Michael Fink: Poetics of Architecture

By Dongyue Zhang | May 09, 2016

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Pigeon Park in Puerto Rico

The power of poetics and architecture plays through its physical manifestation predates back to design inception. Sketching & modeling – powerful tools designers use to express the power of their brain, though the skill of their hands. Writing is an undermined, yet vital part of designing. The play of words takes architectural conceptualizing deeper and beyond the power of our pen. Michael Fink, professor in the Literary Arts & Studies Department, uses the power of writing to express his extensive knowledge and its relationship to the designed world.

An interview took place at professor Fink’s office in the College Building filled with his works,  findings, and fragments of life. Fink extends his observations and life experiences through his position at RISD as a scholar. His fascination and passion to explore the habitat and life beyond ourselves and objects. “We look down so that we can communicate with our own kind [as we walk], but we don’t look up at the sky, we don’t look to the top of the trees to see the world from another perspective, a bird’s eye perspective… If you look at your own hand and what you’re holding, and if you plug yourself away from the sound of the birds in the morning, you’re really not an artist, or an art student…” Fink playfully mentions during the interview as he describes RISD’s pigeon club. His curiosity grows as he learns more and more about pigeons – observing their habitats, their habits, their communication with one another. Fink has made celebrating the lives of these pigeons a vital part of his life and career. He extends his knowledge through the pigeon club, making aware the values of observing and appreciating our world beyond out phones. Fink’s recent visit to Puerto Rico this winter allowed him to stitch the poetics of birds with architecture once again. During the trip, Fink visited the School of Architecture in Puerto Rico and was warmly welcomed by our recent graduate Gonzalo Badillo.

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Professor Fink and RISD Alumni at the School of Architecture in Puerto Rico

The trip brought many thoughts back to the surface for professor Fink, and he expands upon his engagement with the poetics of language and architecture below.

I had a student a few semesters ago who did her class project for my “birds and words” elective, and also for her architecture studio thesis. It was about the RISD dovecote. That is, a pigeon coop. She labeled it a “columbarium.”  She claimed, that is also the word for the wall of niches that hold the ashes of our loved ones. A pigeon, in scientific language, is a “Colombia” or something spelled like that in different languages. My old dictionaries by my front window state that all America, particularly the U.S.A,. is known as “Columbia.”

Well, of course, for good and proper reasons, Christopher Columbus is no longer a proud name to celebrate.  Brown University has stricken his name from its autumn calendar of holiday weekends, for P.C. purposes. I have no quarrel with that decision.  I have, simply, a few commentaries to add as footnotes.

There is a difference between the actual person, Columbus, and the idealized icon saluted in song and in stone and steel—sculptors, painters, poets, scholars, have invested his name with their values.  “Sail on, sail on,” quotes Cincinnatus Miller in his narrative verse titled “Columbus”  The name symbolized the quality of determination and courage, to him.

Simon Wiesenthal the Nazi-hunter and architect, who founded the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, wrote an account called “Sails of Hope,” in which the author interpreted the explorer as a rescuer…of prisoners condemned by the Inquisition! You can lay hands on that strange text only if you travel to the Italian neighborhood branch libraries.  Just as, in fact, the memorial monuments to Christopher Columbus are usually funded by Italian donors, who see in him an “immigrant” who opened the doors to other refugees fleeing Europe in pursuit of a dream of and pursuit of…something like “happiness”–whatever that may mean.  Especially in eras that endeavored to keep immigrants out…or even to sterilize them! I have laid eyes, and hands, on a wide variety of such works, from Cranston to Westerly and Newport…and to Columbus Park in the north end of Boston, a small marble image of the admiral holding a modest map or scroll, a surprisingly gentle version of the controversial visionary.

Columbus may have been none of these things, but artists projected upon his voyages a metaphorical meaning born in the imagination.

But coming back to the pigeon! The wildfowl, or tame half-domesticated omnipresent ornithological omen, stands as a logo for “dove”–emblem of peace! And also loyalty and love!  So why do we name the clefts in rock walls a “columbarium” when we place the remains of our heros, our loved ones, within their intimate chambers?   As prayers for peace in the hereafter, yes?  That’s what my alumna “Amara” from Puerto Rico, said to her fellow senior students at her graduation crits not long ago.

I still serve as the faculty advisor to our college pigeon club, but mostly I am just an admirer of their devotion and dedication to the welfare of this under-appreciated species, this neglected neighbor in all the cities of the wide world above and beneath our footsteps.  As an English teacher, I trace the word, and as a teacher in a design school I track down the word and all its implications and associations.  And I made my way as a pilgrimage to P.R. to feed the pigeons toasted there in a special park in the center of the old city, “Viejo San Juan.”

I asked my Puerto Rican hosts and friends, our RISD alums, what they desire, and predict, as the future of their island community and culture.  “We are a territory, not consulted about our wishes.  We love our music and our mutual mix of a past.  Some of us want statehood and others prefer separation as a nation apart.”  We made our way to the gigantic statue of Christopher Columbus, crafted by the Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli and offered two decades ago to other sites, both within mainland U.S.A. and then among Puerto Rico places and now, being assembled from its huge parts, long buried under drifting and shifting sands, and welded by an assembly from several ports of call, in Arecibo. But get this:  nearby, next to the enormous undertaking, there is a half-hidden cave, containing ancient murals done by the perhaps-vanished “Taino” indigenous people.   “We are descended from both genetic groups.  We are at once  Taino—a nearly extinct population of gentle and talented natives victims both of the Caribs and then of the Conquistadores.  We have inherited their bloodlines and their visions!”

Whatever the future may hold there in these troubled economic times,  for our RISD graduates and their society, I am happy to have visited their lovely landscape and enjoyed their hospitality….and to have made cordial friends with their pigeons!

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Spring 2017 Events

  • February 23, 6:30 PM Brett Schneider, Guy Nordenson and Associates & RISD Architecture
  • March 2, 6:30 PM at RISD Auditorium Petra Blaisse, Inside Outside, Hosted with INTAR, Textiles, RISD Museum
  • February 27, 6:30 PM Jeanette Kuo, Karamuk*Kuo
  • March 13, 6:30 PM Allan Wexler, Allan Wexler Studio, Hosted with ID
  • March 16, 6:30 PM Jarrett Walker, Jarrett Walker + Associates
  • April 3, 6:30 PM Kunle Adeyemi, NLÉ, Yoder Lecture
  • April 24, 6:30 PM Nader & Katie Faulkner, NADAAA, Shoemaker Lecture
  • May 11, 6:30 PM Shumi Bose, Central Saint Martins & Architectural Association

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