Instauration of Place and a Short History of Space VII.24’11
Fig.1. Pantheon; Rome. Photo: author, 2003.
The Pantheon, that grave and ancient monument in Rome’s historic center, influenced my colleague like gravity, over a week’s time, to return over and again. For me, it’s the desire someday to celebrate the liturgy of the coming of the Holy Spirit in which rose petals waft earthward from the dome’s open oculus. By all accounts extraordinary, this temple, now a church, lends itself to a comparison of abstract and embodied notions of space and place. Fig.2. Interior view toward oculus, Pantheon; Rome. Emilio Labrador at Wikimedia Commons licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
When I stand in the Pantheon’s sublime interior, I am not oblivious to my own schooling as an architect in which I was trained to see the building’s space, a perfect sphere, as the essence of this building. The Pantheon presents, as it does for my colleague, the most profound ideal toward which present abstractions of this sort aim in some professional circles; read below for a short history of abstracting space. However, there is the alternative view that place, rather, should be our humanistic concern. Place, as it is being considered in intellectual circles, is both pre- and postmodern: place is grasped tacitly and by second nature. In the example of the Pantheon, one does not dismiss the fact that the circular floor, the drum, and hemispherical dome are bounded geometrically. But the historical intention was to embody the cultic worship of the gods and the divinized Hadrian for which there were rituals, implements, priestly orders, and calendars. In A.D. 609 the Pantheon was consecrated as a church the meaning of which is realized now Christopher C. Miller, Ph.D.
in the elemental sacred furnishings, by liturgy, and wondrously at Pentecost in a shower symbolizing the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Church. To acknowledge the embodied experience of a place, like that of the Pantheon, is to recognize what to our bodies is right and left, that we stand, how we move and hold ourselves, how we face and turn, and the identification of such orientations and actions with instruments, signs, and words. Fig.3. View east toward altar; Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura; Rome. Photo: author, 2003.
Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love: Space, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church unearths the richness of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura, just beyond Rome’s walls. Visser establishes that her project differs from those that essentialize space and form. She writes: A church like Saint Agnes Outside the Walls vibrates with intentionality. It is meaningful – absolutely nothing in it is without significance…. A church stands in total opposition to the narrowing and flattening of human experience, the deviation into the trivial, that follow from antipathy towards meaning, and especially meaning held in common. Meaning is intentional: this building has been made in order to communicate with the people in it. A church is no place to practise aesthetic distance, to erase content and simply appreciate form. The building is trying to speak; not listening to what it has to say is a form of barbarous inattention, like admiring a musical instrument while caring nothing for music.” Visser observes that a church like Saint Agnes is equipped to speak primarily in a language and with meanings intended for those to whom this tradition belongs. People of this tradition, and especially and most poignantly those of this particular community or parish, respond via this primary language to the content of faith. A building, of course, cannot be a sufficient condition for a true spiritual response and can perhaps even evoke from us a response that is a satisfying counterfeit for a true spiritual encounter. On the other hand, the church’s language and its meaning for the faithful may be helped or not, in the ultimate sense, by buildings, common enough, that appeal more to our interest in spectacle. Rather, Saint Agnes, as Visser elaborates it, is structured to deliver the meaning of its ornaments. The purpose of these, arrayed in ways strongly related to our limits and potentials as embodied minds, as Visser writes, call us to remember one’s mystical experience with Christ: “[a] church…. nods to each individual person…. [so that if] the building has been created within a cultural and religious tradition, it constitutes a collective memory of spiritual insights, of thousands of mystical moments.” This church that Visser describes is a very different one from those in which a conventional architectural language Christopher C. Miller, Ph.D.
and ornament are proscribed. In such a church, while it may bring to bear materials and technologies for spectacular appeals to sense, the primary language is its style rather than, in most cases, the setting for the memorials of collective spiritual insight. In Words and Buildings: a Vocabulary of Modern Architecture (2000), architectural historian Adrian Forty observes that the architectural ideal of space as an aesthetic notion would have been more or less incomprehensible before the 1890s. Forty cites the sculptor, Adolf von Hildebrand, recognized more for his influential analysis, The Problem of Form in the Visual Arts (1893), than his oeuvre. Hildebrand theorized that the artist’s task involved distinguishing between things discerned superficially, by their appearance, and the “idea of form.” With respect to architecture, Hildebrand concluded that the eye perceives space as inherent form, which parallels the sculptural notion of additive or subtractive form. “In other words,” Forty writes, “whereas in the other arts, the artist had to represent space by means of the human figure, or inanimate objects, in architecture this was unnecessary: since space can be directly apprehended, there is no need to reconstitute it through other objects, and space itself is the form with which the eye is concerned.” In the 1920’s, architects experimented in the design of buildings that would be understood as being driven by what was claimed to be an evolutionary change in human consciousness for space. As Forty recounts, they wanted to “identify and legitimate the modern, and to establish a way of talking about it…. In this, ‘space’ served their purposes…. since “’space’ offered a non-metaphorical, nonreferential category for talking about architecture….” Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, the Bauhaus master, synthesized ideas about space in his design curriculum, teaching space as a physiological and psychological entity, as well as a social construction that reflected the perceptions of its context in history. Gradually, spatial practice became a discourse about mental perception. Likewise, for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus director, the problem was to be ‘modern.’ Forty explains that Mies employed two means for realizing his aim. First, he followed Nietzsche’s dictum to live in the present by developing an architectural aesthetic of skin and bones in which life would be unconstrained by material and, for that matter, everything historical about building. Second was the elimination of the notion that architecture represents institutions or persons in favor of buildings that are, as if more honest, just what they are. Space became normative in English by the 1950’s and 1960’s. While there were translations of Moholy-Nagy and the spoken words of the German émigrés, it was the Swiss historian, Siegfried Giedion, whose Norton lectures at Harvard were published in 1940 as Space, Time, and Architecture. Forty surmises that it was against this background that Venturi and Scott Brown wrote in Learning from Las Vegas (1972): “’Perhaps the most tyrannical element in our architecture now is space… If articulation has taken over from ornament… space is what displaced symbolism.’” “Space”, as it is understood now in architecture schools and by many who practice, constitutes in a building or in a place what is now considered that building’s or that place’s essence. Furthermore, since this space, and form like it, was understood to be driven evolutionarily then space, the perfect abstraction, was championed as the end, or the goal, of architecture in history. In this architectural theory of form and space, like a perfect storm, three ideas power and amplify one another: constituting abstract space is essential; constituting abstract space is evolutionary; and, these together, essence and end, make for a totalizing argument. In other words, the abstract constitution of space brooks no other possibility because it is architecture’s essence; and, grants no other possibility because only the evolutionary end can be reflected in our ever-modern time. In the broader world of ideas now it is recognized that a community constructs its communal identity and may do so effectively in its material culture of place. In practice, however, communities are often persuaded they must abandon the character of places in favor of ideas that, by definition, shear Christopher C. Miller, Ph.D.
away local and larger histories embodied in traditional styles and ornament, in local materials, and in evident craft. Modernist space is a powerful idea that people of faith should steer between theological and philosophical convictions and respect for persons and communities. Fig.4. View of Kentlands town center; Gaithersburg, Maryland. Photo: author, 2006.
A growing number in the community of faith show interest in culturally rich, human-scaled civic environments supporting the mission of the Church. This argument is realized best in Eric Jacobsen’s Sidewalks in the Kingdom. Similar principles are called upon in Murray Jardine’s The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society and in Philip Bess’s Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred. Calvin College, in 2000, hosted a summer seminar devoted to the question of whether communities of faith should recognize a special calling to promote and sustain pedestrian-oriented townscapes and neighborhoods. The Washington Institute, a ministry of the Falls Church, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., convened a meeting at Kentlands, near Gaithersburg, Maryland, to encourage commitment to making and enriching embodied places. In 2006 I attended the Congress for the New Urbanism whose principles may be credited for the revival of Providence’s center city. I expected professional colleagues who find a consonance between their theology and revived principles of building communities; I was delighted to find a number of conferees, involved in Christian community development, who could imagine these principles assisting them in the social and spiritual reconstruction of neighborhoods. Most recently, Baylor University’s Center for Christian Ethics, issued a thematic issue, “Cities and Towns,” in which Calvin College philosopher, Lee Hardy, observes: “It is remarkable to me how little theological reflection has been devoted to [the healing of cities]…. There is a lot of advice in the Christian community about how to have good marriages and families. Do we have any advice about how to have good cities?” He goes on with this advice: Work for good urban neighborhoods. Cities are made of neighborhoods – the basic unit of placebased communities. Ideally, and traditionally, they are compact and walkable. They contain a variety of land uses and housing types. They are inclusive, not exclusive. I suggest Christians rediscover urban neighborhoods, live in them if possible, and try to make them once again good places for others to live. Many of them are neglected and distressed. But they continue to offer the best built form for human community. New Urbanism is not driven by an interest in formal and spatial abstractions as the essence and end of architecture. Rather, these urbanists study empirically how local traditions signify meaning, how these traditions adapt to local climates and resources, and how these strategies accommodate and promote cultural sustainability. The critics say that the New Urbanists are merely the agents of developers. But what group has done more to champion the use of the community design charrette? In the New Urbanist charrette, professionals, having no preconceived plans, respond to a community’s invitation, listen to the public judgment of what works and doesn’t, and what is their local tradition and what is not. Then the Christopher C. Miller, Ph.D.
charrette team works to the demands and accountability of this community. What is delivered, rather than the special space of essence and evolution, is a material setting that values democratic judgment and seeks to celebrate the embodied experience of place. Figs.5, 6. “Waterfire;” Providence, Rhode Island. Photo: author, 2006.
Providence, for example, spans the confluence of two tiny rivers at the head of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. In the early twentieth-century, the rivers were paved over as parking lots and qualified this project as the world’s widest bridge. In recent decades, the rivers have been uncovered; their banks rebuilt in riverwalks; and, buildings, new and old, address themselves to the river that has become again a shared place in this reviving city. The project, by Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Company, is one of the great urban interventions in the history of New Urbanism. Visiting there in 2006, I was most surprised at the spectacular celebration of this river called “Waterfire.” On summer evenings, Rhode Islanders, in dories, stoke a string of floating bonfires, that in their shifting and rolling, luster the East Side heights and the towers of the city’s center. “Waterfire” marks the exception in Providence’s fabric. As Sant’Agnese’s nave accommodates the church’s liturgy, so this river, lit in fire, delineates a social promenade given civic grandeur by the framing buildings. The faces of these buildings possess historical rhythm and scale but also carry those ornaments that call Providence’s residents to value their living together; even more, to embody and memorialize those shared values in that place.
Note: Published originally, and in an earlier edition, as "Forming, Reforming, and Transforming: Multidimensional Views of Space through Time in Architecture, Part I." Seen: the Journal of CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) VII 1 (2006.): 2 - 4. Christopher C. Miller, Ph.D.