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The buildings that drove their creators to despair
A photo provided by the Library of Congress shows the ruins of Crandall’s Knickerbocker Theater in Washington, which collapsed in 1922. Charlotte Van den Broeck’s “Bold Ventures” is an idiosyncratic tour of architectural misfires, dotted with its author’s personal anxieties. Library of Congress via The New York Times.

by Alexandra Jacobs



NEW YORK, NY.- Reading Charlotte Van den Broeck’s beguiling book about architects and melancholy on a blue and gold September day, I found it impossible not to think of the twin towers.

Widely disfavored in their heyday by critics who preferred the elegant art deco Empire State Building, the audacious modernist buildings — often compared to exclamation points or front teeth and almost synonymous with Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” — are now missed most terribly from the anodyne skyline of downtown Manhattan. Their architect, Minoru Yamasaki, died of cancer long before 9/11, but he had castigated himself during his lifetime for the failure and eventual demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex he had designed in St. Louis.

Though she doesn’t mention Yamasaki or either of his ill-fated projects, Van den Broeck, a young Belgian poet, found herself preoccupied by the creators of ambitious, imperfect structures — to the point where a boyfriend, Walter, despite being a scholar himself, angrily calls her “compulsive” for sneaking her research into plans for a Scottish vacation.

Pondering “what makes a mistake larger than life, so all-encompassing that your life itself becomes a failure,” she had set out to research a baker’s dozen of “tragic architects” in America and Europe. They range from Francesco Borromini of Rome, who lived in the more conventional Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s shadow during the 17th century and eventually impaled himself on a saber; to Starr Gideon Kempf, who made a kinetic sculpture garden in Colorado Springs, Colorado, before putting a gun to his head in 1995.

“Architecture has a more definite impact on the world” than language, is how Van den Broeck explains her undertaking to one of many bemused sources. “Besides, buildings have at least a shot at eternity. I don’t have any illusions about my poems.”

But writing and architecture have plenty more in common: the possibility of transcendent aesthetic experience; the process of making something from nothing. “Bit by bit, putting it together,” as Stephen Sondheim wrote.

More darkly, suicide has clouded both disciplines, though there doesn’t seem to be a Sylvia Plath of architects, lifted lamentably to greater renown by early self-destruction. Some building designers, Van den Broeck discovers, ended their own lives after poor critical reception or mechanical failure led to disrepute. Her chapter on Reginald Geare, who gassed himself five years after Crandall’s Knickerbocker Theater in Washington, D.C., collapsed in 1922 under the weight of a snowstorm, causing 95 fatalities, is particularly affecting. Harry Crandall, the businessman who commissioned the building, would succumb in the same manner. (“I’m despondent,” he wrote in his goodbye note, “and miss my theaters, oh so much.”)

Other architects Van den Broeck studies are oddly only rumored to have died by their own hands, as if history’s collective consciousness is exacting revenge for public works that didn’t work out. The author can stubbornly cling to her thesis, morbidly romanticizing like that goth friend in high school with a penchant for the Cure.

“His alleged suicide would at least lift him out of his colorless slot in history,” she writes of military engineer Karl Pilhal in a letter to the exasperated Walter. Pilhal supposedly could never get over the shame of not installing proper toilets in his Rossauer Barracks, a dull medieval fortress along the Danube originally constructed for Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria.

I have no idea where this book, translated gracefully from the Dutch by David McKay, will land in the Dewey Decimal System. The suicidal-architect conceit turns out to be something of a facade for a blend of memoir, travelogue and philosophical tract. Moreover Van den Broeck, using third-person omniscient narration for many of her dead subjects and reconstructing dialogue without documentation, freely admits she’s an unreliable narrator with a “proclivity for twisting the truth” — like the spire on the Church of St. Omer in Verchin, France, from which the chief mason, Jean Porc, either jumped or fell. (You gotta love a country that boasts an entire Association for Twisted Spires.)

A strain of rumination runs through all her investigations. Van den Broeck can’t identify who’s responsible for the problematic swimming pool in her hometown, Turnhout, which threatened its patrons with milky water, a ponytail-trapping filter and possible electrocution. The pool rather inspires intense recollections of a teenage makeout session and viewing David Hockney paintings at the Centre Pompidou.




Exploring the story of the National Library of Malta, designed by Polish-Italian architect Stefano Ittar — whose cause of death remains mysterious — the author lavishes pages on a decadent restaurant meal with friends, fellow 20-somethings whose office jobs, she observes, “suck them dry and give them nothing in return.”

In our moment of “quiet quitting,” resistance to corporate domination and a conviction that capitalism is in decay, “Bold Ventures” does arrive as a timely interrogation of what, exactly, constitutes success — of how to live.

Van den Broeck is highly attuned to how different that looks in the United States, where shopping is never far from pillars of godliness or government: Think of the Oculus mall, presented like a kind of heaven above the grim pits of the 9/11 Memorial. She muses amusingly on the message of a Sunkist billboard (“Shine on white new pineapple”) as she storms George Arthur Crump’s Pine Valley Golf Course in New Jersey. The drink, she thinks, sounds “like some elixir for men concerned about their sperm count.”

Significant chunks of the book explore Van den Broeck’s own writer’s block and insecurity. “Mediocrity, crueler than mere failure,” she writes, echoing Antonio Salieri in “Amadeus,” in a chapter on the Vienna State Opera House, one of whose architects hanged himself from a hat rack. “The remoteness of the masterpiece and the peril of mediocrity make it impossible, most days, to put anything down on paper.” In a letter to the boyfriend aggrieved about the Scottish trip, written while watching snowfall — snow is a recurring motif of “Bold Ventures” — she bemoans how “the white of my paper has been unbroken.”

Underslept, underpaid and bogged down by a mysterious heaviness — one may wonder after reading “Bold Ventures” if Van den Broeck is OK. And yet her tiered confection is a small marvel: a monument to human beings continuing to reach for the skies, even after their plans dissolve in dust.



Publication Notes:

‘Bold Ventures: Thirteen Tales of Architectural Tragedy’

By Charlotte Van den Broeck

Translated by David McKay

Illustrated. Other Press. 304 pages. $27.99

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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