Monday, October 23, 2006

Fort Kahn

The Yale University Art Gallery has been undergoing renovation for years, and a banner that hung across the building this summer affirmed the necessity of the project (and ennobled the tardiness of its completion) with a quotation from the Gallery’s architect, Louis Kahn: Every time a student walks past a really urgent, expressive piece of architecture that belongs to his college, it can help reassure him that he does have that mind, does have that soul.

This weekend was Parents’ Weekend, a carnival vision of class mobility, in several senses (one of which nearly killed us as a coed steered her black Lexus SUV across our lane toward an open parking spot), and a suitable occasion for reflection on a subject broached by Kahn’s slogan: the conditions and scope of ownership of whatever cast of mind or soul is insured by official participation in a high-value educational brand, and the need to review and (especially) display the evidence of that participation. Some, the truest bearers of the soul-shape, walked the campus with the sort of pained and twisted hang of face that takes years of willful indifference and restraint to learn in that deep-muscular, even dermatological way that signifies serious quality, the stony, gray immobility of eyes bred not to respond to basic mammalian red flags. Some unself-conscious, lucky interlopers showed pride, awe, gratitude, and other human emotions appropriate to their child or grandchild’s attendance at a highly exclusive and by many measures objectively really good school, but such bumpkins were few; mutual class suspicion was the prevailing attitude among visiting parents. Moms especially—ladies checked out each other’s handbags with a fierceness unmatched by sneaker-peepers on the L-train.

As Hilary and I toured the Sterling Memorial Library with her parents, it occurred to me that the most “expressive” aspects of the architecture of Yale—those features most reflective of the activity of the mind—were not determined top-down by the high-concept architects who drafted out the shapes of things, but by the craftsmen who filled them with life: the vinework carved into the oaken doors, the little odd-angled castles and dwarfish men who pop out over doorways, the interlocking mahogany quatrefoils of impossibly high, arched ceilings. Kahn is interested in how the mind can meet itself in the world; I would argue that the hard, precise geometry enforced by modernist architecture—the stuff that an architect can really tightly control—is less suited to the natural tendencies/aspirations/images/movements of the soul than the ornaments shaped by nameless artisans whose architect-bosses allowed them, if not freedom of thought, freedom of gesture—the freedom of the eye and hand to follow an internal rule. One could argue that the soul the school’s more modernist architecture aims to reflect is itself determined to dominate, negate, and exclude, but I would rather believe that the truest students, anywhere, are those who would see themselves in, for example, the statue-figures carved into stone columns in one of the Sterling Library’s corridors: squashed, doughy-faced, Breugelesque men, each of whom personifies a different scholarly type: a sound-archivist laboring under the weight of his recording equipment; an obsessive collector of literary arcana breaking his brain over the mysterious “U. R. A.” in the text “U. R. A. JOKE”; a desperate reader gripping an open book as the Grim Reaper gently fingers his shoulder, the reader just glimpsing the crudely hewn Owl of Minerva perched at the edge of his vision.


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