Hejduk, who died in July, had never been a part of the cynical intellectual New York Architects Club, thanks to scenes like that. It always frustrates me to hear such stories: they hint at a man, an era, that we've lost, and that I largely missed. By the time I was admitted to Cooper Union--the design and engineering college in New York where Hejduk had been dean of architecture--Hejduk was, de facto, retired. He would remain dean until his official retirement this Spring, but cancer had already weakened his hulking body. I can only be grateful to have witnessed one powerful moment of his tenure--a speech he gave just months before his death, a sort of academic last will and testament.
Hejduk was one of the New York Five, a group of architects born in the early 1930s who were widely influential in postmodern circles, and who filled different niches: Michael Graves did pop architecture, Peter Eisenman critical-philosophical work. Hejduk retreated into his own world, putting out books, but hardly building a thing. Rather, he poured heart and soul into Cooper Union. In a world where becoming dean of an architecture school is a snazzy, highly temporary career move, Hejduk stayed for 35 years. After he became sick, the school did too: these last five years it has been limping along, hurting for leadership.
Many make architecture their religion; Hejduk addressed religion through the medium of architecture. (His poetry, too, with titles like "The Last Supper," and "Christ in Prague," focused on the sacraments and other tenets of his Catholic faith). In doing so, he discovered the true nature of art--a second Creation. His work was all architectural allegories and veiled symbols, but it was also very clear, very simple--like his devotion to Christ.
Some critics dismiss Hejduk's devotion, or make light of his reverence for the mysteries of baptism and crucifixion. The intelligentsia prefers to discredit his more obvious statements of faith, calling his work "allegorical" and the man himself "very spiritual," without reference to Whom all of this "spirituality" was directed.
A few months before I saw Hejduk speak, I ran across "Pewter Wings, Golden Horns, Stone Veils," one of Hejduk's books of architectural theory. His work, overtly Catholic, was rooted in symbolism and cloaked in religious imagery: crucifixes, chalices, and archangels. It was full of conviction, intense, and--to me--opaque. I leafed through the pages of pen-and-ink sketches, bold watercolor and intimate, personal poetry. How, I wondered, could this be architecture?
Hejduk answered that when he rose to talk that day last year. I didn't take notes, and tape recorders weren't allowed. But something clicked in my head as he talked, and I thought I began to understand spiritually what my visceral sense had not been able grasp.
This is not to say Hejduk was articulate. His first words were "I haven't given a lecture in 15 years, but I felt I needed to give one now." He rambled, showed slides, read his poetry, and talked about growing up in the Bronx.
I nevertheless needed to listen to what he had to say. I needed to see that there were deeply religious people who commit themselves to architecture. I wanted to hear him explain how education and architecture were his sanctuaries, to understand that he had spent his life quietly and humbly bringing beauty into the world.
All along, I had questioned my choice of study in such a secular environment--where the only thing that matters is that you get your very own way. Is this, I wondered, any place for a Christian? Hejduk proved that it could be, and it was. As he went about his life, he abandoned the spotlight and became simply a tool, serving God through art.
An architectural monastic, Hejduk emerged from his cloister at the end of his life to deliver this talk, an urgent message that was less a lecture than a hundred one-on-one conversations with the members of the audience. I don't know that very many people understood it. I'm not sure I did. His power, however, was undeniable. It seemed as if the weaker his body grew, the more strong his spirit became; when he gave that lecture, in the advanced stages of cancer, it was emotionally overpowering.
I came away feeling shaky, too overwhelmed to go back to work. In the architecture section at Barnes & Noble, I again removed "Pewter Wings" and turned to the first page. I read: "A train stops at the station at night at 6:00 P.M. and lets off two passengers, a man and a woman. They do not know one another. She listens to the water falling on the earth. He sees the flames flowing upward into the sky.
They both feel the silence."
Each time I read these words, I think I'm just beginning to understand.