My Beautiful City Austin, by David Heymann. John M. Hardy Publishing, November 2014, 176 pages, $24.
Interruption of the Cocktail Hour: A Washington Yarn of Art, Murder, and the Attempted Assassination of the President, by Arthur Cotton Moore. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, February 2015, 146 pages, $12.
Architects are, by nature, storytellers; they tell stories to their clients, to each other, and occasionally to a credulous public. Typically, these are stories about what buildings can do, or how the 'sense of a place' matters, or how their own professional or socio-artistic practice can deliver on such things. So what happens when no one listens?
My Beautiful City Austin by the Texas architect David Heymann, and Interruption of the Cocktail Hour: A Washington Yarn of Art, Murder, and the Attempted Assassination of the President, by the Washington, D.C., architect Arthur Cotton Moore, are works of fiction and, as their titles suggest, both hit close to home'not only in terms of locale, but also in their bemused accounts of the vicissitudes of architectural practice.
Heymann's book is a collection of seven short stories set with affectionate humor in the Texas capital'poignantly charming meditations on the place, the people who 'keep it weird,' and a young architect's attempt to make sense of them both. The author's descriptions of the natural landscape, the quirky university town, and the changes that bad client decisions make to each are beautifully done, as is his touching acceptance of a fledgling professional practice as it emerges from wounded ideals.
Narrated in the first person with the insight and intimacy of journal entries, each story stands on its own, but all take the architect-client relationship as their theme. This could be tiresome if the author were a complainer, but his stories are generous, with a wry, head-scratching marveling at how, and in what kind of architecture, some folks choose to inhabit the land: 'Landscapes change and their paths ignore whiners . . . People do not, I told myself, build with maliced intent. They build to be happy, and it was only my problem that I didn't get their happiness. I looked out over that brightening vast emptiness, steadied myself, and saw my busy future.'
If Heymann's stories are sweetly sobering, Moore's 'yarn,' set in the nation's capital, is just that: a raunchy over-the-top tale told while whittling a swizzle stick in the bar of the Watergate Hotel.
Moore's boozy, philandering, and self-deluding protagonist is A. Pierpont 'Pete' Preston'failed architecture student, failed painter, and failed scion of Washington's social aristocracy. Living in self-imposed exile among the 'fat, a bit dim, and rather toothless' locals of fictional Scapoosa County, Maryland, Pete is out for revenge against those he believes responsible for his fallen state. When he accidently acquires a killing machine, in the quaint form of a handheld calculator triggered by the numeral 5, carnage ensues, some of it humorous, some not so (the physics are never explained, but the point-and-press device guarantees a fatal coronary in its target). After offing a snooty art critic, a gallerist, his imperious mother-in-law, and a few others of the 'grisly gaggle of wretched malcontents and dysfunctional borderline members of humankind,' Pete poses as an architect in one final gambit involving the President's bisexual chief of staff. Enough said; no spoilers here.
Moore's relentless wisecracking (Jerry Rigg Concrete Company, Teeter Totter and Down Structural Engineers) and sardonic inside jokes (Stanford White appears as Stanford A. Brown, aka 'Stumpy') can be exhausting. Where Heymann's city of Austin is rendered tenderly as refulgent, Moore's Washington and its denizens are roasted with a flamethrower.
In the endnotes to My Beautiful City Austin, Heymann writes, 'This book is entirely a book of fiction. To my beloved clients: rest assured you do not appear in these stories.' I do not believe him, but it doesn't matter. Either way, both his and Moore's book will affirm for all architects the absurdity of their own encounters with real-life practice.
Peter Wheelwright is an architect and former chair of architecture at Parsons School of Design. His novel, As It Is on Earth ,received a 2013 PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention for Literary Excellence.