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Presented to the Laredo Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, on the occasion of their Organizational Meeting.

January 13, 2011


First and most important, congratulations for having formed Laredo’s chapter of AIA. Too often, professional organizations, especially in relatively small locales such as Laredo, are hobbled by rivalries and inappropriate competition. That we compete is an essential ingredient of our creative life. Competition stimulates us to better thought and better action. But it does not define or frame the fruits of our efforts. If any of us comes upon a truly new design, idea, or strategy, that discovery will quickly become a part of universal tradition and practice. Jorge Luis Borges said this of his own poetry. Originality is absorbed by tradition and widespread emulation. So competition should quicken us, not divide us into petty, warring campus.

I, a student of literature and music, find it intimidating to be standing before you architects on this auspicious night. You are, all of you, artists whose work is surely the most noticed, the most widely consumed, of all the visual arts. For you create those uniquely human landscapes: gardens, schools, homes, shopping malls, universities.

It is you who understand perhaps better than anyone the limits of the shallow cry: “Let nature take is course.” The story of humanity is one long resolve to change nature, to interfere, to redirect natural movement, to discover an improved alternative. The book of Genesis tells us that humanity began in a garden planted by God, the first landscape architect. The Bible presents the first humans as awakening, therefore, to an artificial world, one of deliberate design, not an accidental product of indifferent natural events. If God is the first architect, then, you are surely his successors. Architecture is perhaps, then, the oldest profession.

Architecture is art like no other because unlike painting, or sculpture, or music, or dance, all humanity enjoys your created spaces. We don’t go looking for the work of an architect the way we choose to enter a museum or to attend a concert or to purchase a book. Gardens and buildings and avenues and highways become the common experience of all humanity. Every moment of every day, most of us are held within spaces planned for our use by an architect.

Winston Churchill gives voice to the power of your office, the link between experiences—visual and aesthetic—and moral sensibility. “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” The spaces we frequent shape our behavior and our shifting frames of mind, perhaps even our language. Two examples offer interesting contrasts.

First, do our spaces determine the shape of our thoughts and therefore the scope of our language? George Steiner once argued that because they typically inhabit wide and lofty spaces, the wealthy employ language of sweeping and elevated tone; the poor, by contrast, condemned to cramped quarters, tend to express themselves in a less grandiose, expansive manner. Remember dialogue in The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps Steiner is correct.

Second, are students taught by the university setting it, apart from the words and actions of teachers? Over the entrance to one of the oldest lecture halls at Princeton University is inscribed the following: “Here we were taught by men and Gothic towers/Democracy and faith and righteousness/And love of unseen things that do not die.” Men and Gothic towers. The faculty and the buildings.

There are, I know we will agree, limits to these assertions. Despots and monsters have plotted and carried out all manner of atrocities from magnificent belvederes; from dark hovels have emerged saints, artists, athletes, philosophers. But we all search out comfortable and beautiful surroundings as powerful stimuli for serious effort. On a scale unmatched by other artistic expressions, you both define and provide the beauty we seek. Stendahl once wrote that “beauty is the promise of happiness.” It is also true that happiness is to encounter beauty.

Alain de Botton, in his splendid little book The Architecture of Happiness, asserts that an architect’s work approximates that of a priest, conjoining physical and spiritual planes: “To call a work of architecture or design beautiful is to recognise it as a rendition of values critical to our flourishing, a transubstantiation of our individual ideals in a material medium.”

In addition to defining our spaces and molding our sensibilities, your work as architects reflects an essential truth of our origins as a nation: like American society your plans and visions are wonderfully protean, diverse, unamenable to organizing or simplifying constraints. And diversity is often not easy to manage. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, feared that so much variety would prove impossible to manage. “... until men have changed their nature and been completely transformed, I shall refuse to believe in the duration of a government which is called upon to hold together forty different nations covering an area half the size of Europe, to avoid all rivalry, ambition, and struggles between them, and to unite all their independent wills in the accomplishment of common designs.”

Though he was right about many things, de Tocqueville underestimated our ability as a nation both to protect the individual and to mold public order. Like your work in designing buildings and spaces of all stripes, our national design is endlessly diverse. Each generation strives to lay hold of more just policies, better ways of living. Each new design you offer also reaches for new and better detail. If you are our most widely patronized of artists, you follow your craft in a thoroughly American environment of change and mutability.

Finally, I return to architecture and language and an amusing experience I once had with one of you. Your profession tends to recycle and refit words to your artistic ends. Let me offer an example that delighted me to hear. In the Poema de Myo Cid, composed in Spanish in the 12th century, we find the following passage:

Mío Cid Ruy Díaz 	por Burgos entróve.
En su compañía		sesenta pendones;
exien lo veer		mujeres e varones,
burgeses e burgesas	por las finiestras sone,
llorando de los ojos,	tanto había el dolore.

Several years ago, in discussing possible elevations for a possible addition to the student center, one of you made reference to “fenestration.”

Immediately these lines from the Poem of the Cid came to mind, men and women at the window “finiestras.” Fenestration. Planning and using windows. Thank you for your work so fresh, and so deeply planted in our souls.