Geoffrey de Vinsauf / Platonic reversal / between 1199 and 1216


Siquis habet fundare domum, non currit ad actum

Impetosa manus: intrinseca linea cordis

Praemetitur opus, seriemque sub ordine certo

Inferior praescribit homo, totamque figurat

Ante manus cordis quam corporis; et status ejus

Est prius archetypus quam sensilis. Ipsa poesis

Spectet in hoc speculo quae lex sit danda poetis.


(from Poetria nova, lines 43 – 49)


If anyone is to lay the house foundations, he doesn’t act

With impetuous hand: the intrinsic lines of the heart

Measure out the work, the inner man determines the stages

Ahead and in a certain order; the whole is figured forth

By the heart’s before the body’s hands; and they form

The arche-model first before the senses. Poetry itself

Looks into this mirror to see the given laws for poets.


Poetria nova is a treatise on rhetoric which also embodies every example, layering rhetorical techniques over each other. This doubling begins with its first section on developing a plan and idea for writing. As earlier writers on God’s creation and on rhetoric had done (the Latin root aedifcio connecting edifice to edify*), Geoffrey de Vinsauf begins with the metaphor of house building. Its plan is complex and must precede the first stone being laid. This is clearly a Platonic model of image and substance, but the architectural metaphor is interlocked from the start with a bodily one, complicating original and copy or image and creation. The not-impetuous hand (impetosa manus) of the house builder becomes the interior “manus cordis” (heart’s hand). The exterior foundations become the prior “intrinseca linea cordis” (intrinsic lines of the heart). That the interior is already actualised as a bodily metaphor to match the exterior is a doubling pun on this dual creation, before the body’s hand the heart’s hand (Ante manus cordis quam corporis), cordis and corporis in fact both sharing the same instance of ‘manus’. This mixed interior and exterior is then doubled again in the mirror (in hoc speculo) of the last line of this excerpt: the interior model (the Platonic archetypus or arche-model) which precedes the building reflects the laws of poets; these laws are a substance which precede poetry’s actualisation just as the whole of Poetria nova is a mirror to itself as it explicates the laws of writing while also embodying them. In a miniature rendering of this within the sentence which states it, ‘poetry itself’ (Ipsa poesis) sits above lex sit danda poetis (the laws for poets), the latter having passed from poetry and through the mirror (speculo) to the left of the line, changed from substance into law. The substance of creation reverses out from the dual reflection and into live writing, and circles back. This circle escapes a restrictive borrowing of Platonic allegory in which the creation would simply be an enlarged copy of the interior model. There is no original beginning as the interior model in Poetria nova is already in the form of ‘lines’ (linea) as an image of a greater, truer poem further down if the Platonic model comes to the fore. There is also no end as the form which copies the plan can itself be an image and a model for another reversal and intermixing of inside and out when the text is read or the building entered into. This is the whole which is the figuring forth of totamque figurat (line 46), the whole figure of ideal become reality.



Katharina Berger-Meister explicates the Latin root aedifcio in her chapter ‘Mouth, Ears, Eyes: The Body in, behind and between the Lines of the Text’ in Fleshly Things and Spiritual Matters: Studies on the Medieval Body in Honour of Margaret Bridges (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), page 44. The popularity of Poetria nova across Europe is partly attributable to its ‘doubling’ of subject and form, and this is explored in Margaret Curry Woods’ Classroom Commentaries: Teaching the Poetria nova across Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Ohio State University Press, 2010). Roy Erikson in The Building in the Text: Alberti to Shakespeare and Milton (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001, page 7) argues that the sequence poeis / spectet / speculo / poetis in the lines discussed represents an ‘a b b a’ structure, this in itself mirroring architecture according to Erikson’s own thesis concerning buildings in text. The idea of Platonic reversals is drawn from Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense and its chapter ‘The Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy’.



Dawson Heights


Autumn at Dawson Heights

A brick ridge of 300 flats split into two freighter-like masses: Dawson Heights, Southwark council housing built between 1964 and 1972 designed by Kate Macintosh. It’s a design caught in a transition, a statement born from different, simultaneous purposes. The collapse of Ronan Point half way through the planning defines this break, manifested first as a move from system building and high rise towards lower rise alternatives, such as courtyards and ‘urban villages’, or ‘hill towns’. For housing in the UK, the transition is between an architecture which saw itself as reordering society and an architecture which would try to mirror or serve society. This dialectic was played out within public architecture at this point (high rise to urban villages) but it would become associated with public vs private development. The tension is captured everywhere in this design: monolithic but in brick and not concrete; twelve storey slab blocks descending at their ends in ziggurat steps to two storeys; a design which follows the contours of the hill yet extends and transforms it. Dramatic in mass and grouping but self-negating in its trailing away into lines and shadows. One detail: the balconies could only be justified (under a Labour government accused of overspending) by having multiple functions, such as forming fire escapes but with ‘break glass to enter’ doors effectively creating private balconies for each flat but not under that name on the plans.

If this is an arrangement of blocks, then each flat must cross between divisions and axes, the outside suggests, the irregularity of form giving all 300 flats a balcony, and two thirds of them a view both north and south. The great, open puzzle of this interlocking, multi-functional irregularity completely side steps the ‘estate as castle’ defensive trope which appealed to so many council estate architects of the period interested in earlier ‘community buildings’ in times of embattlement.

The buildings look like stacks of containers – in short like a megastructure although none of the flats could be removed or rearranged, plugged in or out, as the core-and-module principle of most structures in the mega-craze of the 60s dictated. If it’s a megastructure then that term would have to be stretched into the construction of a hill – a second, ordered rock formation upon the earth. Beneath Dawson Heights, the contours of the hill itself are stabilised and constructed, down into the ground, not only by deep foundations but by great buttress drains which dry out the London clay to stop it sliding down to flatten Dulwich on one side and Forest Hill on the other – the drains, ten metres apart and six metres deep (the civil engineer James Dallaway wrote about the project in the Dulwich Society Newsletter) are full of easily draining granular material, an earthwork inserting veins of loose rock into the clay. I climbed this double construct – up some public stairs and onto a walkway, and the panorama across London to the northern heights, Canary Wharf and the Dome was, finally, the social, open summit of Forest Hill. It’s a polemical perspective, the yellow towers of Southwark and Lewisham’s estates appearing as piles, shoring up the financial glimmer above them.

Notes – some online materials on Dawson Heights include: An article by Henrietta Billings at the 20th Century Society and this post by Douglas Murphy who sees the building as riven between two modernisms: “it seems to be riven in two directions between both the force of the sculptural, hard modernism (perhaps erroneously called brutalist) and the more picturesque Pevsnerian modernism. This was an intellectual battle going on at the time, and you can see it writ large here.”

Mount London

I ascended Forest Hill to write a topographical essay on my travels there for this new volume from Penned In The Margins, edited by Tom Chivers and Martin Kratz.


Each writer in the book took on a different hill – Tim Cresswell considers Northala Fields; Katy Evans-Bush climbs Stamford Hill… I headed south with only a phone, a Pevsner guide, three maps and two volumes of local history to guide me. Covering details such as a J. Sainsbury floor mosaic, a house built of larch and a Wren spire from a demolished church now the centre-piece of a housing estate, I then ended up thinking about Dawson Heights, the council estate designed by Kate Macintosh – an unmissable mass of flats on the ridge between Dulwich and Forest Hill.

Here’s an edited excerpt from the essay which covers my thoughts on Dawson Heights