The power of the unit
In his indispensable book Architecture Without Architects, Bernard Rudofsky reproduces three black-and-white photographs of small towns—Mijas and Villa Hermosa in Spain and Pisticci in Italy—with a single short comment:
The use of a single building type does not necessarily produce monotony. Irregularity of terrain and deviations from standard measurements result in small variations which strike a perfect balance between unity and diversity.
And the pictures elegantly confirm this. In each image, we see rows of identical peaked, tiled rooftops, joined shoulder to shoulder, with small doors and windows looking out from whitewashed, featureless facades. You might think that this would resemble the soulless developments we see in so many gated communities in the United States, with their uniform townhouses marching up and down indistinguishable blocks, but instead, as Rudofsky states, the effect is deeply, organically right, with superficially similar houses merging together into a harmonious whole while maintaining a quirky individuality.
I’ve been staring at these pictures for a long time, because they seem to get at something fundamental about the creative process. When I’m working on any kind of extended writing project, fiction or nonfiction, I usually find myself thinking in terms of uniform units, often governed by the rule of three. Every story has three acts. Each act consists of a certain number of chapters that I envision as roughly the same length, if only because they’re determined by how much I can write in one day. Every chapter, in turn, falls into three segments, with each segment falling into three beats, and so on down the line. If this all sounds a little mechanical, it is, and the initial outline and first draft that I produce using this approach run the risk of following the pattern too neatly. Yet all the while—and this is the important part—the units that make up the narrative also follow the contours of the invisible terrain underneath, which I can only describe as the logic of the story itself. It means that when I go back to revise, and often when I’m writing the rough draft for the first time, I find those neat units deviating from uniformity in small but meaningful ways: certain beats can be minimized or even cut altogether if the rhythm of the story demands it, while others get expanded, and whole scenes or sequences vanish or are replaced by others. Even in the places where I follow my outline exactly, my hand trembles a bit, and I end up devoting more or less space than I intended to particular images or ideas. And when I’m done, if all goes well, I end up with something that seems varied and alive.
It’s also crucial to emphasize that this is a pragmatic, utterly unromantic choice. Building a story out of many small, mostly uniform units is really a way of reducing the number of decisions that need to be made at any particular stage. And that’s true of architecture, too. Only one of the many spreads in Architecture Without Architects is titled “Unit Architecture,” in which Rudofsky explicitly talks about how relatively uniform units can add up to something varied and diverse, but the principle is in action on nearly every page: in picture after picture, we see houses of a single standard type clustering together across rough terrain to create a vibrant repetition of forms. And it isn’t hard to understand why that pattern recurs so often. As the architect Nathan Silver, author of Adhocism, has noted, vernacular buildings are “constructions of poverty,” and their simple designs and integration with the landscape are “a direct response to limitations.” These are houses built by the owners with their own hands, motivated for the most part by strictly practical considerations, and the result is more or less exactly what we’d expect: it falls back on a few proven rules, sticks with basic forms that have worked before in the same location, adapts itself to the environment because it can’t afford to impose itself upon it, and is less concerned with perfect uniformity and straight lines than with building something that will stand if constructed within a certain margin of error. It’s the kind of house you build when you don’t have a lot to work with.
Which is what a writer is always doing. Your creative resources might be infinite in theory, but in practice, you find that you barely have enough to get through the day, if you manage to even get started in the first place. (Where all that energy goes is a mystery, but any writer who has faced a blank page knows exactly how small that store of willpower can feel.) Thinking in standardized units is a strategy for dealing with the sort of imaginative poverty that every writer knows all too well. It’s easier to think about a chapter if you operate under the assumption that it looks pretty much like all the chapters you’ve written in the past: you can focus on the specific challenges that the scene presents rather than on solving new problems of structure from scratch. You know that the house will stand, at least for long enough for you to fix whatever other issues come up, because it’s always stood before. This approach takes your own limitations into account, both in the way it gives you a basic pattern to follow and in how it acknowledges—and even benefits from—the likelihood that you’ll diverge from even that simple plan. And when you’ve put the pieces together, “one after another, so that every one was adapted and limited by all that came before,” as Silver writes, and gone back to revise the whole in a way that no architect or urban planner ever could, you find that the work has assumed a shape that you never could have predicted at the outset. It takes practice and a healthy dose of humility, but once in a while, if you’re lucky, you’ll build something that lasts.