"Traces of a Slow Act"
by Jonathan Stitelman
St. Louis is a crucible for deep time. Downriver from the Chain of Rocks, a band of glacier-deposited boulders, and elevated on a bluff above the Mississippi, this place has been stable ground for real, imagined, and long-gone icons, each emblematic of the material practices of an era. It is known to some as the Mound City, after the earthen mounds built at the turn of the last millennium, but only two traces of them remain—the most prominent a boulder awash in an industrial landscape. A replica of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, adorns the Civil Courts building facing the Gateway Arch. The shadow of the Arch traces its way across land formerly marked by forty blocks of cast-iron-facade buildings, now spirited away by clearance and thieves. The material practices of prominence, aspiration, decline, and unbuilding condition the city.
These icons speak a language, read legibly as landmarks, and establish historical and spatial thresholds. They are relics of the cultural attitudes of a moment. A Way, Away (Listen While I Say) operates as a different kind of icon, one of a long instant—a building painted gold and atomized, its razed materials embedded within a social landscape. It makes legible three modes of time: as a counterpoint to monument-making, the immediate labor of reclaiming the gold bricks, and the future flows and potentials of the gold bricks. While A Way, Away is a counter-icon, it still draws from the well of imagination and aspiration that the Mausoleum does; the complex politics of ruins, as the last boulder from Big Mound does; and the ephemeral traces of distinct technologies and material qualities of the cast-iron facades. These meanings are laced throughout the notion of unbuilding—a time-bound idea, implying progressive removal, disintegration.
A Way, Away leverages the phases of removal and reuse over a period of nine months to offer a glimpse into how one thing will become another or many. It is a translation from this to that or this to those. Translation is not instantaneous. There is a requirement to establish equivalent terms, to synthesize and make connections, unveiling the familiar from the yet unknown. From A to B, or more aptly, A to “Ah”—the exclamation we often make upon new insight. A Way, Away provokes these insights by revealing culture not as style but as operation, unfolding within and beyond the city: a metamorphosis from building to gold to pallets of traceable currency.
I engaged in this process of translation with Andres L. Hernandez and Amanda Williams through our architectural design studio taught at Washington University in St. Louis. It was structured as a test site for ideas that could inform the PXSTL project itself, and we explored modes of representation, material reuse, and programming around bricks in particular. Our first assignment was one of translation, “From two to one,” for which students took bricks salvaged from the demolished site of the Enright Avenue house and developed techniques to merge “broken bricks” into a hybrid.1 These brick prosthetics, as we came to think of them, offered a platform to revalue and reinterpret the atmospheric qualities and meanings of something that is normally cast off. This is pertinent in a city like St. Louis, where there is no shortage of broken bricks or sites to be reimagined.
Our first day of studio was spent salvaging bricks from an active demolition site. Stalking through the lot with gloves and orange buckets, we established aesthetic and operational criteria on the fly. The bricks and detritus, and the search for them, were the subjects of representations—maps, drawings, catalogs, tracings, speculations—proffering intentionality as a foregrounding to reuse. Students had to establish common terms, common sizes, and novel configurations. They also had to be explicit about what the value of such assemblies were. Altogether, their acts of optimism probed at ideas of equivalency: how one thing in a degraded state may be endowed with meaning and new use by merging systematically with another degraded thing.
One student, Muhong Zhang, approached the project by affirming the uniqueness of each broken brick. He bound the bricks with string and dry-stacked them seamlessly, with broken surfaces exposed and abutting, embracing the eccentrically fractured brick faces as ornament. Another student, Xinyi Du, took the opposite approach, encasing fragments of broken bricks in a solid block of ice, thus reinstating their recognizable form, if only momentarily. These ice bricks were stacked in a single wythe and thawed to form ghostly translucent figures, with the occasional thud as broken bricks melted out, dropping to the ground. The translation from broken to whole was fleeting and powerful, as though words translated from one language would phase inevitably back into their base state.
These are first-step translations—a kind of proof of principle that a broken brick can be given a new legibility and purpose by design. In A Way, Away, where a robust process of translation is underway in situ, questions of its long-term implications emerge. How will we register the instant when 3721 Washington Boulevard is no longer a building, when it has been degraded to a state beyond recognition? Will there be a snap or a groan or a deep song in the city? The tic toc of sand on sand or the dull click of brick on brick? Unceremonious, when what once grounded object recognition has lost its magic.
How do objects maintain magic? One imagines at least two ways. We can feel it, a drawing of purpose or faith. Alternately, we make magic happen. This leads to yet one more definition of “translation”: the removal of the remains of a saint to a reliquary. Reliquaries, objects of veneration, convey histories and memories of the past. In the final state of A Way, Away—when the gold bricks have been palleted up, repurposed, and atomized into the city—each particle, where the glint of gold supersedes the dull amber of brick, will tie that place to this time.
In the spring of 2016, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation and the German architecture collective raumlaborberlin systematically demolished a structurally unsound house at 4562 Enright Avenue and rebuilt a version of the building in the Pulitzer’s main gallery. Our studio visited this site and collected materials from the building to be used in our design projects.
Jonathan Stitelman is a designer and a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. In the fall of 2016, he co-taught a graduate architecture design studio with Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez.