First published in French and English in Juan Muñoz, The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Chicago/Center d´Art Contemporain, Genève
André Friedmann tells of how during an archaeological expedition to the Peruvian highlands, he found “in a village called Zurite, a building of uncertain origins and unknown precedent… genuine source of that utter enigma we call space.” The details surrounding the building’s construction were told to him by some Peruvian peasants through a series of interviews. Friedmann intended to publish a transcription of these conversations until his sudden death in a helicopter accident left the exploration of this building’s significance incomplete.
May these notes be the payment of a debt incurred in time and a sign of friendship, or rather a certain proximity, as for years we shared identical balconies on opposite sides of the same street.
In the Peruvian highlands one encounters a village called Zurite. Situated at an altitude of 3,391 meters, it has 3,402 inhabitants. The disparity between these two numbers prevents this normal village from becoming a perfect simile. Located on the Western slope of the Vilcabamba mountain range, it is next to a tributary of the Apurimac river. Cereals, quinoa, coca, and potatoes. Alpacas and vicunas.
Once a year, every year, and with a distance that borders on disdain, the inhabitants burn a house that they had erected shortly before at the side of the village plaza. The “posa” of Zurite, as they call this building, is constructed of long sticks, thin logs and ropes.
The posa is not of any particular design. Two walls of ordinary size slope to form a roof. On each side there is a door-like opening: an entrance and an exit used indiscriminately. There exists, perhaps, a formal peculiarity in that it completely lacks any wall covering. The vertical posts are joined to lateral crossbeams, which in turn, link smaller ones. A support structure exists. What it does not have is a brushwood covering or a roof of any kind. Just a framework. Although the inhabitants of the village define it as a house, the posa seems more like the drawing of a house.
Any one of the peasants from the village, without apparent reason, enters the building. He stays for a few seconds or for several minutes. Standing. Quiet. Motionless. After this time, he goes out. A few hours later or the next day, another passerby will, in turn, linger in it for a moment or an hour. Meanwhile, the rest of Zurite’s inhabitants appear indifferent and go about their business without paying the least attention to him, even when they are but a few meters away from the posa.
The surprising thing about its construction is not the absence of functionality, but rather that its pure transparency rules out the idea of this room as shelter and lodging.
In the interviews that Friedmann conducted, the Peruvian peasants described, with absolute but paradoxical clarity, the emotions that they felt while inside it. The explanation of this experience should not be read merely for its poetic significance; neither should it be for its religious value, despite the similarity that A.Valente grants it, when he describes it as “an experience whose ultimate content is the void, inasmuch as it is negation of all content, which is opposed to the transparent state in which mystic experience is made possible.” To clarify this response would be, on the one hand, in vain and, on the other, superfluous.
“What do you feel when you are inside?”
“It’s like being in a dark room. That’s it, standing still in a dark room”.
About living on a Balcony
Stylistically, this slight structure is above all simple. The two walls supporting each other at their highest point form an isosceles triangle with the plane of the ground as its base. Its length is approximately four meters and its height is six. It is sufficienty spacious for two men to pass each other of for three, or even four, to stand motionless. More than a house, it resembles the image of a house.
It is a construction whose forms, “appear to be ‘without evolution,’ they simply are, as if they always were. Therefore they shun linguistic gestures. They are silent.” Let this quotation of V. Scully serve to indicate that the formal appearance of the posa duplicates —with the same detail and mystery of a mirror— the life that goes on in its interior. This room is neither majestic nor hieratic. It holds only the certainty that in it, no one will shatter a long silence.
Once inside, the passerby remains within those four meters. He may look forward or out of the corner of his eye but, in truth, while inside he will not talk. It is this state of silence that protects “this absolute enigma.” The passerby, in his silence, will guard the secret of the silences that have already inhabited it.
Nevertheless, a question lingers like dust in the air after the passing of a parade. Is this place of juncture and gathering also a dwelling, a home? It cannot possibly be only a monument, a symbolic structure disguised as a house. One could infer that the momentary occupation of this uncertain passageway does not make it a dwelling. It is also true that if the Peruvian peasant had wanted to imagine a disquieting shape or a geometrically intricate box in which to perform a ceremony, he would not have chosen the image of the outline of a house, of any house, of an empty house.
In “Totality and Infinity,” E. Lévinas affirms that a dwelling, “the chosen house… is completely contrary to a root. It indicates the nomadic condition that has made it possible.” It confirms that the essential character of a house is not to take root but rather, it is that nomadic condition “that makes living possible,” as Francesco Dal Co suggests. Here the passerby is not merely a window-shopper whiling away the time. Much to the contrary, upon entering the posa, the Peruvian peasant restores the dignity of being in a place where nothing happens to him and where nothing occurs.
If on the plaza in Zurite time passes over the peasant lingering inside this construction, and the occasional relief of a breeze announces this passage of time, and if nothing happens to the passerby who stays there, it is also certain that he is inhabiting this spatiality. This is the same way that one inhabits a balcony, where everything is suspended and nothing is decided. A man leaning on the railing of a balcony, abandoned to the perennial dusk, is enveloped by a spatiality that is a determined physical condition but also by the conditions that constitute this condition. That is how the balcony, beyond being a mere place, is also a room. Also in this way, the figure who poses in this place of absolute transit inhabits it while he is there.
The Peruvian peasant, standing still and silent in the center of the posa, attentive, without future because nothing awaits him, gropes for his true center. As he enters, he knows that when he walks out of the door, everything will remain the same. Nothing will have been solved with unsuspected ease or by collusion with fate.
Crossroad. Place of transit. Space inscribed in its own exile. Interval. The elusive space that this house occupies summarizes and extends that other space to which Sartre once referred: “The original space that reveals itself to me is furrowed with paths and roads.” The posa is not a dwelling where the traveller from far away stops to rest. Here the peasant of Zurite pauses in the midst of two actions in order to inhabit a moment of suspension. A point tangential to all roads because they meet there, this building allows its immobile occupant to be in a space of comings and goings. A center where distances cross each other. When in this place, inside this dwelling, if two or more inhabitants of the pueblo meet, neither speaks to the other. No one comes here out of curiosity, nor to listen to the drone of an insect. In this building nothing is expected, no one waits for anyone, all that happens is the conjugation of the mysteries of intersecting paths.
Geoffrey Scott, possibly speaking as Berenson’s student, tried to summarize the specific values of all constructions. Scott used to say that upon entering a church and confronting a long perspective of columns from the back of the nave, the space itself suggested a forward movement towards the altar: “Because a movement without purpose, that does not lead to a culminating point, contradicts our impulses, it is not human.” But also for the Peruvian peasant, each road is a trajectory toward something. It is in that direction and because of that relation that it is a road. The approximate two meters at the center of the posa suspend the directionality of the paths that cross it. In the small area occupied by this house there is no finality. There is no offertory, only another road.
If it had been a sacred space instead of one without incident, the posa would resemble the rambling interior of an Arab mosque or the centrifugal force of a Byzantine space moreso than the theatrical curves and folds of the Baroque.
Crossroad. Place of transit. Space inscribed in its own exile. House/Interval. Place that is negation of movement and at the save time generator of pathways.
About the Peasant´s Voice
The voice that rises from the interviews by André Friedmann is clear and concise: “The posa is from before. It is the first house that our ancestors built in Zurite. For this reason, each year we use pieces of wood that come from our houses, which in turn came from the first one, like a seed.” In answer to the question of why they remove some pieces of wood before destroying the posa, Friedmann relates that “they reuse this wood to construct walls or floors different from those they removed it from.” Wood comes and goes. Whence it comes and where it goes is of no importance to the Peruvian peasant, provided that it is useful to him in his backward march toward “the first house”.
“Once a year, every year, we construct the posa. Always in the same year, we destroy it.” The inhabitants of Zurite apply this unwritten law with absolute precision. The tradition says nothing about whether the house should stand for one or for three-hundred-sixty-five days.
Each year “we build it to one side of the square.” It is always constructed off the center of the square, without ever specifying whether on its right or its left side. Two walls terminating in a two-sloped roof, even halfway constructed, are immediately recognized as a house. When Friedmann interviewed some of the posa’s builders, they told him the rules were passed down from parents to children, generation after generation. No one could explain why they destroyed it each year nor why it had to be secured to “one side of the square.”
“The posa… is the first house.”
The first grotto. The first cave, the first hut, the first house, the first place built for habitation. There are more versions of how and why the first house was constructed that historians who subscribe to each of these theories. For B. Fletcher, the house originated solely as protection against inclement weather. For Milizia, it comes from an imitation of nature. For Rykwert, it is determined by necessity. From Vitruvius’s rustic to Chamber’s primitive cabin (both indicate the conical form as easiest to build), arguments about the appearance of the first house are systematically and indistinctly formulated according to the same classifications: climate, materials, shelter. For all of them, the origin is simple, humble, and above all stems from the necessity of hiding from the outside.
In its transparency, the posa offers itself disdainfully to climatic changes. Its materials are the result of a partly forgotten parable rather than to the material requirements of the surrounding reality. Its function as shelter is alien to its being a threshhold. In fact, the posa appears to be related to Etienne-Louis Boullée’s hypothesis, which as a qualitative jump echoing the division Alberti establishes between concept and execution, asserts that the first humans did not construct their dwellings “until they conceived an image of them.”
In his essay “Der Stil,” Gottfried Semper (who revels in the glory of being Schinkel’s friend) speculates that “the beginnings of construction coincide with those of woven materials.” It would then be possible to affirm that, tied together with rope, the sticks and logs of the posa are the image of this first division of space invented by man: “the enclosure made of woven and tied sticks.”
Only the great French historian André Leroi-Gourhan tried to see another possibility. Leroi-Gourhan argued that the first constructions and their precise circumstances, which have survived to this day, were parallel to and contemporary with the appearance of the first rhythmic markings. If successive points, alternating lines and symbolic signs were painted on cave walls —forms giving shape to mystery— then the same symbolic nature should have been carried from the cave into the first constructed dwelling.
The addition of possible archaeological certainties would justify the supposition (perhaps Leroi-Gourhan would be in complete disagreement) that: in the first houses necessity was secondary to symbolic will; rhythmic markings shaped the inside and outside appearance of the first dwelling; the braided wall (perhaps here Semper would be in complete disagreement), before becoming a wall, was a totality of knots. Origin of the labyrinth. There even exists a hierarchical order, however paradoxical it may seem, of ornament over structure. Before being a shelter, the house was a sign. Before being a dwelling, it was an interminable trickle of allegories and a lodging of the symbol. Beyond this swarm of uncertainties, it is possible to risk with unswerving conviction that “the firs house,” which the Peruvian peasant seeks to reconstitute in the posa, is constructed year after year as a means of alluding to something distinct from it.
About Other Ephemeral Houses
“Once a year we build the posa and always in would same year we destroy it.”
Here is another quotation with a different origin but equally as precise: “The width of our churches will range from seven to eight meters. The proper proportion between their length and height will be maintained in accordance with this measurement.” Beyond the moderation and humbleness of its intentions, this description on the Carmelite church, written in 1581 by Saint John of the Cross with Saint Theresa’s supervision, is surprising for the exactness of its measurements. The fervent devotion of Saint Theresa, reflected in the simplicity and austerity of the convent of her mendicant order, would have been disturbed as she looked out from her expected place in heaven oven the temporary church that the city of Valladolid built in honor of her canonization. In his 1615 account of ephemeral buildings, Rios Hevia writes that the Carmelites chose to found a new church for such celebrations, as they had none in the center of the city. “Taking over a street from wall to wall,” a new wooden church was erected and several days later “it was taken apart with curious skill.” Oddly, the width of the street was thirty-six feet, almost eight meters. This product of chance and order reached the height of its rhetoric in the facade. This was repeated on the reverse of the facade in such a way that, upon leaving the church, the faithful faced another facade identical to the one they saws as they came in.
Bonet Correa relates how 18th-century houses were covered with false facades. Like triumphal arches or ephemeral obelisks, they remained with the house “three, four, five, or even six days.” With the exception of the Porta Nuova of Palermo or the Arco de Santa Maria de Burgos, which turned out to be permanent works, these edifices were by and large destroyed a few days after they had been erected.
The temporality of certain constructions is a symbol that varies according to historical time and geographical territory. The age of classic Japanese buildings is determined by the number of times that the parts have been substituted. Many are the coincidences and parallels that one encounters while looking for antecedents to the posa. In the course of the last thousand years, the well known temple of Ise Shinto has been dismantled every twenty years to be replaced by an identical replica.
Of all of them, one could say that they are continuously perishing houses. As time goes by, their only permanence lies in their description.
The posa borders upon the mosaic of possibilities that adorn the Carmelite church, while it distances itself from baroque adornment or from examples of continuous renovation. Closer to its intentions are the values that African and Oceanic tribes bestow on their statues. For example, in her article “Absent Meaning: Death and the Resurrection of the Objective Value,” Susan Kuechler recounts that as Western museums and collectors acquired carved pieces and other ritual artifacts from the New Ireland tribes in Oceania, the range of forms available to reproduce was progressively reduced. She recounts how only certain members of the tribe, those who have acquired a new piece and then destroyed it, have the right to continue to reproduce it. This right is suspended as long as the object is still in existence. For the posas’s builders as well, form and its destruction are also cyclical.
“Each year we use… wood that comes from our houses… like a seed.”
How can one order the fragments that form and at the same time designate the posa? Each log is not merely an element of intersection between the surface of a wall and the point at which a wall ends. Each strip of wood has been, and will be, an exploded shape. Once the pretext for this structure no longer exists, the building itself will have to disappear. But in fact, it is impossible to destroy that which has already been dissolved.
Each one of its planks comes from many other, earlier structures. Each log will be a corner, a volume, or a point of intersection, whereas before it had been, perhaps, a railing or a wall.
It is but just one of many paradoxes that questions the nature of this room that it cannot be completely destroyed but rather only reinstituted. As the new building is set on fire each year, its appearance will come to an end, but not its reason for being. As its cyclical function is completed, the flicker of its forms terminate, but not the interminable circularity of the laws that governed it. The destruction of its formal order is a dynamic reaction because the elements that constitute it as a construction were once processes of disintegration and eventually will be recomposed after its dispersal into a new fractional geometry.
The fragile weave of pieces of wood appears to suggest the unpredictability of any intention of permanence. Nevertheless, this doubt is reiterated annually. The peasant follows a tradition of carrying from one house to another several planks that he says are seeds. But nothing in his voice indicates what appearance the posa will take, nor in which place those planks are to germinate.
How can one establish that the posa always has had the same appearance? Is it not possible that it once used to be circular, or, just two scarce groups of stakes located several meters from one another? A passageway or a mere entrance? The alley to oblivion runs parallel to the annual will to remember. In time, having turned into the sketch of a house, the posa illuminates its historic sense while at the same time signaling the impossibility of permanence. The annual rhythmic interruption of its duration is also an affirmation of the permanence of tradition.
From “the first house… like a seed.” But when the seeds have had a part in son many stylistic and constructive changes, from the pre-Columbian epoch to the present, how did the second posa look? And the fifth? Couldn’t this humble construction also be a gesture, repeated year after year, that stems from the need to remember a story, and from the suspicion of having forgotten it?
The Peruvian builders annually situate the posa in an undifferentiated, but not indifferent, space outside the plaza —to the side, the side of its urban condition. Nothing is exact in its positioning and yet at the same time nothing is completely arbitrary. Tradition dictates that the posa should be placed away from, although not too distant from, the place that it occupied the previous year. Some place by the side of the plaza. That is all.
This almost entirely translucent, almost transparent house does not have a hall or a waiting room. It has no corridor since it is, in its entirety, a threshold. It has no windows because no space lies beneath where these windows should be. It hides nothing and conceals no one. It is startling because it embodies the mystery of perfect symmetries. By entering it, the space is bifurcated. Two new possibilities surge that did not exist before: the entrance is an exit and at the same time a mirror-like double.
One might add that a fundamental conquest of this dwelling is the excessiveness of its placement. The posa is constructed next to and therefore outside of the plaza of Zurite, yet it is still within the center of urban activity. This is so in order to better articulate its extraterritoriality and to underline its distance from the plaza. If, as Heidegger says, only “that which is itself a place can concede space,” reminding us that “the things that by their position concede space we call buildings,” then it is possible that the posa is just a place occupied by something transitory, that before and after this duration, this building is an accurate demonstration of the “boundless impotence of shelters masquerading as homes”, to which Massimo Cacciari alludes.
Before the Autonomous Image I
An archipelago of symbols, this house spends the night alone. It lives as swiftly as the aperture that produces the photograph that now, at the end of the afternoon, justifies it. A lateral portrait. Nothing here is sepia. Tumultuous matter of time. Suddenly disappeared. Nothing is nostalgia here.
Before the Autonomous Image II
The posa is barely a few sticks chosen by chance and without exact measurement. A few unmeasured sticks chosen by chance serve to conjugate a space absorbed in itself. A place almost chosen by chance where, for a moment, all beliefs are suspended. Nevertheless, also, a place where a man dwells and where time does not run backwards and the floor is swept mercilessly.
About the Autonomous Image
The peasants who appear to be moving away from edge of the photograph are possibly the destroyers of the posa, or maybe its builders. The suspicion arises that, like those that inhabit the novels of Flaubert or Tolstoy, these peasants are characters who will never recognize the stories in which they are protagonists. Novalis used to say that “the poet does not do, but permits that it be done.” Octavio Paz would respond: “Who then is the one that does?”. But when the inhabitant of Zurite stands still in the interior of the posa, nothing happens to him. If he does nothing then who is the doer?
The Peruvian peasant must know that upon entering this dwelling he carries the act of dwelling to its extreme. At some point, even with different words, he must truly intuit that when he occupies this dwelling he places himself in the very center of space itself, in order to affirm from this space and with this space an experience that an inhabited space cannot accommodate: that of the void. When he stops beyond this threshold, he must know that there is no vanishing point nor vantage point. And if that other place from which to focus does not exist here, how is it possible to distinguish the one who sees from what is seen?
Once again, a man crosses the plaza. He goes toward the posa. He enters. He stops a moment inside it. He leaves. Walks away. This house, this room remains empty. Perhaps it preserves the absence of the former presence. The hours go by. Perhaps another peasant walks through. Someone must be near, but who it might be is not discernible. The posa offers itself as the center of attention. In its transparent interior, without apparent reason, the absence of a human presence prolongs itself. In its interior, this place accommodates the tension between the suspension of the human presence and its possible appearance. Between its leaving and its possible return.
Let us permit ourselves for one last time an image. The image of a peasant who walks around the plaza. Hands in pockets. He walks through the door of the prosa. He stops. He stays still for a moment. Maybe he takes his hands out of his pockets. His fingers are long. He leaves by the opposite door, which was once an entrance and is now an exit. The narrow space of this structure has received the meticulous pause.
Let us remember the response enunciated at the beginning: “It is like being in a dark room. That’s it, standing still in a dark room.”
About the fire
Place of transit. Crossroad. Space inscribed in its own exile. Interval. “Place of absolute summoning”, as J. A. Valente said of the Xemaa-el-Fna, also called, at the dawn of the Moroccan language, the Plaza of Destruction. The Plaza of Marrakesh as simultaneous summons of both multitude and emptiness. In its etymological sense, it is the place of annihilation. What annihilation? It is the same in the Peruvian plaza; the posa is set on fire and destroyed. Where does this drive towards extinction come from? Truthfully, it does not matter. This building —the sum of pauses, of interruptions, of interstices inhabited by and interlude— is, by the very essence of its nature, provisional.
To burn the posa is to confront any possible nostalgia with the evidence of distance. When it is destroyed, and this is done with a gesture of near indifference, there is no empty space left nor does its burn leave a scar. At some moment the following year, without an exact date, without an exact place, it will be rewoven. This house without educational vocation, indifferent to the multiple meanings of its obstinate geometry, is burned and destroyed out of necessity and without compassion.
By distancing itself from other ritualistic constructions it offers its destruction not as a prerogative of the rite’s temporality, but rather in dialectical opposition to the house as a place of possible nostalgia. In the rest of Zurite’s buildings desires are superimposed on abandoned efforts until the walls are covered with customs and habits. The annihilation of the posa is thus a gesture of affirmation, capable of signifying force as it confronts the continuity of the years with the evidence of distance.
“Once each year it will be constructed and in the same year it is destroyed”, says the tradition. It is such that any morning, in any month, the peasant who wanders along this corridor, which they call the posa, realizes that upon entering he only repeats a gesture. Perhaps he senses that when he goes in or comes out all that is happening to him is what is normal. That by this repetition, he distances himself from all the other times that he has entered. It separates him from what happened or what did not happen there. So maybe some morning one or another of the Peruvian peasants notes that one or another time he passes alongside the posa because he no longer feels it necessary to pass through its interior. And another of them may also discover that it has been days or months since he has gone through this corridor, the same corridor that he, himself, had constructed.
One day, without ceremonies and without councils, some of them speak among themselves about how no one wanders across that threshold any longer. Then they decide to remove some of the sticks that have made up the building. One or several of them approach and without any ceremony at all burn the remaining pieces of wood. The destruction is fast and without preambles. A flew flames and some figures, their backs turned, moving away.
Through the days and, by chance, the relentless pursuit of the years, the same stories come back in the conversation. Captain Giovanni Drogo facing the Tartar desert. Second Lieutenant Grange facing the Ardennes. Sentinels of battles both feared and desired. Autonomous figures facing an empty desert.
In the face of desire, from time to time, there arises the possibility of constructing a room where the next moment is eternally delayed, indefinitely postponed. A room where a future, forever to come, never takes place.
Another room. Another place where something vertiginous might occur. In The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York there was once a room which has since been dismantled. May the photograph of that indefinitely suspended moment serve as part of the universe of the possible.