Thursday, April 22, 2010


Of all the elements of this house design to talk about first I chose: a wall. Oh, but what a wall it is! It is the wall of stone I mentioned before, with a (seemingly) random group of windows. It is the thickest white line at the upper left of the plan on this page. Two feet thick, to be exact. Solid granite. The idea for this element came from ancient church architecture. The west wall of medieval European church buildings was typically built much thicker and with fewer openings than the others. This wall is called the "westworks." It was built as a symbolic shield against evil, sin and death.

The people of this time were attentive to the symbolic content God placed in the natural world. The west is where the sun sets. The sun is a symbol of Jesus - as he said, "I am the light of the world." The setting of the sun then is a symbol of the death of Jesus. Darkness follows. The west takes on all the meanings associated with the crucifixion: the sin of the world, the evil plots of people and demons, the murder of love incarnate. The westworks is an expression of fierce resistance to God's enemies, both outside and within.

By contrast, the east is where light is reborn. After a time of darkness and cold, the sun/Son rises again. This is why the east end of a medieval church is the location of the "rose window" - a huge opening to admit the morning light as soon as it appears, and let it stream all the way back to the westworks. In my house too the window on the east side is the largest in the room.

My site is conveniently situated so that I could orient the whole house east to west without failing to relate to the street. But there is a slight skew that will be obvious, and which I like very much - because it indicates immediately that this house is oriented according to a different order than that of this neighborhood.

So what of all the holes in my westworks? Early on in the design I sketched these, and felt them to signify some violent attack. If the wall is the defense, the holes punched randomly, uncaringly, into it are the offense - a shotgun blast of demonic attack, perhaps, into this rocky shield. Scars remain, for sure, but what happens inside is key. I plan to build translucent shells over the openings, perhaps of thin-cut balsa or bass wood, so that the light coming through creates a brilliant red-orange glow in the room. And on one opening I plan to place a stained glass cross I made. Here then is an expression of something for which God is well-known - taking the evil intentions of people and bringing good from them. The symbolic attacks on my wall are transformed into lanterns to light the room at sunset, and to bring to brilliant life the cross of Christ.

This cross has a mirror at the center of it. I've imagined covering the large east window with translucent material too, but leaving a pinhole somewhere to allow a laser beam of morning sunlight to traverse the space, hit the mirror on the cross at a certain time of the year (Easter?), and reflect back to a spot on the opposite wall where a small inscription reads, perhaps, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"

A historian of medieval art and architecture pointed out that prior to the 16th century it was difficult to find a badly oriented church. They all faced east, in other words, and built up their defenses on the west. They were attuned to the spiritual content of God's creation. So what happened after that? The Reformation. The French Revolution. Enlightenment! Science! We began to study nature from a purely naturalistic perspective - its function, its efficiency, its atomic structure - anything but its spiritual expression. The sun is a ball of burning gases that heats our earth and makes life possible; it is not a symbol of the God who died and rose again to ... make life possible. Naturalistic explanations of the universe have blinded us to the arrows everywhere pointing to its Creator.

The middle ages are sometimes termed the "dark" ages, and there are many good reasons to call them that. Mass illiteracy is one of the smaller ones. But we moderns have plenty of our own darknesses, one of them being another kind of illiteracy. If in medieval times most people were verbally illiterate; in our time most people are visually illiterate. We've lost the practice of reading the visual metaphors God has placed all around us.

Some may object and say that we can understand symbols in nature. Indeed we still have the God-given faculty of recognizing and interpreting visual symbols. But for a long time we have not practiced it, because we haven't trusted symbols with truth. We don't look to speechless physical things to discover life-changing truth about God and ourselves. We trust God's verbal works but not his visual works. This is why our church buildings face every which way, and why our worship spaces are caverns meant to shut out every trace of the natural world.

But God has always used metaphors to communicate, both verbal and visual. A gospel writer tells us that Jesus never spoke without using a parable. A parable is a metaphor, a symbol. And another gospel writer tells us that Jesus was there at the creation of everything, that nothing was made without him. He spoke in parables then too, but visual ones, designing every creature, rock, tree, and star to say without words truths about himself and the world and humanity. He told us this through David's singing, "God's glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon. Madame Day holds classes every morning, Professor Night lectures each evening. Their words aren't heard, their voices aren't recorded, but their silence fills the earth, unspoken truth is spoken everywhere." (Ps. 19:1-4)

Then Jesus comes to earth and points to his own physical designs and asks us to see in them the spiritual truths they have been proclaiming for millennia. A seed falls into the ground and dies before it can flower, and Jesus tells us that we too must die before we live. A branch withers if it is severed from its vine, as we wither if we let go of Christ. Every physical thing was made to represent a spiritual reality.

The westworks is one of many symbolic elements of this house. I've conceived of the whole place as a collection of symbols, and as one big symbol. Much of this house then - like a medieval church, and like nature - is incomprehensible without a mind to symbolic expression.

No comments:

Post a Comment