For this installment of Clare Fentress’s recurring column, the editors asked her to review a review of a building using neither the building’s name nor leaning on “the world of conventional signs.
I remember the room in which I first encountered the word simile: linoleum floor, dusty crucifixes, those imitation-wood-top desks that racetrack at the corners. My sixth-grade English teacher was bent on cramming literary techniques into our soft, distracted minds, but learning the distinctions between all these ways to describe—analogy, metaphor, idiom, onomatopoeia—was hard. A new world of meaning, wholly subjective, though I didn’t understand that at the time. All I understood was that in order to get to heaven, I needed to be good, and to be good meant doing my grandmother’s laundry once a week and knowing the difference between a simile and a metaphor.
As I get older, I recognize, all the time, new reasons to describe one thing by talking about something entirely different. Some are nefarious—the cloaking of power, the obfuscation of pain—while most are simply reminders that verbal communication is a difficult endeavor that can go horribly wrong. It can also go electrifyingly right.
Half a century ago, in a magazine of record, someone attempted to express his disdain toward a certain New Haven landmark by saying that “it looks like a stack of TV sets all out of focus.” In an attempt to prove this review’s unwitting genius, I will confirm that the building at hand is indeed like a pile of cathode-ray tube screens searching for a signal, a condition famously described in the first sentence of William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer. “The sky above the port,” writes Case, a washed-up hacker, “was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” But the building is the matrix: the virtual-reality cyberspace that Case finds so addictive, so much better than real life, that he trades his freedom to a gang of thieves just to make his way back in.
The matrix is totalizing, beautiful, dangerous. It’s hard to find the entrance, but once you’re in, you’re in. Glowing traces extend in every direction of its dark, serene quiet; they’re not just geometry but the encrypted past, “bright lattices of logic unfolding across [a] colorless void.” As you glide further into the void, shapes appear: blocks of materialized information. Precious, powerful objects, not a few of them stolen, shielded from their rightful owners by the matrix’s forbidding complexity. You look from the blocks to the glowing grid and back again, wondering what to do, how you ended up here. Maybe this is what heaven is like.
Clare Fentress is a second-year M.Arch I student at the Yale School of Architecture.