Thursday, September 13, 2007

Orienting Ourselves On The Site

So my last post is at some point going to be posted over at the church and postmodern culture: a conversation. In trying to figure out how best to say what I wanted to say, lots of stuff came out in the meantime. I figure I might as well share it with you guys. So - disclaimer - what follows is sort of being dug up from the trash bin, although the reasons were other than its trashyness. It, as well as the other things to be dug up from the same trash bin later, was in the trash bin mostly just because either it wasn't provacative enough (in the sense of getting thoughts moving around in people's noggin') or didn't provide a clear enough picture of how contemporary church relates to contemporary architecture (or some combination of the two). So, dearest readers (ode to Dejan :)...we're off...

(oh additional note: you may notice some overlap between the previous post that will actually go up at church and postmodern cultre and this one, as well as with the other post later to be dug up from the trash bin)...(oh and for my reader's reaction: you may judge for yourself whether I chose the best route for posting over at church and postmodern culture, or you may treat each post separately as its own work...or some other unknown-to-me alternative :)...(oh and one more: I may actually still follow up on what I said I would follow up on but obviously did not since I didn't actually post this at the place that would have involved the follow-up)...

It is interesting to me that the first four chapters of the first book of the first treatise ever written on architecture – The Ten Books of Architecture, by a Roman architect named Vitruvius who died right about the same time as Jesus – contains just about all of the seeds of conversation in which I would like to engage in order to address the various ways that architecture is relevant to the church and to the conversation that is happening here at “the church and postmodern culture: a conversation.”

The opening of Chapter IV, called “The Site of a City”, seems to provide a kind of focal point, both for how I hope to illuminate how architecture in general itself “sits on” this web “site” and as well for how I hope to relate architecture to the church (besides the fact that churches often have buildings). I see a kind of triangulation happening. There is the “conversation” happening at this site. Then there’s a whole history and tradition of architecture, largely forgotten by most architects and unknown, I think (?), by much of my audience here. And then, of course, there is the church, of which many of us are a part. The conversation here at this “site” focuses primarily on how contemporary culture and theory relates to various issues or maladies (depending on who is speaking about them) and their justifications or cures (also depending on who is speaking).

To state it succinctly, then, my hope for this post is to relate architecture to the conversation occurring at this site. This conversation is obviously related to the church, so I also hope to clearly relate for my audience, much of whom I’m assuming has (for the sake of ease) a lack of knowledge of architecture, some architectural theory and practice to some church theory and practice. Later I will discuss these things in more detail as they pertain more to architecture specifically.

So back to Vitruvius: his Chapter IV opens as follows:

For fortified towns the following general principles are to be observed. First comes the choice of a very healthy site. Such a site will be high, neither misty nor frosty, and in a climate neither hot nor cold, but temperate; further, without marshes in the neighborhood. For when the morning breezes blow toward the town at sunrise, if they bring with them mists from marshes and, mingled with the mist, the poisonous breath of creatures of the marshes to be wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants, they will make the site unhealthy.

Now, my contention is that we’re already screwed on that count. We’re already settled into a very unhealthy “site” with lots of both mist and frost, and located all to near to lots of local marshes blowing “poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes to be wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants” (ancient people spoke funnily, lol). What do I mean by that? I do not mean that this website “blows” and that I hope to avoid conversation with all of you sickly creatures so as to avoid catching your diseases. What I mean is that I think our cultural “site” in which we are all situated, in which we are all trying to work and “make a living” (or do church), is “sick.”

Now, Jesus seems to have had a bit of a different attitude toward sick folks than did Vitruvius. Vitruvius says: “First comes the choice of a very healthy site.” Compared to Jesus who says: “Here I come you sick screw-ups into a very unhealthy site. Welcome to my neighborhood! I love ‘ya.” That is just, however, to state the obvious so as not to stumble over it. I will mostly leave that aside for now, and move on to figuring out more of what I mean when I say that our “site” is sick. My professor once said that if Architecture is most like any profession, it is that of Medicine. Let’s then see what kind of diagnoses and prescriptions we can make out. Uumm…with the help of our healing Counselor, of course!

So, I’d say that its fair for me to say that three of the top topics of conversation these days in the church are: discipleship (and its programmatization), spiritual formation (even if the topic of conversation is either a more philosophical notion of “the formation of the self”, or how it is too often ignored) and liturgy (and the supposedly less “mechanical” and more protestant ways of doing worship). The architectural seeds of all three are found right there in Chapters I – III of Book I of Vitruvius’ treatise. Obviously, though, the categorizations shake out a bit differently in Vitruvius’ discussion on architecture!

What I am referencing as discipleship corresponds to Chapter I of Book I of Vitruvius’ treatise, which is on “The Education of the Architect.” In it he discusses how the knowledge that an architect must acquire “is the child of practice and theory.” He goes on to discuss how theory and practice should properly relate to each other. I find these thoughts from Vitruvius, then, to be fascinatingly relevant to what I’ve heard David Fitch complain about toward the church as its “pragmatization.” I will explain more of this later, as well, but I don’t think it’s a great leap to relate the church’s pragmatization to its programmatization (nor its programmatization to its mechanization, more on that as well).

Again, my take is that such a “pragmatization” does exist, as a sickness. And I know of at least one contemporary architect who, correspondingly I think, complains of the constant proliferation of “meaningless form” in architecture (meaningless utilitarian and beurocratically acceptable form, of course!).

What I am referencing as spiritual formation, and connecting to the more philosophical (and/or psychological) notion of the formation of the self, is often dealt with these days in a conversation about language (how or whether language plays an active role in the formation of the self). One section of Vitruvius’ chapter on education is on what I first interpreted long ago when I read Vitruvius for the first time as “the idea of sign and signified.” Basically Vitruvius says that an architect has to be both naturally gifted, corresponding in a building to “the thing signified” (the laws of nature), and also “amenable to instruction,” corresponding to “what gives it its significance” (the laws being demonstrated by buildings, which then signify natural laws).

There is also more on this to come, but the point here is that the seeds for our current conversation on language and the formation of the self seem to be present right there in Chapter I, Book I of Vitruvius writings. For now I will just note how the talk of the town these days is how the capitalist machine manipulates our identity, and yet how the church is mostly not only doing nothing to fight back, but is capitulating to such smelly marsh winds. Architecturally, although this is quite the rabbit hole, I think the place to start is, again, with the repeated observation that much contemporary architecture is pretty devoid of meaning, besides, of course, the meaning graciously granted to it by the market. My contention, then, is that architecture often participates in the very same consumerist forces of manipulation of the self that folks complain about in the conversation about church. Why have or worry about spiritual formation, of the self or of buildings, in the church or in the practice of architecture when…uumm…eerrr…you just buy them (both selves and buildings)?

What I am referencing as liturgy corresponds to Vitruvius’ Chapter II of Book I on “The Fundamental Principles of Architecture.” In this section Vitruvius discusses how the parts of a building should be properly arranged in an orderly relationship to each other according to the principle of “Eurythmy” (the Greek flows better: “eurythmia”) in such a way that the parts correspond properly to the whole and its character. The question of liturgy or a lack thereof in church is a question of how to properly arrange the various parts of the ecclesial service or mass in relation to each other in response to the calling of a good God who works in all of history and eternity. More liturgical ways of doing church often seem to be organized and guided by a higher kind of musical rhythm present in how the very flow of time is itself kept by and participated in with this rhythm, which appears sensibly in the actual audible music that occurs throughout the liturgical proceedings.

I like when a well-proportioned house (very, very uncommon) has a grand piano in it (also uncommon). And most church services appear to me as like the cacophony of and MTV video. Keep in mind, also, that when I say “cacophony,” I am referring not just to the bad sound of it, but also to the disorderly relations of the parts of the service – and thus, of man - that do not lead to a coherent picture of wholeness that reflects or glorifies the character of the God who made us (to reference spiritual formation again).

Now, Chapter III of Book I of Vitruvius’ treatise is on “The Departments of Architecture.” It opens: “There are three departments of architecture: the art of building, the making of time-pieces, and the construction of machinery.” Liturgy has already arisen here as sort of a way of keeping time. Additionally, I previously made note of “and the supposedly less ‘mechanical’ and more protestant ways of doing worship.” As it turns out, the changes in architecture’s relation to the machine throughout the historical sands of time is a good way to tie all of these various themes together, which I plan to do in a future post or two. This should now come as no surprise, considering the rest of the post.

This question of the machine and the departments of architecture, however, does relate I think, to a current hot-button topic of conversation whose seeds are not directly or actually present in Vitruvius’ treatise. And that is the question of how to relate either to contemporary pluralism or modern colonial imperialism (again, how it is referenced depends on who is speaking). Vitruvius was Roman, and speaking to the Emperor (as per his Apologia, which I will discuss in a moment), so I don’t think he was too concerned with anyone else! Architecturally, however, I am not a fan of “eclecticism.” I am not a fan of collage. I do think that things appearing in the world should have a certain coherence to them, which should naturally be reflected in certain truths that I do believe lie at the bottom of nature. How exactly that should work out in church, I do not know. But our narcissistic diseases that cause us to refer to Paul as an expository preacher and Augustine’s former Manicheanism as “materialistic” has got to stop.

So, and this is completely backwards, I feel that a bit of an Apologia is in the works. Vitruvius’ “apologia” is in the Preface of Book I, so that’s what I mean by “backwards,” lol (this is the end of my post). His reads:

While your divine intelligence and will, Imperator Caesar, were engaged in acquiring the right to command the world, and while your fellow citizens, when all their enemies had been laid low by your invincible valour, were glorying in your triumph and victory, - while all foreign nations were in subjection awaiting your beck and call, the Roman people and senate, released from their alarm, were beginning to be guided by your most noble conceptions and policies, I hardly dared, in view of your serious employments, to publish my writings and long considered ideas on architecture, for fear of subjecting myself to your displeasure by an unseasonable interruption.

Wait. Lacan just whispered in my ear that Vitruvius had major Father issues. Lol. Shoot. Let me start over, then! After all, everyone here knows that in a man’s work, which has theatrical meaning and political implications, the Apologia goes to the audience. And – more relevant to why I have to start over here with my backwardsly-placed Apologia – we all know as well that in our contemporary modern liberal democracy the audience is “The People!” But of course, most of those people are still busy glorying in Imperator Market’s (probably not a technically correct turn of phrase – “Imperator Market” - the market is the house, not the head of it; and “capital”, the head of the column, eerrr…house, drives the market rather than is the market) “triumphs and victories,” since he seems already to have “acquir[ed] the right to command the world.” What is the economic use of pluralism? Even “all foreign nations” are still “awaiting [his] beck and call”, so I must await his call before setting out on something so ambitious as a treatise (against him, snicker snicker).

Here I humbly begin, however, a short series of posts on architecture and its relation the postmodern culture in which we find ourselves, as well as its relation to various church issues often discussed at this “site.” As noted previously, the capitalist machine “turns out” to be a good way of bringing together lots of themes that, at the first glance had in this introduction, might appear as disconnected or disorderly categorizations.

And although I am not writing a treatise, the preface of Vitruvius’, however, continues by explaining how he began to take note that Caesar’s attention was being given, ”not only to the welfare of society in general and to the establishment of public order, but also to the providing of public buildings intended for utilitarian purposes.” Vitruvius himself took his continued commissions from the Emperor as evidence that, “I need have no fear of want to the end of my life, and being thus laid under obligation I began to write this work for you…”

Oh, and before I forget, dear audience. Please extend lots of grace from the very depths of your soul to my small number of Doctorate and Masters degrees (a big fat zero) as compared to the large number that usually accompanies the writers here at this “site” (usually somewhere between two and six – no exaggeration!).


Monday, September 03, 2007

The Geometry of Architecture and Church

The folowing should soon be found posed over at The Church and Postmodern Culture: A Conversation:

In The Geometry of Art and Life, Matila Ghyka says that the mathematics of architecture are about ratio, proportion and analogy. Ratio is a set relationship between two measures or numbers, proportion is developed in a series of relationships (in time), and analogy is the link holding them together. Imagine a rectangle with sides whose measures are 2 and 3. Now imagine a rectangle with sides whose measures are 4 and 6. Those two rectangles are in proportion with each other, and the analogy between them is 2.

These, however, are mere numbers. Geo-metry means “earth-measure.” The numbers once meant something. Pythagoras probably demonstrated (not “discovered” or “invented”) his theorem with triangular clay tiles. So what I plan to do in this post is draw an analogy between some of the key relationships at play in two famous museums designed by two famous contemporary architects (relationships which might be termed mathematical or geometric) and some corresponding relationships at play in what might be described as two contemporary ways of doing church (relationships which also might be descried as geometric).

There is a well-known evangelical way of doing church that is nicely exemplified in the hotly debated virtues or lack thereof of the typical mega-church (or in smaller churches that emulate them). Its like a shiny, well oiled machine that runs so smoothly that its members just continue to desire joyfully to do all the necessary work to keep the heavy and complicated machine running just as smoothly as it “always has.” After all, the point of a nicely humming machine is to attract “other” now-greatly-blessed people to come over and take a look at your shiny red car, right? Off, then, into the great frontiers…err, wheat fields…of God’s labour!

Corresponding to the peacefully running well-oiled pretty and shiny machine of the mega-church is The Getty Center in Los Angeles, CA, by American (of course) architect Richard Meir. Like the shiny mega-church, it photographs really well; however the photographs are often merely graphic and actually mean next to nothing (and often have no relationship to the ground). I mentioned once to a pastor who runs something like a mega-church that there is a strong correspondence to his typically Cartesian way of moving around the world by notation and the fact that the cross on the wall in his church has no body. He simply explained to me the history of the Protestant tradition of showing the cross without the body of Christ in order to celebrate the Resurrection. In his mind that was pretty much the end of the discussion (but not before he did share some fairly personal and touching stories of his own experiences with death).

The Getty is designed on a graphically-imposed orthogonal grid whose module size is determined by the distance at which most Americans have a “comfortable” level of intimacy when standing next to another person (determined by a survey, of course), which if I remember right is 30 inches (in Africa, or even Europe, you will notice that people stand much closer to each other in line). Similarly the preaching in a mega-church has that funny “warm tone” to it, but in reality the guy is talking to thousands of people he’s never met using an expository format that is meant to graphically expose everything in an obscene way to all these foreign people. By "obscene" there I mean the exposing of more than what is appropriate, even the very source of life, to a public showing.

Correspondingly, at the Getty there is no Shadow. Instead the joints between the elements of construction expose the fact that the shadows are really meant to be reveals. A reveal, these days, is a joint in the plaster finish of a building to prevent cracking. Or back in the day when a mason would take a hand tool to get the extraneous mortar that had dripped out of the joint between the bricks off the wall, the tool might leave a "reveal." Or in enlightenment period architecture, sometimes you just see this horizontal band, a visual/linear line of a little shadow cut into the stone finish of the building that is meant to evoke the mechanical motion of...well, everything...including the planets going around and around (hence the band's going "around and around" the building, and hence the elliptical contour of the wall around which the "reveal" probably runs "around"). At Meir's building, the "reveals" are the little joints between the white aluminum panels, or between the stones that are mechnaically fixed to the side of the building as the finish. The reason you see the reveal is because it makes a shadow; but figuratively it is not a Shadow but a reveal.

Additinally, the Getty is designed in such a way as to look holy and pure and “set apart” from its context. Of course, though, we then have to be reconciled to “nature,” so there are a bunch of gardens and trees around the grounds in which people can mosey. And the buildings themselves seem to twist and turn peacefully along with the Romance of the innocent American Landscape, a “view” of which is a primary feature of the Getty experience. In that picture one should take note the “fallen impurities” of the tall buildings in the way of the view (lol); luckily for the viewer they are really far away and so comfortably insignificant.

Similarly a mega-church has supposedly been “set apart” into a holy life with God. The only problem is that it is not really till after we die, so it is kind of far away and appears insignificant (the “it” that is far away is either life in the now or life in heaven after we die). Or maybe life with God is even in the now, but just as the Getty Center looks white, pure and shiny but isn’t really any different from the “context” around it – and in fact borrows its most important and determining features from its “context” – both the mega-church and the Getty, in their Downy-absorbent whiteness, really don’t do anything but cater to the stifling powers that be. In their “whiteness” they take on the colors of the things around them, although in a way that looks quite distorted and even a bit horrifying.

Ironically the biggest problems the architect had getting the Getty built was with the neighborhood “context” around the proposed center. They didn’t want this mechanically busy white piece of soon-rusted metal in the way their peaceful life in the mountains.

There is another less well-worn way of doing church that some evangelicals have been exploring lately. It doesn’t rely on expository disjunctions between what we do now and the “landscape” or context that we inhabit. It doesn’t rely on a series of whitely abstracted propositions about truths that conform strictly to the eternal laws of logic but then have a hard time conforming to the actual world that we live in. And it generally seems less interested in the erotic shiny redness of the well-oiled sports car. Instead some people today are interested in embracing their history as the only door to their present and future in such a way that – surprise - life and all of its oily and greasy mess is actually lived in a hopefully coherent way that leads to the wholeness of man living with and toward God. Some of us are trying to live in sight of the Cross and Resurrection rather than the red shiny Carriage. The King's Carriage is of course carried on the backs of the workers rather than on that of Jesus.

Corresponding in my analogy to this new way of doing church, about which others have already said much that they are more qualified than myself to say, is Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. The building shares a plot of land with and sits right next to a pre-existing museum of the history of Berlin, which itself was built in the 1800s. As a tribute to the importance of the past in shaping the present, the only entrance to Libeskind’s new museum is through the old and pre-existing one. The new museum has no public entrance of its own.

Rather than being a reactionary tribute to the fading shine of the red sports car (think Joel Osteen as a most extreme example), the museum is also meant to, through various expressions of the language of architecture, remember the pain of the Holocaust and the resulting sense of loss and place of the Void in our souls and in the world. Yet the building is also meant to, in the face of such pain and sorrow, celebrate the past and ongoing collaborative influence of the Jewish people of Berlin on their city. As Libeskind says: The task of a Jewish Museum in Berlin demands more than a mere functional response to the program. Such a task in all its ethical depth requires the incorporation of the void of Berlin back into itself, in order to disclose how the past continues to affect the present and to reveal how a hopeful horizon can be opened through the aporias of time.

Like the more liturgical character of some of the new churches, the parts of the Jewish museum are themselves like measured modules of the life of the Jewish people of Berlin, meant to reflect the character of Jewish life and the Jewish God. It is also constructed or ordered in such a way that those invisible and visible remnants of Jewish life and the character of their God (both painful and hopeful, scarring and encouraging) is to be gathered into one experience, in time, of the “microcosmic” whole of the museum and city, an experience which itself will later leave a kind of footprint of memory in one’s soul after having “been through” it (someone I respect once said that an architectural plan is like a footprint). Says Libeskind: The Jewish Mesuem has a multivalent relation to its context. It acts as a lens magnifying the vectors of history in order to make the continuity of spaces visible.

Interestngly, then, rather than being designed over a superimposed and at least conceptually infinitely extended “grid,” the overall plan is a broken construction of the ancient Jewish symbol, the Star of David. The "symbol" of the Star of David is not, by the way, just an object that appears on the spacially flat and infinite screen of life, but fits inside the geometric Unity of a circle as part of a larger alchemical geometric construction of the world, figuratively speaking of course. The referenced figurative geometric construction is that of a square inside a circle using only a stright edge and compass, and its beginnings are actually the logo of Studio Libeskind. I digress.

Back to the Jewish Museum, the grounds do not form a flat platform good for viewing the whole world as if from atop the Tower of Babel, but instead leaves the pilgrim on a series of labyrinthine and interconnected pathways that are often deeply disorienting and yet in turn sometimes profoundly re-orienting. Spacially, the re-orientation is only possible through the actual physical and sensible horizon, which was unfortunately lost a good 400 years ago. Even a keen awarenes of, as well as a profound questioning of a naive reliance upon, what we take to be the very laws of optics are a part of the actual "ground plan" of the building (Libeskind knew that Deleuze was aware that objects in the world become subjects when they stare back at you). This becomes very evident in some of his drawings. In some of his early exploratory drawings, the vanishing point, which occurs at the "ground," is exposed and exploded as something more than just a point on a line at which you stare blankly. You can see the remnants of this in his buildings.

Interestingly, Libeskind’s mentor was Catholic, and the following quote from him helps me to come to terms with the definition and sacramental nature of ritual. The Jewish Museum is conceived as an emblem in which the Invisible and Visible are the structural features which have been gathered in this space of Berlin and laid bare in an architecture where the unnamed remains the name which keeps still. Libeskind also says: The Jewish Museum is based on the invisible figures whose traces constitute the geometry of the building. The ground on which the building stands is not only the apparent one in Kreuzberg, but that other one which is both above and below it (Libeskind).

Libeskind’s mentor, mentioned a moment ago (named John Hejduk), would in his projects oftentimes be sure to bring you into contact with a scratching of the surface of the ground before you enter simply to remind you that its here. I had mentioned that at Libeskind’s museum, you can only enter through the past, but you also actually enter through the ground. You actually break the surface of the ground and descend into the depths of the earth in order to begin your journey of contact with the above-ground Jewish history of Berlin. You enter the depths of the Ground of Being, and by the time many people emerge from their experience of the building they are on their knees weeping, having been stirred to the depths of their soul.

As soon as you enter the building, then, you are underground, as when you proceed through more liturgical worship. The only “windows” are above you. They are the breaking of the surface of the ground, and in form and placement are part of the embodied story of the building and the city. The windows are the physical manifestation of a matrix of connections pervading the site. These ‘cuts’ are the actual topographical lines joining addresses of Germans and Jews immediately around the site and radiating outwards. The windows are the ‘writing of the addresses by the walls of the Museum itself’ (Libeskind).

As you can see, then, the windows are more than simply panes of glass meant to fulfill the biological function of sight. After contact with the Jewish Museum, some come to associate these “cuts” in the face of the building with facial “scars” (those of the past, no doubt). Like a missional church, the museum, rather than being a pristinely disjointed machine for the production of surface level truths and experiences that avoid the depths of reality, elicits deep sympathies with the very depths of God and the human heart.

Another interesting aspect of Libeskind referring to the “windows” as “cuts”, again considering his interest in the actualization of history, is the fact that the word “covenant” means “to cut.” It is a reference to the covenant ritual performed by God and Abraham, in which Abraham “cut” the animals into two halves through which the a holy fire of God then passed, thus symbolizing the two sides of the covenant between God and man. This was the “old covenant” on which stands the covenant by which our savior bears our “scars.”

Once you have entered the museum and are underground, the image of the God in you and in covenant with you is played out through your choices between three pathways (pathos). As you walk down each, you find that they lead, respectively, to a Void with a sliver of light descending from above accompanied by an upside down staircase, an “upside down” Garden of Exile and Emigration, and a long and slowly ascending staircase leading up to the exhibition spaces from which light floods downwards.

And just for the curious, here is what the “windows” look like from inside the building on the upper levels. It is appropriate, by the way, that its the windows, the openings, that symbolize the covenant. In Greek mythology windows are Orphic; in the Judeo-Christian tradition windows guide us on our procession toward God. It is often those heterogeneous places in a given space of a Libeskind building where the "cuts" begin and/or end that you begin to notice the figure of vanishing point staring back at you.

Much could be said about all of these, and the rest of the architectural features (or “words”) of the museum, as well as how it relates analogically through other buildings to other ecclesiologies. Suffice it to say for now, however, that the building is meant to be an embodiment – in time - of what it means to be human, or maybe Jewish, in the specific world in which we dwell and in relation to God. It is not a machine with a distant love/hate relationship to the body that involves lots of bickering arguments between originally harmonious parts of the self, arguments which themselves involve throwing foreign cinematic projectiles at a screen from across the room.

Instead the objects in the room, so to speak, are meant to be gathered up as parts of a meaningful and coherent whole that does not ignore the pains of our days or our bodies but instead “lays bare” all the deepest desires placed on our heart by God in such a way as to make a “pathos” to a place of hope in the face of an all-too-easily-ignored blackness (thus leading to those regrettable yet memorable purchases of red sports cars). Although Libeskind often intentionally ignores entirely the term "form" in his written discourses because of all the baggage that comes with it, the very form of his building, and not just the linguistic content that is often assumed to be the only messenger in the world, is meant to be part of the wholistic message of hope and breath in a constricted world of darkness whose future can tend to look so bleak.

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