We all too frequently seek to save the emotional content of past epochs, without first thinking what use it is to us.

Hans Poelzig, “Fermentation in Architecture”, 1906

  1. A highway:

A young girl sits in the back seat, staring sideways out of the golden Volvo at the highway and landscape going by. She’s developed a game of sorts to amuse herself, watching the electricity wires that run parallel to the highway bob up and down from pole to pole. The game is simply imagining a line, or beam, projecting from the string of wires out into the landscape, a line that would cut into any tree or hill that it encountered. It would take elliptical slices out of tall houses, trim the tops of pines, and remove semi-circular chunks from outcropping land.

Her parents have cycled through their car cassette collection, finishing with Billy Joel before returning again to the Best of Cyndi Lauper. Then you say, ‘Go slow’, I fall behind… the second hand unwinds, she sings. They’ve been driving for what feels like weeks, a family tour now on the way to Dresden. Flipping through one book on the city briefly before she gets carsick, she come across a browned black and white image of an imposing building occupying one corner of the city. During the crest of the first world war, Dresden had an official architect; his one achievement was a bank building, a sort of rectangle punctuated by what look like draped columns. The faded photograph looks almost like a drawing, and the flowing, regulated design of the building makes it seem almost organic, a blurring that to her adolescent eyes looks like the dark sprouting, rounded nests of aliens. Poelzig, the book explains, regarded curvature as a sort of pocket of time, a way to draw the eyes and also to stall them. He drew on Gothic-style flourishes but magnified them, seeking to bind the occupants of his buildings up in a paradoxical sense of parallel times. Listening to the song again – If you’re lost you can look and you will find me­ – she thinks: these people keep talking about time and aftertime. What relationship does aftertime have to time out; bedtime; time to go. Where do all these other times go? Or stay?

Poelzig’s bank was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden on the night of 14 February, 1945. The Volvo was destroyed in 1997, in a 122 car pile up in a fog just outside Vicenza.

  1. A suburb:

The boy has been building his castle for weeks. He’s followed the fifty-three page manual step by step, brick by brick, counted each notch and layer. He had to rebuild a whole turret after mistaking one corner piece for another. The set of hundreds of loose plastic bricks had come with a slip of paper that said, ‘You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it. A bed or a truck. A dolls house or a spaceship.’ But then it had also come with the fifty-three page booklet, that explained exactly how to build the castle. He built the castle.

The structure sat on a low cabinet. It was a fairly drab, squat black and grey thing, but it held a veneration for him, like an intricate model car or plane: you looked, but didn’t touch. It gathered a layer of thick dust.

So it was with some surprise that one afternoon when a friend of his brother’s lost his balance and, in slow motion, sat on the castle. The front had caved in, a tower had fallen. After pushing the two older boys out of the room and slamming the door, through the door the brother, a future architect, tried to console him: it can be rebuilt. But no; it was wrecked in his eyes. Why put so much effort into creating this fortress, this monument, to only remake it? It felt like fraud. The feeling could only be located in the first instance, not in doing the act again, right? It felt like repeating a joke, because it hadn’t been heard the first time, and the delivery was then dead in the water. The boy had considered it Finished, a full stop in a shapeless life. Life, the brother’s friend had joked unnecessarily, wasn’t done with it yet.

The toy castle had come to mind when, years later, he came across a suggestion for urban renewal: to partially demolish churches, and leave the ruins with no trace of their original function, or, better yet, to raze the churches to the ground and then build ruins in their place. It was then the castle struck him as a clunking symbol of his intransigence, a stubborn clinging to finality no matter how modular the design. The castle had stayed as it was for a year, smouldering in the same place, before eventually being broken up into its constituent parts and added to the other tubs filled with thousands of brittle little bricks.

  1. A dark room.

The family has been bickering. Again. About what doesn’t matter so much, perhaps just the pressures of parking, queuing, now standing in front of a stage for ten minutes. Regardless, they’re not talking as a buoyant, overly cheery compere takes the stage. The crowd are going to be led to another room shortly, he promises – but first, they need a volunteer.

The father grabs the child’s arm and lifts it up. Great, the compere says pointing at the child. Come on backstage. Mortally shy, too much so to publically protest this injustice, the child wordlessly obeys. Backstage, the child is dressed in Western gear and hoisted onto a fake horse. It’s simple, they say, all you have to do it raise up your ten gallon hat, and wink. The gesture is a recreation from the opening credits for a popular television show that the child has never seen.

The wall in front of the child lifts, faced suddenly with hundreds of blank stares. Music begins. The child woodenly lifts the hat off its head, and winks on the side of its face that the audience can’t see.

On the long, silent car ride home, the child ponders the relationship between architecture, theatre and accident. Perhaps not in those terms, but in essence: the first being a planned space or structure, designed with certain uses in mind; like, say, building a theatre. Theatre – as an activity, something like approaching a verb, not the physical thing – being a scripted action, premeditated, rehearsed and ready, that then is played out (with some minor adjustments, of course, given to human error). The third then being the real time result of the two: what actually happens. It would seem, the child thinks, you can plan all you like, but other things are inevitably going to shoot off in other directions. The best you might do is give up and jump gleefully between the three, though the child isn’t feeling very gleeful. Normal conversation begins two days later.


Originally published to accompany Niamh McCann’s exhibition Furtive Tears # Pass at NCAD Gallery, 22 September – 16 October 2017

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