The Project of Ruin Value


At the midpoint of my average life, concurrent with both my trip to Pedernales Falls and my move to Lawrence, Kansas, a great sense of peace filtered into my reflections on death. So strongly did that revelatory afternoon at Pedernales Falls seem to center me, at that time realizing I would be moving to Kansas, that I spoke, to anyone who would listen, about how the cross-axes between my former homes in Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Eugene intersected within an hour’s drive from Lawrence, with a warm envelopment, a lack of fear, characterizing my being sucked into the earth in the center of the continent, in the center of my past, paralyzed in so many different ways, to live out the rest of my life with nowhere to go. Death was far away, aged thirty-six, arriving in Kansas finally, and abstract in its symmetry.     ∆ This moment a likely cleft or reveal in the diagram of my life that connects me back to sensations of afternoons alone in my family’s house, prior to that, days at home with my mother and sister, and to days hence, in retirement at home with my wife, seeing myself completing this writing project that is my adulthood.      Although I describe it as peace, it was peace within the absurd mathematics of actuary science. It was not peace with the elision, after “Time withdraws from the body,” of this particular series of causal years and geographies. Over the event horizon of years into Kansas I’ve grown into that peace such that mathematics fell out of its contingent role in my reflections. That elision is just fine as it is, without the calming taper of time. Time has tapered, all within that taper is this constellation, refining itself until it cannot refine any further, without center, more time brings only the fortune to, at some point within it, grow to crave the freedom of its end, hope to be born again into death with the wherewithal to comprehend that movement, that sinking elision, for a fraction of an instant.

Three distinct bodies of writing comprise this text you are reading. The     ∆ first    , written in 2005, primarily in Atlanta’s Marriott Marquis, concerns a failed architectural endeavor, significantly under the influence of the first volume of Roubaud’s project, “The Great Fire of London,” a luminous plasma that birthed its own failure and also maintained the failure long enough for it to expire and leave a never-occupied ruin. This architectural project, unlike Roubaud’s dream of the great fire of London which is surrogated by, forever killed by, the project, was actually completed as a work of represenational architecture in 2012, in Eugene, Oregon, rendering the writing a true ruin, abandoned, not staged as such with Speerian forethought. The     second     , written in 2012, in an airplane en route to Eugene, in the midst of reading “The Loop”, concerns my visit to a place called Pedernales Falls, outside of Austin, Texas, which I had only previously visited prenatally thirty-six years prior on the United States’ bicentennial weekend. The final contribution is being written now in 2015, in Lawrence, Kansas, and although I am now a morning person, like Roubaud, this particular segment materializing under the cone of light containing my armchair is one of only few segments to be written in these predawn hours, and though of the three it aspires to most thoroughly dissect Roubaud’s project, far more has continued to emerge of self-reflection. Such is the true nature of Roubaud’s creation. So often described as his Proustian work, it shares very little with it, except in its honest analysis of the concurrence and presentness of memory, and more so, externally, in its education of the reader in mastering, and being honest with the mechanics of memory, making the reader a giant, “perched on its giddy summit… looked down beneath… as though from a height, which was (their) own height, of many leagues, at the long series of the years.” Whether by conscious intent or not, the other shared characteristic with Proust, wrought in this case by Roubaud’s tactic of writing continuously, austerely and singularly, without iteration, against the “Flaubertian toil upon the sentences,” not editing, is the shared superabundance of commas.

There is a presentness, not of the bespoke mold of the individual life, in mediated concurrence. A similar species to concurrence with the diffused personal constellation, this is a stepping into the physical space that has been prepared by a representation calibrated for all. A traveler arriving for the first time in Paris does not fully register, does not sense the discovery of a place in such a mediated prerecollection until they have become concurrent with that representation. In the mediated concurrence with a place, there is even a small geographic area, a refined vantage, one must occupy to lock into the discovery     → ∆ 2. The only escape is to avoid that prerecollection. Best of luck. Yes, one can go to Paris and experience unexpected pleasures, but they cannot be experienced in that Paris, in that moment, but in the Paris concurrent with the mold constructed within, from elsewhere. Consequently, one instead experiences Paris more truly later, by surprise, in a place like Lawrence, Kansas. The mediated concurrence is not relegated to the spatial. This text you are reading, as a whole, occurs within the presentness of Roubaud’s project, where Roubaud’s opus exists for me, much like his suspicion of “pictions,” as a found representation of a thought I believe I’ve had about the nature of memory. However layered and fluid Roubaud’s text, it exists in that homogenous frozen “piction” state that leads efforts or experiences in its wake to be mere recapitulations of its silhouette, like Roubaud’s description of photographs of his childhood home, rather than the recollection of the moment     → ∆ 1.

That I would not have any awareness of my future, would not on my first encounters grant icons of my future the significance I later accord upon them, is not odd, it is in fact necessary, because those things that in silent diligence grow to be the canyon walls of the life mold are not noteworthy. They become noteworthy only in the happenstance constellation of our duration with them. Those things which are immediately remarkable—a film, a place, a face in the crowd—are such because their seeds had been sown themselves far earlier as innocuous tendencies and landmarks of personal development that came to shape that perfectly matched mnemonic receptacle, that prerecollection, in the present. The discovered object is not remarkable in itself, but in the way it fits into or completes the latent constellation. The constellation of past experiences that fabricate that receptacle must be irretrievable, metamorphosed into the material of the mold, for the encounter with this object, this very rare concurrence with the present, to be such, rather than an act of recognition. It must have the aura of discovery to become embedded indelibly in that present, otherwise the search begins for what precipitated its appropriateness in the past, and its corpus in the present is thus relocated.

The experience at the moment, the property that characterizes this inscription, is wind. As quickly as it is acknowledged, the wind is gone, difficult to recall. I can write, “the wind,” but it is not an image, it is only physical in its indexes, autumn leaves clattering in a tree, prayer flags lapping, long hair Gorgonized, or far from this landlocked house, waves lapping or crashing onto a still beach, the index of a distant aeolian system like dead starlight always in transit, eclipsed on this vector by an empty shingle. I recall coming to Kansas City for the first time in 2009, the airport desolate in a grassland, characterized only by incessant wind. And I recall later, just after writing about Pedernales Falls, coming to Kansas City again in 2012 to plan a move from Eugene to Lawrence, being greeted by that wind and asking the person at the rental car lot if it was windy like this all the time and he said yes pretty much it is. And distinct from all of that, driving from Los Angeles to Richmond in the summer of 2000, stopping for a night outside of Manhattan, Kansas to camp at a reservoir where my parents had camped when they drove across the country in their Camaro in the summer of 1970. Rainless wind all night beat down my dome-tent such that it pressed against me lying on the floor. And certainly, absolutely, within a couple of hours the following day I would have driven by Lawrence on Interstate 70 and not noticed it, because why would I take notice of something lingering in my future, something that, in its state today, windy, sunny, mid 50°s, the day after hundreds of people were murdered in terrorist attacks on Paris, did not even exist yet. And oddly, though I am well aware of my history in Kansas, I’m not certain it would seem at all interconnected without the wind, an arbitrary property, so easy for even the least observant to seize upon, yet, and at to my current awareness, that’s all I am present with of the past, and some days it’s not all that windy, and it’s too quiet.


My trip to Pedernales Falls was like a concurrence with a memory of the future. It was an experience from its memory, the orgy of details ascending and spreading and blooming all over from a germ of an inkling. The fact that I was there very late in my tenure as a fetus probably bears little on the diffused sense of recognition I had emerging into the strangely small clearing that this bulge of the river hollowed. In fact, had I any senses at the time, the memory would more likely be of something forgotten.     ∆ Where the experience is typically the point, and the memory is the expanding diffused territory, here the experience exists at the broadened end of the memory expanding out from the point of its immaculate origin.     The singularity in question here was a trip my family took over the Bicentennial weekend to Pedernales Falls from College Station, Texas thirty-eight days before I was born. My mother, obviously incredibly pregnant, spent the afternoon sliding down the water-smoothed rocks with my father and sister and a family called the Simonets, whom I have actually met and have of course forgotten. My mother was allegedly the subject of some hand-wringing from the older ladies among the revelers. She paid no mind and had a great time with me in her nestled in the dark. Two yellowed and unconvincing photos exist from that day. These two photos create the sensory construct of this memory when conjoined with family lore and the atmosphere of the national holiday. The nineteen-seventies seem to have been a bad time for hobby photography. Pictures always seem to have been captured in motion     ∆ such that they all have an unresolved vagueness, though perhaps more reflective of the moment’s transience than the thousands of crisp, well-balanced images each of us now have sequestered from reality in our phones     and I wonder how quickly those prints grew icteric from exposure, or if those particular photos arrived from a drive-up fotomat in a College Station parking lot already shivering away from the moment of their birth with a gamy case of jaundice. But it was my     ∆ truly     simultaneous presence and absence at Pedernales Falls that causes the memory to start at zero and be built over time, as if my emerging from the trees this past Sunday (July 4, 1976 was a Sunday) was not into a place that had always been there but had been sculpted and tuned by my musings of thirty-five years approaching it. Thus, the sensations of dusk sun on the rock and still pools, the sound of my shoes in loose river stone and of white water in carved sluices, the cooler air, the bugs alighting on my face, of the basin’s relative scale in the way that it both cradled and constantly receded from my body, of dry seed pods quaking like rattles from bundles of tall dry stems, of gravity tugging at me as my worn soles slid down polished rock steps, the remaining sun’s rays sneaking as coronas about foliage atop the bluff seemed more real than real life, though in its more insistent and symphonic immersion, felt also less real, more like a terrain snuck from the tangible sand of memory. I know that I felt this sensation, this diffusion that I feel more and more, acutely on the falls. Yet, when I leapt back up the rocks into the trees, the dislocation of the experience from the real structure of my life began quickly to devolve into how I might describe it, what words might characterize something, a process that began just before I was born, that had now culminated, had ceased, had died peacefully, in order to slow the taper of that entire lifetime and its oddly ultimate horizontal precipice. But in mining and processing the memory, as Roubaud indicates in “The Loop,” which I am now reading, which after days of dwelling emotionally on the experience prompted me to take out my pad after reading his assertion that the future too is a form of memory, writing the memory, giving it form, kills it. Or, more precisely, “I destroy (the image) in the sense that, becoming weaker and paler, it doesn’t so much disappear as become something I can no longer evoke, no longer revisit except as a second-order memory, the memory of my remembering it, and of all the moments in which I insistently contemplated it during the time spent on its description, under the effect of the words and thoughts that this description gives rise to.” I occupy the space now, by analogy, after the stiffness of senility’s tissue has allowed the trace of the initial experience through memory to at last escape the physics of the world, or in this case, to a point prior to that singular origin of my mother sliding down the rock, prior to the coalescence of my being. But I don’t think it is quite so inversely proportional diagrammatically. As I continue to live, think, and recall the entire wedge of the future memory and its satisfaction will now, as a flattened, weakened and empaled, package, taper towards my death as a typical memory. Though in its ascent I did not consider the future memory more regularly than a past memory surfaces in my mind, I am led to consider, in the constant flickering, what other possibilities for future memories are shuffled into my mind, or whether it is a once in a lifetime sensation.

∆ 1     I don’t care much for snapshots taken by other people, they never train on what I am interested in seeing, they have no significance to me. I want the freedom to see something that could only be seen in the place, I want the space of the frame chewed and broken, and I want to do it myself.

∆ 2     An artist, Corinne Vionnet, produced a series of layered images composed of photographs taken by travelers of various landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Ka’aba, all within a shiver distance of the same perspective. Visually, remarkably similar to the photograph taken by Alix Roubaud, “Fifteen Minutes at Night to a Respiratory Rhythm,” considered by her husband Jacques Roubaud less for its subject matter of cypress trees than its indexicality of his late wife’s breathing, “a photograph of her breath,” these photos are also concerned with the effect of subjectivity over duration, though very different in ethos, Vionnet’s the mediated memory, Mme Roubaud’s the fleeting contingency of the singular.


When I walk into the Marriott Marquis, in these more recent days of distraction, I am guided by habit, the key moments at which I know I have to turn, to ascend, to choose, are triangulated by visual cues, which tend to be the only things I see, I hardly look up anymore into the enormous hollow volume, I rarely notice the elevators with their carnivalesque rows of lights, a trademark of early John Portman, I merely fix on what is necessary to pilot my route, without wonder or scrutiny. I do many things this way, I often read this way because the words fall apart, they are so familiar, the grammar so rote that I read every few words glossing over the connective tissue whose character I either extrapolate or ignore because it is useless, it is a vehicle for travel between points. If the nature of space is such that I color the intermediate tissue myself, why should I not begin without that tissue, requiring fresh wonder for every interaction.

One theory of cognitive mapping takes into account our shared expectations and prior engagements with situations and spaces throughout our lives in order to explain how we frame the spaces we encounter in a particular setting around those in the same setting that we did not encounter, whether forbidden, redundant, or inconsequential. Our cognitive map of a cafe is constructed around the fragment we engage, the dining area and the storefront, and against the space we did not engage, the kitchen, even though we know it is behind the blank wall opposite the storefront. Like the blank page upon which the murder is committed in “Le Voyeur,” or the reflection of television glow on the ceiling in every upper room of every convalescent home is completed by my unconscious grandfather who is not visible, we construct our environment from fragments, we live in an incomplete, individually perceived, unfinished environment.

The ruin is not in the truth of decay, or the false longing of the anachronous soul, but is dependent upon loss, for it is only in the evacuation of the face, the touch, the personality, the culture, and the context that we truly invest our whole being.     ∆ How lovely to think of the loss of Greek polychrome and how, through Roman misappropriation, it continues to affect our ideals of beauty.     Human-present endeavors are consumed with discorporated distraction for the other. The ruin is the freedom from this, it need not be the decayed structure, “sunlight on a broken column,” or even possessed of decay in any capacity, it must merely be emptied of its potential to recall life.

I am sitting under a table-lamp in the cavernous lobby of the Marriott Marquis again because it has grown so familiar to me. Although I have finalized a preferred route into and through its bowels, it still perplexes me. One theory on the way individuals remember and order space in their minds proposes a cognitive map that is not Euclidean, not physical, but a collection of images, icons, frames, and passages tethered by the experiences undergone to apprehend them. There are no right turns or left turns or paces or elapsed times, there is a fluid catalog in the mind that is spatial in an instantaneous, manifold way that space can never occur. Writing this is the elision of potential space and difference for immediacy and emptiness.

I write backwards from the zenith, where fragments, tossed out from a single point, arc at their most scattered, having only to wait for the pull of gravity to bind them together again. I write back toward that singularity in the project, the only point thus far where there has been a project, I seek to write backward through archival time, while necessarily moving forward through real time to a point, to a mirrored conclusion, an inversion of the understanding and naivety that was the decision to begin this work, because all things seek ruin.

On these bound blue lines, with such clear definitions, on this stack of cards I will write, in words, what could not be writ in the haphazard lines and values of the draughtsman’s pencil, and not over the months that eclipse into earlier darkness, when I arrive home to a desk in darkness to cough out shapes. I want to see architecture itself, as a practice, ruined,     ∆ At the moment, three volumes of Roubaud’s project are available in English, the titular “The Great Fire of London”, “The Loop”, and “Mathematics:”. The final of the three has least to do with memory, more to do with the sensibility of the project, and of my local project, in that it considers the impact of parallel practice on the project of writing, in Roubaud’s case, mathematics, in mine, architecture     I want its representations to slide onto the paper in such a way as to belie their infancy. I want it immediately ancient, with me erased, so that the ruinous history given to people all at once could be immediately claimed by them, broken down, individuated, owned by anybody but me. I want this nightly sacrifice of my time, my sleepless hours, my self-worth to be pushed toward so much nothing that I could not be blamed for it.