Joining the Invisible Choir: Useful Euphemisms for Death
Featured in Soiled Journal (The Death Issue)
With Kyle Branchesi
Mr. Praline and a pet shop owner dispute the status of an immobile parrot. The pet store owner argues the bird is resting after a particularly active morning, while Mr. Praline obstinately maintains the argument that the bird is simply dead and has been since purchase.
According to the pet shop owner, the bird continues to possess a variety of character traits and is now resting them off: spritely, stubborn, cowardly, and, at the moment, sleepy. To Mr. Praline, however, the bird is just dead. Concluding a tense back and forth on the subject, he loudly states,
“He's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He's expired and gone to meet his maker! He's a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed him to the perch he'd be pushing up the daisies! His metabolic processes are now history! He's off the twig! He's kicked the bucket, shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible! This is an ex-parrot!”
It is the popular opinion that ‘character’ expires when a thing passes on in the world, yet Mr. Praline’s bird sounds more active in death than most parrots do alive. The euphemisms of death distinguish a mirror state to life, one equally fulfilling and toilsome. Whether Mr. Praline knows it or not, he is exploring just some of the functions allowable for the deceased that are either impossible or ill-advised for the living through his interactions with an “ex-parrot.” A valuable lesson for classification is at play here, as we can begin to reveal the advantages of death brought to any piece of the built environment as opposed to its setbacks.
There are three general types of death for architecture: the publicly hanged, the miscarried, and the unconceived.
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Folk Art Museum was built in 2001 in New York City. Its stone-cold presence, contrasted by the vast expanse of faceted hallways hidden inside, made it feel instantly like a permanent member of the city’s storied history. And though it appeared to be the unmoving object that many hoped it would be, its placement next to the Museum of Modern Art, that famously unstoppable force, spelled swift death. After ten years of a life well lived, it was bought by MoMA and quickly turned to scaffolding; it remains in that state today. A decade is a remarkably short existence for any building, especially one so beloved by a community. The Folk Art Museum was publicly hanged.
After producing some of the most provocative drawings and models in the field at the time, Diller + Scofidio’s Slow House broke ground in 1992 on Long Island. The client was motivated, the architects were thrilled, but the Long Island community was visibly less so. They held regular meetings to stall the house’s completion, giving it nicknames such as “the banana” and “the slug.” The foundation was poured but little else had made its way to the site following a defamatory article written in the local newspaper; the construction crew retreated. The Slow House was miscarried.
When the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) was looking for an opportunity to breathe life into its weathered campus in 2000, Rem Koolhaas’ proposal exceeded expectations. A multi-acre tent reorganizing the collection as an encyclopedic grid won the hearts of the board members and was publicly accepted as the next stage of the infamous museum. However, what followed the big news announcement in the LA Times was its swift cancellation. Dissenters suggested the plan would require more of the budget than expected, and the rest of those involved withheld their seed money. Koolhaas’ LACMA was unconceived.
The practice of architecture is forever linked with the mourning process for any one of these three states, yet Mr. Praline’s tirade makes a solid case for the functionality of everything that doesn’t quite fit the bill of health. Among his actions, he lets out his aggression by yelling into its ear, he tests the durability of the wooden counter with its new-found stiffness, and he confirms the gravity of the room by tossing it into the air. A live parrot would have simply bitten his finger before allowing any of these actions to be carried through. And Mr. Praline’s euphemisms reveal the exciting new clubs and motions the parrot can be a part of now that he is “off the twig.” The ‘choir invisible’ is surely a spritely group, praising the leads of death no doubt, and to shed the burdens of lively routine is a luxury that none living can afford. Shedding all activity or consciousness in this world, what everything exanimated has in common is a sheer physicality. Mr. Praline’s parrot shares traits with hammers and blades of grass while also commanding untold heights of grandeur in another.
Manhattan’s Folk Art Museum is dead, but it is still very present in its site. It has been emptied of every artifact for which it got its title, but this only gives it the freedom to possess unique new qualities beyond storage. Perhaps it is more vibrant than ever, given the many loud tractors at the site each day and the surefooted tarp that prevents its shards from wreaking havoc on pedestrians below. The still-heated debates in the newspapers alone could attest for its proactivity.
Long Island’s Slow House still maintains a very real presence in the ground. A ghostly silhouette of the floor plan has remained excavated at the site for over twenty years and has held an unguessable number of functions to the nearby children and wandering animals since then.
OMA’s LACMA maintains an eternal brilliance in print and the imagination that would have necessarily been withheld in its construction. This is a privilege rarely celebrated for those buildings never conceived, but the absence of a building should be regarded as the ‘shuffling off of the mortal coil.’
The lesson adapted from this Monty Python sketch does not argue for the life cycles of architecture to be altered in any way, but rather a new consideration for what death may bring. Not only does the story live on for these buildings, but a new sense of utility and a wider set of users are their 72 virgins.
Mr. Praline produced a laundry list of unique features attributable to his immobile bird, but he got one wrong: his parrot is dead, but it is not ‘no more;’ it has only acquired another state.