Tuesday, November 16, 2010

_ ghosts

What is your favorite building? I’ve been asked this question dozens of times, by friends in passing, by strangers at parties. I’ve had other architects ask me, during job interviews or beer hour. I’ve even asked myself this question, and I’ve worked to prepare an answer, even if it was an answer that I didn’t quite believe in. Most recently I’ve decided that anyone, architect notwithstanding, who’s thinking about this question properly can only answer by remembering their grandmother’s kitchen. We are standing in the midst of six billion people, and at the end of 3,000 years of recorded history, so questions about favorites will inevitably be broken by that weight. Perhaps this is no great revelation, but buildings are a part of Real Life, despite the profession's occasional hopes to the contrary (one reason that architecture is best separated from buildings).

I remember the wood and brass weather station by the breakfast table in the kitchen of my maternal grandmother, with its complicated, yet somehow never moving dials. I remember the row of heavy clear-blue glass jars near the door always full of chocolate pretzels, wrinkled old apricots, and hard candy that I wasn’t allowed to take. The cabinets were painted white with black, gothic hardware. Blue light filtered through from a bubble skylight overhead. Grandma had her washing machine right there in the kitchen, instead of a dishwasher. There was no clothes dryer, so the kitchen smelled of detergent, and the towels were always stiff from drying outside in the El Paso sun. Try as I might, I can’t remember what the floor or table looked like, but I do remember that there were eleven 2”x2” photographs lined up in a wicker frame, one of each grandchild, on the wall behind my grandfather’s dining chair.

My paternal grandmother lived in a mobile home, and her kitchen was tiny, with yellow-green linoleum floors and dark stained wood cabinets. There was a Grandma-shaped tunnel through the kitchen, past hanging steel pans, nearly dead ivies, and a gnarled, red-brown chile ristra, hanging over the countertops. There were crocheted potholders shaped like green butterflies and ceramic red ladybugs mounted to tiny magnets that stuck trembling to the refrigerator door and slid to the floor from the disturbances of air when my brothers and I tumbled by.

We should remember Gaston Bachelard, who wrote "The Poetics of Space". We should remember his Oneiric House, also called the house of dream-memory. Writing about dream-memory, Bachelard seems to mean something like this: there are spaces in our lives – mostly from childhood, but not always, that correspond somehow to the psychological space in our heads. He writes, for instance, that if a man hears a strange noise coming from his basement in the dead-of-night, he will track the sound to his attic instead. In the attic you find the comfortable recesses of your own ideal self, he says. In the basement reside your demons. Bachelard writes about the smell of drying raisins, and how the smell conjures up images of home to him, despite not smelling raisins for years.

I lived in alone in my second apartment in Chicago. I was there for three winters. It was on the ground floor of an old corner bar – it had been the stockroom, I think – in the East Village neighborhood, off Paulina. After the bar had closed, the building was turned into a transient house for Mexican immigrants. According to my landlord, the stockroom, perhaps 400 square feet, had been divided into seven bedrooms that shared a single bathroom and kitchen with the apartment in the front of the building (which had been similarly divided). By the time I lived there, all the walls had been removed, and a bathroom had been added to my space. There was still no proper kitchen, rather just a conglomeration of appliances and an oversized stainless steel restaurant sink in one corner. The apartment had fifteen-foot high, stamped tin ceilings and a little lofted mezzanine that was big enough for my bed and pile of dirty work shirts. I painted the expansive plaster walls bright yellow. The doors were already sky blue.

There was a basement that I had direct access to, with a washer and dryer. There was a little under six feet of clearance to the undersides of the floor joists above, and there were ropy, brown cobwebs everywhere. When it rained, water would seep through the rubble foundation walls and leave waves of mud and silt on the floor. The landlords were packrats, and they were notorious pushovers when it came to tenant storage, so the basement was crammed with all manner of junk – old records, furniture, and molding books. One of the previous tenants had been a theater set-designer, and there were fragments of plaster columns, decaying costumes, rolls of chicken wire, and rows of removed theater seats down there, all lit by a couple uncovered 60W bulbs. It was in there that I lived Bachelard’s psychological theory of basements. I would stand at the clothes dryer, amid the swaying shadows and dripping walls, and hearing the ghosts, I would retreat outside to investigate.

I think it would be interesting to hear my siblings, or my cousins describe my grandmother’s kitchens. I have a feeling that the description would be different for all of us, and I have a suspicion that what I see in my memory is mostly a reflection of my own self, and only lightly inflected by what was actually there. If buildings are real life, so too are dreams.

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