One of the travesties of travel is that we tend to learn more about a place after we have visited, than before. How much better to arrive with depth of knowledge and ready framework, ready to be brought to life by our awaited encounter with the building, place, or city!
But perhaps there is something natural in this phenomenon. We tend to learn more about a person after our initial meeting, than before. It is the initial encounter which provides the framework to be filled in later, rather than the other way around.
Architecture, perhaps more than any other art form, loses something from being encountered in ways other than in person. While there is of course no substitute for spending time in front of a large-scale oil canvas, still its book-bound reproduction is, formally speaking, barely even a translation: both original and copy exist in the comfortable kinship of two dimensions.
Sculpture suffers a bit more than painting from a two-dimensional reproduction, but one can only view sculpture from a single angle at a time—and the camera views it in this same way. Sculpture also tends to be on a smaller scale than architecture, and can be more easily caught by a camera without the distortions of parallax as the camera struggles to fit a great building into its tiny lens, or to find its view within the confines of a tiny room.
The history of music recorded “in kind” (in sound, rather than notation) is less than a century old, but giant leaps have been made even during this short time. Even a medium-fi system can bring us at least somewhat close to the experience of the concert hall or club, if we dim the lights and use a bit of imagination. In recorded music playback, the loss of the “third dimension” of space is more subtle than the loss of the third dimension in architecture.
Though we can learn much from pouring over monographs of architecture—translations in words, pictures, plans and sections—it is easier to do so after we have made our initial encounter with the building itself, after we have felt the compression and release of its entrances and expansions, felt our eyes adjust to its changes in light, felt the set-apartness of its warmth or coolness at mid-day, even noticed (perhaps only subconsciously) the shifting sound of our footsteps as we pass through its angles and surfaces. One only “enters into” a painting, sculpture, or work of music metaphysically. One enters into a work of architecture literally.
Thoreau wrote that he went into the woods in order “to see what it had to teach”, in order to cut away that which was not life, from that which really was. So why did I, when friends invited me on their trek to Paris for a week of day trips to the surrounding French Gothic cathedrals, decide to join? Among reasons such as friendship, the edification which comes from being around three gentlemen who hold years of serious study between them, and my interest in following out the long line of Catholic culture, I wanted to join the trip as part of my aesthetic education. I went to walk those hallowed, columned halls in order “to see what they had to teach”—to better separate the true from the false.
Beauty is the handmaid of Goodness and Truth, and if we listen closely to this third transcendental she will always lead us back to the other two. I went to France in order to be educated by the school of beauty. I went in order to listen to the voice embedded in those stacks of stone, in order to hear the silent praise of the rocks crying out—and in the hope that my voice might better do the same.
—•—•— Philokales —•—•—
Photos: France, August 2014
Top: Organ, column pier, north transept, Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais
Middle: North aisle vaulting, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen
Bottom: Jamb statues, south portals, Notre-Dame de Chartres