Monday, June 13, 2016

First Encounters

Small things: An ornate, yet mass-produced, cabinet handle. Tiny knobs to connect gas lamps--now closed off. The barest remnants of graffiti on a stained-glass window, "Desa."

Larger things: A built-in cabinet in what was once the dining room. A bricked-over window barely visible from the inside. Groin vaulting in the ceiling, just made of plaster, lacking support.

Such are my first encounters with the now re-purposed convent on Vliet Street. I walked blindly into the space, after the short 20 minutes driving from UWM to the Washington Park Neighborhood. While there are old buildings on the east side, this convent feels other-worldly.

And isn't it? The nuns for whom this building was created exist now elsewhere, yet they still remain softly in the bones of the structure. Is it truly possible for this building to become a-religious? For this structure was created solely as convent, even as it is now brilliantly re-purposed.

What was once the chapel is now a conference room, with stained-glass windows throwing colored light on the table. Where was once a pulpit, a projection screen stands.

The upstairs lays at once open and crowded--the dining room with its ancient gas light fixtures on ceilings and walls, and yet the hallway precludes crowding. This narrowness as I walk past built-in cabinets and tiny, closed-off rooms, reminds me of the utterly solitary lives these women were supposed to lead. And yet, the dining room ends the hallway as I go past, on my way downstairs again. Is it possible to lead both a solitary and a communal life simultaneously?

We were reminded today to think of details such as which doors have locks and which do not. The cabinets too, some of them having the potential to lock away whatever was kept, and some of them swing gently open.

Private spaces I certainly would not have thought about before today, the bathrooms of the second floor, speak to various level of authority. Where there are two small, sparse bathrooms side-by-side, a dormitory feeling is evoked. Images of women sharing highly intimate moments arise. And yet, just down the hall, next to a small raised-up room, a full bathroom is nestled away. Whomever lived in the room next door essentially had sole access to this bathroom.

It's the small things, such as who has the access to moments of true privacy and who must share, who may lock her belongings and who must trust their security, who resides on the second floor and who is relegated to the third floor--it's these small things that control and order the space of this convent.

Spaces and structures speak to me often as spaces of control and procedure, so now that I see these themes within the convent, I cannot say I am surprised. Yet I question, as I must, if the original religious purpose is linked to the spatial orderings, or if this building was allowed the potential to become something else?

For to build a convent solely, with no future purpose in mind, is to build a space that controls and orders spatiality in such a specific way that any other use of the space is at best inadequate. While architectural intent, so like authorial intent, is impossible to say with absolutely certainty, those tiny details and hidden markers in the building may reveal some level of intent.

After all, it's the small things that tell the story: Door hinges, pressed iron with designs on both sides. Inlaid and painted wooden flooring underneath the carpet, just visible where the doorway slides over. Door jams with carved oak designs, and some with just painted wood grains.

Tomorrow, when I go back to measure every wall and window of this building, perhaps its future will become apparent to me: could it ever become something more than a convent, truly, in its bones? Or will it remain, as long as it stands and regardless of its use, the old convent?