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Practical Magic

One thing is clear today, as I approach the midpoint of my forty-ninth year in academe: If I were applying for a position today—even the very position that I’ve occupied all these years—I would fail the application-interview-hiring process. Whatever it is that I bring to the academic table, at best, it’s the equivalent of lime jello marshmallow cottage cheese surprise. Little matter that I actually like that stuff.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“A Moral Stain on the Profession” by Daniel Bessner and Michael Brenes) focusses on the job market, the interview process, and the lack of preparation job candidates may have. For me that’s water under the bridge. My dilemma is fundamentally different: the skills I possess are not the skills that are either required or even valued. I’m simply not an academic, a sad realization after a half century of hoping to blend.

Then a curious thought came to me within the last few weeks: In 48.5 years at the podium, one person has asked me to teach them 1) what I know and 2) how I came to know it. The crucial part is the latter. One person. I’ve shared that belief with only one of my colleagues, and didn’t wait for a response, which I can imagine going in one of two directions. Either, “they issued you a podium, not a platform” or “you actually think you know something?” So, as I prepare for the last week of the semester—a last history lecture on Tuesday, and a studio project review on Friday—I’ve decided to use one of those as an opportunity to explain the operational intent of the Agincourt Project, whether they want it or not. It boils down to practical magic.

The Sandra Bullock-Nicole Kidman film, based on Alice Hoffman’s novel, gets mixed reviews. This surprises me, since it ranks high on my personal list of second-rate films, like “The American President” (which I’ve seen fifty times or more) or guilty pleasures like “Dodgeball”. Practical Magic suggested itself for a blog entry here about the actual, measurable, demonstrable, entirely justifiable reasons for continuing to imagine a place that doesn’t exist.

CENTRAL BUT SILENT

I’m supremely grateful that so few of my friends attended one of the two worst public presentations of my life. Without getting into revelatory detail, it was a disaster, one for which I shall bear scars unto death.

The idea grew from a general observation I’d made about the use of famous works of architecture in film, more than to merely reinforce character or an aspect of plot. Consider the gruesome film “Hannibal” when, early in the film, Inspector Pazzi interviews Dr Lechter, who is in disguise as a librarian-archivist in Florence. The fictitious institution is the Capponi Library, which Pazzi approaches, walking diagonally across a piazza toward a colonnaded facade. He climbs a short flight of steps and we see his finger reach for a doorbell. The square is the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata and the facade belongs to Filippo Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital. How many people in the theater realized that? It doesn’t matter. What does is the character of the space and the building and how they establish an appreciation for Lechter’s ability to blend into the highest levels of culture, no matter what the locale.

Another even more obvious example is Hawksmoor, a novel by Peter Ackroyd, which snared me because I so admire the work of English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The book is only vaguely about him, though. There is an 18th century architect (Nicholas Dyer), but there is also a 20th century detective (named Hawksmoor). The former commits ritual murder, that is, sacrifice, at each of the churches he has designed. The latter investigates a series of murders freshly committed at those same churches, 250 years into the future. What fascinated me is that the real architect Hawksmoor designed six churches, yet the fictitious architect Dyer designs seven. I devoured the book in three days and was so enamored of a seventh Hawksmoor church — which does play a crucial role in the book’s culmination — that I dreamt it into existence. I awoke the next morning with such vivid impressions of the building I had seen in the dream that I rushed to school, taped a large piece of tracing paper on a draughting table, and drew it from those memories.

There are, it seemed to me, works of fiction and film which depend on a central character that just happens to me mute and immobile — because they are works of architecture. Consider the house “Robin Hill” which is so central to the relationship between and among three characters in John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. That house is so much more than an architectural commission; its design and construction play so powerful a role in the love triangle that it has virtually become a character, central but silent to the advance of character and plot. Dare I suggest that it had become a “love child”? And the same is true for the house in “Practical Magic”. My point is this: that architecture, its making and consequent place in any community can be essential to the tale being told. Which is just one of several aspects of the Agincourt Project that have maintained my interest.

So this evening I wish for two things: #1) the ability to convey this, for me, reality to a room full of students who could care less about the academic delusions of an aging professor, and #2) the energy to rewrite “Central but Silent” and redeem a shard of my repute.

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