From where I stand, on the bridge overlooking the Chicago River, the city looks like a strange but natural landscape, as if it arises as surely and inevitably from the hands of life as does a field of harvest wheat or a stand of red firs. After all, the city was designed by country boys--Mies van der Rohe, Rook and Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan--all wild and dashing country boys, dreaming up the city in the soft thrum of the countryside.
But the buildings that most reflect nature, at least Midwestern nature, in all its dark and hidden fertility, are those by Franklin Nostbakken, the so-called architect of the prairies, that great and troubled mess of a man I once knew.
Three years ago, when I was a senior at Northwestern, I sent Nostbakken a packet of drawings and a statement of purpose. Every year Nostbakken chooses five apprentices to come live with him on the famous grounds of Fialta, his sprawling workshop, itself an architectural dream rising and falling over the gentle hills of southwestern Wisconsin. My sketches were of skyscrapers, set down with a pencil on pale blue drafting paper. They'd been drawn late in the night, and I knew hardly anything about how to draw a building, except that it ought not to look beautiful; it ought to be spare and slightly inaccessible, its beauty only suggested, so that a good plan looked like a secret to be passed on and on, its true nature hidden away.
Two months later I received back a letter of acceptance. At the bottom of the form letter there was a note from Nostbakken himself that read, In spite of your ambition, your hand seems humble and reasonable. I look forward to your arrival.
I had been reading, off and on, that year, a biography of Nostbakken, and this moment when I read his handwriting was one of the most liberating in my life--in fact, so much so it was almost haunting, as if a hand had leapt out of the world of art--of books and dreams--and pulled me in.
My first evening at Fialta was referred to as Orientation, but was really a recitation by one of the two second-year apprentices, named Reuben, of What Nostbakken Liked, which was, in no particular order, mornings, solitude, black coffee, Yeats, order, self-reliance, privacy, skits, musicals, filtered light, thresholds, lightning. "Pińa coladas," the woman sitting beside me--Elizabeth--said quietly. "Getting caught in the rain."
"Fialta," Reuben continued, "is dedicated not to the fulfillment of desire but to the transformation of desire into art." We were sitting in the Commons, a beautiful, warm room that doubled as our dining room, our office, and our lounge. There was an enormous fireplace, windows streaming with slanted and dying light, and a big wooden table, whose legs were carved with the paws of beasts where they touched the floor. There was a golden shag carpet, and stone walls. It was high up, and the views were spectacular, but the room was intimate. So this statement regarding desire seemed almost heartbreakingly Freudian, since the room and all of Fialta, with its endless private corners and stunning walkways and fireplaces, seemed to ask you at every turn to fall in love, yet that was the one thing that was not permitted. Reuben went on to say, "Nostbakken does not tolerate well what he calls over-fraternization. He sees it as a corruption of the working community if people, well . . ." And there was a nervous moment. Reuben seemed to have lost his footing. Nobody knew what to say until a tall woman in the back, whose name would turn out to be Indira Katsabrahmanian, and whose beauty would turn out to be the particular rocks on which Reuben's heart would be dashed, spoke up: "Sodo-sudu." Reuben raised his eyebrows at her. "Fool around," she said, with a slightly British accent. "It means to not fool around."
So, no love affairs. As soon as this was declared, it was as if a light had turned on in the room. Until this point, everyone had been so focused on the great absent man himself and his every desire that nobody had really looked around that carefully. But at this mention that we could not fall in love, we all turned to see who else was there. Each person seemed suddenly so interesting, so vital, a beautiful portal through which one might pass, secretly. And this was when I saw Sands, who was, with Reuben, returning for her second year at Fialta. When I try to call forth my first impression of Sands, it is so interpreted by the light of loss that what I see is somebody already vanishing, but beautifully, into a kind of brightness. And as Nostbakken's beloved Yeats said of Helen, how can I blame her, being what she was and Fialta being what it is?
As we left that evening, I talked briefly to Reuben and to Elizabeth, whose nickname became Groovy in those few moments, owing to her look, which had a hundred implications--of Europe and Asia, of girls, of tough guys, of grannies. And I then fell in step beside Sands as she walked outside. It was slightly planned on my part, but not entirely, which allowed me to think that the world was a little bit behind me and my desire. It was mid-September, and in this part of the country there were already ribbons of wintry cold running through the otherwise mild evenings. We had a brief, formal conversation. We discussed Fialta, then Chicago. I had thought I was walking her home, but it seemed that we were actually, suddenly, winding up a pathway toward Nostbakken's living quarters.
"Oh," I said. "Where are we going?"
"I'm going up to check on him." She pointed way up to a sort of lighthouse circling above us.
"Yes." There was light pouring out the window.
"Oh sure, go ahead," I said.
She smiled at me and then walked off. And I turned to walk back to my room, slightly horrified at myself. Go ahead, I repeated to myself. Oh, hey, go ahead. This is the whole problem with words. There is so little surface area to reveal whom you might be underneath, how expansive and warm, how casual, how easygoing, how cool, and so it all comes out a little pathetic and awkward and choked.
As I walked home, I turned back and saw through the trees again that window, ringing with clarity and light above the dark grounds, the way the imagination shines above the dark world, as inaccessible as love, even as it casts its light all around.
That evening I lay in bed reading Christopher Alexander, the philosopher-king of architects: The fact is, that this seeming chaos which is in us is a rich, swelling, dying, lilting, singing, laughing, shouting, crying, sleeping order. I paused occasionally to stare out the large window beside my bed, which gave way to the rolling hills, toward Madison's strung lights, and, had I the eyes to see, my hometown of Chicago burning away in the distance. Reuben knocked on my door. We were roommates, sharing a large living room and kitchen. Reuben was the cup full to the brim, and maybe even a little above the brim but without spilling over, as Robert Frost put it. If one of the skills of being properly alive is the ability to contain gracefully one's desires, then Reuben was the perfect living being.
"I forgot to give you your work assignment," he said.
The literature on Fialta I received over the summer had mentioned grounds work, which I had assumed meant carpentry or landscaping, but now Reuben informed me that I would be in charge of the cows and the two little pigs.
"There are animals here?"
"Yes. Down in the barn."
"There's a barn?"
"Yes. At the end of the pasture."
"Of course," I said.
He was already bowing out of the door when I asked what I was to do with them.
"Milk the cows, feed the pigs," he said, and ducked out.
I should never have sent in those skyscrapers, I thought to myself as I fell asleep. Those are what got me the cow assignment. You can feel it as you sketch plans, the drag in the hand, the worry, the Tower of Babel anxiety as the building grows too high. There ought not to be too much hubris in a plan. But this is not a simple directive either, since a plan also needs to be soaring and eccentric and confident. But still humble. A perfect architect might be like a perfect person, the soul so correctly aligned that it can ascend with humility. Humble and dashing, those two things, always and forever.
You could say that Fialta was not quite in its prime. Its reputation was fading a little, and all its surfaces tarnishing, but so beautifully that Fialta was a more romantic place than it must have been even at the height of its influence, something that could be said of Nostbakken as well. Early success as an architect and a slide into some obscurity had given his reputation a kind of legendary, old-fashioned quality, even though he was only in his late fifties. At seven o'clock, at the dimming of the next day, he stepped into the Commons for our first session. He had the looks of a matinee idol in the early twilight of his career, and he seemed more substantially of the past than anybody I've ever met, so that even now, when I remember him, it is in black and white. He is wistful in my memory, staring off, imagining a building that might at last equal nature--generative and wild, but utterly organized at the heart.
That night, when we all met in the Commons at Fialta, Nostbakken entered and said only this: "We have a new project. It's what we were all hoping for. It's a theater, along a city block in Chicago, surrounded on two sides by a small park designed by Olmstead. I'd like the theater to think about the park."
Sands and Reuben nodded, so the rest of us did as well. "Yes, well," he said. "You might as well begin." He put his hands together, in a steeple, as he stared at us--Reuben, Sands, myself, Indira, and Groovy--taking each of us in briefly, and then he left.
Reuben immediately then took his position at the blackboard that was usually pushed against the wall. He and Sands began, and the rest of us very slowly joined in until Reuben had covered the blackboard with phrases, what they called patterns for the building--sloping roofs, alcoves, extended thresholds, hidden passageways, rays of light, soulful common areas, the weaving of light and dark, clustering rehearsal rooms, simple hearths, thick walls, a dance hall, radiant heat, filtered light, pools of light, arrows of darkness, secret doorways . . .
I was already developing a rule to never look at Sands, in order to not give myself away and make her nervous. But there was something in her--some combination of joy and intelligence and seriousness--that seemed unrepeatable to me. Her voice had a vaguely foreign sound to it, a rough inflection left over from someplace in the world that I couldn't quite locate. Her clothes were as plain as possible and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, all as if she were trying to overcome beauty, but this would be like lashing down sails in a high wind. You might get a hand on one stretch, but then the rest would fly away, billowing out.
At one point Reuben and Sands got into an argument. Reuben suggested that the building ought to be cloaked in some sense of the spiritual.
"Reuben," Sands said. "I'm so tired of all our plans having to be so holy. It's such a dull way to think of buildings. And especially a theater."
Reuben looked a little amused. "Maybe we're going to have to divide up again," he said.
"Divide?" said Indira, who up until now had stayed silent. When she spoke, her earrings made tiny, almost imperceptible bell sounds.
"Last year," Sands said to her, "we had to divide into those who believe in God and those who don't."
"Just like that?" I said. "You know, people spend their whole lives on this question."
"It's just for now," Sands said. "I don't think He'll hold you to it." She already knew I'd be coming with her. And I did, risking hell for her, complaining all the way. The two of us worked in a tiny glass balcony, a little limb off of the Commons. That first night Sands did most of the drawing, and I stood aside and made my suggestions, sometimes saying them more and more emphatically until she would finally draw them in. "Fine, fine," she'd say. We started over many times, a process that previously had seemed to me an indication of failure, but to Sands it was entirely normal, as if each building she called forth introduced her to other buildings it knew, and so working with her could be sort of an unwieldy process and you had to be willing to fight a little to get your way, but ultimately it was like walking into mysterious woods, everything related and fertile but constantly changing, and always there was the exhilarating feeling that one was continually losing and then finding the way.
More than anything, what I wanted was to enter into the rooms she drew, which would be like entering her imagination, that most private, far-flung place. By midnight we brought our draft to the others. It looked crazy, like big Russian circus tents connected by strings of light, like a big bohemian palace, but also very beautiful and somehow humble. I stood there while the others looked at it and felt as though I wanted to disown any participation in it whatsoever, and at the same time I was quite proud.
"It's so beautiful," Groovy said. Indira and Reuben nodded. And then they showed us theirs, which was austere and mysterious, rising out of the ground like it had just awoken and found itself the last thing on earth.
And we laid out the two buildings on the table and looked at them. They seemed so beautiful, as things can that are of the imagination and will never really be in the world. One had to love these figments, so exuberant in their postures and desires, trying to assert their way into the world.
"Yours is beautiful," Sands said, softly.
"Yours is," Groovy said. "God wouldn't even come to ours. He'd go to yours."
"Definitely He would go to yours," Sands said.
"If He existed," I said.
"Now He's really mad," Groovy said, and Sands laughed a little, putting her hand like a gentle claw on my elbow. I can feel to this day her hand where it gripped my elbow whenever she laughed. Each of her fingers sent a root system into my arm, that traveled and traveled, winding and stretching and luxuriating throughout my body, settling there permanently.
The next morning on our way to breakfast, Reuben and I saw Indira in the distance, making her way down the path to the river that wound about Fialta. There was already a rumor floating among us that Indira was a former Miss Bombay. I couldn't imagine this; she was so serious. She had a large poetry collection in her room, and an eye for incredibly ornate, stylized design. Nostbakken had set her to work immediately on the gates and doorways for the theater. Watching her now, slipping down through the fall leaves, one could see the sadness and solitude that truly beautiful women inherit, which bears them quietly along. "Hey!" Reuben surprised me by calling out, and he veered away from me without even a glance back.
A woman reading is a grave temptation. I stood in the doorway separating the Commons from our tiny kitchen, named Utopia for its sheer light and warmth, and hesitated for a long moment before I cleared my throat. Sands looked up. She was wearing glasses, her hair pulled back in a dark ponytail. She said hello.
"What're you reading?" I asked.
"Oh, this is Vitruvius--The Ten Books of Architecture. Nostbakken lent it to me."
"I suppose. He's asked me to think about the threshold."
"The threshold. That's romantic."
She stared at me. Probably men were always trying to find an angle with her. Her face was beautiful, dark and high-hearted. "What do you mean by romantic?" she said.
This was really the last thing I wanted to define at this moment. It seemed any wrong answer and all my hopes might spiral up and away behind her eyes. "Well, I guess I mean romantic in the large sense, you know. The threshold is the moment one steps inside, out of the cold, and feels oneself treasured on a human scale."
"That's pretty," she said. She was eating Cheerios and toast.
"You know, I never found out the other night where you are from," I said.
"From? I am from Montreal originally."
"You went to McGill?"
"Laval," she said.
I knew Laval from pictures in architecture books. In my books it had looked like a series of dark, wintry ice palaces. "And how did you get from there to here?" I asked.
"Nostbakken came and gave a lecture. I met him there."
My mind was at once full of the image of her and Nostbakken in her tiny, cold Canadian room, its small space heater whirring out warmth, the animal skins on the floor and the bed, the two of them eating chipped beef from a can or whatever people eat in the cold, her mirror ringed with pictures of her young boyfriends--servicemen from across the border, maybe--and then of them clasped together, his age so incredible as it fell into her youth.
"Is he in love with you?" I asked.
"Not in love, no," she said. Which of course made me think that his feelings for her were nothing so simple or banal as love. It was far richer and more tangled in their psyches than that--some father/daughter, teacher/student, famous/struggling artist extravaganza that I could never comprehend.
And then Groovy approached, jangling her keys. Her hair had all these little stitched-people barrettes in it. It was bright blonde, and the little primitive people all had panicked looks on their faces, as if they were escaping a great fire. "Nostbakken wants to see you," she said to Sands.
Sands started to collect her books and her tray, and Groovy turned to me. "I heard you're taking care of those cows," she said.
"Yes. And you?"
"Trash," Groovy said. "All the trash, every day, in every room."
"That's a big job. How about you?" I asked Sands.
"She's his favorite," Groovy said.
"So, no work then?" I asked.
"Oh, it's a lot of work, trust me," Groovy said, winking a little lewdly, and then Sands smiled at me a little, and then they both left me to my breakfast.
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