The page, cut from an old newspaper and clumsily glued into the notebook, relates an event that occurred in the Balkans. It was the winter of 1991, the war between the Yugoslav factions was entering its most savage phase, and many of the inhabitants of a town on the outskirts of Zagreb reported suffering from insomnia. More unexpected was a symptom that the Croatian doctors hastily chalked up to the traumatic stress of the bombings. The insomniacs, when they finally did manage to fall asleep, dreamed of a color they had never seen before: a kind of phosphorescent blue, halfway between sky and arctic.
The article went on to reference a coincidence that happened months later. That spring, residents of the Serbian village of Deronje witnessed how the petals of the Asparagaceae flower that dotted the nearby fields turned a lucent blue, very much like the color their Croatian adversaries claimed to have dreamed. The column, other than mentioning that the color was possibly due to the use of chemical agents like sarin gas during the conflict, merely reported that the cause of the occurrence remained a mystery. On the lower part of the notebook’s page, beneath a photo of the luminous flowers – perhaps faked or staged but certainly convincing – was a handwritten line: ‘Prophecy: Chaos cross-dressing as destiny.’
The confluence of the newspaper clipping and the quotation, which I found today while I was looking through the unpublished notebooks of the Honduran poet Salvador Godoy, made me recall the chain of coincidences that had to occur two years ago so that, in the long and agonizing aftermath of the hurricane that had just thrashed the island, I would come to take an interest in Arno Krautherimer and his dreams. In that instance too it was a combination of chaos and destiny that led me to the figure of the Austrian architect, in whose remote deliriums I thought I recognized the image of our ruinous present.
In those days I was still living in Puerto Rico, in a small apartment that had belonged to my grandmother and whose particularity consisted in being the only residence in the whole tower without a balcony. Someone forgot to build it, she used to say with a laugh, while she looked out defiantly from the rocking chair she’d placed before the picture window. More than once, during the chaotic weeks that followed the storm, I would remember her laugh, stop bustling around and sit down to look out at the view through that window. There it was: the devastated island, but the island nonetheless. From the tenth floor I had a bird’s-eye view of the rubble of nearby houses, the way the storm had dissolved the sharpness of the panorama with all the force of a child scattering the pieces of a puzzle with one swipe. Further on I saw the lake, placid and steadfast, and beyond it the city stretched out, roofless and covered with the artificial blue of plastic tarps, looking for all the world like a wounded and bandaged body. I’d sit there to rest a little, until the heat grew thick and I felt I could truly fathom the sense of listless ennui in which we were surviving. This was not the tedium of boredom, much less indifference, but more like the feeling that the world had returned to a primitive state where time was once again as torpid and sodden as one’s own sweat.
I was thus sitting in the rocker when three knocks startled me one morning. Three raps that reverberated through the dark and inhospitable space the storm had left behind, through whose hallways, crammed with emergency supplies, I had learned to move with the sober diligence of a medieval monk. To reach the door, I skirted assorted bits of debris, boxes of potable water and dozens of half-reassembled devices. On the other side of it, I found my friend Gabriel Piovanetti, sweaty after climbing ten flights of stairs. Since the hurricane, Piovanetti had become a kind of mobile radio. He left his apartment every morning for long walks, seeking to fill out the scant information we subsisted on in those days. After around six or seven hours, at about three in the afternoon, he’d retrace his steps, bringing news of the images he said he’d seen: the devastation in Cataño; La Perla reduced to a tangle of cables and wood; Fernando Botero’s enormous sculpture of a nude woman dragged to sea by the winds. We’d hear him knock at the door – in my case always at three on the dot – and we knew that even in the midst of catastrophe, we could count on the constancy of his stories to make us forget our distress.
It was because of his stubborn punctuality that I was startled that day; the characteristic knocks on the door came at eleven, and not at three. But there was a reason for the schedule change. Piovanetti said he had found, outside the Visual Arts School, a set of boxes that bore my name: for carlos fonseca. In hindsight, it’s become clearer that those boxes were not addressed to me. I was not the intended Carlos Fonseca, but it didn’t much matter at the time.
Excited by this unexpected discovery, thinking perhaps it would set off an unexpected spark in a world where time seemed to stagnate, I retraced the route my friend had followed a few hours earlier, until I located the boxes amid so many fallen posts, toppled trees and useless rubble. Piovanetti was right: not without a thrill did I recognize my water-smudged name, never stopping to consider that the name also belonged to others. Little could I have imagined that this mistake, or presumption, would give me the gift of Arno Krautherimer’s delirious architecture.
It’s shocking to think how many stories end up in the trash. Discarded, ignored, forgotten. I’m sure that would have been the fate of those two small boxes had it not been for my friend’s eagle eye. Clearly battered by rain, they were part of a long line of similar boxes. Someone, convinced they’d be ruined by the floods, had taken them out of the school’s basement storage room. And certainly, that someone wasn’t wrong, as I confirmed once I’d returned home and opened them up to find a bunch of wet papers, damaged and illegible. I remember I tried to read some of those pages but failed in every attempt: the passage of years and inclement weather were too much for the tired eyes of this poor unemployed historian. I could only make out a few lone words – blueprints, dimensions, bases – that reminded me of geometry tests I’d taken in my adolescence. I was about to give up, when at the bottom of the second box I found what I first thought was a small, mildew-infested strongbox, wrapped in several layers of packaging that seemed to have kept it from sharing the ruinous fate of everything around it.
Now, as I remember all this, I relive the emotion of the discovery: the feeling that beyond the gloomy limbo it had sunk us into, the catastrophe had an offering for me. An old box made of carefully carved Brazilian mahogany, with a forged inscription whose golden letters were darkened by time: e.c. 1945. When I opened it, I found about a hundred pages, yellowed but intact, with a blend of images and text that was confusing at first, but that little by little I started to shape into a possible story. On elegantly stamped pages – the heading, in tasteful blue ink, read: enrique colón, psychoanalyst, avenida ashford, san juan, puerto rico – a man’s emotional crisis was detailed. The file initially referred to him as ‘the patient’, but soon moved on to call him ‘the architect’.
I sat down in my grandmother’s rocker, perhaps in need of a horizon for what I was reading, and there, before the slightly cracked window, I began to read the file, wondering all the while who this architect was. When I was nearing the end, I found a page that said: Patient: Arno Krautherimer, Session notes: 1942–1943. I remember thinking how strange that name sounded in my happy tropics, and how odd that such an old and personal file should have ended up in storage at the Visual Arts School. Then I remembered a fact that provided a possible explanation: looking at the series of hallucinatory architectural sketches that accompanied the notes, I figured the most likely thing was that the pages had arrived during the transitional years when the building went from being the old Island Asylum to housing the then newly inaugurated Visual Arts School. I couldn’t remember the dates, so anything was possible. Most likely, in the move, someone had confused the patient’s sketches with those of an artist and the file had snuck in to become part of the institution’s cultural heritage. I laugh now at the thought that I owe my initiation into the oneiric architecture of Arno Krautherimer to that confusion between art and madness.
I must admit to feeling a certain reticence at first, as I began exploring the universe of confessions uttered under an oath of confidence.
I had the impression I was accidentally sticking my nose into someone else’s private business, as if I’d found a door ajar and decided to enter a neighbor’s house. Curiosity, legitimized in part by the fact that those boxes were seemingly addressed to me, ended up winning out over any sense of delicacy. I gradually let myself be caught up by the unexpected image of that man with the exotic name lying on an unlikely divan almost eighty years ago and spilling his dreams and fears to one of the island’s first psychoanalysts, while on the other side of the ocean the world was laying its bets. I pictured him blond, with blue eyes and an evasive gaze, hesitant at the questions the Caribbean analyst would be asking him with a smile that betrayed admiration. And I wondered what any of it had to do with me. Me, an unemployed historian, a professor whose career had already been seeming like a blind alley for some time when a hurricane came to deal it a death blow – though I didn’t know it yet – while giving me the story of a life.
What did those dreams and those childhood memories have to do with me? What did I care about some Austrian’s lamentations?
I remember one note in particular caught my attention that afternoon, amid the countless annotations filling the psychoanalytical file. It said:
The patient claims to dream of buildings that are the opposite of those he consciously imagines during the day. He feels like a fraud, since when awake he advocates for spaces built according to the simple harmony of reason, but at night he dreams the inverse. When I ask about his childhood, he remembers the cracks that grew so patiently in the oak and beech floorboards of his childhood in Vienna at the turn of the century. He admits that this image of the cracked floor has become an obsession. I suggested that, in order to lessen the effect of his nightmares, he should try to sketch out the buildings he sees in his dreams.
Then on another page appeared the transcription, this time in first person, of one of the dreams:
I dreamed again yesterday. I dreamed we were in the old house in Leopoldstadt, and I went over to the window trying to escape the cracks I could see growing around me, and struggled to peer outside, as children do. Just then I felt a gust of cold air that made me turn around, and suddenly I saw my mother, who was leaning over and submerging her hair in a tub of cold water. Her hair, now heavy, hung over her face, and I intuited that the weight of it would end up collapsing the house. The worst part, however, was my acute awareness that I was dreaming, though I desperately wished to wake up.
Guided by those scenes, I began reconstructing the image of that Austrian child crawling across oak and beech floorboards, playing with the debris that the passage of time would have left in the fissures of the floor. I pictured him growing up in that Vienna of cold and monumental architecture, and tried to draw the line that would link him to the man who years later, now an architect, sat across from a Caribbean psychoanalyst to recollect his childhood. I had the sense that this man was looking for heat, and I smiled at the image of him doing battle with the island mosquitoes. Maybe the nightmares he spoke of were nothing but the byproduct of island inertia.
The many sketches the file contained interrupted my harebrained digressions. Looking at them made me think the architect was right: they seemed like the product of a feverish delirium, the nightmare of a builder suddenly aware of how fragile reality can be. In the first ones, dated early November 1942, the alterations were slight: the minimalism held firm, though cracks began to appear. Slowly, however, the fissures demanded ever more room and by the final sketches, from February 1943, the structures seemed to lose their initial shape and the cracks threatened to encompass everything. In these final sketches the architect appeared to go mad, and the buildings, more than buildings, took the form of the contrasting strata of rocks in the desert. Then they took a step further and even the straight lines seemed to give way, morphing into sketches that recalled marine shapes: the sinuous and elusive silhouettes of corals, octopuses and anemones. Beneath one of them, Krautherimer himself had jotted down an idea that caught my attention: ‘I have always thought that architecture is the faithful reflection of nature, the order of what is stable, of harmony, of repose. I’m beginning to intuit that the reverse may be true: architecture as a space of opposing forces, like tectonic plates about to collide.’ The mention of an imminent tremor epitomized an intuition I’d had when I saw those designs: I’d felt something in them resonating perfectly with the aftermath of catastrophe we were living through at the time. Before me, the landscape framed by the window seemed to confirm the presentiment. I was surprised that, given the dates, none of the notes mentioned the war that was breaking out at that time, or Austria’s role in the conflict. As if it were enough to understand that nature was not the coveted, peaceful garden of dreams, but a world of forces battling for primacy. Examining the nature of architecture was an oblique way of talking about history, I said to myself, and for the first time all afternoon I felt it made sense that those papers had fallen to me of all people. I went on reading and looking at the notes and sketches until around six, when I felt the sun going down behind me. With no electricity to light it, the house returned to darkness.
Over the following weeks, my fascination with the figure of Arno Krautherimer and his extravagant dreams somehow came to fill the great void that the hurricane had left behind. In the mornings, in the asphyxiating swelter of the Caribbean autumn, I did what I could to help friends and family with the tasks that kept us afloat amid the lack of electricity, water and information. I fixed broken windows, installed generators, repaired roofs. Then, at noon, I’d sit in the rocker and give myself over to reading and analyzing the psychoanalytic file. I spent the hours trying to understand the Austrian architect’s intrepid designs, dreams and ideas, until three o’clock rolled around and I heard Piovanetti’s knocks at the door. I’d invite him in and, without going into the discoveries that in some sense I owed to him, I’d let him talk about the world that lay outside my door. That world of rubble in which, little by little, I had begun to see a cruel reflection of my architect’s nightmares.
In early December, Gabriel closed one of his reports in an unusual way. He invited me to a party another close friend of ours, Karina, was throwing to celebrate the return of electricity to her house. Accustomed now to the dark nights, I considered refusing the invitation, but then I remembered something: our friend had studied architecture. Perhaps by talking to her, I could clarify the origins of those enigmatic papers I had accidentally inherited. So, I accepted.
Hours later, when I got to Karina’s party, I felt as though I was entering one of Krautherimer’s dreamed structures. I remembered that her house had been abandoned for more than a decade, during which time it served as a flophouse for addicts. Karina and two other architects from the college had decided to remodel it. There was no question they had done an exceptional job, but the house’s charm was due in large part to the traces that remained of its more ignoble past. It was strange, I thought, to see it like that, lit up and full of people, as if deep down none of it had happened; not the abandonment, or the drugs or the catastrophe. Obviously, I had it wrong: we were there precisely to celebrate the fact that at least one of us had won the battle against the storm. But I couldn’t help feeling that in some way, the party was a mere simulacrum of familiarity or closeness. The hurricane had left us roofless, our secrets exposed to the elements. Afraid people might think I lacked solidarity, I kept my thoughts to myself. I chose instead to surrender to the party and the beer, which was miraculously cold, until after midnight, when I finally found Karina alone, smoking on the balcony. I approached her casually and, after the initial greetings, ventured to ask if by chance she had heard of an Austrian architect named Arno Krautherimer. To this day I remember her broad smile in the night that was illuminated at long last.
I remember thinking how that smile – with its perfect mixture of mischievousness, irony and insouciance – was what had attracted me to her ten years ago. Then I thought how little remained of the kid I’d once been. I saw her laugh, make a vague gesture and disappear into the crowd still filling her house. She came back a minute later carrying two books. She put one of them beside the ashtray, and opened the second to a page she had marked with her index finger.
‘Here it is,’ she said with another smile. There was my architect’s name, beneath a photograph of a man with thick eyebrows and a profuse mustache. His look was more playful than I’d imagined, and his dark hair contradicted the image I’d created of a blond European waylaid in the tropics. ‘You can take them, I know them by heart,’ she told me. And without asking for any further explanations or providing any more details, she disappeared again into the crowd. It was the last time I saw her that night. I went home around one, carrying the books. I had an inkling – maybe under the influence of the party and the alcohol – that those books held the key to unlock the hermetic world I had accessed three weeks earlier.
The life of Arno Krautherimer, as I read in the two books, was an example of what we all know so well but prefer to ignore: that our dreams do their best to betray us at times. Born into a Jewish family in Vienna at the turn of the century, his life traced a perfect arc through twentieth-century modernist architecture. Heir to the ideas of Adolf Loos, he had decided at a very early age to leave the ornaments of old Vienna behind, following the path of the two men who would become his great teachers. In the twenties, he crossed the Atlantic in search of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairies, only to encounter the elderly, weathered figure of the all-but-forgotten Louis Sullivan. The United States was, for Krautherimer, the land of simplicity. When the First World War ended and the Hapsburg Empire along with it, he had come to America seeking to distance himself from the Old World’s cold monumentalism. And he had done it. Or at least he thought he had.
In the first of the books that my friend gave me, called Modernism in Architecture, there were photographs of some of Krautherimer’s projects from the thirties: geometrical structures, guided by the horizontal minimalism of broad roofs that confused inside with out. I remember looking at those buildings with surprise, recognizing certain features I’d seen in sketches in the psychoanalytical file, mutated into nightmares. That book, however, had not a single mention of Puerto Rico, or any sojourn of the architect’s on the island.
I sought in the following weeks to fill those details in by reading the second book, an old copy of the history of architecture in Puerto Rico, whose pages fell out with frightening ease. Guided by the table of contents, I turned to a chapter dedicated to the role architecture had played in the political reforms of the early forties. I read that at the start of the decade, future governor Luis Muñoz Marín and current governor Rexford Guy Tugwell had worked together on a plan for modernizing the island. A project for an economic and social future that included architecture: new hospitals, new schools and social housing. Krautherimer had come to the island as part of the so-called Design Committee for Public Works, tasked with drafting that renewed infrastructure. Little could he imagine that in the heat of those restless tropics, the minimalism of his designs would risk mutating into ruin.
Few details were offered about his life, but one of them resonated with me. It was mentioned in passing that when Krautherimer was young, he had been a close friend of Ernst Ludwig Freud, son of Sigmund. I thought it was funny that a man who’d been so close to the father of psychoanalysis, one who had likely even walked and dined alongside him, would years later seek a cure for his disquiet on the divan of one of the first Puerto Rican psychoanalysts.
So I riffled through the old papers to find one I’d read that very afternoon:
A dream, glimpsed clearly at mid-morning while I was working on a couple of sketches for the school plans. I looked out and saw snow falling on the fronds of the virgin jungle, and the contrast led me to think of the crackle of hot water hitting ice. Then I realized this was precisely my nightmare from the night before, and that, in the small hours, I had felt it was Europe itself that was slowly snapping.
It would have been easy to read those dreams, I thought, as nightmares transferring the collapse of his childhood Europe to a personal plane. More difficult and interesting, though, was to read it all in a Caribbean key.
I preferred to imagine that, just as some dreams prophesy the future, those of Arno Krautherimer augured the fate of that delusion of modernity that was starting to die even before it was born. And I again imagined him in the winter of 1942, sweaty and exhausted, struggling during the day to raise the foundations of a modern present, while at night he dreamed of its eventual collapse. I thought I saw him briefly in his tropical delirium, reliving his experience of years before, in the impeccable Vienna of his childhood, when he’d looked at the floor and found there, in the oak and beech boards, a world of silent cracks. Our sad fortune, I thought, was to live amid those ruinous landscapes that he, more restrained, had merely dreamed.
When you look for signs, oracles turn up everywhere. I don’t know at what point that architect’s agony became my own. All I know is that little by little, my reading of that file ended up inundating my reality. I looked around and saw cracks everywhere, dreams run aground. As if the island was the ship whose stability we had never questioned, but whose fissures were revealed now that the storm had flooded solid ground. The startling thing, I understood then, was that the disaster only unmasked the flaws that were hidden but omnipresent. During those days I came to think of myself as yet another failed project. It seemed to matter little that when I was young, I had done all the things the older folks suggested: get good grades, earn a scholarship to a US university, graduate with honors and return to the island, ready to triumph. I’d done it all according to plan, but when I returned six years later, it seemed there was nothing left for me. Just a job as a waiter in a local bar where the tourists arrived already drunk. More than once, chatting with one of those tourists, I’d ventured to comment on my situation, only to hear them say the solution was clear: I should make the most of my passport and travel north – to Orlando, Chicago or New York, one of those cities that in the past had welcomed the Puerto Rican diaspora. I bit my tongue and thought of my brother, who had left the island almost a decade ago now, headed for the Gran Manzana. Every time we talked, he tried to convince me to move. He promised me a room for free until I found work. I always turned him down, the same way I demurred with the tourists. Puerto Rico was my country, and anyway, I had my job at the bar and my routine. Now the hurricane had taken that, too, and my patience along with it.
Unemployed and with nothing to lose, I went deeper into Arno Krautherimer’s life: like someone lost in a desert who thinks he sees an oasis in the distance and the mirage becomes his fate. I began to think I could turn it all into a book, a monograph depicting this uncanny episode in the architect’s life and the history of Puerto Rico. I even came up with a title: Rise and Fall of a Modernist Dream. On my most optimistic days during that endless winter, while I watched how the island struggled to return bit by bit to normalcy, I saw that book as a possible way out, a redemption. Its publication would bring me some recognition and grant me a future as an academic. But every time, the treacherous logic of dream and nightmare would waylay me again, and after a few hours my optimism would evaporate before the evidence of devastation.
One of those days, excited about the project, I decided to take a walk around the university. I took it all in; the rubble of the buildings, the limpid vegetation just starting to regrow, the absence of the parrots that used to cheer the landscape with their song. Even with the book, I thought, little was left for me there. I walked through the halls, where the students now seemed to move with more caution and fatigue than before, distant replicas of those Giacometti sculptures I’d liked so much in another time, until I reached the theater and noticed a small crowd. I got closer, thinking I would find a musician or maybe a clown, but I quickly realized my mistake. In front of the group, a photographer was snapping pictures of a ballet dancer posing on her toes amid the remains of an old structure. Looking at her, I thought that Krautherimer was right, true beauty is only reached when it risks collapse. ‘Architecture: Defiance of Gravity’, I remembered having read beneath another of his sketches, and the precision of the phrase helped me understand the scene I now had in front of me: that ballerina on pointe who, at least for the brief instant turned eternal by the photographer, was exposing the vertical thread that ties us to the gods. We stood there for a few minutes until the photographer finished the session, and I had the odd feeling that a cycle was ending. Two days later, the electricity finally reached my house, and, when I saw the lights go on, I knew the time had come to leave the island.
In the months following that sudden decision, I sought with sad determination to leave behind everything tying me to the island, and that included Arno Krautherimer. I clung to the practical details of the move, aware that surrendering to the weight of today is another way of burying one’s sorrows. I focused on packing my things, confirming my brother’s offer of a place to stay in New York, searching for possible jobs in the Big Apple, saying goodbye to family and friends. I thought about taking the file with me, but instead decided to leave it with Karina. She – an architect, after all – would know better than I what to do with those pages that had kept me company throughout the long aftermath of the disaster. Tired, feeling a bit like a traitor, I left the island in early April.
Five months later, I was walking the Manhattan streets alongside a new girlfriend when I was brought up short by a poster advertising a current exhibition at a nearby museum. The subject: modernist architecture. Without divulging the true reason for my interest, I convinced her it would be fun to have a look. The walls of that enormous hall were lined with the names of the past century’s great architects, along with their iconic projects. I recognized Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building, Richard Neutra’s Miller House, the designs of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and so many others from the Bauhaus. Each one of those famous architects had a full wall dedicated to the exhibition of their works. I was pleased to recognize certain traits in those designs of that properly modern vision that Krautherimer’s tropical dreams had transformed into their opposite. We were on our way out, in the final section of the exhibit, entitled ‘Aftermaths of Modernism’, and I was astonished to find a photograph of a project of Krautherimer’s. It was the Von Kaufman House, a mansion the Austrian had built in California in the fifties for the famous producer Hugo Von Kaufman. A limpid and minimalist house that seemed in total concordance with the designs Krautherimer had made in the thirties, before his stay on the island. Same simplicity, same harmony, same ode to reason and minimalism. I alone knew the convulsive undercurrent that throbbed treacherously beneath the affable surface of those designs.
I must have peered very closely at the photo or its plaque, because my girlfriend asked if the piece was special. Wary of exhuming the catastrophic reality I thought I’d recently buried and left behind, I shook my head and kept walking, eager to find the minimalism of forgetting. And truth is I found it, for years, until today, as I was reading Salvador Godoy’s notebooks and came across the article about the unexpected coincidence between Croatian dreams and Serbian flowers. Then the blue of my childhood sky came back, and I remembered how, after the storm, everything seemed to have changed except for the clouds. I reread Godoy’s astute words, ‘Prophecy: Chaos cross-dressing as destiny’, and in that instant, I understood how I had tried to steal the fate of a man who shared my name.
ps: After publishing the first version of these notes, a historian friend called to tell me that the old Island Asylum had closed its doors in 1928 and the Visual Arts School hadn’t opened its own until 1967, so it was impossible that the papers had been transferred from one institution to the other. I told my friend that that was exactly what this brief recounting is all about: the possibility of confusing dates, of mixing up causes and effects. That has always been my problem with historians: they don’t know how to twist straight lines. They don’t know how to dream history.
author’s note: I would like to thank Gabriel Piovanetti-Ferrer, who provided me with the materials and the vision that gave way to this story.
Photograph © Gabriel Piovanetti-Ferrer