Sunday, November 09, 2008

The cathedral and the dome

kw: musings, cultural evolution

An image from last night's dream sticks with me: a cathedral in the distance, receding into mist, and a large geodesic dome in the foreground. This image is my feeble attempt to reproduce this juxtaposition.

The two structures exemplify the very different cultures of nostalgia and "modern X". Actually, the geodesic dome is getting a bit passé, and is little embraced by the X and Y generations. But consider for a minute the interweaving of technology and art embodied in a cathedral. The technology of the cathedral is a solution to the enclosing of the largest space possible, so as to uplift the spirit. The details of the many spires surrounding the large twin spires, the little spines and spikes on the spires' outlines, the carven details of every surface, and the overwhelming internal artwork, are not technology but art, to focus the attention of worshipers.

It is hard to understand today the extent to which worship formed the structure of people's lives in medieval Europe. In many of the "quieter" places, away from large cities, this is still true. Worship has two sides, as breathing has two aspects: inspiration and expiration, or expression. Handicrafts did not only produce useful tools and furniture, but added beauty. The art of everyday things was intended to aid the worship of any who viewed them, to inspire them.

Today's technology of enclosing space follows the mantra of efficiency and "continuous improvement": faster, better, cheaper. If art is considered at all, it is added later, such as putting an abstract steel sculpture in the courtyard of an aseptic office building. Seldom is beauty built in to the design. If it is, it is an intended beauty of austerity, not the lush beauty of recursive detail we see in the carvings on a cathedral's spire.

Benoit Mandelbrot was onto something when he brought fractals to our attention. Not only do many natural things develop by recursion of common shapes, but whenever anyone takes time to decorate something, and yields the time to contemplate and add beauty to beauty, the result has a fractal quality. The winter tree at the right side of the image is a fractal construction of nature, that contains more detail than does the cathedral. I think if trees were more like children's simple "green blob on a stick", they would not resonate in our souls.

I see hopeful signs in the productions of younger architects, artists, and craftspeople. The austerity of the "modern" design of the 1920s to the 1960s is giving way to a more detailed, more contemplative style, or really, to a great many of them. In this image, copyright David Fisher, we see that people aren't satisfied with blocky architecture. These designs, intended for the "Palms" of Dubai, can change shape and get more detailed-looking. They are a step back toward the cathedral spires. In fact, consider the Petronas Towers in Malaysia: they look a lot like a twin-spire cathedral. (Go to Google Images and search "Petronas").

We may not see again a time in which the handle of a shovel would be carved with bas-relief roses, even though it could then be better gripped. But I think people need inspiration from the things in their daily lives and their surroundings. That is, we all benefit from an environment that is conducive to worship.

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