The ideal of emptiness: Not there yet, but moving in that direction, the Fisher Center at Bard College designed by Frank Gehry

I’ve written previously about the slim but beguiling book that I found at the William Stout bookstore in San Francisco, Poems for Architects by Jill Stoner (my earlier post is Poetry and Space). A few of the final paragraphs have an ethereal air. It was just what I needed today.

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“This so weighty metal, when it becomes the associate of fancy, assumes the most active virtues of the mind. It has her restless nature. Its essence is to vanish.”

–Paul Valéry

The twin paradoxes of the heaviness of words and the lightness of built form underscore the potentially rich dialogue between poems and buildings. Though Valéry is speaking of currency in its pure state, we might apply his theory of disappearance directly to architecture. It, more than any other art, needs that ‘weighty metal’ to exist; yet I would say that if architecture is to become meaningful again, it too must vanish.

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While poetry at its best continues to make us think of poetry, architecture at its best cannot allow us to think of architecture. Industry continues to tempt us with new products in wood, concrete and steel, but our primary building material is nearly weightless; in fact, it is air. Not only weightless but invisible, quixotic. Building space requires that we make our buildings empty. The villanelle as an ‘acoustic chamber’ is a suitable metaphor for what architecture can now become, because it so perfectly illustrates the ideal of emptiness.

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