If you’ve been in an echo chamber, you’ll surely recall the impulse to shout or speak quietly into that magic space and then wait for the reverberation to send back your words or sounds. Echoes are not always sonic–they can be architectural. During the Blitz, Virginia and Leonard Woolf did not seek safety from London by fleeing to a southern county like Essex. Friends urged them to do so, but they stayed because they were running an important small press in their basement–The Hogarth Press, that still publishes books. It seems that Virginia often began her day by walking from their Bloomsbury flat to a local market for milk and baked goods, passing by the same buildings every morning. But bombs could change that with frightening ease, and she often wrote about new devastation wrought by German planes. In a powerful entry, she said “All the walls, the protecting and reflecting walls, wear so terribly thin in this war. There’s no standard to write for: no public to echo back…. They [enemy planes] came very close….We walked around back. Stood by Jane Harrison’s house. The house was still smoldering…. Scraps of cloth hanging to the bare walls at the side still standing. A looking glass I think swinging. Like a tooth knocked out–a clean cut.”
What Woolf is working out is just how valuable seeing familiar structures can be to provide us with an end point for our eyes. They travel along some vector to building X, are stopped by it and then it’s as if the arc of our vision returns to assure us all is well. Losing these architectural limits clearly caused Virginia emotional discomfort. Since she was also losing good friends who served to mirror her and offer assurances that she was “seen,” I believe the shock caused by the erasure or destructive alteration in her physical environment frayed her nerves in serious ways.
Though I intend no comparison with the effects of nightly bombing, I am experiencing a similar fraying brought on by the destruction of a landmark building in my own neighborhood. Ever since I moved to Minneapolis in 1964, I’ve been shopping for groceries at a store named Lunds. Right across the street from it has always stood a large and graceful sandstone public building housing things like banks and law offices and real estate establishments. In fact, when natives heard where I lived, they urged me to go visit this building and I did. About five stories high, it boasted a beautiful frieze border at its top: SONS OF NORWAY was inscribed onto a background of lovely multi-colored flowers–all true blues and bright yellows embedded in primary green. Not being familiar with the name, I inquired and discovered that the building had originally served the Norwegian community settling Minneapolis. In particular, offices in the space helped new immigrants secure housing, jobs, and–importantly to the Norwegian sense of family responsibility–solid life insurance policies. These new citizens often worked dangerous construction jobs and so wanted to be sure their families were “covered” in case of their unexpected death. So the building spoke to providing unrooted people with a visible “echo” of sorts, a place where their words requesting help and information were heard and heeded, helping them begin to feel secure in their adopted country.
A new generation of city council members in Minneapolis is pushing all sorts of plans to increase “density” and discourage people from driving individual cars. So they forced through a mammoth proposal for the city block that had been peacefully occupied by the Sons of Norway building and its generous parking lots. They will erect three six-story buildings that include features like a skating rink and high-end boutiques. Within less than a week, gargantuan cranes, trucks, pile-drivers, and wrecking tractors ate away that lovely building. I tried not to look as I went into and out of Lunds for fresh vegetables, Norwegian salmon, or flowers for my dining room table. I took to arking on the side of the store with no view of the sandstone façade being reduced to mountains of ugly twisted metal and rubble. But today, I made myself look at the giant gaping hole. Doing so brought Woolf’s frightening and frightened words to mind. And, like her as she coped with no place for her eyes to “land,” I felt disoriented and not a little lost. My eyes just kept going until I forced myself to look into the sky that had not changed. But clouds are by definition diaphanous, not like sandstone and glass. So my vision had no familiar echo and I felt sad and scared.