When people who’ve lived in Boston talk to each other, their reminiscences are often wildly variable, depending on when they lived there. A mentor of mine lived in Somerville in the 1980’s, and has a memory of this city I can’t believe. It sounds like paradise. This is because I lived there during the Big Dig, the federal highway project which temporarily re-routed, demolished, then restored, several miles of superhighway through the city. The Dig affected every aspect of the city, constricting traffic miles away by remote influence, and in my opinion infused the city with a powerful, unfocused daily rage. A predisposition toward hate. This is the second of a series of stories about the eruptions of anger, difficulty and pain I witnessed.
A Stain on Boston
By Ad Hamilton
Eighty-year-old man hits the ground outside the Senior Center doing ninety and dies. Splat. The jury’s back in the case of Mortal Coil v. Boston Department of Public Works Sidewalk, verdict unanimous. Unlucky, clumsy, depressed or pushed, who knows, another day in Boston, another poor fuck accelerating at 9.8 meters per second squared toward nothing good.
To understand this tragedy, you have to understand architecture. The discipline, not the artifacts. Your affection for the Chrysler building relates to Architecture just like your appreciation for Hubble photos relates to Plasma Physics: which is to say that they have no relation whatever.
And to understand architecture, you have to understand architecture school. The crucible that forms a deranged and flagellant tectonic culture. It’s kind of like Opus Dei, but much less important.
This culture is international. My first year at a fairly prestigious architecture school in Boston, there were almost as many Koreans and Japanese as Americans, and a prodigious crop of wealthy Chileans, for some reason. The schooling is intensely, purposely anachronistic. Fifteen years after I wrote my first term paper on a PC, I arrived to find not a single computer on a desk in my section. A Korean kid showed up with one a few weeks in, and almost flunked out from the disdain coming his way. Architecture is imagined here when graphite burns into paper, and blades shape wood and foam.
The structure of labor is reminiscent of uranium mining in the developing world: unnecessarily brutal and time-consuming, toxic and unproductive. The closest educational analogs are medical internships and Parris Island. Break ‘em down, build ‘em up.
Studio dominates by an order of magnitude the students’ time and energy, and refers at once to a place, to a pedagogical method, and to a process, an arc of practice toward a target. The place looks like nothing but a garment district sweatshop, an aircraft-scaled room with hundreds of identical desks, each one an avalanche of paper, cardboard and industrial adhesives. The method is the frantic production of imaginary, client-less architecture, endless iteration, critique and revision, over several months, of a cultural center, community library or other socially-minded construction that hasn’t been built in America since World War Two.
The process each term culminates in charette. Named for the cart that came round at midnight to collect the projects of students at the 19th century Ecole des Beaux Arts (the pupils sometimes jumped on to complete renderings en route to jury), the charette is a sprint at the end of the marathon. After three months of work, the project is completely redrawn, and often re-imagined, for presentation and jury. This is when the normal sweatshop ambiance of the studio ramps up to Pharaonic levels of punishment and exertion.
I had been up for sixty hours. I had vomited twice from nicotine poisoning. I had just washed down my last white-cross ephedrine with the last of a warm two liter bottle of Mountain Dew when the pigtailed little girl in a green jumper arrived at my desk. “Huh?” my neighbor Chul-Oh grunted, and I pretended I’d been absentmindedly humming, not absentmindedly hallucinating a full-blown 3-dimensional kindergartner who held up her end of a conversation. I just stopped working an hour later when a crumpled sheet of cardboard started singing like a disemboweled Muppet. So my work ethic is a 61 or 62, I guess, about par for my wing of the program.
Understand, the work ethic isn’t about achievement. The project doesn’t get substantially better in the last forty hours, and you don’t learn anything (about buildings). No matter what you’ve drawn, you’re going to disappoint someone – certainly yourself. The key is to exhaust yourself so thoroughly, to wound your soul so deeply, that even if the jury goes badly – and it can go very badly – you can’t possibly have done anything else. You can’t be blamed, you can’t feel regret, you just can’t feel.
There are stories about juries. Students attacking critics with razors. Vomiting on purpose, faking a Section 8 wig-out, not faking…The whole topic of the psychology of three or four architects of variable talent and achievement judging the work of a student could fill a thesis or two. (Why discuss it in front of the poor bastard, and why at the end, when there’s no time left to fix it?) This one went pretty badly.
Famous New York Architect (FNYA) told my classmate Erin, flat out, “…I’m not kidding, I think you should do something else with your life.” (We’re two years into graduate school here.) Famous L.A. Architect (FLAA) said something devastating to another student – “unresolved,” or something withering.
But I got the worst of it.
A Famous Spanish Architect (the hell with FNYA or FLAA, we all want to be FSA’s) nicknamed Paxti listens patiently to everything I have to say about my proposed AmeriCorps Youth Leadership Training Center. (I cannot make this up.) He sucks wind in through his lips in a reverse whistle, and says, slowly, “Mr. Hamilton…your talent is, ahh, well, it’s formidable. No question, formidable.”
A little weird, arguably positive. But then he takes off his unnecessarily chunky glasses and looks deep into my eyes. He says: “…but I feel this talent of yours is…well, it’s quite possibly dangerous.”
Brutality is pretty common here, but mostly it’s just confused anticlimax. Confusion from your mental state, anticlimax because you usually end up talking about things like stairs, or the location and spacing of voids (don’t call them windows), which can be pretty damaging to the heroic image you’ve built around your creation. But I’ve never, before or since, heard Paxti’s next quasi-Jedi line before: “…your talent, deployed in the wrong way, err…” He looks back up to my professor, continuing: “…I think the author of this project is violent. Violent and anti-urban.”
At least “urban” doesn’t mean “minority” in Spain, so I’m not a racist, but “anti-urban,” in this context, is probably worse.
So, if I am not stopped, it is my work that will finish off the already imperiled American City. We’ll be lucky if I just stop there.
I look over at my professor, essentially my boss for this project, who’s now pretending he’s never seen me before. “Yeah, where did this kid go off track, I wonder?” he seems to ask. This guy was the one-man Hamilton cheering section no more than ten minutes before. The dick literally said “go baby go,” to me the night before.
I realize, for the first time, that I’m studying with someone who has never built a building. Not even a shed. I’ll repeat that. This man, in his thirties, teaches people like me about architecture, at the highest level of that admittedly debased discipline, and to my knowledge he hasn’t even a bus shelter to his name. I think back, and I’m pretty sure two of my three instructors to this point are in the same boat. I can’t explain why this didn’t seem strange before, except that it was so common. (The next year, I attended a reception for a husband-wife veteran-faculty couple, presenting their new project, which turned out to be a bench. Next door, the Landscape Architecture Department feted a ditch.)
It’s all kind of like being in a cult. After a couple of years you stumble upon your charismatic leader’s unpublished sci-fi trilogy, or his anti-psychotic medication, or the tattered newspaper accounts of his last Temple’s Tragic End in French Guyana. Uh-oh, I may have signed over the possessions / girlfriend to the wrong guy.
I don’t remember anything after Paxti Wan Kenobi’s prophetic comment. It probably got worse. I left. I never picked up my drawings. Lost to history. I guess someone might have nicked them in case I turned out infamous. Auction them like Hitler watercolors.
Next block for sale, the first known Violent and Anti-Urban project of the criminal Hamilton, wherein we see the young man’s disastrous potential…
I need a shower. This is the worst recent episode, but I grew up in a trailer park, so believe me I know how to scrub off shame. Problem is I’ve got to walk through about fifteen minutes of Boston-in-February first, which will add disgust and generalized depression to the filth-load on my skin. I get across the street and hit Massachusetts Avenue, and I realize I’m wearing a t-shirt in the middle of winter. I haven’t been outside for longer than two smokes in days. Mass Ave is a particularly violent wind tunnel in a city of contenders for most punishing urban vortex worldwide. Entering from a side street, you feel your clothes snap taut to the West like a tacked sail. The way you deal with it is first to cut through buildings wherever possible, and second to scream inaudibly, a whisper-scream, the whole time you’re in the wind-canyon. When it’s worst, I scream and imagine I’m in the surreal hellscape of a first-person-shooter game, bullets whizzing by in all directions. It jukes the adrenal gland or something.
I scream-walk three blocks, until I can cut through the Old Folks Home to my apartment. I call it the OFH to humanize it, but it’s a public Senior Living Facility, and it looks the part. Nine stories of bush-hammered concrete and dusky windows, it looks like a stained tomb even in summer, and in winter it looks like suffering. Rounding the corner I can see reflected flashing lights, which is depressing but familiar. Even as little as I’m home, I see an ambulance there every few days.
It’s not an ambulance. I wheel silent-screaming around the corner and the first cop is arriving to pick a fellow up off the sidewalk. Still not uncommon. I’ve probably passed three or four guys on the sidewalk, Listerine’d to fight the chill. But this man they’re picking up isn’t dressed for it. Bare feet. The cop and I look up at the same time and see the open window on the top floor. Shit. The cop asks if I saw anything, but I don’t get his meaning, due to the silent-screaming I’m still doing. So the two of us simultaneously look up, down and up again, calculating the angles. The man looks about eighty, and he’s bounced out of some frost-withered arbor vitae and is expiring draped halfway out of the concrete planters, feet dangling into the sidewalk. Hard to describe the condition of the man’s body, except to say it was softened. Looked like any other elderly man’s body, but without the bone structure. The cop tells me to get the fuck out of there, as two more of Boston’s Finest blast up on to the curb in a white Crown Vic.
I comply with the officer’s instructions. I do what I’m told. I don’t want to see any more softened body.
Presumably this isn’t just journalism, and I’ve thought some about the experience. So maybe some conclusions. I’m not violent, that was an exaggeration, or a poor English word choice from the Spaniard, but I may be anti-urban. In fact I’m pretty sure of it. The city certainly hasn’t done much for me today, and the city’s unit of construction, its underlying plan, its architecture. Well, you can see the problem I have with architecture.
Whatever dementia or infirmity God devised for this old man to put him in this facility, it was the building that killed him. The stained concrete and peeled powder coated steel communicated clearly and unrelentingly to him what the entire world thought of him. Not much. The architect gave him the void (don’t call it a window) and the elevation (106 feet) to do the job, and a thoughtful landscape architect (it’s always a team effort) even left him a spot to plant himself. New kind of homicide: Death by architecture.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry
Trained as an architect and urban planner, the author is a Charlotte-based developer of golf, equestrian, and active-senior communities.
“A Stain on Boston” is the second in a series of posts in Ad Hamilton’s project “Single Servings” at The Owls site. Read “A Stain on Boston, Part I.” The Owls site is an ongoing writing experiment for the web, featuring recent work by Peter Kline, Dan O'Brien, and Stacey Swann. Work from The Owls site appears here thanks to the generosity of 3QD.
Sean Hill's forthcoming project at The Owls site, “A Natural History of My _______”, begins in September. Writers were asked to respond to the following prompt: “Focus in on one particular part of your self, tangible or intangible, and write a natural history of it based on your observations in 50 to 1500 words (poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, or drama). This could be a natural history of almost anything; for instance, your eyebrows, stretch marks, tongue, ingrown toenails, frowns, tragi, tendency to embellish or ignore the truth, laughs, wanderlust, farts, pragmatism, shins, or asthma. I’m curious to see what starting out with such a tight focus will yield.”
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