Thursday, October 1, 2009

Taking Orders

Washington DC, Massachusetts Avenue. An owner and a building that resist.

I was in Washington DC last week, five days, twenty-four architecture students, one colleague, seeing some sights.

And taking orders.

A man running towards me, plainclothes, across the lawn, got my attention. An off-duty security guard flashing ID, as I stood on a public sidewalk and photographed the control booth for the underground parking ramp at the U.S. Court of Appeals.



Questions, repeated. My identity / my rights challenged. Who are you again? Where are you from?

Taking orders. Bossed around. Under surveillance. Told what to do.

Five days.

I watched two German tourists stuff their mouths with handmade sandwiches. They'd been told food couldn't be brought into the U.S. Capitol. Then being told to leave their Tupperware container outside. That wasn't allowed either.

Dangerous burps?

Watching my students go unquestioning through these "exercises" -- their willingness to take orders -- became something I gave some attention while walking in our nation's capital.

At the Newseum:
No film or flash photography allowed in the theater!
Please put your cameras away.

At the Visitors Center at the U.S. Capitol:
Keep the door closed!
Keep the door closed!
Wait on the other side of the door please!
Please keep the door closed!

At Arlington National Cemetery:
This side please!

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a sign (I argue, intended to make crowd control easier and mowing the lawn more convenient, as it is at odds with the vision of architect Maya Lin):
Honor Those Who Served
Please Stay On Sidewalk

At the Supreme Court:
Keep your voices down.
Voices down folks.
This is a working office building.

A Greenpeace worker to my colleague:
Hey! Fellow environmentalist!

Maybe these directions, partial rants, oral tweets are intended to safeguard. Maybe each is a conversation, an exchange, a dialogue, sort of. Maybe we're terrible at taking directions, we're all on one big ADD buzz, we've lost our way. Maybe it's okay to be watched continuously, and to be informed on and informants 24/7/52 /365/4ever.

Arlington National Cemetery, the gravesites of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and two of their children. Under constant surveillance.

National Building Museum. The Solar Decathlon entry created by students and faculty from Virginia Tech. Everything under control?

Newseum. 9/11 Gallery includes a section of the Communications Tower that sat atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Supreme Court. Men's restroom. Roberts, Thomas, Scalia?

Union Station. A streetperson talks.

A streetperson at Union Station:
They might have apologized to someone else.
But nobody's apologized to me...
And now my two sons, one's got one baby and the other's got two...
What they gonna sell for another hit?

This man, for me, someone to listen to, his a story and history worth knowing, beyond the marble and limestone and guards and false courtesies and blind allegiances, maybe this man has stories to tell that deserve our attention. Maybe he wants to talk, is hungry for, among other things, dialogue.

My mistake this time: I listened, took notes, but didn't engage.

Too used to taking orders, I forgot to take initiative.

It's a mistake I won't make again.