Imaginary Architecture: The Cathedral of Mist

On fancy literary abodes, and in particular Paul Willems’s “Cathedral of Mist”. And a list of 20+ famous (more or less) literary towers, castles, rooms.
Other World by M. C. Escher (1947)


Looking at the diverse collection of M. C. Escher’s sketches, it’s hard to believe there exist impossible architectures he has failed to conjure.

Throw in everything else described on this site, Impossible World, with its historical and modern explorations of the subject, and you’re in a genuine tight spot to think of something new.

Visually speaking.

So take a sidestep and look at the problem linguistically. Instead of asking about the impossible, ask about the imaginary.

(Note the synaesthetic idioms we swallow daily: you can speak visually—apply the eye to an action of the mouth, and look linguistically—apply language to an action of the eye.)

The sidestep works. Words can paint pictures more bizarre than pencils can. What a warped, inconsistent visual geometry does for sight, a description of an imaginary, non-existent wonder does directly for the brain—many times over and uniquely so for every individual. This shouldn’t be surprising: on paper, a drawing is constrained by two-dimensions and utensil type, while a story is only loosely constrained by two hundred thousand words and some grammar rules (amongst which linearity is chief).

So if you’re not a naturally gifted draughtsman with an instinct for the optical paradox, literary expression is another potential outlet (assuming learning how to write comes more easily to you than learning how to draw well).

If all else fails—read! Inhabiting the worlds that rise from the rows of black squiggles is your prerogative.

Greatest literary abodes?

Too many to reasonably list; too few that I know well enough to argue for their objective worth. Instead, here are just some that figure as trope representatives in my mind. In roughly chronological order (ancient times, then the period between 1842 and 2009):

  1. The chambers of Olympus: for their ambrosia & nectar, and the scheming gods they shelter. (Greek myth)
  2. The Minotaur’s labyrinth: for its heart of tangled clew. (Greek myth)
  3. Argo: for its epic sea-worthiness and its paradox of identity—does it remain the same ship if you replace all of its components one by one? (Greek myth)
  4. City of Troy and Trojan Horse: for the paragons of ultimately doomed citadel and ultimate ruse. (Greek epic)
  5. Prince Prospero’s abbey: for its quintessential opulence of gothic horror. (Edgar Allan Poe, in The Masque of Red Death)
  6. Frankenstein’s laboratory: for the birthplace of the modern ethical dilemma. (Mary Shelly)
  7. Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory: for the birthplace of the quintessential metamorphic flip. (Robert Louis Stevenson)
  8. 221B Baker Street: for the sanctuary it provides the greatest detective. (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  9. Dracula’s castle: for its undead heart of vampiric lore. (Bram Stoker)
  10. The Haunted Bookshop: for the cozy bookshop atmosphere to end all bookshop atmospheres. (Christopher Morley)
  11. Gatsby’s mansion: for its glitzy parties that hide the deepest, simplest, most human ambition. (Scott F. Fitzgerald)
  12. The Library of Babel: for the library that contains all libraries. (Jorge Luis Borges)
  13. Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass and Cinnamon shops: for its time-slowing, twilit paradoxical setting, and for its scented romance with a Wunderkammer. (Bruno Schultz)
  14. Rivendell: for its stupendously beautiful halls filled with purity, longevity, and wisdom. (J. R. R. Tolkien)
  15. The Bridge on the Drina: for its sturdy centuries-long endurance, come friend or foe. (Ivo Andrić)
  16. Giovanni’s Room: for its symbolic, claustrophobic refuge to lost/last hope on the societal fringe. (James Baldwin)
  17. High-Rise: for the psychosis of modern living taken to its dystopian conclusion. (J. G. Ballard)
  18. Kerewin’s tower:  for its defiant eccentricity. (Keri Hulme, in the The Bone People)
  19. Hogwarts: for its attractiveness to the forever-child in me. (J. K. Rowling, in the Harry Potter series)
  20. Concent of Saunt Edhar: for its supremely imagined sanctuary for mathematicians. (Neal Stephenson, in Anathem)
  21. The City & the City: for its outrageous twining of two cities. (China Miéville)
  22. House of Leaves: for its mystery, being the title of a book I want to read, but never seem to. (Mark Z. Danielewski’s)
Cycle by M. C. Escher (1938)


Today I would like to share with you the most recent addition to my list of unforgettable imaginary architectures: Paul Willems’s Cathedral of Mist (translated by Edward Gauvin).

The architect V. renounced the use of stone. After years of meditation, he built a cathedral of mist.

The principle was simple. The walls and steeple were made of fog instead of rock. As fog could neither be shaped nor mortared, construction was difficult. But the architect V. knew that fog followed certain paths in the air as water follows a riverbed. And so, with the help of skilfully placed bellows, V. founded currents of warm air that rose up like hollow walls and columns. These walls of warm air met in the shape of an arch one hundred and fifteen feet above the floor. Steam from a power station hidden underground follows the paths traced for it in the air.

As if that were not enough, the cathedral came with filigreed flowers designed to catch the condensed droplets of vapour:

The goldsmith Wolfers had sculpted admirable irises to catch them on the ground. The deep blue blossoms bristled with slender steel fillet that each drop of what moved to sustained song. This music, which the fashion of the day deemed “violet,” replaced the bells the architect V. had not been able to hang in the steeple of mist. But instead of taking wing like the sound of bells, this sound could be heard only by visitors, and traveled to a place very deep inside them. Like harness bells on that little horse pulling a sleigh through the night we bear wishing, it glided toward the farthest part of ourselves beyond which music dies in sweet agony. 

Naturally, the cathedral was affected by the weather at large:

Despite the shelter of the woods, the church would scatter in heavy storms. It took shape again only at dusk when the wind fell.

On the particularly cold Christmas Eve of 1909, an expedition went to visit the Cathedral and spent all night in the forest. In the morning they had a miracle to behold:

The cathedral of mist had condensed into frost on millions of branches, the branches of the massive oaks and beeches surrounding the clearing. The cathedral sparkled in the sunlight; every last detail of its architecture could be distinguished. I felt like we were seeing it reflected in one of those great mythical mirrors where winter has forever frozen its most beautiful memories.

The cathedral melted away soon thereafter, becoming all the more a miracle for its evanescence.

So I add to my list:

  • The Cathedral of Mist:  for its ephemeral aerial beauty and as a symbol of imaginary human ingenuity. (Paul Willems)

Eyrie, mansions, dungeons—which structures does your literary imagination inhabit? I can already think of many fine examples I’ve missed.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

10 thoughts on “Imaginary Architecture: The Cathedral of Mist”

      1. Oh I guess it didn’t go through! Your post reminded me of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I was at an M.C, Escher exhibit the other day and it’s very interesting to see his progression from literal depictions of landscapes to the more mind-bending stuff he’s famous for. He was a master of both.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m reading Calvino’s Cities at the moment! Indeed, I was thinking the same.

        Must have been an experience seeing Escher’s work up close, and then, as you say, picking up on the transitions and tricks. I won’t ask where it was, but lucky you 🙂

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts and associations.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. In the rain forests around Melbourne there are cathedrals of giant trees when the mists cast a physical atmosphere and I will find one and photograph it. But it isn’t exactly what you are taliking about but it’s as close as I can get.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I will rush out tomorrow to the mountains and see if I can catch one . However there may have been a slight syntactical error in my comment. As you are probably aware, most cathedrals are made of stone or timer or both. Every now and then some timber is left a little less dressed than others. In fact some trees aren’t even cut down at all because their majesty and grandeur would be diminished. But I will find you one.

        Liked by 1 person

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