I was born in Romania fifty years ago and I left the country permanently one week before my sixth birthday in 1973. For the last year and a half of my life here, after my parents left, I lived in my grandparents’ apartment on Strada Italiana in the center of Bucharest. Six of us in four large rooms.
My grandmother, Ana Coroiu, was the center of the house. She was energetic, industrious, elegant, and wonderfully kind. While everyone else was at work or school she kept the house clean and made our meals. On the dining room table she handmade our dresses from patterns she drew. But the thing I remember most dearly, and value most deeply, were her stories. She spun fairy tales so naturally it was as if she had invented them herself. She liked stories where the youngest, the poorest, and the least powerful found redemption and justice through grace and adventure. Her stories spoke of fair maidens, exiled princes, evil stepmothers, witches, talking animals, golden apples, and most of all, there were the wandering journeys to mysterious lands about which I never stopped dreaming.
Every project has two heads. Every project is of two minds.
One is devoted to the desires of a world external, made of audiences, publics, and clients. The other is completely internal satisfying only my needs, my ego, my visions. Far from enemies, these two heads, I have found, mostly get along. I used to be surprised at this fact as a young person.
When I was young, a long time ago, I used to have the designs of my buildings built. But these designs were too much and not enough, too much of my bosses and not enough of me, I decided. Then for a while, I designed buildings for competitions. These buildings were all mine, of course, but I only ever got second place. I longed to make my own buildings. And so, one day I just did. I made a monument for the city of Timisoara. They didn’t ask me to design it. They didn’t need another monument commemorating the end of communism, they already had twelve. They have more now. But in their plentitude I saw a lack, a story that wasn’t yet being told. It was the story that is seldom told about revolutions. That they are messy and uncertain, that there are no heroes or villains or winners, and that, given how the events of the future unfolded in Romania’s past, revolutions may not even exist.
This is why revolutions need icons. Whether statues memorialize a past moment by getting erected or signify the next moment by getting felled, statues are codependents in the fiction of every temporary triumph.
The architect in me finds it tragic that pulling down a statue can sometimes please a public more than constructing one. How can it be satisfying to violate the inanimate head of once animate being?
I made a monument in the shape of a fallen statue head. I made it as if I were making clothing. I took a pattern of a mannequin head, using wide seams to draw the blank face. My dining room table work. It was not a specific head. It was not someone. It had to be able to be more than one head. This way it could stand in for anyone, represent everyone who had ever been violated by a revolution, by this revolution, which was everyone.
I made a monument of cheap plastic and seamed it with my household iron, because that’s what I had, because that’s what everyone has.
When it was finished I crushed the monumental head into a wooden crate, which I also had to build. It travelled by boat to Timisoara for its forthcoming inhalation.
I made a temporary sculpture in the shape of a statue head lying on its side, a statue already captured, already felled, waiting to be crushed and dragged away. I inflated my head to the size of a monument in front of the opera where the demonstrations and brutalizations took place twenty years earlier. A few people came. Some talked to me. Some talked to each other. Some talked to the press. I didn’t know what to expect – this was a journey without a destination. I came to see where it would take me.
For the past eleven months I have been living on a sailboat. Since last June, the Atlantic Ocean has been my home for over 7000km of forward movement. (I know you thought you were getting an architect and a professor, or something… I’m sorry.)
Point in fact regarding your theme “moving forward”: sailboats can only and ever move forward. This is, of course, by design. A boat’s hull is shaped with a pointed bow for cutting through waves; a flatter, wider stern to surf; and sails that catch the force of the wind’s forward thrusts in their scooped shapes. But if movement is always forward on a boat, where is forward? If you point a boat toward a destination and the wind is blowing from behind, you will easily move forward. The same thing can be said if the wind is coming from the side. The only time you will have a problem is if the wind is blowing directly from your destination. When this is the case, moving forward may actually put you further from your aim. Effectively, moving forward, will really be moving backward. This is not just a fact on a boat, of course. Many things today are moving backward in the guise of moving forward.
Forward movement can be, then, impossible, even on a vessel designed to only move forward. But there are always two factors to be satisfied, force, which is external, and direction, which is mine. For a year I have been a vagabond, yes. But I have only moved forward by choice. Because to be without destination is not to be without direction. Even though sometimes, I admit, I stand still for weeks at a time.
My time on the boat made me return to fairy tales. At first I read nostalgically, but soon I noticed that, as was happening in my own life, many fairy tales contain a quest. In the stories to which I was most drawn, the protagonists ventured through unknowable thresholds, usually a dark forest or vast sea, and there they performed some arduous task, all in order to achieve a fair resolution. Brave young peasants are rewarded with royal marriage, rotten kings are exposed and shamed, evil witches die painfully, animals emerge as princes. But only upon the completion of a task-journey, is a proper world order restored. Why do we believe a journey, particularly one without a precise destination, filled with strange encounters, is supposed to transform us?
In Petre Ispirescu’s “Praslea cel Voinic si Merele de Aur,” (a story told to me dozens of times by my grandmother) the youngest son of a wealthy king embarks on a long, encumbered journey to capture and punish the burglar of his father’s golden apples. His travels take him down a steep precipice to a vast underworld that contains three palaces, brass, silver, and gold, each with an evil dragon, including the sought golden apple thief. Upon killing all three dragons and rescuing the kidnapped princesses they had possessed, Praslea must endure a second arduous journey alone after his wicked brothers abandon him below. On the back of a winged bird, Praslea is spared his life because of his kindness and generosity. He is flown back to his kingdom where, because of the braveness and decency he showed on his expedition, he earns his way back into the heart of his father and his bride. Eventually too, the two brothers are killed, but not by Praslea, but by their own hand – the ultimate justice.
Fairy tales speak to you the youngest, and we the powerless, giving us voice through action. They tell us that if we move forward in the world, keeping our direction and decency, the mighty injustices will be justly recalibrated. In other words, it will be the world – not us – that is transformed. I wonder how much longer we can believe this fairy tale.
In every fairy tale, the color of doom is black. In today’s world of sailing boats, black is the color of advancement and high technology. We first learned about carbon fiber through sailing. In the beginning it was a mythical material. Supereal. Supernatural. Stronger than steel, lighter than aluminum, more expensive than platinum, and black as night. Forget golden apples, our children should grow up on stories of composite apples today. In boat building, where it appeared long before it did in architecture, carbon crept in through the spars, but now whole boats – hulls and even sails – are completely made of the magic stuff.
We wanted some, me and Glenn, but we couldn’t afford it, at least not how it was being used in monolithic, high tech surfaces. Architecture, even gigantic architecture, has only ever been made of tiny pieces, incremental components, made for the hand to hold and the body to move. We wondered if we could write a new plot for carbon fiber in architecture. Could we make parts instead of wholes? We wondered what carbon fiber bricks could be when, like artificial hearts, they didn’t have to resemble their progenitors but could instead take advantage of their own muscle.
Architects used to pretend to make furniture while really testing ideas for future buildings. A pragmatic prefiguring, you might have called it. We pretended to make lamps for a restaurant so that we could invent our carbon fiber bricks. We imagined that one day, in the light of full-automation, there would no longer be fingerprints on bricks, so we wound in strict patterns, the craft of the future digital foreshadowed in the craft of our digits.
We invented a formwork. It took a whole summer plus the twenty years before. Three types of board, three types of glue, three types of cuts.
These double forms were both strong and weak; strong enough to support the wind-up and bake-off, but weak enough for the meltdown.
What should we build with our bricks? we wondered. A pile, a mountain. The funny thing is, a pile is hard to make. Unlike a surface which can start and stop anywhere, a mountain is continuous. Building one requires deft precision. To move forward we had to use old methods. No wall is laid without knowing its form ahead of time. We prefigured our mountain using a jig that held the joints in place. We made a double mountain. A mountain twice, once for the mortar and once for the bricks.
Less than a year after returning from Timisoara I was invited to give a talk about the big head project at our university’ s first TEDx conference. The invitation came with a particular benefit I had never before (or since) been offered – a public speaking coach. As I was a new professor at the time, I was quite excited by the prospect.
My speaking coach arrived. He was a middle-aged man, a little on the short side, with a tidy, professional appearance. Did he know what he was talking about? I don’t know. I was just happy to have an audience willing to talk back to me. Lectures, like this one, are a particularly lonely form of public engagement. So much so that I often have a double dialogue, one with you and a simultaneous second internal conversation, about how this is all going.
To my surprise my coach was more interested in the structure of my talk than the content. He wanted certain orders reversed, “don’t start with the end,” he said, “build anticipation.” He thought certain sections, the history of monuments and counter monuments for example, should stretch out so that other portions, the climax where the final form of the monument in the square is revealed, could be delayed. I suddenly realized, oh, my coach likes drama. This conservative little dude likes a good story. So, I gave him one, and it was even mostly true.
The story centered on the phone call I made to the mayor of Timisoara. The only way I could think to get my big head on Piata Victorie was to declare that I had constructed not a monument – which the mayor’ s office asked me not to call it – but a gift that I was giving the people of Timisoara. In my mind I used the examples of other monumental gifts (Statue of Liberty) as my inspiration. “Yes, yes,” they said. In truth, they never cared about my gift story because they wanted their own story. They said, instead, that an American architect was coming with an inflatable statue of the fallen head of Lenin. “No!” I said into the phone months later, “it’s NOT Lenin!”
“Of course not!” they responded.
But politicians always know a good story. So, the newspapers printed this second story, their story about Lenin, not mine about “everyone.”
What we learn from the oral tradition is that interpretations of old stories are always interwoven with the specifics of the present. Storytellers, while working within a formal structure, will craft their tales for the specific audience present. They will shift the plot or expand certain descriptions or leave out details that may have become passé or controversial. Fairy tales have thrived in this double life of stricture and freedom.
Once upon a time we wrote a fable for the children at our local primary school. It was a story about learning.
All architecture “tells stories.” From a school building we learn what it is to learn. We understand the attitudes and practices concerning relationships between teachers and children, between teachers and administrators, administrators and the state; we understand ideas about the spatial impacts of “discipline” on academic “disciplines”, and corporal demands on ideas of “absorption,” and “attention.”
One of the primary dichotomies created by the story of school is between “play” and “learning” and that they are made oppositional by the institution. You will remember that before you heard the “story of school” this idea was absurd. The way you learned was by playing. After school, after the “story of school” I mean, play and learning emerged divorced. Do they have to be?
From the beginning we called our project the “Flying Carpet” alluding to the transportive, adventurous capacities of learning. We made slides and chairs, caves and tables, mountains and loungers in the guise of conventional reading, writing, and tutoring places, in an effort to encourage our young users to see the educational institution as the place where playing and learning could again be overlapped because, strangely, rebellion is a lesson that must be also taught.
When studying the morphology of (Russian) fairy tales, folklorist Vladimir Propp noticed particular structural patterns to the stories he was studying. He developed a system of classification and notation in the form of complex formulas – almost mathematical-– in order to make his analysis of the patterns legible. These formulas laid out visually a story’s constants and variables, which it turns out weren’t that variable. In other words, all of my grandmother’s stories, even her variations that she threw seemingly out of personal whim, could be depicted through a series of letters and lines on paper.
Our Flying Carpet wasn’t a single story either. We pretended to design one project but really created the structure for many possible future fairy tales. We wrote a script that could raise and grow our “mountains,” and “caves.” We could move mountains, in other words, constricted only by the limitations of the dimensions of children’s bodies and a window or two.
I always thought the story of my Big Head project was going to be about transgression. You know, a big inflatable, taking up space on the street. Traditionally, inflatable projects have been soft political criticisms pointed at problematic aspects of civic life or the mismanagement of the environment. Something like that.
And in fact, when I called the mayor’s office in Timisoara I concluded, because they agreed to host my project so easily without any kind of public process, that the street was still the domain of the powerful, not the “public.” This was the narrative I thought emerged buoyed by the head’s shape, craft, and overall materiality. This was what was in my head anyway.
But then, but then, the author, as much as the reader, also has to follow the story to see where it goes.
On the final night of exhibition in Timisoara, I stayed inside the big head greeting people. Toward the end of the evening an older couple came in. They asked me about myself and the project. They told me about themselves and their lives since’89. And then the woman told me a fairy tale.
By the way, this is the part of my story when I tell it, where I usually cry. And this detail, this part of the “story about the story,” is the part my speaking coach really loved. “You must cry!” he commanded the first time he saw it happen in rehearsal. “You must!”
So the woman describes the winter’s day, the 22nd of December, and the capture of the evil ruler, and then, the way that the entire populace, who had been resisting on the street for a week, and the forty years before, exhausted from their arduous quest, turned away from the opera house and toward the cathedral, sank to their knees, and found a momentary justice. Unbeknownst to me before my trip to Timisoara, this was the story I had come to hear. This is the story the big head told me, for me and not for those outside of me.
Ultimately, everything started with my Big Head. For eight years afterwards I constructed a body of work under it. But I can only say that now, because as you already know, it is the future that creates the past, the future needs the past and therefore must invent it.
In the last project I did before I boarded the boat for good, I went back in time and entered a competition. The competition was called The Memorials for the Future and it asked for new forms of memorialization at a national scale. The site was the city of Washington D.C.
Washington is a fantasy, exalted by its ideas and its ideals. And it’s full. Did you know that? There is currently a moratorium on the construction of new monuments in the area named the “memorial core,” where the country’s most important monuments are. No more monuments can be built there. Washington is a full fantasy.
Off in the distance, against the city’s limestone and grass backdrop, we see a delicate pink cloud not high above the ground. We are standing on the backside of the Capitol building looking west. The cloud is slowly moving from the Lincoln Memorial toward our direction. There is a small crowd following underneath this low pink smudge. “What is that?” we ask each other puzzled, picking up the pace steered by our curiosity. As we get nearer the cloud, we can see, is comprised of individual pink components each flying at similar, not quite identical, paces, as if piloted individually.
Then, the cloud stops. The crowd stops. They are both rearranging by Washington’s tall tower, along the north side facing the White House, inside the ring of flags. We are almost there too, as are others collecting from many directions. The crowd is looking upward and buzzing with each other about the flock. They have become a flock themselves. Suddenly, one of the “birds” starts making a commotion. While the others are fluttering in position, this one… “Oh, wait! It’s a parrot!” I tell the others. “A mechanical pink parrot.” We see it now. Anyway, one crazy one is agitated, vibrating in a small circle and then it drops down through its brothers and sisters, stopping its hover just above the crowd. Now that it has their attention, it begins talking. The parrot is a speaker. The crowd gathers to listen, contracting closer together to hear the parrot’s story. At the same time the parrot flock expands to match the size of the crowd, forming together a space, a common room. The parrot is telling a story about the Monument and the voice coming from the parrot is low and male, with a Caribbean accent. The story is a personal reminiscence about an experience the Caribbean man had about dancing with his wife at three o’clock in the morning on the very spot they were all standing today. In the span of three minutes, the story enchants the monument with a new layer of meaning for me. When it’s finished and the parrot, spins around once, a signal, and then zooms back to her place lost in the cloud. Soon another flutter begins and the whole ritual repeated. We hear another story, another account in another voice, about this very monument. In total there are four or five or six stories before the whole flock vibrates and slowly starts to move again. Their slow speed asks us to follow them to their next story destination. We resume our own direction away from the flock. By the time we turn around a new flock has formed around some other monument where more stories are being told.
Our fantasy invented a mechanism, a flock and a crowd, to rouse, to revivify, the dead, monuments of the city. When overlaid with present day stories of the many people who have experienced them, the monuments can more fairly claim significance for a contemporary generation. Of course, the stories will also alter the history of the events being memorialized, rendering history a flexible medium to which we all have considerable rights, even you.
In a plural society all stories deserve space, but stories do not take space. Though our memorial for the future was a physical, albeit moving, monument in its own right, its feet never touched the sacred ground.
We got second place again.