Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Crime novel definitely an inside job
In Barry Maitland’s new book, idealism and success don’t go hand in hand, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
When I first call Barry Maitland, an architecture professor turned crime novelist, he is making marmalade. It is “just getting to the critical stage”, and he rushes off to turn it down, for all the world like one of his own deceptively mild characters.
A reflective moment in Maitland’s latest novel, The Verge Practice, has gentleman-architect Sandy Clarke, second-in-charge to the fabulously anal Charles Verge, pondering the tragic trajectory from idealism to success:
“They had worked on small buildings in those days, houses and office conversions, projects for which you could hold every detail in your mind. Now they tendered for whole cites. What madness was that, to think you could design a whole city? All you made was a shell, an imitation of a real place. Had Charles felt that too, that their lives had insidiously progressed from the tangible and real to the grandiose and fake? For a moment he was certain that he had, that Charles’ tragedy all their tragedies boiled down to that.”
It’s not autobiographical, of course. For Maitland, indeed, one of the joys of the crime genre is its prohibition on self-gratification of that kind. Besides, his own experience in “whole city” design came early, as a twentysomething architect on the new towns of Runcorn and then Irvine in Britain.
Further, says Maitland, he intended the passage more generally, as a metaphor for modern life where “success” means being kicked upstairs until the abstraction level precludes creative engagement.
To this extent, one suspects, Sandy Clarke’s deliciously jaundiced view may draw as much on Maitland’s academic experience as his time in practice.
For all that, Clarke’s meditations cannot be uncoloured by a lifetime of architectural thought. Having graduated from Cambridge in 1966, Maitland did 30-odd years in both practice and academia, half of them as head of architecture at Newcastle. Out of his oeuvre including a score of big urban projects, half a dozen architecture books and as many fiction one of his favourite projects is a small therapeutic pool he designed for John Soane’s late 18th-century Tyringham House, Buckinghamshire. Clarke would understand that.
Having always written as a night job, Maitland finally succumbed full-time to the fiction habit, in mid-2000. In architecture, such a shift is virtually unheard of. Which may be one reason why architectural fiction is like hen’s teeth. (After Ibsen’s The Master Builder, Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Philip Kerr’s Gridiron, you get a bit stuckish).
Even Maitland, though, has taken his time to novelise architecture. Sure, he’s made crime, with its traditional emphasis on locale, his genre of choice. He has used built culture to great effect centring his third book, La Malcontenta, for instance, in a naturopathy clinic based on the very same Tyringham. And he sets his novels not in Australia, his home for 20 years, but in Euro-London, made for such succulence of motif. Nevertheless, Maitland’s new novel, his seventh (10th, if you count the early rejects), is the first to do architecture full-frontal.
Not just architecture-as-built, either, but architecture-as-lived. Architecture, so to speak, from the inside. Viewed from without the profession, architects generally appear as benign, humanistic types with leftish tendencies, slept-in personal lives and a creative approach to couture.
Enviable perhaps, but so unthreatening as to be unlikely subjects for criticism, much less satire.
From within, the view is different. Norman Foster, peer of the realm and uncontested silverback of Britain’s archi-zoo, was recently described by British critic Rowan Moore as an obsessional loner whose architectural virtuosity, like his famous urge to get airborne, is more about escaping reality than improving it.
His dreams “of escape, of purity and of control are beautiful dreams with a sinister potential”, writes Moore. “Those things Foster can control completely, he makes perfect. Those things he cannot, like the messy ground level, he seeks to neutralise. There is an aversion to touch. Foster’s work relies to an extreme degree on the power of the look.”
What Moore does not say is that these foibles, far from diminishing Foster’s star quality, are of the essence. Within the profession Foster is a type archetype, as it were of architectural success.
Charles Verge, Maitland’s central character, is another such, not based on Foster so much as sharing a common ancestor.
Vain, cold and suspicious to the point of paranoia, Verge is a brilliant and celebrated architect whose absence dominates the plot quite as surely as his presence has always dominated his confreres. The story is set against his architectural achievements from the first house for his mother, a home counties take on Mies van der Rohe’s famous Barcelona Pavilion, to his magnum opus, the brand-spanking Marchdale prison, a political flagship designed to symbolise the processes and philosophies of reformative punishment.
Marchdale’s march, through the novel, from anticipation to opening pomp allows Maitland some subtle play on architecture’s capacity for behavioural control. A brief exchange over a row of preserved heads introduces French Enlightenment architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806); idealist, theorist, revolutionary.
Ledoux, who designed his own ideal city, was renowned for his use of primitive geometries to symbolise grandeur and power. Nearly beheaded during the revolution, Ledoux survived to produce the master-treatise that underpinned Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon prison (1791), designed as it was for total surveillance and total behavioural reprogramming.
Verge’s Marchdale is an idea from the same box. Erupting from the fenlands as four crystalline cubes, colour-coded green, yellow, blue and red, inside and out, it is “a machine for the reconstruction of human consciousness”, symbolising the inmate’s cube-by-cube progress from induction through reform to release. At the same time, it is clearly designed with the architecture magazine cover-shot in mind; while for Verge’s fearsome mother it is a brilliant vindication of her brilliant progeny. So is architectural ego massaged to political ends.
This kind of gentle, remind-you-of-anyone humour gurgles cheerfully through the book, demanding no attention but available to the thirsty. There’s the tell-tale spiky architectural handwriting; the tension between the silken Euro-American modernism of the Barcelona Pavilion and gothicky, homespun nature of Gaudi and Domenech; the socialistic town-planning of Barcelona’s Eixample district; and the formal axes drawn by Wren and Le Notre in central London that remind the character Sandy Clarke of the “organising lines” in life.
Once the professor, always the professor, you might think. But Maitland lightly sidesteps the trap of didacticism. His academic life was devoted to methods of teaching-in-practice; lessons made memorable by application. Same in the novels. The architecture is only so present as is pertinent, pacy and pectic. Humans may plot and scheme, blood may flow, but the marmalade, sufficiently sour, will set.
TWO ILLUS: Architectural crime .
Maitland’s novel reflects such tensions as modernism v the gothicky, homespun nature of Gaudi (La Pedera, above).Photo: AP