Oh, Heidegger, An Essay on Loving an Architect

I never really knew what it meant to be an architect. I mean, I knew that it was this very elaborate sort of thing that took all kinds of planning and mapping and that if you were an architect, you needed a big table and rulers and all sorts of other stuff that looked really cool. But I never had any idea what all that was for. I had no idea what one did with all of it. When I was growing up, in queens, we used to go over to Adi and Ofer’s house. They had moved, from Israel, to Queens, New York. They moved, in part, so that Adi could get a Ph.D. in child psychology and in part, so that Ofer (pronounced of-er, not offer) could be an architect. They have since moved back to Israel and are embroiled in this war, which neither of them want any part of. They have also since had two children, one boy and one girl, and I have not lived in Queens since. This is neither here nor there but is relevant only insofar as this was, until recently, the extent of my knowledge of architecture. Except when I went to Barcelona and saw Gaudí’s mirror thing.

And then I met Mari. (Pronounced mah-dee, not Mary). Fujita. (foo-jee-ta).

If you call Mari’s cell phone and she, for one reason or another, does not pick up, you will be routed to a prerecorded message where you will hear the following: a machine which says “you have reached” and then Mari’s voice “mah-dee-foo-jeeta.” it is a very quick thing and sounds like it she is talking in fast forward. I mention this because it happens, from time to time, it happens, often enough, because Mari doesn’t answer her phone because, well, as I am learning, Mari is an architect and what that means is that she is constantly doing shit. Unlike me, who is not an architect, who is constantly not doing shit, or I am, but in a very different way.

For example. Mari just disappears and builds things. Also she designs things. Also she carries a computer the size of Rhode Island around with her. Apparently, when you are an architect, you need to have a computer the size of Rhode island so that you can do all of the things that architects do. When I have tried to get Mari to explain to me what she does, I mean, really what she does, she has attempted to do so by invoking the word “scale” over and over again. So, for example, when I was like, "How do you construct a building from that tiny little drawing?" She repeated the word “scale” and said something like, “it’s not that difficult, it’s just like learning another language.” I was like, "Yeah, okay, except that it’s English." She ignored me when I said that last part.

One thing I have learned is that the reason you have to have a computer the size of Rhode Island is because your computer must be able to withstand having many applications open at once. When you are an architect, part of what you do is many things at once.

I learned this because Mari and I lived together this past summer. We lived together because we were teaching together. She was teaching architecture and fashion design and I was teaching philosophy and we were teaching at Amherst College and we were living in the dorms where we were not allowed to smoke. When I say we were living together, what I mean is that we were living on the same campus, not in the same room. I was, however, in her room quite often because we smoked in there. And the reason we smoked in there was because Mari figured out (is this an advanced concept?) that if you turn a fan backwards, you can smoke in a room that you are not supposed to smoke in, and all the smoke goes out, rather than in. which means that no one will know you were smoking. It is though, in effect, you were not smoking at all. The implementation of the turning of the fan backwards resulted in me and Mari spending a good deal of time perched up by her window. (I was too chicken to try it in my room.)

The first week we were there, before we were friends, I saw Mari (who is about 5’2” and 105 pounds) conspicuously carrying a very large piece of wood into her room. I later found out that she constructed a desk out of this piece of wood. A lovely, very sturdy, very hip, very industrial looking desk. It took her twenty minutes.

Architects, unlike writers, are modest about their work. When you voice shock or surprise, they brush you off–as though this is a skill anyone can learn.

This is false. Architecture, I have learned, is not a skill. It is an art. And Mari, though she is loath to admit it, is certainly an artist.

This was quite shocking for me to discover. Even after having seen Gaudí, even after everything, it is difficult to comprehend for those of us who work with words. It is difficult, for those of who work with words to imagine that you get your hands on something and then, when you’re done, instead of having a pile of paper to show for your efforts, you have, for example, a desk. Or a house. it is shocking, to be sure. Also shocking, (and this, I think, is more ignorance on my part than anything else is) is that those who study architecture also read things like Heidegger.

Mari, who is in her last year of graduate studies at Princeton, has informed me that not only do they read things like Heidegger but also, at Princeton, they have a good deal of students shipped in from mainland, china. These students from mainland, china are not fluent in English, but have to read Heidegger nonetheless. Apparently, there is something called Heidegger week. Apparently, these students, right around Heidegger week, begin to scrunch up their faces and say things like, “Oh, Heidegger.” which means, only, that they do not understand Heidegger, that they have no idea what he is talking about, that Heidegger, finally, makes no sense and is, therefore, incomprehensible, to these architecture students from mainland, china. Mari has told me that she has tried to soothe these students from mainland, china, by telling them that Heidegger is incomprehensible even to those of us who are fluent in the English language, but these students lament just the same, “oh, Heidegger.”

Because Mari was teaching architecture, her students thought that they were going to be designing their “dream houses.” Mari was horrified by this and said something to the effect of: I don’t really think designing your dream house is that interesting. And beyond that, these kids have no idea what they’re doing, how are they going to design a house?

I was a bit taken aback by this because I, too, (had I signed up for a course in architecture) would have thought, and been every excited, to design my own dream house. I used to snout around Mari’s classroom a lot and when she finally conceded and allowed them to design a house, it was for a client, and I was the client.

As the client, I had very specific specifications. It was all very problematic. For example, in order for me to have, as I requested, a pool inside my home, there needed to be enough space under the pool in order that there would be somewhere for the water to go. This is the sort of thing I had never before considered. Also that the placement of a window is not an arbitrary decision as I had always, previous to this experience, thought. The placement of a window, indeed, dictates how much and when and where the sunlight will stream in. which is, finally, in theory, a very simple concept. But in actuality, I mean, how in the world do you figure something like that out?

For my part, though I am quite certain I will never build a house, I do have a respect and admiration for architecture that before I did not have. (And also for Heidegger, whom I have read extensively though always understood exactly what he was talking about). And also, that although I will never build a house or even a desk, Mari has inspired me. For example, the other day I bought an electric drill and fixed a bookshelf that had been sitting, for eight months, slanted to the left on account of the fact that it was missing three screws in the bottom shelf and was, essentially being held up only by a box of books that was propped up next to it. For without the box, the bookshelf certainly would have fallen down. Which is to say only that there is hope for those of us who are not architects, that we can learn something nonetheless, that we don’t have to be totally inept and at the mercy of that which we don’t understand even if we still don’t really get it.