Q&A: Architect & Novelist Peter Wheelwright

I read fiction whenever I can carve out a quiet hour or two, which I must admit ruefully, is very hard to find in my frenetic metropolitan life. But when I come across a narrative that provides a richly grained context of place, time, connectivity with human foibles and a linkage to well-defined segments of […]

I read fiction whenever I can carve out a quiet hour or two, which I must admit ruefully, is very hard to find in my frenetic metropolitan life. But when I come across a narrative that provides a richly grained context of place, time, connectivity with human foibles and a linkage to well-defined segments of humanity’s accumulated body of knowledge, I claim my right to slow down. Most recently Peter Matthiessen Wheelwright’s first novel, As It Is On Earth, gave me this gift of sitting back and reading for hours on end. The story of two brothers, haunted by the colorful past while thoroughly engaged in the painful now, rambles the earth from New England to Mexico. Wheelwright is an architect and associate professor at the School of Constructed Environments Parsons The New School for Design in New York City. His brave foray into the fictive environment from the built environment evoked my curiosity about shifting focus, exploring new terrain, and mustering enough courage to make it all happen. With the book’s release scheduled for next month, I took the opportunity to ask Peter about my favorite topics of architecture, creativity, and breaking into new worlds.

Susan S. Szenasy: As It Is On Earth is your first novel. When were you able to find the concentration and time to wedge this complex and detailed story into your schedule of teaching and practicing architecture?

Peter M. Wheelwright: In 2007 I resigned as the chair of the Department of Architecture, Interior Design and Lighting (now, The School of Constructed Environments) at Parsons The New School for Design and took a year long sabbatical. My practice was also winding down, and I simply decided to write in the morning, and think about architecture in the afternoons. Of course, it didn’t work out exactly as planned, but pretty close. Unlike Taylor Thatcher, the narrator and protagonist in the book, I was quite disciplined.

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SSS: Writing fiction has always frightened me, though I’m writing all the time. How were you able to switch from your other occupations (architecture, teaching) and preoccupations (writing non-fiction) to create your richly drawn fictive world?

PMW: I tend not to bracket these things too much, as if they belong to separate categories; particularly the distinction between non-fiction and fiction. Writing is less meaningful for what it dictates than for what it provokes. I mean this in the sense of what the American neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty called “imaginative novelty”, stirring us from our chairs to imagine new and better things for ourselves. Novels do this, and so can good non-fiction if it is read right. It’s all story telling. In truth, I probably read more non-fiction than fiction. I should also say, that if you attended my design seminars at Parsons, you’d recognize quite a few of the themes in the novel.

SSS: The book’s occupation with the past is dramatic. In fact the past feels like a major character to me. As an architect whose education and practice are steeped in modernist amnesia (sorry, but you know what I mean), what drove you to dig deep into history: places, peoples, family, ways of being? And was this connectivity to the past cathartic for you as an architect, as a human being living in the fractured 21st century?

PMW: I’m very glad you saw the past as a character. It is, just as the landscapes and rivers are also characters to me. Deep Time and its relationship to geological/biotic histories, which in turn set the terms for social, familial, and personal histories – what environmental historians like William Cronon, Jared Diamond, or Carolyn Merchant call history from the ground up – are important to the book. The provisional nature of events in time, how they are situated in the earth, and how they come to seem inevitable or teleological when read backwards through historical interpretation – a form of modernist amnesia, as you say – are also important points. They are important for everyone, especially architects and designers, to understand. Personally, I find the idea of the past’s contingency wonderful and liberating…almost, as Taylor struggles with his past, redemptive in some way.

SSS: A preoccupation with science is also present throughout the narrative. More and more architects and designers talk about ways to understand and incorporate the natural sciences into the built environment. Was the professions’ growing interest in nature, especially, in the back of your mind as you researched the sciences for the book?

PMW: I suppose so. Although I think an improved understanding of the natural sciences has been a very important corrective to the teaching of architects, it comes with a sense of uneasiness. The embrace of parametrics, or techno-fix idealism, or even bio-mimicry to solve our problems can also miss its target. One of the ideas in the book is that scientism is as much a kind of faith as religion…both trying to make sense of life on earth or, as Taylor says, “…to make the implausible plausible.” The problem is not with faith per se, but with too much faith, to the exclusion of other ways of considering the world. Much of our current global predicament seems to be a function of this–from Al Quaeda to global warming.

SSS: Let’s talk a bit about the creative process, which seems to have some common roots, no matter what form the final outcome might take. What, for you, are the parallels between architecture and novel writing in terms of thought processes, execution, and outcomes?

PMW: I’m often asked if As It Is On Earth is about architecture. After all, that is what I have practiced and/or taught for more than thirty years. My response is that it is not about architecture, but that I could not imagine a better training than as an architect to prepare one to write a novel–the solitary moments of designing after research. How does one enter the story, what is its structure, how do you move through it – the spatial and formal tropes are all there – and they all have to come together meaningfully.

SSS: I have to ask you about Meryl Streep. She is one of the voices praising your book with words of great precision and poetry. How did her testimonial come about?

PMW: Meryl is an old friend. She’s a voracious reader with a wonderful literary turn of mind and keen eye. I suppose these qualities are what make her so accomplished as an actor. It was very generous of her to read the galley…plus she recognized some of what Taylor calls the “family thing”.

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