The Woolf Ranging the literary landscape
On moonlit nights, the Nuance gals pad through the publishing landscape of Z端rich and beyond, pouncing on anything wordy and dragging it home to share with the pack. Sometimes we howl.
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Image courtesy: Stefano Massa
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Welcome to The Woolf. In which the Woolves take to the hills to get a broad view of things. There, they encounter an architect and designer with a wide lens on urban narrative.
In conversation Sound Bites
Stefano Massa: Architect and designer. Bite-sized vox-pops. This month: Feedback from The Independent Publishing Event, Zürich.
Illuminating the publishing landscape.
Goings-on in the city of Zürich and beyond.
And other sketches
Kaleidoscape by Libby O'Loghlin. (Inaugural short story.)
If you would like to submit a piece of writing for And other sketches June issue, details are in the back of this publication. The Woolf is always hunting down great blogs, curiosities, wonders and words, so if you happen upon something interesting, feel free to share with the pack.
Editorial team Jill Prewett Libby O’Loghlin
“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”
Lighthouse operator: Liz Henry
—Virginia Woolf Photographic images (unless otherwise attributed): Libby O'Loghlin
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In Conversation with
Stefano Massa The Woolf talks urban narratives and creative concepts with a designer, architect, producer and curator of content.
Firstly, let’s talk about you. Architect, designer, creator—what inspires you? I am an architect, as background, even if I am working and researching also in fields which are not strictly related to the constructive aspect of design. I started this approach early during my studies, completed with the discussion of a thesis in urban design titled Crowd Space. It is a study on the relationship between cities and the crowds that inhabit them. Since then it was clear to me that I was much more interested in the relations occurring between elements of complex and dynamic systems rather than in the mere aesthetic or function of single buildings and design objects. Speaking of inspiration, basically anything can be inspirational, really any kind of material (visual, textual, acoustic) and very diverse mixes of these ingredients. As I said, I am interested in the relationships that can intervene between elements, especially if coming from different fields and environments. I am interested in what happens in the void between them, so to speak.
In the Japanese language this idea is very well expressed and defined by the word 'ma' 1 which can be roughly translated as 'the space between two parts' (or interval, or negative space) which implies the activity of the observer while experiencing what is happening in that space. This is why, I guess, as an architect I am much more fascinated with configurations and processes happening at very big scales or microscopic ones. Inspiration, in general, is triggered by a state of predisposition, or—as in a formula I particularly like—Pattern Recognition. It is an expression originally belonging to computer science, also recurring as the title of a novel by William Gibson and a song by Sonic Youth. Coincidentally two of my main influences.
“I perceive something as a piece of art when it deeply intersects and influences the streaming forces shaping society.”
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Image courtesy: E. Stassi
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Certain domains or 'territories', in this sense, are particularly fertile and dense. I am thinking of crowded public spaces and border areas for example. Not only physical borders, also abstract and interdisciplinary ones, changes of state, transitions from order to disorder and back. In flow dynamics, which is something I had to deal with while studying the crowd modelling in urban environments, this condition is identified with the transition between a laminar, regular state and a chaotic, turbulent one. The idea is that the observation of natural phenomena can provide models for a better understanding of reality, life in artificial environments and technology. This is definitely something that fascinates and inspires me.
I have the impression that, nowadays, it is quite common to confuse art with any kind of creative process and technology with he cult of gadget. I am suspicious towards both even if totally surrounded by them. In my eyes technology is really working when it is invisible and functional to the quest and production of art. When it is 'indistinguishable from magic', to use Arthur C. Clarke's words.
How do you see the relationship between art and technology? I think they are fundamental to each other but not comparable, because of their different nature. In absolute terms, technology is the mastering of a series of techniques to achieve a result. Art is a state—of grace if you want— absolute and rare. I perceive something as a piece of art when it deeply intersects and influences the streaming forces shaping society. The theorisation of linear perspective in the Italian Renaissance is a very good example of this relationship.
“The trim tab is a metaphor for a small, almost invisible device, which has a huge effect on the whole system.”
In other words, is what Buckminster Fuller— amazing architect, engineer and inventor—used to call the Trim Tab Effect. The trim tab is a metaphor for a small, almost invisible device, which has a huge effect on the whole system. And the system for us is a spaceship called Earth.
Image courtesy: Wikipedia You’re fascinated by the interaction between people and the urban environment. Can you expand on that? My interest started while I was studying architecture and urban design in Venice, where every day you can vividly experience the interaction of these two, apparently different, elements. Apparently I say, because from the point of view of an urban designer, the crowd and the buildings are the warp and weft of the city. They are deeply entangled, one the complementary negative of the other. When you start thinking in these terms suddenly you realise that you are observing two different states of the same matter. For me this is something very important to keep in mind when imaging and drafting a project. What it is also very important is the direct experience of the city, field research and observation.
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“The crowd—I mean the crowd as one of the fundamental figures of modernity—was firstly recognised and understood by writers, philosophers and photographers, not by architects, sociologists or politicians.”
A huge crowd gathers outside The New York Times building in Times Square to hear play-by-play bulletins of the World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Brooklyn Robins on Oct. 12, 1920. Excerpt and Image courtesy: Wikipedia
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Image courtesy: Wikipedia
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The crowd, I mean the crowd as one of the fundamental figures of modernity, was firstly recognised and understood by writers, philosophers and photographers, not by architects, sociologists or politicians. I am speaking of Baudelaire, Zola, Edgar Allan Poe 2, Walter Benjamin. People exploring and living the crowd from within. I think it is a an important topic because—as Don De Lillo wrote—"the future belongs to crowds" 3 and it is very likely that most of us will be part of these crowds inhabiting hyper-dense urban environments 4. What is an architectural narrative? Any project, in my eyes, is an architectural narrative. With a plot, a setting, primary and secondary characters, turning points, sometimes crimes. Designing is producing fiction, imaging scenarios, building a story and throw it into an unknown yet irresistible future. It can be told through visual story telling—most of the times it is—but that is not always the case. There are many architects designing with words instead of images, using hybrid techniques. At the extreme point a project can be described by the list of instructions to be performed to get to its completion, reducing it to a programming, nonfigurative language, still able to tell a story. Could give us some examples of buildings that attract you, and explain why? At the moment, I am researching and focusing more on cities, macro- and infrastructures. We usually conceive a metropolis as a built environment, but on a more general level you can see it as an infrastructure for the crowd. High-speed trains covering thousands of kilometres in few hours are inhabitable pieces of extensible, interconnected cities. Their inner spaces look like hotel lounges, spas, offices. They are not buildings literally, yet definitely architectural spaces. I am attracted by these strange cases, by the anonymous pieces that make the whole machine work, by the data centres hosting Google and Facebook databases.
“Any project, in my eyes, is an architectural narrative. With a plot, a setting, primary and secondary characters, turning points, sometimes crimes.”
Other very interesting types of 'buildings' are concert stages. Starting from Pink Floyd in the 70s, stage design has become more and more an influential branch of architecture. Even though ephemeral and vain, in terms of visibility and collective imagery a stage like the one designed by Mark Fisher5 for The Wall Live (Pink Floyd) is much more influential than most of the traditionally celebrated buildings. I mean that the impact of The Wall, especially when represented to commemorate the fall of the actual wall dividing Berlin is a force that shapes an idea of society6. My third pick is Arcosanti7, again a non conventional project. Arcosanti is an urban laboratory in the desert of Arizona, started by the italian architect Paolo Soleri in 1970. I had the chance to live there for a while. It is many things at once, it is difficult to describe but that is what makes it so interesting as an experience. From the architectural point of view it is something between a giant building, a piece of landscape art and a miniaturised city. In the idea of its founder is a prototype for a possible different urban development which cares for human well being, according to strong environmental principles and lean practices. Why Zürich? And what are your favourite places in this city? Oh, there are many. Zürich is pretty amazing when it comes to great places and diversity. I really like Kreis 4, which is also where I live. It is a vibrant neighbourhood, facing now a lot of development and changes. For an architect it is
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the perfect place to get the pulse of the city and monitor its growth.
dynamics. The web manifestation of research is split into two channels.
For coffee (basic need) Café Noir. For working on the fly and meeting interesting people definitely The Hub in the Viadukt. For the atmosphere the café-bar of Rote Fabrik on Sunday morning. Last but not least, there is a remote wooden platform on the lake, a relic tucked in nature. It is a very special place known by few, ideal for being, for once, away from the crowd. But of course, I am not going to tell you where it is.
One is for fast consumption and visual flare (doctorcrowd.tumblr.com), the other one for layered thinking and meditated words (doctorcrowd.wordpress.com). The attempt is to review, organise and update all the content so far collected, in order to make it available as a useful resource for me and the crowd out there.
I didn't choose Zürich as a city, I rather chose a specific job opportunity at the time without knowing much about it. But here I found a unique and interesting environment and, most important, a network of people willing to learn, share and participate. I think culture, diversity and social engagement are the main resources that Zürich needs to develop in the future.
It is difficult to define but I am engaged designing for screen, paper and space, filtering and trying to keep a consistent language and identity across the different media. It is an active practice of building a sense out of the huge amount of information to which we are constantly exposed, out of a world that most of the time doesn't make sense at all. If I was a writer, I guess I would say "finding my own voice", but since I am not I will stick with the idea of a daily search of what makes us unique among the crowd. Notes 1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ma_(negative_space) 2. Don De Lillo, Mao II, 1991. 3. The Man of the Crowd: http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/eapoe/bleapoe-man.htm 4. By 2050 it is predicted that 64.1% and 85.9% of the developing and developed world respectively will be urbanised. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanization)
What are you working on at the moment? I can't keep myself from exploring different domains and experimenting with remixes. Together with my work as an architect and graphic designer I keep studying programming, web design and scripting languages, with the idea of integrating them more and more in the workflow. I am also curating an archive of materials about urban environments, crowd behaviours and
5. Mark Fisher is one of the most important architects for events and stage design in the world. Probably you don't know his name but there is a good chance that you know his work very well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Fisher_(architect) 6. Here I am quoting another architect, friend and mentor, Antonio Scarponi and the Triangular Design Manifesto (www.conceptualdevices.com). 7. Beyond Form, an introduction to Arcosanti:
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Bibliography Fragments Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language which Generates Multi-service Centers, with Ishikawa and Silverstein, Center for Environmental Structure, 1968. Roland Barthes, The Empire of Signs, Skira, Paris, 1970.
You can find more of Stefano's works and curations at the following sites: doctorcrowd.tumblr.com doctorcrowd.github.com doctorcrowd.wordpress.com
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Buchet-Chastel, Paris, 1967. William Gibson, Pattern Recognition, Penguin Putnam, 2003. Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, Garden City, Doubleday, N.Y., 1966. Edgar Allan Poe, The Man of the Crowd, 1840.
Mini-lit quiz Which novel has: a) a sentence that is around nine pages long; and b) is named after its central character, who is an architectural historian? Last issue’s answer: Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson. (Which book describes meteorologist Cline and the 1900 hurricane, which devastated the town of Galveston, Texas?)
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The Lighthouse Illuminating the publishing landscape
Distractions Great writers, dodgy advice: http://www.flavorwire.com/364797/badwriting-advice-from-famous-authors Drool over bookshelves: http://bookshelfporn.com 100 Best Opening Lines: http://www.stylist.co.uk/life/the-best-100opening-lines-from-books
Natural Narratives Noted omnivore, best-selling author, and journalism professor, Michael Pollen spoke at the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism on Natural Narratives. Notes from the talk can be found after the jump: http://www.niemanstoryboard.org/2007/02/16 /natural-narratives
The Mystery of Storytelling: http://www.tedxealing.com/tedxealing-videoarchive/julian-friedmann-the-mystery-ofstorytelling
Ruminations: themes to chew over Tiny Story Once upon a time … a tiny story with great soul. Perhaps you've seen this short film by animators Sebas and Clim on the fundamentals of narrative design. http://vimeo.com/35988721 @JohnPavlus wrote about it for FastCompany: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1669074/tinystory-a-short-film-about-the-fundamentals-ofnarrative-design
Image: Liz Henry
Analog Have you noticed any rogue bookshelves or minilibraries popping up in your corner of the world? The Woolf stumbled upon one in Solothurn, and a Strassenbibliothek in Horgen (Kanton Zürich). Someone is snapping pictures of people reading on the Metro in New York City. http://undergroundnewyorkpubliclibrary.com
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Some terminology A narrative (or story) is any account that presents connected events, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narrative Narratology refers to both the theory and the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narratology Browse the Living Handbook on Narratology, hosted by the Uni Hamburg: http://hup.sub.unihamburg.de/lhn/index.php/Narratology Read the book on Narratology by Mieke Bal. http://www.miekebal.org/publications/books/n arratology The Flâneur and the City It was Walter Benjamin, drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, who made him the object of scholarly interest in the twentieth century, as an emblematic figure of urban, modern experience. Following Benjamin, the flâneur has become an important figure for scholars, artists and writers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flâneur
Curated quotes from Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Chris Jenks, and Graeme Gilloch http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/p ostmodernism/postmo_urban/flaneur.html and http://visualculture.wordpress.com/2000/12/14 /emergence-of-the-flaneur-in-modernity
Competitions Writers for children and adults – The WOW Factor http://www.cornerstones.co.uk/#/wowfactorcompetition-2013 Interesting one for expats – 2K words on the subject of Home http://longwortheditors.com/competition Mslexia Women’s Short Story Comp http://www.mslexia.co.uk/whatson/msbusiness/ scomp_active.php Bridport Prizes: Poetry, Short Story and Flash http://www.bridportprize.org.uk/content/2013judges
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Sound Bites Feedback from The Independent Publishing Event, Zürich A few local bloggers have written up the TiPE event: http://www.livingincyn.com/2013/01/27/a-way-with-words http://jjmarsh.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/tipe http://www.writerabroad.com/2013/01/is-independent-publishing-right-for-you.html
Ana— An inspiring workshop! Maite—It was very enlightening, and I even have my mother thinking of writing a book about her first trip around the world 50 years ago … Florence—It was a fantastic workshop, I LOVED it! Thank you so much, I can't wait for the next ones!
Read the TiPE Takeaway on the Nuance Words Issuu account: issuu.com/nuancewords
Christina—Very inspirational! Looking forward to putting your advice into practice. Charles—Thank you for a wonderful presentation today, and thanks so much for the takeaway —so valuable! Lily—I have almost finished my first book, and have hugely enjoyed writing it but found it a bit of a solitary experience! It was so nice to meet others and hear your great tips and stories. Cynthia—Thanks for yesterday's #TiPEZurich! It was packed with excellent information, and really nice to meet lovely writers in, around and beyond Zürich. Well worth it!! Jeanne—Wonderfully informative event with a focus on solutions and options.
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Making Tracks Goings-on in the city of Zürich and beyond
Zurich Writers' Workshop The next workshops for writers will be on 12-14 April, with tutors Sam North and Lee Weatherly of Cornerstones Literary Consultancy. http://www.zurichwritersworkshop.com/workshop We encourage all writerly types to sign up as soon as possible because—after the success of The Independent Publishing Event—a decision was made that this year, Nuance's WriteCon in October will focus on publishing, marketing and the intersection of content and technology.
Big congratulations … to Zürich/Panama Writer Dorita Avila on publication of her short story—Violin Concerto in D Major. http://copperfieldreview.com/?p=1433
Readings At Kaufleuten: 1 March—Franz Hohler 12 March—Joey Goebel 13 March—JR Moehringer 16 April—Taiye Selasi 17 April—David Guterson 24 April—Ned Beauman 14 May—Alain de Botton http://www.kaufleuten.ch/events/kultur/
The Nuance Yellow Pages One of the suggestions that came from The Independent Publishing Event was that we find a way for professionals to connect and offer publishing-related skills to others who might be considering the indiepublishing route. Over the coming months, the Nuance team will be collecting details to put together a “Yellow Pages Directory”, so please feel free to send in your details (contact email, website, skills offered) to: Jill@nuancewords.org
For locals From 1908, Esther Singleton (ed.) Switzerland, as described by great writers http://ia700702.us.archive.org/20/items/switzerlandasdes00sing/switzerlandasdes00sing.pdf (takes a while to load, but oh my! How The Woolf howls with glee!)
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Kaleidoscape A tale of family legacy, and how a dirty word changed the way a city saw itself.
I Unlike his father and his grandfather, De J inherited the keys to the biggest building in Europe by accident. He was a teenager at the time. The accident, which resulted in his father's death, prompted a media storm. “A tragedy of some magnitude.” That sort of thing. The headline was this: Security Guard fries in freak electrical malfunction: Brussels' Palais de Justice needs a doctor!
De J thought the press were the ones who needed a doctor, in the form of an ethical editor, but accepted the unnecessary dramatisation with good grace. He understood the need for a good story. His mother, Marie, handed over the keys without ceremony, as she served his lunch. “Take them,” she said. “Do you want salt with your soup?” De J looked at the key-ring, bigger than the diameter of a DVD, and at the broad splay of keys attached. The largest key was so substantial that De J couldn't believe there was a lock
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big enough for it. The smallest seemed more a nail-file than a key and, when he saw it, De J knew immediately that his father had been a modest man. He'd always said he could lock doors to keep the tourists out, but in fact it appeared he had other, un-trumpeted, skills: he was more than competent at breaking in if the situation required it. De J could only surmise that security, even back in his great-grandfather's day, was something to be protected. It's never a sure thing. As is sometimes the case when nothing is said, nothing is understood. And so De J asked his mother if he was expected to walk the halls like his father, after dark, night after night. He asked her if there was a boss. Marie passed him the butter. “There's always a boss of some sort,” she said, and De J marvelled at how his mother managed to appear so grim at odd moments. “But who is it?” Marie went back to the three pots of soup. One for the Mayor's wife who had contracted shingles, one for the homeless shelter, and one for her son. “You'll find out soon enough, I'm sure,” she said. “Was it salty enough? I really ought to get one very large pot instead of three small ones.” De J and his mother lived not far from the Palais de Justice, in the Marollen quarter of Brussels. Not so much of a quarter these days, since the Palais spread like a delirium through that part of the city over a period of almost two decades in the 19 th Century. “An hysterical monument,” was the way Marie put it from time to time. “People resisted, but here it is.” Their house was like every one of its neighbours: clustered at the foot of the great mountain that was the Palais. Each house was small, double storey, and in bad shape. The one significant feature of De J's house was its façade. Grandmother Evalina had painted it black. At the time, it created a certain amount of furore among the neighbours, and provoked a visit from Mme. Laroche, who had no formal title such as mayor or councillor or judge but was the kind of woman who took it upon herself to uphold certain values and justices in the quarter b ecause nobody else was doing it. “A colourless house won't do,” was how she opened the conversation. “It's sending a message to the politicians.” “What message? What are you talking about?” Evalina's tone was casual, almost amused. “Mme. De J. As you know, our community has weathered a number of storms. Our men
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have mined coal for our families, fought for our freedom, fought to keep crime at a minimum. And all in the shadow of the Palais. You see where I'm going.” Evalina shook her head, smiling. “Sorry. I don't.” Mme. Laroche sighed. “It is up to us to send a united message.” Evalina, however, was not one to be intimidated. “I understand all that. Your husband speaks French, you speak Flemish, but you present a united front, etcetera. But my husband, you understand, is colour-blind. It think you'll find the era of sweeping difference under the carpet is long passed.” There was a moment of quiet, as Mme. Laroche digested this information. “Come now. Surely the Monsieur knows how to read numbers? Like the exceptional number on your door?” (It was exceptional. It was 67, a prime number. Mme. Laroche's head for figures was also exceptional.) Evalina shrugged. “Sure. But he works nights. When he comes home before sunrise it is so much faster to look for something absent than to look for something that's been camouflaged for hundreds of years. I don't know if I'd recommend it as a strategy for life in general, but in this instance you see my method.” Mme. Laroche looked out the window, across the street, to the Palais. Perhaps she understood, or perhaps she was more of a diplomat than she was given credit for. Either way, she nodded and stood, and bade Evalina a good morning. As Mme. Laroche was leaving, Evalina asked her, just by the way, how things were progressing with the nouveau Victor Horta-style constructions on the other side of the Palais. It was rare that Evalina crossed the Place Poelaert to the upper side of the city, because it wasn't a sensible or smooth journey. Mme. Laroche's brother Alexander was one of the few people who dared venture across, and you won't be surprised to hear that it was pure and unadulterated yearning for a beautiful and well-heeled woman which dictated the direction and speed of his trajectory, so that he hardly noticed the obstacles—and the lack of linearity—on his journey. In any case, Mme. Laroche delayed her departure by a few minutes to elaborate on her brother's views on the changes to the city scape, and Evalina—her mind no less than a sponge —listened and nodded, and considered. When Mme. Laroche bade Evalina a good morning for the second time, she was in a far better mood, and considered that the vacant façade of number 67 was perhaps not so bad after all. I don't need to tell you that Grandmother Evalina's husband thoroughly loved his wife.
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At five o'clock, one month to the day after his father passed away, De J arrived at the Palais. He approached the main entrance and spent a good ten minutes or so looking for an indication of where—and when—his job might begin. Nobody had said, go to the basement, or take the second door on the left. It was just lucky that ل#%' ا#"$ (let's call him Abdul Adl), the janitor, had been keeping an eye out for him.
II Let me digress for a moment to explain the Palais to you. It will will be short, despite the fact that it is a very, very large building. So large, in fact, that Grandmother Evalina had been known to say it was too big to see. “Too big to see? What are you talking about?” De J's mother had little patience for exaggeration or metaphor. Language, she felt, should be direct. Unembellished. She repeated her question. “You can only take in so much before you have to alter your position,” came the old woman's reply. Marie was about to speak, but said nothing more because De J's father smiled and placed a hand on his mother's thin arm. “It's quite something, isn't it, mother?” he said. “I myself have tried to count the rooms and ended up in a strange, flâneur-like state, wandering from hall to hall.” Evalina looked shocked at this last bit, so he hastily added, “Of course I am not a flâneur, not by any means.” “Indeed I should hope not.” You can probably tell from this response what people of Evalina's generation thought about the general concept of flâneur, but more on that later. Evalina changed the subject. “It is quite an exceptional building,” she said. “And it shifts, depending upon where you stand. It's like the view through a kaleidoscope.” Evalina and Marie shared a secret look which said something De J's father couldn't fathom. That put an end to the conversation, which was a little awkward, but it also cemented in the De J family a story that would be carried forward and would help its wider family members understand and see the great structure that provided a rhythm for their days and salt for their table. After all, it is one thing to see, and another to understand.
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'Kaleidoscope', as it turns out, is a good word to aid the process of 'understanding'. Even though it is primarily a visual term which can be adopted to describe a many-faceted subject such as the Palais, it also can refer to a complicated set of circumstances. This latter meaning was what piqued Marie and Evalina's sense of humour. Despite their very different temperaments, they shared a view of the world and a special role within it. Looking at the Palais is a strange experience. It's also one that often results in a series of questions. Such as: Question One: Who on earth could have imagined such a construction? (NB. This is a question that allows us to conclude more about the questioner than the questioned.) Question Two: How on earth is a building of such magnitude maintained?
The best solution anyone could come up with for Question One was that the Architect, Poelaert, may have been delirious, or at the very least highly creative. There was no reasonable answer to the second. Over the years the balance of power in the city had fluctuated, and along the way the care of the Palais had been neglected. When the keys were handed over in 1883, De J's great-grandfather had a team of keyholders. Sadly, these men (for it was only men who were charged at the time with the formal duty) grew old and none of them had anybody to whom they could pass on their keys. And so De J's great-grandfather slowly collected more keys until De J, being the current holder, held all of them. If you want to think of it in architectural terms, you could think of it as a pyramid, with De J at its summit. But now the top of the pyramid had been reached, and there was nowhere else to go. For De J, the future was uncertain. Let me digress once again to explain a little about architects. As De J understood it, architects see the world in pictures. They have a feeling for space, and they often talk at great length about things like concourses and balustrades. Things which the rest of us might think of as a path or a veranda, or something to get us from A to B. Occasionally, they wax lyrical about things like 'Normalisation' and 'Cinematic Urbanism', and write long theses dissecting old buildings as though they were old men's bodies which needed re-purposing or rejuvenation. Sometimes they go as far as to completely reprogram the interior of a building, as though it were being surgically altered.
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But it gets worse. Over the years architects in Brussels had acquired a bad name for themselves, and it was not the fault of any living architect, French, Dutch, African or otherwise. According to Marie, the mood on the streets had been that 'Architect' was a dirty word, and it had everything to do with the pathological symptom mentioned above. The symptom being the Palais; the pathology being ascribed not (as it should have been) to the 19 th Century, but rather more erroneously to an Architect by the name of Poelaert. By the time De J had the weight of keys in his hand, there were rumours about a man who had been seen wandering the city of Brussels at night. Interestingly, there was no spitting or cussing or lewd hand gesturing accompanying these whispers and—as we have learned from a previous discussion about houses that are painted a non-colour—sometimes it is the things unspoken or omitted that get noticed.
A brief illustration of how to use the word 'Architect' as an insult: Elke:
Aargh! You're such an
III Abdul Adl's expression did not suggest a relaxed man, although De J was not surprised since, having grown up with the kaleidoscope story, he could only begin to imagine what a nightmare it would be to be responsible for the cleaning of the Palais. De J hoped, for Abdul Adl's sake, that he wasn't the only cleaner. “I'm sorry I'm late,” Abdul Adl said. “It's terrible.” “Is it?” “There has been a change. They have installed computers.” De J laughed. “I should hope so. It's the 21 st Century, not 1866.” Abdul Adl looked confused. “They need you now, more than ever. Your father (rest his soul) told me you own a PC and an iPhone.”
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Again, De J laughed. “They don't even know me. I've never even seen the building except when I DJ'd at a dance party.” Most of this was a lie. The true bit was that De J was a DJ, and had an impressive collection of vinyl and electronic music equipment (he knew how to make electronic music analogue-style, for instance), and he had DJ'd at what turned out to be a messy dance party (another, longish story, which is only relevant in that it was the night De J met Elke, whom we'll also meet shortly). The untruth was that De J had not been into the building. In fact, he'd been into the building many, many times over the years. Each time it was with his father and at night, so of course it was not likely to be smiled upon by anyone in a position of power. De J's mother provided most of the problem. Indeed, De J only ever accompanied his father on their night-time wanderings when Marie was away visiting her brother Niels in Amsterdam, because that was the only time that De J could knowingly be let out of the house after 9pm. And it was thanks to the unnaturally prolonged illness of Niels' wife Consuela that Marie was absent—sometimes for weeks at a time. Clearly a shame for Consuela, who died not two weeks before De J's father, but timely in another sense, because by the time the keys were in his hand—and now his backpack—De J knew his way around the Palais like he'd grown up there. The only missing piece of information was that De J didn't know who was the boss. He had a passing moment of worry that in fact he might be the boss and wouldn't that be freaky, followed by a sense of being adrift in the world, which he realised was probably because his father was absent and would continue to be absent for a very long time to come. Abdul Adl stopped walking. “Hip-Hop,” he said, as though it had taken the past five minutes for the message to reach his brain. “That's worse than I imagined. Did your father know about this raving dance party thing? Never mind.” He was silent for a moment, then seemed to reach some kind of resolve. “Come with me. The main computer banks are in the basement. Once you see them, you might understand the vision.” De J followed Abdul Adl into the great yawn of the central concourse, and looked up through the layers of stone and pillars and balustrades, right up to the dome. He might have said, “Awesome,” a few times, but Abdul Adl was moving at a pace, so he had to stop saying that and start running to keep up. He eyed off every door as they passed, wondering which of the great weight of keys in his backpack was the right fit for that door, and it took him a minute or two before he realised
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that there had been a few other changes since he was last there. For starters, alongside each door was a swipe card slot. Why would you need an old key if you now had a swipe card? Secondly, old wooden staircases had been cordoned off for refurbishment as though some serious crime had been committed. Furthermore, the old electrical cables which visibly supported the blotchy (for want of a better word) and uneven lighting, had been stripped away. As we know, De J knew nothing about architecture, but he was smart enough to realise that it's one thing to build a building for people who thought light-bulbs must be the God-given pinnacle of scientific invention, and another thing altogether to look back and see that light bulbs were just the start of it, and God was something completely different. Indeed, more modern lighting had been installed (generated by solar panelling), so that the magnificence of columns and pedestals and other architectural features were gently accentuated. He paused, once again to muse that the way he saw and remembered the building was being challenged by a shift in light, and how odd that was. He thought of the kaleidoscope his family spoke of, and made a mental note to tell Elke that the Palais was a whole new story these days. “You should see it in daylight,” Abdul Adl said. He pointed at the sky, but didn't look up. “Up there, in the dome, they're putting in louvres. It's going to self-regulate according to the weather.” De J waited to hear more, but Abdul Adl seemed to be having an internal battle, because he kept nearly speaking and stopping himself just in time. Eventually he said, in a flat tone, “I'll take you up there. Yes, I should take you. I'll do it now. Yes. Right now.” De J recognised the signs of someone who was trying to convince themselves of something. “We don't have to go now if you'd rather not,” he offered. But Abdul Adl shook his head. “No. We'll get it out of the way. You're not in a rush, are you?” At that point, De J thought again of his father. It had been a good six months since De J had set foot in the Palais. Probably his own fault, since Elke seemed to take up most of his time these days. On one occasion, De J came home (after midnight) to find his father and Marie talking in hushed tones in the kitchen. De J, who was not theoretically 'out' that night, had to tip-toe
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past the kitchen door and find a plan for getting up the creaky wooden stairs without his mother's knowledge. His strategy was to be to pretend he was just coming downstairs, though this meant he had to shed some clothes and stash them under the stairs so it would look as though he had simply got out of bed for a glass of water. As he was removing his sweatshirt he listened. (He was also thinking about Elke, but you don't need to know those exact thoughts.) He heard his mother's voice, urgent and mildly impatient, which was not an unusual occurrence if she was talking to her son. It was unusual, however, that she would speak to her husband in such a way. Your father wears the pants in this house, was her catch-phrase, and she always—always—bit her tongue in her husband's presence, no matter how much her body language said she disagreed with him. Lately, however, De J had started to wonder. Why, for example, would you need to say that someone else wore the pants? Why would you need to articulate where the seat of power lay, unless you were trying to convince someone? Maybe yourself ? As he listened to his parents that evening, it became clear: Marie was talking. His father was not. Ergo: Marie was wearing the pants. De J thought it funny and a bit surreal that his parents' roles were interchangeable depending on whether it was day or night (or perhaps more aptly who their audience was), but he found it even stranger that Marie wasn't talking about bills or broken plumbing or the price of apples. She wasn't talking about household management, she was telling her husband a story. This is the story (call it gossip if you like). [De J missed the first few sentences.] “And I tell you, Durant, he has been seen at night, between the eastern- and westernmost walls of the pentagon that is our city. They say he resembles Poelaert, but that might have been Boucher's own particular predilection—you know you can make yourself see something if you believe it? Well, it doesn't matter. The important thing is people are talking. “I've said it before and I'll say it again. In our mothers' day you could make someone very hot under the collar if you called them a flâneur. I personally wouldn't want the title. But that's not the case any more. The story of the flâneur is back. I tell you, Durant, I sense a change.” De J, standing in the hallway (now wearing only a Stromae t-shirt and boxer-shorts) thought his mother had gone barking mad, and indeed there was silence for a moment,
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presumably while his father joined some dots. “I can see your face, my love,” his mother continued. “You are thinking, 'there she goes again with another one of her stories'. But pay attention. This story is coming back, and it's just one of many. Alderman De Hoor's husband from the Sablon, and Boucher in the Matonge have both mentioned it this week.” De J's father cleared his throat. “My love, I can't manage a change of this magnitude. The responsibility is too great.” “Of course you can. You look after the biggest, most eclectic monument in Europe. You do. Nobody else.” “I do. You're right.” “Of course I am. Durant, you say you are the keeper of the past, but you are the one with the keys. Remember: a door goes both ways.” Again, a silence. “And if they start building at the Palais again now?” “They will, I have passed these stories on to ears that hear. And they hear that the city approves. Now it's only a matter of time.” “But what do I do? How do I do it? What if it turns into another delirium? It's taken my family centuries to find the rhythm of the building. It's like an old friend.” Marie laughed, and De J heard a kind of smooching noise, which was doubtless one of the parents kissing the other, or maybe they were kissing together. De J didn't like to think too hard on that one. “My dear. As your mother says, it's just a matter of framing. Your old friend is not diminished by any means, but our city is growing up, and it's ready to start a dialogue.” Another one of those smoochy noises, and then his mother said, “You are doing a wonderful job. Will you have a slice of toast?” De J thought of this story as they ascended the first of many staircases. Abdul Adl was still walking quietly by his side, perhaps waiting for him to speak. As he looked down over the handrail (it was as wide as a whole person, not just a hand), he saw how high they were, and remembered the first time he reached the dome. He was two years old. He had a good memory. “There's a lot of stuff going on here,” he said, mainly because he had now realised why Abdul Adl had behaved so strangely before. Right now the janitor was clutching the hand-rail as though his life depended on it. De J first of all though it was funny that someone who had to clean the place was afraid of heights, but he reined that thought in and realised it might be nice
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if he struck up a conversation to distract the poor fellow. He repeated himself. “I said, there's a lot of stuff going on here, wouldn't you say?” Abdul Adl nodded enthusiastically. Perhaps he was glad of some distraction. “They are putting in ramps, across the space in the other courtyards.” He sighed, as if to say, thank goodness. “They are?” “It's part of the plan.” He took a large breath, and the next few sentences came out quite quickly. “It's a new way to see the space, enabling us to walk through history or something. Don't ask me, it's more hysterical than historical, the place is so big. I'm not sure if you can ever know the full history. Did you know there was a guy downstairs charging people to use the toilets? They didn't find out about him for several years.” De J casually took Abdul Adl's arm to steady him. “That's one way to make a Euro, I suppose.” They had reached the observation level, and Abdul Adl's back was mashed up against the wall. He waved one arm around the space, and told De J to feel free to take a look around. De J walked the perimeter, examining the walls in between the windows that looked out across the city. Like most cities at night it was lit up, giving a freckled view of the negative spaces but, as I said, De J was looking at the walls. That sounds silly: you'd think you'd look out the windows, wouldn't you? But in fact every spare square millimetre of wall was covered with paper, which was more curious to De J than the immense city-scape outside the building. The paperwork was the Architect's handiwork, De J presumed. On it was an extensive line drawing of the city, filling in the gaps between the windows. A cartoon, really. “It will be digital one day soon.” Abdul Adl's voice was not even slightly steady. De J pulled a pen out of his pocket and marked the Place de la Chapelle like this:
Skate park - De J breaks his arm, 12th August, 2002.
When he looked at Abdul Adl, he could see the older man glistened with sweat and his eyes were squeezed shut. De J took the initiative and made lots of exclamations about the awesome view, for some distraction, and made his way back to Abdul Adl, thinking it might be best to go back downstairs again.
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Abdul Adl opened one eye and pointed to one of the great windows. “Look down. Garden.” De J obeyed, and saw indeed a great expanse of grassy terraces across the roof of the lower section of the building. He thought they might have been there so people could hangglide out of the observatory and land on the roof, or maybe land helicopters there, but Abdul Adl was saying something about how vegetation was important if you wanted to maintain some control over the temperature of the building. “You look like you might need get control of your own temperature, AA,” De J said, and Abdul Adl nodded almost imperceptibly. They ran extremely fast down the seven or eight flights of stairs until Abdul Adl's feet were firmly on the ground. But Abdul Adl kept on, toward the stairs and labyrinth of corridors which took them deeper under the Palais. That is where we'll leave them for now, though, as the most important discoveries of that day have already come to pass.
IV When De J left the Palais in the very early morning, after 'meeting' the new computer system (and a server farm that was apparently going to provide a heating solution), he entered a long SMS-conversation with Elke. The upshot of this was that she wanted him to meet her as soon as humanly possible. You can imagine that De J was taken by surprise when he quite literally ran into a man as he crossed the Place Poelaert. The collision was not comfortable for De J, and he swore loudly as his phone flew out of his hand and bounced across the gravel. “I hadn't expected to end up here, right in front of the Palais,” the man said. “But that's what happens when you wander for the sake of it, I suppose. I do apologise about your phone.” De J, who had picked up the phone and was inspecting its screen, announced that the phone was well and truly dead. “Oh dear. I am sorry. Would you hold this for me?” The man handed a half-drunk bottle of red wine to De J, who automatically took it. He then pulled his wallet out of his pocket. “Here. My card. I guess you can't call me now, what with the phone situation, but maybe
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you could email. I will find a solution. I'm good at that.” De J looked at the man's business card and handed back the bottle.
That's what it said on one side of the card. On the other side were listed: mobile phone, email, Twitter, Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr and Tumblr. De J started to laugh. “Do you think I'll be able to find you?” The Architect looked confused. “You found me tonight, didn't you?” At that moment, De J wasn't to know that he had just collided with the very flâneur his mother's friends and colleagues had been discussing. He was merely surprised that the man confessed to being an architect. With his teenaged goggles on, De J snickered, as he imagined telling the story to Elke. “Is something funny?” The Architect looked worried. De J put the card in his pocket with his phone. “Nah. I was just thinking about my girlfriend.” The Architect sighed. “I advise you to keep on thinking about her.” De J laughed again. “Why wouldn't I?” “Because sometimes, as you get older and more entrenched in your work and your life, you find yourself distracted by certain other things.” “What, like buildings? You don't know the half of it!” De J was pleased at his own wittiness, thinking it was a glorious irony that the Architect had no idea of De J's family legacy which (as, conversely, we know by now) revolved day and night around the very same building in front of which the two figures were both standing. De J's youthful egotism dictated that he ought to tell the Architect who he really was— and right now. But he was interrupted by the Architect himself. “If you look behind you, you will see my sweetest distraction,” the Architect said. “My sweetest downfall.” De J came back to earth.
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“It was you? All that new stuff ?” The Architect nodded. “I fell in love with the Palais, and that was my mistake.” “Wait. The building is your girlfriend? Or you lost your girlfriend because you fell in love with a building?” “Yes.” De J didn't bother to ask him to clarify, having slotted the Architect into an 'old person having a nostalgic moment about some other old person or old building' category in his mind. Instead, he said, “Shame. I suppose everything comes at a price. But your biosphere rocks, if that's any consolation.” The Architect's face brightened. “Thank you. She is a substantial thermal mass, if I do say so myself.” De J wasn't sure about calling a building 'she', and had started to think again of Elke, and how the story he was about to tell her was getting not so funny any more but a bit stupid, so he shook the Architect's hand and promised to be in touch. “Yes, please do,” the Architect said, as they parted. “It's no fun to be isolated in a big city without a phone or what-have-you.” De J saluted the older man with a wave and continued on his trajectory across the Place Poelaert, his thoughts once again with his girlfriend. He anticipated her infectious laugh as he pictured showing her the Architect's business card. She would think it was as funny as he did— the idea of putting your name all over the place like that. She would probably say it was like having Tourette's syndrome in cyber-space.
Epilogue Before wrapping up, it's important to point out that sometimes in life things don't go the way we expect them to. This is the case here. You are expecting a neat conclusion in which De J embraces his role as protector of the Palais, he and Elke have babies, and the Palais starts a dialogue with the cityscape. Some of these things happen, but we can't know which ones right now because that would be a linear, temporal story and this is an urban narrative; a 19 th century, scientific cross-section. A kaleidoscape.
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The very same evening that De J bumped into the Architect, he took Elke to meet his mother. In a conversation that went for a good five-and-a-half-hours (De J fell asleep twice during it), Marie outlined the gravity and responsibility that went along with being associated with a key-holder. Elke, it's fair to say, didn't quite get it. (She will eventually.) She did, however, get extremely excited at the prospect of gathering stories from city-dwellers in order to gauge public feeling. She even augmented the idea by thinking of herself as a loudspeaker, as used by rappers before she was born. “Sweet,” she said. “I can, you know, tell it the way it is on the streets.” Marie was confounded, but tried to respond in a way that would indicate she knew what her sort-of-daughter-in-law was saying. “Well, yes, I suppose you could make some kind of cool, street-talk, Hip-Hoppish parallel,” she said. Elke and De J fell about laughing, and Marie was forced to take the conversation in other directions, more specifically by telling the story of the key-holder—De J's greatgrandfather—from the very beginning. With regard to the Architect's appearance in Brussels, it's hard to tell which came first: it may have been that steps had been taken to bring the Palais to life again long before the Architect was seen flâneuring his way through the city. Perhaps his appearance was a symptom of the program's urgency. But, as we have discovered, a city is a large organism, and a kaleidoscope is a set of complicated circumstances. De J and Elke believed climate change was a rather pressing complication (they were unsurprisingly a product of their time) and the Mayor saw that the fiscal side of maintaining the Palais was a complication. The Architect saw problems with air-flow and wasted space and a serious lack of representation of the city fabric within the building. Judge Le Map stood steadfast in her view that the courts of justice were just fine where they were thank you very much (though she wasn't pleased about being accompanied by body guards when she presided over criminal cases). Marie watched on with pursed lips and purchased herself a large pot, in which she continued to make soup for the homeless and for the sick and for her son. Perhaps, because of the complexity and kaleidoscope of lenses that were being applied to the Palais, the Architect was finally permitted to step out of his dark place and return to his rightful position as—simply—an architect. The subject of just one of an eclectic collection of
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stories that make up the fabric of a city. As Grandmother Evalina would have put it: it's really all a matter of framing.
Kaleidoscape was first published online as part of the Revisioning Brussels Court House Competition entries exhibition in 2010. It was written as a collaborative piece, with input and research from: Stefano Massa and Antonio Scarponi of Conceptual Devices, Federico Pedrini, and Elizabeth Henry of Nuance Words. It was submitted alongside architectural plans.
This year, The Woolf launches 'And other sketches', featuring original material from our readers. Short stories, essays, flash fiction, articles and poetry are all welcome, if based on the theme of the upcoming issue. We kicked this off with Kaleidoscape, a perfect choice to complement our architectural explorations in this issue. The next issue of The Woolf will have the theme of Time, so if you would like to submit, please send a PDF to: Jill @ nuancewords.org before 1st May, 2013. We will accept submissions of up to 6,000 words, 12 point, double spaced. Copyright remains with the author. Previously published work welcome.
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Issue 5: In which the Woolves put a lens on urban narrative. Interview with Stefano Massa; literary goings-on in the city of Zurich and beyo...
Published on Feb 26, 2013
Issue 5: In which the Woolves put a lens on urban narrative. Interview with Stefano Massa; literary goings-on in the city of Zurich and beyo...