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Arne De Boever (Columbia University)

W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and “Deconstructivist Architecture”


There is an emphatic attention in W.G. Sebald’s last novel Austerlitz to architecture and to architectural history in particular. Toward the end of the novel, just before we find the narrator in Belgium (where the novel started) once again, there is a fifteen-page long description of the central character Jacques Austerlitz’ visit to the new Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.[i] The library is described as a monument of which the dimensions “were evidently inspired by the late President’s wish to perpetuate his memory [emphasis mine]” (A 276) and as “our pharaonic President’s Grande Bibliothèque [emphasis mine]” (A 289). Given the fact that the library is also described as “futuristic” (A 278) and as “the official manifestation of the increasingly important urge to break with everything which still has some living connection to the past” (A 286), the connection that the passage establishes between past, present, and future is strange. The President’s memory and the architecture of the pyramid obviously relate to the past, but the suggestion seems to be that this connection is not living, i.e. that the past is not alive in the new library. At first sight, it seems that the library is death. If we consider the passage carefully, however, it becomes clear that the library is a monument beyond death. It is the absolute perfection of a concept, something that is equally inimical to both life and death. When Austerlitz attempts to think through the relation of death to the Cartesian overall plan of the library, he comes to the conclusion “that in any project we design and develop, the size and degree of complexity and of the information control systems inscribed in it are the crucial factors, so that the all-embracing and absolute perfection of the concept can in practice coincide, indeed ultimately must coincide, with its chronic dysfunction and constitutional instability” (A 281). This co-inciding is realised toward the end of the passage, when we hear that buried beneath the foundations of the new library is the affair of the Germans taking loot from the homes of the Jews of Paris (cf. A 288-289). But it is also realised at the level of the text itself. Austerlitz’ observation that the library bears the President’s name becomes particularly meaningful if we relate it to the comparison that the passage sets up between the library and the Tower of Babel. Interestingly, Austerlitz’ description of the Babylonian library is fractured by a quotation (in French) from the work of Honoré de Balzac (a quotation for which the novel does not offer a translation) (cf. A 283). What is the relation between Sebald’s novelistic construction and the Tower of Babel? How to write after Babel? How to build after Babel? What is the architectural debate that Sebald’s novel takes part in? How does it relate to literature and to literary theory?


In 1988, Philip Johnson attempted (in the words of one commentator) “to bring a semblance of order to the disorder of contemporary architecture by mounting an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art entitled ‘Deconstructivist Architecture’”.[ii] In what follows, I set up a comparison between Austerlitz and the ideas and projects of two architects whose work was included in Johnson’s exhibition: Bernard Tschumi and Daniel Libeskind. For my understanding of deconstructivist architecture, I am indebted to the work of Sanford Kwinter, Anthony Vidler, and Mark Wigley.[iii] In this short version of the paper, I am drawing from Mark Taylor’s books Hiding and Nots.[iv]

The history of architectural modernism has been described as a history of alternative strategies for making the body disappear (cf. H 238). Drawing from Tschumi’s The Manhattan Transcripts, Taylor suggests that this dematerialisation represents “the desire to escape time by securing stability in the midst of the flux” (H 239). For Tschumi, the figure of this longing for permanence is the pyramid. But what if eternity is over? Following Georges Bataille, Tschumi believes that a labyrinth undermines every pyramid. Architecture was always the symbol of stability, but (according to Tschumi) it simultaneously was always challenged by the movement of bodies going through architecture (cf. H 241). Tschumi relates this movement of bodies through space to film. “In the shifty structure of film”, Taylor notes, “Tschumi discerns a way of smuggling time into architecture” (H 243). All of Tschumi’s work is directed against the dematerialisation of architecture into pure form, against the violation of the body through the emphasis on surface. According to Taylor, Tschumi is trying to introduce indeterminacy into the architectural structure (cf. H 250). How to create a structure that remains stable, but in which everything is in motion? How to create something that is simultaneously complete and incomplete, closed and open, a project of which the conceptual perfection can in practice coincide with its chronic dysfunction and constitutional instability?

I suggest that there is a relation between Tschumi’s architectural project and Austerlitz. I argue that the question that both Tschumi and Sebald address is not only an aesthetic question, but also an ethical and a political question. I develop this argument by looking at two of Libeskind’s works: the 1987 City Edge project and the later Between the Lines (Libeskind’s “Extension to the Berlin Museum with the Jewish Museum”). I relate Libeskind’s exploitation of the logic of the wall in City Edge to the discussion of fortification and siege-craft as it is taken up at various moments in Sebald’s novel. I read Libeskind’s construction of the Jewish Museum – his inscription of a void in the middle of the Jewish Museum, his definition of a compressed and distorted star that establishes the coordinates that situate the Jewish Museum, and his creation of a labyrinth under what he exposes as the false bottom of the Berlin Museum – with Austerlitz’ critique of the Bibliothèque Nationale.


How can the body, time, history, otherness, indeterminacy, be introduced into the architecture of – or, as I rephrase it, into the law of – the novel? One way to approach this problem is via the question of “deconstruction and the possibility of justice” as it was raised in 1989 at a colloquium organised by Drucilla Cornell at the Cardozo Law School in New York. The specific question of the relation between the body and the law has become revitalised recently in the work of Giorgio Agamben. Through my discussion of Agamben’s reference in Homo Sacer: Il Potere Sovrano e la Nuda Vita to Georges Dumézil and Károly Kerényi’s description of the Flamen Diale, one of the greatest priests of classical Rome,[v] and through my reading of Ian Watt’s study The Rise of the Novel, I expose the ethical problem of writing, of reading, and of teaching a novel. I then graft this novel-theoretical argument onto Austerlitz by quickly looking, first, at a scene that occurs about halfway through the novel. In the setting of London’s Liverpool Street Station, Austerlitz has a vision of imprisonment and liberation: he sees an architectural structure about which it is impossible to decide “whether it was a ruin or a building in the process of construction” (A 136). And second, at another scene that occurs toward the end of the novel, in which Austerlitz’ friend Marie de Verneuil suggests we look at our others “à travers une brèche d’incompréhension” (A 263) (again, the novel offers no translation). In both scenes, I argue, Sebald is inviting us to rethink the law of the novel as a structure that imprisons and liberates. I close by comparing Sebald’s construction of Austerlitz to Jeff Wall’s construction of “woman” in his Picture for Women (and, if there is time, in his later The Giant), and by underlining the importance after 9/11/2001 of continuing to think the law as a transparent surface across which bodies can freely move.


[i] W.G. Sebald. Austerlitz. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Modern Library 2001. Henceforth cited in text as A, followed by page reference. Here 275-290.

[ii] Mark C. Taylor. Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion. Chicago: Chicago University Press 1992, 231. 

[iii] Cf. Sanford Kwinter. Architectures of Time: Toward a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press 2001./ Anthony Vidler. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge: MIT Press 1992./ Mark Wigley. The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt. Cambridge: MIT Press 1993.

[iv] Taylor. Nots. Chicago: Chicago University Press 1992./ Taylor. Hiding. Chicago: Chicago University Press 1995. Henceforth cited in text as H, followed by page reference.

[v] Cf. Giorgio Agamben. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press 1998, 182-183.