|Guild House, Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia, April 18, 2012|
It wasn't an ordinary building at all. It was the Guild House, designed by architect Robert Venturi as one of his first major buildings and built in 1964. If I hadn't read about its restoration, I never would have guessed its importance. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia writes:
In the world of architecture, Guild House is one of the most famous buildings of the 20th century. As John Farnham, Ph.D., of the Historical Commission noted in his outstanding nomination essay, Guild House is not just an important example of a style of architecture, it defined the architectural style of the late 20th century known as Post Modernism.Really? That plain brick building is one of the most famous buildings of the 20th century? Once I recognized the building, I studied it. And studying it made me think of writing, as almost everything does.
The Guild House looked ordinary because it was so successful. Venturi was one of the founders of Post Modernism, which takes lessons from historic architecture and puts them into the context of modern life. He used brick because that's what Philadelphia has been built from for more than 300 years, combining the city's vernacular building material with classical architectural forms. It fits right in with its next-door-neighbor, the Edgar Allan Poe House, the Federal-style home where Poe lived while writing “The Tell-Tale Heart,”“The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
One thing I found remarkable is the chain link fence. Venturi had a limited budget in 1964, and so he chose chain link for the perimeter, the diagonal lattice echoing the brickwork of the Guild House's balconies. To most modern eyes, chain link is utilitarian and even ugly, used for security, often rusted and choked with weeds. If the Guild House had not been historically preserved, most property owners would have replaced the fence with high-end wrought iron or aluminum. Instead the original chain link was restored. Instead of choosing something ornamental, the restorers stuck to authenticity. The fence does its job, and it's true to the architect's vision.
Good writing isn't always visible. It's not always fancy. It builds on classical structures. It uses the same words and emotions other writers have used before because they're comprehensible. But when done well, it can be new and surprising, causing readers to look at something in a different way, the way I looked at the Guild House's chain link fence. If done really well, good writing will be copied so that the innovations are hard to recognize -- true for Venturi and for Poe, a progenitor of horror genre.
So as I revise, I try to remind myself not to show off. Novelty isn't my goal -- it's clarity, authenticity, and originality within the context of the writers who have come before me.
What books or authors do you admire for writing that's invisible, where you notice the story and not the words? What innovative writers in your genre have been so copied that it's hard for new readers to recognize what's special about their work?
TWILIGHT might be an example. Another is Tamora Pierce's ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE, whose main character was a revelation for young girls at the time but now seems like a Mary Sue.