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How to Own a Building

Natalie Vestin
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 87, No. 1 (Spring 2013)

Winner of the 2012 Prairie Schooner Summer Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest, selected by Judge Steven Church
(Runners-up: Kirby Wright, “Ladder of Glass,” and Garrett J. Brown, “Galileo in the Uecker Seats”)

[New York City]
For years, people saw only the ugly rectangular shapes, like two steel pillars hoisting the sky. Too tall, uninventive. Architecture should serve a city’s beauty, draw the eye to glory, incite homesickness when miniaturized in a snow globe. A beckoning arch, a gravity-shunning curve, a wall of mirrored glass that gives a neighboring building its own inverse twin.

Their ugliness was infamous, memorialized for decades before their ghosts lit the skyline. Philippe Petit didn’t see ugly. His eye was trained to other details. Petit, the tightrope walker, the funambulist, saw purpose, a way to make a city come to a standstill and gaze up at what seemed impossible. Where others saw grandiose suicide, he saw possibility.

What he saw: two buildings of equal height spaced fairly close to each other. And, oh, they were tall, taller than anything. He knew the wind, he anticipated the sway of the topmost floors, and he reckoned the arrival of the police helicopters. Then, on the wire no one could see from the ground, he stepped out and walked on air above the city. His feet were sure, and what he saw, what he felt from the buildings holding him up, approximated love. He fell in love with the ugliest buildings in the world, and people watching from the street split open with wonder.

What is the excuse people use when they don’t want to draw a picture? I can’t draw a straight line. The idea being that lines are the simplest elements of design. Inability to draw a line speaks of more humiliating inabilities when it comes to circles, proportions, and vanishing points.

It truly is difficult to draw a straight line. Our eyes are always moving, our hands brace against the finest of tremors, and somehow motion and straight become bitter adversaries. Blame kindergarten and rulers and angles. Blame structure forced on human perception unable to view the world through a protractor.

There’s not much to say about a straight line in architecture. Straight lines hold up buildings, making them indispensable. But line after line after line, column, pillar, minaret, here is where you might seek to understand your wavering drawing skills. Repeating linear structures mimic movement. They take the eyes over and across, back and forth, waves on the sea, direction forced by perspective, larger lines in front, smaller in the back, all an illusion drawing sight to the infinite. Recent research suggests that gazing at stripes can precipitate migraines in some people. Lines force movement of the eye on its thick stem, hallucination really, possibility and passage imparted by a static structure, neurological overload, a journey toward the vanishing point.

Structures, like people, can be extroverts or introverts. Extroverted buildings are those that allow people to climb, structures no more than lines that reach into the sky and deliver their human contents upward. Grandiose, vast, piercing—delivering these qualities to people who live and work among dizzying staircases and elevators whose speed and range adjust cerebral blood pressure. Buildings that sway, subject to the wind and traffic helicopters. Structures that, at their most extroverted, at their very tops, reward an exhilarating climb with a view that dilates the femoral blood vessels and weakens the legs with what can never be identified properly as terror or sexual arousal. A two-minded moment of delight at being on top of the world holding hands with the universal imp of the perverse, the imp that whispers what would happen if you jumped, you know you want to, how extraordinary, how awful.

[Moose Lake]
Children in other regions might learn about World War I or the influenza epidemic, but in northern Minnesota, 1918 is the year of the fire. Started by a spark on dry wood, it spread for miles, wiping out an entire county, driving people and animals into lakes where they couldn’t go deep enough underwater, where they couldn’t stay for the heat, the smoke, the choice between drowning and burning.

The fire turned 38 towns into ash and cinder, killed 453 people, and forced more than 50,000 to run for towns hours south of the burning. Everyone who has grown up in Carlton County shares this history, an understanding imparted in grade school that everything they see once burned. That in the Midwest, where being surrounded by the smell of soil on all sides is accepted, other elements have been in play. Children learn quickly in these small towns cupping Lake Superior that the history of their place, like all places, holds brief flashes of horror.

A museum in Moose Lake commemorates and recreates the fire. Busloads of students watch videos in which elderly men and women talk and talk and still can’t believe it. Artifacts, burned ways of life from nearly a century ago, display impossibilities to imagine. In a room set as a central space, a trap between exhibits, flames are painted on the wall. They reach higher than the heads of second-graders, asking them to pretend for a moment that they are surrounded, that escape can only be daring and unsure, that even given the exits and the two guides at either side of the room, there is nowhere to run, no way to make this room something other than a delicious, horrible trick of the mind.

Architectural theorists posit that when people began to design buildings, to really look at how the structures they erected affected what they did and thought and felt, the overriding goal was to construct a form that protected the back body. Buildings, if architectural theorists are to be believed, served as a shield, a carapace, against the outside terrors that have followed us for millennia.

This changed at some point. Buildings that were once a protective and comforting presence at the back body became the source of danger themselves. The problem was combustion, flame that didn’t invade the home so much as grew out of its contents, fed on its structures, and consumed what once protected.

Structures communicate in their way, or at least they reach inside a human being and trigger some old fear, some new want, a way of responding to the world that is much different than the response a person has standing in an open field. For humans, it all comes down to feeling safe, and sometimes the feeling of greatest safety lies in ownership, in possessing a space. Buildings are perhaps not so much divisions between safe spaces (inside) and scary, harmful spaces (outside) as they are about spaces owned and spaces not owned.

The problem with ownership is destruction, the constant play of the second law of thermodynamics, everything heading toward entropy. Destruction forces transformation. It craves something new and replaced. Something that tastes like memory and habit rearranged. Memorial, museum, open space, preserved, conserved, something was here, owned by a heart. In some instances, a building becomes an event. Flames on the wall, remnants of what has passed, pieces and stories hustled inside. People encouraged inside the event-building to live a story told by a journey from room to room. To be someone or something else, to have memory and emotion implanted in a bare space.

I lived in Hamburg for a week as part of a public policy fellowship. Meetings and guided outings took up the weekdays, and then: the miracle of one free Saturday. I woke up late, ate some sweet and fluffy thing from the café, and walked into the city.

Hamburg supposedly stays dry throughout much of the winter because of the salty Alster waterway that brings an ocean’s climate. But as I began the long walk around Alster Lake to reach downtown Hamburg, snow thickened the air, surprising people and their dogs, wetting hair to faces, sticking in the treads of all those fancy leather boots. I was conspicuous, not German, the only bright green coat in a sea of black. As I walked past the American Consulate, its high steel gates, its guards bearing Germanic cheekbones and guns larger than any I have seen in the movies (what do all those parts do?), I felt watched. The guards watched everyone slipping on the new-fallen snow, and there was no way to slip inconspicuously.

Our group had had coffee and pretty cakes with the American consulate general earlier in the week. She was a tiny woman from Texas with a bob of red hair who listened intently to us when we spoke to her about our policy interests and opinions, and then told us in her matter-of-fact twang whether we were right or wrong.

She apologized for the gates, big guns, and the guards who had taken our passports. They were necessary, she said, accoutrements to the changed world, consequences of a need to feel more secure following September 11. More than that was behind them, although I hadn’t heard anyone speak of it. Hamburg was the last place Mohammed Atta lived before coming to the United States, Atta in an apartment on the Marienstrasse with, at various times, other men who would be part of the nineteen. Three years on the Marienstrasse, three years of meetings to speculate, to plan.

Captured here in Hamburg is a time to be lost, a time when men could make choices. A stopped time, a time to go one way or the other, no kinetic potential of a plan set into motion, no trajectory that seemed or was inescapable. In these small boroughs, did he get lost? When his stomach grew empty from the walking and circling, did he go into a café to eat the only German words he knew? Chokolade mit zanna. Hot cocoa to smother the humid cold hanging over the water, whipped cream he had to eat with a small spoon.

Did he stare into the case of unfamiliar foods and inquire “Apfel?” Did he take his apple cake and pretty mug of cocoa outside to stand at a table? Did he sip slowly, wipe the froth from his lip, and watch the people in their black coats watching him, as if they knew he were lost, as if they knew he didn’t belong, was somehow wrong in the way he was eating his small cake, gulping his drink to warm his stomach, standing alone, not really there, in the way that no one is really there when lost?

This is not him; it is me, me finishing my sweet lunch, me turned around in neighborhoods, on bridges that hold boutiques. For an afternoon, I wandered, unable to stop moving to ask directions to a place whose name, address, and neighborhood I had forgotten. All I knew was that my hotel was on the banks of the Alster, and the Alster was everywhere.

Most of the Hamburg skyline is low. The high Hamburg skyline is burned. In this water-bounded city, only church steeples can touch the sky. It is history, this unwritten rule, that nothing can be taller than the old churches. Some of the steeples are charred, skeletal and peeling. Hurt bodies, the churches, the black dried from its smolder, clinging, formed to the form, the red of the original church walls showing through the grit of burn. Obscene. But also lovely, lovely obscene. Churches should be havens like this, comfort for the giving over to injury, safety in the hurt showing through.

Hamburg was bombed during World War II. Allied jets crumbled buildings and houses with fire and collapse, heat lowering, a burning poured down. More than forty thousand people were killed in what the Royal Air Force termed Operation Gomorrah. The steeples penetrating the atmosphere burned to their bones, the churches’ alcoves and halls safe, the tallest structures bearing the wounds.

It is sometimes the way of European cities never to fix, to hold memory in a destroyed bit of wall and foundation. So the steeples became the city’s only skyline. Five of them, so tall, spaced across the city. They look very much alike. And in Hamburg, where the Alster River circles and divides land according to its own sense of direction, and the only buildings by which to navigate are mirror images of each other, it is easy to be lost.

Being lost in Hamburg was transcendent in its way, wandering a seemingly normal world of cafés, shops, anonymous executive buildings, busy people turned into a dream in which I am the only one who knew it was all an illusion. Lost is a psychic state, a time when the world is as real as it’s ever been, but a place in it is somehow up for dispute, an Italian fresco in which saints’ feet rest several inches above the ground to show they belong here and elsewhere and nowhere.

In another city, I would have used the tallest part of the skyline as a reference. I would have existed only in relation to a structure of steel and glass. Here, it is hard to trust the nearly identical steeples, leading me toward home or farther astray. This city is where Atta walked and ate and prayed and got lost in the skyscraper-less downtown, using the charred skyline to navigate. Somewhere, on these streets, he changed his mind. On another street, he changed it back.

My elementary school had a playroom full of the usual things: farm sets, cars, plastic cakes that smelled like chemical strawberry. For whatever reason, everyone’s favorites were the bricks, cardboard-made and painted red and brown. We could brick ourselves into a small chamber like the unfortunate interred-while-alive in an Edgar Allen Poe story. We could build a small wall to separate our quiet space from the nearby miniature racetrack. We could begin a house, separating the chambers, letting the stacks of bricks tower above our heads as we sat knees to chest in our masonry. But jealousy and violence was also an option, especially for so weak a building material. To sit in a room of your new structure, you had to be willing to have it all crash down on you, to bear the architectural disaster wrought by a child’s fast, flat hand.

These bricks are what I dreamed of in Hiroshima. Hiroshima is a beautiful city. Buildings are shiny and new and low to the ground. Rows and rows of small tourist shops glow with pink light, their storefronts graced with dancing cartoon kitty-cats. Restaurants are mom-and-pop affairs, where servers will bring beer to Americans without it having been ordered. A river divides the city, not in half, but just as a river divides, water flowing as a matter of fact.

The atomic bomb dropped over the city in 1945 was immediately above the Genbaku Dome when it detonated. The Genbaku Dome is the only building from before the detonation left standing, and it is now a museum memorializing the event and its aftershocks. A park near the river features oxidized statues and paper cranes made in the name of peace. The ground outside the dome, and the ground throughout the entire city, grasps onto your feet, pulls them down, in ways that ground in other places does not grasp. The ground knows, and your feet know, and together they are having a conversation you hope does not reach the rest of your body.

This happens perhaps more than we are aware, this information-sharing between surroundings and body. At one level it is instinct, a physiological search for danger or food, and at another level it is something quite different. The something quite different is primal, rooted in the fear of whatever is about to leap onto your back. The something quite different is the way the outside world, the concrete, the brick, the glass, has developed a mode of communication, a storytelling broader than instinct, with the cells of your body.

While in Hiroshima, I walked through the museum and the memorial garden. I ate a plate of noodles at a small restaurant with no visible name. I weaved through crowds weaving through weaving streets that all looked the same—dark and coated with neon at once. I boarded a ferry to Miyajima, an island where I stumbled around pagodas in the fog, watched salamanders crawl out of the sea, and drank sake in a warm bar when I couldn’t stop shivering. I returned to my apartment room and dreamed of cardboard bricks, bricks on fire, bricks tumbling over my head, bricks my hand scraped against looking for an escape from the collapse. It was my first panic attack, and I woke up only a little, whimpering, my friend climbing into the futon to hold me.

Memorials are usually built with an agenda in mind, a planned way to make a space different from what it was or what it became. All over the world, memorials use structure, water, and space to encourage revenge, peace, a world that can change, a visceral snag, different journeys of memory. In a city where all buildings but one vanished into vapor and ash, the dome became the memorial, the only remnant of what used to be, a way to encase a moment after the city built street after street of shopping malls.

Domes and other spherical structures have a particular effect on the human psyche. They make us a little nervous. It’s perhaps a resurgence of that old need to be safe from an outside danger, or it’s a trick on a complex eye. Spheres, to the human eye, have no dimensions, no way of directing the viewer in space. They appear as a dot, followed by a frantic optical search for dimension, the aura before a migraine. A dome makes perspective new, the surrounding world and its north-south-east-west-width-length-height unidentifiable. Lost, borderless, spread open. Spheres force a viewer to question whether or not she exists in a changed world where she cannot orient herself to the structure. Where she cannot penetrate the structure, where she and her building are at odds, where she is now more part of the outside than a being who belongs encased in protective walls.

But inside the sphere, inside the dome, here everything is perfect. Orientation, direction, is achieved in this cradling space where all walls, all sides, are balanced. Domes and spheres are used almost exclusively in houses of worships and memorials. Come in, come in, it’s scary out there where you don’t belong, where anything can happen, where the world can suddenly shift and change its dimensions. Inside, here is truth, the truth of equilibrium, the meaning of balance and a right feeling in a right world. You are being held. You are having.

[New York City]
I grew up in a small town on the southern edge of Lake Superior near Duluth, into which all the taconite traveled from its extraction sites in the mining towns built on the northern Iron Range. Stacked against the shore are gray rocks, mountains of iron and offal deposited by trains, kneaded by bulldozers. Iron, evidence of a drought that starved even the soil in an ancient time we know as era. Iron everywhere, under the ground, above the ground, layered in gouged mining steppes. My hair will always be this color. A tangy red hue in the strands will always beat the dye. My blood will never need steak or spinach. My stomach will always turn when I drink from my parent’s well.

Iron makes steel, iron plus carbon, or iron plus manganese. Steel is desired, steel is the reason the Iron Range even exists. Steel can make a structure impenetrable, tools to last for centuries. The hardness, the durability, is what’s wanted. All that fear of fire overtaking wood can dissipate with a building made of steel. If you know how to put things together, how to make and smelt an alloy, you can stay a step ahead of your fears, you can create a guarded space in the world.

I know steel. I know that everything in the world is only electrons placed at different angles, positions, points, speeds of movement. After those ugly buildings fell, people claimed that the heat of burning jet fuel could not have melted steel, those tall, tall steel pieces now warped and broken, that something else was in play, something hotter, something brought in from outside and used to destroy.

But they didn’t know steel. Everything is only electrons spinning, only molecules arranged just so. Burning jet fuel cannot melt steel on a good day, but steel’s molecules can help it along on a bad day. Steel is absorbent in a way that many metals are not. The alloyed molecules, iron upon carbon, are positioned in a way that draws the heat in, stores it, then asks for more, stores it, then asks for more, stores it, then asks for more. Steel stacks its heat, adds to it, enhances, heat upon heat upon heat. Steel can bend, melt, collapse in the arms of heat whose original temperature is only a memory.

Did anyone know they would fall? Was there a time when you could look up, look down, coexist with a terrible height and not think of falling, not think of your structure, your carapace, crushing your back? Was there an era during which everyone was safe, when no one considered the aberrant neurochemicals of psychopathy, the tenuous molecules of steel, the way that in time, they will always yield to heat?

Introverted buildings are entryways to the earth. Staircases are flexible creatures and can lead up or down, but an introverted building containing an introverted staircase takes people down and asks them to stay a while. Building may be the wrong word. In Manhattan, stairs take people down into two large holes. Footprints they’re called, as if from a creature gone for a walk. They are memorials properly, designed and marked as such. Into the earth people go to remember, to cry, to feel held and enclosed by walls below what they call surface.

This is not a grave. An introvert is not a grave. Down, down, down, these types of structures are rarely built unless a circumstance or unfulfilled meaning calls for it. Yet people need them as much as the extroverts, need the feeling they give to the skin in times of grief, fear, or confusion, times when burrowing is the answer, times when the outside is not allowed in. What is that word, the one never used anymore, the one from the Bible? Swaddling.

What is the difference between the man on the tightrope and the memorial built into the earth?
What is the difference between the man on the tightrope and the man lost in Gomorrah?
What is the difference between a tightrope and a staircase?
What is the difference between falling and not falling?

There are many ways to own a building, to build possession out of habit and proximity. Possession is built, laid stone upon brick upon plank, a lifetime of desire for home. Desire for mine, for the place that names and recognizes you, the space where you can blend your molecules with what surrounds, the comforting walls you can own and be like you can’t own and be a mountain or forest.

Petit had them, he possessed them, and he knew it. The city knew it, everyone who could see a skyline, however big or small, from windows, balconies, fire escapes, roofs they weren’t supposed to walk on, travelers buying snow globes. Love, possession, of nothing more than steel, wood, glass, paint. A collective of everything that happened there, tangible stores of memory, a way to see a wall, an arch, a bridge covered in potholes, roofs and gutters and windows caulked at the edges to keep out cold, and say, yes, that’s mine, my neighborhood, my city’s shape in the sky, my footprints, my burned Midwestern soil, we have and own, we are lost and found and changing our minds, we are here and nowhere else.