Everyone who has ever lived is dead, or will die. In a century, more or less, every human inhabitant of our planet will have died. The planet Earth, our mother-ark, is, maybe, five billion years old. On a geological scale, therefore, we barely merit a blink. On a cosmological clock, meanwhile, the whole span of human history, from flint tools to Facebook, could essentially be considered a rounding error. Faced with such unfathomable distance and scale, is it not humbling to consider that we as a species have been leaving our mark in an organised way for five short millennia, give or take? We started with graves, of course, because before we figured how to write things down, death was immensely complete. No record that you had ever lived, breathed, hunted, and in hard and nomadic times, no guarantee that anyone who knew you would ever set eyes on your bones again. Hence all those barrows, dolmens and tumuli on the horizon, the world over to record that someone once had passed, lived, been. We do not know the religion of our hunter gatherer ancestors, but the likelihood is that a continuation of life after death would have seemed natural for them. Those ancient tombs are therefore a physical manifestation of the life beyond – an anchor between this world and the next.
But, beyond curation of the remains of the dead, there was surely a more prosaic intention on behalf of the builders, of simply leaving a declaration that they had been there, had passed through in our collective journey through the universe. Graffiti, of a physical form. How powerful, though, that urge, whatever form it takes; consider Stone Henge, still visited – and worshipped at – thousands of years after the stones were dragged across an English plain. Or the pyramids, looted but still lordly, immense memorials of dynasties so ancient as to seem older than memory. The old Breton fishermen’s prayer is well known –Thy Sea, O God so great, My Boat So Small – but it could equally be applied to passage through time. The present, the collective sum of all our little lives, is as frail as a reed basket when considered against the vast ocean of what has been, of what is yet to come, of what could yet be. More fearful still, is that we sail these deep waters of time with barely the faintest points of star light to guide our way.
No wonder then that we build anchors in an attempt to slow our way and give us safe harbour.Apart from their age, what makes these kinds of structures stand out is their essentially public character. In times of hunter-gatherers, the effort to gather a group in one place long enough to move earth, and to lift and set stones dozens of metres into the ground, must have been colossal. Once built, they were visible to all who passed by. From graves and standing stones, we moved to more regular places of worship. In Europe, centuries of church building have bequeathed to us a legacy of more or less public spaces. But regardless of the creed of the church-builders, they were designing for public impression and public use. That, today, is apparently a set of irreconcilable requirements. Brussels, the city where I live, is a good example of that, but any old-ish, large-ish European city would be equally apt. In the older town, the largest churches have their own hinterland of squares, closes and alleys, usually now used for al-fresco drinks and seasonal markets. The doors are often open and the services fairly frequent. Thus, it can be that on my walk-arounds I can take a diversion, and sit a while, or just walk around the nave. Crossing the threshold is a form of sensory change, as the traffic noise is shut out
Empty churches always have an atmosphere all of their own; the congregations who sat, listened, married, wept. They leave their mark. A certain musk, a trace of incense not quite vanished from the air, a collective memory, just as the buildings themselves are a physical imprint of history. Philip Larkin, of course, found the best words to fit in Church Going; “And a tense, musty, unignorable silence/Brewed God knows how long/ Hatless, I take off/ My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.” Is it surprising? I doubt it. Churches were public buildings – public at least to the initiated. Sectarian in character perhaps, devoted to one creed, or interpretation to the exclusion of others, but still a public space, around which the life of the parish and the village revolved. A place to show piety, but status too; the chapels of Europe would be plain indeed, if not for generations of patronage in the form of stained glass, and gold candlesticks. All could enter; therefore all could see the riches of their betters. This was true of the living and the dead;In these days, making a casual visit to a place of worship is to enter a building in which the dead outnumber the living. How resigned were our ancestors to their place in the world, that they sought to be buried under the floor of the nave? Unavoidable, and utterly public; the place of honour was literally the ground beneath your feet.
More than that, each church is a physical incarnation of the architectural style of its time, or that before it. Squat, thick Romanesque, all semi circles and heavy walls. Then Gothic, pointed arches, soaring heights, and light brought into service as art. If the collective memory of Europe could be said to have a shape, one imagines it would probably be Gothic; first in stone, carved into rood screens and spires, familiar from the cathedrals around which the secular cities grew, then secondly in brick, becoming the fabric and the shape of the universities and train stations. And there ecclesiastical design stayed, more or less; the Baroque, of course, where it took hold, left behind its own footprint of heavy horizontals in marble, the better to impress on those subjects of the mother church whose thoughts may have been turning to Protestantism. But the universalism had been broken by then; the new and divergent faiths of the North, where they built for themselves, favoured simplicity, to the point of austerity. Even when building for the less ostentatious Catholicism of the post-Vatican II era – the congregation around the altar, carpets in the floor – churches in the Roman tradition held on tightly enough to stained glass and confession boxes, that it is never too hard to distinguish them from plain walled Lutheran meeting houses or their like.
As religion slips from a public obligation to a private observance, will anything rise to fulfil this function of a public venue? Certainly not the most visible candidates; most skyscrapers rise as boxes of rebar, and banks of plate glass. I live in a city where offices are dropped like Tetris blocks on otherwise unassuming streets. I don’t think anyone, centuries from now, will be tempted to walk in on a whim, to breathe deeply the scent of lives past. In a modern skyline, tall buildings cannot be missed; from the North, London has a line of silhouettes making a signature in dark grey ink from East to West. But for all their visibility, they will never have a public character. They are buildings with purpose; no popping in for the musty coolness in the summer, or to light a candle, or to think. And no one will choose to be buried in their identikit, marble floored lobbies. Buildings without place, incapable of transcending their own time. What happens to a tall building when it gets old? I think they will be left to rot. Then again, as our lives become more individual, as we make a fetish of the individual, we have, architecturally, embraced the utilitarian at the cost of attractiveness, and probably also at the cost of permanence. Why spend generations building something we will never see with our own eyes? And so, will they be missed, the steel behemoths whose shadows run across old houses around their feet, and who can look out of place wherever they are placed? Doubtful. Too unlovable. Often those outside cannot see in, while those inside cannot even open a window to feel fresh air at their work place. Who do we design for now? Not the future. Maybe the present. Almost never the past.
Bruxelles, July 2017
Peter Boyle is a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast (LLB) and the University of Kent (LLM). His interests and specialisations include Public International Law and legal policy research.
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