Guest Post: “Building Imaginary Architecture” by Michael Johnston

The BiblioSanctum is thrilled to welcome author Michael Johnston, whose King Lear inspired series The Amber Throne continues in The Silence of the Soleri. Out now from Tor Books, this sequel to his first book Soleri presents a detailed historical fantasy vast in scope and steeped in primal magic, and to celebrate its release, Michael has kindly shared with us a fascinating aspect of his research for his books. I hope you’ll enjoy checking it out!

by Michael Johnston

Let’s talk about imaginary architecture. When I think about it, that’s where I got my start as a fantasy author. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a paper architect, which is what we call the practitioners of imaginary architecture. So what exactly is a paper architect? Well, it’s a term for architects who spend their days drawing things they don’t intend to build. These works are more or less considered flights of fancy or philosophical propositions. Sometimes a bit of both. For the most part, the term paper architect is meant as a slight. Real buildings are made out of bricks and mortar. But I’m fine the notion of working on paper, it gives you a lot more freedom, and you don’t need to hire an engineer to make certain your buildings don’t fall down. Freed of the practical constraints of the profession, you can dream and create within whatever limits you set. That’s what interested me, and it’s also what led me out of architecture and into fiction.

I discovered that paper architects might have a few more things in common with science fiction and fantasy writers than they do with their fellow architects who work in the mainstream profession. And eventually, I thought fiction might be a better home for someone like me who prefers imaginary buildings in place of the real ones.

That’s was my thought processed as I moved from architect to author, and I can’t say I’ve heard of anyone else doing that, so perhaps that process is worth examining. When I first started writing I hoped that my architectural ideas might help inform my literary ones, that I could create a kind of architecturally inspired fiction. To understand what I was thinking when I first started working on Soleri, I’ll walk you through a brief and incomplete history of imaginary architecture, so you see what I’m talking about and understand this unlikely bridge I found between architecture and fantasy.

One of the earliest and most well-known of the “paper” architects was a guy who lived in the 18th century named Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Susanna Clarke recently made reference to him in her excellent novel of the same name, Piranesi. You should read it. Anyway, he created a series of etchings he called the Carceri d’invenzione (or, if you speak English, the ‘Imaginary Prisons’). Google it. If you want to know where M.C. Escher got the idea for his staircase drawings, look at Piranesi. These drawings don’t tell a literal story; rather, they suggest an idea for a place in an incredibly compelling way. For hundreds of years, they’ve inspired artists, architects, and writers to imagine dark and labyrinthine spaces, ones that are impossible to build. That last part inspired me the most; it’s something authors can do.

Piranesi: Carceri d’invenzione

Writers can suggest the impossible. That’s why novel writing is exciting for me: architects can’t really do this. In fact, it’s just about the opposite of what most of them do in daily practice. That’s probably why I found the practice of architecture a little boring. I preferred the “paper” architect approach.

Let’s talk about one more example: Étienne-Louis Boullée. He practiced something called architecture parlante or “talking architecture.” He and his contemporaries thought buildings could actually say things with their forms and compositions. His most famous building is probably his Cenotaph for Isaac Newton. Through several ingenious inventions, the large, hollow interior of the building replicates both a daytime and a nighttime sky. It’s worth a moment on Wikipedia—check it out. He thought buildings could communicate ideas, that they could speak. To me, that sounds like storytelling. The cenotaph tells the story of a day. Again, I found this idea to be a lot more compelling than my daily practice, which mainly involved things like making certain there was enough legroom in front of the toilet (trust me, this is drawn incorrectly all the time).

Étienne-Louis Boullée: Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton

You can probably see where I’m headed. I liked the narrative component of paper architecture. I’m a visual person, but I wanted to communicate ideas and tell stories that involved provocative and deeply compelling places, which is actually quite common in fantasy. It’s almost a cliché. You’ve probably heard a hundred different fantasy authors claim that their world was in fact a character, that the very place where the story was set was integral to the novel. This was the bridge I found between my old practice and my new one. I thought buildings could be the basis for a kind of mythology in the same way that traditional myths and stories inspire some fantasy authors. And if you read the Amber Throne novels, I think you’ll see some of these attempts I’ve made to do this as well as some of the actual buildings I’ve mentioned in this essay. They make a guest appearance or two, so check it out.


MICHAEL JOHNSTON has always been an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy. He studied architecture and ancient history at Lehigh University and earned a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University. Michael worked as an architect in New York City before switching to writing full time. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.

13 Comments on “Guest Post: “Building Imaginary Architecture” by Michael Johnston”

  1. Wow, never heard of paper architects before but this is truly fascinating. I love the picture with the impossible staircases and so I’m guessing this is where the staircase at the end of the film the Labyrinthe comes from.
    Plus those two covers are just stunning.
    Lynn 😀


  2. What a wonderful article – thank you so much, I really enjoyed it. And no… I haven’t ever heard of paper architects, either. But what a lovely step sideways to write about your flights of fancy…


  3. Paper architect is not a phrase I’d heard before. I thought perhaps it was someone who enjoyed making model buildings out of paper (ok, I did a little of this when younger). But the description makes perfect sense, as does applying it to the creation of fiction. Fascinating read.


  4. Pingback: Bookshelf Roundup: 02/27/21: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

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