On Permanence

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A building is not a sentence, which in principle has the ability to match and express a thought closely. It is not linear, like language. Compared to the fluidity of words, a building is atrociously clumsy, but it can be lived and inhabited as books cannot be.

This is what I’ve been doing for more than five years: Consciously cultivating a shared language with P., and actively searching for the books (because how else can I do this) to help me do so. “I am interested in this because this interests you” signals how contrived this kind of reading is, but over time my own curiosity grew, and I came to these books—“his” books, I first figured—willingly, and on my own. [Note: P. is an architect, though (before he met me) he quit his job at a firm to paint fulltime—a decision I’ve too-often envied, not least because I know I can’t do that for my own writing-reading. Lately, he’s been building houses for the mother of the fiancée of one of his friends (how else can we get jobs but through these convolutions?); sometimes, the state university in his hometown invites him to teach graduating students, sometimes the students go to him and ask him to be a thesis consultant.]

There remains a tiny whisper, though, that this a secondhand fascination. I can’t shake off the feeling that I’m impinging onto someone else’s territory. [You are literature, Sasha; they are everything else.] I bought Why We Build after P. and I had broken up, though it first came to my attention in the weeks prior acknowledgement of the erosion. I read Rowan Moore because I wanted to, and because I felt that I had no go-to books for a comprehensive discourse on architecture, save Gaston Bachelard and Alain de Botton’s takedown of Le Corbusier. And an “architecture critic,” Rowan Moore is describe—has there ever been a more ludicrously conspicuous label? I read Rowan Moore because it interested me, and it would have interested someone I loved.

*

Moore’s book rests on a simply-stated premise: Architecture is a fluid concept, founded on and forged by not only material but of emotion and ambition—and (to the oversight of many a builder) one that evolves through the two as well, and over time. A building is structure, symbol, dwelling, art form. It is practical, and yet it stands for something bigger than the physical—because it was created much the same way. And its successes and failures are all hinged on human desires, follies.

The most obvious facts about architecture are the most misleading ones—that it is solid, fixed, permanent, that it is about the creation of single and singular objects, that it is visual. These are at best half-truths.

To build requires determination, conviction, and finality. A building makes a proposition about the future, which will never exactly match what actually happens. It therefore has to combine its decisiveness with openness to events.

For these reasons architecture is slippery. It is prone to tricks of perception and * of value. For all the labors of architecture, its effects are unstable, its benefits elusive, its risks high. But plays of substance and appearance, and of masonry and life, are also part of its fascination.

In hindsight, a lot of the rhetoric Rowan Moore provides I obvious, albeit lyrical (and thus rarely heard). Or, well, perhaps it’s obvious in a way that they fulfill a need n the discourse: Someone has to say these things, and in this manner precisely.

*

Hearing other people’s dreams is usually boring; living inside them is more so, and imposing them is a notorious vice of architects.

[Curious that the passage above would be in Why We Build; the wayward architect that is P. liked to bombard me with what he had been dreaming of upon my waking. There’s a certain oppression, I see now, to making way for someone else’s dream when you are thick in the dregs of your own. I told him so, once, and it felt like the wrong thing.]

That said: Despite that grandeur and the immense, tactile satisfaction an architect must glean from a completed structure, the process is so enslaved to other people. The people who pay, who commission, who dwell. A writer’s work seems the same: Your work is you—once it’s done, you set it out there, at the mercy of its readers. Seems. It makes me bitter to say this, but architecture is of a different kind of permanence, and a different kind of constant-continuous-evolution:

Of course, all buildings exist in time. The word “building” suggests an action that is ongoing, rather than a finished thing. We don’t talk about “builts.” The question is whether time is used to emancipate architecture, or if architecture is used to suppress time.

*

Among Rowan Moore’s definitions of architecture: One, “Architecture is shaped by human emotions and desires, and then becomes a setting for further emotions and desires. It goes from the animate and inanimate and back again. For this reason it is always incomplete, or rather is only completed by the lives in and around it. It is background.” And, “Architecture is not the design of buildings, but the spaces inside and out which might be formed or changed, more or less gently or drastically, by the construction or adaptation of a building.

I feel like I’m doing this book a disservice by quoting only rhetoric—not to mention by padding this post about the origins of my interest in architecture. Because Why We Build, much like the architecture it describes, works best in context: When it draws up examples, when it details a structure, explains the motivations behind its building, speculates on its future, pinpoints the effects of human folly on it. Why something fails, why something withstands time by either willfully snubbing it or allowing it to be consumed. And why, always, why we—human being and our petty desires and our vast ambitions—build. I should have taken a page from Rowan Moore’s book and focused on the tactile, instead of the abstract—the rhetoric that, despite the lyricism that just hits you at the right places, seems silly when held up against nothing too real.

Or—well, then, reading this again before pressing ‘Publish’—maybe I already have. [Human folly, was it, Mr. Moore? Here we go.]

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