September 8, 2016
KIERAN REICHERT (Guest Contributor)
In fiction writing, fallibility can be a virtue; the word fallible itself comes from the Latin fallere, a verb meaning “to deceive.” In a character, a flaw can lure the reader down into the crevasses of meaning that are often the author’s true motivating interests. Similarly, in an author, peccadilloes make the inevitable interviews and pock-marked memoir all the more interesting; the impenetrable gloss of a faultless narrator provide no point of entry for a reader. Even if the author were to write a character and a story with more flaws than assets, a person somewhere could inhabit that reality. Habitation in fiction, as in architecture, demands ingress.
I’m reminded of Henry James’ timeless Portrait of a Lady, to which he wrote prefatory remarks on the notion of writing fiction at all: “The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will.” It is through each of these windows that a particular reader might see a particular facet – an idiosyncrasy, a flaw – that they recognize and thus enter into that fictional world.
Though a staid favorite in literature courses, I imagine this quote might sound unfamiliar to most architects, despite its metaphorical allusion to that most fundamental of your first year projects. And rightly so – a house, in the architectural sense, will not have a million points of ingress: there should be, at least according to one notable former dean, a single front door. Therein lies the contrast between writing a house of fiction and building a house: realism, though more rigid than other schools of expression, is not reality, and the latter has many more requisite features. In designing and constructing a building, architects are called upon to work with that most unyielding genre: reality.
Designing for reality, an architect must toil for many nights (weeks? a lifetime?) pondering what comprises a house, how the inhabitants commune and scatter, enter and exit. Last year, I met many of you while living with one of your peers, and I observed precisely this toil of yours, between martini receptions and retreats to beautiful houses in distant Connecticut vales. At first, and even still to a degree, I couldn’t quite figure out what was keeping you all up until sunrise with such a disturbing frequency. After all the crits, lectures, conversations, and (not) seeing my roommate sally to and from Rudolph Hall in the gray morning hours, I can say now with some certainty that I understand why you all work so hard.
Architecture, as observed by me, is a strict discipline, and perhaps the most rigorous of the arts that I’ve witnessed. Whimsy has no part to play in a CD set that will ensure that the cantilevered roof deck won’t collapse under the eventual weight of the humans using it. Human weight – this is something no other medium can truly account for, or engage with. Sensory perception, sure – paintings are seen, music heard, food tasted – but none of those works will ever bear the weight of the very being experiencing them. As such, the architect, like the writer, must observe people and strive to know all those impulses, idiosyncrasies, and movements. Unlike the writer, and perhaps unlike any other artist, the architect must account for any of these possible inclinations, while the writer must only convey some in order to create a relatable verisimilitude. A building will be inhabited, its inhabitants will exert their physical and psychic weight on the structure, and thus all walls must be plumb, all joints concealed, and cladding covering true structure. Things that can be made perfect are made to be; things that cannot be made perfect are also made to be.
As a result, you all must practice, ad nauseum (perhaps literal nausea). Practice until you come home after your roommate is asleep every night; practice until you are so sleep deprived that you leave your keys everywhere; practice your breaking and entering skills to get in without waking your roommate (so much for a single front door). Practice until the unquantifiable, sometimes qualitative presence of a human being is imprinted in your mind, handy at every stage of the design process. I imagine it will become a tool akin to your T-square; a means to ensure your designs are human, in addition to being square and sound.
I recently visited the 2016 BP site, and was able to see the physical manifestation of an idea whose germ I also saw, all those months ago. Moreover, I was able to enter this idea-cum-reality, and in no time, I could sleep and live there too, had I the funds. These young designers, artists, and engineers had carried their idea from inception to (near-)completion, and while not exactly infallible in their construction, it was pretty close to perfect.
For those who don’t know him, Kieran Reichert was an honorary first year and temporary New Haven citizen last year, when he willingly chose to live with Jonathan Molloy in their Dwight Street attic annex. You’ve probably seen him around, and if you haven’t, we feel bad for you, but you’ll definitely see him on the back of a book someday.