J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lesson for Architects

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and oozy smell, not yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

The Hobbit

Once, Walter Benjamin said that of all the arts architecture most fully bears witness to the ‘mythology’ of a society. Hegel related architecture and literature as two similar but diametrically opposed pursuits within the arts. Architecture, he claimed, was the first of the arts to appear, for it serves the first purpose of art, namely to order the material and objective world of nature. On the other hand, he claimed that literature is the finest of the arts, for it gives shape to the immaterial and subjective world of the human soul.

Whatever your stance is on old German philosophers, both Benjamin and Hegel were getting at something important. They both observed a certain kinship between architecture and literature. Here follows a brief inquiry into this relationship as we turn to the work of one of the most imaginative writers to ever put pen to paper: J.R.R. Tolkien. We look at what role architecture plays in the author’s oeuvre and what lesson, finally, may Tolkien have for architects.

When Tolkien set upon crafting the ‘Secondary World’ of The Lord of the Rings, he knew that his task was twofold. On the one hand, he had to imagine a world vastly different to ours, replete with unique cultures, geography, languages, and creatures. On the other, he had to make this world immersive and believable. Any second-rate writer can come up with an alternate universe, but what set Tolkien apart was the reality and cohesion of his imaginary world.

To this day, millions of readers lose themselves within the pages of Tolkien’s Legendarium. What architects should note is that the remarkable believability of the world of Middle-earth is in no small part due to the author’s insistent description of its various forms of architecture.

Tolkien uses architecture as a kind of ‘narrative shortcut.’ It allows him to imply much about his imaginary people without explicitly saying it. Norse and Roman architecture, as well as the Art Deco and Art Nouveau, all find their parallels in Middle-earth. Well aware that the different architectural styles of our ‘Primary World’ are loaded with cultural meaning, Tolkien adopted them in his own universe so that the reader may draw intuitive conclusions about the new cultures he encounters.

Tolkien goes much further than this, of course. He adds and changes these real-world architectural styles to fit the unique history and traditions of the cultures he creates. He further uses architecture as an embodiment of the psychological reality of these cultures.

For example, the people of Gondor live in Minas Tirith, a city modelled after the classical architecture of the Romans. Very quickly the reader begins to associate the fading civilization of the Gondorians with the last years of the Roman Empire. The reader learns that the people of Gondor are perpetually lost in tales of their glorious past while refusing to face the reality of their precarious present (Orc invasion and all).

The houses are dead, and there is very little here that grows and is glad,’ with ‘tombs more splendid than the houses of the living.’

The Two Towers

Clearly, Tolkien’s architectural descriptions are really psychological sketches in disguise. Here we see an author who is not interested in merely describing fantastical buildings. Rather, Tolkien is getting to the core of what architecture means, what it says about the culture that has made it.

We find another example of the expressive power of architecture in Tolkien’s description of Isengard, the fortress of the Wizard Saruman. Saruman has been tempted by the Dark Lord and has transformed the once magnificent Isengard into a place of evil industry. Isengard has become a factory for war machines and a breeding ground for foul armies: 

‘A strong place and wonderful was Isengard […] But Saruman had slowly shaped it to his evil purposes and made it better, as he thought – being deceived – for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor, so that what he made was naught, only a little copy […] a slave’s flattery of that vast fortress, armory, prison, furnace of great power [… ] the Dark Tower, which suffered no rival, and laughed at flattery, biding its time, secure in its pride and its immeasurable strength. ’

The Two Towers

Here the architecture of Saruman and that of the Dark Lord embody one of the key forces of evil which Tolkien recognized not only in his fictional universe, but in our real world as well: industrialization.

Tolkien was a keen lover of nature and folklore and a mistrust for technological progress was deeply ingrained in him. Moreover, his first-hand experience of war machines, bombs, and poison gas during the First World War did little to endear him to the scientific achievements of his age. In his work also it is the Dark Lord and his servants who employ soulless machines for their evil ends.

The corruption of the once wonderful Isengard with the devices of the Dark Lord is again a psychological portrait. Saruman believes his devices of world domination to be his own achievement while in fact, he has become a servant to evil. How much of this portrait the author intended as an allegory for our own world remains open to debate. In any case, here Tolkien again uses architecture to portray the inner psychology of its builders. The nature of Saruman and the Dark Lord become manifest in the mark they leave on the world.

The industry of the Dark Lord.
Collages by author.

Now what about hobbits?

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’

The Hobbit

So welcomes us the first sentence of The Hobbit, telling us how and where hobbits live before we even know what they are. But what at first seems just a quirky fantasy detail soon takes on a deeper meaning.

Hobbits, the reader learns, live in ‘close friendship with the earth.’ Due to their love of nature, they make little distinction between architecture and landscape (taking after the Arts & Crafts Movement, had it existed in Middle-earth). They are also secretive and furtive people. Living in holes in the ground could very well be a historical artefact of their early days of hiding from bigger and stronger creatures. In fact, the very origin of the word ‘hobbit’ is the Rohirricholbytla’, or hole-builder.

Clearly, the habitat of hobbits is inseparable from their place in the history of Tolkien’s fantasy world. Therefore, the opening sentence of The Hobbit proves more meaningful than it seems at first.

The above are just a few brief examples of Tolkien using architecture in order to build the realism of his secondary world. There are of course also the distinct architectural styles of the Rohirrim, the Dwarves, the Elves, the Ents, and many more. Tolkien’s Legendarium continually reminds us how much the identity of a culture is intimately tied to its architectural traditions.

Walter Benjamin observed that architecture houses not only people, but people’s mythology as well, the symbols and narratives they use in order to weave the fabric of culture.

Architecture is never silent. It is always speaking, no matter if we are listening or even hearing what it has to say. In Tolkien’s fantasy, we listen to architecture all the more intently, for it tells us of fantastical cultures and wondrous places. But when we put down the novel, we might be reminded to look back at the architecture of our own ‘primary’ world. What tales does our own architecture tell about us? What whispers may issue about our own myths and deeper truths?

To listen to what architecture has to say and to see what it has to show us. To ask what architecture means. This is Tolkien’s lesson for architects.