Bernard had planned for today to be the last day of his life. He stared out the window of his office on the 35th floor of the Maxwell building, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. If he peered through the telescope he kept near the window, he could see The Campanile of the University of California, Berkeley campus. It supposedly resembled St. Mark’s Campanile in Piazza San Marco in Venice. He didn’t see it that way. He saw it as an artifice, an historical pastiche derived from a tower in an ancient European city. As far as Bernard was concerned, it was a failure, same as him.
He’d attended UC Berkeley architectural school in the 1980s, earning a Master’s Degree in Architecture in 1985. He wasn’t so sure he earned it as he endured it. The modernists still dominated the program in the early eighties. Most of his professors espoused the international style. They promoted a world of glass boxes without ornamentation, without reference to the climate and topography of the places these boxes were built. Bernard rejected their dogma. He didn’t verbally challenge his teachers, but he followed his own design principles. In his view, architects needed to seriously consider site, topography, climate and local building traditions. He wanted to create good architecture. He wanted to design buildings that worked for the people who actually used them. Style was secondary. Yes, he wanted his buildings to garner attention from passersby, to embody an element of beauty, whatever that meant, but mainly he saw the building as a type of tool, a tool in service to the humans who worked or lived or hunted for books or contemplated paintings in those buildings.
He swiveled his high back, black leather desk chair to face his widescreen computer monitor. He stared at the lobby design of a fifty-story office and condo tower, called ‘The Aviary,’ projected to be constructed next year, 2019, in Shanghai, with a curtain wall of shimmering green glass. Bernard imagined the same tower going up in Dubai or New York or London. No one would know the difference. The architecture and the cities they inhabited were becoming lost in a forest of forms that only spoke of money and power and hubris. He turned his attention back to the lobby of thirty-foot high ceilings, a full wall of clear glass panels on the front entrance that opened up into a so-called plaza, a sleek welcome desk, twenty-five feet long with a white Carrara marble skirt. Cookie cutter corporate architecture. Designed to impress those who didn’t see beyond surfaces. He’d seen variations of this design a thousand times before. What a royal bore, he thought.
Bernard hadn’t set out to be an architect beholden to the corporate world. As a young architect, he’d wanted to design elegant housing for those who couldn’t afford such housing, to design libraries where any and all citizens could walk into the building and find the book they needed to find, to design museums that allowed the average person to discover great art. For a scant few years after earning his Master’s degree, Bernard worked for a small firm that did design small-scale public housing. The budgets were tight, but Bernard and his co-workers did the best they could with the constraints they were handed. And the work was good. One ten story building for low-income families won a design award from the Association of American Mayors.
Then he met Lydia, a bright, young interior designer. They both enjoyed art and design and the wildflower super bloom of California poppies in Antelope Valley. She was easy to be with and marriage soon ensued. They both wanted children, money was tight, and then he bumped into Frank Reynard, his college roommate, at a design awards dinner at the City Club. Frank and his buddy, Pierre Mandel, were starting a new firm. Pierre had connections to the monied class. ‘Wealthy clients will be knocking at our door. Why not join us?’ Frank had asked him. ‘You’ll get in on the ground floor.’
Bernard had taken the bait. His career and his stock portfolio grew in stature, but he felt his creativity and his ideals had slipped into a stagnant pond. He slumped in his desk chair.
“Hey, Bernie!” Frank Reynard stood in the doorway of his office. “Looks like you didn’t get your morning cup of coffee.”
“The buzz just wore off, Frankie.”
“I’ll ask Sylvia to get you another one.” Frank ran the fingers of his right hand through his still full head of blonde hair. He was nearing sixty, same as Bernard, but he was one of those guys who became more handsome with age, slender, pecs and shoulders sculpted from weight lifting, crinkly lines around his eyes and deep furrows on his forehead. He wore a perfectly pressed, navy blue Italian suit. He looked like Hollywood’s image of a mature architect. He flashed a smile of glittering white teeth. Bernard thought he looked like an alpha wolf about to take down a weakened deer for lunch, and he was lunch. “How are those working drawings for the lobby of ‘The Aviary’ going?”
“Going great, Frankie. I’m hoping to have them done by the end of the day.”
“Fantastic, Bernie! How about joining me and Pierre for a round of golf at the Olympic Club on Saturday?”
“I’d like to, but with Lydia out of the picture, I’ve got household chores piling up.”
“Forget the chores, man. You need some fresh air.”
“Maybe next time.”
“Okay, Bernie, but I expect you out on the links with us sooner rather than later.”
“Will do, Frankie,” Bernard said as Frank walked away.
Frank Reynard, he was a good guy, if a bit on the shallow side. Frank and Bernard had split rent on a two bedroom flat on College Avenue while they both studied architecture at UC Berkeley. They shared a camaraderie and a love of architecture. When the professors’ deadlines drew near, they stayed up all night to complete design and presentation drawings and models of their designs constructed with white mat board. Now, the computer had taken over everything. The models the firm commissioned from a small modeling company were cut by lasers controlled by a computer; the slick presentation drawings, intended to impress clients and city planning departments, were completed by a visualization analyst using presentation design software; the young guys even did their schematic design on their computers. That was the time to be playful, to try things out and get a rough sense of how as yet unplanned and unbuilt structures might work. Hell, Frank Gehry, the greatest contemporary architect, scribbled his visual ideas on paper with a black pen.
Bernard loved to sense the graphite of his pencil roll along drafting paper; he loved to build models by hand. In the early days, he did all this plus the working drawings by hand. How could you call yourself an architect if all you did was sit in front of a huge monitor and let the software be the underlying determinant of what you did? That’s how he thought about it, although the younger generation of architects nipping at his heels would surely disagree.
He’d stay late tonight, get the working drawings done. Why go home early to an empty house? Why go home at all to a house where two bottles of morphine, conveniently purchased online from a Mexican pharmacy, waited patiently for him?
By eight pm, Bernard was alone on the 35th floor. All the other architects and staff members of the architectural firm of Mandel and Reynard had departed for the day. This being a Friday evening in June, they, presumably, had ventured forth to meet a date or attend a party or share a dinner with friends at a restaurant. He saved the file he was working on and sat at his desk in solitude. He swiveled around in his desk chair, stood up, took a couple of long strides, slid the sliding glass door of his balcony to one side and walked outside. The balcony was a perk for the most senior partners. Bernard had moved into his office with the balcony on his fiftieth birthday; he was now 59 years old.
The sun’s summer light illuminated the Bay Bridge and the Oakland Hills. The lights attached to the cables of the Bay Bridge danced in wave-like patterns across the length of the bridge. Sunlight glinted off the windows of the Claremont Hotel in Oakland across the waters of the Bay. Bernard gazed at the Bay Bridge light show for a bit and then he looked down, over the parapet of the balcony. Thirty-five floors down to the asphalt and sidewalks of Spear Street. A few cars crept along and small throngs of ant-sized pedestrians crawled on the sidewalks.
His wife of thirty-three years, Lydia, had packed her bags and moved to Spain with her new boyfriend, Manuel. Nothing dramatic had sundered their long marriage; they had simply drifted apart, year-by-year, each working long hours at different design firms, rarely seeing one another during the work week, which often extended into Saturdays and Sundays, each sleeping in his or her own bedroom in order to be fully rested without being disturbed, each forming separate friendships, each prioritizing his or her career over marriage and family. When he answered the phone one evening while working late a few months back, he listened without anger as his wife announced that she would be leaving him to live in Spain with a Spanish architect. More than anything, he felt relieved. He knew that their marriage had died many years ago.
His children, one boy and one girl, had evolved into capable adults with a minimum of parental supervision. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and teachers provided more mentoring and emotional sustenance to the two children than their parents ever provided. His son Stephen lived in London and worked at Sotheby’s, auctioning off the treasures of the ages from one collector to another. His daughter, Michelle, taught French at a high school in Vancouver, Canada. His children were absorbed in their own lives and he rarely heard from them. Bernard felt that he had no family. Bernard felt that his creativity, his unique vision and love for architecture had slipped away over time and left him bereft of the belief that good design, meaningful design, could be crafted out of his mind and out of his pen. The prospect of designing and fleshing out yet another glitzy corporate skyscraper lobby drained him of all remaining enthusiasm for the work of architecture.
He could fly, at least for a short while. He’d unfurl his golden wings and soar above the grid of streets, above the workers staring at their phones, above the cars snaking their way onto the on ramp of the Bay Bridge. He’d be more than human, a kind of god that defied the constraints of gravity, the constraints of the narrow paths of humans as they moved about the canyons of cities they had created out of steel and concrete and glass.
Of course, his golden wings would burn in the sun. His flight transformed into a precipitous and rapid descent into oblivion. His fragile form crashing into the asphalt of Spear Street. His bones shattering upon impact. Perhaps his soul would leave his body before he experienced the thump and the overwhelming pain that would shoot through all of his muscles and joints and bones. Perhaps not.
Bernard grasped the top railing of the balcony, his knuckles turning white. He stood on his tiptoes and looked over the edge. Then, he heard, mostly in his right ear, a flapping of wings, a sharp squawk, a slight metallic ring. He lifted his gaze from the street below and turned to his right, in the direction the sound had travelled to him. Five feet away, toes locked around the top railing of the parapet opposite from where he stood, a Peregrine Falcon stared at him.
The falcon cocked its head to one side, giving it a bit of a quizzical expression. Bernard heard a voice in his head. “Who are you to contemplate flying? To believe you can soar above the canyons below us? I am the one who can glide on thermals. You will perish if you attempt such madness.”
The elegant bird, with white breast and steel-gray feathers and sharply hooked beak, righted its head so as to look straight at Bernard Fox. The falcon awaited an answer from the architect.
I’m hearing the voice of a falcon? thought Bernard. Perhaps I’m dreaming and in this dream I can converse with a falcon.
“What is your name?” Bernard asked aloud.
“I am Artemis,” the falcon’s voice squawked within Bernard’s mind. “And what are you called?”
“Bernard. Bernard Fox.”
“A fox? Foxes roam the forest. Foxes stay on the ground.”
“I’m a fox who dreams of flying, a fox who dreams of soaring.”
“You must find a new dream, for a fox will never soar through the sky.”
Artemis hopped off the railing, spread his wings, descended a few feet, flapped his wings and then flew up, high above the balcony as his extended wings lifted by the warmed air transported him up and above the top of the Maxwell Building, ten floors above where Bernard stood on the balcony that extended from his office. He tilted his head back and watched Artemis ascend higher and higher until the falcon’s form merged with the sky and dissolved into the cobalt dome of the heavens.
Bernard walked back into his office, away from the edge of the balcony, away from the asphalt of the street below, away from the morphine in a box under his bed, away from his work as a corporate architect, away from his failed marriage with Lydia.
He grabbed his suit jacket coat and slipped it on. He would walk along the Embarcadero and contemplate the lights of the Bay Bridge conspire and transform into a myriad of forms. Back in March, Bernard had read that Balkrishna Doshi had been awarded the 2018 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the highest honor a living architect can receive. Doshi was nearing 90 years of age, and remained a vibrant, youthful, working architect. Doshi, an Indian architect, cared deeply about designing homes and communities for all classes of the Indian people. His buildings molded concrete and brick into elegant forms, domes and vaults, courtyards and patios, that ennobled the people who lived and worked in these places.
An architect could have a very long career. Frank Gehry continued to create his dynamic, folded buildings, and he was also, like Doshi, approaching 90. From that perspective, Bernard was still young. He could forge a new architectural identity. His position as a senior partner at Mandel and Reynard would be his stepping stone to a new incarnation of himself, a new world, a new life. He could live and work anywhere on the planet. He could even start his own firm. He would reclaim himself, reclaim paper and pencil and mat board. A fox could still soar, not through the sky, but through his imagination.
Mitchell Near, after youthful sojourns in several west coast cities, now lives in San Francisco. Along with his interests in writing and literature, he is a student of art, architecture, music and the psychology of dreams. He loves walking the paths of the great cities and gardens of the world.