The hope of the classical is that ugliness is never the last word. It is implicitly redemptive because it manifests, through beauty of expression, that whatever is not beautiful can be ultimately transfigured.
Since architecture is a distinctly human phenomenon, the objectification of space is always of a space that is orientated and relational because it is always experienced from a particular point of view: our bodies. Space is, therefore, never an abstract concept or a vacuum, nor even an absolute reality, it is always conditional and relative, and movement is seen as the change not simply or merely of physical location, but of one’s point of view or the frame of refernence. Hence, this space is one in which our bodily movements are both exhibited and contextualized within the realm of other bodies and their movements or relative positions with a spatial field.
Within the realm of human activity and experience, there exists an isomorphism between these natural movements of the body (or bodies) and the transcendent movements of the soul(s). Man exists in and experiences this tension, feels the pull between earth and the sky, of which the threshold and the horizon are points of entry/departure and orientation as we move laterally/horizontally through these vertical axes. We can, in a very easy but real and primordial way, both understand and experience this isomorphism from the simple fact that we naturally associate spatial realities and terminologies with non-empirical realities: verticality with transcendence, summits and peaks with the closeness to the divine, and being “elevated” and “lifted up” with the encounter with the beautiful. Thus the objectification of space, as human and inhabited space, necessarily also exhibits and reinforces the cruciform tension of our earthly existence between the horizontal and the vertical, or rather the immanent and the transcendent.
Because the space is distinctly human space, it is patterned, meaning that architecture is the objectification of space as experientially patterned. So, like unto art a-la Susanne Langer and Bernard Lonergan, it is the pure experiential patterning of space, or rather the objectification of a purely experiential spatial patterning. Patterning, both its experience and its making, involves the conscious withdrawal and return to the world. Hence, architecture always exhibits an abstraction from the world and a recapitulation in a formal, idealized, and compressed way. Thus architecture is ana-representational– iconic but not identical with the pattern of experience. It is instead a shorthand or compressed image of the experiential pattern. Because it is this and not merely an imitation of spatial patterns and forms we experience, there is a heightened drama in which the architecture must recapitulate the movements of bodies in space using forms available in a virtual and essentialized way within the creation of virtual space(s), imitating “nature” analogically and teleologically and thereby making explicit what is implicitly manifest in our patterned experience thereof.
So, this “explication” in a formal, idealized shorthand is what architecture is after. Hence, in order for us to be at home in this world, architecture must exhibit patterns (that are inherently “ordered”) which are both consonant with our experience of the world and of the world we desire proper to our human flourishing. Speaking to the first, it should imitate our human world (4 ways: restated ground, restated sky, restated horizon, restated threshold), imitate the movement of objects in this world/space (7 ways: up, down, left, right, forwards, backwards, circuitously), and imitate how we experience space (3 ways: foreground, middleground, background). Since architecture itself does not “move” in a literal sense, this involves virtual and relative movement by relations of parts within a whole composition rather than actual movement. Speaking to the second, it is the architect’s role to provide this threshold, or necessary conditions, under which those who experience the architectural whole can consciously, if properly disposed, experience the resolved tension of ones earthly existence by the clear ordering– the marker and the pointer– of the immanent towards the transcendent. Architecture thereby draws us deeper, by virtue of the aforementioned contemplative withdrawal and essentialized return, into the cosmic movement between the earth and the sky in which we find our daily existence.
Thus understood, in both general and specific ways depending on context, architecture is capable of ordering and orienting our lives in the lived, spatially experienced tension inherent in our gravity-bound natural condition, which is isomorphic with the spiritual tension and heaven-bound condition of our souls.
From a previously unpublished text at the introduction to the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “Primacy of Perception”, a series of passages provides a wonderful insight into perception and the body’s role in perceptual and spatial orientation, which has significant meaning for architectural theory.
“…the body is no longer merely an object in the world, under the purview of of a separated spirit. It is on the side of the subject; it is our point of view on the world, the place where the spirit takes on a certain physical and historical situation. As Descartes once said profoundly, the soul is not merely in the body like a pilot in his ship; it is wholly intermingled with the body. The body, in turn, is wholly animated, and all its functions contribute to the perception of objects– an activity long considered by philosophy to be pure knowledge…We grasp external space through our bodily situation…A system of possible movements, or “motor projects”, radiates from us to our environment. Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space. It applies itself to space like a hand to an instrument…For us the body is much more than an instrument or a means; it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions…We also find that spatial forms or distances are not so much relations between different points in objective space as they are relations between these points and a central perspective– our body. In short, these relations are different ways for external stimuli to test, to soicit, and to vary our grasp on the world, our horizontal and vertical anchorage in a place and in a here-and-now.” [p.5]
“Knowledge and communication sublimate rather than suppress our incarnation, and the characteristic operation of the mind is in the movement by which we recapture our corporeal existence and use it to symbolize instead of merely to co-exist. This metamorphosis lies in the double function of our body. Through its “sensory fields” and its whole organization the body is, so to speak, predestined to model itself on the natural aspects of the world. But as an active body capable of gestures, of expression, and finally of language, it turns back on the world to signify it. As the observation of apraxics shows, there is in man, superimposed upon actual space with its self-identical points, a “virtual space” in which the spatial values that a point would receive are also recognized.” [p.7]
Recently, I presented for discussion the paper “Truth and the Christian Imagination”, by DC Schindler, for a gathering of Fordham University graduate and doctoral students as part of a “Communio” discussion group. This paper can be found at the Communio website here. In my presentation, I took the occasion to note that the “Imagination” is represented by Schindler, at least in my reading of it, as a distinct, third faculty apart from the scholastic bi-partite division of intellect and will. I had for some time held the Augustinian idea that as the Trinity stands as the ground of Being, and as there is a triune unity of transcendentals which are co-extensive with Being, that humans as made in image and likeness should exhibit this triune structure with respect to their faculties which are receptors and interpreters of “being”. Certainly Plato held this indirectly when he granted a third, “spirited” faculty to man, and Augustine labeled this third faculty “memory”, and placed a distinct emphasis on the relation of memory to the theological virtue of hope (more on this later). In my trinitarian thinking, it made sense that if goodness corresponded to the will and truth to the intellect, and their respective perfections were charity and faith, there had to be a third faculty which was distinct from intellect and will which corresponded to the transcendental beauty and what I saw as its perfection in hope. It also made sense that the lack of a corresponding faculty in the scholastic tradition was largely indicative of the short shrift given to beauty, which was simply seen as a special manifestation of the good but essentially identical. I never found such a view convincing, especially after reading the early Church Fathers like Maximus, Dionysius, the Gregories of Nyssa and Nazienzen, Augustine, etc. The beautiful always seemed to me quite distinct from intellect and will and yet simultaneously the bridge between the two, since it seemed to correspond with both without collapsing into an absolute identity with either. Continue reading
A paper I presented at Catholic University on May 1, 2010, for a symposium on sacred architecture.
Abstraction and the Architectural Imagination:
The Question: “The Story at the Heart of Faith – Can abstraction call the person into the fullness of humanity?”
Contemplation/Contemplative Imagination: The total imagination involving all of our faculties—thinking, feeling, remembering, hoping, believing, perceiving, abstracting, conceiving and interpreting. It is the conditional ground for our reception of reality, and hence truth, and thereby the condition for our entrance into the fullness of our humanity.
Analogical: Proceeding according to a proper proportion or measure. It is the principle of unity in difference between the part and the whole, the particular and the universal, essentia and esse, becoming and being, the finite and the infinite, where the contraries are so integrated and mutually dependent and informing that to preference one to the expense of the other is to distort the way we contemplate, create, and live in the world.
Introductory salutations. The titular question as it relates to architecture, specifically sacred architecture, possesses a rather enigmatic character because architecture is an essentially “abstract” art, at least in any strict use or “icon”ic sense of the term. In fact, “abstraction” in a certain sense is precisely the power of the imagination that renders the entire creative artistic enterprise possible. Thus, defining its usage and meaning as it is more narrowly evidenced in architecture will constitute the first part of this presentation, highlighting examples of the types of architectural abstraction realized in built works. Following this, I will suggest that abstraction thus defined, in light of the Christological form given to the world and the specific purpose of sacred architecture in realizing this form, is too limited and narrow to “call” the person into the fullness of humanity, at least if the invitation is understood to be a definite, concrete one (imitation of Christ) in which the voice doing the calling adequately represents the fullness of life which it is drawing the person into. Instead, I will submit that contemplation as exemplified in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, is in fact the proper “noia” of the architectural imagination, and that this “noia” is typified by the analogical imagination manifest in the dramatic event-structure of traditional architectural forms.
A combination of readings has given me food for thought over the past couple of months. David Hart’s essay “On Butterflies and Being” preceded an epiphanic moment reading Timothy Gallagher’s Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment of Spirits, to which I referred in a previous post, and this has been further rounded out by Vol. I of Balthasar’s “Theo-Logic” entitled, Truth of the World.
Recalling the occasion of a spiritual exercitant’s experience of God’s overwhelming love while contemplating scripture, Gallagher remarks that “He is aware of the disproportion between his own efforts in prayer and the magnitude of this deeply spiritual consolation.” I will leave aside the refutation this implies for the suspiciously ubiquitous “centering prayer” which amounts more or less to a direct proportion between one’s efforts in prayer and the effects generated by the method. What struck me like a thunderclap was the similarity between this spiritual consolation and the experience of beauty; namely that the event of beauty is precisely that experience of the disproportion between the apperception or act of contemplating some object and the resultant experience of being overwhelmingly grasped by the same object, which is to say the subjective experience of simultaneous intimacy and distance in the state of reverential awe. Continue reading
My rejoinder to Mr. Goldman’s response below:
Aficionados of music who do not know much about music, but know what moves them, are at the mercy of the professionals, who know how to move them. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” at peril to your soul: even beautiful music can be used for evil as well as good. The problem, of course, is just what Sir Thomas Beecham observed: “People don’t like music. They just like the way it sounds.” I am the first to admit that Bruckner’s music sounds glorious. But just how is it put together?
The greatest analyst of tonal music (and the one whose theory quite properly dominates the university curriculum in the US) was Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935), a Bruckner student who respected the man but found grave flaws in the music. His evaluation (republished in Heinrich Schenker als Essayist und Kritiker. Gesammelte Aufsatze, Rezensionen und Kleinere Berichte aus den Jahren 1891-1901, ed. Hellmut Federhofer, Studien und Materialien zur Musikwissenschaft, 5 [Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1990], 197-205), finds that the music really doesn’t hold together: his musical phrases lack necessary connections to identify beginnings, middles, and endings. Brahms’ contempt for Bruckner’s music is well known (and this had nothing to do with professional jealousy: Brahms had signed Joachim’s manifesto against the “New German Music” long before Bruckner came on the scene).
— David P. Goldman
In all humility, while I admit to being out of my league from the standpoint of professional musicological debate, I believe, as an architect and philosopher, there is something highly elitist, if not Gnostic, about the view that only professionals have the ability to perceive the beauty or ascertain the truth of things, when it is often the professionals who are responsible for creating the academic dichotomy between head and heart that posits a schizophrenic split between experience and reality: their heads so often in the clouds they cannot see the truth or beauty directly in front of their nose, or in this case ears. Continue reading
I had hoped to write these musings sooner, but instead allowed my thoughts to simmer after the initial epiphany and its afterglow yielded to a more contemplative ‘dwelling with” in the platonic sense. Still, a blog hardly affords one the space to develop ideas to an adequate extent, and so what follows, as will inevitably be the case henceforth, is like an intellectual iceberg in a vast sea to which I’ve taken to exploring with an ice-pick.
To the point, I was recently struck by two related thoughts– the first while enjoying a walk on a beautiful fall day in my neighborhood of Park Slope, the second while reading one of Timothy Gallagher’s books titled “Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment.” The first introduces the question “what is art?”, while the second “what is beauty?”. As this post will only take stock of the first occasion, I mention the second simply to denote the presence of an ensuing post or two that will make further light of these initial undercooked comments.
While walking around Park Slope, I was overcome with a sense of gratitude infused by the contemplative receptivity towards my beautiful surroundings. Such a growing ardor not only filled my vision with an inner light that spread itself out like a luminous mantle upon all the eyes beheld, bathing the world with wonder, but it seemed to demand a response from me, in much the same way that when one is given a present, particularly when it is a surprise, one should immediately respond with a resounding “thank you!”. In the spiritual world, this thank you would be directed towards God and would entail the two-fold response of love: prayer and service (circumincessive contemplation and action). Analogously, this is no less true with art and philosophy. Continue reading