Life and Death according to Matthew Nowicki’s Vision of the City

I’m reading a letter from Matthew Nowicki to his partner Albert Mayer, published in Perpecta magazine in 1959. I’ve confirmed that the air crash in which Nowicki died took place in 1950, but I don’t know why Perspecta published the letter when it did. Neither Paul Rudolph nor Robert A. M. Stern, writing several decades later in Re-Reading Perspecta, clarify the matter.

Nowicki was working on the new city of Chandigarh (a project which would later be taken up by Le Corbusier). He proposed dividing the city up functionally and flexibly based on its everyday activities (housing and work) and holiday uses (leisure and recreation). The former zones would provide a mesh of superblocks, giving the urban layout its basic pattern and texture, while the latter would provide the large scale. Nowicki seemed to have distanced himself from the strict functionality of the Athens Charter, but here he went much further back, seeking inspiration in Hausmann’s Paris (Nowicki spoke of the Place de la Concorde, Etoile, Bois de Boulogne axis)  or even in the Rome of the Popes and Bernini. He also turned to more recent references, like Pier Vitorio Aureli and his (politically) absolutist architecture.

Reading the letter, published posthumously by Rudolph in Perpecta, I think about my present life and how, like that of so many people, it’s divided like never before between everyday activities and leisure and recreation activities – either at weekends here in Riyadh or in the three month annual vacation I´m able to enjoy outside Saudi Arabia as a university professor.

I realise that in Madrid my life wasn’t divided up like that. Leisure and recreation opportunities arose each day in the shape of cultural activity, which is, after all, a form of contemporary leisure. I didn’t see weeks as I see them now, as a sequence of five almost identical days followed by two different ones of over-intense but much needed disconnection from the tasks of the working week. I know this is normal, and perhaps  – no, admittedly – my life in Madrid was marked by certain privileges which, in that sense, are now lost. Like a prisoner confined to a cell, but without the associated drama, I count the weeks remaining before the next vacation, knowing that when I get back afterwards I’ll nearly always have another year in front of me, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Death caught up with Matthew Nowicki just before he turned forty. An accident, destiny, bad luck. Even so, Perspecta thought it a good idea to publish one of his letters to Mayer nearly a decade later. And now, sixty years on, that letter is being read with interest and affection by me, an anonymous Spanish PhD student living in the Middle East. Contemplating those documents that I discovered in printed format, but which are now accessible to everyone thanks to Internet, I can’t help thinking of The Library of Babel, the story by Borges, where the shelves hold all the books that could ever have been written. And I think we’ll soon be facing an identical problem of order and chaos which, contrary to what it might seem, will make it even more difficult to carry out research in a given discipline, to study just a tiny fraction of human knowledge, due to the sheer enormity of literature available about the subject in question.

The task of those who choose to accept the challenge will lead them back to the dichotomy that Nowicki (and indeed so many others) proposed for the city, and therefore for life itself: that of accepting a possible existence in which time and space no longer dictate the behaviour that’s expected of each one of us, everywhere and at each moment, until we die.

Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Beatriz Villanueva es Doctora en Proyectos Arquitectónicos Avanzados, MArch y MPAA (ETSAM). Francisco J. Casas es Doctor en Comunicación Arquitectónica, MArch y Master en Análisis, Teoría e Historia de la Arquitectura (ETSAM). Fueron comisarios de “Menáge a Trois”, “F. A. Q.”, “Portfolio Speed Dating”, “Al Borde de la Crítica” y de la exposición "Couples & Co.: 22 Mirror Stories of Spanish Architecture" en Berlín, Hamburgo, Sevilla y Granada.  Han sido profesores en IED, UEM, UCJC, ETSA Zaragoza, Summer School AA (Londres) y ahora en Riad desde 2014.

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