Charlotte van den Broeck’s Bold Ventures review – architects of their own demise | Books

Lafternoon of Friday, January 27, 1922. The skies opened up and snow began to fall in Washington DC. It descended steadily throughout the night and throughout the following day, enveloping the city. Trains were evacuated, cars abandoned in the street. By 8 p.m. Saturday, 28 inches had fallen. Undaunted, 300 citizens decided to brave the translated streets to see the silent film Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford at Crandall’s Knickerbocker Theatre, a movie theater so luxurious the chairs in the orchestra pit were covered in silk. The audience roared as Wallingford sat on an edge. A second later, the entire roof collapsed under the accumulated weight of snow, falling in a single slab of stone and steel and crushing the people below. Ninety-eight died and others were maimed or injured.

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Sounds like the very definition of an act of God, but the coroner’s hearing concluded that the disaster was the result of a faulty design on the part of the architect, Reginald Geare, who failed to recalculate correctly the bearing capacity of the steel after the contractor, Harry Crandall, insisted on a last-minute change to a cheaper material. Five years later, Geare committed suicide. In 1937, Crandall also committed suicide. In his heyday he ran a whole chain of cinemas, and in a letter explaining his decision he wrote, “Only, I’m discouraged and miss my cinemas, oh so much.”

Everyone fails every day, but an architect’s failure is inevitably visible, a public humiliation, even when it does not cause death. Making a building that doesn’t work, is considered ugly, or is way over budget isn’t just painful and embarrassing. Architects must master material reality in a way that works practically, not just aesthetically. What they make survives them, so their disgrace comes with the awareness that it cannot be easily erased, but rather stands as a public epitaph. This may explain why some buildings are dogged by rumors of the architect’s suicide.

That the relationship between creator and creation can become so deleterious is a source of obsession for Charlotte Van den Broeck, a young Belgian poet. “My real question is: What makes a mistake larger than life, so all-encompassing that your life itself becomes a failure? Where is the limit between creator and creation? She visits 13 architectural failures, an elegant vanity. All are made by men (no mention of, say, Lota de Macedo Soares, the Brazilian architect and partner of poetess Elizabeth Bishop, neither of whom were strangers to the creative disaster). Her investigation takes her from a faulty swimming pool in her hometown of Turnhout, Antwerp, to Colorado Springs.

There is the “perfect, perfect” Vienna State Opera, subject to such a relentless campaign of hatred in the press that one of the two architects, Eduard van der Nüll, committed suicide. There’s Pine Valley in New Jersey, now the most exclusive golf course on the planet, which was so over budget and so inhospitable to grass that its creator – you get the picture. And there’s Fort George at Ardersier, whose chief engineer is supposed to have rowed across the Moray estuary to admire his finished creation, only to end it all there and then when he saw a chimney and realized that his hidden fort was visible from the water.

The latter, of course, is pure myth. William Skinner, the engineer in question, died at his drafting table on Christmas Day 1780, decades after the fort was completed. Almost half of the stories that Van den Broeck uncovers dissolve in the same way. The death in question occurred later, or as a result of bereavement, or for reasons that cannot really be pieced together (there is little mention here of poor mental health or early life adversity) .

Slowly it becomes clear that this is not a book about architecture at all. The central character is not Francesco Borromini, the genius of the Baroque, nor the visionary Lamont Young, who wanted to create a miniature Venice in Naples, but Van den Broeck herself. The subject is not so much twisted church towers and sinking swimming pools as a melodramatic and hyper-personal topography of creativity, a landscape which for Van den Broeck appears strewn with danger and full of risk. Never mind the hundreds of thousands of artists whose work does not destroy them but serves them as a source of pleasure and joy. Surely those who die in misery, penniless, reveal the truth of the sinister contract of creativity.

Lest it all sound too dark, it’s also a road trip: libraries in summer dresses, fried chicken in a restaurant, the wisdom of a passing waitress. The deceased architects face a chorus of living women Van den Broeck encounters on his travels: Airbnb hosts and Uber drivers whose skepticism about his vocation serves as a robust plainsong counterpoint to his own aria on peril. exalted by the life of the artist. In Naples, Giulia cooks her an elaborate dinner and then surprises her by asking her for money to cover groceries. Imagine that creative work had a price!

While rummaging through a second-hand bookstore in Washington DC, Van den Broeck buys a copy of John McPhee’s Oranges, a reportage classic. “My hope is to learn from him how to be less present in the book I’m trying to write…he’s anything but an extra on the run blocking the view of his own subject.” I think it’s safe to say that McPhee himself could have deleted this scene. Bold Ventures is more like a pop version of Iain Sinclair’s psychogeography or Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s anti-biography of DH Lawrence; works in which the author is present and the journey is enumerated inward.

There is no law against finding yourself interesting. The real structural flaw here – a misplaced strut, a failure to calculate load-bearing capacity – has to do with some kind of imaginative overshoot. As the desire to build a creative romance overtakes Van den Broeck’s interest in his actual cast, their prop status becomes uncomfortably clear. One, she admits, bores her. “Yes, I wish that were true. His presumed suicide would at least lift him out of his colorless place in history.

Others need embellishment. In what appears to be a fictional episode, the theater’s architect, Geare, has a horrible recurring dream of a young boy, caught in the rubble of the theater. It’s a poet’s touch, to cut a scene out of a newspaper and insert it into the psyche of a real person, but I don’t know if it fits easily with the desire “to rehabilitate those architects, to recover their lost faces and glue them back in place”. There’s too much creativity, I guess.

Olivia Laing’s latest book is Everybody: A Book About Freedom (Chatto). Bold Ventures: Thirteen Tales of Architectural Tragedy by Charlotte van den Broeck is published by Vintage (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at

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