Classics about Distorted Guy, Un-possess-able Woman, and Architecture


Written by Fernisia Richtia Winnerdy

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Books and film that she recommends for this article

Other than the story and how it is told, I am fascinated by these two classics because of their plots and characters’ relationships with architecture; The Phantom of The Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

It’s often been said that architect is a heroic profession which gotten more and more popular in fiction stories. This notion reminds me of the fact that the phantom in the Phantom of The Opera is actually an architect.

“What?!” some of you might say.

It’s true. That ugly guy who confined himself in the underground of Paris, who is obsessed with the opera’s star, Christine Daae, is a genius architect -of course other than a ventriloquist, and a singer, and a pianist, and a composer, which all make him a phantom.


His original name is Erik. He was casted away by his mother when he was small because of his horrible look. He grew up then a survival, a genius one, that when he reached his adulthood, he worked at a contractor who by then was building an Opera House. Being more brilliant than his boss, our main character designed the Opera House as he wished, subsuming  labyrinths, secret doors, passages, and an underground cellar in which he live by himself.

One day there came a girl performer, Christine Daae. She believed in the existence of the Angel of Music, whom her Dad told her about when she was a child. Then Erik, fell in love with Christine and with all his talents and architecture, availingly played that role. Christine is drunk every time she hears Erik sings. She becomes better on stage too since she takes the singing lessons. She devotes her life to him.

But that is only until Erik takes Christine to his chamber, in which she finally sees Erik’s true ugly face. Broken-hearted by Christine’s reaction, Erik does everything he can to get his love back. On the final day, he kidnaps Christine. Raoul is going to rescue his love, but falls on Erik’s architecture’s trap, the torture chamber.


“I have said that the room in which M. le Vicomte de Chagny and I were imprisoned was a regular hexagon, lined entirely with mirrors. Plenty of these rooms have been since,… But the invention belongs entirely to Erik, who built the room of this kind under my eyes,… Erik altered his invention into a “torture chamber.” For architectural motive placed in one corner, he substituted an iron tree…

The walls of this strange room gave the patient nothing to lay hold of, because, apart from the solid decorative object, they were simply furnished with mirrors, thick enough to withstand any onslaught of the victim, who was flung into the chamber empty-handed and barefoot.

There was no furniture. The ceiling was capable of being lit up. An ingenious system of electric heating, which has since been imitated, allowed the temperature to be increased at will.

I am giving all these details of a perfectly natural invention, producing, with a few painted branches, the supernatural illusion of an equatorial forest blazing under the tropical sun…”

Bla bla bla… Christine gives up. But not that she agrees to marry Erik to save Raoul, she feels pity on Erik that she knows a good guy he actually is. Christine kisses Erik sincerely and he, having been kissed and loved the first time, gives in; he lets her go. Christine escapes the dungeon with Raoul while Erik in the end burns himself along with The Opera House.

That is just one bit of how architecture is used in the story as the Phantom’s “weapon”. Read the unabridged version of the novel to find out more (because psst! unfortunately the film is not as much architectural).

The Phantom of the Opera


Author                               : Gaston Leroux

Original Title                   : Le Fantome de l’Opera

Country                             : French

Publication                       : 1909-1910

Translated                        : 1911

It is worth to note here that Gaston Leroux was actually inspired by the real architecture of the Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris. There he found an underground lake and cellars beneath the Opera House while covering the story about the ghost there in 1905 (I wonder if there’s any architecture these days that can give birth to a classic book).

In addition to that, Collins Classic’s edition noted that Gaston Leroux drew also upon Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame as the novel’s template.

 The Hunchback of Notre Dame


Author                          : Victor Hugo

Original Title              : Notre-Dame de Paris

Country                       : French

Publication                 : 1831

Translated                  : 1978

Though The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s main character, Quasimodo, is not an architect, he, thrown away by his mother due to his massive physical distortion, has always lived in the church since he was four. He becomes the Cathedral’s guard, the bell-ringer. He knows every inch of every corner of the building, as well as what happens in and surround it.

He knows it too, when one day there comes Esmeralda, the gypsy girl whom Quasimodo falls in love with since the first sight. But ugly he is, he can only watch the girl from atop the bell tower, being adored by men from all across the city, counting in Claude Frollo (the priest of the Cathedral who saves and raises Quasimodo), and Captain Phoebus (a knight Esmeralda herself loves). The thing is gypsies are not always loved. Esmeralda is haunted and Quasimodo does what he can to protect her inside his palace, The Cathedral.

“Here it was, after his wild and triumphal race along the towers and galleries, Quasimodo deposited La Esmeralda. So long as the race lasted, the damsel had not recovered her senses, half stupefied, half awake,… She half-opened her eyes; then beneath her she saw confusedly, Paris all checkered with its countless roof of tile and slate, like a red and blue mosaic, and above her head Quasimodo frightful but joy-illumined face.

…He carried a basket under one arm and a mattress under the other. This basket contained a bottle, bread, and some other provisions. He set the basket on the ground, and said, ‘Eat.’ He spread out the mattress on the flag stones, and said, ‘sleep.’ It was his own meal, his own bed that the bell-ringer had brought her.

The Egyptian lifted her eyes to his face to thank him, but could not utter a word. The poor fellow was absolutely hideous. She drooped her head with a thrill of horror.

Then he said to her ‘I frighten you. I am ugly, am I not? Do not look at me, only listen to me. In day time you stay here; at night you can walk about all over the church. But stir not a step out of it, either by night or by day. You would be lost. They would kill you, and I should die.’”


But no, it didn’t stay long. In the end, Esmeralda dies and Quasimodo for the first time again goes out of the church, conceivably, to accompany Esmeralda’s corpse. There was no evidence left about what makes an end to the hunchback but he is never seen since.


There isn’t so much an act of creating in The Hunchback of Notre Dame than in The Phantom of The Opera. But instead, it talks about deterioration of the creation –which is an analogy of a culture, the human civilization.

Here in the Book five, chapter two: One Shall Destroy the Other, we can find what Victor Hugo points out as depreciated.

“Our fair readers will pardon us if we pause a moment to search for the hidden meaning of those enigmatic words of the archdeacon: ‘the one shall destroy the other. The book will kill the edifice.’

In our opinion this idea might present two aspects. In the first place, it was the thought of the priest. It was the alarm of the priest in the presence of a new agent, printing… It was the pulpit and the manuscript, the spoken word and the written word taking fright at the printed word… It was the prognostic of the philosopher, who sees human thought volatilised by the press, evaporating from the theocratic recipient… It meant, ‘The press shall kill the Church.’…. But under this thought…there was…a view equally philosophic and not confined alone to the priest, but shared by the savant and the artist. It was the presentiment that human thought is changing its form would also changes its mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same material and in the same manner; that the book of stone, so solid and so enduring, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more enduring… ‘printing would kill architecture.'”

More than putting architecture on the spotlight only as the story’s background, in this chapter Hugo talks about the term itself and the profession that follows it, architect.

“…architecture is the great book of humanity, the principal expression of man in his various stages of development, both as regards force and intellect.

A stone was placed upright, it was a letter… Later on they made words; they made stone upon stone, they coupled these syllables of granite; the verb essayed a few combinations… Sometimes even, where there was plenty of stone and vast coast, they wrote a phrase.”

“Then, whosoever was born poet became architect. Genius, scattered through the masses, compressed on all sides by feudalism… All other arts obeyed and placed themselves under the discipline of architecture. They were workmen of the great work.”

I neither expected reading such relation of characters to architecture nor deep of reflection about the term ‘architecture’ itself in these two classics. But indeed they assure me how architecture –which for me means a place that we give meaning to– does inevitably play a significant role in humans’ live.

Many if not all architects recall their childhood house when they talk about their practice; say Peter Zumthor in Thinking Architecture and Glenn Murcutt in his talk we’re going to watch and review on Saturday, February 21th 2015.

“When I think about architecture, images come into my mind. Many of these images are connected with my training and work as an architect. They contain the professional knowledge about architecture I have gathered over the years. Some of the other images have to do with my childhood. There was time I experienced architecture without thinking about it.” – Peter Zhumtor

Another classic, a movie though, that tells a story about a guy, an un-possess-able woman, and an architecture, is The Legend of 1900.

The Legend of 1900


Director                     : Giuseppe Tornatore

Star                             : Tim Roth

Publication               : 1998

Watch full movie     :

Found by one of the sailors of the ship that transports people from Europe to America, Nineteen Hundred was named after the year in which he was found. With a piano in the ballroom of the ship, the only entertainment he got there, he grows up playing it for the passengers from time to time. One day he meets this woman who sets a spark in his heart. But the ship for the woman is only a mean of transportation, while for him home. Though he almost for the first time get off the ship and set his foot on the ground to catch the woman up, he encumbered.

Even until the ship is condemned worn out and therefore useless, even until it is exploded, he is in it.

More classics to read at OMAH library: