Phoenix, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Airport

 

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I love the airport. The airport is the destination before the destination, and it always says something, usually something fundamental, about its host city.

Among favorite airports I’ve visited—Zurich, Mexico City, San Diego—my number one might be the airport of my hometown: Phoenix Sky Harbor International. (It doesn’t hurt that Sky Harbor is a great name.)

Sky Harbor perfectly represents the urban landscape of Phoenix. Like the desert roads beyond its walls, its concourses are straight and expansive. Like the inside of an adobe house or a low-slung concrete warehouse, its interior is dark, in extreme contrast to the bright light outside. For the most part, Sky Harbor is plain and no-nonsense, but underneath there seems to lurk something mysterious. Like meeting someone with a flat personality, it makes me wonder what else is going on.

Maybe I love Sky Harbor because it’s the airport of my childhood. Still, I think there’s more to the feeling than simple nostalgia. Something about this airport’s energy captures the essence of travel, of moving towards a new and not entirely understood destination.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who periodically fled the Midwest for Arizona and built his sprawling Taliesin West just outside the city, had a peculiar architectural principle when it came to hallway design. He wanted hallways to feel cramped, uncomfortable, primal. To Wright, passageways should be built to make the person within them feel like a caged animal, physically—even psychologically—constrained. In Wright’s homes, the transition from the hallway to the open space of a room is meant to affect a release—a sensation of freedom and possibility.

Stepping out of a plane to the corridors of Sky Harbor, I feel like I’m passing through something like Wright’s transitional zone, and as I move on—especially on late evenings, the concourses empty and quiet—it seems I have become, or I am just about to become, absolutely free.

 

 

Three Etymologies

ASIMO

ASIMO

¨I’ll order a complete man after a desirable pattern. Imprimis, fifty feet high in his socks; then, chest modelled after the Thames Tunnel; then, legs with roots to ‘em, to stay in one place; then, arms three feet through the wrist; no heart at all, brass forehead, and about a quarter of an acre of fine brains; and let me seeshall I order eyes to see outwards? No, but put a sky-light on top of his head to illuminate inwards.¨


-Chapter 108, ¨Ahab and the Carpenter,¨ Moby Dick (1851)


 

from the Online Etymological Dictionary:

Automaton

1610s, from Latin automaton (Suetonius), from Greek automaton, neuter of automatos “self-acting,” from autos “self” (see auto-) + matos “thinking, animated, willing,” from PIE*mn-to-, from root *men- “to think” (see mind (n.)).

 

Automaton, 1784

Automaton, 1784

Android

“automaton resembling a human being,” 1842, from Modern Latin androides (itself attested as a Latin word in English from 1727), from Greek andro- “human” (see andro-) + -eides “form, shape” (see -oid). Greek androdes meant “like a man, manly;” compare also Greek andrias “image of a man, statue.” Listed as “rare” in OED 1st edition (1879), popularized from c.1951 by science fiction writers.

 

Robot

1923, from English translation of 1920 play “R.U.R.” (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Capek (1890-1938), from Czech robotnik “slave,” from robota “forced labor, compulsory service, drudgery,” from robotiti “to work, drudge,” from an Old Czech source akin to Old Church Slavonic rabota “servitude,” from rabu “slave,” from Old Slavic*orbu-, from PIE *orbh- “pass from one status to another” (see orphan). The Slavic word thus is a cousin to German Arbeit “work” (Old High German arabeit).

Scene from Rossum's Universal Robots

Scene from Rossum’s Universal Robots

A Few Lines from A.R. Ammons

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…it is not so much to know the self
as to know it as it is known
by galaxy and cedar cone,
as though birth had never found it
and death could never end it…


A.R. Ammons, from ¨Gravelly Run¨

Bisbee, Arizona (II)

Even an optimist can’t visit Bisbee without tapping into the town’s darker backbone.

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Bisbee is often advertised as a quirky road trip destination. With its antique shops, art galleries, haunted hotels, copper mine pits, and trendy restaurants, Bisbee’s riches are plentiful. They also do little to hide an obvious drug problem among the residents and a cinematic gloom.

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The contrast makes for an edgy kind of humor.

Inside Whyld Ass, a hippie-run vegan joint, women customers in their sixties bob their heads to Nirvana’s ¨Heart-Shaped Box.¨ On cement staircases leading to old miner’s shacks, teenagers stare hard at passersby. At the food co-op, a request for a sandwich from the employee behind the sandwich counter is met with bewilderment:

¨It’s not possible. I wish I could. But the system just isn’t set up for it!¨

Systems are hard to come by in Bisbee, at least official or functioning ones. Even so, the Cochise County Courthouse, preserved from the town’s mining heyday, surveys the town from its hilltop.

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Bisbee, Arizona

Near the U.S.-Mexico border and isolated within the Mule Mountains of Southern Arizona, this former mining town has a layered, living past that its residents can’t escape (or don’t want to escape).


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The Double

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Deep within a used bookshop in Marseille, I discovered a book of poetry by Jules Supervielle, a poet well-known in France but little known in America.

The book, titled Poems: 1939-1945,  is concerned above all with the state of France in a time of war. Supervielle’s poems are populated with symbolic animals, trees, oceans, and skies, and as I first flipped through the book, his style reminded me a bit of Wallace Stevens, especially in the circular, giving way the poet’s subjects bleed into one another, leaving no firm truths or times, nothing definite to hang on to.

The physical book itself struck me as special. The printing date is stamped on the last page: December 20, 1945. Just a few months after the end of World War II. Made of delicate, browned, shaggy-edged stock paper and wrapped in an old wax paper protector, the book is remarkably preserved and cared for.

Written in graying ink—not on the cover’s inside flap, not on the title page, but on the upper right corner of the first page of poetry—is a woman’s name. Her first name is easy to make out: Monique. But her family name is unclear.

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Monique Ballat? Monique Balmat? The last name is underscored with one bold, confident line, as if Monique’s ownership of this text—and her identity—were firmly resolved.

But who was she, and how did she come into possession of this book? Did she read it as a young girl, or as an older woman, as mother, a grandmother? How did she take these poems, with the destruction of war still so present and reverberating?

And more: how long had this book waited in this dusty bookstore, waiting for a new reader? Monique and I: have we been the sole two owners of this book? What drew both of us to it: something about us—our likeness?

Later that afternoon, I rushed to Marseille’s main library, off the wide Canebiére that leads to the city’s extravagant port, and I translated one of the poems. It seemed to speak directly to me. I wonder if Monique read it, and if it spoke to her as well.

The Double

My double approaches. He looks at me.
He says: ¨Ah there he is! the one who dreams,
who imagines he’s alone (as I watch him
lower his eyes and plunge into misery.)
Dark, dark, darker: in this black night
he cannot hide; it’s bound now to my solitude.
I too am thrown to the depths of sleep. I rise
to seek him—not as a wolf, so gray-like, rude—
but rather as electric light, too soft
and weak to scare him off. I approach myself
in him; I study him there. I shine on the thing
that escapes his heart. I signal it to come to me.¨

Imitation of Life

Viewing an ancient Roman sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I am struck by the extraordinary achievement of the artist. If anything comes close to a likeness of the human, and by extension, a likeness of life, surely it must be this.

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The devious satyr is unsettling in his beauty—even uncanny. Arrested in this one pose, mangled, mounted in sterile space, he still seems capable of taking a breath, of magically coming to life, like Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.

Uncanny was the first word that came to mind when I recently watched a video of BigDog, Boston Dynamic’s robotic animal, a machine eerily animal and eerily not so.

Sculpture and robotics are both technologies, both imitative arts. Where sculpture was perfected in antiquity, robotics, presumably, is being perfected now. In both, there seems to be the potential for life to leap from objects, regardless of purpose and whether those objects move or remain still.

Maybe, as so many theorists predict, robots like BigDog will someday come to life. Maybe they never will, or maybe they already have, and will only grow more alive, through technology—which is to say, through imagination.