Holding the Sky

Return to Poem

When Di arrived for the ‘sitting’ the sitter was busy introducing people round the table to Modernism and Bauhaus in particular. On previous visits it was clear he didn’t ‘do chat’ but enjoyed inviting people nearby to lively debate about politics and architecture. For the sitter, the two are inextricably linked. With Di he discussed ideas on art and freedom, quoting Gustav Klimt:

Die Zeit ihre Kunst
Die Kunst ihre Freiheit

which translates as:

To every age its art,
To every art its freedom.

Klimt is specifically referring to Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and the sitter made it clear he wholeheartedly echoed Klimt’s view, as expressed in the lines quoted.  He went on to unpack the internal structure of Maggie’s West. The design of each Maggie’s is site-specific, created by internationally renowned architects of the day (see On First Visiting Maggie’s West). Later he reflected on the monumental architecture of antiquity, singling out the Pantheon in Rome as a particular example of excellence. When invited to send a picture to accompany his ‘written portrait’ he emailed:

Now searching through boxes for old portfolios, kindly but hurriedly packed away by my brother when I got cancer. The sketches I made in Rome will probably be the most suitable.

He also handed on his skills. His daughter – schooled by her father ‘to see’ – designed a line of lingerie that echoed the Lloyds Building.

He parks his scooter –
the hipster variety –
ready to ride the rodeo
in the Fulham Palace Road.

As an architect
the Park and Ride in Seattle
was his first big project –
a multi-storey design
with staircases and a bridge
to catch the bendy buses.
Parking for 1,200 cars.

He was a carpenter first,
trained with Bovis at the Trocadero
then worked as an exhibition builder –
the NEC, Olympia, Le Bourget –
ends up in Virginia
inside the Philip Morris building.

The eyes that view the world
of strange
with equanimity
“I had one of the weirdest experiences of my life.”

Inside the building
smoking is strictly forbidden –
even in the car park –
though at the time
you could smoke in airports
and hospitals in the US
and this is after all
the Headquarters
of Marlboro Cigarettes.
The corporate fear
of passive smoking
does not pass him by.
“Bit sinister,”
he says with a grin.
“Put me right off smoking.”

He gets his professional wake-up call
building luxury yachts.
He’s making curved staircases –
notoriously tricky –
with marked success.
The Chief Naval Architect observes
if he wants to design
he should study architecture.
So he does.
Graduates from the University of Washington.

Back in the UK
he designs the Ballroom Wing
of the Heythrop Park Hotel Golf and Spa.
Once a Jesuit college
the ecumenical is gone
but the house
retains its earthly glory.

The human imagination
hewn in brick or stone
commands respect,
has him seeking strategies
to fight the value engineering
that “strips the architecture out of the design.”

Acts of demolition
are ruinous reality.
I love these old buildings
is the standard joke in architects’ circles
he says with a bleak smile.

Humour – wry, playful –
is his default setting.
Eschewing small talk,
he prefers to argue the politics
of Modernism, quoting
the fin de siècle mantra
of Klimt and company:
Der Zeit ihre Kunst
Der Kunst ihre Freiheit.

The British Museum
with its Grand Orders and Great Court,
Lloyds of London,
have his admiration.
The National Gallery
prized by HRH does not.

Next to St Martin in the Fields
it’s “a mish-mash,”
the portico of the church,
an artful nod to the Pantheon,
exposing the muddle
of the monument to art.

Dismissing the Royal champion –
“an anachronism” –
he references Pevsner and Summerson,
Heritage luminaries
and critics of the building.

“It has all the finest ingredients
but lacks a good chef,”
he says, twinkling.
Then, suddenly serious,
“Architecture is frozen politics.
It’s colossally important.”

He deplores emotional attachment to ideas.
Liking or not liking
have nothing to do with aesthetic values
he argues.
But when it comes to a personal favourite
the Venetian Gothic of the Ca D’ Oro
has him waxing like a gibbous moon
over the Grand Canal.

Conjuring the image on his phone
he explains the lightness,
the play of the facades,
the quatrefoils that turn like trigonometrical keys,
the virtuoso counterpoint of symmetry and asymmetry.
As with all design, he looks for
“the way the building holds the sky.”

He shows a second image –
seductive lingerie that cleverly echoes
the inside out of the Lloyds Building
designed by his daughter
clearly schooled in seeing.

His aunt Mary
knew Seamus Heaney.
In Ulster
the naming of place
is a baring of bones.

The teacher of Gaelic,
the poet,
travail the tongue,
in the cavern
of mouth and sky
words re-sound.

working on The Spirit Level
in Harvard,
pens a dedication
to her nephew
he barely knows
working on the yachts
in Seattle.

They meet
in Wicklow
at Mary’s funeral.

The eye of the Poet
once saw him
at work on the boats
keeping the spirit at sea-level.

Now the Architect
works the Table
questioning the spirit
that would hold the sky.