May 04, 2016

Disembodied States: Walking the Magic Square

 Left: Arthur Paul David White, Nine-cell Magic Square, 2016; ink and yellow highlighter on paper; Right: Agnes Martin, Petal, 1964

Left: Arthur Paul David White, Nine-cell Magic Square, 2016; ink and yellow highlighter on paper; Right: Agnes Martin, Petal, 1964

[…] Simply take a sheet of paper and draw a large tic-tac-toe. Congratulations. You have just drawn “the magic square.” The most advanced city plan of any world city — the Northfield master plan — and a paragon plan for a Regional Hospital.

A city is a system of circulation, according to Le Corbusier, so assign major circulation system elements to your magic square masterwork, your tic-tac-toe.

[…] When you draw a tic-tac-toe, you’ve drawn a nine-cell magic square where the numbers two, four, six and eight are put in the corner boxes; five is put in the center; and one, three, seven and nine are put in the side boxes so that all column, ranks, diagonals add up to 15.

Northfield Regional Hospital would be in the center box, No. 5 — in the upper left corner of box five — affording hypermobility in all directions

— Arthur Paul David White (“Letter to the Editor,” Northfield News, Northfield, Minnesota, 2007)

I am sharing this space with a new friend and collaborator, Arthur Paul David White, who has been writing letters to the editor of the Northfield News in Minnesota for almost thirty years. As a member of the Northfield community, he is passionate about how pedestrians, vehicles, and nature can cohabitate in a balanced manner within a given landscape. In the letters he writes to the Northfield News he frequently references his “Magic Square,” which is a city plan for a mystically and mathematically designed city. Naturally, Arthur’s name came up on the first day of the first community walk of my residency in Northfield. I am absorbed by his letters — the urgency to communicate the Magic Square as a way to sustain the future of Northfield. I tend to be drawn to circles — but I want to walk the Magic Square.

Initial conversations with Northfield locals prove that no one can agree on the parameters of this Magic Square; I need to talk to Arthur Paul David White. After trying several wrong addresses and phone numbers, I am able to locate Arthur, and every day for two weeks I walk to meet him where he lives in a care facility near the Malt-O-Meal mill. The entire neighborhood smells like cinnamon sugar baking. Arthur is eighty-six years old, struggles with mobility and misses walking around the city. He used to walk long distances, and now, in a wheelchair, rolls in his small room filled with maps, notes, and a huge dictionary. He loves talking about Thomas Jefferson’s Township Grid, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Albrecht Dürer, as well as landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmstead (Central Park, NYC) and Horace William Shaler Cleveland (Grand Rounds, Minneapolis). Arthur Paul David White generally uses the full name of anyone he is referencing. He always calls me by my full name, too.

Left: Dorothea Lange, Untitled, 1951; gelatin silver print, 3 3/4 x 3 7/8 in. (9.53 x 9.84 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Tom Vasey; © Oakland Museum of California, the City of Oakland, gift of Paul S. Taylor; Right: Arthur Paul David White, A Magic Square within a Magic Square, ink on paper placemat, 2016

Left: Dorothea Lange, Untitled, 1951; Right: Arthur Paul David White, A Magic Square within a Magic Square, 2016; ink on paper placemat

He asks me if I have any gossip on Frank Lloyd Wright or Paolo Soleri, since I live in the desert of Arizona, where both architects worked. I tell him Soleri recently passed away and proceed to describe details of a recent documentary film on the Italian architect. Arthur loves the story of Soleri standing with an umbrella under a Palo Verde tree in full bloom, the yellow flowers raining down on him. I share with Arthur works by John Cage, explaining aleatoric and chance-based activities and how the I Ching influenced Cage’s work. Arthur explains to me why certain bridges in Northfield need to be pedestrian-only and why one particular building in Northfield has thrown the entire grid off-kilter and why residents of Northfield need to pay close attention and get to work fixing the grid. I share with Arthur the works of artist Agnes Martin. I imagine Arthur might like her paintings based on his deep connection to horizontals and verticals. I show him a bunch of images from my laptop that he calls the magic-silver-box. After a long silence looking at numerous Martin paintings he says, “You know, I can barely see the lines you keep talking about and the lines I see look like rectangles. Your magic-silver-box is good for a lot of things but not these paintings,” and “I think I would understand them better if I saw them in person.” Arthur later tells me “They are fine paintings. But why not just paint one?” This response, coming from someone who has committed thirty years of writing letters to the editor of a local newspaper on a weekly basis, is perplexing.

Left: Robert Motherwell, Open No. 124, 1969; Right: Cover of Arthur's I Ching (detail)

Left: Robert Motherwell, Open No. 124, 1969; Right: Cover of Arthur’s I Ching (detail)

Arthur loves the Paul Klee quotes I read to him from Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, but when I show him Klee’s drawings from the book he says there are too many diagonals and curves to know what Klee is actually trying to communicate. Arthur tells me he once heard that Klee invented the symbol of the arrow because drawing a pointing hand each time a direction is noted is much too difficult and time-consuming. As he communicates this he says it probably isn’t true because cave paintings would have used the symbol first. I show him the multiple icons of arrows and hands moving forward and backwards for reloads, calendars, and drop-down menus on my magic-silver-box.

An active line on a walk, moving freely, without goal.
A walk for a walk’s sake.
The mobility agent is a point, shifting its position forward. 1

Left: Coin results (I Ching) for Angela, Arthur Paul David White, 2016, ink on yellow notebook paper; Right:Paul Klee, Nachbar-türen (Neighboring Doors), 1933

Left: Coin results (I Ching) for Angela, Arthur Paul David White, 2016, ink on yellow notebook paper; Right: Paul Klee, Nachbar-türen (Neighboring Doors), 1933

We look at Klee’s colorful grid paintings and talk about how my first drawing instructors taught me about the artist taking dots for walks to create lines on surfaces. I started to understand drawing in a way that reflects how we exist in the world. A drawn line, a line of text, a walked line. Moving bodies in space and sometimes making patterns, rhythms, and forms. Lines as moving dots walking alone or as a surging collective.

I mention the Fibonacci series in reference to Arthur’s Magic Square. Without missing a beat, Arthur says, “That’s like comparing apples and oranges.” He pauses, then turns to his huge dictionary and reads aloud definitions of the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci Series and with excitement says, “You might be on to something.” I show him a visual representation of the ratio and talk about its relationship to composition, shells, and the wings of dragonflies. His face lights up and he says, “It is the most beautiful thing in the world.”

He asks me if the magic-silver-box can find Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and Jiddu Krishnamurthy. I want to share with him the drawings of the esoteric artist and healer Emma Kunz whose meticulous drawings articulate a clear center much like the center of a Magic Square only with colorful diagonals. Arthur begins talking about the center of Magic Squares being similar to the water well at the center of an ancient village. A center to which a community returns often. I imagine this repeated action: A continuous and connected line of people walking to and from a center becoming lines where the physical, personal, poetic, and political converge in overlooked landscapes.

Hours pass and Arthur’s lunch is cold. I give him my granola bar and toss the coins for one last I Ching question. He draws the results on a page in one of his many stacked notebooks filled with hexagrams from previous readings and points out what pages to read in the book.


The Museum of Walking (MoW) is a dynamic educational and social resource committed to the act of walking as an agent for change as well as contemplation. The Museum of Walking considers walking as an expansive relational activity associated with art, science, philosophy, health, ecology, activism and sustainability. It is the only museum in the United States dedicated solely to walking, and is located in Arizona, one of the least walkable states in the US.

By focusing on the everyday activity of walking and addressing its larger role within art, history, literature, culture, and place, MoW embodies the emotionally, physically, politically, and socially charged action of moving through space, while addressing larger issues surrounding sustainable lifestyles in physically and ecologically challenged places.

  1. Paul Klee, Pedagogical Sketchbook, p. 16 (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1953).
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