever, about the kinds of things that happen in those places, the service sector, business to business networking, waiting and complimentary coffee. It’s a description of the banality and mystery contained in these places and systems. The fact that, as Koolhaas himself suggests in ‘Junkspace’, all architects may well find that they are working on the same gigantic, planet-sized building. Or Mark Fisher’s notion of Capitalist Realism, in which there is no escape from the infinitely self-reflecting feedback loop of the logics of the service economy. The Way Inn’s inversions of interior and exterior, of the world made up by multiple franchises of the very same place, suggests you can check in anytime you like but you can never leave.
The Way Inn is also a piece of design criticism en passant. It catalogues the kinds of spaces and objects we normally view in the half-light of inattention. The narrative is adorned with moments of almost technical descriptions of contemporary materials, those panels formed of multiple laminations, films of adhesive, sandwiched into things which look utterly synthetic − a plastic that looks like wood but behaves like metal for example. Abstract art hung on hotel walls whose geometries and textures are central to the plot. Hotel lobbies − ‘spaces to pass through, not spaces to be’. There are lengthy passages examining that strange breed of contract furniture that more often sits like a sculpture about furniture than is actually sat on. In all of this it recalls the microscopic description of Nicholson Baker, the close looking of Ruskin applied to things we are not supposed to really look at. Art that isn’t art, chairs that aren’t chairs, places that aren’t really places.
Through this seamless veneer of contemporary life, all soundtracked by the musakified ancient rebel yells, a New Aesthetic rift opens up. These are glitches with multi-dimensional properties, faults in the render, ghosts in the corporate machine that turn the spaces of smooth business to business transactions into vertiginous sheers in space and time. This is where the acres of contact carpet peel back to reveal the nth dimension space of the spreadsheets that create them. Wiles suggests that behind the sheen of practical and logical reality are invisible systems of infinite complexity. The chain hotel is, in other words, the tactile tip of a giant abstract framework whose own logic is invisibly remaking the world in its image.
To understand architecture, as Bernard Tschumi never quite said, we may have to fictionalise it. With The Way Inn, Wiles’s fiction gives us a key card that unlocks a vision of the very real world that we are already immersed in. It’s a vision that describes the full banal horror of 21st-century human habitat, the alienation we feel, dwarfed by the full force of the service economy even as it offers us a complimentary coffee.
The Way Inn
Author: Will Wiles
Publisher: Fourth Estate