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Volumes of words: the architecture of the page

Reciprocities between text and architecture open up new ways of reading

Marcel Proust's corrected proofs

Marcel Proust’s corrected proofs

Corrected proofs of Marcel Proust’s 1919 novel À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs form a ‘bibliospace’ of text blocks

Sixteenth-century Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio’s Extraordinary Book of Doors, part of a multi-volume treatise, displays on each recto page a drawing of a doorway, porch or entrance facade. Published in the early years of the printing revolution, these drawings of architectural entrances often appear a little wonky or unaligned, the first trials of their mechanical reproductions in sync with the formative attempts of architects to codify the fundamentals of built forms in print. Correspondingly, the page would become an architectural, or archi-text-ural, site. With each turn of the large-format page over the Book of Doors’ long spine, the reader meets another printed gateway. In the space between the columnar porches, their mind settles on the textured blank of the paper. Serlio’s Book of Doors presents a way in – what if every book contains such portals? 

‘In Ancient Greece songs were conceived as pathways, sentences as promenades or roads’

The reciprocal relations between architecture and text gained renewed importance during the printing revolution, but the spatial disposition of text – in terms of its material supports, structural form and narrative content – has been recognised since the beginning of written culture. In Ancient Greece, pre-cartography, narrative traced subjective geographies – songs were conceived as pathways, sentences as promenades or roads. For Homer, according to classicist AC Purves, writing is likened to the movement of oxen and plough across a field, a metaphor that seems to find a lineage in the modern word ‘plot’. 

Paul Nash, Tate London 2018

Paul Nash, Tate London 2018

Like the furrows of a ‘plot’, writing inscribes lines on a surface. Paul Nash, Tate London 2018

Word lain beside word, the narrative draws a line along which readers are led. This line of letters runs straight along the page –whether left to right, right to left, horizontally or vertically, according to the writing system – yet those back-and-forths of plot rarely progress straightforwardly. More often, the lines traced by the narrative are zigzagged, spiralled, encircling. The reader moves through the text, its signs and signifiers, and then may be moved by the text, through imagined places and vicarious emotions. Beyond metaphors of text as space, space as text, metaphors we live by, text is actually constructed, from the level of the word as material mark, to the level of its formal production. These chains of signs, specific and learnt, contain the potential for opening up wide worlds of words. 

‘Both lived space and read text are composed of complex textures and experienced by each individual anew’

Michel de Certeau, who writes of reader as voyager and city-dweller as reader, describes reading as wandering ‘through an imposed system (that of the text, analogous to the constructed order of a city or a supermarket)’. Alternatively, Henri Lefebvre takes the stance that the experience of built space is ‘fundamentally different from the complexity of a text’, as it is ‘acted – and not read’. A layer of space in a city, constantly enlivened by its communal users, is not reducible to the flatness or stasis of a text before it is activated by a reader. Yet Lefebvre’s nod to textual reading in The Production of Space is restricted to the semiotic and linguistic. Entering the space of written text deserves – like the experience of architecture – a more all-encompassing analysis, which involves both code and body, and sparks sensual as well as cerebral reactions. Both lived space and read text are composed of complex textures, socially produced, and experienced by each individual anew. The ‘building’ of the book is first entered, then frequented by readers, who reconstruct it via their embodied paths of reading. 

Cover image from Lefebvre’s Le droit à la ville, 1968

Cover image from Lefebvre’s Le droit à la ville, 1968

Cover image from Lefebvre’s Le droit à la ville, 1968

If the rather grandiose idea of the monumental book as edifice was consolidated in the early years of the printing revolution, the discursive power of books was heralded with their increasing distribution in the centuries that followed. ‘Architecture is dethroned,’ Victor Hugo wrote with some drama, ‘the stone letters of Orpheus must give way to Gutenberg’s letters of lead.’ Architecture had represented a kind of built mode of discourse, the paragon of the ideologies of each society and era, which Hugo believed books would now supersede. Less dramatically, as Mario Carpo argues in Architecture in the Age of Printing, buildings would be turned into books, their features distributed on paper. Carpo charts the influence of Gutenberg’s press on the architectural practice of the era, whereby the distribution of standardised images of architectural orders in treatises like Serlio’s facilitated the subsequent imitations of Renaissance buildings. The mechanisation of printing introduced, ‘a new, media-savvy architectural theory’, based on a repeatable ‘graphic, or typographic’ vocabulary. 

Washington Square, New York, 1968 by André Kertész

Washington Square, New York, 1968 by André Kertész

The city as a surface animated by and overlaid with people in André Kertész’s image of Washington Square in New York, 1968

At the same time as architectural typologies were being fixed on paper, the formal structure of the printed book was itself developing a set of design conventions. These conventions – namely, the front and back matter around the main text, which would later be called the ‘paratext’ by literary theorist Gérard Genette – served to guide readers into the book’s form. Paratextual elements – titles, prefaces, footnotes, captions, and so on – frame the text, a border between exterior world and readerly interior. In the same way that entrances define buildings, the initial pages of printed books act as cues for readers’ movements into the text, like thresholds to be crossed.ork, 1968

The front matter of early European books drew great attention to the idea of an entrance into the book-as-building, both in form and content, with elaborate analogies between parts of the text and parts of a building. Renaissance frontispieces frequently featured an architectural drawing of a gateway or entrance to a theatre or temple, which would frame the title and publication information. Book historian William Sherman suggests that the word ‘frontispiece’ first signified an ornamental entrance porch, before it came to stand for the first page, title page, or introduction of a book, and later, the illustration opposite the title page. While the ceremonious details of early paratexts have since been simplified and abbreviated, the language of architecture remains in books’ formal features – in the frontispiece, in columns and page gutters. In Spanish, portada is the word for both ‘cover’ and ‘facade’. A passage of a text, writes literary critic J Hillis Miller, ‘is still a way to get from one place to another’.

Typestract 63 by Dom Sylvester Houédard, 1963

Typestract 63 by Dom Sylvester Houédard, 1963

Type imitates plans and building volumes in Typestract 63 by Dom Sylvester Houédard, 1963

The thresholds of the book, like the doorway, porch or hallway of a building, provide a place to pause and gather thoughts. In The Gallery of Memory, Lina Bolzoni gives the example of Renaissance author Francesco Sansovino’s 1562 rhetorical treatise in which the preface is likened to ‘the beautiful and rich entrance hall of a well-planned palace’. Four centuries later, Jorge Luis Borges describes a preface as a ‘vestibule’, a turn of phrase parsed by Genette as a reference to an interstitial place filled with ‘the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back’. A book’s front pages serve as initiatory passage into the interior space of reading. 

‘Between the covers of a book a reader may make a home’

When holding a physical book, there is a tactile pleasure in these textual preliminaries: opening the cover-door to turn through the preamble, like lingering on the threshold, the limen. In The Eye in the Text, Mary Ann Caws brings together the Latin sense of limen, a point just out of reach, with the Greek sense of a haven or refuge. Between the covers of a book a reader may make a home, while they are simultaneously transported elsewhere. As Lisa Robertson delineates, the codex ‘shelters without fastening; it conditions without determining’. Its form is reassuringly solid, yet a reader is free to come and go, or to stay and succumb to further flights of the mind. To become enveloped in the space of a text is to find a temporary enclosure away from the world outside. 

A Humument p12: We Are The People

A Humument p12: We Are The People

A Humument p12: We Are The People forms part of a ‘treated Victorian novel’ cut, pasted, collaged and painted by Tom Phillips, who began it in 1966

With the advent of networked and digital forms, the text is returned to its etymological netting – textus, a woven thing, a web – where words are akin to crossed and overlapping threads. Does absorption in a text differ when a reader is not placed within the printed book’s fold? Do our exits from the text occur more quickly when reading is unbound? Certain paratextual features are integrated into the design of e-books, as skeuomorphs of the printed book and familiar signposts to readers, but our progress is marked by a point along a bar, rather than felt through holding a thickness of pages. The concept of entering into a written edifice now seems anachronistic, not only with the digital interconnectedness of text, but in the restrictive will for ideas to be walled-in. The experience of reading may never be fully enclosed, as words expand beyond their containers, into the architectures of the imagination.

This piece is featured in the AR December 2018/January 2019 Book issue – click here to purchase your copy today