ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER: AA Paris Visiting School Review

by Ruth Oldham

22 May 2019
Paris, France

 

An email appeared in my inbox sometime in the spring of 2017, informing me of the AA Visiting School in Paris to be held in July: Architecture & Ecriture. I was immediately enticed by the name, and by the fragments of text describing the programme, which would explore the ‘mobile’ space of the essay and its contribution to the development of architectural and spatial thinking, whilst also investigating translation, encountering poetry, and visiting libraries and archives. I am British but, a few years in London aside, Paris has been my adopted home since 2002. I have worked as an architect in Paris, using French and hardly ever English, for several years. I have always made time to write, about landscape and architecture, almost exclusively in English. A moment to pause and make sense of my personal movements between producing architecture and writing about architecture, between two cultures and two languages, was timely and appealing.

 

Putting together my thoughts about the workshop, I am struck by how its form could be compared to the form of an essay. In her introductory lecture Caroline Rabourdin drew our attention to the fragmentary nature of the essay, ‘one damned thing after another’ in the words of Aldous Huxley writing about Montaigne (preface to Collected Essays, Harper Bros. 1958). The art of the essay writer is to draw a thread between these damned things, creating an image of something bigger, but remaining open ended, speculative. And to navigate between three poles: the personal and the autobiographical; the objective, factual and specific; the abstract and the universal (Huxley again).

 

The workshop could be considered as a series of fragments. The structured fragments of the programme: talks by diverse practitioners; visits to exhibitions, an archive and an atelier; group writing exercises and the creation of a new text; all held together by a myriad of unstructured fragments: discussions and encounters that happen whilst milling around between events, travelling to places elsewhere in the city, stopping for a coffee. Combined these form a whole, which to me could be described as a feeling of opening up the possibilities of writing, of affirming the connection between architectural space and textual mobility, of getting back to my intuitions.

 

Writing workshop with Kristen Kreider. Photo by Caroline Rabourdin

Kate Briggs read us a passage from her new book, This Little Art, which draws upon her experience of translating Roland Barthes’ lecture series The Preparation of the Novel. Her argument that translation is as creative and complex as writing itself was compelling. She described the process of ‘staring at sentences long enough to manage to work out what was being thought’, an observation which hints at the conflicting forces that the translator has to work with: balancing precise, analytical thought with subjective intuition, accepting that the new text will always be an approximation, an interpretation (translation and treason share the same root in Italian). The translator needs to cultivate tact and delicatesse.

Index cards and hand painted box, Roland Barthes’ Archive, Département des Manuscrits, BnF. Photo by Ninon Ardisson

Kristen Kreider talked about her writing practice. I remembered Kristen describing the way in which she used index cards to catalogue and organise her thoughts and ideas, and fragments that she collected, as she presented her history and theory unit at the Bartlett in 2005. I didn’t take her unit but I adopted her index card method and continue to use it. Here in Paris, flitting between grammar and poetry, she talked about paragraphs, citation, and pronouns; rhythm, publishers and ekphrasis. Mobility appears again, the spatiality of thought; the way in which paragraphs move from thought to thought, from place to place; the way in which one might circle around an idea without ever quite getting to it… the open ended quality.

 

Empire of Signs manuscript, Roland Barthes’ Archive, Département des Manuscrits, BnF. Photo by Ninon Ardisson

We visited the Richelieu site of the Bibliotheque de France, and after a guided tour of the buildings and a glimpse of the Salle Labrouste, we spent a precious hour or so being shown a selection of elements from the Roland Barthes archive. The absolute realm of the Fragment. We saw drafts of the Empire of Signs, handwritten pages followed by typed pages; words crossed out, blacked out, notes scribbled in the margins. The physical use of paper was striking, pages becoming three dimensional with flaps added, parts cut out, taped and stapled together; Caroline commented how the craft of writing became apparent. We saw how thoughts, or the process of working through and making sense of ones thought process, take on a physical form. Barthes also used index cards. He made beautiful hand-painted boxes for them! We get a glimpse of the box C – Chat, Chateaubriand, sujets de Conférence…

 

A few months after the workshop I saw that the French magazine Pli had launched a new call for submissions, on the theme of Matière(s), a word that translates into English as both matter and material. I had discovered Pli, a bilingual, annual, journal about architecture and publishing and the parallels between the two, after Caroline had mentioned it during the

workshop. My proposition for a text about the highest hill in the Paris region, which happens to be entirely man made (a quarry that became a landfill that became landscaped) was accepted. Kristen Kreider had mentioned ‘the thought one can’t let go of’ during her talk when asking the question why write? I had come to the workshop thinking I would use the opportunity to write about a subject other than my ongoing obsession with man made mountains and altered landscapes, but instead decided to address the thought I can’t let go of, writing about mining, Francis Alys’ artwork When Faith Moves Mountains, about the myth of Sisyphus and the terrils of northern France. For Pli I went through a similar process; I toyed with various ideas, none of which held together quite as clearly or seemed to fit so well to the given theme, as when I came back to the stories that weave around this man-made hill on the western reaches of the Paris sprawl.

Pli magazine number 4, Matières, launch party with installation by Atelier PAF and Julian Baiamonte. Photo by Ruth Oldham

The theme of this year’s Pli is Obsession. I didn’t submit a text this time, but discussions with the director Christopher Dessus have led to me taking on all the French to English translation. When I first discovered Pli, Kate Briggs’ talk was fresh in my mind and I remember thinking that that would have been an interesting translation job. I have translated bits and pieces over the years, for architects, artists and friends, but never on quite this scale. A hunch that it is a path I want to go down is about to be put to the test. I know I will find some texts easier to translate than others, as some texts are easier to read than others; minds and thought processes are immensely varied. But I am looking forward to the deep reading required to understand something fully enough to express it clearly in another language. When I learnt French at the age of 21, I slowly came to understand language as a code for expressing thoughts and ideas, realising that those thoughts and ideas existed somewhere deeper than language. We say red, the French say rouge, but the idea of red exists without having to name it. I anticipate a process a little like diving: starting on the surface in one language, diving down to find to the underlying meaning, and then coming back up to the surface in the other language.

 

For more information:

AA Paris Visiting School brief

AA Paris Visting School microsite

Apply to the AA Paris Visiting School 2019

 

Bibliography:
Francis Alys, When Faith Moves Mountains, Turner 2005
Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang 1983
Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France, 1978- 1979 and 1979-1980, translated by Kate Briggs, Columbia University Press 2010
Kate Briggs, This Little Art, Fitzcarraldo Editions 2017
Aldous Huxley, Collected Essays, Harper 1958
Ruth Oldham, ‘A Hill Made by People’, Pli 04 – Matière(s), Pli Editions 2018