Plumb Lines

March 6, 2009

Urban Form as Spiritual Allegory

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:00 am

Rue de la Paix looking towards Vendome

Rue de la Paix, Paris, looking towards the Place Vendôme

I recall walking through a slum once in India, girdled by a wide moat doubling as a sewer, where the buildings were built so close to one another that at times I had to turn sideways to fit between them. Occasionally I had to duck while turning to avoid the naked electrical wires strung overhead. No street ran in a straight line for more than twenty feet without careening off at a random, vertiginous angle.

After advancing through this maze for several minutes, I emerged into a courtyard built up to two stories on all sides, not more than 500 feet square, with a great blue god in the middle, twice the size of a human being. This was the only space in the slum where the watery sun could illuminate the pavement without passing through a trellis of clothes lines, power lines, and architectural promontories, and the only space wide enough to walk with comparable ease for more than a few paces. The effect was intoxicating and over-awing, long before the arrival of the inevitable and cliched am-I-the-first-Westerner-to-see-this moment.

This memory returned to me as I was reading Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, when he discusses the invention of the formal axis terminating in a church or some other monument. This is a familiar form in our age, since it was considered the exemplar of civic grandeur for several centuries in Europe (it is also a natural, if rarely employed form in a gridded city built of skyscrapers — the view up Park towards Grand Central in New York and the view down LaSalle towards the Board of Trade in Chicago being notable examples).

According to Mumford, the axis was the quintessential urban form of the Baroque city, first employed in the approach to Santa Croce in Florence and spreading from Florence like a disease to the rest of  Europe. His contempt for the form is obvious, and he laments in particular the “dreary” approaches opened up in front of the old cathedrals, which used to be approachable only by twists and turns, like the idol in the slum. Certainly, even if used in the service of the Church, the linear approach to Santa Croce testifies to the glory of Man, not G-d. Mystery has been conspicuously eradicated; every form is patent and legible. From the formal axis it’s a short step to van der Rohe.

There is much to be said for the beauty of straight lines, and for Baroque urbanism in general, but the slum-dwellers and the medieval Europeans understood religion better than the Florentines. A visitor to a medieval European town looking for its church would stumble suddenly into a small open space in the presence of a tremendous vertical element whose face was a mass of flowers, monsters and saints. Like my sudden stumbling onto Krishna,  this slow, difficult approach to the transcendent could be read as an allegory of Augustine’s approach to G-d: a slow, difficult inward movement until you come to the very center of yourself and find G-d pulling you up and outside.

David Schaengold



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