The Tongue Is
xeroxed on brainmatter.
Grid-squares of words spread
like dirty oil over a lake.
The tongue even lies to itself,
gathering wildfire for songs of gibe.
Malcontented clamor, swish of reeds.
Slow, erratic, memory's loose
grain goes deep as water
in the savage green of oleander.
The tongue skips a beat, link of truth . . .
a chain running off a blue bicycle.
It starts like the slow knocking
in a radiator's rusty belly.
I entry my guilty plea
dry as the tongue of a beggar's
unlaced show. The tongue labors,
a victrola in the mad mouth-hole
of 3 A.M. sorrow.
(by Yusef Komunyakaa 1977, for jocko)
i wanted to write about the mostly mellow wilco show i saw last night near where i live, that their sound was cleaner yet still sonorous and their mood was tentative as if to ask "are you all okay?", and that i laughed at the part where he oddly flapped his arms like a chicken, or that i had a great time singing when he asked us all to sing because it made them feel really good (passenger side), or that hearing both old and new tunes with the new lineup was wonderful.
I know how it goes, so
I just had to let you know I know
and something else, about how i like to know the people performing, personally, and that throughout the singing and the gorgeous wash of sound i was reminded of all jeff tweedy's motivations i have surmised from his music, clearly visible to me as if i knew him (yet as you certainly recognize, reader, clearly impossible for me to know at the same time), and that it would be impossible to communicate this knowing to him because of that paradox.
having very supportive jonno here last week was the perfect way to seek out what was missing in manhattan, explore the emotional terrain that had accumulated since september 11. he was taking a tour of the city to see exactly how the physical environment was affected, and in turn how that affected him. being there to do it with him gave me the opportunity to explore it too. i've long written that the mind describes the city with both mental and physical 'maps', assembled by the perceptual clues: emotional effects of commercial operations, difficulty in crossing an avenue, resistance in a turnstile.
i don't feel as distraught as i did this weekend. i've gotten into my routine: believing in my work while at the same time struggling with ennui of the phase of the project i'm working on. the return of ennui nothing less than a major achievement, in my mind. i've been able to revisit my culinary habits, mostly because of the reopening of the vietnamese lunch place near my office. i've spent more time with friends, and been more open about my own particular unhappiness. in fact, discussing with L last night the lingering emptiness i feel, it surfaced that the missing towers has made me observe, every second i'm outside, just how few buildings in new york are of that scale. the skyline is finite, and even rather small, and that bothers me. an enormous technical achievement is gone, and it probably won't be replaced in so pure a manner. (indeed, perhaps it shouldn't: this is a concern i am happy to wait to resolve). it may appear to be a very narrow concern, a distinction so finely made that i'm hesitant to write it here, for fear that it may be misunderstood because it does not appear here amongst the spectrum of other concerns (such as the effect on me of watching people die, or the political aftermath). but it nevertheless is one that bothers me immensely because a portion of my city was destroyed, a portion that had physical/poetic properties, and was central to my conception of where i live.
my office won a project award for the museum competition today. the award is from the new york city chapter of the AIA (i won't bother linking their site; it's not updated, and has far too many pop-up windows to not become irritating). that's right, the project i spearheaded last spring, which didn't win as a competition entry for the organization who invited us to design it, won a design award from a pretty prestigious venue. despite the inaccuracy the reductiveness of the following statement causes (because the project was the product of many hands/minds/eyes, led and organized by me): my project won.
but getting the award isn't just a personal vanity career thing.
1. i did the award submission book under duress; it's what i worked on at home that week, the week i stayed home, what i was doing when it all happened. those design decisions were the only ones i made that week.
2. something i made (meaning the book about the building, another tower), which i believe to be wonderful and beautiful, thoughtful and not gratuitously flashy, is going to get recognition by the larger group of architects, and possibly get as much press as the winners of the original competition. it has begun a life in the world.
3. because of that, something is created, the idea of building survives it's initial inception.
4. making vs unmaking. i see it in terms that simple. i need to right now.
5. i got a boost from that thought today. i need to focus on how important it is to sustain the will to make beautiful things; this is what incites clients to build, inspires the public about the city, and gives me the only weapon i really ever want, the resistance provided by making things well.
jonno and i went to what i impulsively want to call 'the jobsite' yesterday, the broadway-nassau E station exit depositing us on fulton street with a frightening view of wtc5. the street and building facades were coated with directional dust. the sides of poles that support construction scaffolding had a vertical stripe of caked cement dust. it coated our throats within minutes. we walked around the downtown area. we both had things to look for. we finally walked down nassau. the streets, full on a saturday, were disquieting, despite the bustle; there were a lot of people, but nothing was open. the streets and buildings were dusty and deserted and the reason for everyone being there was to see this dust and desertion.
what is the geography of grief? perhaps it's closer to the numerous 'steps' strategies, from six steps through ten steps, a teleology that gets you somewhere. not done but through it, but through it still. a series of realizations and acceptances.
we went down liberty street, and saw the remaining portion of wtc2's facade that is still standing. we did not even get to broadway; it was closed. we went south a block to cedar street, and looked diagonally across liberty park, and saw a much larger tableau of devastation. despite our distance, the scale of the ruin is immense; the destruction to the surrounding buildings, with gashes in world financial center buildings, gives a context that my mapping imagination needs to make sense of it. i took pictures so that i could study the scene at home. i took a series of the sky, framed by one liberty plaza and the other adjacent towers, where those two towers would have been. viewing this scene put me in analytical-crisis mode, sad but furiously racing to put the pieces together for a solution. also known as my day-to-day working method developed after years of practicing the profession of architecture. it was the same mode, and at the same volume (too high) that i experienced seeing september eleventh's events unfold, on the upper floor of my office building. coupled with the faculties that are required to get one out of a predicament was a sense of shock.
perhaps grief is a continuous loop of impressions that plays itself over and over, but only almost-the-same, a repetition with defects, the signal pops, increases in some parts, quiet in others, the increases and decreases always shifting from playback to playback, the incomprehensibles always taking a different form, lining up against you in different patterns each time.
walking back up nassau, to the subway, my problem solving, reasoning self receeded, and i could not stop thinking that all the people i could see flooding nassau street for blocks easily represented only a fraction of the people who died a few days before. i was overcome, again, and even writing about that makes me sob again. a cycle that took a few days the first week took a few minutes, except the sobbing period has lasted a much a longer time, and doesn't seem to be receeding at the moment.
perhaps after a while, the incomprehensible constellations are at least recognized if not fully decoded, and the patterns become familiar and not-painful. in this specific case after a long, long, long, while.
we all need to get away from here for a while. i wish we could loosen the bonds of money, a constraint on an axis perpendicular to those of time and gravity on a chart that plots the vertices that describe the solution of our lives.
please, take me away, i feel a long headache coming on. in fact, i am beginning to realize that i have been immediately mired in something, in the middle of it, and i can only barely discern that i cannot discern how large and difficult this something is. i cannot fathom extent.
please, pull my body out of time, and run away on the concorde, get to provence, to your estate there, fountains and sky and coolness and air and grapes, and the need to not wear shoes for days on end, never work except to put a piece of fine cheese on a platter.
i had to cling to simple pleasures to keep from being overwhelmed today, today a low day, "it comes and goes", the way the noxious fumes coming from the south were coating my throat and lungs with that horrible taste. i was compelled to fiercely, even selfishly, hold these things tight to survive today, to keep going: the discussion with kerry last night about learning that sex and love and parties and creation are all a celebration and part of the vitality of the city (something that i help make), introducing L to my other friends, a seat on the train during morning rush hour, a compliment from my employer, a beautiful color, the temperature outside and a walk in the rain through SoHo, a discussion with a gallery owner about what art experiences are important and which weather both times of crisis and times of material excess, the serendipitous discovery that we both believe exactly the same thing, a page of mundane details that i took small pride in finishing today, a call from a friend to meet after work before we headed uptown to my apartment, the sudden and soft sight of jonno's face in the darkened gallery at a show opening, talking with keith sonnier about his work, introducing jonno to him and to my other best friends, the constellation becoming more complete, the ability to stay home and separate my thoughts, the satisfaction i feel in knowing i can see more clearly than ever my own idea of 'liberty', and why i need to hold it close.
this morning (undertown): the train's population dwindles at spring street to a handful of people in my car. whole benches empty, me holding a pole at the exact center, the only one standing in an E train car at 8:50 a.m. i felt a chill; how many fewer people would be on this train, last stop Chambers Street/WTC? i stood up a little, out of respect, or to shrug off the mood, as the train was stopping and i turned and stepped firmly to the door.
this morning (uptown): managed to get myself out the door without heartbreak setting in. instead, that soberness that hits after a long illness is passing, but has not yet completed its run, as i walk toward ninth avenue. then as i walk to the subway, i notice the sun is out, i'm blinded, a gorgeously deep blue sky, something like i imagine to be the color of my imaginary future boyfriend's eyes, gazing at me, softly brushing my face with that gaze, intent, nearly motionless yet full of life. life for life and sharing that. the white cirrus clouds bright and figurative, moving to the east. is that the smoke cloud, or the actual sky? too high to be smoke, too pure to be anything but delirious nature.
this morning 2 (downtown): those bright cirrus clouds, those deep blue eyes, that gazing movement happens behind the slowly wafting white cloudlike smoke coming out of the ground where several buildings used to be. the sky is on the ground, yet it's still "a movement space".
this evening (downtown): still bright, still barely cloudy, still moving, still whispering my name with a look.
this evening 2 (uptown): long strings of cirrus clouds are sparkling electric fire orange against a still-blue sky, the same calm attention. the clouds are exactly parallel to the avenues, and i smile and tear in relief: the city is in the sky again. dazzled, i'm stunned by natural beauty for the first time all week, the second-nature beauty of my city moving again in time.
my last few outings have been gatherings with friends. our common sadness is fueled by the layers of uncertainty in our lives; many of our projects/events canceled or indefinitely postponed; the effect of cancellations on our financial situations; the need to get away from a city that has become a huge shrine, a single unhappiness; the complete inability to bear news sources despite the need to keep up with the news; the possibility of a nation at war for perhaps years; the fact that we all saw events or knew people who are missing, and the realization that we are in a deeper shock than we all expected; the fact that no one else, friends or strangers on the train, seems to be bouncing back at all.
i have been continuing my diligent collecting of notes and sketches and old and new photographs for these entries. when the time came to put this set of them down--now--i came upon several descriptions that are components of what i need to say:
Another recurrent interest is the issue of private space and the attendant tropes of accessibility and inaccessability that both fascinated the artist as well as haunted his reception. Under a sketch of a ring of keys he once wrote, "a catalogue and apology of locked spaces to be carried in the pocket...
...an equal but opposite anarchitectural interest concerned the seemingly extensionless scale of space wrought by the vertical city and its high-rises, which the artist opposed to the limitless span of the horizon. Responding to his own call for "the perfect structure," Matta-Clark wrote elliptically, "...erase all the buildings for a clear horizon." To illustrate this "perfect structure," he sketched twinned skyscrapers, ideograms of a sort, on a horizon line compelte with the half disc of the sun. But the perfect structure--or structures--was not so much the skyscrapers as the condition of their erasure, indicated b the two blunt "X's" that violently mark the images of the buildings. Where once the vertical trajectory of the skyscrapers suggested a certain colozination of space, their erasure to a horizon line--itself extensionless--acknowledged the space negatively framed by the buildings. It recognized the impossibility of reaching and thus appropriating the horizon line as well, a thing that always slips beyond the grasp as a headlong, forward trajectory and a lateral spread at once.
It is clear what Matta-Clark was referring to in this erasure of buildings to the horizon. Yamasaki's World Trade Center had been formally dedicated in April of 1973, and the artist was alternately attracted and repulsed by its giganticism. To borrow from Michel de Certaeau, perhaps the Center represented for the artist "a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production," as it dramatically refigured Lower Manhattan along a vertical axis. As the symbolic figure of private interests in the city, the towers also represented Late Capitol's newest and most profligate of monuments. Matta-Clark, however, regarded its existance as an anarchitectural opporunity. In a letter to the Graphic Consultant for the Art and Design Program at the World Trade Center, he identified himself as "representative" of the Anarchitecture group and offered his creative services on their behalf. "In our response to highly determined spatial conditions," he wrote, "...we believe we could contribute some positive and interesting insights into the new scale and complexity of the World Trade Center." Matta-Clark's language is purposefully ingratiating, but as implied by his desire to "erase" the buildings, his motivations were by no means utopian. His photograph of the twinned buildings features the monoliths positioned against a skyscape of drifting cumulus. Set against the monumental slabs of the towers, the clouds offer a glimpse, however fleeting, of a space held outside of the buildings--a movement space.
two months before i read these words, in previously referenced Object to be Destroyed, i'd taken a series of shots of wtc for the competition i was working on. early march pictures. a lot of what we needed the pictures for were purely formal: a vertical band made horizontal on our building. the extension of new media art space was infinitely horizontal because of telecommunications; therefore, we were going to show wtc on its side (anyone who followed the moma competition or any of a glut of new york architect proposals from the last 15 years will know that this move is highly common). however, the pictures i found myself taking oscillated between the documentary ones i needed for the competition image and the ones that use the large graphic power of the wtc complex buildings as an equivalent field to the sky, creating uncertainty between sky and man-made object.
the following is from "Mies van der Rohe's Paradoxical Symmetries," an essay by Robin Evans, 1990. his implicit critique of contemporary 'distraction' in works of art resonates with me, and in my mind belongs here in notes related to the symmetrical power (equally productive and destructive) of infrastructure. indeed, these ideas of infrastructure make useless distinctions of beautiful and not-beautiful, whether something as brutal as two monolithic towers were works of art. indeed, the works referenced above begin to map new terms for producing things, transcending previous art or architectural historical interpretations.
Alberti thought it prudent to build beautiful buildings, because beauty preserves things from assault. He asks, 'Can any Building be made so strong by all the Contrivance of Art, as to be safe from Violence and Force?' and he answers that it can, since 'Beauty will have such an effect even upon an enraged Enemy, that it will disarm his Anger, and prevent him from offering it any Injury: Insomuch that I will be bold to say, that there can be no greater Security to any Work against Violence and Injury, than Beauty and Dignity.' Beauty turns vulnerability into impregnability, and it is easy to see from this example that the beauty and dignity of buildings was the same kind of beauty and dignity that women were supposed to have, and probably for much the same reason. Alberti implies that an army regards a monument like a man regards a woman, and not much separates Alberti's views on the subject from those of Jean-Paul Sartre five hundred years later. In The Psychology of Imagination Sartre explains how beauty puts things out of reach, prompting feelings of 'sad disinterest'. 'It is in this sense that we may say that great beauty in a woman kills the desire for her...To desire her we must forget she is beautiful, because desire is a plunge into the heart of existence, into what is most contingent and absurd.'
Although the terms attractive and beautiful are considered almost synonymous, beauty, as described by Alberti and Sartre, is not attractive; it is, to coin a word 'distractive'. The kind of beauty that dominates Western consciousness quells desire for a thing by diverting attention from the thing's uses (or abuse) to its appearance...
From what is Mies' architecture distracting us? The question is almost meaningless. The abstraction, the silence, the vacancy of the pavilion makes it hard to determine what has been removed. Isn't this the point? If we could easily tell, then the effort of escape would have been worthless.
i would also like to stream about some possibilities; that this critique of 'distractive' can be used as a critique of my notes here, and i'm comfortable with that; that the two giants now destroyed were not beautiful in the conventional sense, but sublime, forces of second nature (urbanization) that always attract attention to themselves; their removal from the skyline a removal of a piece of the sky that had been located in lower manhattan; that their symbolic power as interpreted by the people who knocked them down is completely dwarfed by their power as objects that are at once both abstraction and a perfect material manifestation of that abstraction; that this latter coupling (twins, as in siamese, linked, symmetrical, always in tension) are what i have always called 'beautiful' although i should be more careful in using that word so people will better realize that i'm trying to displace its meaning;
that an attack on them as symbols of american commerce in our consciousness, and the overestimation of the importance of those symbols to us, is the flaw made by the people who conceived of that attack. it's true that american political language still engages in platitudes full of symbolic meanings, despite a consensus by the public of the uselessness of that language (see previous entries regarding language as placeholder). yet beyond these symbolic meanings lies modernity, and in my mind american consciousness has been wrapped around infrastructure as its source of power since the beginning of the twentieth century, if not from the birth of this country and the birth of modernity itself. contemporary western civilization implicity believes in the power of the proper control of those systems to allow free society to happen. an assault on what apparently are symbols of our power, however large and destructive, was also an attack on those not-beautiful objects and systems that will only, ultimately, serve to remind us of that idea of sublime power through creation of sublime abstractions, and allow us to refine, solve, evolve, and continue.
i'm resistant to put down much more than what i did. my hometown newspaper had tried to call me only an hour after the second trade center fell. the words of a close friend, an ardent avoider of most things internet, come back to me: the internet has made us all journalists. a friend is making a documentary film (which i intend to talk about more in subsequent entries) and is stuggling with a pervasive psychology of speaking to the camera in a confessional tone, tropes that are intended to signify but thus repeated do not convey any idea. can i convey one, now? meaning, is it appropriate to write a long essay that was brewing yesterday, spurred by events tuesday? in a parallel but opposite direction, can i simply take notes, make them public, not intend anything?
which may begin by saying i tried to volunteer yesterday; i tried to give blood. L, former marine and constant go-getter, dragged me into action. all i wanted was a hug and a good lunch. but seeing other people, so many other people, so many who had driven from other points in the country, gave me hope. seeing people cheering, lending a heartfelt support to emergency workers on the west side highway, was compelling enough: few streets in manhattan see more of an antagonistic relationship between driver and pedestrian. yesterday, it was the opposite. i also saw that there's a surfeit of good will in this town, accentuated by mild cabin fever, an unusual silence due to no car or air traffic (and no sirens up my way), uneasiness about sporadic bomb threats, bewilderment about whether our president or any of his aides will ever take notes and learn to articulate an original thought.
which has spurred the impulse to sulk yesterday. i had a complete inability to work, due to multiple dead-ends. because my office is off-limits, and my will was gone, and really do archtitects help carry the economy, and them asking for engineers and me saying i'm an architect and them telling me they don't need those, and will any of my deadlines be in place, will my client the trader have any money for my project and my salary when they start up again, is he still alive, and the project that i was preparing for a awards submission is also a tower, and gosh how important is that anyway, when awards are just publicity tools. personal (by which i mean my firm) gain at a time like this? even if my salary may be in jeopardy?
which releases the memory i had when i went to atlanta to see the olympic games in 1996, that because my flight was so late coming in that we were unable to attend a concert that we'd planned on going to, the concert that had been hit by a bomb just about the time that i was getting picked up at the airport. student of the uses of public space that i am, i'd done a competition a few years earlier for the design of atlanta's public spaces for the games, none of which were executed, the public forced to hang out on closed highway interchanges with nowhere to sit. student of uses that i am, i was attentive the next morning when i went to a track and field event at the olympic stadium. the crowd was a record crowd. people from rural areas, suburban areas, people with no urban or public experience at all all said the same thing: no one can scare me from our olympics. united we stand, of course, but that truism began that day, as yesterday, not with the abstraction or some collective determination; rather, coincident decisions by many individuals lead to that abstraction, decisions that say not only are we unafraid, but we are eager to show it.
discussions with friends have brought one of many ideas into being: that my shock, beyond witnessing events, beyond the paralyzing abstraction of inevitability we had constructed before those events had unfolded, beyond that abstraction melding seamlessly into the abstraction of the world trade center towers already inhabited by my mind, that my shock was due to the fact that the tool of the destruction, the commercial passenger jet, derives its symbolic power, or perhaps it's just power, from the same place the towers did. for me, the wtc is a symbol of modernism, jet-age modernism, 60s modernism, democratic utopian modernism, one that includes a probably-mythic reputation that the buildings were designed to withstand a collision from a 707, not because they were a threat, but because the towers were considered to be so tall. (for all i know, all buildings that can be that tall de facto would withstand that kind of impact, just as tilt-up precast concrete panels de facto can support several times the load they need to because lifting them in place puts far greater stresses on them).
their destruction was a reminder, redundant as we've tossed jet-age optimism a long time ago, that the buildings and the jets and the systems that support them do not represent the height of individualist power in a high-tech democracy. instead, a parallel but opposite principle stands true, despite destruction that is both a temporary abherration and the cause of my addlement; these infrastructure/abstractions are our collective power, our might and our togetherness, they are the site and source of our democratic will, even as they lend themselves to great destruction.
watching television after walking 75 blocks home, it feels so distant. i turn from the tv to my computer monitor to not look at it.
i'm scolding myself for being desensitized by an hour of television footage, replaying collapse timelessely. it is not like a movie and i scold myself more than that by saying i saw a plane hit the world trade center today and remembering that i was surprised a second plane came out of the bay and that i had instinctively stepped back from the windows, afraid of a shockwave that would break the windows i was looking through. it only happened once, horribly once. it is not surreal my fellow architects and i knew that without fire suppression systems and help, there was no way the structure was going to survive (structural steel melts after being burned for an hour) and knew exactly how it would fail. you saw several hundred people falling a hundred stories. each of them fell only once.
out of a HEAD you are so tired and the train comes from behind you, exploding into the station, like a film where that started with the train halfway in the station already, zooming by, the chilly september air can make your overworked unwashed face euphoric, deleric, de-dum from the force of atmosphere eddying in front, exploding station's air and fire demolishing the structure around you, never hurting you, the biggest thought you have every night like this twenty hours a day for the last three days and it's monday. coldness like this, pushing on your back, stretching your clothes around you, grasping your arms and legs for a place to hold on, reminds you that there is a lot of fluid on the inside of your skin, moving with a lot of force, the force of will.
forced to stumble off the train in the A.M., taking the shortest path to avoid being run over by overweight middle management that floods the platform, the blue i-beam columns that are liquid with glossy paint deliver your evil twin's second fantasy of walking through the structural member, feeling the iron alloy inside your skin for once, fluid physical approximation of geometric abstraction slicing through your funny shape but the intersection allowed by your mind and only for a second because you outstep those fools and get the hell across the street without getting killed.
my project is going out to bid in nine days. and at the last meeting, 36 hours ago, we changed so many details that much of the drawing set needs to be re-detailed so that a contractor may accurately price it. i called contractors yesterday, many who i have worked with several times before, to see if they were interested in bidding. i'm working overtime this weekend and next, and despite how i usually feel about that, i'm looking forward to it. part of my spring/summer malaise has been induced by the lack of human contact that i associate with construction, that i thrive on, even if it involves conflict.
there are several calculi of value in architectural projects whose variables include the cost of things, what a client considers to be the value of those things in relation to that cost, what the architect considers to be that value, the aesthetic value to both those parties of an object to the character of a project in relation to value and cost (the opinions of the architect and client hardly ever coincide completely. you're lucky if they overlap at all), the character of the market at the time the project goes out to bid (if contractors are busy, they barely look at the bid documents and give you prices that almost always translates into a neat square footage cost, so prices become not what things should cost but what someone will have to pay to get it built), how quickly the client wants to get it done and the effect of that schedule on availability.
we are at the threshold of a project phase known officially as bidding and negotiation, and all of these issues, and countless others (what is the tile in the guest bathroom? can we get a radiant floor in the master bathroom this late in the game? what are the window treatments? how is the stone finished for the kitchen countertop? is the dining table in the contract or not? can someone bend glass like that?) are already visible. many of the issues simply revisit decisions made months ago, to double check that all the parts make sense together. a lot of the project architect's job is to be the embodiment of the project's consistency, to sail through the addling mix of anxiety and uncertainty, to differentiate between questions that are unknown-for-now-but-will-play-out and unknowns-that-can-be-answered-now.
the bid documents to be issued will account for scope of work, that is the size and nature of the project, even though all of the project has not been described in detail. it's a fascinating exercise in approximation, another calculus, and it excites me with its proposition of separating the exact size of the effort from the exact configuration of the material, with the hope that you get close enough to so that the cost of the approximation so nearly approaches the cost of the exact configuration that they are essentially the same.
to just draw everything the way it's going to be before you bid it would simply cause the proejct to extend ad infinitum, with prices continually rising and falling depending on how the building industry is faring, with the client and architect both having new and evolving opinions on colors and assembly details, with the staffing of the project continually plundered by other deadlines in the office. so the deadline puts the project, and the design, up against a limit, in a mathematic sense, one that is an abstraction that is approached but never perfectly reached by the formula's solution.
furthermore, the distance between the abstraction and the approximation allows the searching to continue, if even for only the five weeks we've alloted for bidding and negotiation, and lets me shuffle the lines a little more.
ps all work in this domain is copyright chad the minx.