The poetic form

27 July 2021

The notion that good architecture has a certain poetry to it is an overused metaphor, but moves to install poets in residence at prestigious architectural firms have now gone beyond mere wordplay. Evidence even suggests these figures are playing a formative role in shaping how buildings are conceived. Mae Losasso speaks to contemporary architect Patrick Lynch, and poet and architect Fawzia Muradali Kane to explore what impact poetry has on the way we build and experience urban environments.

London architect Patrick Lynch is working on a top secret project; when I arrive at his Regent’s Canal-side studio, he’s adding the finishing touches to the 3D mockup. From up here, six storeys high in the heart of Hackney, there are views across the city that catch the edge of the greenbelt south of Greenwich. It must be an architect’s dream, a place from which to see London unfolding in a network of church steeples, railway lines, and canal paths, punctured by the skyscrapers rising on the skyline.

“We need thematic spatial descriptions, as well as actual architecture,” Lynch tells his team, as they finesse the 3D project. Though he can’t divulge the specifics of the competition scheme, Lynch talks of building “poetic structures for understanding”, of the “poetics of making and the poetics of meaning”, of “bodily rhythmic experiences”, and processes of “immersion and reflection”. Because, for Lynch, everything is poetry. From design, to form, to use, there’s simply no distinction between architecture and poetics.

It shows in his work. A self-professed bibliophile, Lynch’s designs are imbued with poetic references: take his community centre for East London Black Women’s Organisation (ELBWO), inspired by the poem ‘The Verandah’ by Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott; or his plan for a library for Westminster City Council, which included figures of the muses designed by the artist Hilary Koob- Sassen. That project was never realised, courtesy of government funding cuts, but a third-scale Maquette was exhibited at the 2012 Venice Biennale. Even his more corporate architecture, like the Zig Zag building, a large office block on Victoria Street, remains poetically sensitive: a syncopated rhythm of anodised fins sweep the building’s gently staggered facade, while layers of light and shade offer a more transient counterpoint in chiaroscuro.

Living in fantasy land

But the balance between poetry and architecture hasn’t always been an easy one. In his first year as an undergraduate, Lynch won the University of Liverpool poetry competition – but kept it under wraps. “I didn’t dare tell my teachers,” he admits, “I think they’d have kicked me out. I’d turned up somewhere, where everybody else had maths, physics and other science A Levels. And I remember one person saying to me: ‘When I think of poetry, I think of it as being fantasy and airy-fairy – but architecture is maths and physics’. It took resistance and hard work to claim territory for what I was doing.” Today, mainstream architecture’s attitude towards poetry is changing. Earlier this year, the RIBA awarded an Honorary Fellowship to 32-year-old Rhael Cape, aka LionHeart, the first poet-in-residence at Grimshaw Architects. LionHeart, who dropped out of his architecture degree to pursue a career as a spoken word poet, was the youngest among this year’s cohort, which included UCL Professors Laura Allen and Mark Smout and Rowan Moore, architecture critic for The Observer. LionHeart works to commission writing bespoke poems for architects and architecture firms and, most recently, for luxury car brand Bentley. As architect and poet, Fawzia Muradali Kane, observes, it’s great to see a younger generation of architecturally curious poets being applauded, though it can be frustrating to see them heralded as the first to draw these disciplines together, when architects like she and Lynch have been working as poets, and have being working poetry into their practice, for decades.

Kane, one half of the London firm, KMK Architects, also comments on the difficulty of being both an architect and a poet. “It is a tricky business weaving these two practices [together]. Being known as a poet seems to affect your credibility as an architect here. But then, I think that being an architect informs every creative act we perform, even in subtle and unnoticed ways.” For Kane the relationship between poetry and architecture is holistic, but it’s been a difficult journey of double identity. Ten years ago, she recalls, “I was two different people.”

And then The Poetry School moved in next door to KMK. “I could walk over from one to the other,” she recalls, “and so they started to blend into each other.” These days, Kane is more comfortable acknowledging the points of intersection between the disciplines. “There are parallels and there are crossovers, and they do bleed into each other. For instance, in classical architecture you have the golden section, it’s so innate in our subconscious: when we look at an image we feel a proportion, there’s a sense of comfort and correctness.” Kane compares this to a sonnet, a poetic form that also “has its particular proportion on the page.”

Building with roots

Like LionHeart, Kane hails from the Caribbean – though where London-born LionHeart followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather (both of whom trained as architects), Trinidad-born Kane blazed her own trail, when she was awarded a government scholarship to study in the UK. As part of the condition of the award, Kane returned to Trinidad, where she worked in the national housing unit for two years, while gathering research for her thesis on The Vernacular of Trinidad for Domestic Architecture.

When talking about the vernacular, Kane moves seamlessly between a discussion of French-Creole and Trinidadian architecture: an indication that language and building are fused in her mind. Explaining the linguistic variations between the Caribbean’s diasporic communities, she segues easily into a description of Trinidadian vernacular architecture, which was “originally a construction of earth and thatch that was brought over from indentured labourers. Over time, the use of timber became more [widespread], with the balconies and fretwork, both in the larger plantation houses, and also the smaller ones – you know, those lovely gingerbread [houses] with wraparound balconies”.

Kane’s interest in the Trinidadian vernacular betrays not only her commitment to a postcolonial reappraisal of historic styles, but a deeper investment in materiality; in the building blocks of both architecture and language. In 2015, Kane designed a specific course for The Poetry School, titled ‘The Radiance of Materials: Stone / Wood / Glass’, which included a programme of tours to stone quarries, as well as saw mills and glass manufacturers. “I wanted people to look at the way the raw material transmutes into the built thing, the thing that everybody in the world is looking at – the tiles and the surfaces.”

Both she and her partner, Michael Kane, specialise in a specific material (she in carpentry, he in welding), and received the Aluminium Imagination Award in 1999. “We were also the first people to specify Valser stone,” she adds “which Peter Zumthor later used [in the Therme Vals Spa].” A recent KMK project saw a six-storey residential block in Kennington built entirely from cross laminated timber “for environmental reasons – we’re trying to build as carbon neutral as possible”. When you become intimately acquainted with a material, she explains, “you start learning about the vocabulary that is completely specific, but also has a really poetic value. Seasoning of wood, we say, is simply the process of drying it, so that it has a particular moisture content. But the language is lovely.”

Informed design

An ear for the sounds and textures of words informs Kane’s poetry collection Houses of the Dead (2014), an experiment in building architectural space out of words. “Marble”, “frames of willow”, “malachite”. and “oak” coalesce on the page, “carry[ing] their rhythm beyond the house” and “making all surfaces alive”. Kane recalls that the impetus for the poem came from her early days as an architect, shadowing surveyors in empty buildings. “In one instance, I remember a house that had been cleared of everything. An old woman had lived there, and I could actually see the pictures that used to be there, ghosted on the walls […] I could see the traces, you know, those clues were there.”

If architecture is about materials, forms, and spaces, it is also about how we use those spaces, how we inhabit them, leaving traces of ourselves behind. The notion of dwelling has been at the heart of the poetry-architecture complex, ever since the German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that “poetically man dwells”.

Elaborating on this concept, architect and author of A New History of Modern Architecture (2017), Colin Davies, explains that “to be a human being is impossible without being somewhere. So being there, being in a place, immediately gives being a spatial dimension. If we say that poetry is an exploration of being”, he goes on, “then another aspect of everyday experience is interiority – we’re always inside ourselves. And the weird thing is, we can’t get out, no matter how much we try. You’re stuck in there, in an interior, every moment of your life. That’s a very architectural metaphor – in a sense, the human body is a piece of architecture that contains us, whatever us is.”

I ask Davies if he can offer one example of an architecture that’s poetic. “Sigurd Lewerentz's [St Peter’s] church in Klippan, Finland,” he says. “It's a beautiful church. It has very coarse brickwork, with very fat mortar joints all around as well. It’s got a rusty steel cross supporting the roof and a sloping floor to encourage people to go forward for communion. It’s completely raw and unaffected. It’s poetic in the thoroughgoing sense.”

It is unsurprising that Davies should choose a spiritual site as an exemplar of poetic architecture. After all, as Lynch explains, the relationship between poetry and architecture was explicit in the ecclesiastic buildings of the Middle Ages, when “a cathedral was effectively a text, both through stained glass and through the sculptures of the saints. And when you read them in conjunction – when the light comes in through the stained-glass window at evensong, representing the second coming of Christ – then you get this transillumination onto the act of the act of the eucharist. It’s basically poetry”. Bricks may be bricks, and language may be language, but one thing is for sure; words and buildings have been speaking to each other for centuries. There’s poetry in that.


Fawzia Muradali Kane

Antony Gormley Statue on the River Thames – the inspiration behind Fawzia Muraldi Kane's poem Limehouse Reach.
A six-storey residential block on Bowling Green Street in Kennington, London – designed by KMK and made entirely from cross-laminated timber.

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