June 15, 2009

Telling Stories

What I Would Say If I Could Say Anything (on my Fulbright application)

Every building is a story. This story goes beyond dates and names and styles. That is the story every building has, but beyond that every building is itself a story, one that does not end when the final roof tile is laid or the occupants move in. We like to say “if walls could talk,” all the while forgetting that walls can talk, they do talk, if only to those who have been trained to listen. Archeologists know this. It is why they spend such time painstakingly excavating the ruins of ancient cities and rebuilding the crumbling walls from the merest fragments of sculpture and carved images. But architects have forgotten.

We do try to tell the stories of buildings. We fill our shelves with books of history and criticism. We buy monographs and portfolios. We compile case studies and typologies, anthologies and reviews. These books talk about the building and the builders, how they succeeded and failed, how they are alike and different. Yet so very rarely do we find the story itself, simply because a story cannot be told that way. Stories are experiential and narrative, but, most importantly, they are fascinating.

It is this fascination which makes stories endure. Long after the Tower of Babylon crumbled into ruin the stories remained. Historians still seek the lost Atlantis and the mythical Camelot. Excerpts of the science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin are included in anthologies of urban planning and the 1927 silent film Metropolis is studied in architecture history courses. Long after the history books are considered outdated, we are still studying these stories. Nor do I refer solely to architects and archeologists, the story is the main medium of communication in popular culture and has been ever since the advent of language itself. Every movie, novel, play, opera, ballet, mural, newspaper article, comic book, and song tells a story. It is even there in the answer to the simple question “What did you do today?”

I want to tell a story, or many stories, specific stories of specific buildings. I want to tell the stories of the Buddhist temples of Japan. Why? Because they are fascinating to me and I believe they will be fascinating to others. Yes, I want to know who built them, why and how, but I also want to know the story the building has to tell about those people and all the people who have dwelled in them since. I want to know the stories of sunlight, stone, wood, the sound rain makes on the roofs, daily chores in the kitchen, and the paths squirrels take through the gardens. And I want to tell these stories to Western audiences to whom they have yet to be told.

I want to tell these stories in written words and photographs. I have travelled throughout North America, from east coast to west and across the plains and mountains in between. Everywhere I go, I search for the story and write it down as best I can, and I take photographs. It is in these stories and photographs that I later find inspiration in my work as an architect. I find something in these sources that I can find nowhere else. It is that essential human experience that is missing from dry site analyses or detailed space descriptions, nor can it be found in technical drawings or three-dimensional models.

In three photographs and an essay about rain, I found the design for the Shambhala Mountain Center Dining Hall. I created a place for people gather and watch for the flow of water, the movement of the seasons, a their own relationships with each other and the natural world.

Photographs: Shambhala Mountain Center, Shambhala Lodge and Rigden Lodge, March 2007

“Rain shows me things unseen. It makes me long for good friends and steaming mugs. It makes me dream of days to come and of days long gone. That is why they say rainy days are sad days. As we long for that which is not while trying to go about with that which is. Life does not stop for the rain. Businesses and schools do not close so the people can gather in the coffee shops and living rooms and share with each other their dreams and memories or catch up with old friends. People still hurry when all the time they feel the urge to slow, to wait, to watch the rain.” October 17, 2007, http://nebuddhist.blogspot.com

In a single sentence, written months before the project began, I found the vision of my thesis design for Windhorse Retreat Center in Wisconsin. This is not Vajra land. This is Samadhi land. It holds its secrets close. Passing through, you might mistake it, think you know it, and never look into the smiling face of this land.” (May 11, 2008, http://nebuddhist.blogspot.com) I saw on that site a kinship between it and the moment of one-pointed concentration in meditation, samadhi, described in Buddhist literature. I now work to embody that in this final year of architectural design for my thesis project.

I do not want to tell these stories for myself. Stories only work when they are shared with others. I shared the stories of Shambhala Mountain Center, both written and photographic, with my graduate design studio and they created thirteen other dining halls, each of which told their own stories, of trees and stone, transitions and processes, adaptation and use. It is my hope that the stories I find in the Buddhist temples of Japan will be of use by both architects and laymen as they conduct their work and go about their daily lives. I believe these temples have something to teach us.

I will visit the temples and spend time in each, watching, listening, writing, and taking photographs. I will seek out their stories and learn what wisdom they have to impart. I will share these with others by creating a book suitable for publication, an exhibition which I will seek to display in museums and galleries (such as The Gallery at Architecture Hall, the Sheldon Art Museum, and the Lenz Center for Asian Art all at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and elsewhere), and by continuously keeping a blog during my travels. The main purpose is the creation of this art, written and visual, but the larger goal is to inspire others in their designs and to share these experiences the best way I know how – by telling the story.

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