House of Illusion

Make time stand still. Stop it now. I can’t see what’s coming. Get the binoculars. Let me close in on the present, and set it aside when I wish.

I wasn’t in the book-lined study of the 1930s-built apartment, which looked out over the Sava river, to hear those words but I can imagine them being spoken by Arsénie Negovan, who did say, “I don’t go out of the house—not so much because of the threat to my health, but more from mistrust of the future.” In his 77th year and in ill health, he is preparing his will and drafting the articles which state the intended disposition of his goods and properties. Each item prompts a digression into the past and the book, Houses, by Borislav Pekic´ (New York Review Books, 2016) is his peripatetic meanderings through the events of his life. He could hardly be described as a flâneur in this, since for 27 years he has not left his apartment, which he refers to as his house. It is his building, though, and he describes himself as a rentier, having designed and built many grand houses and tenant dwellings in his long career. While it was indeed lucrative and his livelihood, for him it was more passion than profit; with each house he developed a romance, was personally involved. All the houses had female attributes and names: Theodora, Sophia, Agatha, Simoneda. From the start he was susceptible to their potential charms and observed the response of Katarina, who became his wife. He remembers, in his remembering, that when they first met she proclaimed his passion as “slightly unusual, different,” and he, in only one of many misreadings of his own character and the world around him, responded,” I believe it was my loyalty to architecture, and my capacity for elevating commerce to the status of art, which set me apart from her other suitors.”

Barry Schwabsky has written an introduction to the current edition of Houses and he takes special note of Borislav Pekic´’s skilfully drawn portrait of the individual in isolation. Here is a character, Arsénie Negovan, who indicates, when he begins ciphering his will and companion random memoirs—jotted down on scraps of paper and the backs of old receipts—that it is “best for me to begin without the hypocrisy of so-called introspective reflection,” especially, as he says, in light of and in “considering my careful, self-centred mode of life and advanced years.” As the memories are recounted, and through them the life reconstructed, you see Negovan retreat farther from the world, farther from reality, moving back from the substance of the architecture he loved, which produced the houses he possessed, which in turn possessed him with the mutuality he desired and which he described as his philosophy of Possession. In savouring the images he held of his many houses he is able to recall with draughtsman-like detail each decorative embellishment, every portal and hall, even the smell and feel of each structure. Following the trauma of 1941—a street riot protesting a pact Yugoslavia signed with the Nazi government—where Arsénie, out in the street in pursuit of his realtor’s business, which was to purchase at auction a house he coveted, was overwhelmed and trampled by communist rabble, where he lost his very nice hat, a Borsalino with a curled brim and a wide, black band around its crown. He was knocked down and tossed to the ground after speaking, while held aloft on the shoulders of some of the protesters. He’d called out for an end to banks, and being unaware of his eccentric theories on ownership and banking, the crowd had cheered him as a hero and then literally thrown him aside. He was found unconscious in a sewage ditch that ran along the street and had been driven home in a taxi by a solicitous policeman. He remained there for 27 years. As isolated and unaware as he’d always been, in that street riot in 1941 he saw the future and it frightened him.

Retreating to his study, the world is less present. He and Katarina listen to the radio and hear news from the front, but when London is bombed and houses and buildings are brought down, he listens no more and the radio is removed from the apartment. They receive newspapers and know the world in that way but when every page carries photographs of the massive destruction of cities—the urban centres now rubble, he cancels them. Family and friends who visit and talk anxiously about the war going on in every country around them are no longer welcome. He lines the walls of his study with cork and settles into his isolation. But he is not uninformed. With a phalanx of binoculars on his desk he can see the world well, and seated at his window, sometimes from noon to dusk, he misses nothing. With the binoculars he brings the world in, and keeps it out. Scopophilia is his condition. In fact, viewing the world through these magnifying lenses, the binoculars have become part of his physiognomy. On the ground, the feet and legs of the rioters are all around him, and just before losing consciousness he recalls, “Before everything went completely blank, I managed to focus my eyes, like the shaded lens of a pair of unadjusted binoculars,” and coming to in his own bed, noticing that his eyes are finally cleared, “like a binocular lens at last adjusted for distance.”

Distance was what kept him safe but also kept him from close contact with his beloved houses, whose every shift and change he had always noted. So he caused simulacra to be made: photographs in detail and enlarged plans of all the houses, designs, and then models constructed of each, made from the finest materials including ebony and jacaranda wood from his wife’s heirloom furniture. All of this he did in order, he said, to keep his houses from becoming only abstractions. “In this way I perpetuated the appearance of my houses at the very moment I left them. Seemingly left them, of course,” is what he hastened to add.

Barry Schwabsky reminds us in his introduction that the stuff of novels lies in the disparity between reality and illusion, between the protagonist’s understanding of the situation and the way things really are. But as Negovan can do with his binoculars, bringing things nearer while keeping them distant, and adjusting the focus so that what he sees is crystal clear—if he were to hand his perfectly adjusted binoculars to the next person over, the object would be hazy and unreadable. Negovan’s reality is the one he occupies and the illusion—the reader is inclined to say delusion—is his own manufacture. He adjusts the focus, or not, controlling his apprehension of the world according to his self-absorbed, myopic tolerance. Pekic´ had given us a thoroughly unloveable man whom his wife does love, or at least tends to with the semblance of love. She brushes and combs his still dark hair and sprinkles it with lavender water, and she is party to his illusions—the world they both inhabit in varying degrees. He knows what she knows and about which neither speaks. With the nurse-companion who comes to minister to his failing body, his wife has conspired against time and truth. Arsénie muses, “She feared that, completely unprepared, I would become a witness of reality, and that this reality would bring about my annihilation.” Which it did indeed do. The rentier had sufficient contact with reality to recognize that his life was likely coming to a close and things needed to be put in order. Hence the will and the memoir fragments. With his persistent surveillance of the world in front of his window he was well able to recognize how materially transformed it now was; it was this which led him to venture out of his house—the first time in 27 years, to see for himself. The siren whose call lured him was his beloved Simoneda and the overheard and whispered news of her immanent demise. His architecture. For which he had his understanding and which became his life’s credo.

He had commissioned the building of his first house. However carefully he had planned and studied and discussed its construction, once completed he found it unrecognizable. Only upon entering it, he said, and smelling its paint and varnish—and consistent with the romantic relationship each house would be for him—could he see and feel its feminized structure. “What I recognized from my first experience was that architecture is a sculpture that is hollowed out, so that man in movement can be situated in the empty space, that immediately afterward this sculpture becomes architecture by virtue of this hollowing out. This is what made of me the property owner that I am.” And we are back to his philosophy of Possession. A transcendent recognition supported by pragmatics, but with the best intentions. Arsénie would have benefitted from reading even the Foreword of Mark Rakatanksy’s Tectonic Acts of Desire and Doubt (AA Publications, 2012) though it wouldn’t have been included in his leather-bound library of books on the subject of architecture.

Rakatansky writes about the bits and pieces out of which a culture is made. He says the book’s title describes the content and his intention. It is tectonic because the pieces, the acts of, refer to the idea of actively performing a culture, and the desire and doubt tell us it is ‘semblance’ we get. (Maybe illusion as well?) Rakatansky nicely speaks about poignancy, and strangely—even though Arsénie is not a nice man—there is still a poignancy to how wrong he gets most things, voluntarily or not. Rakatansky says that transforming the parameters of the bits as well as our method and approach to how they are woven (here he refers to Walter Benjamin’s prevalent fragments and the fragmentation of his Arcades) is how we allow poignancy to enter. It’s Leonard Cohen’s light-letting crack and it’s the desirable and necessary human state. But as it applies so well to Arsénie Negovan, Rakatansky wrote, “Architects and critics all too often forget the poignancy and play that architecture is capable of, because they think architecture is a vessel in which life happens, rather than a performance of life itself, of the culture of life, of how we, as a culture think life in and through architecture.”

To see Simoneda, his built love, to confirm her existence and maybe woo her one last time after so many years, Arsénie leaves his house. It is 1968, and again there are riots in the streets. This time it is students, and he is once more drawn into the fray. Perhaps he thinks it will be to avenge the assault that frightened him into seclusion, perhaps it’s to confront the future. Because afraid of it or not, the future has arrived. Again he is assaulted. Maybe, he thinks, when he finds himself later, at home and bruised—he also perpetrated an assault, maybe even a bloody, deadly assault on a student, using his walking stick, the one with the silver head of a greyhound at the handle. He has seen, and walked through, and assessed firsthand, close-up, without the aid of binoculars, what the world looks like now, and he recognizes he’ll build no more, there will be no more architecture for Arsénie Negovan and that his houses, if any of them are still his, would never know him again as a property owner.

Hubert Damisch writes about “Architecture in Absentia.” It’s one section in a chapter titled “Blotting out Architecture? A Fable in Seven Parts,” from Noah’s Ark, Essays on Architecture (MIT Press, 2016). He’d been referred to in the introduction, written by Anthony Vidler, as an observer of clouds, miasma, so you’d expect an affinity for the insubstantial and ephemeral as a part of his views on architecture. Damisch writes beautifully about Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Blur Building, a cloud to see and wrap around oneself. He writes, “the blurring of lines and of any overly precise volumetry results first if not in the dissolution then, at the very least, in the loosening of ties that architecture might maintain with geometry—and perhaps in their transformation within the perspective of new geometries able to give the fuzzy its due alongside various effects of surface and texture, as already happens with shimmering.” I like the hover of indeterminacy there that suggests more than a single focus. And he asks if this suggests not the absence of architecture, daring to assert a utopia perhaps, a radical utopia (not a humdrum utopia, I expect) but a kind of architecture “on the verge,” he says, “of absenting itself: an architecture in suspense, literally and figuratively.”

Perhaps with some reluctance, but maybe having come to recognize that reality is at best contingent, Arsénie might see that between illusion and utopia is a distance one can bring into some kind of focus. ❚