THE FACES OF ARCHITECTURE

There are so-called ‘architectural theoreticians’ who consider a building’s façade as its face. Agreed, this was mostly in times when faceless Modern Architecture was not yet around. Still, a face?

 

Most probably this notion goes back to the 18th century, when such theoreticians also ascribed ‘character’ to gardens, to an edifice and even to human faces, where they thought they could trace someone’s internal makeup.

 

If anything, as far as I am concerned, the façade of building might be considered a mask. After all, precisely what goes on inside is hidden. Even the Dutch, famous for their open, transparent, often curtain less windows, do most of what they consider as private not in front of those windows. Not even the famous Amsterdam whores, openly sitting behind the window panes of their little shop; they retreat with a client behind curtains to perform their act.

 

Perhaps, it is doors and the colours used to paint these portals as well as the window frames, which may give away bits and pieces of the character of the people living inside.

 

 

Look at this beautiful front door, in fact the one of my Haarlem house. Observe how it has been cleaned of layers of lacquer normally used on wooden boats, ten-year-old and thus hardened into stone. This weak man spent four days removing them. But what splendour, indeed. The intense rouge of the redwood came out again, almost forgotten. Then two new layers of lacquer were applied, the door now standing out in its frame, which was painted just two weeks before this.

 

What it tells you about the one who possesses and who owns this door – it must be left to the reader’s imagination. But it does tell. I would say: a portal which does not scare people away, it is not forbidding; certainly, also a door which protects the inhabitants from all too much inquisitiveness.

 

Some doors are obviously intended to receive, opening as it were their arms invitingly. This Romanesque church portal for instance. Then again, no one is living in the church…

 

 

Or this less imposing porte to a French garden, which it obviously secludes, yet not as a hortus conclusus, only to be entered by those who belong to ‘the club’, for instance one of monks of a monastery.

 

 

Then again, such doors may well refer less  to the character of the present owner, more to that of their designer who, in most cases, has no idea for whom he designs, certainly no idea about the character of future owners in more far away times.

 

Sierksma, La Roche 21.5/2018

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CHURCHES AND COOLIES

Every day your memory grows dimmer 
It doesn’t haunt me like it did before
I’ve been walking through the middle of nowhere
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door

Bob Dylan

________________

 

Koeli – a Dutch word I only came to know much later. One thing is for sure: This church – yesterday seen a little from above, from the heights of the Castle in Leyden town – for each and every Leydener has always been and still is the Koeli Kerk, the Coolie Church.

 

 

Quite a while before I came to understand the meaning of the word koeli, I already knew why this rather strange name had been given to the edifice. Misspelled, because not properly understood; it is that simple.

 

 

COELI it says, not KOELI/COOLIE. However, those who gave it this name perhaps did know what koeli/coolie meant, which at the time I did not

 

As a young first-year grammar schoolboy, I considered this a rather good reason to properly judge the stupidity of the working class of the town I lived in. Gone down the drains since the downfall of the Leyden cloth industry in the 19th century, it had never recovered.

 

The young Latinist immediately saw their silly mistake: Porta Coeli – the gate leading into Heaven, the church as the House of the Lord. Nonetheless, as all Leydeners did and still do, I also kept calling it the Koeli Kerk. Of course, its real name is Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.

 

Towards the end of my grammar school period, with a strong wish to become a social philosopher, I had become a communist and now knew that a coolie is an East-Indies day-labourer and porter, perhaps even more generally an Asian worker, who was generally considered to be robber and a crook. Fine correlation, is what I thought. With such bold people we would certainly win the Revolution, as always in those days spelled with a capital R.

 

 

Added to this was the fact that not only from the outside, but more specifically its interior, this Koeli Kerk is so ugly that it reminds those in the know of Dante’s Hell. And what else might one expect from something classicistic, done in the 19th century, perhaps even mirroring the decay of the working class…

 

 

As far as the dulling of the revolutionary forces of the Working Classes was concerned -this as a result of bourgeois ideology, considered as ‘opium of and for the people’ of which Comrade (capital C!) Lenin had spoken such wise words – it wouldn’t come to all that. Inside such an ugly church the Workers (yes, indeed!) would easily overcome the blinding faith of their parents.

 

Meanwhile, like an old man, politically disenchanted, from this high Leyden castle I observe the Koeli Kerk in the distance. I feel all mellow and soft inside. Rather nice – as part of the urban scenery not bad at all.

 

Sierksma 27.1.18

CALVIN’S GHOST

On what the Dutch call a hoogland – a ‘highland’ in the form of a heightened sand bed on the spot of the confluence of the Old and the New Rhine, coming together almost in the middle of the old university town of Leyden – these good people started to build the Hooglandse Kerk.

 

In our Low Lands this seems a clever move. After all, even a mole hill here counts as a mountain. Thus, true believers sought to protect the building against possible high waters of the swollen rivers, perhaps having Noah’s Ark in mind.

 

However, I am quite sure that not merely utilitarian considerations were at work in their minds. The effect of this immensely elevated cathedral, as it stands on its elevated spot in our flat territory, is also aesthetically sublime.

 

High as it is already by itself, the building rises even further from the depth of the terra firma supporting her, aspiring as it were to what the faithful followers consider Heaven. For the unbelieving Thomasses of this world this magnificent church itself is of course already heaven on earth. One cannot but look up against it.

 

 

 

 

As the original chapel was dedicated to Saint Pancratius, who in 289 was born in Phrygian Synnada and who died in Rome on the 12th of May 304, I am also quite sure that there must have been statues of this holy man not only inside but also outside the church. That is, when it was still part of the Church of Rome.

 

Pancras, as he is called in The Netherlands, was a principled man who refused to make sacrifices to Rome’s gods and was consequently executed by the Emperor who at the time had not yet become a Christian. However, followers of Calvin, who like that Roman Emperor simply could not accept this version of religion, tried to efface his memory by cutting away all sculpture and all painting from the Hooglandse Kerk.

 

 

From the perspective of Modernist Architecture, the interior looks like a grand, abstract, clean and sober building. It might have been designed somewhere in the 60’s. Compared with this view, Saenredam’s rich church interiors seem of a Bernini like baroque… The exterior, however, is like it was when it was built, excepting the few visible signs of Calvinist vandalism which are the true index of the fanatic religious history in the Netherlands.

 

 

Visible here is an absence. No bold imagination is needed to envision the pedestal that once supported a statue of – why not! – Saint Pancras. Proudly, he must have stood there, inviting his flock to the services held inside, in what was once a colourful scene of devotion, with other sculptures, with the Stations of the Cross and with more colourful paintings depicting the grand scenes in the history of the Great Faith.

 

This little hollow, covered by a neat quarter dome of Dutch brick, also seems to harbour a dark shadow. Calvin’s ghost perhaps, the man who is still lurking in every corner of Dutch society, coming alive when a New Puritanism seems to be needed, or the stern admonition of those who want to behave in what is considered an un-Dutch manner.

 

Sierksma February 2018

THE GAZE GASPING

I  have so carefully mapped the corners of my mind

That I am forever waking in a lost country.

Vikram Seth, Summer Requiem

___________________

 

Antwerp, at last. After all, this is the place where my guide-dog Frank Zappa was supposed to lead me. However, his live guitar soli on the car’s speakers had absorbed my attention so much that, while travelling from Haarlem over Rotterdam and further south, instead of taking the highway Dordrecht-Antwerp I took the junction for Utrecht which led me ninety degrees off course. Listening intently to Zappa’s music, that road almost took me to the German border. What’s in a name? All those blasted cities in this part of the Netherlands end with -trecht.

 

Once I had corrected Zappa’s geographical instincts, I was caught up in a traffic jam of enormous proportions. Even when finally in Antwerp town – Zappa, at least musically, still on track for the umpteen time – I took another wrong turn-off and ended up far south of the city’s centre, whereas my destination was Constitution Street, situated sort of north. In fine, only small fry as sorrow goes.

 

Once in the house of the painter Raymond Barion whom I had come to visit, I was in good shape again. In two hours’ time a retrospective exhibition of his work would open, twenty three canvasses mostly done with the airbrush. The majority of these were already painted in the 80’s.

 

In a now faraway past I had organized a show of a large part of this collection, then held in the both impressive and beautiful hall of the building of the Faculty of Architecture where, at that time, I was teaching aesthetics. On both sides of this hall were window panes, eight meters high, turning it into a transparent space where even the sky seemed to be part of its interior. Here it is, this time with a different exhibition.

 

 

One of Barion’s paintings then exhibited – AQUA – became a displaced person. The artist had it transported to my home, a gift in return for labour done. After all these years it is still transforming my bedroom into an intriguing place, almost a dystopia in which I feel somewhat estranged, psychologically verfremdet, turning me as it were into a stranger to myself.

 

AQUA

 

This effect not only results from the image itself, about which more further on, it is also an effect of the dislocation of the canvas. After three weeks of having seen it as part of the exhibition in that great hall, surrounded by its soul mates, it now suddenly overfilled my room in which, for a long time, I did not feel at home.

 

Yet, after a long period looking at it in this bedroom, it has also become habitual. I now even need to concentrate to really see it. Over time more and more the room has become its usual context – its niche. Even if the canvas covers almost two by one and a halve meters, one’s gaze grows finally accustomed and gets dulled.

 

To counter this stultification of the eye, even in one’s own house the art collection must occasionally be rearranged, if only by way of exchanging just one painting or one sculpture for another, perhaps even by merely changing the position of one figurine. Thus, they re-acquire that element of shock which made you obtain such things in the first place.

 

Now in Antwerp, once again taken from its regular place of hanging and transported back to its place of birth into an old laundry house used as art gallery, Aqua will probably give me a renewed feeling of estrangement. Of a sudden, I shall probably miss my bedroom around the painting, the advantage however being that I may experience it once again fresh.

 

Apart from this feeling of estrangement as a result of this change of place, Aqua and Barion’s other paintings themselves also exemplify what Bert Brecht once coined as Verfremdungeffekt. When this is what the artist aims at, a work of art is expressly constructed in such a manner as to distance its observer, whether in the theatre or in the gallery, a reserve which allows him to reflect on what is going on in the images, or for that matter in his own mind – ideologically and/or aesthetically.

 

 

The essay I wrote for the Barion catalogue was called Machinal Metamorphoses; it analyses the special version of Verfremdung in his work as effecting a hyperventilation of our gaze.

 

In these paintings the observer becomes aware of things which at first are difficult to register as something specific, even as something one can name. Once eventually recognized, and then quite suddenly, one becomes aware of another object which it is also, yet not simultaneously so. The image turns out to be both objects, something which obviously cannot be true. Breathlessly the eye is gasping, changing its object and perspective over and over again.

 

More or less in line with Jastrow’s rabbit/duck picture, which Wittgenstein explains in his Philosophical Investigations.

 

 

 

In this image it is possible to discern both a little duck as well as a little rabbit. The plot is that one can never see both animals at the same time; there is a switch in perspective needed, each time one is looking for the other animal, whether duck or rabbit. Insistent metamorphosis.

 

Barion’s Temple is another good example.

 

TEMPLE

 

Here we see the same mechanism of perception at work, in fact using the Gestalt function of our experience. All of our sensing is always in need of an indistinct background against which something specific is recognized in the foreground. What is involved in the duck/rabbit picture and in Temple is our continuous shifting between these two.

 

After the image has been registered as both a plug holder, with its little plastic flap in which the bricoleur checks the size of his plugs, and a classical temple with Doric columns, the gaze begins hyperventilating from one perspective object to the other and back again, being wrong-footed because of the incongruent sizes involved. The catalogue text once again: What is on the canvas, is seen as both colossal great and colossal small – ‘at the same time’.

 

In Aqua there is the effect of a space that looks like one space which, just before or immediately after this has been registered as such, is not so any longer. It turns out to be also plural space. In this case we may speak of an assault on the unequivocally perspective space. And again, the hyperventilation of our gaze sets on.

 

Something like this is going on when while observing the sculptures of Barion.

 

 

The catalogue text describes these airy and eerie objects as accurately designed ruins, this in contrast with buildings originally well designed and only subsequently ruined. Think of the church in Dresden, once bombed at the end of the 18th century.

 

 

In the case of Barion’s ruins the bizarre has crept in. Could that bronze, even in its wildest dreams, have imagined that the building in which it was exhibited would burn down – decades later, in the month may of the year 2008? Could it have fathomed its awesome resemblance to that bankrupt building where it first saw its public light?

 

Faculty of Architecture Delft, 2008

 

Under ordinary conditions the size of our own body is used as vantage point for our perspective and as the standard for the gauging of the size of things surrounding us – our benchmark. In this all too human perspective, a thing may be small, infinitesimally small, large or perhaps even colossal.

 

In our age of de-subjectivation, however, in which both philosophy and the arts do not take the opposition of subject and object, nor our perspective space for granted any longer, images confronting us may suddenly force our gaze to engage in a picture of for instance enlarged crystals and consider these to be our measure instead of man the measure. Ocean wide they suddenly are.

 

 

By the time of the fire that destroyed the building of The Faculty of Architecture, all the canvasses and sculptures had already been returned to their respective places of hanging, one of the sculptures landing in my study. What was written then has now become a daily experience, when from time to time during my siesta my gaze is turned to that sculpted ruin, it continuously makes this transformation happen, again and again. The observer becomes now small, then colossal again. One becomes conscious of the volatile nature of our own gaze and experience, of the plasticity of our senses, their capacity for hyperventilation…

*

And indeed, inside that Antwerp laundry turned gallery, quite open-mindedly I meet my AQUA, now surrounded once again by those other colourful and mysterious canvasses, even new ones I had not seen before. In the same manner Barrion and I meet again, old men rejuvenated by being brought back to that first exhibition in Delft: the artist, his work and the attentive observer.

 

All this without a trace of nostalgia, in the marvellous appreciation of that old wise saying: Ars longa, vita brevis. Those canvasses – they easily survive both of us, good art as they are, they remain much longer fresh. By now, the two of us have grown lacklustre, at least as appearances go. Perhaps, inside is yet enough resilience to go for it.

 

Sierksma, Antwerp, 4.4.14

 

HOLLOW EYES

This curious craving for pigeons that suddenly came over her, even the manner in which she devoured the birds – as an animal. Undoubtedly she was cursed.

Marguerite Duras, Stolen Pigeons [1942]

_________________________________________

On Monuments Day I visited Château de Céré, located near the delightful village of Saint-Hilaire sur Benaize, that day opened to the public – the grounds, that is, not the castle itself.

 

Dovecote3

 

It was raining. Stuck away in a heavy coat, too warm for an autumn day, I walked the gardens of the place, in the distance suddenly observing a rather primitive type of water reservoir that seemed to serve its surrounding gardens.

The following day an acquaintance told me that I had missed a truly remarkable pigeonnier, a dovecote. It must have been the bad weather and also the fact that it was already rather late, my third visit that day, otherwise my normally inquisitive nature would have made me inspect the grounds more diligently.

Even though not a Monuments Day, the next weekend I decided to make up for my failure. Skittish, because the last time I had heard dogs, I sneaked like a thief through the impressive entry gate onto the grounds.

 

Dovecote4

 

There I stood, a furtive invader of its walls, now searching for the outline of the reservoir structure. I was scared by sudden sounds behind me – a moustached, rather crumpled, yet sturdy though somewhat thickened and set little man, the kind you only meet in My Sweet France. The gardener and a gentleman, not threatening at all.

“Sir, a question please, though perhaps an impertinent one….” But, of course, I was allowed to come in and have a look, he himself would guide me as, alas, the Master was out. Thus we climbed from the lower terrace gardens up the little knoll. There it was, the reservoir. My eyes were searching for a tenuous cage of steel wire in which the pigeons would be housing. Instead, we walked straight up to the round building which I had taken for what the French call a château d’eau, a watering castle – in this case one pour le château.

Once up there, it turned out to be much higher than I had estimated, at least seven meters into the sky, with a diameter of more or less the same magnitude. Going through a low little gate, we entered the miracle.

 

Dovecote2

 

Inside we were standing not in what I expected to be a dark dungeon, but in a high, sunlit circle of chamoix coloured brick. A theatre, though smaller than the one I had once visited in Madrid, yet of the same awe inspiring beauty.

In Madrid I had also tiptoed in secretly, passing through the enormous gate which had been left open to let workmen with their tools get go through. That time I had been on my own, standing in the very centre of that empty and utterly desolate Plaza de Torros. The minimal music made by my right shoe, only lightly touching the yellowish gravel, rebounded from the periphery of that perfect theatrical circle, as if I was machine-gunned by bursts of noise.

In the smaller, wholly silent space of this pigeon theatre, from inside their circle of stalls, a few thousand square hollow eyes are looking down on me. They also give the impression of waiting for the mail sorter. It could have been a columbarium in which long ago the functionaries of death had been putting their ashy urns now gone. The size of the holes seems to be right for this.

A stone dovecote with real pigeonholes – that’s what this is! The roof, once covering the circular room, became decrepit over time and then crashed in. How long this little building must have stood here… When did its inhabitants become refugees, leaving for a safer haven and a surer heaven? Would there have been only one pigeon living in each of these holes, or pairs of them? Anyway, thousands and thousands of them. Were castle owners breeding the birds?

“No, tells my stocky Gardner, these were wild pigeons, coming in at their own free will and initiative.” Why had they left? “No idea…” However the lack of roofing may have to do with this, perhaps also the present lack of pigeons today… Did the nobles eat the feathered beasts? “No, or perhaps yes. The pigeons came in for their own pleasure and safety, of course also for the pleasure of the owners of the dovecote.” Master Gardner, I said, what pleasures these aristocrats were able to invent for themselves! “Mais oui, Monsieur – mais oui..”

Later I found out that something far greater was at stake than a mere delight in pigeons and dovecotes. Feudalism allowed only the owners of a château to build such an edifice. Its size, determined by the precise amount of pigeonholes permitted, depended on the sum total of hectares of the land owned by the nobleman. Château de Céré must have been of immense proportions indeed…

 

Dovecote1

 

Before leaving, I asked the Gardner to pose for me. Not only did I want to get the right impression of the pigeonnier’s proportions, I also fancied an image of the orphaned existence of a single man confronted with the Sublime. Two men in fact, because in front of them both photographer and Gardner were facing their respective half of the same immensity.

As if loosened from mere reality, elevated by these rising walls into higher spheres.

Sierksma October 2010