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My Book List: A Wishful Affinity
February 1, 2011

With an architect father and artist mother, I grew up immersed in the arts and while my husband, Stanley Tigerman, and I share a library of over 7,000 volumes in which all the arts are munificently represented, I have chosen authors whose works concern not the visual arts (except that they all paint vivid word pictures), but whose subject matter or literary style continues to influence me and for many of whom I still seek a wishful affinity between their work and mine.

My buildings are reductive and elemental with a spareness sometimes referred to as Shakeresque and in them I aspire to the taut clarity of language of Dickinson’s poetry or Hemingway’s prose. I strive to create buildings that define the essence of place the way Cather evokes the Midwestern prairie or Synge the Irish coast and the poetic dialogue of rural Ireland. A client of mine once very graciously referred to me as the Jane Austen of architects, saying, “She can create a small world out of a small space, a microcosm in a two-inch piece of ivory.”

As a World War II baby, my childhood memories are of battle reports broadcast over my father’s shortwave radio or of grade-school air raid drills during the Korean War. So in high school during the Cold War I began to read war stories—World War II, World War I, and last the Civil War—this historical exploration capped by Crane’s insightful novel graphically depicting the horrors of war. When I read Churchill’s World War II memoirs, I marveled at his artful assembly of words that became an awesome oratory. Rousing speeches coupled with his personal pertinacity inspired his island nation to prevail. And so in my mind’s eye I often speculate on assembling solids and voids with the same artfulness to create concomitantly awesome constructs.

To understand the persecutor and the persecuted and the absurdity of war, I read Remarque’s poignant antiwar story of a furloughed German soldier along with Anne Frank’s evermore poignant diary of a Jewish adolescent secreted in an Amsterdam annex. Neither survives the war. Uris lays out the history of European anti-Semitism and the resultant Holocaust in Exodus, a controversial story of the birth of Zionism and modern Israel. Sparking mini wars, the Palestinian conflict has held center stage to this day.

Fortunately the woman’s movement gained momentum while I was in college, sparing me the massive inequities suffered by Hester Prynne’s Puritanical pinning with a scarlet letter or Sister Carrie’s scandalous (at the time) acceptance of an amoral relationship to escape the sweatshops of Chicago. Heroines both, these women prevailed, predating the adventurous Beryl Markham who pilots her bush plane across the Serengeti plains and writes of her life so succinctly and poetically as to become the envy of her contemporary Hemingway.

The Civil Rights movement coincided with Women’s Rights and the racially segregated life of a young black girl growing up in the south during the Depression is nevermore movingly told than in Maya Angelou’s tough autobiography. Another moving account of the onslaught of adolescence is McCullers' tale of a young girl’s struggle for acceptance, love, and autonomy in the World War II South. It has the added appeal for me of creating an intense sense of time and place. Understanding Southern-ness is an important concept for a Northerner and although one reads Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury for many other reasons, his Mississippi upbringing infuses his stories with a sense of life south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But prejudice was rife throughout America and it casts its ugly shadow over Steinbeck’s “Okies,” the sharecropper Joads, victims of the Dust Bowl and the Depression who despite all retain their essential humanity. Told in eloquently simple, but structured prose, these novels again reiterate the parallel relationships I feel between architectural form and content.

Beyond historical accuracy or artful storytelling, for the unmitigated joy of reading masterfully composed literature, I am reminded of Macbeth, my first introduction to Shakespeare and his famous soliloquy, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . . it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing”—just one of the many passages that have found their way into titles for contemporary literature.

The unique British talent for an intellectual turn of phrase is what makes Sayers’s crime stories set between the wars so compelling, but it is also her academic proficiency and social position that are of interest. In Gaudy Night one of her characters attacks the Nazi doctrine of Kinder, Kirche, Küche. Rumer Godden, another Brit who grew up in colonial India evokes all the senses, the vivid smells and textures of the subcontinent, but also shifts to the English countryside and does the same place making for Cornwall, deftly layering generations of a family on top of each other enriching each chapter of China Court.

Architects are as interested in referentiality as are authors. Both build layers of meaning into their work, whether it be the deconstructionist theories of Derrida or the Postmodernist reincarnations of the classical language of architecture as codified by Vitruvius, and in our time, Robert Venturi. Melville was a master of the layering art in his thematic epic Moby Dick, intensely interweaving symbolism and allegory into his dramatic storytelling.

Phillip Johnson’s insightful statement “you cannot not know history” is often quoted and at this difficult moment in our history rereading centuries of discussion or commentary on such philosophical theories as the meaning of justice and the nature of the city state as proposed in Plato’s Republic circa 380 BC affords some perspective. For architects, his Socratic dialogue in "The Allegory of the Cave" on his theory of ideal forms is especially intriguing. De Tocqueville’s 19th-century treatise Democracy in America, while often required reading in college political science classes, is worthy of re-perusing as he presciently analyzes the strengths and weaknesses, the threats to and possible dangers of our democratic institution, praises the separation of church and state but predicts “the violence of party spirit and the judgment of the wise subordinated to the prejudices of the ignorant.”

While Walden was also required reading in my college American literature class, and I struggled as did my classmates to understand the meaning of Transcendentalism, nevertheless its romantic 19th-century message of the satisfaction of living simply, self-reliantly, and respectfully of the natural world reverberates in our excessive society. Whenever I need a dose of essentiality or an infusion of serenity I read a poem by Frost and remember that, “I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.”

Last, the Book of Common Prayer, in which, as a child, I whiled away many a minister’s lengthy sermon, contains prayers and psalms that are so resonating and so read and recited that it is the source of so many memorable titles, not the least of which is Hemingway’s “. . . give us peace in our time, O Lord.”

View Margaret McCurry’s book list

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