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.

Very stimulating, and it addresses very well your persistent vision in classic Hesiakian mystic prose. A few thoughts before your piece goes up:

"using an expository format that is meant to graphically expose everything in an obscene way to all these foreign people."

Why obscene?

"the shadows are really meant to be reveals"

What is a reveal?

On cutting the covenant -- you could make a case that, since only God passed between the animal pieces, the covenant relies entirely on God's grace rather than on both sides keeping their part of the "deal." To link the cuts in the Jewish museum with Jesus's scars is in my view imposing an alien and potentially offensive interpretation on the building. The scars are on the bodies of the the dead Jews. Not crucial to your discussion-- just interesting.

"pathways/pathos" -- I don't think these two words come from the same root. "Path" in Greek is suffering; so you get pathology, psychopath, pathetic, etc. Path as in pathway I think has a different etymology.

I'm curious about the relationship you see between a museum, which is a sort of shrine, a place for displaying and commemorating the past, vis-a-vis church, which in the NT is a bunch of live people. You establish 3 parts to the syllogism; what is the fourth? I.e., Getty is to megachurch as Jewish Museum is to... what? What sort of "being church" or "doing church" do you see? Maybe the las
Thanks dude. Good to hear from you. And thanks for the suggestions.

Why obscene? Because its about "showing everything." Even showing the source of life.

A reveal?

I provide that link as opposed to some photograph to some work with a "reveal" accompanied by some philosophical explanation, because I wanted to show that a "reveal" is a small shadow cast by a hung mechanical construct (meant originally to "show the construction" and/or invoke said machine) rather than the Shadow of a built-up wall (by human hands), figuratively speaking.

On the scars of Jesus...he WAS Jewish ;) Really...I am aware of the issue. An explanation was not included simply for brevity. Maybe its an issue of priorities?

Pathos/pathways. I'll do some research. You are probably right. Although the ideas can still be connected. I did provide a link showing the etymology of pathos itself, and it doesn't really include "pathway." But traditionally in Christianity Christ's "passion" is associated with his "path" to Golgatha, and remembered in the Stations of the Cross.

The museum connection is somewhat random. By that I mean that I didn't mean to draw any connection there. I'm sure there is one, though. Interestingly, I think musuems are meant to, as you said, commemorate something of the past. As if its gone and that's the only way to remember it. I do see a connection in that Libeskind seeks to establish a connection with the past by its actualization. I think liturgy is meant to do the same.

So the last step in the syllogism might be a a more liturgical church. But its not that simple. I am referring specifically to various folks who are "exploring" new ways of doing church. So that new way is not exactly defined; and yet I do think that you can point to it as a meaninful characterization as an existing thing in the world. I guess it is mainly an evangelical phenomenon. I just didn't want to pigeonhole what I was talking about as "the emergent church." Because that really wasn't what I was talking about.

And your last line? "Maybe the las"...?
Thanks. "Maybe the las" is a remnant of a thought that did not come to fruition. I still don't get the idea of a "reveal" -- the link in your article reveals nothing to this not-very-visual person, and the link in your comment doesn't work. And you might want to explain what you mean by obscene in your article.
Thanks for the tip on the obscene thing. I will probably do that, actually.

A reveal, in more explicit terms, is - these days - 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 off the extraneous mortar that had dripped out of the joint between the bricks, it 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...meant to evoke the mechanical motion of...everything...including the planets going around and aroung (hence the band's going "around and around" the building). At Meir's building, the "reveals" are the little joints between the 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 is a shado; but figuratively it is not a Shadow but a reveal.

I thoght a bit more about the covenant thing. I realized/remembered that I kind of purposely meant to evoke specifically Jewish history of the covenant...and its fulfillment in Jesus. Obviously us Christians have really screwed up historically in our relatinship to the Jewish people, but if they have a problem with the basic/essential idea of Jesus as a fulfillment of "their" historical covenant...which obviously many of them do...then, well...I dont' share that problem with them.
Thanks for clarifying the reveal. Oh, and another idea we kicked around awhile ago came to mind last night: the heterotopia.
Your welcome on the reveal thing.

And just for clarity...are you referring to the heterotopia as the last term in my "sylogism" (suddenly that word sounds really funny to me)?
classic Hesiakian mystic prose


By the way, nice to see you around Theos today. Something is always lacking when "classic Hesiakian mystic prose" is absent!


Thanks. Good to have you around here as well!

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