(in)visible: revelation


March 2013


"Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon."

- Jorge Luis Borges, "The Wall and the Books", from Other Inquisitions


Call me old-fashioned, if you will, but I still yearn for the slow and patient exchange of experience that comes from listening to those who've gathered understanding with time, on the way.

Afflicted with the cancer that would take his life away, a few years later, Rogelio Salmonareturned to the classrooms he had voluntarily left decades ago, to focus on his design practice. Beyond the hassles of those who struggle to position their research programs, he had achieved a level of recognition for his work that transcended categories, and with it, he had certainly raised his status to a sense of ineffable wisdom. Destiny brought me to these, his last lectures.

Instead of the conventional lessons we were used to receive, based on the transmission of strategies and analytical descriptions of an architect's work, Salmona mesmerized us with poems and annotations on the work of García Márquez and Octavio Paz that described what was really important for him, always concerned with the most essential levels of architectural thinking and doing. Apollinaire, and his evocation of ruins (I've already used this quote, here) fed his theoretical digressions on the elements of a profession that should transcend time and place, into the realm of something close to spirituality.

Overcoming the evident pain that struck him, he managed to show up for a couple of weeks in our master's program, and one day, out of the blue, he told us the most beautiful story, which I'll forever treasure, and will try to share with you, however summarized and unfairly impoverished by my own limitations.

Salmona worked in Le Corbusier's office for close to a decade, in the 1950s. During this time, he literally escaped his chores for long periods of time to pursue his true interests: the sociology of art, under Pierre Francastel, based on the study of the Romanic architecture of the Middle Ages; and our (Latin American) indebtedness to Muslim and other Eastern architectures, transmitted to us through the palimpsest of the Moorish colonization of Spain, for more than eight centuries.

His story was fantastic - as in full of fantasy, far from the plainness of truth. He talked about several attempts to cross the gap between continents, across the Mediterranean, into the fascinating Maghreb. But his trials always met some impediment. However, an arcane character was always present, every time he wanted to cross the sea and failed.

"One good day" - he said - "I was trying to embark myself again, maybe in some port in Italy, and suddenly, the same, strange man appeared in front of me. Perhaps considering I was ready, he invited me to travel." The young architect hopped on a boat, and almost immediately found himself on the Northern coasts of Africa. After delighting himself with sights of cities older than our memory, made of mud courtyards woven into the most intricate patterns, he was taken to the desert, where he would confront, for the first time, revelation.

Led by his guide, he dove into the depths of the unknown, surrounded by a troupe of mute bedouins - only their eyes were visible. For hours, atop a camel, he experienced the shift from the objective world, where our senses are able to distinguish and differentiate figure and form, into the nothingness of the silent womb that is the desert: sand flying everywhere, diluting the horizon in an even and homogeneous universe, yellow or brown or grey, where limits disappear.

"I was scared," - he almost whispered, having us captive under the spell of his words - "feeling totally lost. And then, my host, the only person in the world that would talk to me, simply spurred his camel and faded into the blurred panorama in front of us. Left behind with these human statues, I felt terribly lonely. But then, after a few minutes, I saw again the shadow of this man, kneeling on the floor, in some kind of religious invocation."

The cryptic rider had descended from his saddle, and had found, in the middle of nowhere, under the sand, a revelation. It was a flower - the most beautiful of flowers! - born with the dew of dawn, and meant to die with the burning midday sun. Ephemeral, it was meant to be found by the nomad who, trained in the arts of the numerological understanding of the universe provided by the kabbalah, could realize its true meaning.

"This is architecture" - he told us, conclusively. "The world is there, always. But it remains fundamentally invisible to us, to everyone. Only through a particular knowledge, operating on very precise procedures, we can see for ourselves what is in front of us, and show others what they are confronted with, in a truer, deeper sense. My architecture, everything I've done so far, has been made with this intention. We live beside the mountains, but it is only until someone frames them in a beautiful way that we realize their gorgeousness, the miracle they are. This is what I learned."

Rogelio Salmona - Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez



Jorge Mejia Hernandez