In reading Melanie Curran’s essay entitled “Lived-In Experiences of Architecture in New Orleans”, I was struck not only by Curran’s stunning use of language, but also by her ability to personify and give meaning to the various forms of architecture in New Orleans. Before reading this essay, I hadn’t really thought of the buildings that I’ve lived, worked, and learned in as significant aspects of my life. I didn’t have much of an interest in the history of these buildings, or the small details that make them unique. Curran, on the other hand, seems to view the buildings in her life almost as living, breathing entities. She places quite a bit of importance on the stories of the buildings that she encounters.
Curran’s writing style is breathtaking and artistic, even when describing something as matter-of-fact as architecture. Her poetic language gives the essay a certain amount of color and depth that it might not have had otherwise. I was struck by lines like “Conversations melted into walls and doors” (pg. 224), “The back door swung at the mercy of the wind” (pg. 227), “I grew permeable to the feeling of living in living buildings” (pg. 227), and “a dreamy fictionalization of a real place” (pg. 227). In her essay, Curran displays her very special talent of writing in a poetic state of mind. In addition to the writing style, I absolutely loved the structure of the piece. It seems to me that the essay came together in the same way that a collage might. The piece isn’t very organized, which I actually appreciated quite a bit. A few pages are devoted to each architectural structure that Curran lived in or had experiences with while she was in New Orleans. But other than that, there isn’t much structure to the piece. It almost feels like a series of vignettes, each tied together by the common theme of New Orleans architecture. This gives the essay a nice contrast with the rest of the pieces in the collection, most of which were told in a more traditional way. I was amazed by Curran’s ability to piece together what felt like fragments of memories and experiences, into a cohesive and enjoyable essay.
While the majority of the essay centers on Curran’s personal experience, she also takes a few opportunities to comment on the way that architecture can reflect the state of a culture as a whole, and how this relates to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. On page 223, Curran relays her belief that “by rebuilding structures, [volunteers] were helping to give back to the city the very structure of its culture”. Evidently, Curran places quite a bit of importance on the buildings that hold a place in our lives and hearts. And she has found a way to help with the rebuilding of New Orleans culture in her own way. “I realized that I want not so much to rebuild houses, but to build the stories of houses through the lens of architectural ethnography” (pg. 224).
A good illustration of Curran’s writing style, as well as an overview of what her essay is focused on, can be found in this passage on page 225:
“A Mathematical Approach to Determining the Lived-In Character of Architectural
For every building, there is an equal and opposite abundance of life being lived. Washers, dryers, ceiling fans, and air conditioning units are all whirling at speeds relative to the pace of personalities. Cracks, creaks, leaks, and bends are all dismantling at ratios determined by a factor of X. The value of X derives from usage of material amenities by tenant, multiplied by intensity of light bursting through south facing windows, supplemented by forces of nature encroaching on said building, divided by occupancy and sanded down to the wood grain and number of children brought up under the roof before it was patched in 1997.
Using such calculations, it is understandable that the amount of passion, dreaming, sexual desire and routine dwelling within the physical walls of buildings leads to “lived-in” characteristics that take effect in the architectural context. I will be exploring such characteristics of vernacular forms of architecture in New Orleans unearthed during my fieldwork from February to May 2012.”
When reading this passage, I was especially struck by the first line in the second paragraph (“Using such calculations, it is understandable that the amount of passion, dreaming, sexual desire and routine dwelling within the physical walls of buildings leads to ‘lived in’ characteristics that take effect in the architectural context”). I thought that this was an incredibly beautiful and inspiring line, and it gave me a new appreciation for all of the buildings that I’ve lived in, worked in, learned in, or had any sort of connection with. It’s fascinating to think of the history of these buildings, the connections that others have had with them, and the stories that can be told about them. I think it’s important to preserve these stories, and Melanie Curran does a wonderful job of preserving a bit of the history of buildings in New Orleans, as well as her own personal experiences in them.