Covid Capers Part 2: walk to the light

So it’s been 1 month since I wrote my last doom and gloom predictive scenario.

I have been in social “iso” for 2 months.

Peak whiteness moments include attending a yoga retreat via zoom (in a mostly empty house), and having zoom parties, organising life drawing via zoom, and succumbing to home delivery of my meals.

These self deprecating observations are written with my tongue in my cheek; yoga classes are deeply sustaining mentally and possibly physically. Zoom drawing with a group of mostly friends, mostly queers is also joyous – though many of us are starting to get zoom fatigue from our middle class working lives.

And – I have subscribed to home delivery of meals for 5 days a week because my household with our variable timetables of each juggling multiple casual contracts and jobs simply doesn’t eat together. I don’t have the strength of will to organise a regime of organic slow cooking on top of organising my 3 jobs from home, so I am doing what I can to avoid living on my preferred diet of coffee, tea, scotch, chocolate biscuits, vegemite on toast and 2 minute noodles.

Today I am huddled in my room, sore joints, shallow breathe – because I decided to have a few hours of blissful oxygen deprived sleep without my CPAP machine. This is what chroming looks like for the middle aged overweight set. Oh the LOLs.

I am preparing for the 2 tutorials I will teach tomorrow on Louis Kahn: half the students are international (down from 75%), and I don’t know if they listen to the lectures or do the readings. The zoom tutorial is the main point of mutual contact where there is some sense of surveillance… or learning encounter.

I ask the students to find an image of their favourite building from the architects we cover in any week – and use it as their “virtual background”. I do the same. Next to my long stint of sessional teaching in Gender, Sexuality and Diversity studies, Architecture is the one subject I have probably taught the most in my 16 years of university teaching… but I still get nervous; want to create a barrier between my inner queer muppet self and surrounds and the professional space of the screen. I put on ‘work clothes’ on my top half and have a virtual backdrop – whereas gender studies I usually opt for an attractive camp corner of my casa.

While scrolling through the interwebs looking for an image of Kahn’s Exeter library, I came across this film which has a terrible soundtrack – but at least it’s not ukeleles, and is probably less ridiculous than Handel’s messiah blasting during the scenes of the Kimbel museum in “Louis Kahn: My Architect”.

Exeter Library carrells

Back in my grad-school days at Usyd – I used to revel in the Fisher library: going to the centre stack; picking up a book (or 10 from the 374.9 or 730.4 shelves, and walking to one of the carrells by the windows, and sitting and reading, and staring out at the weirdly insectoid roof structures on the Carslaw Building.

It’s such a dated, impossible fragment of the past. Almost as anachronistic as my Mum’s tales of people tossing down library books from the McLaurin hall in the great hogwarts quad during the 1950s.

But my PhD study was accompanied by the line from Louis Kahn “a man picks up a book, and walks to the light” that I learned when tutoring Architecture for the first time. I always corrected the gendering of my silent prayer, much as I corrected the gendering of some “his” in the Lord’s prayer during mass as a kid.

But yes – it felt like a prayer: a sacred act, a modernist rite performed in the modernist library: where the stacks of books were no longer arranged on ceiling high shelves on the walls (as in the grand bibliotheques where I did research in the northern hemisphere) but in the centre: ranged along corridors and corridors of metal shelves. strolling, stopping, being bodily immersed in the stacks to either side: jumping between subjects to my left and right – and screeding along dewey numbers on spine to the end of one shelf and the start of the next.

Printed books, housed in the dark, protected from UV light: until selected by hand and taken to an adjacent window; where they are illuminated by the act of reading; the necessity of an external light source, moving in, lighting the page… moving through and marking the time spent with the page, as the biro graffittied gouges into the wooden carrells marked the times and boredom of other scholars before me.

I was flabbergasted in 2012 when I returned to the Fisher Library stacks for the last time: in the process of preparing a conference paper, I thought I would pop in and peruse through some references: particularly Derrida’s “Memoirs d’aveugle” or “Memories of the Blind”. The shelves had been ransacked; as the stack was being moved offsite to an archive: accessible by online order. However, by sheer chance they hadn’t reached the 341s… and I managed to sit by my favourite window: the view of Carslaw partly blocked by the massive new law building, and read and take notes from a catalogue essay about drawings; that addresses the fundamental blindness at the heart of any act of drawing; tracing time, recreating a memory of something seen, that becomes unseen as we try to capture it….

I should have and could have bought the catalogue; for my individual professional library that lives in the dining room of the shared house where I live.

But the book is now tinged with sadness and nostalgia: for no longer being able to sit with a peripheral vision of bookshelves and windows and walls in the liminal space of the publicly accessible library where I enter into that most private space between words read in silence and thoughts forming through my mind.

and maybe this is why I have so many wonderful books remaining unread on my shelves. Despite arranging chairs and couches by windows where they will be illuminated in the act of reading.

the Baillieu library at Melbourne Uni still has its modernist stack. It doesn’t have the same encircling of carrells that evoked the Exeter library for me – in the way that Fisher library did: but even sitting at a table with a book hand picked from the shelves (as opposed to pre-ordered via a legitimate staff account online) produced a nostalgic comfort which is sadly missing in other institutions where I teach. There the library is a space of coffee shops, beanbags and photocopiers, with lanyard branded minions proferring a vacuous form of help that is no help to the scholar. The real space of the library is now online: deferred to the emails with invisible librarians (who are still so marvellous) and the search engines: where most tomes can be accessed as ebooks and read via an illuminated screen on my tablet or computer.

Of course now, all physical libraries are physically closed. And the physical books remain on their shelves or in their offsite archives.

For the past few years I have taught undergraduates who have almost never used a physical book from an academic library: and to whom Dewey numbers are as mystifying as the BarCode sequences… that they may scan at the self-serve checkouts if and when they are instructed to by a university assignment.

Most students read words on screen: “words written in light” as one old friend used to preface his emails….

And I wonder about this reconfiguration of words and architecture: as words leave the liminal space of the library: a monument to light and visibility and housing the encounter between the ocular body and the printed text enfolded in a volume….. and as we now find words on our private screens of phones and tablets and computers, in our houses, touched only by our hands, held up to our noses in darkened rooms, or maybe well lit ones.

Now – we are all teaching via video conferencing: and I as a speaking head, talking to other heads or the black squares of students with poor internet connections or poor attention spans or who are trying to simulate study from the spaces where they do their caring work, or possibly paid work in delivery vehicles or factories.

And I try to teach students about Louis Kahn’s phenomenological approach to designing with light: and how light moves through spaces and through our bodies.

In a classroom: we could look at the windows and track where light moves around the room: but here: the light is deeply fractured into their personal space… and the tutorial as a portal into a virtual space is just so very strange.

And this is such a strange time to be teaching about monumental architecture when we are no longer able to participate in the civic spaces where students and teachers habitually encounter it.

And I wonder what the architectural response will be to these times of residential confinement and the destruction of civic life.

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