Bold Ventures: Thirteen Tales of Architectural Tragedy by Charlotte Van den Broeck

There is no hiding place for an architect’s work, which by its very nature is public. If eyesore be committed, Frank Lloyd Wright suggested, an architect’s best recourse is to “advise his client to plant vines.” But as Charlotte Van den Broeck’s Bold Ventures demonstrates, not all architects are of such a sound disposition. Indeed, some grow so tormented by their perceived failures that they decide to end their lives.

For Bold Ventures, Van den Broeck spent three years visiting 13 different “sites of failure”—many of which are now perceived in a much more positive light. “My goal was to rehabilitate those architects,” writes Van den Broeck, “to pick up their lost faces and stick them back in place, to do something to counter the pointlessness of their despair, the finality of their suicide.” It is an ambitious undertaking that pays off in surprising ways.

Van den Broeck, a 31-year-old Belgian novelist and award-winning Flemish poet, finds something heroic in the tragedy of these architects, whose design experiments were often ahead of their time and fraught with the risk of public ridicule. This was certainly true of the Austrian architects Eduard van der Nüll (1812–68) and August Sicard von Sicardsburg (1813–68), who teamed up to build the luxuriously opulent Vienna State Opera.

The Vienna State Opera, designed by August Sicard von Sicardsburg and Eduard van de Nüll in the 19th century.

Critics of the Staatsoper complained that it looked like a “sunken ship” and described its stylistic elements as a “shambles.” Van der Nüll and Sicard’s shared dream of “a style freed from the shackles of history, an alternative kind of architecture,” made these sensitive souls a laughingstock. Van der Nüll hanged himself from the hat rack in his bedroom with a handkerchief, and Sicard suffered a breakdown.

Van den Broeck suggests their fates were tied to a hatchet job orchestrated by a rival architect and that the blunders reported by their critics were nowhere evident in the building itself. “Less than fifty years later, the winds of fashion had changed,” Van den Broeck writes. “In 1907, the same newspapers that had gunned down the two architects were showering superlatives on the Vienna State Opera.”

Francesco Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, in Rome, with its staggering geometrical fluidity, is widely considered to be an iconic masterpiece of 17th-century Italian Baroque. But during Borromini’s lifetime, his hunger for experimentation and complexity, which led to his inventing the first curved church façade, set him at odds with the dramatic simplicity of his contemporaries, including his great rival, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Today, Borromini’s invention of the first curved church façade, as seen here on the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, is considered iconic. Not so in his lifetime.

Borromini, who had bipolar disorder, took the rejection of his peers and the Catholic Church very badly; so badly that he stabbed himself to death with a saber.

Some of the other suicides in Van den Broeck’s book are less obviously operatic, but each one has its own unsettling air of inevitability about it. This reveals itself most tragically in the case of the American architect Reginald Wycliffe Geare (1889–1927), who designed Crandall’s palatial Knickerbocker movie theater, in Washington, D.C.

On January 28, 1922, the roof of the theater collapsed under the weight of snow from a mammoth two-day blizzard, killing nearly 100 people and injuring many more. Geare had to acknowledge that the disaster resulted from a last-minute decision to switch to lighter and cheaper building material for the roof because the First World War had led to a shortage of steel.

Washington, D.C.’s Knickerbocker Theatre in 1922, following the collapse of its roof due to a decision by its architect, Reginald Wycliffe Geare, to switch to cheaper building materials.

“This is the truth that confronts Reggie Geare at the age of thirty-eight,” Van den Broeck writes. “Not only must he learn to live with the deaths caused by his mistakes, but he is also in mourning for his own career: no one will work with him anymore.” Though a grand jury indicted Geare and four others for manslaughter, none were convicted. Some five years later Geare turned on the gas before he went to bed and never woke up again.

Van den Broeck revisits these and other architectural sites of tragedy, such as Villa Ebe, in Naples, and the Church of Saint Omer, in Northern France, in astonishingly vivid detail, employing a mixture of autobiography, historical novel, essay, and diary. Her writing is often painfully intimate, to the point that she begins to over-identify with these tragic destinies. In a letter to her boyfriend, Walter, she wonders whether she isn’t deliberately “searching for false idols, forerunners, allies, to push me to a similar end when total failure hits me? Are you scared I’ll let things go too far?”

Walter, it turns out, is a bit scared. He has had enough of his girlfriend’s obsession and clears out when he discovers that their latest holiday is about to turn into another research trip. Meanwhile, the concierge of the apartment in Naples where Van den Broeck is staying tells her: “It’s not normal for a young woman to be so obsessed with death. You shouldn’t be making up books, you should see a psychiatrist.”

But Van den Broeck brooks no argument. “Death isn’t the point,” she replies. “The point is what drives people to that last resort.”

Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire, U.K.–based writer and critic, focused on art, film, and books