I have, perhaps, an overstimulated gregarious impulse. This has led me into countless episodes with people who were my teachers, people who have been my students, and people from whom I have learned. These are largely interchangeable groups, a kind of good fortune which has blessed my life beyond my confused days as a schoolboy.
I remember all sorts of instructive moments, times when information was being supplied or a process demonstrated. It’s the strangeness of the consultative space which most intrigues me, the to‐and‐fro of speculative exchange, although I recognize that the most mundane problem‐solving moment may carry with it a marvelous corona. A student texted me today saying “No tangents!” and I texted back “No tangents, no centers.” There are indeed great instructive moments which double as artworks. Bruce Nauman’s Setting a Good Corner (Allegory & Metaphor) employs his own do‐ishness, but plays with the pioneer “can‐do” of all‐American purposefulness. The videoed result, demonstrating a fencing method, teases all our cultures of spatial organization and geometrical decisiveness, instructing as it goes. The Studio of the Great Outdoors.
What needs to be taught—when, why, where, and how—is a question of tiring insistence, especially among groups of young people who are seeking attention and, simultaneously, learning how to attract it. I see a complexity now which I never foresaw, which asks demanding questions about cultural values and how they are shared. I am writing this in a school in provincial France on an overcast winter’s day. In the workshop this morning a young woman asked me for something. When I explained that I was from London, she switched to perfect English, with a strong American accent, so I asked if she was from the States. “No,” she said, “I am Moroccan Japanese.” She went on to say that she learned her English from films.
Shortly after, a second confident young woman arrived to use some hand tools, and I was again asked for something. That she was from Beijing was quickly revealed, as was how she had acquired excellent language skills in English and French. She was eloquent about the language wars raging in her head and talked of the sympathy that her teacher in Beijing had shown her in her struggle. Now things were improving, she said, and mentioned that her teacher in Bourges was actually a Russian. It is like this now, and the young will invent what they invent from their undoubted confidence, locating and relocating themselves as they go.
In the last century I had a class at the Architectural Association in London with a truly international group of students. “How did we get here?” I asked, intending not only the biggest human question, but also to expose the comedy of the daily narrative of big cities, and how we move through them, and how they move through us. The expectation was that they had a whole morning to create a drawing of their morning transactions between home and Bedford Square.
The young Londoner set to work drawing every building on the street where he lived, expanding and adding sheets of paper according to the immense powers of observation, moving like a 19th‐century speculative builder backwards towards his 18th‐century target on the edge of the West End. You could feel the intensity of his immersion and distraction within the city. At the other extreme, an international student (from the Far East, as we say), drew the tube line from his apartment in west London to the stop nearest the AA, accurately marking off the stops along the way. He also drew accurately the small amount of road map at each end that he used as a pedestrian. You will be able to imagine the range of narratives which sat between these two approaches. How do humans get from the schematic to the spatially and materially rich city fabric, and back again?
The modesty of the common task that morning released energies and attitudes which stood as common ground for the whole group, but also as a palimpsest of the unaccountable behavior of the whole city. Maybe those students went on to analyze or design public space as a professional pursuit? Their responses have stayed with me. Their vigilance and the sieving of one encounter from another stand for all human sorting and valuing. They affect the way I walk through cities, and how I think of others who pass me by.
Bourges, France, January 26, 2011