Today SVA’s MFA Design Criticism launches “At Water’s Edge,” the first in the D-Crit Chapbook series. This first volume was edited by Akiko Busch, Saundra Marcel and me, and features 10 essays from the D-Crit graduating class of 2011. You can buy the book on lulu.com or read a review by Alexandra Lange on Design Observer. I am very excited about this project! To celebrate, I share below my contribution to the chapbook—”Beyond.”
On the first day of class in September 2003, Antonio Queirós sat down in front of thirty students at the University of Porto, Portugal, and asked: “What are the words that define each of you?” He proceeded to enumerate this first exercise. Write a list of fifty words that you believe define you. Then reduce it down to three. And then to the one word. You have a week.
Hardly a graphic design exercise, I remember thinking, leaning against a window and trying to evaluate this redheaded forty-something teacher. But then I started my list.
The word I chose was beyond. It sounds pretentious when I say it now, but when I first presented it to class I had the brilliant idea of saying it in Spanish—mas allá. Much better than the Portuguese version of the word, I thought. More accurate, I believed. It reminded me of a folk tale I had heard in my teenage years, in which a firstborn son digs in vain through the hills of the Iberian Peninsula, searching for his dead father’s buried treasure chest. He keeps encountering paper scrolls, every one of them bearing the same message—mas allá, go beyond.
Beyond what, I should probably have asked, but instead became enamored with the idea of the quest, the odyssey. It began with all those books I read in school—Portuguese writers and poets are obsessed with that same idea. As early as the fourteenth century, boats sailed from Portugal in search of something else, an end to the sea that surrounds three quarters of the country, perhaps. Every child learns about Henrique the Navigator, one of nine children of King João the Good and the English princess Philippa of Lancaster. Henrique spearheaded Portugal’s maritime expansion, first envisioning the conquest of the Moorish Port of Ceuta, then opening European trade routes into the African continent. In the southern Port of Lagos he assembled a team of sailors and cartographers, and with each trip further south started mapping the world. Sailors under his authority discovered the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde. Back home, Henrique gathered this knowledge into what would later become the University of Lisbon. The Portuguese excelled in maritime navigation, and after circumnavigating Africa by passing its southernmost point in 1492, they mapped the route to India in 1498, and to Brazil in 1500.
Portuguese children learn how Lisbon was named after Ulysses, after he set foot in the city at some point during his travels. Ulisseia, renamed by the Romans Olissipo, finally transmuted into Lisboa. They learn how Spain and Portugal divided the world amongst themselves with the Treaty of Tordesillas. Like an orange split in half. Glorified in literature, art, and politics, especially during Portugal’s fifty-year-long dictatorship in the twentieth century, this historical period and its epic narrative of quest is embedded in our cultural fabric. That is why, I believe, my father would read to us Fernando Pessoa’s Message, some verses of which I still know by heart:
Arroio, esse cantar, jovem e puro, Like a brook, that song, young and pure,
Busca o oceano por achar; Searches out the ocean-to-be-found;
E a fala dos pinhais, marulho obscuro, And the talk of the pine groves, dull rumble
É o som presente desse mar futuro, Is the present sound of that future ocean,
É a voz da terra ansiando pelo mar. Is the call of the land yearning for the sea.
The idea of quest is why my grandfather chose sailing as a sport, teaching his sons, daughters, and grandchildren the meaning of starboard and larboard and basic sailing skills, hoping that at least one of us would carry the sailor gene. And it is also why I chose beyond as a defining word, one with an open meaning and no boundaries. I, too, hope to keep my options open.
Every city I have lived in has a harbor, the proximity to the sea part of its urban identity. In Lisbon, where I was born and raised, the caravels are now museums, replaced by cruise ships and the occasional aircraft carrier on its way back from the Middle East. Part of the harbor remains in the city’s center, as containers transition from ship to truck to some warehouse in Europe. But its most active docks are further down the Tagus, occupying both banks and off-limits to the general passerby.
In Rotterdam, where I briefly settled, the harbor is further down the Maas. Closed off from the center of the city, secluded and industrialized, this port is one of the largest in Europe. But its old piers still stand, converted into trendy restaurants, artist lofts or condo buildings, intertwined with canals where some still live in boat houses. Relics from Rotterdam’s heyday of maritime trade remain—steel drawbridges, static cranes. The place is melancholic and gray, like so much of the Netherlands.
During my time there, my friend Jess captured a haunting view of Rotterdam. Her film framed those same static cranes facing the distant harbor, a deep orange sunset behind them. It lasted a full minute until she uttered, from behind the camera: “this reminds me of Brooklyn.”
I had never been to Brooklyn and couldn’t understand what she meant. But the way she said it made me treasure that portrait, mysterious and intriguing.
On Easter Sunday 2010, I drove with my boyfriend to IKEA near the Red Hook piers in Brooklyn, on the hunt for a couch. A sign posted to the glass entry informed us that, since it was a holiday, IKEA would open its doors an hour later. The day was beautiful and warm, much in synch with its resurrection undertone, and we proceeded to a sunny patch behind the warehouse, facing the water. There we found a promenade fully integrated with the industrial chic of the unused piers, where two static cranes bowed politely to the universe. Across the water, an active dock accommodated the comings and goings of a small tugboat, lugging barges in and out of their parking places. To the west, a small number of piers opened up to the Hudson, and further south, more cranes went about their business, revealing another bustling harbor not far away. In the gray water ducks chatted happily, diving at intervals, possibly searching for the fish that signs on the pier advise against eating. Sleepy and listless on this Easter morning, facing the desolate cranes framing the pier, I finally understood what Jess had meant. Beyond the piers, a mirage of places and things I can’t imagine. Behind, the red couch I would have to cart up two flights of stairs. After an hour in the sun, we chose the couch. But the rest awaits, somewhere beyond the Red Hook piers.