Emilio Ambasz Fables

San Antonio Botanical Garden designed by Emilio Ambasz (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)




 “Once I have grasped it, then an old, as it were rebellious, half apocalyptic province of my thoughts will have been subdued, colonized, set in order.”

Walter Benjamin, in a Letter to [Gershom] Gerhard Scholem

Manhattan, unencumbered by permanent memory, and more interested in becoming than in being, can be seen as the city of that second technological revolution brought about by the development of processes for producing and controlling information rather than just energy. li has, after all, incorporated the worship of communication with the idolatry of the industrial product and, by so doing, provided the ground for supporting any infatuation with now-as-the-ultimate configuration of reality. However, seen in a different light, Manhattan may reveal an unforeseen potential for conceiving of a quite different notion of city.

Manhattan is, in essence, a network. If beheld as an infrastructure for the processing and exchange of matter, energy, and information. Manhattan may be seen either as the overwrought roof of a subterranean physical grid of subway tunnels and train stations, automobile passages, postal tubes, sewage chambers, water and gas pipes, power wires, telephone, telegraph, television and computer lines; or, conversely, as the datum plane of an aerial lattice of flight patterns, wireless impulses, institutional liaisons, and ideological webs. In any of these roles, the points of interaction within Manhattan’s network have been repeatedly charged, on and off, with different meanings. Entire systems and isolated elements have been connected to and processed by these networks, only to be later removed and replaced by new ones.

Were we willing, for the sake of argument, to suspend disbelief, forget coordinates, and imagine that all present structures have been completely removed, Manhattan’s infrastructure would emerge – in all the complexity of its physical organization, the capacity of its input-output mechanism, and the versatility of its control devices – as the most representative urban artifact of our culture.

Freed in this manner from its current limitations, we may, to further this transfer operation, remove Manhattan’s infrastructure from its present context and place it in the center of San Francisco Bay, on the plains of Africa, among the chateaux of the Loire Valley, or along the Wall of China…

Manhattan’s infrastructure, thus liberated, belongs to all. But an infrastructure, though necessary, is not sufficient to make a city. The next step is, then, for all to undertake the postulation of its possible structures. The methods may belong either to remembrance or to invention, for, conceived as the idea rather than as the actual configuration, Manhattan’s infrastructure provides the framework in which all crystallized fragments rescued from the city of the memory, and all figments envisioned for the city of the imagination, may dwell in ensemble, if not by reason of their casual relationships (since no reconstruction is hereby intended), then by grace of their affinities. The outcome of such undertaking may be agitation, and render, if not actual proposals of structures, at least an explicit Inventory of Qualities of Urban Existence toward a yet to be defined “City of Open Presents.”

In a first, retrospective phase, we may, as one of many possible approaches, assemble in a piecemeal manner any surviving fragments of the memory on the infrastructure:  Bologna’s arcades, Osip Mandelstam’s St. Petersburg, John Nash’s Regent’s Park, Gabriel’s Petit Trianon, Katsura’s promenades to observe the sunset, Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion, Wallace Stevens’ wind on a field of wheat , John Soane’s house, Frank Zappa’s Los Angeles, Baudelaire’s fleeting instants, Debussy’s submerged cathedral, Michael Heizer’s land marks, Joan Littlewood’s fun palace, Ray Bradbury’s brown clouds, Le Notre’s Gardens of Chantilly…

In a second, prospective phase, the form of any structure to be assembled on the infrastructure is to come from the domain of invention. But envisioned qualities do not come in wholes. They are to be apprehended as they rush by – partial denotators of an inversed tradition, of possible states which may become; and once grasped, they are to be dialectically confronted with the many meanings that can be temporarily assigned to our fragmentary experiences of the Present.

As the meanings of these structures can only be interpreted in the context of the relationships they establish with other structures, this process would generate new meanings which in turn would require further interpretation. It is by this reiterative process that the envisioned structures would assume constructive powers. Insofar as they would question the context of the Present, they would assign it new meanings; insofar as they would propose alternative states, they would re-structure it.

This tearing of the fragment from its former context, this rescuing of the irreducible word from its decayed sentence, involves not only the usual process of design by discriminate selection but suggests, moreover, a process of bringing together where, instead of establishing fixed hierarchies, the fragments rescued from tradition are placed on the same level in ever changing contiguities, in order to yield new meanings, and thereby render other modes of access to their recondite qualities.




He went and brought back a stone from his parent’s house, drew the picture of a brick on a piece of paper, and carefully wrapped the stone in it. At sunrise, holding them high above his head, he walked along the diagonal lines of his land, and at their crossing, buried them both, still embraced. Facing the wind, he spat as strongly as he could; turning around, he prayed for rain. With the mud he made walls at one end of his land. At the other end he wove a tightly knit wicker roof, and hung it from the trees. Having done all this, he walked away. His children came back much later to take away stones for their own places. But, to some of these places, their own children never returned.




The little village was in the grip of fear; fear of Divine rages and of human passions. One of the men started to build a construction, circular in plan, cylindrical in volume, and with a domelike roof. He used stones, wood, and mud. His travails finished, he came back to tell the group the building he had erected was in the shape of the Universe and inside dwelt the Universe’s Gods.

Then, using a rod he had taken from the temple, he made a circle around the village and with the help of others he encircled it with a high wall built of earth and stones. In the center of the village, next to the temple, he erected a large hut which he then covered completely, except for the entrance, with a mound of earth. On top of this mound he vertically placed six large stone slabs. That, he called his home. The others called it the palace.

When he died, his body was laid down inside the hut he had called his house, together with all his belongings, and his son covered the entrance with the large stone slabs he removed from the mound’s top.Some people say this was how architecture started.




No, I never thought about it in words. It came to me as a full-fledged, irreducible image, like a vision. I fancied myself the owner of a wide grazing field, somewhere in the fertile plains of Texas or the province of Buenos Aires. In the middle of this field was a partly sunken, open-air construction. I felt as if this place had always existed. Its entrance was marked by a baldachin, held up by three columns, which in turn supported a lemon tree. From the entrance, a triangular earthen plane steeped gently toward the diagonal of a large, sunken square courtyard which was half earth, half water. From the center of the courtyard rose a rocky mass that resembled a mountain. On the water floated a barge made of logs, sheltered by a thatched roof and supported by wooden trusses that rested on four-square-sectioned wooden pillars. With the aid of a long pole the barge could be sculled into an opening in the mountain. Once inside this cave, one could land the barge on a cove-like shore illuminated by a zenithal opening.

More often, I used the barge to reach an L-shaped cloister where I could read, draw, or just think, sheltered from the wind and sun. The cloister was defined on the outside by a water basin and on the inside by a number of undulating planes that screened alcove-like spaces. Once I discovered their entrances, I began to use them for storage. Although I am not compulsively driven to order and thrive, instead, on tenuously controlled disorder, I decided to use these alcoves in an orderly sequence, storing things in the first alcove until it was full and then proceeding clockwise to the next one. The first items I stored were my childhood toys, school notebooks, stamp collection and a few items of clothing to which I had become attached. Later, I started moving out of my house and into the second alcove gifts I had received while doing my military service as well as my uniform. I became fond of traversing the water basin once in a while to dress up in it, to make sure that I had not put on too much weight.

Not all the things I stored in these alcoves were there because they had given me pleasure, but I could not rid myself of them. In time, I developed a technique for using these things to support other objects. I often wondered whether I was going to run out of space but somehow always found extra room, either by reorganizing things or because some objects had shrunk or collapsed because of their age or from the weight of the items that had accumulated on top of them. On the diagonal axis passing the entrance canopy, but directly above it, an undulating place was missing. Instead of a storage alcove, there was an entrance to a man-height tunnel that led to an open pit filled with a fresh mist. I never understood where this cold-water mist originated, but it never failed to produce a rainbow.




“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Gospel of John

It says in St. John’s Gospel that in the beginning was the Word. However, nothing new could come from the Word because its meaning would have been, by chronology, an already pre-established one. I submit it, rather, that in the beginning was the Image, and the Image had many potential meanings, sometimes contradictory and, when finally understood, the Image was turned into a new Word, or Words.

Every one of the Creator’s original creatures decayed into dust, repeatedly. To correct this situation He instilled into the snake the desire to fly, into the elephant the hope to dance, into Man the wish to be an angel, and so on. However, dissatisfaction, as a state of being, although prolonging their existence by longing to become something else, also proved not satisfactory. He then ordered his creatures to Eat each Other.

Still unsatisfied, he withdrew onto himself to ruminate about his imperfections.

Architect Emilio Ambasz (b. 1943, Argentina) studied at Princeton University before working as curator of design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1969–1976),where he directed and installed numerous influential exhibitions on architecture and industrial design. Between 1981 and 1985, Ambasz served two terms as president of theArchitectural League of New York. He has been the subject of several international publications and museum exhibitions, and is known for his pathbreaking work in “green architecture” with such buildings as Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall (Fukuoka, 1990) and the Casa de Retiro Espiritual (Seville, 1975).