Buildings may be much bigger than us, it’s true, but concrete cannot dictate its own use. Architecture, as Bernard Tschumi will tell you, remains unfinished— open and incomplete— until we christen the brick and mortar with meaning, that is, with action. Architecture is participatory. Architecture is dialogical. “Brandon Joyce, this is Penny Rue, the Dean of Students. Do you promise to stay off the watertowers, under threat of arrest and legal action?” Try to focus. Architecture is not primarily about the architects, no matter how big their britches or bibliographies. It’s about the people who use it, and how they use it; the “labyrinth of experience over the pyramid of concept;” the transformation and misuse rather than intents and expressions.
We determine the meaning of the Barracks Road Shopping Center, in the wee hours of the weekend morning, when the streetsweepers are circling the empty lot. We restless spirits, we trouble-magnets, leaping from rooftop to rubber rooftop. With the architecture sitting perpendicular to its own history. Unloosed from the axes of “Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti” or “the vestiges of ideology in the modern cityscape” or “the cautious, tired lines of commercial feasibility.” The agent, switching the gendersigns on restroom doors, nailing backside heelflips down a double staircase, ascending to ten-story steepletops by means of a grappling hook: only the agent has final sway and say-so over architectural forms.
The University of Virginia, like most universities, has a good number of enticing edifices, palaces, mazes, inexplicable structures, unforgettable mysteries, immovable objects, black boxes, screw-loose security measures, and wonderful surprises for the finding. An ideal cave for the deadly curious. There are, as one should expect, both highlights and lowpoints across the campus, depending on your architectural criteria.
Bryant Hall, a commissioned piece by the world-renowned Michael Graves, is, in my opinion, a total piece of crap, a sterile architectural flop that leaves no room for accident, invasion, or the freeplay of real experience. Every floor is identical. Every door remains locked afterhours. There are no turns, tunnels, or even good hiding places. And, every hall and every room is filled with a braindraining, brash-yellow fluorescent light more suitable to dental exams than highbrow literary pursuits, or higher-brow mischief-making. To be fair, the handrail around back slides with superb handling and the hall lights have this nifty rapid-fire trick that could trigger fits in epileptic UVA students, but other than that— nada. Virginia blew millions on a stillborn. Pants down for the “playful neoclassicism and figurative architecture” of the golden Princeton proff. As for me, I’m definitely in this for other reasons.
The Drama Building, on the other hand, is a true palace of marvels. Everything I look for in architectural structure: slippery and serpentine mylar walls in the lobby, free soda fountains for midnight refreshment, fantastic props onstage and back, an atmosphere thick with the ghosts of playwrights and the squeals of dramadorks, chutes and ladders going hither and thither, a mysterious blackbox theatre with control rooms and Pac-Man catwalks, a spiral staircase that rises seven stories above the stage, with beams and weights and steel ropes and high-rise pulleys, a ladder to the rooftop-vista of the Charlottesville nightscape, a mirrored rehearsal room with gymnastic mats and badly-tuned pianos, a basement full of noisemakers, wind-machines, and ancient wooden gadgetry, costume rooms with abominable snowmen and headless mannequins, bluelights and greenrooms, workshops with a huge choo-choo trains chugging overhead, spotlights and soundmixers, sketchy cherry-pickers and first-aid kits, and an eerie darkness looming over the entire experience. Every room, linked incongruously with the next, changes your mood, your sense of direction, and— dare I say it— the entire psychogeography of the experience. One surprise after another. “Infinity made imaginable.”
Night comes and games are played. The doors are locked and it becomes necessary to slip through the ulterior passageway— the ventilation ducts, jerryrigged by my brother and I. The wormholes to wonderland. This detour drops you straight into the bowels of the Drama Building. Into the choking dust, dark whirs, and particle-board smell of the Engine Room. We drop down Ninja-like, knock the dust off and declare— “You see: the universe was a botched job!” I give midnight tours of the Drama Building— the Virginia Campus Chocolate Factory— and beyond; hopefully opening some eyes to the rest of the unplotted university expanse. The infinite and infernal steam tunnels. The death-star roofs of the biology building and UVA medical schools. The religio-mystical drone of the architecture school transformer. The million and one secrets dropped like easter eggs throughout the entire campus, shared between our cabal of white rabbits and tunnel rats. We leave our houses at sundown, and set out to lose ourselves in the Space-Time Continuum.
There are rumors, friends, to the consternation of mainstream egyptologists, that underneath the limestone Sphinx at Giza, is a secret chamber that holds the eternal wisdom of a lost civilization. And a key to the Time Trap. Can we as a people, perhaps, find clues to a future civilization? Through the Time Trap, can we become the archaeologists of tomorrow? Mere traces and fingerprints, hidden underneath. The mummies of the Sun God, some Future God, sacred knowledge whispered and skipping across the surface of the Rivers of the Dead. The Egyptian search for immortality.
In Richmond, a few anarchitects, on the docket of the Center for Experimental Living, besiege the buildings sticking up in the Virginian night. We solve buildings like puzzles— “Hey, we should figure out how to get into that belfry!”— hopping and bopping around an old church like a game of Super Mario Brothers. Exactly like a game of Mario Brothers. We pick locks. Climb to the ridges of the roof.
“What about that window right there? If I slide down,” Rich asks. “If you slide down, and the window is shut. You’re stuck. The only way out is a three-story drop onto the sidewalk.” Fine, fine, back inside and look behind every door for the magic key or warpzone to level 4. I’m nearly ready to give up, when some others notice a line of light coming from underneath a restroom “supply closet.” Tricky, tricky. “Maybe this leads into the congregation hall.” The padlock is funky— some weird make of warded lock that we’re unable to pick or finesse, but this does little to temper our combined energies. Or slow us down… We take the door off its hinges.
We slip through and find ourselves inside the church pipe organ! Then downstairs into a costume room, around the corner and tiptoe onto the red carpets of the congregation hall. Halfway there, in the same half as the belfry. We find the door to the tower, floating five feet up, in the middle of the wall, locked. Only for a moment though, until Brandon the Wire works his tumbler magic on the shoulders of his dear friends. Lockpicking renders all locks and obstacles into mere suggestions; limitless freedom. Ghosts floating through walls. The only boundaries are the boundaries of conscience— the way it ought to be, in a land of transvaluated values. Click, click, click, click, click, and the tumbler turns. Inside is a darkness that our flashlights hardly pierce. One ladder after the next. Rotting wood and floor boards. We keep climbing until we hear police sirens and movements outside. We can’t hear anything because everyone is telling everyone else to “shut up.” Flashlights off. Everyone holds their breath. Ten minutes, without a word. Waiting out the enemy. A few heads pop out or peer through some shutters to the streets outside. The coast is clear. Slithering down slowly— just in case— we run across a pizza box propped up on its side, spookily inscribed with the words “you cannot hide for long.” It appears the Dead mummy Sun gods have a sense of humor. Ha, ha, ha. Game over.