‘The Weight of a Rhetoric of Buildings’
: Literary Uses of Architectural Space, 1909-1975

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis examines the often uneasy dialogue between literature and architecture in twentieth-century Britain through reading literary representations of architectural space, with a particular focus on London. In a period characterised by the development of new technologies and building practices, the continuing and rapid expansion of urban centres, and the traumas of global warfare, many and varied writers responded to these shifts and transformations through turning their attentions to architectural spaces, taking them as points at which competing tensions collide, and thus using them as a way to register moments of personal, social, political or cultural change.
The introduction sets out the parameters of my study and situates it in relation to recent criticism, while outlining the thesis’s central concerns. My first chapter explores, through a number of different literary texts, three moments and their related preoccupations: the Edwardian era and the place of both the machine and the country house in its artistic imaginary; the years following the First World War and the experience of returning combatants; and the emergence of the first shoots of a British architectural modernism during the inter-war decades. I argue that each of these texts uses architectural space to create a dialogue with the past or an imagined future, or both. Chapter 2 focuses on the Blitz and argues that, in this chaotic and destructive moment, writers were pushed to find new ways to write about a newly, and dangerously, active architecture. I look at this concern with the forms and limits of representation amongst writers alongside what I identify as a turn towards documentation amongst architects. Chapter 3 is interested in attitudes towards post-war reconstruction at a time when it was still largely, or entirely, hypothetical. Beginning with plans drawn up while the war was still raging, and following the debate through until 1956, I contrast an enthusiasm for reconstruction amongst architects, commentators and the general public with the deep sense of unease that was being articulated in that moment by writers. The literary texts considered in Chapter 4 all engage with the narrative of reconstruction’s ‘failure’ that began to emerge in the mid-1950s, offering sustained literary engagements with the realities of post-war architecture. But at the same time as engaging with this very public conversation they are all equally if not more preoccupied, I argue, with using architecture as a way to explore individual psychology.
Date of Award2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMax Saunders (Supervisor) & Lara Feigel (Supervisor)

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