Pyramids, Christmas Trees, and Cathedrals

The following was written by Dawie Coetzee, an architect from Cape Town, South Africa.

It occurred to me a while ago that the predominant movement of mind involved in
modernist design is that of magnification; that is, of conceptualizing
a very small object and then proposing that it be produced at a much
bigger size. The modernist preoccupation with simplicity really lends
itself to the practice of building scale models, especially models at
a very small scale; except that the model itself becomes the end
product of the design process, and the final building a mere
representation thereof. The modernist designer strives to produce
buildings that are magnified-scale models of architectural maquettes.
I might conjecture that the unwitting cause of this tendency is the
association of the maquette with the design professions, and the
consequent implication that a building that looks like a big model
does so because it was designed by an architect rather than a farmer
or military engineer, and moreover by the sort of architect who is
conscious enough of design to take the trouble to build scale models.

The result of this quest for glamour and prestige is that it
transfers the product from the realm of practical (or indeed any
other) consideration to that of the aesthetic. The more obvious the
hand of the designer, the greater the demand that the work be judged
as art and only as art. It is an effect that lies at the root of
current "designerism", with all its implications of labels and the
commodification of thought, through to third-world labour conditions,
etc., in that the intellectual or "artistic" origins are emphasized
to the exclusion of the physical or practical origins of things. (It
is as if physicians were invited to consider their patients' coughs
only in terms of timing, cadence, delivery, finish, and not in terms
of what might be diagnosed from them. I can see a circle of doctors
at a bedside, politely applauding every so often and trying to appear
very suave to one another.) It goes far in explaining the elaborate
chronolatrous shrug that is the characteristic gesture of the design
professions, ludicrously fashion-conscious as they are, today.

It arises, of course, from the desire of people to be thought
superior to their neighbours, that is, from the Deadly Sin of Pride.
It is therefore not surprising that we find the most graphic example
of the magnification so typical of modernist design, though
historically removed from modernism, in the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
It is quite reasonable to say that no tomb has any business being
that big, not even the tomb of an extremely important person; but
that is not quite the point. The point is that a pyramid is really
much too small to serve as a tomb for anything larger than a Jelly-
Baby (I trust that the rest of the world also knows that disturbingly
sarcophagus-shaped sweetmeat). In fact, divorced from any empirical
experience of scale, a pyramid is barely big enough to serve as a
coffin for a Jelly-Baby. Think about a pyramid, and it should be
quite obvious that it ought to be about two and a half inches tall.
What heinousness of pride did it not require to build pyramids of the
size the Pharaohs built?

The result of this inflated simplicity is a sort of inscrutability,
the implication that the Pharaohs were up to something far
too "advanced" for common folk to understand, an implication that
should be familiar to anyone exposed to architecture-as-art. As
cultural artifact or, if you wish, as cultural artifact roughly
triangular in elevation, I am wont to contrast to the pyramid the
Christmas tree. As inscrutable as is the pyramid, so immediately is a
Christmas tree understandable to any child. And because it is thus
understandable by those His disciples thought unworthy of approaching
our Lord, but of whom He said, "suffer little children, and forbid
them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven", a
Christmas tree is of very little use as an expression of "good taste"
and cultural superiority. Indeed, if one's Christmas tree is not a
paragon of "bad taste", being garish, vulgar, and obvious, one isn't
doing it right.

If it is possible to translate the innocent fascination that anyone
who is honest with themselves finds in a Christmas tree into
architecture, it is achieved in the Gothic cathedral. The same wealth
of busy sparkle, which invites our sustained alert gaze, is found in
the interior of the Sainte Chapelle at Paris, for instance. But there
is another aspect that renders what A W N Pugin called "pointed or
Christian architecture" the perfect antithesis of the pyramid: for
all their vastness, one cannot escape the idea that the great
cathedrals ought to be even greater; that they have been mercifully
scaled down for our benefit.

I think there are two factors that bring this about. First, where the
tendency of the modernist and the pyramid-builder, and indeed the
Classicist, is towards magnification, the medieval impulse is towards
multiplication. Gothic elements have a proper size in relation to the
human body, and cannot be enlarged and reduced arbitrarily. If one
needs to build a bigger building it is necessary to use a greater
number of elements rather than the same number of bigger elements.
Consequently, the bigger the building, the greater the complexity,
the result of which is that the individual elements appear smaller in
proportion to the composite. And because we relate the elements to
ourselves both by absolute size and by proportion, the result is an
impression of immensity reduced.

Second, and in apparent contradiction with the first, is the medieval
practice of "micro-architecture", in which rood screens appear as
miniature west façades and reliquaries as miniature basilicas. I do
not believe the contradiction to be real: it indicates a sensitivity
to scale that is ever conscious of the proper sizes of things, even
when things are presented at another size. Thus, if a reliquary can
imply a proper size greater than its actual size, cannot a cathedral
do the same?

"Micro-architecture" is perhaps an extreme example of the tendency
that medieval architecture has of throwing up little bits of order in
unexpected places: little pockets of symmetry disposed asymmetrically
in relation to one another. Such distribution of order is thoroughly
Distributist in spirit. If there might be such a thing as a
Distributist architecture, I suggest that it would be difficult to
achieve except by consideration of medieval architecture. What say

Dawie Coetzee


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