Puzzling the Will

For the poet Charlotte Van den Broeck, the idea of a building is ludicrous, a bottomless vessel filled by an architect’s unslakable longing.

The inquiry of a dreary fixation—that is, with a baker’s dozen suicides—has produced Bold Ventures: Thirteen Tales of Architectural Tragedy. Through diary, travelogue, and a series of melancholic biographies, epitaphs more like, Bold Ventures circles the centers of individual fates. Widening history’s narrow throat, the Belgian poet Charlotte Van den Broeck allows her obsessions, and those of her doomed subjects, to remodel architecture into an oneiric store of memory. Swimming pool, church, museum. Hanging, gunshot, a despairing leap.

Van den Broeck places an equal sign between professional failure and self-destruction. Her preoccupation can be traced to the mid-2000s, to her hometown of Turnhout, the location of the aforementioned swimming pool. The pool, seemingly starved, attempts to swallow swimmers through its ducts before a sign is posted: TEMPORARILY PERMANENTLY CLOSED FOR MAINTENANCE. When the facility reopens, its water turns mysteriously milky, presumably toxic. Following la piscine’s final closure, rumors abound about its anonymous architect hanging himself in the boiler room. “A pitch-black joke,” Van den Broeck writes. And so it continues. The now-venerated Vienna State Opera is derided at the time of its completion in 1867 with a mocking rhyme. “Sicardsburg and van der Nüll, neither one has any style, Greek, Gothic, Renaissance, it’s all the same to them!” The two architects responsible for its design and construction—it’s implied they’re lovers—die one after the other: the first from internalized humiliation, his partner from grief. An Austrian military engineer underestimates the number of toilets necessary for the soldiers stationed in the Rossauer Barracks and becomes something of a nineteenth-century Heraclitus—suicide by way of shit. One begins to see the idea of a building as ludicrous, a bottomless vessel filled by an architect’s unslakable longing. We are forced to reconcile the impossibility of a container containing anything more than itself.

Most of the suicides aren’t. Most of history is but apocrypha. “The tale of the builder’s suicide usually turns out to be more or less a myth,” Van den Broeck notes. For example, the pair of architects responsible for Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum who are said to have “jumped off the top,” did not jump off the top. The museum curator jokes to Van Den Broeck: “What a sight that would be, [J.W.] Simpson on the left, [E.J.] Milner Allen on the right! Who will hit the ground first?” As it turns out, Milner Allen was done in by a preexisting illness, and Simpson went on to design the original Wembley Stadium. He died a knight. Even our Heraclitus, the military engineer, likely died of natural causes. A different military engineer, the man who designed Fort George on Scotland’s Moray Firth, did not shoot himself upon realizing his hidden fort’s chimney was observable to would-be enemies, though that remains a story used to entertain tourists who visit the site. The truth is he was appointed the chief royal engineer of Great Britain. Still, when Van den Broeck applies the undercoat of human context, the admixture of desire, deceit, and coincidence to which we are all subject, it is evident one can be undone by anything: stubbornness, rivalry, a blizzard. It was hard for me not to think of Francesca Woodman, a twenty-two-year-old cult American photographer who offed herself after finding her bicycle stolen. It wasn’t the bicycle, of course; she suffered from an almost pelagic depression, had relationship troubles, and was the progeny of two callous obsessives. She, and Bold Ventures, is a reminder that the door to oblivion is inched open; eventually all that’s required to enter is an act of petty theft. For Van den Broeck’s architects and engineers and entrepreneurs, the world outside of buildings permeates them, leaving behind the imprints of life.

One begins to see the idea of a building as ludicrous, a bottomless vessel filled by an architect’s unslakable longing. We are forced to reconcile the impossibility of a container containing anything more than itself.

Van den Broeck’s fascination is costly. She loses the man she loves when he discovers she crowbarred yet another baleful research visit into a vacation meant to reinvigorate their relationship. “He had the good sense to leave then and there,” she writes. She goes on the trip anyway; she has no choice. The act of building had become like poetry for Van den Broeck, a departure from which there is no possibility of return. When describing the architects of the Vienna State Opera, she writes: “To them a building was a human growth, developing from a single point into two dimensions and then up through air.” This casts her motivations in relief. She recounts herself as a child contemplating the potentially apocalyptic dawn of the year 2000. Enrolled at an art school shortly prior, she had made a chicken figurine she quickly found embarrassing. “I didn’t want to be remembered for that stupid meaningless clay bird. I needed to leave a superior kind of detritus.” This seems to be the root of her fascination: time destroys all that we do, and architecture makes its valiant attempt at preservation. A building is complete; poetry, on the other hand, and in her view, belongs to ether—in flux. “It’s much safer to imagine that a thing is perpetually striving towards completion, because that striving leaves room for improvement. It could always be better.”

The longer Van den Broeck focuses on the dead men, the bellows between the poet and her architects collapse. The final chapter concerns an obstinate American sculptor and architect Starr Gideon Kempf. Kempf, upon realizing his body can no longer go on making work, shoots himself. Van der Broeck and Kempf’s grandson descend together into Starr’s foundry to admire his final sculpture, an oar of sorts, which is unfinished. “[His] choice to leave it incomplete suddenly strikes me as heroic,” she writes. The foundry is below sea level and leaking. In an ensuing hallucination, the spinning wheels of time align and chlorinated water from the ill-fated swimming pool fills the room. Van den Broeck doesn’t want to drown. She “holds on to the thin thread of pinched oxygen,” but then the walls burst open, spewing her out into the street. In the end, she imagines Kempf being questioned about his pistol by a neighbor. “No one remembers an artist who dies in his sleep,” he says through her. It’s puzzling that Van den Broeck reduces the artist to an egoist, curtailing the question that animates nearly every page of this galvanizing work, which is, quite simply: we all die someday, so what do we make of the meantime?

Zain Khalid is a novelist and fiction editor at The Drift.