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The confluence of the newspaper clipping and the quotation, which I found today while I was looking through the unpublished notebooks of the Honduran poet Salvador Godoy, made me recall the chain of coincidences that had to occur two years ago so that, in the long and agonizing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.