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Madeleine Moments

What does it mean to know a thing “by heart”? Childhood songs, the steps in a favorite recipe, the road home — we encode these in our memories through sheer repetition but also by their attendant emotions: comfort and joy, anger or sorrow. We asked five writers to describe a building, place, or object that evokes a powerful association and how it might inform their lives and work. Proust would understand.

Read an excerpt from Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past.

Small Craft Advisory

by Keith Moskow FAIA

I was just out of architecture school when I first saw the canoe hanging in the old American Craft Museum on 53rd Street in New York. It was constructed of a wooden skeletal body and a translucent skin, and it hung above you so you could see through it. There was nothing special about the museum space — the room might even have had a dropped acoustical tile ceiling — but the canoe had a luminous quality, like a Japanese lantern. That transparency, that glow, is a strong theme for me and all of us at our firm. We often look for ways to incorporate that into our work.

The canoe brought back memories of the wilderness trips I had taken as a boy in Northern Ontario. The base camp, situated in North Bay, served as an outfitting station for extended trips into the wilderness, some as long as seven weeks. The trip locations were on remote rivers and boundary waters. Often, the only other people you would encounter were Native Americans, known in Canada as First Nations. The canoes were wood and canvas and often needed to be repaired; tumplines for portaging were leather; tents, canvas. I took these trips for only three summers, but very influential ones.

I thought at one point that I was going to be a boat builder. I liked working with my hands and putting things together. I took a semester off from school and set up a shop in my folks’ garage and built Carolina Dories. I had carpentry experience from summer jobs. Boat building was quite a bit more challenging — and rewarding. But it’s a solitary pursuit, and I realized I wanted something more interactive. Still, building boats taught me about the tectonics of curvilinear forms.

Seeing that canoe struck a chord with my experience. Knowing the complexity and the difficulty of building these wooden boats was one thing, but then it had that glow. It was elevated to an art form in that second reading, like a Picasso skeleton of a fish, or a structure by Santiago Calatrava — his bridges of what appear to be big, bleached white bones.

In a well-designed, well-crafted wood and canvas canoe, every piece is critical. No piece is superfluous. The structure itself becomes a beauty. Sitting in a wood and canvas canoe you see the ribs, you see the thwarts, you see what’s created it. It’s the reduction to that structure and materiality that makes it quite wonderful.

The Architecture of Time

by Anita Diamant

Milestone is an old word, as solid as a pillar marking distances along an old post road. In contemporary use, the meaning is temporal; a milestone is a significant event, the beginning or end of a stage in life — the stuff of memory.

I was married in the sanctuary of Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley — the same place my baby daughter was named, became bat mitzvah at 13, and graduated from the temple high school program. It is the only place she can imagine her own wedding.

I’ve been in that room for 30 years’ worth of holiday observances. I’ve wept at the funerals of friends there. I laughed and sung and studied there. On occasion, I’ve sat alone and savored an unusual but comfortable silence.

According to the fire marshal, 240 people are permitted in the sanctuary at any given time, but there is no legal limit on the number of memories. Sometimes when I walk in, I feel embraced by the past; other times, ambushed.

This has nothing to do with the temple’s architecture, which is unassuming, even artless. Beth El was built in 1970 by a local prefab construction company at a cost of $135,000. The sanctuary’s best feature is the vaulted ceiling, 25 feet at its peak, made of bare wooden planks stained a dark walnut color. It looks like an inverted boat and makes me think of Noah’s ark, which landed well. I remember someone looking up and making the imaginative leap to another biblical vessel: the waterproof basket that floated baby Moses down the Nile.

The west-facing windows look out on a meditation garden dedicated to remembrance; inside the names of our dead are etched on panes of frosted glass the size of business cards and displayed in a white wooden lattice near the altar, the bimah.

The custom of placing stones on a loved one’s grave is reprised within the grid by a supply of polished black pebbles. I place one beside my father’s name on the anniversary of his death and whenever I want to draw closer to his memory. A few spaces above, my friend’s infant son is memorialized, his untimely death a family tragedy that becomes fungible and communal in the company of this congregation.

The word “remember” appears 169 times in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. For Jews, the methodology of remembering is ritual, which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described as “the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.” Passover rehearses the story of Exodus to make that memory personal in every generation. The annual tributes to loved ones gone recall entire lifetimes.

The sanctuary is redolent with sense memory; the smell of warming casseroles, the taste of a hundred thousand bagels, the press of handshakes and hugs, the echoes of spontaneous harmonies, the afterglow of smiles from my groom, my daughter, my father, and 240-plus faces who remember me.

Unearthing the Future

by Dan Hisel AIA

Moss-green scales cover the back and sides of the fearsome beast, and white armor plates protect his belly. He has short, powerful legs; a long tail; and regal wings that extend back from his shoulders. Red nostrils flare with warning. But it’s the terrifying, fiery red eyes that hold you under his spell. The eyes, and the deep scar on his upper lip. The scar is my fault. I think my shovel hit him in the face before I knew he was there.

It was a blistering summer day in the humid hills of central Kentucky when I first did battle with the dragon. At the time, I didn’t know what I was up against. It turned out to be nothing less than a talisman of fate — a companion to guide me through my life of becoming an architect.

I was down in a ditch, wielding a shovel. I was 16, maybe 17. The ground was being stubborn. The sweat was getting in my eyes. I was frustrated. And thirsty. What the hell am I doing here? I should be at the pool! But no, my old man had dragged me out of bed at some ungodly hour, shoved a pair of boots at me, and taken me to work on one of his construction crews. As my shovel flailed at the unyielding earth, something bright green and white appeared from the clods. Hmmm. What could this be?

I really didn’t want to be there, digging footers (as we called them). Had I known I would end up as an architect, I might have been able to see past the oppressive conditions of the moment to the larger lessons about soil-bearing capacity, or some such thing. But my dad was an architect, with a design/build company. Still is, actually. So I might have been in a rebellious state of mind. But then the little green dragon emerged out of the ground, and now he sits here on my desk, laughing at me, as if to say “See, everything relates. Everything ties together.”

Sometimes the right things in life just rise out of the ground and stay with you whether you choose them or not. You find them, wonder about them for a while, and then (sometimes) put them to use. This toy rubber dragon reminds me that things I heartily detested then would become the very things I would spend the rest of my life doing.

Sixteen years later I was down in a ditch again, digging the footings for the Cadyville Sauna in upstate New York, a small structure I built mostly by myself on a cliff above the Saranac River. And it started with footings. No drawings, no plans, just an incredible site and a vague idea. As I think about it now, the beneficent green dragon had come back to me, to breathe fire into that little hot room and steam up the glass.

All We Know of Heaven

by Max Page

Apologies to architects: Memory often does not demand a designer, other than the individual mind. The most powerful sites of personal memory are often the anonymous places made full of meaning by an individual. Such is the case with one of the more forgettable corners in an unforgettable town.

On your way to see the Emily Dickinson Homestead, where the poet once drew for inspiration on her own “old Grounds of memory,” you would be forgiven for walking right by the dusty northwest corner of the Amherst town common, next to an ill-conceived parking lot bitten out of the grassy rectangle, otherwise nobly framed by the buildings of Amherst College on one end and the Richardsonian town hall at the other.

But for me, looking down at this ragged edge of the Amherst town common is like peering into a Technicolor well, rippling with my own past.

It was in 1966 that the Amherst Common Peace Vigil began, running on Sundays from noon to 1:00 pm without fail into the early 1970s, making it one of the longest-running protests against the Vietnam War. The tradition has waxed and waned, but to this day, our own version of Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner draws antiwar protestors to make their plea to passing motorists and pedestrians.

I see myself there, on my father’s shoulders, as he strolled back and forth, smiling, with a pipe in his mouth, no doubt. The image I have is from across the street, so it may be a memory constructed from family stories, and those black-and-white photographs stuck into the fat albums that line my childhood home. Memory is no “sacred Closet” as Emily called it (all of us from Amherst are on a first-name basis with the poet), where memory is a solid object that rests unchanging, if gathering dust. Memory is more like the “reverential Broom” she mused about, whisking words and images, sounds and smells together to construct an emotion-filled scene.

My memory of sitting atop my father’s shoulders —  the shoulders that are now a visibly old 89 years of age — is not something that has resonated forever, with a consistent, kryptonite glow. No, this memory site has waxed in power, as my father has declined and as my own activism has grown. This memory gives me both my father back — at the height of his full, ebullient life — and a foundation for my own political efforts today.

I was told a few years back that the town had placed a memorial plaque in the ground. But I could never find it, until one day I saw it, covered in dusty dirt. It seemed a shame, like no one cared to keep the plaque clean. But now it strikes me that this is as innovative a memorial as I could imagine: It is visible only if there are people, marching and protesting, kicking up dirt and awakening outrage, reminding us why we find ourselves at this very spot, still working to heal a broken world.

My Back Pages

by Susan Trausch

The pull of the sea, the woods, and the wild places with no bricks or steel is timeless and sets me free. Nature invites me in, a guest, to stay as long as the light holds. But there are certain buildings where the draw is even stronger, precisely because they are locked in time. We share history that melds brick, steel, and soul, and will never let me go. Nor would I want it to.

Standing on St. Stephen Street in Boston, looking up at the gray stone apartment house that passersby barely notice, I feel the pulse quicken in anticipation of encountering a younger self. Surely she lives there still, that 25-year-old Ohio girl with the waist-long hair and second-hand guitar. She’s starting a new life in the fifth floor studio with the bay windows and noisy, unreliable steam heat. She’s typing a freelance newspaper article on an electric typewriter set on a borrowed desk. She’ll have Kraft macaroni and cheese mixed with hotdogs for dinner, and then sit in a yellow beanbag chair to read under the Woolworth’s pole lamp. The beans will crunch as she turns the pages.

I want to go in and ring her buzzer, but reality would snap the spell. I stay suspended between 1970 and the present, listening to the Huntington Avenue trolleys clanging just as they have for so many years.

At a Weymouth gym in a space with all the charm of an airplane hangar, it’s the commanding smack of tennis balls meeting strings that holds me willing prisoner to memory. I stand at the lobby window looking out on the courts and feel the racquet, the sweat, and the way frustration replaces exhilaration in seconds. I squint at the far court. Yes, it’s my husband and I, playing against the killer couple. We run flat out, come to shoe-squealing stops, and slam the ball for winners. It is 1990, and we believe knees last forever.

I do water aerobics now and visit a chiropractor in the gym’s physical therapy area. But I cannot pass the lobby window without playing at least one long point.

I live in a house that is 20 minutes from the gym and holds 25 years of memories. It doesn’t make me ache quite so much for the past because change has come slowly here, day by day. But the tiny rooms, low ceilings, and Harvest Gold kitchen can trigger a kind of nostalgia in reverse, an ache for the day when the gray-shingled ranch will belong to someone else — someone who could easily tear it down and replace it with a monument to modern tastes.

I see myself coming back to haunt whatever is there and maybe getting up enough nerve to ring the doorbell. The vision is a reminder to open the eyes wider and treasure my Formica, to always embrace now before it turns into then.