A Voice at the Window: a prologue

In late 1985, the great writer and thinker Italo Calvino completed a collection of lectures he was scheduled to deliver at Harvard: the distinguished Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. He had five in hand, a subject for the sixth, and a title for the whole: Six Memos for the Next Millennium. On the threshold of his departure for Cambridge, Calvino suffered a stroke, and died. Thankfully the lectures live on, collected and published by his wife Esther Judith Singer Calvino. The collection is a treasured part of our library.

The subjects of the six memos are these: Lightness; Quickness; Exactitude; Visibility; Multiplicity; and the unfinished lecture, Consistency. Calvino intended his six memos to describe what he prizes most in writing, and to act as guides for making literature in the 21st century. Each lecture is filled with echoes of his work, and the voices of Ovid and Livy and Dante and Swift and dozens of others, all helping him to depict a roadmap to the future of literature.

Just now I have been rereading the lectures, and thinking about their titles and their intentions. And I have been wondering: What if I were to investigate making notes for ‘Six Memos’ that describe the key qualities and attributes leading us to the next architecture?

As I have been thinking about this possibility, I have conceived of six lectures, Six Memos for the Next Architecture, that might have these titles: Restraint, Simplicity, Solidity, Circumstance, Fluency, Durability.

In the weeks ahead, I will work to develop each of these memos into a convincing hypothesis that could make the physical world where we live both more livable and more beautiful.

But as a prologue to the the six, I thought that perhaps a few brief examples of what I seek in the next architecture might be useful, and possibly instructive.

The images that follow illustrate, each in a brief, fixed moment, how we might experience the values, standards or principles of the next architecture. To further clarify what I am seeking, I return to Calvino. Here he shows us that our experiences, discovered or devised, can transport us to another, perhaps better, world.

Then Marco Polo spoke: “Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods: ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist.”

Until then the Great Khan had not realized that the foreigner knew how to express himself fluently in his language, but it was not this fluency that amazed him.

“Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down . . . This edge was scored by the wood carver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding . . . “

The quantity of things that could be read in a little piece of smooth and empty wood overwhelmed Kublai; Polo was already talking about ebony forests, about rafts laden with logs that come down the rivers, of docks, of women at the windows . . .

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

I am searching for the architecture of a voice at the window:

Joe Jones, City Rooftops, 1935

I am searching for the architecture of the weekly laundry line:

John Sloan, A Woman’s Work, 1912

I am searching for the architecture of downtown at twilight:

Charles Burchfield, Winter Twilight, 1930

I am searching for the architecture of the boulevard in winter:

Norbert Goeneutte, The Boulevard de Clichy Under Snow, 1876

I am searching for the architecture of the public square in the rain:

Paul Cornoyer, Rainy Day, New York City, c. 1910

I am searching for the architecture of back yards on a winter’s eve:

John Little, Xmas Eve, 1950

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