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Writing in shape

A few dozen new writers reimagine the city in 100-word stories, inspired by London's Shard

Public Assembly is where speculative sculptor and installation artist Lawrence Lek explores collective place in the age of hyperspace.

Cities are our collective self-portrait. As civilizations grow, the texture of each settlement reveals the structures that govern it. Some are dominated by rigid hierarchies and feudal overlords; others by informal networks and tribal relationships.  Every city evolves its own code of governance, rules that are revealed through the symbols of authority. We recognize this most clearly in the architecture of civic power - towers and temples, palaces and prisons. Although their scale is intended to dwarf us physically (a primitive version of shock-and-awe), we instinctively recognize that they are not for us.

From 2003 to 2012, Londoners witnessed the construction of Europe's tallest skyscraper, the Shard. At a thousand feet tall, it is impossible to ignore from any distance. The tower appears simultaneously ancient and modern, a product of Britain's Blair-era aspirations. The Shard’s developers created a public viewing platform at the top of the tower, unwittingly making it into an inverted version of the 99 percent. In this one building, capitalism’s pyramid scheme is turned upside down: seventy-one floors of private luxury lie underneath a platform for public assembly. We can access it, but we can never own it. 

 Although the Shard does not belong to us, language is ours. Not the type used in billboards, slogans, or advertising, but the basic symbols and sounds that give us a voice. We recognize this collective power in football chants, cathedral hymns, festival sing-alongs, and most importantly in the written word.

These thoughts grew into Pyramid Schemes, a collaborative installation and publication I organized with The White Review. Drawing from the work of Victor Hugo, Guillaume Apollinaire and Jorge Luis Borges, we invited forty-eight artists, architects and writers to write short stories about real and imaginary buildings in one hundred words.  

The writers responded to this premise with a striking diversity of approaches. The pieces mirrored the variety of spaces found in the real city: childhood homes, mirrored skyscrapers, dream corridors, lonely rooms, illuminated tunnels, empty museums, overflowing data centers, and lovers’ nests. As we read through the entries, an imaginary city gradually emerged, organizing itself into five zones: suburban, commercial, industrial, cultural, and ruins. For the publication, we arranged each of these distinct cityscapes into its own fold-out page, reflecting the theme of each text in typographic form.

Even in a hundred words, the author’s voice always comes through. Some are poetic, others bold.  Some are fragments of longer works, while others have a beginning, middle, and end. Some play with word games and the image of text, while others appropriate the formal language of art.  In the exhibition launch, an immersive video installation shaped the work into a continuous storyline. As the words scrolled across the walls, the illuminated text looked like video subtitles, transforming literature into entertainment.  If we are willing to pay full attention to an imaginary city, why do we sometimes retreat from the real city that surrounds us?

Every day, we live on the outside looking in. We want to own objects behind storefronts, to be with bodies behind clothes, and to live in rooms behind walls.  While our desires are often frustrated by social codes and legal systems, fiction is the place where are free to fantasize. Before we build our city in stone, let us write it together.  In words, we can dwell in the space between wish and reality.

The collected texts can be read at The publication is available hereAn extended essay by Lawrence Lek on the Shard can be read in Issue 7 of The White Review.