The Architect’s Epiphany

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The Architect’s Epiphany

by Daniel Vella

On the second day after his arrival in Uyuni, Sir William Andrews, clad in a frock-coat of crimson velvet that had already been defiantly out-of-fashion when he wore it to King Edward’s coronation, commandeered one of the governor’s rusty old motor-cars and drove out onto the salt flats. A short while later, when the town and the line of grey volcanic hills that rose behind it had dissolved into the miasmal haze on the horizon, he stopped the car. Drawn almost involuntarily by a compulsion he would only much later come to comprehend as an epiphany, he stepped out of the car, the salt crunching faintly under his boots, and he walked. He walked until the motor-car was a speck at the end of a line of footprints leading up to his feet. He looked around him; his gaze traced a circle across the horizon. In all directions, immense, endless, the white expanse of the salt flats reflected the immeasurable sky, and Sir William had to take a moment to steady himself.

It mattered little, at that point, that there was a geological explanation for the origins of the salt flats, an explanation Sir William was well enough aware of. The impression he received was a transcendental intimation: here was the world shorn of all history, all elaborations and complications, all meanings and implications. Here was some deeper substance of the world exposed: some fundamental truth, hard and undeniable and essential like the skull beneath the plastic mutability of the flesh. Here was the world given to him as a blank canvas, a clean slate, with the edict: build.

Over the weeks and months that followed, he immersed himself for hours every day in that landscape of oblivion, venturing further and further with every expedition; never, despite the governor’s repeated entreaties, consenting to an escort. He would walk for miles and plot elaborate designs along lines he traced by some weird intuition; he would sit, motionless, and project his imagination to fill the endless plains with visions unseen in the history of the world. At night, he would return to his chambers in the governor’s palace and strive endlessly to record these visions in sketches and blueprints that accumulated in volume upon volume.

He lived, for those months, in an almost complete solitude. He had not the slightest desire to converse with the ignorant, blank-faced natives, whose raucous celebrations in the town’s cantinas and plazas made the long nights even more of an ordeal once a week; neither did he have any inclination to share his time with the handful of Englishmen and women who spent their days staring out of their bay windows, talking wistfully of Piccadilly and Regent Street, of Windermere and Bognor Regis, in a litany of formulations that had accumulated the weight of ritual.

The governor, a portly gentleman who never went anywhere without a whiff of sherry about him, had greeted Sir William, upon his arrival, with the pointedly exaggerated joviality of a man who had for too long felt himself deprived of a civilized ear to speak to. For months, at the breakfast and dinner tables, he insisted on regaling his guest with fond, extended reveries on the long summer days of his childhood among the meadows of his family’s modest Sussex estate. In the evening, this would more often than not be followed by a bitter invective regarding the pestilential sickness of the sorry land under his charge and the bovine idleness of the natives; although, he would invariably conclude, with more than a hint of a twinkle in his eye, the women were at least good for something. Finally, when the sherry started taking effect, he would often exclaim, in a tone Sir William never failed to find ingratiating, what an honour it was that His Majesty had chosen Uyuni as the site of the great junction where the railway lines linking the British colonies of South America would meet.

“Things are finally looking up for this godforsaken hellhole,” he would intone. “Silver from the western mountains, luxurious timber and spices from the rainforests to the north – all will pass through this town on their way to the ports on the Atlantic coast; and here they will meet England’s proud young men travelling bravely to the battlefields of the Inca War. Oh, what a sight for sore eyes this town shall be! The wealth of the world traded on our doorstep, the streets alive with the sounds of English voices. And above all, to have such a distinguished architect and engineer appointed to do the job! Indeed, I could not be happier. It will be like being home again, after all these years in the wilderness.”

Throughout all this, Sir William would nod or shake his head at appropriate points, feigning polite interest with diminishing success; after a month or two the governor started making excuses to have his meals served at different times, and spoke of Sir William to others as “a decidedly odd sort of fellow”. This suited Sir William well enough.

Day followed night; weeks and months, lacking any distinguishing features, degenerated into a constant alternation of sunlit hours of wandering on the salt flats and lamplit hours hunched over plans he would revise, discard, redraft and discard again. The ecstatic transport of his first excursions soured into a desperate frustration, and an emerging sense of his failure to grasp some ephemeral possibility that had been presented to him. Of course, following that fateful first glimpse of the salt flats, he had not once thought of railway junctions, or indeed of any other aspect of the plans he had agreed to in that opulent drawing room by the banks of the Thames, half a world away – what he was so ardently striving to achieve was some abstract intimation he could scarcely define, even to himself. He pushed the thought aside, until it could no longer be ignored:  this terrible void, this apocalyptic erasure of all the matter of the world, paralyzed him. Here, where white earth met white sky, all boundaries blurring into a heat-hazed sphere that seemed to envelop and negate all the senses, there were no demarcations and no preconceptions. Anything was possible, and his mind proliferated with endlessly propagating possibilities; whatever path he chose would obliterate a thousand others.

It is difficult to say how long he would have lingered in that state had he been left to his own devices. At any rate, during an unremarkable expedition nearly half a year to the day after his first foray onto the salt flats, he was jolted out of his sketchings and ruminations by the sudden intrusion of a black speck imprinting itself onto the emptiness.  As he watched, his interest piqued by this new development, the speck began to lazily unfurl into a hazy banner set against the white sky, an indistinct mark cast across the blank firmament, dissipating as rapidly as it was drawn. A faint, mechanical hum reached his ears, and the object grew by degrees more solid and distinct, eventually forming into the wood-and-metal frame of an aircraft. It traced a wide, descending arc across the eastern horizon, tongues of flame flickering across its wings, smoke billowing behind, and crashed, soundlessly, some way to the north.

A pillar of smoke rising straight upwards in the windless air led him to the place, five or six miles distant, where the aircraft had come to rest.  Wreckage and debris were scattered for a hundred feet in every direction: scraps of metal twisted into odd shapes, charred splinters of spruce, broken fragments of machinery, and, among them, sheaf upon sheaf of singed papers, some still smouldering at the edges. Sir William paused long enough to note that every inch of paper was covered in closely-scribbled verses of poetry, jumbled, struck through, overwritten, blotted out: his eye caught confused phrases of German, Latin, Sanskrit, and what he believed to be Old English.

It was only when he looked up from these pages that he caught sight of a figure pacing around the wreckage. There was something almost elfin, otherworldly, about it: tall, almost impossibly thin, its movements possessed of an unharmed grace that defied the situation.  So enigmatic was this sudden presence, so utterly divorced from any imaginable time and place, that Sir William found himself unable to frame an understanding of it. He could do no more than observe details: a corduroy duster coat covered with embroideries, a face hidden behind aviator’s goggles, a shock of dark hair, a scarf of scarlet that burned all the brighter for the absence of any other colour to distract from it. Nothing else: for quite some time, Sir William could not even discern whether he was in the company of a man or a woman.

His somewhat alarmed enquires as to the stranger’s well-being went unacknowledged; the aviator seemed too enraptured by the enormity of the scene to take any notice of something as tiny as a man.  After a few moments of silence:

“So much white. I believe I must have finally gone and sailed off the edge of the world completely.”

A short pause.

“Well, good riddance to all that.”

On the drive back to the town, Sir William managed to obtain a name, of sorts: “I think I shall call myself Merlaine now,” the aviator said, leaning out over the side of the motor-car to catch the oncoming wind. “It’s as good a name as any other.” As to an identity, or a history, Sir William could elicit nothing.

In the governor’s palace, Merlaine received all the profuse expressions of sympathy and unconditional offers of assistance with polite grace, but not without a certain detached aloofness; this, along with the cryptic, ambiguous but firm evasions with which all questions were met, suggested to all concerned that some distemper, perhaps a fever of the brain, had resulted from the crash. The town’s physician prescribed a long period of convalescence, and, of course, Sir William was happy to vacate a couple of rooms of the guest wing for the new arrival.

In truth, there seemed to be little to recover from. Merlaine seemed to be in much better health than could have been reasonably expected. Certainly, neither Sir William nor anyone else was able to obtain much in the way of a history. There were hints: the occasional anecdote started with “When I was living in Prague,” or, “During my studies in Constantinople”, and progressed to stories of bohemian debauchery, academic asceticism and boundless travels, but it was next to impossible to piece together a coherent picture from these meagre fragments. Nonetheless, if there remained some oddities of character, Sir William soon wrote these off as the minor foibles of a slightly eccentric nature. In any case, he found himself disposed to be generous in forming his judgement, for it did not take him long to realise that he had encountered a kindred spirit.

As soon as the physician gave his grudging assent, Merlaine started to accompany Sir William on his daily expeditions, a leather-bound notebook clasped firmly in hand. In his new companion, Sir William could observe the same wide-eyed wonder that animated his own fascination with the place. Here, he could see, was someone else with the imagination to look beyond the mere facts of its existence, and glimpse the potentiality it whispered faintly. The long hours out on the salt flats were silent more often than not, each recognizing in the other an intense meditation that would brook no interruption.

Upon their evening return to the governor’s palace, Sir William would attempt to explain his day’s efforts, although his companion’s limited knowledge of engineering made this difficult work at the best of times. Merlaine, however, made no similar gesture, nor did Sir William ask it, being too preoccupied with the repeated failure of his work to achieve some expression he could not even articulate. It was pure chance, or seemed to be so, that, after some weeks had elapsed in this manner, Sir William, seeing his companion’s notebook lying open on the writing-desk they shared, picked it up in idle curiosity.

Its yellowing pages were crammed with abstract sketches of perfectly-proportioned shapes, finely-judged curves and angles; around these sketches were fragments of verse and prose he could not explain, but whose meaning resonated in the deepest chamber of his consciousness. In every line and every word there was a clarity and conviction of vision that pierced through the dense fog of his scattered, indecisive thoughts; an effortless beauty that burned with the intensity of a flame. In a sudden flash of insight he glimpsed the hitherto-unseen centre that all his plans and designs had ineffectually spiralled around; he saw streets and arcades, edifices of polished stone, spires of glass that refracted the sunlight into intricate lattices, grand cathedrals of humanity.

***

Scarcely a month later, the first of the workmen arrived – tribesmen from the rainforests to the north, convicts from distant colonies, labourers from the Atlantic port cities, all crammed into soot-stained carriages that stank of sweat and urine. Tents and hasty shelters were set up on the outskirts of the town, though not at a fast enough pace to keep up with the constant flow of new arrivals. Riots broke out over food that was scarce and often spoiled; filth ran in channels through the streets and collected in festering cesspools. In the space of a few months, these slums engulfed the town, until there was nothing left but a ramshackle conglomeration of tents and cobbled-together huts clinging to the enclave of English houses surrounding the governor’s palace.  The natives, their belongings stowed in bundles wrapped in bed-sheets, bribed the engine-drivers and hid themselves away in the empty carriages as the trains made their return journeys; those that could not or would not leave soon found themselves out on the streets as starving mobs ransacked their houses and slept in their beds. So vastly outnumbered were these remaining townspeople that they vanished among the throngs of slum dwellers: the men had no choice but to join the workforce for a few meagre coins, while their wives and daughters inevitably found themselves asking a fee for favours that would otherwise have been freely taken of them.

The governor, whose relations with Sir William had slipped into animosity during the long months of the latter’s stay in the guest wing, could do no more than barricade his doors and look on in helpless despair. For his part, Sir William, so absorbed in his work that he would often forget to eat, barely took any notice of these developments.  As soon as the first structures took shape out on the salt flats, the governor’s two guests took their leave of his waning hospitality and took up residence there. Sir William, animated by a consuming passion that often suggested a feverish delirium, would have presented a disquieting sight to those acquainted with the composure and order of his habitual manner. He would not wait for sunrise to commence his daily rounds, inspecting the laying of the foundations, drilling the foremen, presenting his designs to an array of junior architects who pored over them for hours in a mixture of awe and bewilderment.  Overlooking these scenes, Merlaine, perched on some high scaffold, would gaze intently at some detail chosen, it would seem, at random, filling notebook after notebook with meticulous and determined designs and reciting lines in a dead language. Long after the workers would descend on the cantinas for the evening, the two of them would pace around the construction site, elaborating, modifying, perfecting their designs, before retiring to their chambers long past sunset.

It was a foregone conclusion that they would become the subjects of scandalized whispers and obscene jokes, even without the curious fascination engendered by a figure as odd and enigmatically unknowable as Merlaine. Even had they troubled themselves to take note of this, however, they would have been perfectly indifferent: the more of their city took shape, the more thoroughly they cocooned themselves within the concentric circles of its avenues and canals.

A year passed, two years, three; a legion of five thousand able-bodied workmen were driven to exhaustion, sometimes to death, to raise up a hundred spires against the white sky, and to construct colonnades of polished marble that swept around glass-domed plazas. From time to time, Sir William, emerging momentarily from his visionary fervour, would notice the misery of their condition and feel the pangs of a conscience that was not cruel at its core; but there were always pressing matters to attend to and affairs that would not wait.

There were visitors, at intervals – officers making their way to the battlefields of the Inca War, explorers, the occasional aristocrat completing some grand tour of the colonies. Travelling out of their way to view the work of a man whose renown spread to all the corners of the Empire, they encountered a sight that no set of preconceptions or expectations could account for.

These visitors returned to Europe with tales that caught the ear of many. They told of one of the great minds of the age, burning with a visionary fervour that was either divine inspiration or mad, overreaching folly; of his mysterious companion, an unaccountable poet-artist who spoke in riddles and recorded unimaginable revelations in lines that seemed to diffuse the world in the face of a more fundamental solidity. Above all else, they spoke in hushed, reverential tones of an impossible city taking shape in that barren wasteland, a fortress of Enlightenment shored up against the rising tides of chaos and anarchy, the crowning glory of the Age of Progress: a palace of art, a tower of science, an elegy in stone and glass and steel to the promise and ambition of humanity.

Oh, the stories they told! They stirred frenzied flights of the imagination in every aesthete, scholar and inventor from San Francisco to St. Petersburg. All at once, the artists of Chelsea and Montmartre, the scientists of Zurich and Copenhagen, the writers of Vienna, became aware that some undefined centre had shifted, and that they suddenly found themselves standing on the periphery. En masse, they packed their trunks and made their arrangements; it mattered little that some crossed the Atlantic in the opulent drawing-rooms of Cunard Line airships, while some did so in cramped third-class steamer cabins – all met in the ports of Brazil and Argentina. The divisions of class and nationality evaporated on the interminable train journeys that took them across jungle and pampas and into the Bolivian highlands, where, like bands of medieval pilgrims, they walked the last miles across the startling salt flats.

The first suggestions of the city’s ornate towers across the white plain, warped and twisted into impossible shapes by the desert air, manifested themselves on their horizon like the phantasmagorical vision of a new world. Drawing closer, the pilgrims entered the city by the linden-lined Prospect Way, glimpsing a new wonder at every step. They strolled across the intricate mosaic paving of the square that would later become known as the Plaza Bricolage. They climbed the winding stair that led to the tallest tower, where Sir William and Merlaine held their daily court, and with them looked out over the city as the spires of glass and steel caught the dawn, bathing the streets and the waters of the canals in a mercurial dance of light. Here was a work which cut through the equivocality of the world: each line, each angle, each new arrangement of shapes as one turned a corner, embodied an inexpressible truth.

Very few chose to return. What was there in the garrets of Montparnasse, the coffee-houses of Prague or the laboratories of New York to return to? And so they stayed: the elegant edifices that lined the six great avenues became academies, theatres and opera houses, the colonnaded plazas soon harboured cafés, libraries and artisans’ workshops, and the polished-metal domes of the Scientists’ Quarter soon hummed with the workings of strange machinery.

In their own ways, all sought to add their mark to the city: an inscription, a sculpture, a design, a mural. As the last of the workmen downed their tools and fell by degrees into a despondent, drunken life of abject poverty in the squalor of the slums, this gathering of artists and artisans, scientists and engineers, settled in to complete the work. They worked with no instructions, adhering to no dictate or imposition, bringing with them the weight of a thousand disparate traditions, cultures and histories; yet every new addition seemed the bringing-forth of an aspect of the work that had always been there, waiting for that precise moment to be revealed.

***

On an evening, some years later, when the first signs of impending autumn had insinuated themselves into the air, Sir William walked with Lord Raleigh Huntington, newly arrived from London, down Christina Street and emerged into the Plaza Bricolage, where the poets of the New Dispensation imbibed absinthe at the café tables around the Ödön Lechner fountain.

“Of course, King Edward does not look kindly on…all of this,” Lord Huntington remarked, in measured syllables, encompassing the contents of the Plaza Bricolage in a sweep of the arm. “Not that he does not recognize, even appreciate, the remarkable achievements that have been wrought here. In a way, they have certainly, ah, brought glory to our Empire. But the political issues, you understand…the words treason, insurrection, have been spoken in the highest circles. Sir William, your position, should you choose to set foot on English shores, is, as the matter stands, hardly enviable at all.”

He paused, considering his words. “If, however, you were to express…regret at a situation that has spiralled so spectacularly out of hand….if such were to be the case, the King has indicated a willingness to be lenient in your regard. You are, as it were, in a position to do a great service to your country. This city…the resources you possess at your disposal…may prove pivotal in turning the tide of the Inca War, and there is more riding on that conflict than you might be, ah, aware of.”

“I have no intention of returning to Britain,” Sir William replied, calmly. “In fact, I have no intention of leaving this city at all. I am confident I speak for all this city’s residents when I say that there is nothing for us beyond this place, nor do we have any interest in the affairs of nations we have long renounced. We desire only to be left in peace.”

A distinct note of exasperation crept into Lord Huntington’s voice. “I know you are no fool, Sir William, so I must conclude you merely wish me to believe you so. You know well enough this cannot last. Seven regiments of the King’s men stand within a week’s march of this spot. Should His Majesty lift a finger, they could be here on Sunday. If you insist on this open defiance of His Majesty’s wishes, rest assured that steps will be taken, and swiftly.”

They had arrived at the foot of the Ascending Stair, at the top of which the grand spire of the city hall caught the last of the day and flashed with the red light of orichalcum. In a high balcony, Sir William could see Merlaine, clad in the usual scarlet, looking out over the city. From across the Plaza a single sustained note played on a cello reverberated in the evening air, and Sir William felt a sadness come upon him, for it struck him how ephemeral the earthly manifestations of immutable ideas are fated to be.

Lord Huntington’s tone changed again, becoming conciliatory. “Your situation – this city’s situation, perhaps I’d better say – is more precarious than you think. Word has reached us that Kaiser Wilhelm has sent an envoy to the Sapa Inca in Cuzco; we have no information on what came out of the meeting, but we must prepare for the worst. Already the war is but a few hundred miles to the northwest: last week a convoy of airships navigating the Drake Pass was set upon by a squadron of those infernal mechanical condors, and went down with all hands. The slightest spark will set Europe alight, and this absurd fiefdom you have built for yourself out on the edge of the world will not be spared from the conflagration.”

The following morning, Lord Huntington departed the city by the Whispering Gate, unsatisfied; he left behind him a city that had, through his visit, undergone some imperceptible modification – a certain sense of loss, of an impending ending, had crept into its fabric. Later in the day, Sir William and Merlaine, presiding over an assembly of the city’s elected, could see it in the downcast eyes before them, and hear it in a wavering quiver around the edges of words.

Every member of the assembly knew that, even as they spoke, Lord Huntington resided in the slums that were their city’s hidden reverse; that he was holding converse with the leaders of that place, expressing his deepest regret at their sorry plight, promising justice, weapons, money, amnesties in return for their help in overthrowing the city’s self-appointed elite.  They knew that it was only a matter of time before the Inca engines of death would bring fire down from the sky on wings of metal and feather, that King Edward’s armies stood poised to reclaim His Majesty’s property, and that the decisive battle of the Inca War would be fought among the tangled ruins and smouldering ashes of their city.

Sir William, who knew enough of politicians and bureaucrats to know they had cast the world in their own image, had foreseen all this before the first foundation was laid, and had planned accordingly. One future remained open to the city: it was a path Merlaine and he had deluded themselves into thinking they could avoid taking, but which was now inevitable.

Preparations had to be made, and so, as the arc-lamps flickered to life in the twilit streets below, they revealed to the assembly before them the city’s true nature, and the fate which had always lain in waiting at the end of its unfolding. Long after night had fallen over the city, the assembled senators dispersed, and spoke of what they had heard in hushed tones, scarcely believing it possible.

So it was that, a few days later, when the chimes of eight o’clock rang out across the city, its citizens, gathered together in cafés, gardens and terraces, fell into a trembling, expectant hush. All movement, all conversation halted; a vast, gaping silence took hold of the city, broken only by the distant whisper of wind on the salt flats. The clocks ticked their seconds; the city held its breath for a moment, and another. And then –

– as suddenly as the silence began, it was extinguished: titanic subterranean engines shuddered into motion, massive gears turned and clicked together in interlocking patterns; at Nikola Tesla’s New Wardenclyffe Institute, electrical energy arced across row upon row of coils and capacitors, sparked into a sudden discharge brighter than the day. In the Plaza Bricolage and on the banks of the Pleasure Canal, glasses were raised in raucous cheers; snatches of song reached Sir William and Merlaine in their orichalcum tower. They were more solemn – they understood that the choice that had been made, albeit necessary, was a terrible one; and yet they could not help but feel a tremendous awe at the sight of this great, this incalculable work they had channelled, emerging confidently out of its chrysalis into the splendour of its full realization.

An immense electrical hum filled the city, rose to an unbearable pitch for a second or two, then stopped abruptly, leaving in its wake the echo of a juddering shockwave sent crashing through the salt flats. Slowly, but surely, and with such a grace that the motion seemed unreal, the city broke its hold on the earth that had given it life, and took flight.

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1 Comment

  1. Stylish opening and memorable ending, with a discipline to the overall narrative tenor. Well done!


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