Poetry and architecture
Architecture is an occupation that I have always exercised with my friend and also architect Carles Buxadé. The word partners – which we were too – blurs our relationship with a commercial tone that it has never had. We work, for almost forty years, from teaching and research to the project of management of large and small works, through all kinds of reinforcements, restorations and rehabilitations. It is about my professional, economic and social life, deeply linked, then, to my poetry. The influence of architecture in my life is profound and many times it has been within the environment of my work where I have written my poems. Some of them are a direct consequence of the work carried out in the reinforcement and remodeling of inhabited buildings located in neighborhoods, which were then peripheral, of Barcelona. Other poems emerged during the reinforcement and restoration of monuments that were at the limit of its collapse, such as the one that stands in memory of Christopher Columbus from the Universal Exhibition of Barcelona in 1888: a bronze column of sixty meters where the Rambla flows in the port, which in 1982 was tilting dangerously leaving the interior elevator stuck. Also the sixty meters high of the modernist filigree of the entrance tower to the Hospital de Sant Pau, where I remember how, on my first inspection, while I was up alone taking notes, I rushed out, scared to perceive under my feet the excessive movement of the building under the wind. Poems also written at the same time that we raised large sports or university groups. There are even written during expert proceedings on the occasion of building collapses, that dark side of our profession.
There are poems that are tributes to architects whose work – and the person in the case of Josep Antoni Coderch – has moved me especially. Others talk about my time as a student, about the efforts to enter that difficult school: when I passed the toughest exam, the statue drawing, we did so only seven of the three hundred that we spent a week drawing on our easels some of the Venus from Milo or Cánova planted in the middle of our crowd in that great room. First poems, then, written during the three absurd years I needed to overcome the obstacles with which political power protected – from before the Republic, at a time when social ascent was possible above all through a university career – to engineering, considered as the professions of the future, so that they remain in the hands of the upper classes. That is why only in Madrid could all the engineering courses (even the ports and naval ones!), And three in Barcelona: architecture, industrial and textile, and if a boy from the provinces (women still did not exist in these schools ) started this adventure his family had to keep him in one of these two cities an average of ten years.
And one last example of the effectiveness of those measures: my grandparents, poor and uneducated, when living in Barcelona, managed to get their eldest son, my father, to study architecture: during all the years he needed to obtain his degree, he never led to his house, not once, to any fellow student.
Many of my poems of the eighties and nineties of the twentieth century are written during the construction of large buildings over a long time, such as the case of the eight years of the Olympic Stadium of Montjuïc, or the thirty years in the team that calculated and built the Sagrada Familia, others at high speed, such as the University Village of the Autonomous University, and some through difficult subtleties underground like the Museum of Science of Tarrasa or the eleven basements in the Rambla, with the subalveal water already at the level of the second basement.
I have lived through the era of the pure creativity of calculation due to the little existing regulations, long without computers or with the first ones, with very little power yet, and with all the responsibility, that is, all freedom. We assumed, but not with the imminence with which it occurred, the advent of the era of “everything is possible” in the Calculation of Structures. Sometimes I feel that we also had a certain indirect responsibility with our research works on matrix matrix calculations in the sixties: that we collaborated in some way to this large-format architecture that sometimes represents the humanistic shortcomings of this era and that has come to prove that Napoleon was not right, that it is almost always a lie that if c’est grand, c’est beaux.
Architecture excites me in few cases. I remember one of these occasions, while attending a performance of the Antigone of Sophocles on a ground floor, naked and unused, of the Library of Catalonia, which was in the Middle Ages the Hospital de la Santa Creu. It is an elongated, impeccable Gothic room, built with a low vaulted stone ceiling and stone wall enclosures. The architecture has never surpassed it. Pilasters, slabs, pillars, all the rest, never reaches the power of the wall and the vault alone. While following the actors, I realized that I was as excited for those constructive elements as for what was being staged there. But in most of the buildings, architecture does not cause me experiences of this kind. Only in my own work have I felt this emotion: it is the one on the cover of my book of poems Structural Calculation, a metal dome of great light that Carles Buxadé and I designed, calculated and built in Vitoria. This was the work in which, working as an architect, I have been closer to feeling that I was doing something similar to a poem.
It was the work – Holy Family apart – whose construction has lasted the longest in my professional life, because we started to project it in 1974 to cover a cattle market and we finished building it in 1998. It is a complicated story: the dome, spherical , but very flat, circular, began with eighty meters of light in diameter, a light difficult to reach in those days, and at the end of building it showed an error of approach of the City of Vitoria: there was hardly any movement livestock, the Franco administration had absurdly wrong in its evaluation. Nor did he find any alternative use. Then began a long stage of abandonment, because its demolition – eradicate sin – was prevented by the fact that the structure obtained in 1977 some prestigious awards of metal architecture, the first national and the European later, since, among other values, it had that of its design of variable edge never carried out until then and be one of the lightest in the world attending to the relationship between the weight of the steel used and the light that saved. At the end of the eighties we were commissioned, together with the architect of the Diputación de Álava, to expand the dome to one hundred meters of light and raise it twenty meters, so that inside, when there is a much larger space, we could build a sports hall, which worked until it was demolished in 2011 to build another one in its place, of which we two are left out. I loved this structure, and in my book The signal is lost (2012) there is this poem:
When I was a young man
I lifted the iron structure of a dome.
A few months ago they knocked her down.
View from the place where it ends,
Life is absurd.
But the meaning is forgiven.
Every time I think more about forgiveness.
I live under your shadow.
Sorry for an iron dome.
And sorry for those who have destroyed it now
An important chapter in the relationship between poetry and the profession of architect was the reinforcement and repair of buildings constructed under the pressure of the avalanche of Spanish-speaking immigrants arriving in Barcelona from the fifties and sixties of the twentieth century. Impressed by the conditions in which many of them worked and lived, the singer Enric Barbat and I (he the music and I the lyrics) had composed in 1966 the song «Els who come»(Those who come), that he later sang, and that Paco Ibáñez still sings, sometimes, in Catalan. I rediscovered the spirit of that letter and updated it in the poem “Immigrants” of the book France station, of the year 1999.
Those who come
They are loaded with bales and suitcases.
The long night is dragging the dream,
sad, sweaty, notice the belly empty,
A stale smell comes out of the cars.
At dawn, the train will stop
full of men asleep without work.
Lost will remain on the platforms:
They are many hands looking for a tool.
Banished from fields that in summer
they reaped under the sun, burned the body,
and through the squares the corrosive in winter
of all who expect any job.
Now the other gaits begin
wandering unofficially through the city,
carrying in his eyes an ancient signal:
That fear of the stoned dog.
They go for the works, for docks and markets,
for the ice cream workshops outside
spending the poor bones already very worn
by anonymous stony wages.
The years to come will be to forget
the fields, the pens, smells of taverns,
the margins, the grass, that rumor of the wind.
Sometimes write with a bad letter.
Trams filled with fog and smoke
when they get tired at dusk
and, on the high seas of foreign customs,
An ancient sweat of many centuries.
Until it is the time of rest
the day the last wage will come
and already in the union of the dead
they will finally rest in suburbial margins.
No one will know if at last your thoughts
they flew back towards the fields
when he threw life into the hole
of urine and garbage that is death.
A lot of land has been laid on man
about the ancient pain ancestor
and today the descendant of the poor still
With his head down, he carries the bag.
We know how to shut up full of helplessness
when in the name of a new rebirth
spits on humiliated fronts
the old gargajo turning their backs.
When every dawn follows
arriving on long trains
those who have to write but don’t know.
Many of those buildings – sometimes entire polygons – showed serious deficiencies that, at times, were true structural emergencies. To reinforce them and give them adequate security, it was necessary, first of all, to notify those who lived there that one day the previous inspection would take place. If a block of those had, say, fifty or seventy homes, you had to enter all of them and see what cracks were, where they were, what problem were symptoms, etc., in order to raise the corresponding reinforcement project. That day all the neighbors were waiting and opened their house to the architect. It looked like a scene he had imagined many times since Montjuïc: “uncover” the buildings of the city and see what was happening inside. There is a poem in the book The motives of the wolf, from 1993, which is entitled “Remember the Kiss” and that arrives from those mornings:
Remember the Kiss
The windows, at night, their yellowish light,
they are eyes that are painted with asphalt mascara.
I remember the floor: a sick light bulb,
Dogs and children together, a mattress on the floor.
In that kitchen without a door, poisoned,
next to a lot of broken dishes,
a young man puts his mop discs
In an old pick-up.
And they are all from Bach.
The moon shines the black wires,
High voltage, passing over the river.
In the land of no one under the highway
Second-hand cars sleep.
This world has no other future.
I have spoken many times in my recitals – especially in Andalusia – about what happened those years, always to clarify that the Catalan capitalism that led to and received those Andalusian immigrants was mostly Spanish-speaking, as it has traditionally been in Barcelona. In the upper part, in the rich neighborhoods, where Castilian has always been spoken in greater proportion, is where those wealthy “poshs” who in the postwar period considered Catalan as a second-class language lived and did not suffer in the least with the ban of our language during the Franco regime. They were the same who humiliated both the Catalan language and the Andalusian emigrants, those who began living in the barracks that constituted authentic neighborhoods in Montjuïc, Carmel, Can Tunis, Camp de la Bota … An exploitation that took out, most of the time, in Spanish.
Architecture is, fundamentally, the art of weight distribution. Poetry is too, although metaphorically. The architecture has to carry the loads to the ground and, if you do not drive them correctly, injuries and even collapse can occur. In any room of any building, the slab carries the weight to the pillars, which lower it to the foundations and, hence, to the ground. In general, these slabs do not conduct the weight with the softness and grace of the vaults and walls of that Gothic room of the Hospital de la Santa Creu. Normally, his path is more violent and vulgar. A parallel could be made with poetry, which tries to drive sentimental weights in a subtle, complex, intense, never vulgar way. Poetry and architecture have a point of confluence that is its abstract character. The word is abstract. It’s almost nothing: a sound, some lines on paper. Space is also abstract. In principle, it is nothing either, but suddenly they both close like a good poem or a cathedral.
It has been a century since science and technology developed in a probabilistic universe, but society continues to live, in many of its aspects, in a deterministic world. I remember that religious community that owns a convent whose extension I intervened. When at dusk the work was deserted, they introduced wooden crucifixes into the formwork of the pillars to “sanctify” the future building from its foundations, thus trying to conjure up the insurmountable risk of our probabilistic universe with a deterministic act. What they did achieve was lowering the building’s security by weakening its pillars. For the architect it is sometimes terrifying to “feel” this determinism in society and, above all, in judges and prosecutors. I remember the case of the collapse of the Hotel Bahía de Santander, where I intervened as an expert. There had been several deaths among the workers who were scrapping it before reforming it. To remove the old bathtubs from each bathroom, they demolished the lower part of the partition next to which they were seated so that they could be taken directly into the hallway. But those partitions, over the years, had ended up taking over an important part of the bearing capacity of the building structure, because the concrete pillars were old and of poor quality. When those pillars were left without the help of the partitions, they yielded and the building collapsed. The demolition was done without a responsible technician, but there was a parallel assignment to some architects for the interior reorganization, practically the decoration, only of the attic of the building, and they were the accused. Throughout the years that the cause lasted, one of them died of a cancer, surely not completely oblivious to the anguish experienced.
Nightmares of cracks, landslides, judges and judgments always surprise the architect dreamily. The increase of knowledge and honesty do not free from these hostilities of consciousness, and hidden vices lurk like shadows. And these shadows are not idle but, if I am allowed to express them, have solid random foundations.
One midnight in March 1984, I was awakened by my partner with the news of the sudden collapse of a block of seventy fully occupied homes from which we were repairing certain deficiencies in its foundations and structure. One of our team’s riggers had to find a shift pharmacy to buy a medicine for their young child. During the journey he turned on the radio and listened to the news, where they mentioned the sinking and the situation of the building: it was a program with a large audience (known as “Encarna by night”) and the news exploded thoroughly. Each of us picked up what best came up, money, warm clothes, etc., and we met, after saying goodbye to our families, in the office. We called the municipal police, who confirmed the incident and its location. We decided to apply the rules that, in these cases, the lawyers usually recommend in our profession: disappear in the first moments to avoid lynchings, calm down, get in touch with them and, finally, surrender and deal with the situation. What did our conversation turn to those first hours? Well, in the first place, around one’s own responsibility: we were not hiding the magnitude of a collapse of seventy houses in the middle of the night of a working day. Having something like that in consciousness was frightening. The second theme was a consequence of the first: how could it have happened? We knew the building perfectly. Where could we have been so wrong? What had we missed? Unfortunately, it is not difficult to imagine a sequence of interior interventions by the neighbors themselves, in an environment of clandestine works, without permission, which at that time was common in the most marginalized neighborhoods. With many of them – suppression of load-bearing walls to communicate rooms, removal of parts of a pillar for the passage of pipes, etc. – we were frequently in our inspections. An adequate succession of this type of events was enough for the worst to happen, and then, who could find other information among the rubble?
Around three in the morning, the mayor – then it was Pasqual Maragall – spoke on the radio and ventured that it could be a gas explosion. The incident maintained its magnitude, but our guilt began to disappear. There was the horror and the countless headaches that awaited us, but the unstoppable corrosion of guilt and personal and professional ruin disappeared. Around four o’clock the news was finalized and the location of the explosion was corrected, which turned out to be on the other side of the street and in a single-family dwelling occupied by a single person who, unfortunately, died. A butane bottle had exploded. The explosion affected our building, located opposite, but without causing victims. At eight o’clock in the morning we were already in the work where someone received us with a “they made us get up early …” who knew me to the affectionate reception of everyday life. I felt like I suppose those who have been victims of a mock drill should feel.
The shadows of the old Caldea and medieval legislations still prevail. The first civil code of humanity, which must have begun to be imagined in the long period of time that it measured between life in caves, necessarily retreating to the place where their mouths were opened, to be able to build a house by a river. Perhaps the historical advent of more importance for the human being. There are the architecture, the painting and the poetry accompanying its survival, that journey in which thousands of years later I still think about things like civilization is the effort for the interpenetration between the sciences and the letters, so that all let us know that he who thinks, and sometimes says, that mathematics is useless, is right: those he knows are useless. That one cannot be a reasonable architect if he believes that the Earth is flat, although at first glance it does not seem that he can influence one thing in the other. That there is no human research that cannot be explained to someone who wants to understand it, but whoever explains it must have understood it before. And that I think that, somehow, when I talk about architecture I also talk about poetry. At least from what I understand by poetry and architecture.
Life arises from matter and it is not yet known to what extent by chance or necessity. But what we do know from direct experience is that life occurs in a hostile environment to which she responds, in a first stage, with the multiplication of her individuals at a rate greater than that of her destruction. The human being, life at its highest level of complexity, has also made his response to that hostility more complex – and more effective -. Culture – and poetry as part of it – is also that response to the continuous attack of the weather where life unfolds. But there is a part of the action of the weather, of this cold or universal fire in which we live, that what tries to destroy or injure is the Being, something fundamental but possessing a non-existent material base or, at least, so subtle to not having approached even remotely to her. This imperative and daily need for protection beyond hunger, cold or disease is usually left to the fundamental approaches: pure sciences, art, literature, poetry and philosophy. It doesn’t matter if they are exactly these or that some more are added. This is not a relevant precision here. I want to go to the point that when we say “culture” it is, in general, in these things in which we think, with the idea of encompassing everything that can provide us with an immaterial refuge from actions, sometimes also immaterial but terrible, that threaten the Being.
But culture is an almost exclusively individual matter, its collective management can only affect important but secondary aspects for the threatened Being, such as schools, books, etc.
The rise of a very modest industry until half a century ago but today, the entertainment industry, has been a lethal weapon in the hands of an economic and political power whose relationship with culture is increasingly weak. Entertainment, the term itself says, pursues only small leaps in time in a situation as pleasant as possible but useless. Useless in the sense that nothing has changed for the person – neither for good nor for bad – when leaving the process. Quite the opposite of what happens after reading a good poem or listening to a good piece of music, that the degree of inner order, happiness, comfort or whatever we call it, increases. Little, very little if you want, but it increases. And this is the minimum favorable impact of culture. Very important in the long run. Today entertainment tries to replace culture. I think that the biggest mistake my generation made, occupied as it was in solving the dangerous choice between capitalism and Marxism, was not to think about the individual’s relationship with culture beyond that peremptory horizon of class equality and of school opportunities, medical care, etc. We took for granted that this relationship between individual and culture would not offer in its day, more or less resolved the issues of that horizon, greater difficulties.
This contributed to a generalized historical vision – and I think it was quite realistic – of the respect that the proletariat with little or no access to culture felt for it. This vision came from afar, from the very origins of the revolutionary movements. It came from what was called the workers ‘culture, with its more or less idealized visions, from the “booth and l’hortet” of the Macià catalanism, or the workers’ athenaeums, to the novelist visions of the worker with a book in his pocket inside from the factory or at night, reading by candlelight in his poor house. Or those books of the Servei de Cultura al Front that soldiers read in the trenches of our Civil War. We never deal with assessing how much there was in all this of mere progress on the path of ascent on the social ladder that, rightly in those times, the lower classes identified with university degrees and, from there, with culture. We envied Evtushenko’s recitals in the Soviet stadiums, and we did not doubt that poetry was on the left, among other things because this was believed by most of the poets, and as it had really happened, for example, in that Civil War of ours.
The mixture of certainties that had no other basis than the fleeting ideology and its militant triumphalism, which sought, neither more nor less, than knowing in advance the unstoppable march of history, came to obscure our intellectual environment and many consciences. The fact is that it ended up creating an unstated acceptance that, just as the access of the masses to social equality was something that the individual could not oppose, in the same way, once this stage was reached, the natural access of these masses to culture. This error is what we face in our maturity, when it became clear that access to equal economic opportunities was much easier than to cultural ones. I have not forgotten those sixties and seventies, with the School of Architecture in full boil anti-Franco. My Structural Calculation class was sometimes interrupted by a young activist, theoretically close to my way of thinking, to proclaim that teaching a good class to students was to work in favor of the dictator. The common sense prevailing in the vote in which those ramshackle used to lead made it always he alone who left the classroom. But we had almost spent class time to solve the issue.
The reasoning justifying the difficulty of access to culture is simple and I find it difficult to understand the magnitude of our error by assuming the opposite: access to consumer goods can be planned using all the technological power of our societies, and get these goods at a time to millions of people. This may have a degree, whatever it is, of difficulty, but it is that true access to culture can only be individual, person to person, and the degree of difficulty increases greatly as it is impossible to plan massively. Each of the students in that classroom was already alone with his calculation of structures and his poetry, and it was strange to link him to any possibility of community action.
When speaking of culture I have used the true adjective, whose use implies the possibility of falsehood. And I do not speak of falsification in the sense of falsifying a painting, I do not mean to repeat something that already exists, but to write a poem that looks like a poem, but that is not a poem, the most dangerous of fakes because it is within reach Of many fortunes, there is nothing more to see. Easy to detect? It depends on who, and this is the question of culture. To be a cult is to recognize a good poem between poem substitutes, it is to recognize the difference between Lao Tse and a guru of famous singers, it is to distinguish between Montaigne and a self-help book. It is knowing how to distinguish medicine from placebo. And once rejected what is false, proceed to choose what one needs at that time from the true within reach. Direct forgery makes no sense except in the plastic arts, and it does not matter. What else is it to be looking at an authentic Miró than a copy of the great forger that was Ory? To him and to Orson Welles, who discovered it, we owe a good dose of common sense when confronting art as a market.
Freedom of choice is only possible from culture, but culture is acquired not only individually but alone. It is true that a first stage can be socialized in school, although surely there we would be talking only about knowledge, which is only a small part, although basic and necessary, of culture. Necessary, but not enough. Culture is precisely our individuality: we create it, we perfect it, we maintain it. No good fool, as Socrates already thought. The human brain has a power far superior to that of the animal, but a human brain without culture can become like a beast always hungry for something that does not know what it is. Intelligence while kindness always implies culture, making sense of what does not seem to have it.
In the case of poetry, I think it is essential to recognize this individual and solitary character of the penetration into your universe and provide only a minimum of indications of what can be found in that universe and, of course, without descending to the strenuous technical details to those who are sometimes subjected to students. The young man must know that art exists and what it is for, but nothing can replace the fact that art must be his personal discovery.
In addition, in my opinion, the structural difference between poetry and literature is very large. The openness of a poem is closer to music than to poetry, and I don’t mean something as trivial as what is usually known as “the music of the poem.” In the novels, both the characters and their environment must be “sufficiently described” at a different level and superior to those of a poem. On the other hand, the obligatory interpretative freedom of the poetry reader is only comparable to that of the musical performer, and the poet is closer to the composer than to the novelist.