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Returning Home to What we Are August 18, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in change, optimism, possibility, questions, the economy, transformation.
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We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.                                                             T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

Amongst several other projects, in the past year as an architect I have worked on the design of a 180 story super-tall high rise and designed a mile long retail spine. It’s easy to understand with projects such as these how architects can get it in their minds that what they do has cosmic importance and is on some level even heroic.

Many of these largest projects were designed and destined for countries expanding at a fast clip, often found abroad. We would find ourselves setting off for distant lands to compete and conquer and reap our rewards by garnering yet another commission.

We’ve been on many voyages – professional, family, artistic – all involving great effort and many sacrifices on our part. And on the part of others.

The past several years has led us on a journey to many foreign – and some not so foreign – destinations and here we find ourselves, back where we started.

All of that was – as we know too well – a lifetime ago. Here we are today, summer winding down, sailing home. Today we find ourselves on the most unusual destination of all: home, returning to the place where we started. If anything, the economic headwinds have brought each of us back into our own. Reintroduced us to ourselves as though we had been away from ourselves and are only now returning and getting reacquainted.

Many architects with our long hours and near obsession with our craft and calling, are using this newfound land of time to readjust and reprioritize. The Odyssey is over – it is time to return home.

Or so writes Norman Fischer in his profoundly beautiful Sailing Home: Using Homer’s Odyssey to Navigate Life’s Perils and Pitfalls.  Comparing Odysseus’s journey to our own, Fischer asserts that this book “will help you appreciate the shape and feeling for the journey, will give you the reflections to keep you company and perhaps also steady your step as you walk forward into the darkness.” For those trying to make their way back from your own 10-years wars with our own personal Troys in these challenging times, it is a book I cannot recommend enough. As much as any book that has come before, because it is inspired by and based on a living classic that has been with us for thousands of years, the book is about you and your life, right now.

So why do I recommend this book to architects? For the very reason that architects (of all stripes) are strivers, journeymen and women, fighting daily battles inside and outside the office to overcome divine and earthly obstacles, in search of a promised (but little seen) heroism. Odysseus and his wanderings are certainly relevant to architect’s own heroic journey – wherever you find yourself on your own. The book will help you to yield personal revelations, make sense of your past journeys, elucidate their outcomes and show you the way to greater purpose and meaning in your own life.

Additionally, one of the books messages will stand out for many architects: namely, to resist novelty and instead replace it with repetition (practice) which will lead in time to Mastery. Certainly this is a welcome message after so many years of one-upmanship of taller, bigger, longer. Likewise, Fischer advises that we stop criticizing the state of things and instead accept “all that is  messy, inexact, troublesome and uncontrollable in human life.” A relief for the perfectionists in us all in these all-too messy times.

So where does he suggest we go from here? As though speaking directly to the architect in all of us, Fischer surmises “Perhaps we are living in a post-heroic age. Maybe the human race, so full of promise, bright ideas, and hubris, is finally weary of the toxic idealisms and thoughtless excesses of power that has been so destructive and so exhausting for so long. We have seen and done so much, and it has left us dazed and confused. Maybe, like Odysseus, we are finally ready simply to return home to what we are, to our beauty and strength as well as our limitations…”

Could this be enough?

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