Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: Merleau-Ponty
March 12, 2012Posted by on
Meetings With Buildings is a work punctuated by subjective pieces that say something the main body of text cannot. They are attempts to bring a philosophical text out onto the pavement and everyday experience. This example – Intermède dans la Cathédrale – is not only typical, but sums up some recurrent concerns, particularly with regard to the architectural experience.
The idea that exceptional architecture is something ‘going on’ seems true to me. The work is, as it were, ‘in play.’ If it has an aura of ‘charge’ it is because one knowingly participates in this ‘play’ with body as well as mind, feelings as well as reason. The work is, as Gadamer argues, a structure in active presentation and what one experiences is to be differentiated from any traditional notion of aesthetic differentiation. With regard to buildings that structure is its architecture. But strangely – and this is a common experience – the seen or felt presence of the work in these terms is merely glimpsed before it vanishes. Otherwise there is simply that peculiar aura that we simply denominate as ‘quality’ (which, of course, can disturbing as well as consoling). One must also note that not all architectural works have anything ‘in play’ that is worth talking about, presenting or experiencing, and the difference between a powerful work and a worthy work of ‘well-building’ constitutes an intriguing dichotomous construct. From this perspective familiar notions of extraordinary art and architecture are turned upside down, shifting them to a neo-mythic status always dependent upon one’s subjectivity as a mode of attunement and reception. The following passage outlines an instance of my own experience of an architecture being found as ‘in play’, as present in a manner quite at odds with common aesthetic experience (the notion of subjectivity confronted by an alluring formal thingness of a work). It is a minor instance of work and play as part of everyday experience, followed by a dream whose hermeneutic dimensions only made some sense to me after reading Gadamer.
“You cannot see architecture. You can only be in it, as in music.” (Erno Goldfinger)
She was pointing out the car window toward a small town peculiarly islanded upon a salient plateau set midst the vast, hedgeless rolling fields of latter day French agri-business. And so an impromptu decision was made on an otherwise tedious journey south, cruising empty motorways under cold and grey skies: we’d make a detour.
We swung off in that direction, wound our way up and entered the town through aged ramparts now bereft of anything but touristic purpose, and entered into what turned out to be narrow cobbled streets coping with speeding delivery vans, prowling police cars and the honking, gift-packed vehicles of shoppers. It was merely a few days to Christmas.
In the heart of the town, we found our target: a grand but dour edifice host to the recurrence of yet another festive celebration (how many hundreds was it now? eight hundred?) to which its reason for being was so profoundly and irrevocably bound. We had found Laon Cathedral.
Then we found somewhere to park. But now a chilling wind bearing harsh waves of rain had begun to lash at us and we quickened our pace back toward the Cathedral as a sanctuary from winter’s assault. Gratefully stepping over the high threshold of a weathered wooden side door we found ourselves within the south transept, directly opposite the crossing into what little daylight was left soaked gently downward as a more kindly downpour than the seasonal inhospitality outside. There had been no chance to gaze upon the exterior. Now, relieved, our mood changed and, initially with respectful trepidation, we looked about. As ever, it was familiar; but one never knows quite what to expect of such places … or how to deal with them. It’s so difficult to ‘see’ such works. However, it was self-evidently true: something, as she had said, was ‘going on.’
With mild but still uninspired interest we made a tourist’s promenade: down and around, along aisles, traversing the crossing, occasionally looking up to the clerestorey windows and soaring stone vaults. It was quite a volume. I imagined Geoffrey Scott muttering about massing, contours and lines. Nevertheless, although it was impressive we both admitted to an absence of the tingle factor – a disappointment underscored when we came across a presentation lined up between two of the massive nave piers: story-boards obtruding their explanations, tales of distress and inevitable requests for money. Necessary, one presumed, even informative. But their dissections somehow worked against an appreciation of the thing to which they referred, reducing its substance to a set of clever but now distressed tectonic moves symptomatic of the building’s purported historical novelty and status.
We turned attention back to the work and strove to look, listen and feel. But it wasn’t easy. Our mood had been literally dampened; we were chilled and suffering keen appetites … or was that an excuse? Somewhat disgruntled, we turned away; all that could wait. We felt a more basic urgency … Coffee and gateaux perhaps?
Then we became aware of a peculiar voice obtruding from somewhere at the west end. A tourist lecturer? We perambulated in that direction – toward where we knew the exit would be. No, it was a large LCD screen, located in the middle of the nave, pressing an insistent pedagogic banter upon an audience notable for its absence. It was time to withdraw, any nascent aura having been fractured. In any case, there had never been long to stay: this was merely the impatient architectural tourist’s quick fix on a long journey to somewhere else. Caffeine!
We moved toward the west door but, just before exiting, I turned to silently submit an inner apology to some metaphorical presence constructed within my imagination . . . And then I hesitated, caught in a sudden web of admiration: there at the east end, terminating the choir, was the most enormous rose window. How amazing! What kind of minds would do this? How on earth had I overlooked it? But that wasn’t all: in that moment, for an instant, it seemed as if there was an encounter: My God, it was still here, even now … It was present, briefly: this architectural quality that was ‘going on’ … still, even now …
Self-consciously, even as I became aware of all this, I dismissed it as an absurd sentiment and made to exit through an enormous curtain and the main west door beyond. Nevertheless, that acknowledgement momentarily lingered, like an echo, and I realized – even now: chilled, still damp, still hungry, impatient and definitely ill-tuned – that I had momentarily met with something … A kind of architectural gamesmanship? Whatever. The stuff of the encounter had evaporated in the moment of its acknowledgement. Resignedly, we drew the heavy curtain aside and stepped out through another inset in one of the huge timber doors to find we were now in a compact urban square (the cathedral parvis) and bizarrely confronted by a contrasting Christmas cheer entangled in a robust but losing battle with the elements: stalls, roundabouts, lights, decorations … but only a small gaggle of excited children and their parents, refusing to be daunted by the relentless, haranguing wind and chilled downpour that indicated no sign of merciful abatement. Off to one side a van arrived with a cargo of loudspeakers and a gaggle of vociferous Santa Clauses singing and ringing bells. It was mad: cheerful, naïve and simple, wonderful and bizarre. Perhaps it had been this absurd eight hundred years ago.
And then, as we walked away, I turned and looked up. There: two jagged, stark grey towers soared up and almost touched the low cloud, indomitably setting heavily articulated and punctuated faces against centuries of such assaults. They were actually rather ugly … and aggressive … but what a pile … what an indomitable spirit of enterprise they represented! It was their salience we had noticed from the motorway.
I had to smile, now pleased we had made this impromptu stopover. I was again with that echo, but the whole thing had become self-conscious, inauthentic … Some other, contrary aspect of reality had closed in: that same ill-attunement. It was time to join the retreating, multiple iterations of Santa Claus, leaving the cathedral, its gutters and monstrous spluttering gargoyles witness to their own lonely struggle with what God threw at it. Time for that coffee.
Midst choking cigar smoke and the chatter of a local café we sipped café crème and brandy whilst reflecting upon the forlorn life of a cathedral in a secular age: a reality that was architecturally impressive, yet oddly hollow – void, like some cadaver artificially awakened by incongruous digital prompts whose human minders would pull the plug and announce the building was closing: “could all tourists now take leave and would the last one out please switch off the lights?” For centuries the building had been contemporary in the sense of being relevant and alive. Now, it had become a shell, a curiosity for spectators who appeared to be more comfortable with LCD screens … And yet, something about this building had briefly sparkled, evincing a profound, if momentary, pleasure. I was certain, something had, indeed, been ‘going on’ …
By now it was late and we decided to book into a local hotel.
That night I experienced a weird dream. I was witness to the occasion of an incongruous pageant – seemingly a re-enactment of the crucifixion. It was all deeply serious, but in a casual way, and no one appeared to be directing what was somehow unfolding of its own accord. Somehow everyone, without orchestration, seemed to know what was to fatefully take place and how it was to end; some of the players even silently wept as they worked, made the props and constructed the scenery – all of which was as devoid of formal accuracy as the tears were empty of trauma. This was simply the way things can be: ordinary and yet miraculous. The props were indicative; that was sufficient. The tears made themselves. And while the scenography was put being in place on this almost ad hoc basis, a man playing the part of the Messiah – complete with crown of thorns and cross – sat nonchalantly to one side and patiently awaited the beginning of the next act: time off for a fag …
These were players as living witnesses to something that had once happened. Its nature was being ritualistically re-presented, but as if variances of time and custom were at once real and yet irrelevant. It was all very ordinary and yet peculiar: play and players resonated with the impassioned nature of who this man was and what had happened to him, but I couldn’t escape the enactment’s bizarre note of casual improvisation, as if what was passionate was also completely devoid of sentiment. This was no histrionic pastiche.
Now, with recollection and hindsight, I can look back upon it as a characterisation in the sense that Merleau-Ponty referred to living events as other than survivals or some “hypocritical form of forgetfulness”, but “a noble form of memory.” How could one be in such a state of mind: to be here, now, and yet be re-living a past event?
Then, I awoke abruptly. Outside, the rain still lashed at the hotel window. The dream’s fresh resonance still grasped my imagination. There were even tears streaming from my eyes. Why? What was going on? I struggled to understand … and I grabbed at a pen and note-pad even as the dream’s reality began to rapidly fade. It had a religious content, and yet it didn’t seem to concern religion in any form I recognised. Significance appeared to reside in the fact that the players were, above all, a living empathetic witness to something whose nature and essential meaning was being re-lived. The passage of time had evaporated. Curiously, beauty of form or historical exactitude were also secondary; customary factors neither helped nor hindered – they were merely situated features of the site of enactment. And the resonance embodied within the players’ witnessing was a knowing that could only be appreciated as acknowledgement of some Kierkegaardian faith: a kind of encounter, at once of the moment and yet transgressing temporal and spatial constraints. It wasn’t in them; they were in it. The players were ‘being played,’ enacting a knowledge that possessed them: somehow indifferently yet at once passionately … How odd.
And then my thoughts returned to the cathedral and forms of indifferent stonework erected as mute witness to faith in action. Was the shaped particularity of the architecture a similar performative reality? Beautiful? Ugly? Did it matter? On the other hand, to encounter this architecture – to catch its gestural sparkle, at the edge of language – seemed as if to meet with a deeply human content as the presented fullness of the cathedral’s reasons for being. It was a devotional work, an end in itself. It was as if the abstract lineaments of the cathedral’s coherent order had become curiously ‘charged’ … that was the ‘going on.’
‘Charged’? ‘Going on?’ I was rambling. The momentum of the dream had withdrawn. Attempts at retention had become contrivance. And sleep was gently taking over. With closed eyes I dozily but sceptically ruminated about the cathedral and the prompting of such a dream as I curled up against a still sleeping partner and pulled the duvet in tighter.
It was some time later that I came across Kierkegaard’s notion of the ‘claim of faith’ as a mediation between past and present – a phenomenon engendering an authentic contemporaneity characterising what has its origins in the past. The task for the religious believer is “to bring together two moments that are not concurrent, namely one’s own present and the redeeming act of Christ, and yet so totally to mediate them that the latter is experienced and taken seriously as present (and not as something in the distant past).” Hans Gadamer developed this concept of claim with regard to art by suggesting: “A claim is something lasting. […] Because a claim lasts it can be enforced at any time. […] A claim is the legal basis for an unspecified demand. […] It belongs to the permanence of a claim that it is concretised in a demand.” The peculiarity of art is that it makes a claim to permanence and has the permanence of a claim. And this claim becomes, at some time, concretised as a demand – a demand constituted as the work ‘being present,” as experience. In art’s presentation “this particular thing that presents itself to us achieves full presence, however remote its origin may be. Such a contemporaneity is not a mode of given-ness in consciousness, but a living task for consciousness and an achievement demanded of it.” Only then does a work achieve full presence, without mediation.
Yes, I reflected: that sounds right – then it might truly be ‘architecture going on,’ when the thing is felt as a structured thinging … Gosh: what a lot of feeling and chatter had been prompted by that interlude in the rain.