One Thousand Occasions


 

Immigrants arrive. They hold a cherished image of the place that was once their home. On the basis of passion before careful consideration a proposal emerges: their new settlement will be built as a replica of the old. The task would be great enough if the location were similar to the place from which they have fled. But it is not. Neither is the climate the same. And complicating matters once more there are dwellings constructed on this land already.

Fragments of buildings ruined long ago indicate a sudden and panicked departure. The immigrants feel empathy, weaving it into their claim on the place. Time has passed. If a catastrophe caused this other population to leave, the danger no longer exists. And if the immigrants have adversaries, distance now separates them from their own troubles.

There are protagonists – a man, his sons, daughters, a wife, or other family members in proximity. But the displaced community is large enough that their project can be conceived of as the building of a city. The main characters are merchants. The first task will be to establish dwellings. And after, perhaps premises from which to work and to recommence their trade.

What has become of their old homes? The buildings lie empty now. Or they are lived in by others, or have been rendered uninhabitable.

Faithful replication of the remembered place is an aspiration that grows more important. But the ruins of the old settlement present problems. The fragments that remain are the more resilient. How necessary is it to clear the land? How thorough should the work be? By general agreement the removal of all traces of the buildings that once stood here would be preferable but passion dictates that the new construction should commence sooner than such a task allows. For the same reason, judgements are employed to determine which existing structural details can remain and which cannot. What starts as discussion gives way to argument. The stresses within relations are exposed, social hierarchies become more evident, incentives to unsettle these hierarchies make themselves known. Sons see the possibility of worlds not ordered by the presence of their fathers; daughters imagine alliances in which they too are holders of power.

The architectural remains bare witness to techniques used by the first builders on this site and their more effective solutions. The lines of the old city’s foundations surface through the sand. Where part of a construction still exists – the post and lintel of a doorway for instance – the methods can be seen more clearly that these others used, how doors were secured to door frames, door frames to the stones of the wall.

Presently, through negotiations that are reasonable then fractious in turn, the new construction work is laid out. It is organised around the coordinates of existing elements. Some built fragments with no place in a project of replication remain, being judged too difficult to deal with. Dissenters voice their objections: the pragmatic approach has resulted in nothing less than the dispersal of what was the community’s singular ambition. But now their dissensions are only expressions of damaged pride and they contribute to the work all the same.

In this way the construction project deviates from the memories that might have been used more faithfully as its blueprint. It is less easy now to think of this developing work as the re-making of an original homestead. And as successive levels of construction, each with its own compromises, are reached on the foundations of the last, evidence of this people’s first ambition slips away.

Although they have rescinded their project to make a homage in the form of an architectural replication, still in the new constructions something of the original survives. Traditional practices have been retained and remain current in the building techniques. Problems arise in the course of the work – problems for which solutions already exist. Each solution, in being modified for the peculiarity of the problem, is no longer quite the same, but still something recognisable persists through the work. It is possible to see various orders of similarity that the new construction shares with the old. Where builders have been less inhibited by obstacles one building or one part of a building replicates its remembered antecedent more effectively, although an observer may come to this conclusion only through catching a view of the detail in question unexpectedly – through a corner of the eye. All the same these sites develop significance. They become meeting places. The more important discussions emerge in their vicinity. And those members of the group associated through ownership or through involvement in construction inherit status as a result.

Amongst the emerging authorities not all were prominent critics of the pragmatic approach by which the community’s first aspirations have been compromised; some who argued pragmatism are happy to capitalise on the elevation they gain from association with buildings that reproduce their historical origins more faithfully. Localised cases in which the initial ambitions for the settlement have re-emerged and been realised, have done so for these individuals not as a result of the procedures they argued against but as if through an opportunism of matter itself. Now they will forge alliances with those who were most passionate for the purity of the gesture of replication. Even if the latter have not forgotten the old divisions they have learned pragmatism. They have seen a future for the suppressed thought of purity which is secure in that, for the moment, it is hidden.

Another order of similarity is more difficult to identify and may be visible only to those with an outsider’s point of view. It resides in the realm of method, in those characteristics of the architectural practice that are passed as inheritance or that spread horizontally by way of a mimicry that may or may not be conscious. These moments of similarity, in contrast to those produced by design, seem to carry with them a different kind of power. Perhaps they do not distinguish themselves as possessing a communal significance. But the cumulative effect of a thousand occasions of style is the very constitution of the so-insistently remembered image that the immigrants brought with them, and that was their inspiration to think of a project of replication they could never achieve.

A earlier version of ‘One Thousand Occasions of Style’ is published in Plastasine Fantazine, produced by David Burrows in association with Article Press for the occasion of Art Writing Beyond Criticism, a one day event at the ICA London, 17th May 2008.

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