All posts tagged: Scott Geiger

Friday Reads: December 2015


Join our recommenders this month for a little formal experimentation—a collection of works that suck you in with lists, collages, instructions. Here we have a “novel of voices”; a “pointillist portrayal” of a family through vignettes; a work of ekphrastic metafiction; a “madcap” novel that begins with a catalog of ailments and their cures; a book of assurances and instructions to a reader on the cusp of a momentous change. These are books that will break you down into your component parts, rearrange you, and put you back together.


Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell, 10:04 by Ben Lerner, The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya, Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood by Anne Enright

Olivia ZhengFriday Reads: December 2015

Experiments in Literary Architecture: An Interview with Matteo Pericoli


Mateo Pericoli

To go from inspiration to the completion of a work of art or literature or architecture is a voyage in the dark. Artists smuggle intuitions from a place beyond words into achievements the public can regard and appreciate or not. This voyage fascinates the Italian architect Matteo Pericoli, author of the new book Windows on the World, which collects 50 of his drawings published over recent years by The Paris Review. Strong, solid lines render rooms around the world, rooms where every day the likes of Orhan Pamuk, Teju Cole, Francisco Goldman, and others sit down to do their writing. In Pericoli’s drawings, the architectural feature of the window frames a writer’s consciousness.

I met Pericoli one morning in November at New York’s Neue Galerie. We talked over an early coffee before heading upstairs to look at the museum’s special exhibition of Egon Schiele’s portraiture.

I wrote last year about Pericoli’s Laboratory for Literary Architecture, his graduate writing course at Columbia University where MFA students worked with architects to produce physical models of literary works. After our visit at Neue Gallerie, we sat in the sun outside Central Park’s Delacorte Theater discussing the Laboratory, writing as a design process, and reading as a spatial adventure.

Scott Geiger (SG): What can you tell me about your agenda for the Laboratory of Literary Architecture? What are the models students are making in the Laboratory exactly?

Matteo Pericoli (MP): The spirit has always been one of experimentation. A gamut of ideas springs out of a book, a physically nonexistent thing.

One model translates how, hypothetically, the designer, the writer, set out to build the novel before the words went all around and made it real. Say I have a space filled with action and relationships, the void of someone dying or disappearing, then a reunion of something that is the same place but clearly with some kind of loss in between. This I think is a literary-spatial idea that could have come in a writer’s mind before the words were ever on the page. That, I think, is a successful project, in the experience of the Laboratory, because it expresses the essence of the novel and why it works and doesn’t fall. It has an architectural structure that could be built. You, as a one-day visitor don’t recognize the novel but go through and experience a space, seeing the thoughtfulness of a concatenation of things that clad nothingness, which is space.

Another model expresses how the reader lived the reading of the novel—as in, This is how I felt the novel. I felt I was constantly brought to the edge of something that was going to happen and I was going faster in the reading but never getting to it. Maybe that was a design or maybe it was my reading. But that’s another very appropriate model. There is not one solution that works, there’s only how I experience architecture. When you go into a 20-story building in New York, you think, Look at this cute building. But when you go into a 20-story building in Turin, you think,Whoa, this is huge. When we think of a work of architecture we always try to put it in context. Is it a park? Is it a building? If it’s a building, what are the other buildings around it? When you read a novel, likewise, you read it in the context of your age, your mind, your culture—even though there is an essence to the work.


A final model is that of the life of the protagonist. He goes through misery and he has always shifted from one place to the other, never realizing his life is like a flag in the wind. So I’m replicating the protagonist’s experiences, which is not impossible as a way of imagining a writer-designer who says I want to come up with a book’s literary architecture about a person who goes through these things.

So I would say these are the three areas of focus in the Laboratory, broadly: the very subjective, the subjective in terms of a protagonist, and that pseudo-objective replica of authorial design.

We always are very careful not to dismiss anything for any preconceived idea, but it’s important we can always tell when something is going in the wrong direction. One problem is when you read To the Lighthouse and you think, literally, lighthouse. Or you think simplistic things, like good is up,bad is down. Architecturally, as the Guggenheim Museum teaches us, down is actually good. Things are not always a then b then c,becausesometimesfollowsb. You thinkthis person is good because they have achieved something, yet that person is bad because they killed somebody. That is not a story. You wouldn’t explain either a story or architecture in this way. And I think this is part of the magic of the Laboratory. And, you know, two different people can create models for the same novel, and they can get totally different projects.

SG: The process of the Laboratory opens up so many values released by the encounter with the work. You can get a physical document of a reader’s response or the replica of the artist’s intent.

MP: Reader-viewer, or the personal experience of architecture, is probably the best way to show this overlap of literature and architecture. Not intersection, overlap. You know a book, if you’ve entered into it on page one and exited on the last page. At Columbia, Fiona Maazel has a course about the devices you, the writer, can apply to make the reader not stop reading. That’s space! Architects present you with sequences of spaces, inviting you to immerse yourself, such that you learn but do not discover everything right away. You don’t want to move too fast or too slow.


SG: Do you think an exposure to literary space makes them better storytellers? Perhaps architects need to be better storytellers.

MP: I agree with that. When the tower for Ground Zero was announced, with its height of 1,776-feet height, that’s exactly what does not work. That’s not a narrative, that’s the most literal thing. The most successful moments in architecture are when the experience of space is truly arranged or composed or designed to be a piece of narrative or storytelling. The need of the visitor to a building is the same as that of the reader to a story. I get into an apartment or a room, and if the plan or the lighting is bad, it’s as if the writing were bad. Reading things that have nothing to do with architecture and understanding them, is a way of preserving your instincts about design—a vital curiosity enhances your ignorance.

SG: “Enhanced ignorance.” I love that as a premise, and it’s true. When you’re in a really well done space, your mind opens up.

MP: Right. I don’t want to know anything for certain. The Italian architect Michelucci, after 60 years of life, 30 years of practice, realized it’s about space. It’s about what’s not there, and it took him 30 years of forgetting what he’d been taught in order to realize that. Often I wonder if it’s not the same with writers. How do you get from the instinct of the story, which has zero words as of yet, to the completed work? It’s your ability to clad it with the words of your language, your culture, your century. Because 100 years into the future or 200 years ago, that same pure idea would not have been expressed in the same way.

SG: It’s almost as if a work is something atemporal. Then the artist arrives at the moment in time when the work can be made.

MP: Atemporal and wordless. We have this problem of language. I often want to think without words, but my brain doesn’t allow it. When we are in the Laboratory, we are forced to do so.

SG: How can writers hone their sense for space? Do they travel for research? Experience cities? Parks?

MP: Well, you can sit right here and still cultivate your curiosity, I think. Traveling with a true open mind is very hard. It all depends on how you set out to do that; whether we’re talking about architecture or literature, are you ready to change your vision?

Scott Geiger is the Architecture Editor for The Common.

Julia PikeExperiments in Literary Architecture: An Interview with Matteo Pericoli

Scenes for Super Towers

Introduction by SCOTT GEIGERphotos by JAMES EWING

new york view

A couple years ago, on the verge of the global collapse, structural engineer Guy Nordenson did an interview with me for a literary monthly, The Believer. The magazine’s title quote ran, “The tall building, as a type, is exhausted.” You could no longer put together a tall office building or a mixed-use tower in a new way, Nordenson felt. World Trade Center Tower One or maybe the CCTV Building in Beijing, depending on your architectural orientation, closed out the skyscraper play, at least in terms of engineering and architectural innovation.

These last two years, though, exotic forces in global finance have conspired to construct in the Manhattan street grid a radically new tall building typology. The super towers, or “billionaires’ beanstalks,” as New York Magazine’s architecture critic Justin Davidson described them, are stacks of full-floor loft apartments (sometimes duplexes) rising into the blue. The forthcoming 111 West 57th Tower, featured on its architect’s website, shows the sheer building arising from a tiny claw hold in Manhattan.

To realize such super towers, their developers and architects have to delicately escort them through New York City municipal agencies and community boards. They must also sell the apartment units, often to prospective owners who do not live in New York City or even in the United States. Architectural renderings do this work. These are digital collages of one or more real photographs, upon which is imposed a scintillating computer-generated image produced from three-dimensional architectural design software. There are whole design agencies, like rendering pioneers DBOX, who specialize solely in the production of these very high-resolution illusions for use in real estate marketing.

Over the summer I learned that Brooklyn architectural photographer James Ewing has regular commissions to document the urban fabric surrounding Manhattan commercial developments. He sometimes even photographs the open airspace around future super towers. To make such images, Ewing accessed the terraces and mechanical rooms of neighboring high-rise towers, waiting long hours for the weather to clear, the daylight or the darkness to settle just so. After studying architectural renderings for a few years now, I’ve concluded that their appeal comes not from their dazzling subjects but from the everyday real upon which the proposed architecture trespasses.

Ewing shot the images below to serve as backgrounds to architectural renderings, which will tease out a counterlife to the city. A knowing consciousness animates the photographs, I feel. His views frame a cumulative, sculptural Manhattan. No sign of street life. Instead, this subjectivity sees a geometric landscape of facades and windowwalls—each building nothing so exotic or radical as the crystallization of market forces past. Especially dramatic to see is the form of the cumulative city juxtaposed to the Hudson and East Rivers at its edge. To the subjectivity within these images, super towers feel only inevitable, the next phase in New York City’s continuous and speculative growth under the sky.

—Scott Geiger

view of the empire state


high rises



Scott Geiger is the Architecture Editor for The Common.
Photographs by James Ewing.

Julia PikeScenes for Super Towers

Photographing the New Nature


photographer in a garden

We were back in the Hudson Valley, in the marvelous town of Beacon, to make some images of a new park on the solstice. I found Brooklyn photographer James Ewing stalking the faint pre-dawn, about 5:15AM. A golden haze that had built behind the Hudson Highlands, in an instant, crested over to illuminate this little riverfront peninsula. We scrambled to make the most of the sun, searching out the best views, the right moments. The whole Saturday passed this way, really, though with less urgency than those first minutes. All across Beacon’s Long Dock Park, in a bit of solar sport, we either laid traps ahead of or chased just behind the light.

Julia PikePhotographing the New Nature

A Living Infrastructure


people by the ocean

Oysters in the Raritan Bay, courtesy of SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Next week Thursday, April 3, the amazing Rebuild by Design competition concludes in New York City. The finale event on Vesey Street in Manhattan is open to the public, and I think it well worth attending, even if you’re only just now learning about the competition. I’ve wanted to write about this competition since its launch last summer, and now as it comes to a close I can speculate a little about its significance.

Julia PikeA Living Infrastructure

What Is RiverFirst?


map of river

The Mississippi River meets only one waterfall on its wayward transcontinental course. It comes early, in the northern Midwest, at a site the Sioux knew as a place that was part real world, part spirit world. Seventeenth-century adventurers rumored about a “pigmy Niagra” called St. Anthony Falls. Pioneers from the young United States reached these waters early in the nineteenth century; they established simple mills for grist and lumber just as soon as property rights could be legally defined.The mills grew and industrialized over decades, triggering the rise of Minneapolis. A feature of nature became a technology servicing the city. The names Gold Medal Flour and Pillsbury still loom in enormous metal type on opposite sides of the historic railway bridge leading into Minneapolis that was new when F. Scott Fitzgerald was a boy. The historic mills themselves have gone, though, and today Stone Arch Bridge belongs to pedestrians, cyclists, and the students of the University of Minnesota. Looking north from the bridge they see an amphitheater of a spillway, tall gray waters pouring between a research lab and hydroelectric plant on the east side; a lock-dam barge elevator run by the Army Corps of Engineers on the west.

Two modern Minneapolises meet at St. Anthony Falls. The first is a Midwestern city of commercial real estate, of skybridges, of eight-lane intersections, and Mall of America Field. A second Minneapolis comprises the 6,725 acres of green space administered by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. In the 1880s, landscape architect Horace Cleveland designed a circuitous park to preserve and connect the region’s most beautiful natural features: its lakes, Minnehaha Falls, and the western Mississippi Riverfront. The Grand Rounds, as Cleveland deemed his park system, preserved the scale and character of American nature for the refreshment and recreation of the emerging industrial city. A century and a half later, the city’s economy is radically different, yet the parks remain intact, pristine. A third kind of Minneapolis, emerging today, will leverage the Grand Rounds and sites like St. Anthony Falls to reform the rest of the city toward a sustainable balance with the cycles and systems of nature.

birds eye view of buildings and park

Over the past year, “Buckminster” entries for The Common have auditioned the literary potential of certain kinds of architectural documentation and design media. RiverFirst is a proposal for a new Minneapolis, represented with writings and architectural media created by Berkeley-based landscape architect Tom Leader. Yes, it proposes a series of interventions across the city, some achievable in the near term, others that might be implemented over twenty years. But unlike a city master plan, its commissioners have no political power, no money to implement the vision. RiverFirst is instead a cultural campaign to align many people and organizations around a shared tomorrow.

In 2010, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board worked with a local activist named Mary deLaittre to produce a design competition for a framework vision for the future of their Mississippi riverfront. The competition’s strategic area ran north from St. Anthony Falls for five miles, and projected a future in which the historic industrial waterfronts transform into parklands. The winning entry came from Tom Leader Studio, with architects Kennedy & Violich of Boston in collaboration with fifteen other entities and organizations, from structural engineers to botanists, global real estate analysts to Minneapolis-local community groups. RiverFirst was Leader’s title for their effort, and the competition entry included a logo that the campaign has since adopted. New parks and bridges improve the patterns and means of circulation throughout Minneapolis. Renewed wildlife habitats create an ecological infrastructure for the city: city-wide stormwater filtration ends combined sewer overflow, “soft” edges along the river guard against spring floods, and new trees extend the cooling benefits of urban canopies to relieve the city from summer heat. Meanwhile, Minneapolitan quality of life re-prioritizes the Mississippi River as the city’s focus.

poster of riverfirst guiding principles

Since the competition, Mary deLaittre has taken up advocacy for RiverFirst through a new nonprofit agency called the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. Their agenda is not merely to illustrate possibility, but to animate the community and the government to act upon possibilities identified by Tom Leader Studio’s team. The center of this advocacy is through the RiverFirst campaign website. But the Parks Foundation also runs public education programs, events, and a lecture series in collaboration with the Walker Art Center.

RiverFirst appeals to Minneapolitans through an amalgam of fact and fiction. Architectural media enumerates its intentions: diagrams, plans, and sectional perspectives, which are three-dimensional drawings that slice up the landscape like a piece of cake to reveal topography and subsurface soils and geology. Tom Leader Studio’s team also chose to envision futures for key sites along the east and west riverfronts, depicting these new parks in aerial perspectives and imaginary scenes generated from parametric modeling software and polished in Adobe PhotoShop.

priority projects

The new Minneapolis makes its debut through these rendered images of RiverFirst. Their lighting is natural, colors toned modestly. Ordinary people texture their edges, gazing into the parklands. But the proposed projects do vary by degrees of complexity, with their implementation set to take place over years. Some pieces of RiverFirst will be built in the next five years, others in the next twenty. An extension of the trail system further north is easy to visualize, but RiverFirst’s long duration schedule invites science fiction.  One such spectacle is Scherer Park, a new island with a swim beach on the site of a former lumberyard. There are also new bridges exclusively for pedestrians. And a network of floating artificial islands, described as Biohavens, appears to clean the Mississippi and support wildlife habitats. We see in these schemes not only the Mississippi landscape futures, but the actions of Minneapolitans imagined in the throes of daily life.

Which other classes of culture operate at such scales? Involving so much land? And over such a duration of time?

Hollywood films and TV shows can support broadly popular and occasionally even enduring works of art. They ask nothing beyond appreciation and the price of admission though. Commercial advertising positions before audiences the products or luminous brands that bid to transform your life. We carry home an iPad or laptop, taking into ourselves a little of Apple. Then what?

mockup in park

The success of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation’s mission to steer the entire city toward a superior future will rely on the RiverFirst vision almost as a founding text. In this way the project resembles a social movement or a political campaign. Except that the Minneapolis of tomorrow will be brokered in mosaic, year by year, as lands are acquired and funds secured. The needs of local communities will change; new opportunities will appear, technologies surely will evolve. January brought news that the U.S. Army Corps will decommission its barge elevator, and last week saw the first public work session for a RiverFirst priority project site—St. Anthony Falls, to be designed by landscape architect Kate Orff as Water Works Park.

What is RiverFirst? Most generally, it appears to be a flexible, shared story about the city’s future, addressing government policy, real estate, ecology, wild life habitat, public space, sustainability, and daily life. The protagonists will be a generation of Minneapolitans making up real lives in the imagined landscapes of a city coming into alignment with its natural surroundings.


Scott Geiger is the Architecture Editor for The Common. His fiction has earned a Pushcart Prize and a 2012 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.

Julia PikeWhat Is RiverFirst?

Across Gymnasium Bridge


“We have the mind, body, and the mind/body all organizing this building,” offers architect Chris McVoy, metaphorically describing the Campbell Sports Center that opened this fall at Columbia University. The building is the outward expression of an athlete’s inner journey. In a short film, McVoy and his partner and mentor, Steven Holl, discuss their design intentions and the character of experience they’ve created.

Julia PikeAcross Gymnasium Bridge

Peaks and Valleys: Klaksvik City Center, Faroe Islands


In collaboration with Lateral Office

Introduction by Scott Geiger

The Faroe Islands are not the rural, subarctic archipelago you imagine. Like their distant peers on the Danish mainland, the Faroese are thoughtful, progressive city-builders. To connect their dispersed communities, their highway system tunnels through basaltic mountains and under North Atlantic waters. Fast ferries and helicopter taxis run between remote points. With such transit infrastructure, this might seem like a maritime metropolis, if only they had the population. But more people live in Portland, Maine, than on the eighteen Faroe Islands. 

Julia PikePeaks and Valleys: Klaksvik City Center, Faroe Islands

Lab of Literary Architecture


Last month I enjoyed following media coverage of an unusual writing workshop and design studio held at Columbia University. Italian architect and writer Matteo Pericoli originated his “Laboratory of Literary Architecture” course in Turin, and brought it to New York this spring as a joint course for students of the School of Writing and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Julia PikeLab of Literary Architecture