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16.10.12

Stories In Stone

One thing that my dad, the historian, used to go on and on about, and that I actually found interesting, was the connection between architecture and the socio-economic environment which produced it.  That line of inquiry has led to a life-long fascination with 'reading' buildings.

One example dad used to bring up often as an obvious lesson was two buildings in downtown Houston called the Esperson buildings.  They stand back-to-back on a single block and were named after the rather wealthy family that built them.  One was named Niels and the other Mellie.

The Niels building was erected in the height of the Roaring 20s.  It features beautiful stone lobbies, an observation dome on the top and scads of intricate masonry showcasing the flamboyance and wealth of the period between the 1920 depression and the Great Depression.

The Mellie building went up in the midst of the 1930s, as the global economy languished in economic hell.  The building is a plain affair with no frills: a cracker box stood on end with the bare essentials for functionality.

Another fun example dad used to roll out were the twin evolutions of the porch and the garage of the typical family home.

The porch used to be on the front of the house facing the street.  Folks would sit out in the evenings and wave at the neighbors.  People were sociable and curious about the doings of others.  But as cities grew and became more crowded and anonymous, porches migrated to the back of the house and became respites from the rest of the world.  People didn't want to socialize and were even less interested in strangers knowing their business.

At the same time, the garage went from being an out building at the back of the property, usually a storage shed or even tractor barn, to an integral part of the main house.  In fact, the porch and garage swapped places.  The garage even overcame the front door as the main portal of the house, as the importance of the automobile became more vital to daily life.  In many newer houses, the garage is the dominant feature of the public side of the structure.

Another fascinating little detail that most people never think about is something called a pendentive.  A pendentive is a wedge-shaped construct that allows you to put a dome on top of a square building.  Now that may now seem like a big deal, but think about it.  It you put a circle on top of a square so that it doesn't exceed the sides of the square, the circle will only touch four small areas in the center of each side.  On a building, the center of a wall is the weakest part of the structure.  On top of that, you are left with big gaps at each corner, which does little to keep the rain out.

The engineering problem was to plug the gaps while transferring the weight of the dome to the corners of the box, which are far stronger and more stable.  It doesn't seem like a big deal, but without such an innovation, there would be no US capitol, or St. Paul's cathedral, or the Hagia Sophia, where the pendentive was invented.

Once you start getting into this sort of thing, it's a short hop to learning to 'read' buildings.  Many large structures, especially ancient ones, are literally stories in stone.  As you study them, suddenly a whole world opens up in front of you that was hidden in plain sight.

Some of the most interesting buildings to read are the old Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals of Europe.  If buildings can be read, then these are veritable novels in brick and mortar. 

One of the first lessons is the shape.  Of course, most of them are cruciform, so that from above, they make the shape of a cross.  Easy enough.  But the long interiors are a metaphor for the spiritual life of an individual.  One begins at the door and proceeds through an enormous and long corridor, surrounded with images of people whose lives we are encouraged to emulate. 

The end of the journey is the elaborate and etherial nave.  The area is usually domed with strategically placed windows and magnificent artworks that create a sort of heaven on Earth.  The trip from the door to the altar is our spiritual life.  We are aided and encouraged by spiritual leaders along the way and ultimately arrive at the destination, a realm of gold and linen and pure light.

The return trip is just as metaphorical.  We leave the heavenly realm and travel down the long corridor of the vagina to emerge at the end through the vulva.  If you look closely at the entrance to these edifaces, you may notice that the central door is surrounded with stone labia topped by a stylized clitoris.  Doesn't get more graphic than that, does it?  Take a close look at the photo here.

Keep looking.  Notice the legs in the birthing position?  The transcept becomes the arms, and the nave is the head.  Yup, the whole building is a stylized human body, complete with ribs, bones and organs.  Pop into the the cathedral you come across and see how many analogues you can find to the human body.

Now, look again at the front of the cathedral.  Notice anything?  Look at the doors.  See the two small doors flanking the larger central one?  Here's where the fun takes a decidedly strange and mind-blowing turn into the occult world.

That motif of three doors appears on sacred architecture in every part of the world, across thousands of years, and on every continent (though we're still waiting for discoveries in Antarctica).  The three doors crosses cultural, temporal and religious boundaries.  They appear on buildings at opposite ends of the Earth at times when supposedly there was no contact between the inhabitants of those places.  What's more, they first appear in connection with pyramid-building societies, such as Egypt, the Maya, the Hindus and Buddhists, and in China, Indonesia and Europe.

Graham Hancock has written an excellent thought piece on the topic that bears close reading.  Furthermore, once this motif is planted in your consciousness, you will start to find it everywhere you go.  It shows up in both subtle and overt ways all over the place.  It'll start to freak you out after a while.

And this is only one architectural feature with similar global analogues.  There are weird things going on with columns, roof designs and towers.  There's a whole tale behind cornerstones and building footprints and occuli. 

In fact, once you start reading architecture, you suddenly find yourself staring for hours at structures you hardly noticed before, engrossed in the story that the builders set in stone for the ages, waiting for us to decode it.  You may even find that your own home has a tale to tell that until now had gone straight over your head.

Investing a few hours of study in this field will pay off with all kinds of amazing discoveries in places you would never expect.  Remember that scene in "Interview with a Vampire," where Brad Pitt awakens to his new life and suddenly even the statues seem to come alive, where before things seemed very plain and ordinary?  it's a lot like that.

Enjoy your new hobby!