Taking the measure of the incommensurable

Architectural representation of the improbable

Authored by: Louise Pelletier

The Routledge Companion on Architecture, Literature and The City

Print publication date:  August  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781472482730
eBook ISBN: 9781315613154
Adobe ISBN:


 Download Chapter



In The Great Wall of China, a short story published posthumously in 1931, Franz Kafka explains that when the wall was being built, some speculations arose about the purpose of such a gigantic construction. According to the narrator, an old man from a southern province who claims to have worked on the colossal structure, various hypotheses were put forward, from political reasons to spiritual quests, evoking even the biblical story of a failed attempt to reach heaven. If the Babylonian tower had failed to reach its goal, a scholar explained, it was due to the weakness of the foundations and he suggested, “the Great Wall alone would provide for the first time in the history of mankind a secure foundation for a new Tower of Babel.” 1 Before its construction began, China was a boundless country where time was extended in such a way that the present of Peking was “the historical past of the south.” Thus, the king endeavoured to establish a unifying link throughout the territory that would enable him to traverse “the souls of almost all the provinces,” 2 – a boundary that would unite the country under a common name – making the half-circle of the wall a spiritual foundation for the new tower. Hence for Kafka, the building of this gigantic infrastructure and the unification of a territory symbolized the dream of a universal language that would ultimately be attained by the technological achievement of its construction (Figure 1.1).

Search for more...
Back to top

Use of cookies on this website

We are using cookies to provide statistics that help us give you the best experience of our site. You can find out more in our Privacy Policy. By continuing to use the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.