Gravity's End, The Para-Architectural and The Not Not-ruins

The buttress is an exoskeleton. It is necessary and functional, it shows that support is needed. It exposes the impending collapse if it were not there. Its size and construction imply its objective as a long-term goal, that it must remain for some time, that it must endure a persistent task—a large and persistent task.

Image: Kandis Friesen

It is simple. It is strong in its simplicity, it was thought out, designed, adjusted, then built to fit this specific building, these specific walls, this specific ground, this specific place. It is untreated, it is weathered, it adds itself as a surface to the ecosystem of moss and plants that surrounds it.

It is wood, holding up this limestone structure, an exterior, propped counterpart to the five-story concrete skeleton inside. Its wood was sourced from old and large trees that had also sustained a long life, a structure of their own to uphold, before this.

It is a framework, uncovered—it is a framework that cannot be hidden. The support it provides cannot be concealed, unseen, ignored.

It conveys the importance of the building, that the building is needed, necessary, that even if it is unsafe to work in, research in, think in, talk in, breathe in, it is very, very crucial that it exist, that it be maintained; however dangerous, precarious, uncertain its walls are, it is indispensable that it remain.

It is a massive sculpture. It uses minimal means to convey a maximal task. It nods to Constructivist design, it conveys a flow of lines, a physical energy, a structural apparatus that must be navigated to move around the exterior of the building.

It turns the building's walls and courtyard into a constructivist theatre set, implying that a play might begin, that sound and image and action will take place, that work is to be done, and that that work includes thinking among its tasks. It implies that the future will take place here, be imagined here, be some other thing here. It implies the building has a future, and that its future will somehow be exactly here.

It is an action in physics, in spatial geometry, an equation of force and gravity. It speaks of pushing, of grounding, of bracing the ground to push something up, hold someone up, help someone up, fight someone off. It is legs and arms and bodies, stretched out, in action, it is in action, it is not static, it is reaching.

It points to the top of the building, to the sky, the roof, the domed corner towers with broken-out windows that are strangely not covered, not even with plastic, so that they become homes for birds, squirrels, and insects, the outside ecosystem moving inside the buildings walls—it points towards porousness, that porousness and brokenness have something in common. It is not just a building, it is an ecosystem.

It pushes towards the inside of the building: stacked documents lining the concrete bookshelf, substantiating immigrant anchorage, state violence, and mass murder; plans, drawings, and texts; particles of dust in a dust mountain that evolve narratives, even if fragile, muffled and faint. It points to the pre-concrete open space, the great hall of acoustical devotion, auditory celebration, the vast pipe organ that was built into the walls, the building itself as a resonator, a giant instrument, before the new skeleton and its stuffing muted its space.

It points also to the ground: to what is underneath, to what supports the supports themselves. It points to the limestone catacombs, the underground internal quarry, the skeleton of the city itself that is both known and unknown, well-worn and unmapped, that is both shelter—life—and death. To deregulated commerce, communal storage, clandestine resistance, criminal burial, secret transit, concealed cellars, latent lays. The functioning that surrounds the functioning—the para-functional. The architecture that supports the architecture—the para-architectural. Amiss, irregular, beside. Something that protects or wards off. Near, next to, from, against; all of these things.

It is a brace for the wounded body, pointing to the brace, wound, and body all at once. It is a prop for the slumping form, pointing to the prop, slump, and form all at once. Everything, all of these things, suggest a slow motion, an inclining entropy, an organic decay of the wood, stone, sand, gravel, metal, lime. A slow push towards each other, a slow and sinking recline.

It feels solid, immovable, permanent and strong. Yet its very existence tells me this is false, that I must think of the possible. This precarity brings its past and future to every moment, not as a threat, but as potential: contingent figurations at the ready.

It makes me imagine gravity's end, it makes me imagine a ruin. The building and the buttress and the concrete skeleton and the catacombs beneath—none of them are ruins, but they are also not not-ruins. They are somewhere between collapse and construction, disintegration and repair. There is a decay that is also an elaboration, a complex addendum, an accessioned collage, conjoining parts that make a new and unexpected kind of body. The synagogue that lost its aural tone, the archive that grew a documental yell, the sculpture that holds off a low-lying rumble, an imminent tremor, with arms deliberately outstretched, bearing weight against weight against the subterranean, a skeletal labyrinth; bearing weight against weight against the archival fonds, a documental labyrinth; bearing weight against weight against spectral prayer, a disappeared aural labyrinth. To what direction do these structures mutely utter their sounds? To what acoustics do they not announce their replies? What surfaces absorb their silent vibrations, as they continue to be, where they are, holding fast, quickly holding?

The synagogue was built for musical and metaphysical experience; it was designed with such purposes in mind. It reverberated thousands of voices and instrumental tones within its walls. The glass in the windows also vibrated with their waves. Did the catacombs beneath also resound with vibration? Or did the ground take it first, dispersing it in its wetness? Sound absorbs into whatever it touches, it moves around the densest objects if it can, and if not, there it stays, dissipates, dispersed. When the five-level concrete book case was built, it broke up the chamber into five new parts, separating it as if sections of a choir, or bunk beds, or bunkers, or vaults. If the concrete was even a little bright, the archival paper and wooden shelves deadened the sound even more. There are no echoes in the concrete case, no new air; the birds, squirrels, insects, and moss do not enter. The concrete is solid, strong, it is matte and dry. To remove it, to bring the chamber back its reverberant echoes, it would need to be jackhammered with such violent drilling. It would shake the limestone walls too hard, the late stucco would crumble in seconds, within minutes the foundation would loosen its hold, begin faltering, shifting, weight against weight. It would stagger, and this crumbling would be its last and only song, a coda that brings down the walls, the buttress still standing before the concluding passage of the piece, an addition to the basic structure, an end.

---This text centres on one of four wooden buttresses that hold up two exterior walls of a building in Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea in south western Ukraine. The building sits on the corner of Zhukovs'koho and Pushkins'ka streets in the city centre, just south of the Odessa Opera House and the famous Potemkin stairs. It was built as a choral synagogue in 1863, and featured a rare and large pipe organ, which accompanied musical services and public concerts. It was officially closed in 1925 under Soviet law, and re-opened as a Jewish workers club. After the brutal German-Romanian occupation and mass murder of most Jewish residents during World War II, it became the regional archives building in 1944, and a five-story interior concrete skeleton was built inside of it to hold the archival collection. The building remains the Odessa State Archives today, though the keys have symbolically been returned to a local Jewish community. It must, by law, be physically returned when it becomes possible, but it will never become possible—there is nowhere to move the archives to. There is no place to move the archives to because the government does not have the money or desire to build or renovate such a space. If such a space appeared, the community could take possession of but not utilize the space—it is too dangerous to be in and there is a five story concrete book shelf inside. The community could renovate the space, but it would be so costly and disruptive to the building's structures that it would bankrupt and crumble both the community and the building. It is at a standstill, though still moving. At some point in the late 1990s, four exterior buttresses were built to literally hold up the north and west walls of the building, two on each side. They are massive, nearly as tall as the building itself, built out of huge wooden timbers, supported by smaller crossbeams, with wood shoved underneath them to level them out. There is moss growing on their surfaces, there is caution tape pulled across their legs. They are weather worn, softening but still strong. These supports, along with a few large jack-stands inside, are the only thing keeping the building standing.

About the Author

Kandis Friesen

Kandis Friesen’s work is anchored in diasporic language, dispersed translations, and disintegrating archival forms. Drawing on Russian Mennonite, Ukrainian, and former Soviet geographies, her interdisciplinary compositions build from architectural, material, and spectral inhabitations of exile, amplifying minute and myriad histories at once. Her work has been exhibited and screened at LUX, Images Festival, Jihlava Film Festival, FIFA, Athens Digital Arts Festival, MIX NYC, Traverse Vidéo, and VIVO Media Arts, among others. Originally from Winnipeg and Montréal, she lives and works in Chicago. Her videos are distributed by Groupe Intervention Vidéo in Montréal.