Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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At the Service of the Unusual: Ways to Write the Built Environment

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posted on 2021-05-06, 23:42 authored by Philipa Adam
This thesis asks the question: in what ways can the language of structural engineering inform, alter and enlarge the language of fiction? My aim is to write our relationship with the built environment in ways that highlight the strangeness of surroundings that we normally take for granted in order to amplify what might usually be a muted aspect of fiction. I argue that 'strangeness' is a useful term since it suggests something of the paradox of a large built form, that it is both manifestly solid and still but also basically a machine for balancing forces that are constantly in motion. The thesis is in two parts: a critical essay followed by a work of fiction. I use a Translation Studies framework to identify characteristics of structural engineering language. The findings of this research inform my creative work. My research essay starts by investigating imaginative literature that expresses the built form as symbol or surface. I conclude from this review that one way of highlighting the strangeness of our built environment is to express the hidden, inner world of the built form. Structural engineers have a unique understanding of this inner world which resists the type of symbolism used in imaginative literature. After exploring research which investigates pathways between rational and imaginative literature, I propose an analysis of the language of structural engineering to uncover characteristics which might inform my creative project. I use a Translation Studies framework, based on Gideon Toury's Descriptive Translation Studies (DTS) and Hans J. Vermeer's skopos theory, to analyse a variety of texts written by engineers. This methodology allows me to identify choices and problems engineers face in 'translating' built forms into written and oral communication. Current Translation Studies theory recognises the importance of context; therefore the discussion of my findings begins by summarising perceptions of the engineering culture, paying particular attention to writing by engineers about the engineering profession. The following three chapters deal in turn with how engineers translate features of the built form associated with: Action and Event, the Relationship between the Human and the Built, and Aesthetics or Felt Response. I conclude my essay with a chapter which introduces my creative work, a novel called I’m Working on a Building, in which I attempt to use characteristics from the language of structural engineering to restore some of the strangeness of these structures, and to promote into view aspects of the physical world which might ordinarily figure as background or veiled symbol. My aim is that the fiction plays with and tests some of the ideas in the research essay rather than illustrating or enacting them. In some ways, the fiction might also contradict the theoretical observations. For example, to what extent was I able to free my work from symbolism? Is the act of writing figuratively and indeed reading a reflexive one? These and other questions raised may generate further discussion.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains All Rights

Degree Discipline

Creative Writing

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Victoria University of Wellington School

International Institute of Modern Letters


Wilkins, Damien; Charleson, Andrew