City of the Mind

This novel is very interesting as the story-line of the main character, Matthew Halland, is interspersed with stories of other people and other times.  He is an architect, which allows the story to be infused with a sense of place with intricate and heavily detailed views of London, its history and its people. You learn a considerable bit about the history of the city through the detail of this novel.

On the surface the novel would seem to be about Matthew’s failed marriage, his relationship with his daughter and ultimately finding a new love.  But Matthew’s wandering thoughts introduce other times and historic figures.  This novel tells the story of the city through this mindful observation of  an architect’s surroundings and the introduction of the history of space and place.  A historic view of London unfolds here.

Time and historical space/place drive much of what is written about here.  A deeper meaning involves the individual lives that play upon the various historical stages that are a living and breathing city that is constantly in motion.  Peopled by individuals who love, have ambition, strive for meaning and ultimately pass from the scene for the next generation to interpret a slightly different version of London.  A London that is a changed city but with history visible just below the surface.  Scrape off a bit here, and there is the London of the Blitz.  A little more there, and Queen Victoria appears.  Still more, and the leaning brick wall of a Georgian mansion reveals itself.

Here is a photographic comparison of old and new London:


download (1)

The historical references lead to an understanding that while an individual is mortal, a great city lives on, always with the next generation moving things along.  Particularly notable is the description of construction crews moving bodies from an old church yard for re-internment elsewhere.  That patch of once hallowed ground being re-purposed for modern convenience and usage.  The property is, no doubt, now too pricey to waste on the dead.

A quote from the thoughts of the main character, Halland, nicely sums up much of what this novel is trying to get at, I think: “For this is the city in which everything is simultaneous. There is no yesterday, nor tomorrow, merely weather, decay and destruction.”  I think this means that the various peoples of the history of London are players upon its stage.  That the city is always there and the people come and go.  They are always leaving a layer or two of history with every generation. The city they serve is seemingly immortal and their part is to keep it a going concern during their lifetimes and hand it over to the next generation.


City of the Mind and Architectonic Time

In City of the Mind, by Penelope Lively, we see London through the eyes of Matthew Halland. Halland’s perspective as an architect allows us to consider London’s past and its present through its wide variety of architecture which includes Greek temples, Victorian stucco, Gothic cathedrals, Georgian buildings, and more modern concrete structures. A term was mentioned briefly in class that I decided to do some research on. The term is Architectonic Time.

There is no definition to be found for Architectonic Time, however the word Architectonic on its own is defined as “Relating to the scientific systemization of knowledge; relating to architecture”. A quote by Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher who often worked on literary theory, further elaborates on this term by saying “All the values of actual life and culture are arranged around the basic architectonic points of the actual world of the performed act or deed”. As you can see, this is very similar to what we’ve studied of spatial politics but is specifically in regards to architecture. With this basic understanding of architectonics, one need only add a further dimension of time and history to understand what is meant by Architectonic Time.

Penelope Lively’s novel goes into great detail showing us examples of architectonic time. In several instances throughout the book, Halland stops and stares at an architectural structure and goes into a lengthy imaginative vision, like a daydream, of something that might have happened there. Through these imaginings we see that Halland is perceiving the world through the lens of architectonic time.

As well as these imagined scenes, this novel it filled with statements that pertain to architectonic time. “He sees decades and centuries, poverty and wealth, grace and vulgarity…” In this quote Halland perceives the history of England through the architecture, but not just the timelines, he sees social classes in terms of economics and behavior.

Halland sees much more than just an isolated English history in its structures, he also sees the global spheres of influence, “If the city were to recount its experience, the ensuing babble would be the talk of everytime and everywhere…” We must consider foreign influences in determining Englishness, after all, the Romans were the ones who brought an advanced civilization to England and created London.

There are a few, more abstract concepts that Lively wrote in her novel that perhaps can be considered in terms of mental architectonic time. “This city, is entirely in the mind. It is a construct of the memory and of the intellect. Without you and me it hasn’t got a chance.” This statement brings into question the individual’s role in determining what something is. To elaborate, without individual perception, thought, emotion, mentality, the city is just a place. It’s the human aspect that turns the city into a space. Later Halland explains his earlier statement by saying, “What I mean is that significance is in the eye of the beholder.” I take this to mean that once significance is decided, preservation and expansion of that significant thing happens. Eventually, other things that lack that significance begins to fall away, to decay. Thus, change and progress happens. If there is no change or progress, that would mean the loss of the human element, which in turn would mean the death of the city.

This idea of architectonic time can be applied to so many things and I know that my own vision has expanded through exploring this text and this term. As Halland says, “For this is the city, in which everything is simultaneous. There is no yesterday, nor tomorrow, merely weather, and decay, and construction.”