Saturday, October 24, 2009

Seeking and Sensing the Sacred in Jerusalem_Part 1

Originally published in the July 1998 Newsletter from the "Colorado Architect", the journal of the American Institute of Architects state wide Colorado chapter. This is a two-part blog article. I traveled to Israel and Jerusalem specifically as mentioned in prior posts in the summer of 1994. I had received a small travel grant from AIA Colorado. It was an especially troubling time with much strife between Israelis and Palestinians. This article isn't about that though. It's about searching for the sacred in one of the holiest places. There I learned how ironic it was that as sacredness increased so did the intensity of the profane.......

It was one o’clock in the afternoon. Since early morning I had been sitting in the tall belfry of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, located in the Muristan or Christian Quarter of the Old City. From this high point I could see the roof-tops of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters, the Mt of Olives and Western and Eastern Jerusalem beyond the walls. My dreamy reverie was interrupted by the minaret of the nearby Mosque of Omar, crackling into life with the mid-day call to prayer. Soon, its sound was joined by minarets of other mosques. What began as a single voice, slowly grew into an amazing chorus of Arabic readings from the Koran blaring loudly all over the city, until a single sound formed which penetrated the very pores of my skin. People emerged out of their homes, offices and stores walking to their neighborhood mosque to pray and gather in community with one another. Slowly, the single voice started to break apart as the calls to prayers ceased and all was silent again but for the doves cooing in the vaulted steeple above my head.

All of us have experienced sacred places and spaces in our lives. Whether they were the special hiding places of our childhood, the kitchen table or campfire, the concept is clear. They are places which provide sanctuary, a sense of respite from the harsh forces of life. They are also found in our places of worship, the temples, mosques and churches which form the center of spiritual and cultural life for many. For others, natural spaces and places have the same kind of personal and collective power.

For two months in the summer of 1994, I traveled to Jerusalem and various parts of Israel and the West Bank on an AIA Colorado Fisher Traveling Scholarship. In preparation, I read much about the region, its history and texts about sacred place and space. I was most interested in experiencing these places outside of their dry academic context. To describe them I would sketch, photograph, interview others and write about what I was experiencing. As a maker of space and place, I felt much of which I lived in and experienced at home was devoid of spiritual depth.. I sensed studying sacred places and spaces in their context would help me to design more meaningful and unified communities back home. Thus I sought out Jerusalem.

As one of the longest continually settled places on Earth, the city presents an incredible richness of cultures and urban conditions to experience and study. Digging down into the Old City one finds a tightly woven mesh of physical, spatial and mythological relationships unparalleled in complexity and significance. I sought to compare and contrast the differences between the physical design and cultural use of space and notions of place exhibited in the Old City by the Western or Wailing Wall of the Jews, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher of the Christians and the Dome of the Rock of the Muslims. Surrounding each Holy Place lay a district or residential area which supported the sacred activities within. As sacred precincts, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters exhibited profound differences and similarities as compared to one another. Each revealed essential qualities of how space and place were culturally perceived and expressed through their design and history.

In numerous conversations with others and through my experiences, I concluded that without those who use the spaces, the places themselves can not remain sacred. The continuity over four millennium of the presence of people practicing the rituals and traditions within the monuments and holy places, saturates them with sacredness. These holy shrines and places are mere instruments or containers which promote and enable the rituals to be practiced and engaged in. Without this human imprint of activity and use they would stand inactive and forgotten, hence not sacred. It is in the remembering and renewing of the great stories of the Talmud, Old and New Testaments and the Koran which enlivens the silent monuments with a sense of narrative space and sacred time.

A favorite memory was walking the ramparts of the great stone wall surrounding the Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim Quarters within the Old City. One traverses each area without actually entering them. From the ramparts one could also see the different sections of Western and Eastern Jerusalem and the outlying hills and valleys beyond, each with their own rich layers of physical design and symbolic qualities. From this high place it was easy to assess the physical and symbolic aspects of the city, drawing relationships impossible to arrive at on the ground. I spent a number of afternoons slowly moving along the walls, sketching, thinking and taking photographs, trying to unravel and make sense of what I saw. The city and its history awakened before my eyes and under my pen.

end of part 1 - to be continued

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Sacred Threshold in Jerusalem, an overnight at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Nightly the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher shuts to visiting pilgrims and tourists. At nine o’clock in the evening, after the final Pilgrim is ushered out its private side emerges out of the mysteries of its inner spaces. Many years ago, in a Summer visit to this Holy City, I had the opportunity to experience this sacred place due to the persistence of a new friend met while staying at a Hostel in the midst of the Old City of Jerusalem.

To stay overnight at this, one of the most holy of sacred places in Christianity, individuals or small groups may ask to remain in the church after-hours to worship and mingle if they make the request to the attendant at the entry. Doing so, sets in motion a complex ritual interchange between the various factions residing in the Church to gain its approval. Latin Catholics, Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Coptic and Ethiopian together share the Church. Each has their own distinct sacred precinct whether in the nave, the apse, side galleries or up on the roof or in the bowels of this most sacred place. In order to approve entry after-hour a representative of each faith must be asked and the issue debated together with final approval by the Latin priest. This is evocative of the collaboration and friction felt daily while experiencing the Church’s holy spaces.

After much bantering in a variety of languages, they granted our request. We settled into old wooden next to the doorway to observe the ritual closing of the great wooden doors. Four men from various faiths work together. An Armenian pushes the door closed. It is locked by a Greek Orthodox from the outside. A small hatch in the massive Medieval door is opened and a ladder used in locking the door is pushed through from the outside. A Latin receives it and leans it against the aged., pockmarked wood where it lies until being used again to open the door later in the evening. I drew the door from the inside while watching the ritual of closing the door for the evening.

My friend and I split up to pursue our own personal explorations within the Church. The darkness of the night amplifies the candlelit shadows and eerie quiet due to the absence of the hordes of visitors wandering its spaces. The lights are turned off. My footfalls echoed off the ancient stone columns and walls disappearing into the vaulted darkness above. I walked around the various shrines alone with quiet thoughts feeling the cloak of silence and darkness so different from the day.

A quietude settled into my own thoughts as I sat watching candlelit icons and statuary set upon altars waver and flicker in their shadows. I drew only a little and thought deeply about my mother whom I lost to a valiant struggle with cancer a few years before. Sitting in prayer-like reverie in the wavering candlelight, I slowly realized I had traveled so far to not only chart and describe sacred place and space in this holiest of cities, but also to come closer to the soul and memory of my mother whom I dearly missed. I came to mourn her death while loving her life.

Somehow, I felt, coming to Jerusalem, I could come closer to her here due to its sacred and mysterious qualities and the direct physical connection to the holy in this sacred city. The primal spaces of the Old City, built of stone and standing for so many millennium, stood for me outside of time while fully of my time and place. Walking the narrow streets and pathways in and around the Old City, I imagined the many lively histories gracing these doorways and ancient surfaces layering over one another.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Does being deep Green include Corporate Responsibility?

I wonder if being deep green can include believing in corporate responsibility and people, planet and profits together? I was listening to NPR driving home. They were discussing a recent Time article, "The Responsibility Revolution" published recently. I know living in Vermont this isn't necessarily breaking news. We know corporate responsibility efforts and green behavior have been tightly linked for over a generation with early adopters and maturing companies in the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility( sphere. It seems just like good business sense.
The more I practice archtecture the more I believe in the importance of respecting and sustaining natural systems revolving around energy, water and waste in the creating of buildings and places. The USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED program now maturing and gaining mainstream acceptance around the country, offers a framework for aligning the goals of respecting natural systems. Conversation involving sustainability should also include discussing social and cultural systems intertwined with the natural. Thus the corporate responsibility movement offers a wider promise, a deeper more inclusive platform gathering elements such as Green thinking and design together. Organizations, for example, such as Winning Workplaces examine the nexus of building positive workplace culture and operations. The idea of respect permeats both the natural as well as the workplace ecosystems, albeit in differing ways. I think it is interesting to bring this idea into the design of green workplace where natural systems and social and organizational systems collide with delightful oppourtunity for productive cultivation into a more sustainable whole.
It's not easy though...That is why it is so fun to be a green architect and design strategist. It's also like being a gardener where you never really have the "right" answer, but only ones which are relative to the soil you till and the weather and climate surrounding you.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Iconography and weathervanes

I found this weathervane a few years ago atop a barn in Vermont where I live. It is a truly unique object. I appreciate the multiple readings it provides. Yes it is a weathervane. Yes it identifies rather strongly its place from other places. It could be an owl, a wizard, a frog. But no it is a cow in silouette. The strong graphic character is unmistakable against the sky. It is both weathervane, symbol, utilitarian object and storytelling device. The visual onomonpheia of the image and implied function and connection to farming is exact and unmistakable.

By learning to look at the everday object such as this and wonder why it is so powerful, we can use this lesson in seeing to communicate meaning and symbolism intrinsic to creating design which connects to the emotions and resonates with the subconscious.

Another reason not to look down at your feet, but rather up to the sky, out of your ordinary field of view.