54. Hyacinth House

Ralph Deigh opened his eyes, gradually becoming conscious of the surroundings that seemed strange at first and then, suddenly, familiar. He realized he must be at the homeless shelter he used to stay at on cold, winter nights when he first got back from his last military service in Iraq. He was at Hyacinth House! Most nights during that period in his life, Ralph had spent under the bridge approach along the east bank of the Ohio River, but when the temperature got below freezing some nights that winter he would check in with the front desk at Hyacinth House and get assigned a bed for the night.

And here he was again. But what was he doing here?

Just then, a familiar face appeared in view. A gentle giant he had known in those days only as Big Ernie stepped into view with a broad, but somewhat tense, smile. “Hello, Mr. Deigh,” Big Ernie intoned in his familiar, East Tennessee tones, “what brings you back to these parts?”

“Hello, Big Ernie. I have no idea what I’m doing here, or how I got here.”

“It’s okay, Mr. Deigh. It happens sometimes. Do you remember anything about last night, or yesterday, or how you got here?”

“No. It’s all just a blank. I got nothin’.”

“Okay. Have you got your meds with you?”

“No.”

“Well, then. We’d better see about getting you back to what my boss insists that we call your ‘significant others’. Amy, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. Amy McMillen. My god, Ernie. How did you remember that? It’s been years.”

Big Ernie blushed slightly at the question. “She’s a real nice lady. Sends me a Christmas card and a box of chocolates for my birthday every year.”

Ralph smiled at this reminder of Amy’s kindness as he reached for his cell phone. “Fortunately, I didn’t lose this,” he said as he pressed the button for Siri, or Alexa or whoever the latest AI character was and at the beep said in a familiar tone, “Call Amy.” Although Ralph could not see it, Big Ernie noticed that his phone immediately flashed what must be her number on the screen and it was reflected on Ralph cheek. Then, after a few seconds.

“Hello?”

“Amy? It’s Ralph.”

“Ralph! Thank goodness! Where are you? I’ve been worried about you. Are you okay? It’s been three days.”

“I’m okay. I . . . Three days? Really? I have no idea what happened or where I’ve been. Three days? That must mean it’s . . . Wednesday? I woke up a few minutes ago at the homeless shelter. Hyacinth House. Down by the river. The Ohio. You know. Near where we first met?”

“How did you get there? Lil. . . saw your truck parked in the lot at Bernie’s yesterday afternoon. She had her spare key with her and brought it over here. Bart said you had been in there briefly Sunday night, had a burger and fries and left about 9. How on earth did you get over there?”

“I don’t know. But that answers one question. I won’t have to go out looking for my ride, and I doubt that Andy Ritter is still around or still has that old Chevy of his parked on the streets near the bridge. So, could you get away and come pick me up?”

“Sure. Things have been pretty slow in the shop this morning, so I’ll just hang up the sign. I’ll text you when I’m getting close. Okay?”

“I need to get some breakfast.” Ralph replied as he looked at his watch. “I’ll probably be over at the coffee shop across the street for the next half hour. Then I’ll just hang around here on the bench outside the shelter until you arrive.”

Fortunately, Ralph still had his wallet. Theft of personal items had sometimes been a problem at the shelter, so Ralph assumed Big Ernie had been watching out for him since last night. He had a couple of wrinkled $20 bills, so after saying his goodbyes and heartfelt thanks to the attendant and signing out at the front desk, Ralph walked across the street for some pancakes, eggs and bacon. From the strength of his appetite, he assumed he hadn’t eaten much for the past several days.

It took Amy about two hours to drive to the shelter, and Ralph was waiting outside when she arrived.

“It’s good to see you. I didn’t know whether you were gone for good or what might have happened. Is Big Ernie still here? He is? I’d like to say hi and thank him for taking good care of you.”

“No. He went home. His shift was over and he won’t be back again until eight tonight. Apparently, he works all night every night.”

With that, Ralph got into Amy’s car. She drove and Ralph rode in the passenger seat. Neither of them said much on the trip back, until they were a few miles from the Doll House.

“I’ve been trying to do too much,” Ralph said without any introduction or explanation.

Amy hesitated for a moment and then asked “So, what are you going to do about it?”

Over the next several weeks, Ralph spent little time thinking about the three days lost from his life and what might have preceded waking up at the shelter. Scraped knuckles on his right hand told him that he probably had been in a fight at some point, and a single, almost unnoticeable bruise on his left cheek suggested that he may have gotten the better of it. “I just hope I didn’t hurt anyone,” the normally peaceable architect said to himself when he was alone in his workshop.

But, the more he thought about it, the more certain Ralph became that his original plan to do all the design work personally for the entire Eden Project was unrealistic. It was simply beyond his ability. The overall concept and plan would always be his, and there was now enough general agreement with enough key people that Eden had already taken on a life of its own. And he would of course remain on the steering committee for the Project.

And so it was that Ralph Deigh returned to his original interest in designing houses and building models. Amy gradually began to notice over a period of weeks after that Ralph was sleeping more peacefully and generally seemed to be more at ease than he had been for some time. It is also how The Eden Project came to hire not one, but three, Asian architectural firms. There were a lot of boring and tedious details in between the decision and result, but only a few of them add anything to our story. It is enough to note only that when Ralph explained what had happened and what he must do to Madeline and Adam, the other members of the Steering Committee, they assured him that they were both fine with his decision. “He’ll live a lot longer this way,” was Evie’s only reaction later that evening when Adam told her of Ralph’s decision.

“In the past few decades, a handful of Chinese architects have done some fantastic work. Truly, world class architecture. They have built literally hundreds of new cities. Much of them are pure schlock, of course. Not quite as bad as Soviet architecture in its heyday, but still insipid, dreary and unappealing.” Ralph was talking with Lil. . . and Madeline one afternoon. “But, that isn’t uniformly the case. Some of the new Chinese designs are truly inspiring. In particular, there is a group in Beijing called MAD Associates. . . ”

Madeline said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of them. Are they new?”

“Actually, its MAD Architects. I’ve seen pictures of their Wood Sculpture Museum. Interesting. ” Lil. . . noted with only a hint of enthusiasm.

“. . .The firm was founded in 2003. Ma Yansong is the founding partner and he came up with the name MAD Architects. Some of his ideas about ‘organic architecture’ and the relation between nature and the build environment are just what we are going to need for the Mountainview Community Building. Kind of a mix of late Frank Lloyd Wright and Zaha Hadid.”

“They sound expensive,” Madeline said, adding quickly, “Of course, that shouldn’t be a problem. It might be good to have a world-class starchitect design at least one building for Eden.”

“One of Ma Yansong’s specialties has been his use of curves and irregular edges that mirror the landscape. The late critic Vincent Skully was the first to point out this feature of pueblo buildings like Taos Pueblo. That’s part of what Ma means by ‘organic’ architecture, and it’s just what we need in Eden.”

“One article I saw identified him as ‘the architect who banned straight lines.’ Have you ever seen a straight line in Appalachia?”

In the months that followed, they all heard some grumbling heard locally in various coffee shops and bars around Dare County as word of the decision to hire Chinese architects leaked out to the public. “What do they need to get some Chinese guy nobody’s ever heard of for?” was a fairly typical question. “We got plenty of good architects here in the good ole U.S. of A.” Ralph and Madeline both understood that informed architectural criticism had never been a well developed avocation in Dare County but patriotism and public piety were always in fashion. They had little idea, however, how much consternation this news was causing among “Digger” Proffitt and the other leaders of T.R.A.P., the True Real American Patriots.

On the other hand, the prospect of an internationally-known Chinese architect designing one of the most important buildings in the county, maybe even all of West Virginia, quickly became a source of great pride among the Chinese ethnic community from Cibola still housed in temporary FEMA trailers outside Huttonsville.

“And, groups of both Chinese and Japanese architects have done something virtually unheard of in the U.S.” Ralph had told Madeline and Lil . . .

“They’ve rethought and redesigned small, rural communities.” Ralph told Adam and Madeline one afternoon after a particularly grueling meeting. There’s the Rural Urban Framework (RUF), a design lab at the University of Hong Kong. There are a number of similar university affiliated rural design centers in the U.S., but they’ve done nothing to compare with RUF. And, in Japan the Yusuhara Community Library, or the The Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum, which combines traditional temple architecture with striking modern form are found in remote rural settings far from major Japanese cities.”

The third group was actually an Asian-American firm headed by a former student of Liang Sicheng, and including a consulting agreement with Bolchover and Lin in Hong Kong. While the other Chinese group would focus on the community building, and the Japanese would consult on general matters of rural village design, this latter group had a very precise portfolio. Their task was to re-examine the traditional Chinese hutong, with their high-walled siheyuan, or housing for extended families, and redesign it with modern facilities (notably well-appointed kitchens and bathrooms) and incorporating modern architectural features.

“This looks like just the sort of housing we need in the Appalachian mountains, where extended families often live in their own detached cabins in close proximity to one another.”

“Hey, we’re gonna live Chinese and Appalachian!” was the reaction of another of the displaced ethnic Chinese Cibolans. “This is really exciting. I can’t wait to see what they come up with!”

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