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Key words: In memoriam. Alejandro de la Sota.
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What to say?
A few words about Alejandro de la Sota.
by Josep Quetglas
I find myself in an uncomfortable situation.
On the one hand I am proud and honoured to be here, to participate in this ceremony, organised by the School of Architecture in Madrid, in memory of Alejandro de la Sota.
But, after a while, I don't know what I have come for, I don't know exactly what an event like this is all about, I don't know how we should behave.
No doubt, after a while, this uncomfortable feeling will have disappeared. It will then be time to organise meetings and discuss de la Sota's work: to have a better understanding of it and share what we have learned.
Then we will talk and listen to each other. But now, the situation is quite different.
The distance between the moment of his death and the present one is still visible in its whole length. His death remains so close that there could be a certain presumptuousness or lack of sensibility on the part of anyone who started talking and going though one's papers to let everyone know how much one knows.
Now is not the time for talking, nor about de la Sota's architecture, nor about anything we might know.
What can we do? Shall we remember him?
That shouldn't be the case either. If remembering means wrapping up and protecting something in our own hearts, then I doubt that we can commemorate something collectively; rather, commemoration should take place in the strictest intimacy. One does not commemorate in public.
So, why have we come here?
To talk and to listen: yes, it is possible. But not to listen to ourselves talking.
This ceremony would still have meaning if nobody talked, if there were a sufficiently attentive silence, to witness and frame the silence which from now on will be Alejandro de la Sota's.
To come here to be silent in the same room where he spoke.
Perhaps then we would be able to perceive a delicate whispering. But a precise one, which is and will be in this room forever, bouncing and travelling form wall to wall, which could go further on an endless trip through open space if only the walls were broken down.
This whispering is a wave started by the vibration of the air which one day de la Sota speech made, a whisper that continues to be the same vibration as that day.
This whispering is here now. No doubt it already travels beyond the reach of our ears, but it is not said that it can only be heard by our ears.
Do you want to hear it?
Let's be quiet, then.
This could be an appropriate gesture, but I think that, after parting, it would leave within us the feeling of not having completely accomplished the reason for our gathering together.
We are also here because it is necessary to talk. To do this, the first thing we would need is the power of speech. This doesn't mean having the power to use fluid and elegant words, nor words that are conceptually rich or interesting. What we need is the precise word, the right one, for this situation. The only one that would be worth using. The word with which everything agrees. The word which summons the named and brings it to life.
Mark 5. 40-41: 'And they laughed him to scorn. But when he had put them all out, he taketh the father and the mother of the damsel, and them that were there with him, and entereth in where the damsel was lying.
And he took the damsel by the hand, and saith unto her, Tal'i-tha cu'mi;
which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, Arise.'
Luke 7. 14: 'And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young Man, I say unto thee, Arise."
Kaj Munch, in Ordet: ´Listen to me, Our Lord in Heaven, send me the word, the word that Christ has gone to the Kingdom of Heaven to seek, the word of Creation, the word of Life. Give it to me! Listen to me, you who have died. In the name of Jesus Christ, for whom the tombs break into pieces, as sure as the Will of God: Come back to life! Woman, I tell you: arise!'
What to say, if that one, the right one, is precisely the missing word, in whose absence all the words we might pronounce become insufficient, out of place?
It is possible that this word doesn't exist in our language. Although some, like Walter Benjamin, have believed that each of us possesses and is responsible for a small and weak messianic force, a force that was, in spite of its weakness, able to restore life in the interior of that which has been.
Therefore, I am not going to talk here to let others hear what I know about de la Sota's architecture, or with an irrational intention of reviving him.
My intention is to talk in order to let the words I pronounce accompany his never-ending journey, so that de la Sota's words do not travel through this space on their own. I am going to say three words. The first one is the word House, the second is the word Master, and the third is the word Death.
In the introduction to the second edition of Towards a New Architecture, 1924, Le Corbusier gives a definition of the house. He writes that we have the instinct, the desire to have ´a house that is the human environment that surrounds us, which separates us from antagonistic natural phenomena, which gives our human milieu to us, the people'. This is an oscillating, pendular definition. Made by a changeable factor--'antagonistic natural phenomena'--, which doesn't surround us with a fixed border, but which, depending on the occasion, can come nearer or be removed. Inclemency can sometimes start skin-deep, or sometimes, despite the pirouettes we might make, we never venture beyond the limit of a human environment that we recognise as being ours. Home is where one finds oneself in one's own environment. Inclemency is where one feels oneself to be in direct contact with an antagonistic hostile environment.
What is a house made of? What is the fabric of this wrapping, of this environment that we recognise as non-hostile?
It is made of many different materials, improvised or transported, physical as well as mental, occasional as well as acquired.
Stone, plaster and wood; light and heat; water; objects and memory; habits; other people.
Marx wrote that, for "nature", we should not understand seas, fields, valleys and mountains, forests, sky and animals. Nature, for people, is always human nature, society, because none of us can exist but within a society, which is one's condition, the frame of one's life, the result of one's action.
This means that we can think of Le Corbusier's definition as establishing a human environment which defends us, which shields us from the hostile, from that behaviour which we feel to be antagonistic.
As in Sparta, our house is made of the activity of those who protect us.
The part of the body that first reacts to the news of death is the skin. We feel the absence as a breach, as a sudden disprotection. Between ourselves and the world, something that covered us before, which was placed in-between as a shield from the antagonistic environment, is not there anymore. The nip of the cold has entered through this tear.
For those who are here, and for many of us that have been working in the field of architecture in the last half a century, de la Sota has been a house.
He has moved the natural antagonistic environment away from us, to the outside; he has allowed us to use him as a barrier. He has opened an environment in which the effort of our work became meaningful, in which one had models and could get one's bearings.
Does this mean that it has been a comfortable, protecting atmosphere, where one could curl up in comfort?
No, not at all, because de la Sota has also been a master.
This is the second word.
What is a master? First of all, it is someone who doesn't have disciples. It is uninteresting, because it only repeats what is already known, the image of a master as the one showing the path and the goals to achieve, who shows the direction and the channels to follow, who transmits to others his accumulated knowledge and experience, the one who gives the instruments.
Someone might think that the legacy of the master enriches successive generations, by the passing on of his work. This is not only false: it's also a logical absurdity.
There are people like that, but they go by other names.
A master disorients, makes one feel unsatisfied, impoverishes.
In the presence of the master, the result each of us achieves is never sufficient. What we know is not enough, not precise: an approximation.
In the presence of the master, everything we have acquired has the suspicious shine of imitation jewellery.
The master is a device which conveys an immediate distrust of the thing achieved. The master incites one, through a continuous dissatisfaction, to go beyond, in another direction, down different paths.
The more our experience is moved by the centrifugal stimulus of the master, the more we are able to ignore models, rules, habits. We lose security. The master is the one who takes away the accumulated provisions, again and again. We are left empty-handed.
It can be called poverty, but also freedom.
The master makes one free. He confronts us with a territory without any paths, with a limitless territory that we have to cross on our own.
This comes close to the third word.
What does it mean to say that Alejandro de la Sota is dead? Because he's dead, isn't he?
In this border territory one has to be careful with language, and in order to do this one should be as naïve as one who hears and uses a word for the first time, and as humble as one who submits to words.
To be dead is not to be living? That he is dead means that he is not alive anymore?
To be dead is not to be able to live for oneself anymore; then, if living time is to continue, one needs the help of others.
How can one do that? By acting in a manner radically different from what happens in hospitals. There, the organs of the dead are given to the living to keep them alive. It's a matter of doing the contrary: giving over our whole body to someone who has died, so that this person can continue seeing through our eyes, talking with our mouth, working with our hands. So his way of imagining, feeling and suggesting remains active among us.
So he continues to live.
May Alejandro de la Sota continue living through the way we are living, as long as we are alive.
I remember now two sentences, from different writers.
One is a verse by Borges. 'We are those that go away'. Written in a different manner, in a later poem, it became: 'Only the one who has died is ours'.
The other sentence is taken from an essay by John Berger: ' The dead are the imagination of the living'.
Both sentences are enigmatic, because I can't figure out what the subject is and what the object is, on either side of the verb "to be".
Are we the ones leaving, or do we take the place of the ones that have gone?
Do the living imagine and create the dead, or do the dead produce the imagination of the living?
Do we possess the one who has died, or has part of us died?
I don't want to overhandle these sentences; I rather that this nearness between us remain open for a long time --an "us" of which everyone, "they" included, are a part.