What does the belly know?

 

Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect begins with architect Stourley Kracklite, commissioned to develop an exhibition in Rome dedicated to the work of the 18th-century French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée. Much of the film’s attention, as its title suggests, is focused on Kracklite’s belly as his health deteriorates, as – not incidentally – does his marriage. The belly is the cipher (and foil to) the classical architecture that makes up the city, not least visually – contrast the straight ionic columns with the rounded curve of the belly, the classically masculine field of architecture with this symbol of fertility and fecundity, and the constructed versus the natural. In Rome, Kracklite’s visual and physical realities are all out of sorts.

This film is as much about what we don’t know (the shadowy Roman underworld, Kracklite’s wife’s infidelity) as what we do. We describe having a “gut feeling” about something that we half-know; the belly is perhaps the less articulate but no less convincing interlocutor between reality and consciousness. Indeed, if the bowel is the body’s “second brain” – so named because it contains roughly the same number of neurological synapses as the actual brain – might we also think that if there is an architecture of the mind, there might be one of the belly? 

Mark Wigley, writing in e-flux, notes that the human embryo forms itself first into a vaguely human shape around the digestive system, two or three weeks after conception, and claims that “We are from the beginning nothing but an enhanced gut, a system of producing and confusing limits that is supposed to be inside us but remains infinitely foreign.” The structures we have built to house us are the same: “Architecture is… a complex digestive system that manufactures a sense of interior detached from exterior by dissimulating all the folds, inner liquidities, sounds, smells, and movements of even the simplest building.” The psychosexual drama of the gut, in a sense, is true too for the building, which similarly tries to disguise its porous nature by hiding away its openings and orifices. Almost in passing, Wigley notes that “buildings are anyway part of the human body since they enable it to survive—a prosthetic skin, structure, and expanded metabolism that both expands and sustains” (hence Architectural Digest?).

Peter Greenaway based Kracklite’s condition on his own stomach pains, which he suffered from during the publicity tour for his film The Draughtsman’s Contract. As he noted in conversation with Peter Wollen, he became convinced they were psychosomatic, based in part on the fact that (in his words) “my very large, fat father, who had an enormous belly, died of stomach cancer.” As he explains, “all sorts of personal, autobiographical, general, theoretical ideas… gradually wove themselves into a film.” The father’s belly mirrors the mother’s in which life begins, itself a cluster of cells around its own digestive system. So, too, does the knowledge of those who came before – the engineering and construction expertise of the Romans, not to mention the contested legacy of Boullée – threatens to crush Kracklite: fathers too large for the son to sustain. Metaphors abound in this film, which traffics in the contradictory space between knowledge and ignorance, and the ethereal and the corporeal, the weightless and the grave. In the end, digestion is a life-long process; it is the work of the intellect as well as the more intuitive bodily systems, and is represented finally and endlessly in art. 

 

Watch The Belly of an Architect as part of TANK’s ninth season, Conception.