For my first assignment in my first (and last) year of architecture school, we were given black, white, and grey sheets of construction paper, some glue and a pair of scissors. I was almost surprised they didn’t tell us not to run with sharp objects in our hands, and to pass them, if we’d please, handle-first to our neighbors when sharing. But the assignment was this: make three maps of your home (meaning the place where we’d grown up and just left, heading to these hinterlands of higher education), graphically using just the three tones. The first map was your block, the second your town, the third the greater area of your county or township.
Each one, I found, was progressively harder. The further I radiated out from my house, the harder it was to remember what went where, especially using the unambiguous line of cut construction paper and not a more forgiving medium such as pencil, which can be fudged and smudged. This was long before Google Earth, but cut by cut I formed the shape of the place that had shaped me. The pond where I fished for sunnies with my brother. The woods (long gone now) that I cut through on my way to grade school. The two rivers that bordered the small town. The ocean they drained into. We rarely look at maps of the places we grow up in, and I imagine the information that guides us through these local landscapes without thought are lodged in some deep recess of the brain. The knowing below knowledge. We learned, through that assignment, in that magnificent stone building, how to make our own maps of the worlds we inhabited. How to define space. I quit architecture, but some lessons remain.
I’m back in New Orleans, the home of that freshman year of my life. It’s been a dozen years since I was last here, long before Katrina came, conquered and left. I hope to walk by that building where I spent many an all-nighter, to cross St. Charles and see if the grand old tree I remember from 20 years ago is still there, it’s tremendous branches still sweeping the ground. Tomorrow we’ll help serve a thanksgiving dinner at the Civic Center, but there’s also a long list of restaurants to hunt down in the pursuit of fried artichokes and crawfish and beignets and booze. Hopefully I’ll check out the Prospect.1 Biennial with art installations all over the city, including the recovering Ninth Ward.
But I leave you with an assignment. Draw a map of your place, however you want to define that. If your supply of construction paper and glue is low, then paper and pen, not pencil, will do. No research. No internet. Just you and the recesses of your mind. Let me know what you come up with. Governor Palin gets her own special assignment — to draw a map of Africa.
And happy thanksgiving.