Sprawled alone with long summer dusk

Sprawled alone with long summer dusk still high and slow through the trees beyond the Kimbell with my back against a bench and my legs flat stretched out across the floor toward the fountain I fingered pits in the travertine. I don’t think about giants when I am right up against them. That built-in delay or personality of avoidance is something that troubles me about intellectualism. As rich as it is, fertile enough to perpetuate itself, dusting pollen on the stigma of longing isolated flowers, intellectual thought is so mired in the tedious process of reflection that the sacrament of mass with a situation, context, scenario, object comes only through the epiklesis of layers of relationships, like layers of onionskin forming a figure with their grain through a not quite x-ray emergence. This takes time. This sedimentation does not quite lend itself to the immediate tingling satisfaction of concrete experiences (not philosophical problems) while still immersed in them. These buried figured hit arise in me much later, as they populate the filing system of my brain amongst the rest of the detritus (reams of memory). Should this deferral frustrate me? No. But do I lose its fruitful return by remaining in that common form of getting lost in the senses, severing connections of the senses to logic or skeletons of essays or tales, and letting my eyes see through things, or see them all at once, or look (Berger) at them without seeing what they are or what I believe them to be. But, as I sometimes believe, if everything is architecture, this process of letting architecture contain me and be around me is in fact the opposite of the gestation that architecture, or critical thought regarding it, requires to come into being. The grackles silently bathe on the far end of the pool then stand up and whistle. I have been traveling in Texas for days. The Kimbell is a giant enough to hear its thunder still in another day or week. I am free to step back to Austin, a while city in exchange for a building. Business travel distills my perceptions, rather it distills what my perceptions act upon, reducing the environment to the walls of a tunnel, lined by uniform fluorescent lighting where node after node of my experience is gridded off, clocked, and weighed absently like the passing hours across a day at my desk. But with a whole city as an office, there is so much to be destroyed, overlooked, and bored by.

A building flexes out of flat space like a jittering eye when the streetlights cut out.

I can’t sleep on business travel. No matter how I strip down, shower, dim the lights, turn down the covers, array the pillows, I still feel like I am sleeping in my clothes. The business of getting a building built can be an extension of the space of its argument or a prefiguration of the space it will create, at the very least a space that begins to inflect the behavior of its occupants. But the character of these spaces is not inherently of the project of the building. The business is a design project as much as the building. The space and character of communication can be shaped into a self-same vehicle of the building’s project. But it must be trodden delicately and knowingly. Whereas the building design appears to be a unidirectional locomotive with a front of people, mostly parallel but “ever forward” (as the sign in the trailer said), weaving under the auspices of a few parties, who if they disagree might do so on the grounds of personality or professional differences, leaving the building as somewhat of a silent victim, getting inherently separated in the space of the business because its only envelope is personality and profession. As fragile as a masterpiece is, depending on the harmony of its parts, so too does the business. Failures are much more difficult to unearth in multivalent systems like business relationships. A man cannot be wrestled like a duct or a line, or even like a stylistic tendency.

It is one thing to dip in and out of that space in a professional context, in a ‘work week,’ but the business trip grabs the tails of the thread and drapes them across nights, pulls them through buildings and cities, dips them in my meals, and ties me and my expressions in that tentative externalized construction. I am not my own man. I am a part of the project.

The air conditioning preserves every spring room I float in and out of. I can still smell it in the streets, or smell the nothing of those rooms instead of the streets. My colleagues are cadavers in the rooms. We all get lots in life, we fall into rackets. I see this one as letting myself die, or die one pixel at a time, in morgues of meetings. I remember thinking, before starting to drink alcohol at a late age, that those scare-sermons in primary education about alcohol killing brain cells were in reality a mathematical suicide. I saw a beer having a quantifiable death toll, perhaps sixty cells. I pictured the assault having a beginning, like a cartoon bomb fuse sparkling into ash through my brain. Each spent segment jettisoned into a blackened point took with it a fragment of a memory, the texture of carpet in my childhood bedroom or some cognitive ability, like an edge to my visual-spatial perception. I felt like those business meetings had the same explicit impact on my professional abilities. Where does passion go? How did it slip out of me through this process? Where do these intangibles inside me depart to? Do they snuff out and leave a husk like physical death? I think the difference between the alcohol assault and the death of passion is the passion is replaced. The medium that carried it is rewritten with cynicism rather than merely evacuating. So instead of crumbling like a tomb I am slowly petrified into a different person.

Perhaps the construct of the relationship that I entered into was failed from the beginning. As a young man, a freshly seasoned board, a complete idea, I was merely a component being colored by the cynicism of the jaded group. Their preconceived notions from the well of experience doomed the project of the relationship, each a quantifiable failure. These meetings were like a river delta. They never moved; they collected everything that flowed into them; they were always downstream from the most polluted parts of our distrusts and egos. So every meeting seemed to be the result of all of us walking further back upstream and pissing into the river. The longer it went on the less we wandered back upstream. I started fresher so I was making my way back to the source every time. But as spirits were further damaged and the impression that this would once again be a failed architecture set in we simply stayed where we were in between engagements. We languished in the delta and pissed and shat and dumped our garbage where we lay. The built project which would leave us behind and erase our corruption was the only hope we foresaw. So this process could only find success in our deaths or departures. From the outside, as an inhabitant, I see the building as a full fledged adult. Like Athena sprung fully armored from Zeus’ skull the building is everything in totality, an environment, a shelter, a symbolic order, an enabling vessel as I encounter it. But somehow its progenitors, architects and craftsmen, lay disabled behind the equation, separate agents, ships passing in the night only conversing through the crystalline purity of the drawings. The architect leaves his marks through order, vision, the chords of the song and the craftsman the traces of his hand, his tools, and his command or lack thereof over the properties of the building materials. But all of these things seem to screech forward over the chasm of the professional relationship to conflate the beautiful perception of the individual into the fabric of my visceral experience. Whether good or bad, these meetings are the dead brain cells of the building, or they are the rewritten media, each cell occupied by the meeting turned back again from cynicism or disappointment to a calcified physical increment of the building. It could be either. But the way I breathed told me it was the option in which I slowly disappeared.

For all the time I have spent in federal buildings I have never managed to convene in a room with windows. This is strange because the archetypal federal building, dating from the post-war population swell of government bureaucrats but before the retraction into privatization, is outstanding in most city landscapes for having the most windows. Certainly there are all-glass buildings, but these are single gigantic monolithic windows. The federal building is characterized by the Cartesian relentlessness of its glazing subdivision where what is expressed is the window frame rather than the window opening. There couldn’t be a more Kafkaesque resolution to the federal building design problem. A building envelope that fluctuates between communicating the sovereign existence of the individual as one of many or the loss of that individual identity through the homogenization of bureaucracy and bean-counting, all expressed through the primary conveyance of hope in a structure: a window to the sky; and all of this meeting a building whose interior we are fortunate enough to gain access to (sorry K!) only to find that there are no real windows.

I can typically critically consider my surroundings, or at least store them for future consideration when I am liberated to allow them access to my life. The system of architecture doesn’t allow that agency on its own. I have to be situationally inclined. This situation could be either a contemplative state, me and the space or place, or an emotional state in which the ‘setpiece’ becomes exaggerated in its intrusion into the scene or aspects of it rise out of the camouflage to flesh out the emotion: the limits of a barren plaza after being abandoned by a lover; a low ornate ceiling in an excessively long room crowded with throngs in the midst of a panic attach; even a blank windowless conference room, appointed with prints of paintings that have haunted me throughout my life, not because they are haunting but because they haunt, everywhere, under ceiling tiles and two by two lights, can rise to the surface under certain emotional conditions. It so happened that this continuum of rooms that comprised the endless stall of my business associations was not such a situation. It was the opposite of contemplation or emotional engagement. Even burning with fury it wasn’t mine, it was the company’s. I felt it for the building but not as an integral part of the scene. It was happening to me but in a dramatization of life that didn’t unfold, but felt more stumbled upon as if it was perpetually staged. So it felt like it was happening to some other aspect of me. So there was not even anything to revisit or to create a richness of experience from after the fact. So after they occurred, and all trace of them had dried up (they didn’t evaporate, that would imply a breath of life, they dried up because they remained where they were in both time and space, freeze-dried) I questioned whether they had indeed just happened, and in time forget them entirely. Was it something about the insincerity of the relationships, a mutual interment of skepticism that indeed made me want to abandon the memory, or was it actually a predisposition of the business of architect, feeling so achingly wrong because it was so antithetical to the silent products of the endeavor. The question then is, how does my mind zero in on the things that it will preserve for future access as they are happening? Because intellectual or critical thought is reflection, it is a function of memory, its constituents have to be viscous enough to be remembered. If it has not be imprinted it can play no role in the argument, of less value than ephemera for it can not even exist in the hypothetical. It is gone.

Atop the disenchantment of the business process this bleak judgment on my presence as an individual led me to think of little beyond escape. The agendas languished, or more typically, the lack of agenda held me in solitary confinement with no sense of time passing, just mummified in all of our halitosis. I insinuated false conclusions with my body language but they didn’t take. I followed conversations intently like a psychologist looking for phrasing and tones that might signal the dissolution of the meeting. My colleagues seemed to get off on one-upping each other through my oblivion with harrowing anecdotes that they postured their street-cred through but in which I only saw that they couldn’t possibly have anything to gain by immersing themselves as I had into the life of the project. They were too far gone. And just when it seemed like another round of inconsequential banter was emerging, someone would have the balls to noisily close their notebook or leatherette folio and start the avalanche of bail-outs. It must have been 4:30. I would try to get the fuck out of there without sharing an elevator and rush of into the maddening afternoon sun

That schism between a continuous experience that washes over me and the ‘stuckness’ of the emotional or contemplative experience, which is difficult and represents a long term removal from fluid life as parts of me remain, is a struggle for control over my surroundings and control over my mind. The practice of mindfulness is a sort of active meditation, it is Being, which a capital B, in the moment. It is not control over the moment, complete apprehension of its facets, but attendance to my self in context, in physical and emotional situations. It is supposed to reveal my ‘place’ in the context, in the system and be a comforting mantra that I am not in control, I am me, I live, I am in the world, and the world, its own thing, is here around me. But my form, my attentiveness, removes my inability to react. My wife and I have discussed a shared handicap of ours. Without fail, when we are meeting a new person we become so focused on erecting the façade of social pleasantness and attentiveness, by being in the moment, that the entire content of the exchange disappears like Cinderella’s carriage when the situation passes. We ask “Do you remember that person’s name?” This kind of binary plagues me. When one thing is on another must be off. So the intellectual commitment to experience is a deferral of actual experience. It is a parallel course to life, but in my case a staccato flickering from side to side. I think perhaps the two sides behave like sleeping and waking. The passive life allows my memories and reflections to ruminate, sort, thicken, and aggregate. As the ‘present’ figures build, each lingering after each, (unlike the passive life which squeals by without a trace), I recognize them gathering into some matrix or some form that, to continue the analogy, rises out of the sleep like a full bladder. It might even begin to color my passive experience, put me on a hunt, perhaps subconsciously, that might switch me back over into recording mode. And there has to be a critical mass when the collection becomes discernable. I would call that viability: the argument can survive on its own independent of experience.

In my business travels I got to the point where I could not even put myself into the open frame of mind anywhere along the elastic tether that shot me out from the Atlanta airport. This time, this prime time, was corrupted. If I struggled against its dour magnetism, shook off the hopelessness, changed into unrespectable attire, and set out on foot, I could, until I went to bed that night (which I see as acquiescence to the new day), release myself to the potential of the city. It didn’t promise that I would find myself confronted with an awakening unknowable; it rarely happened.

In early spring of this year a confluence had me into my mind for a full night roaming Austin.

At the too-nice historic downtown hotel I took off my dress shoes and tie and let the sun into my room for a while through slightly warm white sheers. It deformed around me like a cloud of down. The gauzy figure of the capitol dome was barely material. I like when buildings flatten into the sky. The air itself was like gauze on some mornings in Los Angeles. There was such promise in those vast mornings driving to school downtown for what discoveries, even through the equations of schedule, manic drafting, and riceball lunches might begin one facet of the thought-career I fancied I was availing myself to. I wrote a poem quickly on a scrap or receipt:

Mornings when the Transamerica Tower is frisked of the cigaretted city yellowed and its profile is the only blue in the horizon, I see the only remnant of a lost clear night, the dawns of some three hundred rainy days between my collar and my neck.

That was nine years ago. I was meeting with or working with Perry every day. My time was wrapped up in his. He was my thesis advisor and I also assisted him in teaching a drawing course for first year graduate students. Even Ashley, impressed with the martyrdom of Perry’s distant parking spot, took to parking next to his Saab at the edge of the lot in solidarity. Even the subject of my thesis project which aimed to liberate architecture from the voice of the architect may have been at heart more about liberating my work from my voice, which I didn’t trust, and giving it over to Perry. Yet, unknowingly, I think I was emulating what I project now as his own fears. I was not being educated by a practitioner at heart but by a slow cooker. In the climate around him there was a pervasive enthusiasm for the aspiration towards and the recollection of built work that was full and complex enough to almost supplant taking the plunge into the wrighting of one’s own voice. Of course the perception was that the variegation by which we were approaching our ruminations and reflections, and the intense focus we brought to the chase of each decision back through the established context would be the toolkit with which we could approach the building project. But as I recollected in my hotel room, that played out into a fear that my missteps out of the intellectual realm of architecture would have catastrophic repercussions when made flesh. Or more truly, that afternoon, that they might not.

Critical Response:

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