ON PINKNESS: The Pink House and its Secret Spatial Heart

It started as a series of rudimentary sketches and collages: the suburban American house deconstructed, re-imagined as a sequence of subverted facades, splayed out like one of De Chirico’s early cityscapes–“The Melancholy of Departure”, say–in which barrier upon barrier, wall upon wall, has been stretched out and delaminated over time. This was how the first iteration of the Spear House, AKA “Pink House”, at 9325 North Bayshore Drive in Miami Shores, appeared on the cover of Progressive Architecture and made a lasting impression.

Early studies by Rem Koolhaas and Laurinda Spear (daughter of the clients and still an architecture student at Columbia) reduced the program to essentials: palm tree, lush foliage, beach, egg-yoke sun glued to tissue-paper sky in full-blooded, Endless Summer orange and yellow. The house is almost an afterthought, dropped casually between jungle and sea. A masonry facade is perforated by the oddly small rabbit hole, or so it appears, and there’s a staircase and narrowly enclosed “street” that branches off into seven mysterious chambers. The most incongruous features are two highways that extend orthogonally through either end of the facade. This was not just about sun, water and tropical fecundity. It was about expanding horizons and the mythology of drive-through mobility.

A lap pool penetrates the right flank of the house and stretches to infinity. In theory, one could swim (like John Cheever’s heroic swimmer) from the driveway, beneath the house and out to the edge of the bay and beyond. “He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county”, wrote Cheever in his short story “The Swimmer” (1964). Koolhaas is an obsessive swimmer himself. “I swim every day wherever I am”, he said in a recent interview.

Spear and Koolhaas submitted the project to Progressive Architecture’s annual awards program. A four-person jury met in New York to deliberate. They were intrigued but also befuddled. “It’s not the work of an architect”, complained Paul Rudolph, father of many experimental houses himself. “It’s either very great or very, very bad”, said Eberhard Zeidler, not quite sure what to think. “It’s so much at the edge of absolute disaster, yet it has such fantastic poetry”. Ivan Chermayeff found it “undeveloped” as a building, but successful as a “poetic diagram”, as if a “mad poet has stretched it out; taken the drawings and laid them down like a child’s cutouts.”

All agreed that it was urban, enigmatic and conceptually rich, with multiple layers of meaning. Peter Eisenman (Koolhaas’s friend and mentor at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies) praised it for being a “kind of utopistic gesture in the midst of this awful middle-class suburbia”. Even Rudolph acknowledged that it had a certain “surrealistic quality… a kind of power that was inexplicable”. Despite dissension, the Spear-Koolhaas proposal was awarded a first-place citation and featured in the January 1975 issue of the magazine. Meanwhile, back in Miami, clients Harold and Suzanne Spear were getting more and more anxious. They rejected the plan, seeing it more as a philosophical proposition than a place to live and encouraged their daughter to try again.

After completing her studies at Columbia University, Laurinda reworked the plan with newfound partner and husband, Bernardo Fort-Brescia. (By then, Koolhaas had returned to Europe to finish work on Delirious New York, his “retroactive manifesto”, and launch the Office for Modern Architecture [OMA]).

Spear’s renderings for the revised version combine the moody romanticism of Chagall with the hippy innocence of Alicia Bay Laurel’s Living on the Earth. In one drawing, there’s a shooting star and a sliver of moon glowing in the night sky. The house rises out of a cornflower-blue bay, a dreamy scaffolding, planar with square, punched-out openings and backlit screens, as in Kabuki theater. A sleepwalking woman stands by the railing and gazes out to sea. (Is this Spear herself?) There are echoes of Giacometti’s “Palace at 4AM” (1932), but this dream house is inundated by water with a sailboat moored to the banister and steps descending into the bay at either end. A faintly penciled caption below reads: “I will wait for you…”

As built, the Pink House is a progression from water to water, a color-coded conversation between lap pool and Biscayne Bay, setting up a sequence of rhythms, reflections and alternating syncopations, beginning at the 115-foot wide facade and proceeding through other layers and colored foils, from blushing rose on the first wall, to wild flamingo on the second, to a paler, conch-shell pink on the two-story wall of the main house. “The alignment of colored planes seems to evoke the idea of screens to protect the nucleus of some secret spatial heart”, wrote Fulvio Irace, an Italian critic who wrote the first deep analysis of the project (“The Dream of a House”, Domus, January 1981). But where, exactly, does this secret spatial heart hide itself?

There are subtle hints of numerological symmetry throughout. Six square windows in the main house correspond to the six palm trees in the front courtyard. Three panels of translucent glass block are rippled like water and suffused with sea-flecked light. The foundation plinth was not a neo-classical affectation but arose in response to a flood-control law that required the first floor to be eleven feet above grade. The entry staircase leads to an open-air terrace that, in turn, surrounds a narrow sixty-foot-long pool which assumes a central role and confirms the project’s conceptual bias towards wetness.

The first-time visitor can preview this underwater “chamber” through a luminous eye that gazes out from the center of the main facade in cool chlorinated blue. It is round like a porthole or camera lens and is the true metaphysical entry to the house, suggesting other ironic subversions of the American Dream: Cheever’s “quasi-subterranean stream”, David Hockney’s homoerotic pool culture, or Joan Didion’s “subaqueous suspension”. (Both Jay Gatsby and Joe Willis, narrator of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, are found dead, floating in their respective swimming pools). The aquamarine lens is also a peephole for watching unsuspecting swimmers–what Irace refers to cryptically as the “voyeur’s ambiguous game”–a ritual that evokes Miami Beach’s early days of Aquacade ballets and glass-bottomed boats. Morris Lapidus designed an underwater bar at the Eden Roc Hotel with a similar porthole (but much larger) for watching scantily clad mermaids dance in dreamy syncopation.

The house was completed in 1978 at a cost of $277,000. While some of the early responses were negative–“NEIGHBORS SEE RED OVER PINK HOUSE”, ran a headline in the Miami Herald and Councilman Ralph Bowen grumbled something about the color being “inappropriate”–but most reviews were enthusiastic. Besides design journals like Progressive Architecture and Domus, the house quickly rose beyond the insular world of academic architecture and became a pop icon, featured in mainstream publications like the New York Times, Vogue, Time, Newsweek and House Beautiful. It was also a favored location for fashion shoots and TV commercials.

Bruce Weber shot a 10-page spread for the February 1980 issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly (GQ) with male models lounging around pool and terrace. Actor Hart Bochner (Breaking Away) poses in a turquoise cotton sweater (Ron Chereskin, $42), his figure mirrored in the background by a submerged, semi-naked model in goggles, posing on the opposite side of the infamous porthole. There was even a feature in Life magazine–“a study in integrity”–that included the double spread of a bikini-clad woman, faceless and floating on the surface of the pool in an unabashedly erotic pose, her long legs dangling off a rubber raft.

The Pink House embodied a certain moment and mood: European rationalism cross-fertilized with the tropical surrealism of Miami. Everything about the place–the color, the pool, the translucency–seemed to exude a simmering, barely sublimated sexuality. It also represented a crucial turning point for the city at large. Suddenly Miami appeared to have a culture that went beyond retirement plans and palm trees, a culture that was edgy and slightly dangerous, with fast cars, cocaine cowboys, cigarette boats and outrageous architecture.

Pink would be the color associated with Miami. Maybe it had always been that way, with the flamingoes, sunsets and bougainvillea, but now it was ingrained into the very DNA of the place, connoting an environment that was exotic and irreverent in its pinkness, an impression that was reinforced in 1983 when Christo created his “Surrounded Islands” installation for Biscayne Bay: eleven small islands collared with bright pink polypropylene fabric. Some of the islands could be seen–pink to pink–from the terrace of the Spear House. A year later, Miami Vice went on the air and one of the first episodes, staring Bruce Willis as a brutal arms dealer, was shot on location there, setting the tone for things to come.

The Pink House was an auspicious first move, an experiment conceived in collaboration with one of the most influential architects/theorists of the 20th century, further developed and refined over a four-year period, becoming Miami’s most iconic single house while launching its principle authors–Spear and Fort-Brescia–towards successful careers as founding partners in Arquitectonica, a firm that recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary.

• • •

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Dr. King Comes to Stay

It was about this time that Dr. King first came into our lives. My father had been corresponding with him since 1956, and invited him to come preach in the spring of 1959, but King was stabbed in Harlem by a crazed woman wielding a letter opener and couldn’t make it.

I remember the winter of 1960–near the end of January–when King took the train up from Washington DC and my father and I picked him up in the old Peugeot station wagon at the Trenton railroad station. He was traveling on his own and seemed to my 8-year-old imagination surprisingly short and unassuming when he stepped out onto the platform wearing a woolen coat and Homburg hat. I’d heard my father speak of this man and his leadership of the civil rights movement: “For me he is one of the rare prophetic voices in the land,” said my father, but I didn’t really understand what that meant.

We took him to our house on Ivy Lane and I remember the roads were icy and my father drove very slowly because we’d been in an ice-related accident a few days earlier and the back door of the Peugeot was smashed in. My dad had tied the door shut with a piece of twine but it broke and the door flew open as we rounded a traffic circle near the train station. Dr. King reached out and grabbed me so I wouldn’t fall out of the car.

My mother was standing on the front porch, shivering in the cold, smoking one of her filtered cigarettes. She greeted Dr. King and led him up to the guest room at the top of the stairs and made sure he was comfortable and had everything he needed. King was charming and took time to chat about things that my sister and I had interest in. He asked us about school and what books we were reading and what sports we liked to play.

He then took a nap and came down a few hours later to meet the professors, students, civil rights workers and campus leaders of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) who had assembled for the evening in our living room.

Sadie Ray, our cook, was in the kitchen making roast beef, mashed potatoes and string beans, her fingers long and splayed, greasy with Crisco and battered with bread crumbs. It was her standby meal for large groups, but she was already complaining to my mother. Her minister at the First Baptist Church on Green Street had preached a sermon the week before about King being a troublemaker, a “self-loathing Negro”, in his words.

At first, she snubbed Dr. King and refused to serve him dinner. My mother was mortified and didn’t know what to do. She just stood there by the swinging pantry door, aghast. Dr. King soon took things in hand and walked into the kitchen, introduced himself and sat at the round table near the stove, eating Sadie’s delicious food while explaining the civil rights movement and the challenges of the NAACP. It was a one-to-one seminar, while the rest of the guests sat in the chill of the formal dining room, wondering what was going on back there in the kitchen.

Dr. King was the sweetest, most humble guest, a friend, a luminous presence, a beautiful voice, right there in the room with you, making direct eye contact while speaking, shaping rhythms with his words, insisting on helping with the dishes after dinner, the center of attention but deferring to others, possessing an inner warmth and sense of love for the everyday as well as the eternal, a soaring figure for any age, but none of us understood that yet. (Needless to say, Sadie was forever won over).

The next time he came to visit–on April 29, 1962– Reverend King preached in the university chapel in tandem with Dr. Karl Barth, the legendary Swiss theologian. Seventy-five-year-old Barth was the principal author of the “Barmen Declaration” and one of the first public figures in Germany to stand up against Hitler. Because of his Swiss citizenship, Barth managed to escape with his life, but his compatriot Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by Nazi thugs in the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

My father was thrilled to bring these two champions of human dignity, King and Barth, together. King had written his thesis on “Barth’s Conception of God” (1952), but it was the first and only time the two great moral leaders actually met. After the service, they came back to our house and sat side-by-side at the dining-room table, deep in conversation. This time, Sadie was prepared and showered King with love through the food she prepared: deep fried chicken, scalloped potatoes, collard greens, buttermilk biscuits and thick, giblet gravy.

Dr. King was supposed to come back for another visit in 1965, but his schedule didn’t allow it and he wrote an apologetic letter that I recently came across among my father’s papers: “Due to the temper of events in the struggle for racial justice, I have had to adopt a policy spending the next several months working on the grass roots level in various communities to grapple with the problems of discrimination that Negroes still face in our country. It has also become necessary for me to spend much more time conducting non-violent workshops throughout the nation… Please know that I deeply regret my inability to accept your gracious invitation. It is my hope that I will have an opportunity to serve you sometime in the future. Please do not hesitate to call on me. With warm personal regards, I am very sincerely yours, Martin.”

The day he died, three years later, on April 4, 1968, my father was cradling his right hand with his left. Somehow, he’d injured his thumb.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Shot!” He shook his head. “Assassinated! Shot down in cold blood! Just like that.”
He was weeping, turning his face away from the light. That’s what the men on the street must have been talking about. I’d been so preoccupied with my own problems, age 16, that I hadn’t understood the gravity of the situation.
“The bloody fools shot him down, a prophet in his own land.”
And I will never forget the way he spoke those words that evening: “A prophet in his own land”, trembling with emotion.
We all sat in the living room watching the reports coming through the television screen, Walter Cronkite speaking slowly, as if fighting back tears himself, explaining how King had been shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It happened at 7PM and my father was already on the phone making arrangements to get to the funeral.
My mother drove him to the emergency room that same night and after taking x-rays, the doctor told him that he’d broken his thumb and proceeded to wrap it with bandages and a metal splint.
A few days later, he flew to Atlanta and marched at the front of the procession, near Coretta, and spent most of the afternoon with Dr. King Senior who told him about how young Martin had seemed to understand his fate, and sensed that he only had a short time to live.
Later that week, my father returned to Princeton and conducted a memorial service to a packed chapel. He wore a long purple chasuble and I could see the metal splint and bandage when he raised his hand to make the sign of the cross during the Benediction.
“In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost…”

 

This is the sixth in a series of “discoveries” about

my father’s extraordinary life.  See also:

#1 Reconstructing My Father’s Plane Crash, 1936

#2 Comrades of Night: River Kwai, 1943

#3 Landscape & Trauma: Glen Coe

#4 Clynder: Summer of 1939

#5 Transparency: Learning About My Father’s War

 

 

• • •

GAS, I AM A HAPPENER, 1966, East Hampton


GAS-HAPNER Btn.

 

“I think we are in the rats’ alley Where the dead men have lost their bones.”-T.S. Eliot

Someone was barking through a megaphone: “Keep moving … not too fast.. don’t look at the cameras…” and we were told to walk deeper into the sandy pit, slowly, towards a group of people wearing black plastic capes at the bottom of the slope. We wore pink buttons that read: “GAS – I AM A HAPPENER” and blew whistles as we marched downward towards a sandy cliff and stacks of multi-colored oil drums that were pushed from a ledge. Then we were told to roll them back up the slope through the sea of fire-fighting foam. I guess I was too young to pick up on the sexual allusion at the time, but the foam felt oddly comforting as it oozed around my ankles and bubbled up to my waist, making me want to pee in my pants. Mud stuck to the drum which made it all the more difficult to roll it up the slope, but I kept pushing because there were men with movie cameras and I was going to be on TV!

Even though I was only fourteen year old, I sensed a topsy-turvy shift in the mood of the day, an altered state of perception.

What’s easily forgotten today is the pre-digital fizz of untethered space and effervescent spontaneity that bubbled everywhere in the late 1960s, in the street, on campus, in mini busses, geo-domes and communes and even in outer space with Apollo astronauts bouncing through the gray shadows of the moon. It started somewhere in a whorl of swirling lines and color emanating from the source, pulsating, protoplasmic, spiraling outward like one of Jung’s mystic mandalas. Suddenly the air was charged with an ineluctable sense of gathering as in a storm brewing or the threads of a fable being woven around an ancient fire. My first inkling of something different, something unpredictable, came, oddly enough, at the East Hampton Town garbage dump in the Summer of 1966, Summer of the Happening.

****AG in Happening, EH Dump 2

Happening #3: descending through foam, blowing whistles, Garbage Dump, East Hampton, NY, August 6, 1966 (AG in red circle)

 

kaprow_gas_springs

Happening #3, Saturday, August 6, 1966, East Hampton Town Dump

Years later I learned that this wasn’t as spontaneous an event as I had imagined. A New York artist named Allan Kaprow orchestrated this and several other happenings in the Hamptons area, all scripted and produced for a CBS show called “What I Did On My Vacation.”  As defined in the Columbia Encyclopedia, a happening is an “artistic event of a theatrical nature, but usually improvised spontaneously without the framework of a plot.” Kaprow himself had coined the phrase back in 1959 with his ground-breaking “18 Happenings in 6 Parts,” a melange of sensual experiences that verged on street theater and broke from conventional art boundaries. To the younger generation of artists, including Kaprow, Jackson Pollock’s ritual splatterings (as captured on film by Hans Namuth) seemed more important as performance than conventional painting. Noteworthy happenings of the period included Claes Oldenburg’s “Store” (1961); Robert Rauschenberg’s “Map Room II” (1965); Robert Whitman’s “The American Moon” (1960); and Kaprow’s own “Calling” (1965). These early happenings were precursors of the performance art that would come into fashion twenty years later.

17 Yard 1967 in Pasadena_1


The Hamptons were already in the process of change. The old WASP gentry of the Maidstone and Meadowbrook clubs were giving way to a much more flamboyant summer crowd. The first real auger of disruption came on August 31, 1963 when a debutante party for socialite Fernanda Wanamaker Wetherill turned into an all-night bacchanal. Affluent young guests rioted and practically destroyed an ocean-front mansion in Southampton. Windows were smashed, people literally swung from the crystal chandeliers and a grand piano was shoved onto the beach and destroyed. The party, a spontaneous kind of Ur-Happening without any art critics in attendance, made front-page headlines and marked an end to Social Register ways. There were reports of pot parties on the beach and free love in the dunes. Mitty’s, the first discotheque on the East End, opened in Watermill. L’Oursin, a club that featured psychedelic light shows, opened in the North Sea area. Then came the happenings, transforming the quiet summer enclave into a multi-media event.

Locations were scouted beforehand. “Picture that dump yard for cars–the one on the way to Springs,” said Kaprow. “I want to have beautiful little children eating picnic lunches in the cars there… Something unthinkable and strange-and magical!” An announcement was made at East Hampton’s Town Hall, and the organizers ran ads in the East Hampton Star and other papers.

It started on Friday, August 5, with a parade at the Southampton railroad station. People pushed oil drums down the street. Others carried weather balloons inflated with helium. A woman was dressed up as “Miss Liquid Hips” in a silver skating costume with white Courréges boots and a space helmet. She stood atop a homemade hover craft and floated down the street. Kaprow himself was dressed as the “Neutron Kid” in a black plastic poncho and World War I aviator’s helmet, riding his own strangely menacing hovercraft device. It was incredibly loud and threw up gritty clouds of dust and sand.

Neutron Kid, Southampton, NY

Happening #1: Allan Kaprow as “Neutron Kid” driving hovercraft device, Friday, August 5, 1966, Southampton, NY (near RR station)

The flyer for the next afternoon’s events read:

Gas – A Happening
Place: Amagansett Coast Guard Beach
Date: Saturday, August 6, 1966
Time: 2:30-3:30 PM
Procedure: Children and adults may help
release helium balloons, frug on the
beach, help to start plastic skyscraper,
swim.

Two different rock bands were playing simultaneously, but there was a technical glitch and no one could figure out how to get the generators working. One band finally got going and played a strained rendition of the Stone’s “Satisfaction.” Girls in bikinis danced the Frug while giant helium balloons were released into the sky. A skywriting plane flew overhead and spelled out the word “A-R-T” in giant letters. Everything was going according to plan when a red smoke bomb exploded and four skydivers jumped out of an airplane. They were supposed to parachute onto the beach but two of them were blown out to sea and almost drowned. A group of young men paddled out on surfboards and rescued them. For seven-year-old Eric Kuhn  the day started off just like any other. “I didn’t know my first Happening was even happening,” he said. “A magnetic flow of people moved eastward along the shore and I followed them towards this giant black inflatable thing.”

Happening # 6, "Soft Skyscraper," plastic inflatable, Indian Wells Beach, August, 1966

Happening # 2: “Soft Skyscraper,” plastic inflatable, Indian Wells Beach, August, 1966

This, the “soft skyscraper,” was being inflated by four vacuum cleaner engines but it took a long time as the tower waved flaccidly back and forth, and there was much comment and sniggering from the crowd. “The fun is in the struggle,” remarked art critic Harold Rosenberg who happened to be standing nearby. The inflatable finally reached its fully erect position for a few spectacular moments before toppling over and exploding. Then, in a Lord-of-the-Flies moment, it was torn apart by a group of young boys.

***Blk Infltble

On Sunday morning there was a happening at the Shelter Island South Ferry. Kaprow’s idea was to have nurses in white uniforms (recruited from Southampton Hospital) beckoning like sirens from the ferry slip. They pulled a big black curtain across the slip and cars coming off the ferry had to drive through the curtain. The nurses then climbed into hospital beds that were parked in the middle of the road.

***Nurses-Shltr Islnd

Happening # 4: Nurses from Southampton Hospital stand behind black curtain, waiting for the Shelter Island Ferry, Sunday, August 7, 1966

Later that same day another happening, the final act, was staged out at Montauk Point. Fire-fighting foam spilled down the cliffs and onto the beach. I arrived late but made it in time to run through the foam on the beach and say hello to Kaprow who was supervising. This, in many ways, was the most lyrical and painterly of all the happenings and of all Kaprow’s pieces that weekend, felt most like a tribute to Pollock’s spirit: overlapping lips of foam descending and engaging with the  landscape, streaming over the ridges and outcroppings of rock and dirt, the stoney beach, waves rolling ashore, foam meeting foam.

Foam at Montauk Point, Sunday, August 7, 1966

Happening #5: Foam at Montauk Point, Sunday, August 7, 1966

Allan-Kaprow-montauk-bluffsTime magazine later described the Hamptons Happenings as a “combination of artists’ ball, carnival, charade, and a Dadaesque version of the games some people play.” Each event was loosely scripted and open to free-form elements of chance, but at the same time Kaprow’s happenings had to be coordinated within a fairly tight agenda for CBS. (The budget was more than $30,000.) In the end, Kaprow was disappointed by the general lack of spontaneity. “I was looking for more surprises, and everything came out very orderly,” he said.

I wasn’t aware of any of this at the time. To me, the foam and balloons and plastic inflatables were all a kind of fairy dust, a hint of wilder things to come…

****Montauk Foam 66

• • •

TRANSPARENCY, 1960: Learning About My Father’s War

At first, it’s hard to tell what it is, a section of flesh against a canvas backdrop, a limb, oddly posed on a little stool or step, gradually revealing itself to be a man’s leg with tropical ulcers, the calf deformed, bent in the wrong direction, and scarred by pockmarks or perforations, like blackened cavities. The pale foot, almost lost in the light, has been flattened out, splayed, as if crushed by something heavy.

My father was all-thumbs when it came to anything mechanical, so I helped him set up the projector in the back of the living room. I propped it up with a book so that the lens was pointing at the right angle. We set up the retractable “Rocket” movie screen in the far corner of the living room, the same corner where the Christmas tree always went. When he gave me the signal, I would walk around the room and switch off all the lights so that the presentation could begin.

Setting up the machine and showing the slides was something of a ritual, a way to get closer to my father and that part of his life that I barely understood. For me it became a rite of passage: I would take the slides out of the yellow box and hand them to him, one by one, each in its “Ready-Mount” cardboard sleeve, each one numbered. The machine’s cooling fan was so loud that he had to raise his voice to be heard above the whirring noise. He told his war story in simple, elliptical sentences: the battles, wounds and imprisonment boiled down to essential ingredients, stages of a pilgrimage, a kind of 20th Century Pilgrim’s Progress, that led inevitably to the central mission in his life: his ministry, his faithful service to Christ.

The projector had a powerful bulb that sliced through the gloom and made a perfect cone of light. More images flashed by: ghostly apparitions clustered around a pyre, bodies near the edge of a pit, men in loincloths, lined up with vacant faces, humiliated and exhausted, hands tied behind their backs, the stump of a severed arm, a makeshift prosthesis made from bamboo, a hand resting on a bloated belly, hands holding onto shovels or carrying logs to shore up the rail bed. I try to imagine him there, but it fills me with anxiety. Some of the figures are slumped over, dying or already dead, struggling to sit up and put on a smile for the stealthy photographer. Overlapping ridges of stone appear rumpled and folded. Vines and branches fuse into tangled adumbrations. Human limbs metamorphose into aerial pockets of dust. As far as my mother was concerned, these were forbidden images, and she scolded my father for letting me stay and watch, claiming I was far too young. A few months later, she relented and agreed to let me stay up to help him. After all, she had criticized him for not spending more time with me, so at the least, this was a form of father-son bonding.

He had a story for every slide–the soldier who stole a single potato and was hung by his thumbs; three officers who tried to escape, were caught and executed without trial–but there are moments when he loses concentration, pauses to clear his throat, straining, working the mechanism, sometimes fretfully, in an effort to regain whatever stream of thought he had going.

I look back at my father, standing beside the projector, talking to the guests, (grad students, friends, visiting faculty) who’d been invited for dinner, not necessarily suspecting that they’d be watching a slide show about the Railway of Death. They shake their heads in disbelief, look at one another and then look up at him, tall and handsome, wondering how he managed to make it back alive.

The next slide shows a cartoon-like sequence of torture: a man being wrapped in barbed wire, a hose forced down his throat, his stomach pumped full of water, and then he was kicked to death.

How did it make me feel to see these images as an eight-year-old? It was sickening, and in some cases I closed my eyes and refused to look, but it was also how I learned about my father’s war, about his long ordeal and though I often wished he was more like other dads–dads who showed vacation slides of Yosemite and the Jersey shore–I knew that this was what set him apart and made him a heroic figure in many people’s eyes.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but my father was just beginning to form a narrative, finding a way to speak about the unspeakable, while learning to map out his own internal landscape, trying out different voices, different story lines on his dinner guests, and he used the slides as prompts to help him reconstruct the most convincing sequence of events. (Years later, I would learn that several important parts of the story had been left out.) It would be at least another year before he sat down to write his own book about the Kwai River, but the informal slide talks were a formative part of the process.

There were periods when it felt as if I were living among the forbidden images, and they were like sentient beings, phantoms and figures, lost souls, rising from the darkest part of my father’s psyche and sneaking into our peaceful home–the faces of the dead, voiceless and forsaken–haunting my eight-year-old imagination.

I crouch in a corner, patting Fiona, our four-year-old Golden Retriever, and listen to my father’s voice coming from the back of the room, explaining how the darkness serves as a background for the light, a common theme: darkness as background for light, punctuated by relevant passages from the Bible: “Light shall shine out of darkness… The people who walk in darkness will see a great light…”   But who was this man who called himself my father? Sometimes, I looked up in disbelief, and it feels as if I have two fathers: one who is healthy, robust and living in the present; the other who is beaten, almost dead, imprisoned in the past.

More than once he rushes the presentation and forces a slide into the chute before the last one has been properly retrieved. A tiny flange on the aluminum sleeve bends back and causes an irrevocable jam, forcing the slides to sandwich together and produce a bizarre double exposure: a map of Thailand overlaid with a belly distended from beriberi.

The photos are grainy and out of focus, often shot with primitive, handmade devices. Many of the exposures were ruined by jungle humidity, and the images simply dissolved or went completely black.

Being caught with any kind of camera brought severe punishment; often death, and many of the images in my father’s slide show were shot at great personal risk. George Aspinall, a young Australian POW, concealed a folding Kodak 2 camera throughout his period of captivity. He used single strips of X-ray film that he’d stolen from a warehouse in Singapore and learned how to process the negatives himself, in the middle of the night, pouring fixative into bamboo containers, rinsing the negatives in a stream near the camp. (Aspinall’s most iconic photograph shows three human scarecrows standing in front of the medical tent at Shimo Songkurai).

Some possess the density of early glass-plate photographs, an eerie sense of time withheld, the way that light filters through the tiny aperture over a long exposure. Some are so murky and out of focus that it’s impossible to tell what’s taking place within the darker folds and overlapping shades of gray. In one, (“Dysentery Block, Kanya, 1943”), a shadowy black mass pushes forward at an angle, dividing the composition into four equal sections. Towards the left, there are poles, a low fence and a cluster of human figures lying on the ground. Perhaps these are the dysentery patients gathered in their misery, hanging over the open latrines, but it might just as easily be a stack of lumber, or sacks of rice.

In another, also by Aspinall, there’s a platform made from bamboo with a stream running through it, or it might be a raft sinking into the river, and there’s a tangle of human bodies crouching to one side, as in Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, huddling together in a single mass. Are they washing themselves in the river or are they cowering in fear? Another shows the railway cutting at Hellfire Pass and it looks as though the rock embankments have liquefied into molten matter, as if the film’s emulsion of cellulose nitrate had dissolved, the only certainty being the curving metal rails that catch the light as they recede towards a narrow cleavage of light.

When I first saw the man hanging on the wall, I assumed it was my father, and I kept looking for his face among the skeletal figures lifting railroad ties, or among the men waiting to be fed, gaunt-faced armies and their emaciated bodies, ashen, toothless, burdened and dark-eyed in the slow, blurred exposures taken with secret pin-hole cameras. Would I be able to recognize his face among so many others? There was a line of them waiting for their daily ration of rice. One of them had a hairline that receded in such a way that it might have been my dad.

POW slides - EG_0001_NEW copy

I would gaze into the shallow darkness, anticipating a moment of recognition, hoping to find him there, in the middle of a group or in the jungle that loomed around the periphery of the frame, but so many of the photographs had been corrupted by tropical humidity and it was impossible to tell. Would he not stand out for being taller than the others? Would he not emerge from the background as a gaunt and emaciated presence, if only I looked hard enough? Sometimes I imagined that he had only just stepped outside the camera’s frame, but was actually there, only a few feet removed from recognition.

Another showed a group of POWS lowering a railway sleeper into place–it must have been further north, near Takanum–and one of the workers, a figure on the left, wearing only a hat and loincloth, had the same shoulders as my father, but he was turned away from the camera at such an angle, and it was impossible to see any facial features.

Then there were the drawings, the hurried charcoal sketches and ink renderings scratched onto paper with a bamboo nib. These were as disturbing as the photographs, maybe even worse. Drawing was strictly forbidden in the camps, so the renderings were done in haste and then, just as quickly, concealed. Philip Meninsky was caught doing a caricature of a Japanese officer at Tarsau and beaten senseless, close to death. It was an act of resistance, and perhaps it was the fear, the sense of defiance, that made the images so urgent and, in some ways, closer to reality than the photographs. Unnecessary details–facial features, fingers and hair–were left out, and this made for a raw kind of expressionism made up of bold gestures and elementary forms.

Jack Chalker sketched a pack of fifty men crammed inside a salt car, all shadow and overlapping forms, except for a single beam of slanting light. The drawings of Lt. John Mennie, a former bombardier in the Royal Field Artillery, were starkly metaphysical: elongated figures walking through battered landscapes with lightly rendered, almost ethereal, backgrounds. Leo Rawlings, who my father knew at Chungkai, drew the railway viaduct at Wampo with a burnt stick, in deep chiaroscuro. He managed to capture the complexity of the crisscrossing timbers, the improbable geometries, the turn of track, the semi-vertical baulks stacked in seven tiers, curving and diminishing in perspective, shrinking in size as they receded into the distance, not an easy effect to achieve with nothing but a burnt stick. (Rawlings hid his artwork in an old milk tin that he kept buried behind the latrines. Mennie rolled his artwork into a bamboo walking stick.)

The artists improvised with whatever materials they could find. Brushes were made from bamboo and human hair, colors from wild flowers and onion skins. Pigments were ground down and bound with rice water. Charles Thrale mixed his reds from boiled roots and lipstick. Rawlings made his browns out of blood and clay, his greens from crushed leaves, his blacks from boot polish mixed with ash.

At some point, after my ninth birthday, I learned how to load the slides myself, remembering to drop them into the holder backwards and upside down, not fully understanding how the imagery was reversed–quite mysteriously–by an internal alignment of mirrors. I pushed the mechanical arm into the side of a box-shaped apparatus–to the sound of soft alloy dragging against hardened steel–and it caught a crimped notch on the sleeve, pulling the slide through a slot into the body of the machine, sometimes requiring a jiggle of the red plastic knob or a gentle push to force it through.

Gradually, I became quite an accomplished operator, better than my father, and he allowed me do run the machine myself, which gave him more freedom to concentrate on his talks. He would give me a nod, meaning that I was supposed to advance the next slide and adjust the lens so that each image came into focus. At one point he bought a special attachment, a kind of multi-slotted magazine that allowed us to load as many as twenty slides at a time and project them without interruption. I became quite obsessed with the machine, the powerful AO-300 slide projector, manufactured in Chelsea, Massachusetts, with its gray, non-chip finish. I read the instruction manual and learned how to clean all the parts with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol. “The Model AO-300 provides the rugged construction, uniform illumination and superior blower-cooled operation for which American Optical projectors are justly famous,” read the manual. I wanted to understand how it worked, so I unscrewed the side panel and drew a cut-away rendering of the inner workings–all the wires, switches, mirrors, lenses–as accurately as I could manage.

While operating the projector, I observed how the light was more compressed after it came out of the lens and how it widened and began to dissipate as it reached further across the darkened room. Flecks of dust were caught in the celestial cone of light and they were swept upwards by drafts of air. It was all about the angle of light, luminous precision, the focus, reading through the penumbra, forcing oneself to look without distraction, to stare into the tumescent gloom, into the deepest part of the shadow, the umbra, and continue looking until you found the thing or the person you were searching for.

I wondered if the dust was everywhere, or only isolated within the tapered channel of light and multiplied there, as if breeding. Did the light curve around the darkness, or did the darkness give shape to the light? I imagined a luminous world in which humans were specks of dust caught in the cone of light for a moment before drifting into the infinite abyss.

“God is light and in him is no darkness,” said my father who concluded his talk with the image of a jungle altar and a message about how God came into the camps towards the end of captivity and brought a spirit of self-sacrifice and compassion that flourished among his comrades. “Suffering no longer locked us up in the prison house of self-pity,” he said, standing in front of the projector. “It brought us into what Albert Schweitzer calls the ‘fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain.'” Then, I would switch off the projector and turn all of the room lights on again. The show was over.

The POW images still haunt me today, more than fifty years after the fact. Shortly after my mother died, I helped my father move into a smaller house and that was when I rediscovered the 35mm slides. They were in a brown box marked “POW Lecture”, almost exactly as I remembered them. It would take another week before I could bring myself to look through them, one by one, in an old-fashioned Bell & Howell viewfinder, confirming the fact that they were real enough, not just the exaggeration of a young boy’s macabre imagination.

•  •  •

 

 

This is the fifth in a series of “discoveries” about

my father’s extraordinary life.  See also:

#1 Reconstructing My Father’s Plane Crash, 1936

#2 Comrades of Night: River Kwai, 1943

#3 Landscape & Trauma: Glen Coe

#4 Clynder: Summer of 1939

 

 

 

LOST WORLDS (In the American Jungle with Mark Dion)

“Gardens are philosophy made concrete”.
– Mark Dion

Karl Ove Knausgraard, chain-smoking, angst-ridden Norwegian author, recently announced that “the physical world is gone”, and he has a point. So much has been lost to Google and flat-screened placelessness that we can hardly estimate the damage to our personal geographies. Knausgraard himself fought oblivion by writing a 3,600-page novel that recreated his own physical world in Proustian, sometimes crushing detail.

 

Mark Dion, artist, has conjured up his own incantations for the physical through a lifetime of rummaging, collecting, cataloguing, exploring, traveling, and digging through dead people’s attics and archives. He assembles, arranges and exploits that same materiality to reach a kind of equilibrium in which of all periods of history (including the future) converge and press down on a self-conscious present.


“Gardens are philosophy made concrete,” said Dion, who was recently invited to create an installation at the Kampong, a botanical garden in Coconut Grove, Florida, that was the former home to botanist and plant explorer David Fairchild. Fairchild is an heroic American figure, co-creator of the Everglades National Park and founder of the Seed and Plant Introduction Section for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As such, he was responsible for bringing more than 58,000 species into the country. He also helped to define the city of Miami as much as any developer, architect or urban planner ever did, and it’s impossible to understand the genie of the place without understanding Fairchild’s vision, a vision that is fully manifest in the gardens and workshops of the Kampong.

In his books–Exploring for Plants (1930); The World was My Garden (1938); the World Grows Around my Door (1947); etc.–Fairchild comes across as a Zelig-type visionary and latter-day Johnny Apple Seed, who goes everywhere, meets everyone, travels the globe to gather rare specimens with Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy bachelor, imports mango trees from Trinidad, tung seeds from China, alfalfa from Peru, shaddock seeds from Iran, raisin grapes from Italy, sausage tree seeds from Egypt.
In 1905, he marries Marian, daughter of Alexander Graham Bell. They hang out with Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers as they take their first manned flights in North Carolina. In 1916, he buys the Kampong and converts the seven-acre property into a family home and experimental laboratory, and plants many of the species that he gathered during his travels. His seven-acre garden flourishes and expands to nine acres as Fairchild claims this part of south Florida as the only true jungle in North America.


His refuge through all of this was an old building made from oolitic limestone that lies on the south side of the property. In 1923, he converted it into an office and laboratory and surrounded himself with plant samples, books, maps, horticultural charts, and this was where he documented, cross-fertilized, photographed, and wrote about his subject with increasing passion. Dion’s brief was to reconstruct the interior of the lab in a way that Fairchild might have left it if he’d walked out one day and never returned. The work is part historical reconstruction, part 18th-century Kunstkammer, part poetic exegesis. Working with scanty evidence, a small collection of original documents, and one or two grainy photographs, the artist assembled a roomful of artifacts, arranging books and objects on shelves and table tops with old botanical prints, maps and typewritten notes pinned to a cork board, specimen jars, tweezers, pencils, plant presses and drying racks, seed pods lying in enameled trays, rubber stamps, drafting and measuring tools, an encyclopedic litany of material culture culled from the first half of the 20th Century.


At times, one feels suspended between artifice and authenticity, but that seems to be the realm that Dion chooses to inhabit, the ultimate bespectacled amateur–archeologist, entomologist, ornithologist, paleontologist–armed with pith helmet, butterfly net and fine-arts degree, surfing a thin line between museology, botany and installation art. It’s a liminal realm he’s explored in both his personal life and art, whether in collaboration with other artists and scientists, in museum installations, or in his founding vision for Mildred’s Lane, the hundred-acre farm in rural Pennsylvania that continues to serve as experimental Petri dish for artists, dreamers and students, a place where the accidental and natural often converge.

While many of the prevailing assumptions about the natural world have, since Fairchild’s time, been dismissed as leading to environmental catastrophe, Dion’s Kampong installation is not a platform for critical analysis or condemnation. There are allegories and clues throughout, and intricately composed vignettes that might be read as fragmentary narratives within an art historical context, however arbitrary they might be in the positioning and overlapping of textures, colors, volumes. Rusting awls, hammers, snips and knives are hung from a custom-made tool rack, fetishized like a Beuys installation, as is a cluster of mason jars filled with organic specimens suspended in clear liquid. A still-life grouping of stoneware jugs summons forth Morandi, while below that, a collection of wooden boxes has been stacked and clustered like a Cubist relief with a red Savarin Coffee can as the only moment of pure color and reminder of Johns’ “Painted Bronze” (1960) that also featured a red Savarin can. This may be reading too recklessly, but the point is made that Dion’s practice is as much a selective exercise as any form of studio art.

The internal artifice leads inevitably out to the riotous tangle of the Kampong’s grounds–Fairchild’s true laboratory–nine acres under the “big-finned palm, the green vine angering for life”, the Royal and Talipot, Sagisi and Pejibaye, the bright orange fruit of the Arikury palm (from Brazil); jackfruit, heliconias, mango trees and cycads laced and interwoven with bell-shaped figs creeping up the walls of the main house, ant trees, rubber trees, succulents with frazzled white threads, Soursop, the flamboyante from Madagascar, a swelling baobab from Tanzania, the Ashok or so-called “sorrowless tree” from Southeast Asia, and carpets of tiny flowers leading down to the saltwater inlet now filling in with thickets of mangrove and stalked by a somnambulant iguana.


A giant banyan (Ficus benghalensis) hangs over the main entry with veils of shaggy air roots, threads, shoots, buds, and all of these plants and vibrant colors, these “green sides and gold sides of green sides” can be seen within the context of Fairchild’s greater legacy: a museum of living matter, indexed and catalogued despite the apparent wildness.
While Dion never lays hands on the exterior landscape, his reclamation and reconstruction of Fairchild’s second-floor laboratory serves as a kind of lens through which to view, re-frame and re-experience the living thing itself, the garden of forking paths and “slovenly wilderness” while shedding light on the very culture of exploration and selection that Fairchild helped to invent.

Quotations in italics are borrowed from Wallace Stevens’ “Nomad Exquisite”, 1923.

All photographs by Alastair Gordon.

FIRST CONTACT

“Well, as I say, the first contact the Japs made was Ernest Gordon and he got shot up.”

– Captain Bal Hendry

*EG Singapore copy

The bedroom is small with barely enough room for a queen-sized bed, a chest of drawers and a chair, but my father seems happy, looking over the luminous waters of Gardiner’s Bay. The name that got us started was Titikarangan. I was startled. While his short-term memory continued to disintegrate, his long-term memory seemed to be getting stronger, and now this odd-sounding name arose from the depths of his subconscious like a magic incantation: Titikarangan. I had never heard of it before, but he said it with absolute conviction. I Googled it and even though my spelling was wrong, the name popped up on a map of modern-day Malaysia, a real enough town in Kedah Province, just to the south of Merbau Pulas.

*EG, Port Dickson, Malaya copy*EG & ? , SIngapore? copy

The battle started early on the morning of December 17, 1941, only ten days after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were dressed in native turbans, wide-brimmed hats and sarongs and were moving out from the rubber trees and onto the road, as if they might be Malay workers taking flight from the Japanese advance. Everyone was fooled. Lt. Bremmer cried out: “hold fire,” in a loud enough voice for everyone, including the Japanese, to hear, revealing ‘A’ Company’s position and thereby losing the advantage of surprise. (It was the Argylls first encounter with the enemy).

Map of Titi-Karangan copy

There was a brief moment of hesitation when my father had to remind himself not to run or hide, but the moment passed and he felt a relative sense of calm, considering the fact that live rounds were now buzzing past his head, shredding leaves on the tulip trees. He was fine. The fear was only in his mouth, dry and metallic.

The first wave went down, wounded or dead, or playing dead. Then came another wave, ignoring the crossfire of the Bren guns. “They came crawling through the monsoon drains and crawled into the Lalang grass,” said my father who now realized that the Japanese weren’t the soft targets they’d been ridiculed as being in the Straits Colony press, with buckteeth and bad eyesight. They were fearless and fast, all too eager to run straight up the hill, bearing their chests to the fire, falling willy-nilly.

bren_132 copy

My father got up and shuffled into the bathroom for a pee, but was now sitting in bed again, clear-eyed and remarkably lucid. (Could it have something to do with his Parkinson’s medication?) He told me about the battle with a breathless urgency that I’d never heard before, almost as if he needed to get it off his chest. He began to sketch a map on the back of an envelope with a wavering line for the Karangan River, a double line for the bridge and another, straighter line for the road that ran south through Serai and Terap. (He drew “X’s” to represent each squad, “O’s” for machine gun placements and “M’s” for mortar positions).

The enemy troops were bunched up together, confused and unsure of where to move next and they made easy targets in the cross fire. “We killed more than two hundred during the first assault,” said my father, leaning to one side, while I handed him a mug of tea. The official history puts it closer to a hundred, but it was surprising to me that after all these years of being a Servant of Christ, he was still proud of the number that had been slaughtered that morning.

EG Pass Book, Malaya copy Now my father could see them scattering, rolling down the escarpment toward the river. They didn’t mind getting killed and they continued to run quite recklessly into the barrage coming from the other flank. There was a brief lull and then another wave came up the hill, even faster this time, making a flanking move to the north. That was their strategy: the deep circling move. The Argylls killed another thirty but that didn’t stop them and my father worried that his men might be cut off and have to fight their way back to Serai or be forced to surrender.

The ones who’d been in the vanguard were already down but more kept coming, heads down, carrying Type-92 machine guns, trying to set them up with their clumsy tripod legs, but those men were also shot, and then another squad moved in to take their places and managed to maneuver themselves into a better position. My father was convinced that this was the vanguard of the encircling movement and he felt the urge to move up, laterally, towards the enemy and cut them off before they could gain further ground. One of the Japanese snipers climbed a tree and started firing at an angle across ‘A’ Company’s position. My father signaled L. Cpl Gray and two others to move back behind the sniper which they did but the sniper shot Gray and turned to shoot the others but somehow got his feet tangled in the branches of the tree and Pvt. McEwan was able to shoot him from the other side. (He promptly fell to the ground, dead).

That was about when my father stood up, all six-foot-three of him, and started running, waving two of the jocks–Pte. Logan and Pte. Gibson, he thinks–to follow him as he raced along a narrow footpath that traversed the ridge. (I imagine how he ran that day, with his loping gait, as if he were back on the rugby pitch at St. Andrews, slightly dazed and out of breath, not wanting to fuck up).

All he felt was a ping and numbness in his hand, then a damp red circle blooming on his shirt. “I seem to have been hit,” he said to Sgt. Skinner in the most nonchalant way. Then he couldn’t catch his breath because one of his lungs had been punctured by a 7.7 mm round from an Arisaka machine gun. (The bullet also penetrated the deltoid muscle and shattered part of the scapula and clavicle). His heart stopped, missed a number of beats and started again, rapidly this time and out of rhythm, and that was when he passed out, both knees buckling, his large frame tumbling through space. Was there a second explosion near his feet, or something inside his head unspooling, some neurological fail-safe that created the impression of extracorporeal suspension when, in fact, he was simply dying, going from brightly sparking networks of thought to nothing, apa-apa, as the native Malays called it? Two of the jocks dragged his body around the back of the Cengal tree and that was where he lay for what seemed like hours.

He could see how their legs were bowed out like cartoons and a part of him was still running towards the high point, as if his other body, his wounded body, were still in forward motion after he’d fallen, as if he could still engage and withdraw and recapture the ridge. Was he hallucinating or were there decisions still to be made? Could he fall back to the river, through the kampong and rendezvous with ‘C’ Company with their armored cars on the road to Serai at No. 14 milestone, or to Captain Bardwell of ‘B’ Company who was holding the narrow bridge with three-inch mortars?

Argylls-in-Malaya-1942 copy

He was vaguely aware of black branches on the tree overhead, and he was aware of warring factions within his own nervous system, adjusting to the shock, sending out contrary signals–prepping for death?–and he imagined a network of bifurcating nerve ends, skipjacks and wireworms. He should have seen them coming, re-routing and bypassing the damaged tissue, but he faded in and out and there was an incandescent burst near his head and then another to the west. He could see cassia, stunted palms, ancient mossy angsana around the blurred periphery of his vision. Were those birds or were they bullets? He couldn’t be sure.

Something flies in and away… 

He’s dead and someone is coming towards him. There’s no golden stairway or white light, but there’s an oddly pleasant sense of release, of running up Whim Hill behind Aunt Jean’s house, and a ghostly figure standing by the oily tarn off Roxburgh Street where the boys broke bottles. He thinks he hears a woman singing somewhere near the slit trench, a woman’s voice coming from the very heart of the battle, while a slanting part of his consciousness is telling him to wake up and take command.

His soul, or whatever had been flapping its wings outside his body, was suddenly back inside his body and he could move his hands again. He tasted cordite in the air and the sweet nectar of ginger blossom, of being alive, and slipped back into his damaged corpus, suddenly aware of the fact that he was lying in a shallow depression behind the Cengal tree.

The advance was beaten back and the hill was retaken.

Cpl. Boyd of the medical corps sprinkled sulfa into my father’s wound and applied a field dressing. This being Boyd’s first combat casualty, he may have over-injected the morphine, and my father remembers vomiting, tripping on the morphine and experiencing an expanded sense of the infinite, while assuming, once again, that he was being left to die.

WW2Malaya1stManchesterIWM

The battle was over in less than two hours and the Japanese faded back into the swamps of Perak Province. The Argylls, after calling off their plan for a counter-attack, fell back to Kupang.

Padre Beattie, regimental chaplain saw blood pooling around my father’s neck and assumed he was gone. “Dear Lord, embrace this your servant…” They took him to a dressing station at Terap where he was revived and given a blood transfusion. Two days later he was transferred to Kuala Lumpur and then, during the endless train ride south to Singapore, he began to wonder about the voice that sang to him on the battlefield, just after being shot. There was something familiar about it. (His mother, Sarah, was an opera singer).

As a child, I’d always seen something numinous in the outline of my father’s war wound. It looked like a vaccination mark, but bigger, a circle of crinkled skin, about the size of a quarter. It was his badge of courage, and during the summer, when he went around the beach house shirtless, he would let me touch the damaged tissue with my finger and trace the trajectory of the bullet as it went in and came out the opposite side. The scar was the only tangible connection I had to his war, a one-inch-diameter portal to his past. By touching it, I felt a connection to his pain and suffering.

okinawaleafletJap copy

But my father never spoke about the battle. He never wrote about it, not did he bring it up in his lectures or sermons. I never knew that he was one of the first to be wounded and knocked out of action. I wasn’t so much disappointed as I was surprised because I’d carried impressions since childhood of ongoing battle in jungle conditions with retreat and counter attack over a period of many weeks, even months. But that wasn’t the way it happened. As Bal Hendry, his best friend and succeeding commander of ‘A’ Company, said: “The first contact the Japs made was Ernest Gordon and he got shot up,” stating the facts as they occurred.

We were done for the day. My father turned over to take a nap and ended up sleeping for the rest of the afternoon. I picked up the lunch tray and carried it into the kitchen. It had been a good start. Some door had flipped opened and I wanted more. A few days later, he had a visitor, a woman in her seventies, sniffing around, now that my mother was gone. I didn’t disturb them and let her talk about the old days, but after she left I showed him the book I had bought on amazon.com.

“It says here that your commanding officer yelled at you for getting wounded,” I told him. It was a freshly published history of the Malayan Campaign and as soon as it arrived in the mail, I flipped to the index and found twenty-seven references to “Gordon, Capt. E.”, but it was the passage on page 53 that grabbed my attention: “The wounded Tiny Gordon, a very big man, was assisted back,” I read out loud while my father climbed back into bed, trying to suppress his irritation.

“‘Stewart approached him,'” I continued to read, “‘and according to some accounts Gordon, far from receiving any congratulations for ‘A’ Company’s efforts, was fiercely and very publicly reprimanded…'”

“Nonsense!” cried my father, interrupting, but I ignored him and kept going: “‘…reprimanded for allowing himself to be wounded so early in the battle. A year of jungle training wasted!'”

“Is that true? Were you reprimanded?”

“No! Stewart came around to see me,” he said. “He was concerned.”

“Why would anyone write that if it weren’t true?”

“How should I know? I never received a scolding from Ian Stewart. He only expressed sympathy for my wound.”

According to the author of the book, it was David Wilson, another captain in the Argylls, who’d been the source of the “well-known” story. But why was Wilson telling tales at such a late date? Colonel Stewart didn’t mention anything about it in the official account of the Malayan Campaign that he published in 1947: “About 10.45 hours Captain Gordon, Company Commander, was wounded and Captain Hendry took over.” That was all. He didn’t say anything about reprimanding my father, nor did he criticize any of the actions that he’d taken as commander of ‘A’ Company. Perhaps Stewart was frustrated that he’d lost one of his best officers so early in the campaign. I could understand that and perhaps he said something to my father in a scolding but friendly way: Och, did you really have to go and get yourself shot so early in the day? Something like that which might have been overheard and misinterpreted by one of the men?

Singapore_Volunteer_Force_training_November_1941 copy

After some research, I learned that Captain Wilson hadn’t been anywhere near the battlefield that day. He was 400 miles to the south, at Fort Canning, safely eating breakfast with General Haig’s staff, so why would the author cite him as a reliable witness when he wasn’t even on the scene and probably only heard about the incident second hand, if indeed there had been such an incident in the first place? (Was Wilson harboring resentment against a fellow officer? Had he been passed over in some way?) I wanted to believe my father’s version, but I also felt that there must have been some vestige of truth to the story. Had he screwed up somehow? Disobeyed orders? Shown hesitation or cowardice? I don’t know. I prefer not to think about it. If anything, it made him more existential and human, less of the heroic action figure. I felt ambivalence mixed with curiosity, torn between wanting to stand up for my father, while remaining detached. (Now I understood why he never spoke about the battle. It was complicated.) And anyway,  almost everyone involved was dead so I would probably never know the truth.

EG, Jan. 1942 copy 2

The photograph was taken early in 1942 against a darkly mottled backdrop at the Imperial Studios on Jervois Road, and it’s signed in the lower right corner: “Best Wishes, Ernest, 21/1/42”, January 21, 1942. On that same afternoon, five RAF Hurricanes were shot down over Queenstown, so there’s an understandable degree of urgency in the eyes, intense but distracted. Yamashita’s 25th Army had reached the Johor defensive line, and the city was under constant bombardment. The morning heat caught the smell of rotting flesh and spread it across the entire harbor area. There were three corpses and a dead horse lying in a ditch near Keppel Road. Mitsubishi bombers were coming in from the east, dropping anti-personnel grenades that exploded overhead and sent deadly shards of metal into the streets.

While everything outside the camera’s frame was chaos, inside the frame he’d conjured up the impression of calm, measured calm, looking straight into the lens, eyes wide open, very awake, alert. It’s amazing to me that he had the time and temerity to walk into a studio on Jervois Road and have his photo taken when, all around, the skies were crashing down. Only five weeks earlier, almost to the day, he’d been shot through the shoulder, but now he wanted to send proof home of his robust state of health. He looks shorn, his hair cropped on the sides but rising over his forehead in dark, glistening waves. He’s lost quite a bit of bulk after three weeks in hospital–the morphine made him sick–which only accentuates his square jaw-line and forehead, yet the lips lie gently across the face, soft and shapely, almost feminine. This would be the last photograph he sent to his parents before the fall of Singapore. They wouldn’t hear from him for another three and a half years.

 

 

This is the fifth in a series of ‘discoveries’ about my father’s life.  See also:

#1 Reconstructing My Father’s Plane Crash, 1936

#2 Comrades of Night: River Kwai, 1943

#3 Landscape and Trauma: Glen Coe, 1945

#4 Aloft: Pre-War Summer, 1939

 

REFLECTION MACHINE Jean Nouvel Does Miami

160229 - Monad Terrace - VUW - Lagoon Sunset - Low ResThe image is post-apocalyptical, foreshadowing an uncertain future yet, somehow, utopian and hopeful. It appears to be the end of the day, the end of a season, the end of an era, with the sun setting wildly over the skyline of downtown Miami. In fact, it’s a rendering for a new condominium project on Miami Beach. But the rendering goes beyond mere real estate promotion and verges on something more ambitious as renowned architect Jean Nouvel and his partners at the JDS Development Group offer up a more visionary and flood-resilient alternative to Miami’s standard pie-in-the-sky condo tower. But how does a single architect make an impact when it comes to pressing matters like climate change, failing infrastructure and income disparity? It’s impossible to make a real difference without the support of a responsible government body. Without it, the individual designer can only hope to set the moral tone on a smaller scale.

The enlightened architect can offer new visions and allegories, even if they are only small parts of an evolving narrative — what might be deemed “urban poetics.” But sometimes the urban geographer is obliged to dig deeper and reveal the prevailing threads of invention, no matter how arbitrary they may seem on first impression. Such is the case with Herzog De Meuron’s highly porous design for Pérez Art Museum Miami, which allows for a 10-foot hurricane surge to pass underneath the museum. Norman Foster’s Faena House condo, finished in late 2015, rests on a “plinth” of reflective water and black concrete walls, while Renzo Piano’s Eighty Seven Park in North Beach now under construction will be surrounded by a continuous ring of water when it opens in 2017. In each case, the future possibility of a sunken city, a New Atlantis, is inferred, however obliquely. Nouvel’s project takes the trope a step further and includes a man-made “lagoon” at its very core, almost as if a wedge of the Everglades had been lifted up and transplanted to the shores of Biscayne Bay. It is not a chlorinated pool but a naturally filtered environment that hosts an array of lush vegetation — imagine Henri Rousseau’s post-Impressionist jungles — with giant ferns, sea grape, spider plants, yaupon, mondo grass, palms and palmettos sprouting all about the lagoon.

“My ‘personal vision’ comes from the very needs of communities, the climate, the history and the culture of a city or of a neighborhood,” said Nouvel in an exclusive interview this week. “All these elements belong to a specific context. This context guides all the decisions I took in Miami as it guides all the projects I build.”

%22The Andes of Ecuador%22 Frederic Edwin Church, 1855

Nouvel’s romantic renderings evoke a sense of the sublime and remind me of a painting by Frederic Edwin Church’s called The Andes of Ecuador (1855). A solar haze animates the outcroppings and craggy heights, the palm trees, a lake and waterfall with moody luminosity, as if all of nature were awaiting the moment of final awakening. Nouvel’s version has the same quality of diffused sunlight and heightened expectation. Buildings are placed peripherally on the site, as if only temporarily there, protected by veils of metal-mesh screening that create a shimmering, multi-layered effect.

While he has made earlier proposals here, this is Nouvel’s first project to be built in Miami. He now joins the pantheon of design gods — Zaha Hadid, Herzog & De Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry — who have bestowed their Pritzker-Prize genius on this subtropical paradise, a metropolis that suffers chronic Attention Deficit Disorder in its furtive search for new and operable identities. Nouvel managed to change the face of Paris with paradigm-shifting projects like the Arab World Institute, the Foundation Cartier, the Musée du quai Branly and the recently completed Philharmonic Hall. While not as flamboyant or prolific as some of his peers, Nouvel brings to each new project a zealous imagination and passion for discovery. There may not be a single signature move or logo that instantly identifies his work, but each resonates with a meticulous attention to detail and sense of materiality that suggests patience and even — that rarest of virtues in today’s disposable skyline —craftsmanship. Nouvel prides himself on responding to the specifics of a site and, in a sense, starting from scratch every time. No two buildings are alike.

When the Arab World Institute opened in 1987, it signaled a new kind of modernism, one that was alive with kinetic energy, apertures that opened and closed, changing configurations that were intimately responsive to light and weather. Cutting-edge technology merged with ancient forms of poetry and pattern making, and the e4839d983ec329aa5299e38973aae77bproject made Nouvel famous. He won the prestigious Aga Kahn Award for Architecture in 1989 and continued to explore the margins of science and metaphor in projects like the Golden Angel (Zlatý Anděl) in Prague, the Doha Tower in Qatar, the Torre Agbar skyscraper in Barcelona, and One New Change in London. His recently completed 100 Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan features a glass-curtain facade of 1,650 panes set at different angles to create what Nouvel refers to as a “vision machine.”

Monad Terrace Site Plan 2
On South Beach, 13 small private lots off of West Avenue were pulled together to create a single elongated site that runs east to west. A prior developer proposed a fairly massive, 150-foot-high condo block on the site that was never approved. In Nouvel’s design, mass has been broken down into two narrow structures. One is 14 stories high, the other only seven stories — mere slivers compared to some of the neighboring towers — containing 54 condo units in all. The towers are slightly cranked and open to the bay, in contrast to the seemingly counter-intuitive trend of maxing out building lots with monolithic facades that block views and cast broad shadows across the beach. (Such is the case with the Surf Club Four Seasons at 90th & Collins, a project designed by Richard Meier and Kobi Karp that seems grossly out of scale with its Surfside neighborhood).

The outer walls of the Nouvel structures are staggered and overlapping like metallic shields but translucent and perforated — more like a sieve — giving their the double-skinned membranes a hovering, ephemeral quality. The two-story-high lobby will be transparent; for passersby on West Avenue, it will appear as an open garden landscape from curbside to bay with uninterrupted sight lines through lobby, past lagoon and narrow swimming pool, and across the bay.

Moand Terrace Reflection Machine, AJN
In the renderings produced in Nouvel’s Paris studio, plants such as jade vine, Spanish moss and tillandsia hang down from rooftop terraces, helping to minimize solar heat while adding all the more to a sense of future ruin and dystopian precognition (think WIlliam Gibson, think Philip K. Dick.) Outer facades will be buffered by vertical gardens supported by stainless steel mesh for shade and privacy. A public-access pathway will traverse the south side of the property and connect West Avenue to Baywalk, a public promenade that remains incomplete.

Monad Terrace Lagoon, Detail “The site proportions were very elongated in the east-west direction,” explained Nouvel. “We chose to arrange the project on the periphery of the property in order to free the center of the site and allow all to experience the best views.”

The neighborhood along West Avenue is Ground Zero for sea-level rise and the city’s costly attempts to mitigate future flooding with raised streets, pumping stations, bizarre hillocks and sunken sidewalks, in what appears to be an urban-scale version of Miami-style plastic surgery. “We are working to accommodate the water rise through the landscape and the lagoon itself,” said Nouvel. “We also are working with the new road elevations along West Avenue.” An underground parking area has been built in what developer Michael Stern calls a concrete bathtub with a flood-proof lid.

30-lede-jeanNouvel

Parts are broken down and tapered towards infinity. In fact, the entire complex acts as a kind of giant infinity pool — Nouvel calls it a “reflection machine” — with its softly feathered edges, vanishing points, wavering lines of sight and other mirage-like effects. The architecture is sponge-like, open and inviting to the waters of Biscayne Bay and the fleckless Miami sky. The architect appears to be seeking a unity of purpose and compromise between future and past, an imaginary realm of wild sunsets, mating manatees and tangled mangrove roots before the coming of Flagler, Fisher or the Kardashians: a 70,720- square-foot slice of Eden, rebooted.

The Monad Terrace proposal was enthusiastically approved by Miami Beach’s Design Review Board. The DRB cited it as a model for future waterfront development. One board member even expressed interest in living there when it was completed.

A version of this story appeared in the Miami Herald on May 13, 2016.