It is the poet, of all people, who exposes the narratives that architects, critics, and institutions use to justify destruction.
Discipline Park by Toby Altman. Wendy’s Subway, 109 pp., $18
Is there a language of demolition? In Discipline Park, poet Toby Altman recovers multiple from the wreckage of Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, torn down in 2014. Within this context, institutions use a slick lingo that rationalizes erasure with promises of economic gain. The social sphere instead speaks in a mournful register, a wound passed “from eye to eye.” The elegies are abundant, but soon enough, the narration rolls to a stop. Unless someone picks it back up.
Altman cultivates a personal connection with Prentice, the place of his birth. He considers its architectural arrangement: a quatrefoil-shaped tower that appeared to float above a square base of services. The building was owned and operated by Northwestern University, where Altman would go on to teach decades later. But the closer he gets to it, the larger and more diffuse “the institution” becomes. It is the invisible hand that withholds nourishment, the administrator who sends unhinged fundraising emails, the wrecking ball itself.
The form of Discipline Park approaches yet refuses to mirror that of Prentice. Altman initially intended to write four poems, like the wings of the hospital. He ended up with only three discrete compositions of words, images, and other mixed media, plus an afterword essay. The book is horizontal in format, each page spread like a landscape. Photographs of Prentice and other buildings in various states of decay sit within this terrain. The ground of each page is gray, allowing for splintered narration in white and black texts, with the former often taking on the authoritative tone of research and the latter offering the situated voice of the poet.
Altman writes that he appreciates brutalism because it expresses “despair and fatigue” like no other style, and in Prentice, he finds a perfect articulation of the contemporary institution’s indifference toward human life. An analogy can be drawn to the typography, where flush left texts appear rawer, like unfinished concrete, while justified blocks of text appear more polished. The reader can glimpse parallels between acts of building, demolishing, and writing brutally.
In the first work, “Mandatory Fields,” Altman’s proxy affects a kinship with Prentice’s designer, the long-dead Bertrand Goldberg, as he struggles to see a better future for Chicago, a place marked by scarcity. On many pages, a dotted line runs horizontally from the spine of the book outward. On the left-hand page, a word or phrase sits above this line; on the mirroring right-hand page, another word or phrase sits below. When reading from left to right, words appear to tumble down the page, as if falling through a boundary. A Fluxus-style score instructs a pair of dancers to move through a space pressing a ball of paper between their heads to prevent it from falling. Eventually the appurtenance becomes a sort of antenna, revealing a shared message: “Some of the city is grief and some of it is not.” Photos show workers methodically dismantling Prentice under clear skies and foggy nights. Demolition tightens the poet’s shoulders, and he seems on edge. He seeks release in a language that can flex and abduct, one that is “built like the socket of a shoulder.”
Altman, stuck on sidewalks or locked out by fencing, is denied intimacy with those buildings he’s traveled so long to see. Anyone caught up in an architectural love affair knows the feeling.
“Bruise Smut,” the middle poem, tells of how loss trains our eyes to view reflexively. The proxy observes himself observing a swan in a drainage ditch and sees “a blank / between her fleshing eyes.” Quotations pulled from Northwestern’s official news board are called out in white, revealing how university officials celebrated their victory over historic preservationists. All the while, the narrator cannot stop talking, even when he stops making sense. (“Each thing is full and replaced by the next thing: e.g., I buy a block of cheese and then I buy another.”) Causality becomes reluctant as Prentice is reduced to a pile of debris. The semiotics established in the first poem begin to break down in the second. Captions describe images that aren’t there. White intersecting lines form grids that eat away at the images. At first, they are barely noticeable, but by the end, only tiny squares remain.
“The Institution and Its Moods,” the last poem in the book, is the most rooted in Altman’s own voice. He realizes he did not pay attention to Prentice until it was gone, and then he only “saw it through a lens.” He takes off to visit what remains of Goldberg’s built corpus. The text adopts the format of a diary or field notes, with the date and the name of the architectural project appearing in large font. He notices that Heimbach House, built in 1940 in Blue Island, Illinois, has been converted into a police-station annex. After its brief operation in Mobile, Alabama, in 1960, the Pineda Island resort lies in ruins. Altman visits Marina City, a “city within a city” that condenses living, shopping, parking, and boating into two towers poised at the edge of the Chicago River. Standing on the opposite bank, he watches a muscled boy fish a red Solo cup out of the river; Marina City becomes a frame, rather than an object. Elsewhere, nature disregards property lines and takes its revenge on Goldberg’s defeated architecture. Describing these sites exhausts, however: “How many pale chapels. How much cement. Oh great, another hospital.” Another hospital that profits off the sick, another boarding house for the infirm. Altman writes that he wants his writing to be “a technology of incompleteness,” but there is finality in his weariness. It’s like he takes on the voice of David Byrne at the end of More Songs About Buildings and Food—tired of speaking about traveling and looking through windows.
In the end, Altman avows that the poems, whatever their manifold effects, should be read as a love story between himself and Goldberg. He loves the architect because his buildings instruct you “to see another world in the folds of this one.” But is this a false confession? Altman’s Goldberg is ethereal, his name carrying the weight of all the better worlds that could have been. He is an object of affection and a projection for the incomplete utopias, unfinished projects, and failures we keep alive.
The closer he gets to it, the larger and more diffuse “the institution” becomes. It is the invisible hand that withholds nourishment, the administrator who sends unhinged fundraising emails, the wrecking ball itself.
Altman, stuck on sidewalks or locked out by fencing, is denied intimacy with those buildings he’s traveled so long to see. Anyone caught up in an architectural love affair knows the feeling. As a historian of modern architecture, I too spend a lot of time “writing behind a fence,” seeking contact with buildings that do not welcome me. I spend hours driving to some factory I saw a photo of once and then don’t know what to do when I arrive. I admire facades, peer into windows, maybe enter a lobby. My and Altman’s relative comfort with snooping around private property is a condition of whiteness, one of the obstacles to increasing the number of people who can have their own architectural love story.
Reading Discipline Park for the first time, I resented how Altman frames Prentice’s forced demise as a “cruel allegory of neoliberalism.” Lines like “Imagine Hillary Clinton with the TNT pump” felt cartoonish. But in the afterword, Altman reveals that he had anticipated my skepticism all along. Neoliberalism, it turns out, was a word he made sure to use in cover letters to justify his project and attract future opportunities. He wields the language of the institution strategically, as we all must. Art and literature circulate in an industry of false transparency: back-cover blurbs, artist statements, simple explanations for difficult things.
To be totally honest, Discipline Park’s engaging form made it easy for me to suspend my disbelief. This is not to say I felt no pricks of criticism. Was Goldberg really so utopian? Why fixate on a single “great male architect” when this model obscures all the figures supporting him? But as an architectural historian who would rather be a poet, I felt as though the book were written expressly for me. There are just so few precedents for outsiders exposing the narratives that architects, critics, and institutions use to justify destruction. Altman’s text shows that eulogizing a building takes “breathing—through many lungs.” It involves collaborating across, if not dissolving, divisions of labor. Many people will speak when demolition marks a space to mourn. The developer and the institution will show up first, speaking of inevitability; the preservationist will respond in turn about the importance of heritage. Perhaps a poet will show up late, years later, and proffer a discourse that is more sincere, but requires patience for it to be understood. Will you stick it out long enough to hear what they have to say?
Nolan Boomer is your calendar flipped open to the wrong page. They are a doctoral student concerned with buildings that outlive themselves and the workers who tend to them.