Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Constructing the Architext: Georges Perec's Life a User's Manual; This Essay Argues That Georges Perec's Life a User's Manual-At Once a Novel, an Apartment Building, and a Game of Chess-Articulates Compellingly the Confluence of Literature and Architecture That Took Place in the Late Twentieth Century

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Constructing the Architext: Georges Perec's Life a User's Manual; This Essay Argues That Georges Perec's Life a User's Manual-At Once a Novel, an Apartment Building, and a Game of Chess-Articulates Compellingly the Confluence of Literature and Architecture That Took Place in the Late Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

During the late 1960s and 1970s, a shift away from the modernist conceptualization of the building-as-machine became evident in architectural discourse. Architecture began to see its role not as constructing functional and monumental "machines for living," but as providing less rationalized living spaces directly concerned with the quotidian. Influenced by poststructuralist theory, architects and urban planners began to metaphorize their work in terms of writing: buildings and cities became "texts" and "collages" (Ellin 280-88). Faced with the late-twentieth-century breakdown of what architect Peter Eisenman terms the three fictions of classicism--representation, reason, and history--the concept of a unified, rational "work," either literary or architectural, began to be replaced in both disciplines with that of "textuality" (Barthes; Eisenman 172).

While Eisenman spoke of architecture as writing, architectural terminology had already begun to suffuse the writing of Jacques Derrida, who in 1987 described his writing process as one of "building" (Derrida and Eisenman 112). Indeed, by the mid-1980s, Derrida and Eisenman had recognized their parallel concerns and collaborated on a cross-disciplinary project: a design, based upon Derrida's work on khora, for the Parc de la Villette in Paris. More generally, in the late twentieth century, both the literary and the architectural text began to be represented as "collages," their creators "bricoleurs" (Derrida 139; Rowe and Koetter 86-117). In both disciplines, parody and citationality became key concepts, and, moreover, both came to be informed by a kind of Lyotardian game theory. Influential Dutch architect N. John Habraken, for instance, maintained from the early 1970s that the practice of architecture is akin to "playing games." Moreover, in his most recent publication, The Structure of the Ordinary: Form and Control in the Built Environment, Habraken likens the built environment to a game of chess (19-26).

Georges Perec's Life a User's Manual articulates compellingly this confluence of architecture and literary studies that emerged in the mid-1970s. Indeed, according to Nan Ellin, at the time of the novel's production, France was at the forefront of the new architecture, with a "series of important theoretical and historical studies [...] that examined urban morphologies and architectural typologies" (42). It is hard to imagine that these developments in architectural theory and practice escaped the attention of Perec, who was both friend and colleague of Paul Virilio and Henri Lefebvre. Perec was himself a field researcher in Lefebvre's groupe d'etude de la vie quotidienne in 1960, and provided research for Volume 2 of Lefebvre's Critique of Everyday Life (Bellos, Georges 236). Similarly, in 1974 Perec contributed to Virilio's series L'Espace critique by writing Especes d'espaces, a non-fiction work that displays Perec's passion for identifying and analyzing everyday, lived spaces.

Published in 1978, Perec's Life a User's Manual dramatically fuses his interests in the everyday and architecture into what might be termed an "architext," a term that has been employed to different ends by Mary Ann Caws and by Gerard Genette. While Genette uses the term to imply that every text belongs to a genre, hence an arche-text, or original text (82), Caws makes use of the term architexture in order to "call attention to the surface texture of the construction made by reading" (xiv). For the purpose of this paper, however, I use architext to designate a text in which architecture and literature are so thoroughly imbricated that book and building become one.

Before discussing the architextural qualities of Life a User's Manual, it is important to note that the novel does operate within a nineteenth-century tradition of "architectural" French literature. Furthermore, given that Perec's primary interest was in the literary, one might assume that Perec's writing was informed more strongly by this tradition than by the architectural theories of Lefebvre and Virilio. …

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