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Architectural Absence
Unités d’habitation: B, D, N, S, U, Z

To break up the sun like a chocolate orange but with mortar and pestle.

Yuliya took a two-year placement in Arup’s London office after completing her engineering degree. Her thesis was on concrete support systems in cantilevered bridges.
      “England is dangerous,” warned her mother over celebratory red-sauce Italian in Bensonhurst.
      “You haven’t gone anywhere since you left Russia,” said Alex, Yuliya’s younger brother. “What do you know?”
      “That’s why.”
      On the way, Yuliya traveled for two weeks in Europe: Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Avignon, Nice, Milan, Rome, Venice, Florence, Paris.
      The motorized tessellation of l’Institut du Monde Arabe opened and shut, henna-freckling her pale skin like a Hindu bride’s. She considered photographing her arms. There was a studenty-beautiful French couple murmuring at the windows by the Seine. The boy took the girl’s shoulders and called out to Yuliya in a North American accent to take their picture.
      “How’d you know I spoke English?” she asked.
      “Why wouldn’t you?”
      “Is the light here good?”
      “Sure.” The photo will be blurry and light-dappled.



An analytic approach to architecture suggesting that meaning depends on the arbitrary, because it does.

Gregory became associate director of the Briggs-Crenshaw Gallery after two years as an assistant and an MA from the Slade. His first exhibition was the architect Jacques Dutronc, notorious for his use of stained glass; they had designed a large pavilion approximating the shape of a swan, with broken-shard plumes and feathers. The engineers were an older man who spoke very slowly, and a bored, belligerent girl.
      “We want to shock them,” explained Dutronc. “We want to be very … polémique.”
      “OK,” said the girl. “How tall is the space?”
      “It would be very edgy to break up the glass,” said Gregory.
      “OK,” said the girl. “How tall is the space?”
      “Would it not be formidable to suspend the globes exactly at the level of the eye?” asked Dutronc.
      “OK,” said the girl. “How tall is the space?”
      “Swan’s eggs,” said Gregory.
      “And they will break!” Dutronc exclaimed, delighted.


New Urbanism


Yuliya lived in a shared flat in Mile End, and stumbled home across the park from Gregory’s each morning to shower.

Mixed Housing

She loved her flatshare! Everyone else was a Marxist academic from South America.

Quality Architecture

Every room had mold. Her bedroom fit only a bed and looked into an airshaft. She could be anywhere awful in the world.

Green Transportation

Yuliya lost her job when the partners returned to Germany, but couldn’t tell Gregory. She cycled instead of taking the Tube.


“I just don’t understand how we can go on like this,” said Gregory.
      “It’s been only two years.”
      “Four. I know. Your American right to be an eternal teenager.”
      “You’re from Pittsburgh, babe. Calm down.”

Quality of Life

On Sundays, secretly, she went to the Russian Orthodox Church in Chiswick. One week, in the middle of the service, she realized there was no time to waste. She called Gregory and ordered him to be home in an hour. She took the slow District Line and the late 26 bus and twisted her ankle on the cobblestones.
      “Marry me,” she demanded.
      “Yes” fell out of his mouth.



A rectangular architectural element, with animal organization determined by depth from façade to façade or core to core.

Yuliya miscarried in the twenty-third week. It was a girl, she said on the telephone. Gregory said he would come that evening. Nathalie didn’t know Yuliya was pregnant and shouted him out of her flat. He missed the last Eurostar and sat awake all night at Gare du Nord.
      English law called it a stillbirth. They cremated and buried Odile—after his mother; Yuliya refused to name her—in Highgate with a flat black stone.
      Gregory’s head was on fire: He would curse at his colleagues and shopkeepers and customs officers and teenage boys. During the obligatory weekend visits, Yuliya stayed in bed all day, on the left side.
      “Don’t come next time,” she said, one day, without looking up.
      He hadn’t spent a fortnight without the grounding murmur of a woman’s heart in twenty years. Céline, his psychiatrist cousin, recommended an expensive Lacanian analyst.
      His friend Bob from the British Museum was in town Tuesday. They met for lunch at the Bibliothèque Nationale, slicing cheddar into tiles in the shadow of the monoliths.
      “I’m sorry about the baby,” Bob said after a Stonehenge silence. “Yuliya told me.”
      “It was inevitable. Her womb is a tomb.”



In which younger European married couples massacre the City.

Gregory left the gallery to finish his overdue second book, about the loss of Chinese character forms in Southeast Asia and colonial architecture. The French publisher laughed at his “cynical sense of humor” and asked whether the genocide chapter could be a cartoon. Sometimes he loathed the daintiness of his decorative profession.
      Yuliya had adopted the time-consuming maternal habit of kissing his eyelids and ten fingers as greetings and good-byes. One day, Gregory said he was going to write in the RIBA library, but went to the Japanese café behind Dalston Junction. He took the paper. Prizes to bankers for achievement in social Darwinism. Water rose like a phoenix after years of abuse, wetly slapping Haiti again and again, shoving over a dam with brute force in Nepal.
      He went out and walked. The sky was London dark rosy gray. The high street, lined with pound shops and falafel, crowded him off the sidewalk. From somewhere he heard her. She was coming out of Poundsavers.
      “He lies about everything, you know? If he can’t control it,” said Yuliya, “is it his fault?”



To galvanize iron with a zinc compound to prevent oxidation and corrosion.

Gregory rented a duplex on the Canal St. Martin. The bedroom ceiling was poorly insulated. Rain rolled in steel drums against the roof. He looked out at the wavy slate sea and considered playing sick: Six people were coming over for oysters. Initially Gregory felt stodgy hosting a dinner himself, but he was thirty-eight, divorced, orphaned, had buried a child, and owned a vintage zinc table.
      Feeling hermetically sealed and moderately reactive, he went out to buy wine and couldn’t stop walking; at Gare de l’Est he’d already been gone an hour. He chose an insipid Sauvignon Blanc. It was Sunday and the taxi queue was long. Sandwiched between dyspeptic packs of Swiss professionals, he noticed a woman struggling with a shiny suitcase.
      Eventually Yuliya slammed shut the door and told the driver she was in a hurry to reach the airport. Her metal suitcase had the correct magnetization properties for the materials she was taking home. In Zurich security robbed her of so much time that she missed her flight to Paris and took the train to make the connection to New York. She worked for a Swiss conglomerate that controlled the world’s electricity grids.

Monica Datta’s work has appeared several times in Conjunctions' print and online editions, as well as in The Collagist.