Piranesi, and de Quincey’s architectural pipe-dreams

Do you dream of architecture?

Thomas de Quincey did, although he blamed it on dope. The original English Opium Eater, de Quincey found his drug-induced dreams were of elaborate buildings:

In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye unless in the clouds.

de Quincey then makes an extraordinary leap, linking his fantasies to the only artwork that adequately described them. Extraordinary, because he

hadn’t even seen

the pictures in question:

Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by [Piranesi], called his Dreams [actually,

Carceri d’Invenzione

, “

Imaginary Prisons

“] and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever

The sensation which de Quincey imagined in Piranesi was one of “endless growth and self-reproduction”, buildings growing to giddy heights, full of immense machinery and with a menacing air of entrapment.

In describing Piranesi, de Quincey was bang on the money. The Imaginary Prisons are something like a gothic-industrial Escher

avant la lettre


The visions are, as de Quincey suggests, something from an intense dreamscape. Not benign, but not quite nighmarish. There’s even a faint echo of this architectural reverie in the work of Coleridge, de Quincey’s counterpart in drugs as in art appreciation.

Kubla Khan

, the most famous product of his opium-induced dreams, operates mostly in a mode of pastoral mysticism. But even here there are occasional irruptions of architecture — the


, the

walls and towers

enclosing its twice five miles of gardens.

What’s more, Coleridge makes explicit something implied by Piranesi and de Quincey. These buildings have not been, could not be, built by humans. Only nature and gods operate on these rules of unstoppable, incomprehensible self-replication. To build the pleasure-dome, Coleridge’s dreamer must transcend humanity, become a god who inspires in others the dread which de Quincey found in Piranesi:

I would build that dome in air, 
That sunny dome! Those caves of ice! 
And all who heard should see them there, 
And all should cry, Beware! Beware! 
His flashing eyes! His floating hair! 
Weave a circle round him thrice, 
And close your eyes with holy dread, 
For he on honey-dew hath fed, 
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Coleridge, de Quincey, Piranesi: all are approaching some kind of architectural analog to the Uncanny Valley. Buildings in themselves are not frightening, nor is nature. But buildings behaving as nature —


is a source of ecstatic, hallucinatory horror.

Piranesi’s work all but transposes Kafka into architectural fantasy. “Imaginary Prisons” are by their nature part Metamorphosis, part Castle. They turn civilisation into cancer — rudderless, irrational, merciless and self-perpetuating. And, as with Kafka, reality echoes fantasy well enough to give it extra propulsion.

Piranesi brought into three dimensions — an animation by Gregoire Dupond


Aldous Huxley managed to pin down some of that beautiful, bureaucratic horror, in terms that could almost come from a back-to-nature critique of industrial civilisation:

The most disquietingly obvious fact about all these dungeons is the

perfect pointlessness

which reigns throughout. Their architecture is

colossal and magnificent

…. on the floor stand

great machines incapable of doing anything

in particular, and from the arches overhead hang ropes that carry nothing except a sickening suggestion of torture. Some of the Prisons are lighted only by narrow windows. Others are half open to the sky, with hints of yet other vaults and walls in the distance. But even where the enclosure is more or less complete, Piranesi always contrives to give the impression that this colossal pointlessness goes on indefinitely, and is

co-extensive with the universe


Piranesi is now somewhat less striking now than he must have been two hundred years ago. He was working one hundred years before Kafka, two hundred before Escher, developing a style that somehow anticipates not just the artistic but also the economic currents that would come generations after his death. And yet his prisons seem as though they could appear in my dreams, just as easily in the dreams that once touched de Quincey.

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