11 June 2009

Exile and Home

Talking to B yesterday about what to do during the next visit home and we agreed that a trip over to Spring Green and a drive around Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright's Wisconsin headquarters. "That would be really nice," she said, and I could hear in her voice not just how nice it would be but how soothing. I shared with her my impressions of the Wright exhibit at the Guggenheim and she talked about the William Drennan portrayal of Wright in Death in a Prairie House. "Certainly another side to the man," she deadpanned.

There was a brief pause in the conversation in which I imagined my perspective on things from inside one of his early houses and I apologized for spacing out and told B why. "Sounds good," she said.

Later, that got me thinking about architecture, how I came to be so interested in it, and the idea that I live with inside my head of architecture as both exile and home. "Exile" because the very idea of architecture seems to come from a place of exile, of not being home, and aspiring to a sense of place that is not yet realized. And "home" because, well, when done right, that sense of place is achieved.

I often trace my first real sense of exile in the world to the day we sold our house after the parents divorced. I loved that house, it's roof, which was great for just hanging out, the double garage with a paint job always in need of touch-ups from baseball, basketball, and tennis ball marks, the variety of trees in the front yard and back, the garden, the lilacs. We moved on a warm Fall afternoon. I remember building one last fire in the fire place to have a symbolic moment of "destruction." I was 14 and not at all aware of theories of exile but I think I was tapping into something I would later understand as a characteristic of all breaks--the burning but regenerative spirit of loss.

No place after that quite matched up until I began finding other homes--South Hall on Bascom Hill at the University of Wisconsin; the dumpy old Hillel on Langdon with its classic mid-century sloping glass veneer; the rooted but lonely vista from Mount Scopus in Jerusalem; and now, the quiet mornings the den of our apartment--generally between 5 and 6 in the morning, when Flatbush Avenue is not too loud, when I can hear birds awaken in the berms across the street, and when Brooklyn is just waking up.

Just rising Brooklyn is home.
Wide awake Brooklyn is exile.

That's just the way it is for me.

But this inside the head nature of occupying space is often where I am at inside CBE, the synagogue I serve in Park Slope. We are two buildings in need of great repair, holy spaces of intent that have suffered years of neglect. And I live in a state of constant awareness of the exilic experience of occupying what sometimes feels like a ruin. Despite the Rambam's warning in the Mishneh Torah that one should never prayer inside a ruin, on a certain level, we operate a robust, vibrant, growing and historic community from inside a ruin. There's no rhyme or reason to the entry way of the Temple House, built in 1929 as a monument to early 20th century Jewish Deco. The Garfield entrance, by intent a service entrance, has become the default gateway--leading one past dark, cavernous memorial arches dedicated to the dead, past a utility closet, a distinctively unsoothing florescent lit stairway, and past two moderately clean bathrooms. I'll leave descriptions of the odor to the imagination. It's a bit like running the gantlet each day.

Turning right, down a hallway toward my office, I see the outside walls of the Social Hall, the largest room on the first floor, and I daily imagine ripping down those walls and replacing them with glass. The room is a constant hub of activity, acoustically intolerable but socially one of the greatest spaces in Park Slope. Tots drop-in center; after-school hang out place for older kids; weekly Weight Watchers meetings; Shabbat celebrations; weddings; brises; holiday kiddushes. The craving we have for transparency demands that those moments be seen by passersby. "Mr. Garfield, tear down this wall!" Across from the Social Hall is the After School office, whose main feature seems to be it's elasticity. It holds more desks and communal servants than any space of its size in New York City. It's a minor miracle.

The Social Hall actually connects to the Library, another abused space, a secret gem of comfort and knowledge, which connects to my study. These three rooms should be a contiguous whole and I pray that one day they will. The spaces lean on one another conceptually and that original intent needs to be restored. My office, afterall, isn't really an office, except if you were to imagine me as the Dean of College Campus (which reminds me of another sense of home: Dean Paul Ginsberg's office in Bascom Hall, Madison, Wisconsin.)

There is a large an ornate Lobby, evoking what our member, the architect Michael Wetstone refers to as Babylonian Deco, which glows when the 8th Avenue doors are open and light pours in. This is the place of entry which the architects intended and I am working toward making that the permanent entry. In the dusty library, one can find bookplates which actually refer the synagogue as the "8th Avenue Temple," an early 1930s attempt at re-branding.

There's a Board Room--dark, forboding, wood-paneled, which has housed the Executive Director for the last twenty years. And then the Office. Painted a blinding blue, made glaringly obvious by the (yellow? green?) florescent lights that hang, by chains, from the ceiling.

The Chapel I orient myself toward from the back--though people enter it from the front-mostly because coming from my office, that's the way I approach it. It is a humbling and peaceful space--also quite dark but its interior seems to have absorbed the spiritual and psychological dreams and aspirations of the last several generations. Its one drawback is the seating--linear, overly rational, crowded pews. They've got to go.

They've got to go.

"There you go again."

Why Ronald Reagan has appeared, ghost-like, in this set of thoughts is beyond me. But for the next few days I intend to explore our synagogue space, floor by floor, and root the thoughts in this tension between exile and home.

It's seven a.m. and Brooklyn is awake.

I gotta go.

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