Page C3.2 . 30 August 2000                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
  • Two Bauhaus Buildings: A Paradigm Shift
  • "Greening" a Profession
  • Building with the Breath of Life

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    Building with the Breath of Life


    One element of that power is our ability to bring into being powerful and unprecedented patterns and images through grasping new potentials of a setting. The Itsukushima Shrine in Japan, instead of being built on land, was constructed on pilings in a bay. Its red-orange buildings float on their reflections in the tidal water, as the festooned fishing boats arrive thorough the giant torii gateway framing the entrance of the bay for the annual blessing of the fishing fleet.

    Or think of San Francisco and the images of its bridges appearing and disappearing magically in the fog. Or Shrinigar in Kashmir, where the royalty of India created a fabulous summer retreat of gardens encircling the lake. Gardens cascade down the hillsides and float on reed mats on the lake. Communities of houseboats are connected by causeways, arched bridges, and boats floating on the mirrored surface of the lake.

    In the Gujerat area of northwestern India, the groundwater subsides dozens of feet (hundreds of centimeters) into the ground in the months before the yearly monsoons. The local villages there developed a pattern of building "step-wells"—flights of steps giving individuals access to the water far below the surface. In bracing the walls of these stone stairways, the villages evolved a wonderful pattern of cool, shaded, carved-stone platforms and alcoves which became the village's gathering place in the hot, dry months.

    The passions and driving force of single individuals like Baron Haussman in Paris, or Pierre L'Enfant in Washington, D.C., have shaped the dominant nature of some wonderful cities. The architect Antonio Gaudi gave Barcelona a unique flavor and sense of sacredness, mathematics, geometry, and color through his parks, apartment buildings, homes, and churches.

    In Nikko, Japan, the funerary shrines of several of Japan's great shoguns, or military rulers, are intricately carved and gaudily lacquered, built through the coerced "contributions" of the shoguns' underlords.

    But what is most striking and memorable about the shrines is their surroundings. They are approached through long graveled avenues set between stone walls in a deep forest of towering Japanese cedars, which contribute great power and contrast to the buildings themselves. The trees, however, were not there originally, but were planted by one of the lesser lords, who conceived of their planting either through a stroke of genius or as a clever way to avoid paying a burdensome monetary "contribution."

    What would Agra, India, be without the individual love and passions of Shah Jahan: the Taj Mahal built in memory of his wife, his own planned tomb on the other side of the river, and his palace structures in the Fort?

    Yet individuals do not have to be rich or famous for their passions to give shape to a community. Simon Rodia's wonderful whimsical Watts Towers in Los Angeles, made from broken pottery and used rebar, have given identity to a whole neighborhood. Balladeer Forestiere's underground gardens in Fresno, California have become a local wonder.

    The three-foot- (90 centimeter-) thick stone walls of the Tassajara Zen Center's kitchen in California give silent testimony to the gentle persistence of faith against the unreasonableness of local building codes that demanded such overbuilding. A 40-mile (65 kilometer) loop walking trail around Portland, Oregon, exists because of the vision and faith of a few individuals.

    The citizens of the Czech capital of Prague had such a love of their community that they bribed the Germans not to destroy it in the Second World War. Prague had its share of beautiful monuments and historical structures, but the specialness of the city was in how its entire fabric had, over the years, become an expression of love for community. Through dozens of generations, the exterior of virtually every building in the city had been ornamented and enriched with sculpture, painting, and architectural decorative work—for the enjoyment of the entire community, not just the building's owners. A hodge-podge of styles, techniques, and treatments amassed over time, which sounds like a recipe for chaos. Together, however, their individuality is subsumed into an overall richness with wonderful and unexpected details anywhere we look.

    Institutions can be the source and vehicle for expression of a community's passions. To most visitors, the governmental buildings of Washington, D.C., are secondary to the extraordinary collection of private and public museums that have congregated around the city's center. University towns like Oxford or Cambridge in England, Amherst or Cambridge in Massachusetts, have imbued their communities with a sense of passion for academic learning. Other cities, like Jerusalem, are so prolific with institutions of various religions that the air is filled with prayers in many tongues.

    It is hard to think of Spain without thinking of the rituals and passions of the bullfight and the archetypal patterns renewed in us by those celebrations. Similarly, who can think of Indianapolis without car racing; of Milan without opera; or of Rio or New Orleans without Mardi Gras?

    Whenever we come together in celebration—sacred or secular—we bring into focus a vortex of energy that renews both us and the place. If well focused, it can bring healing and power to our endeavors.

    © 2000 Tom Bender

    Tom Bender is an architect in Nehalem, Oregon and author of Building with the Breath of Life: Working with Chi Energy in Our Homes and Communities, from which this article was excerpted. He is also author of the companion volume, Silence, Song & Shadows: Our Need for the Sacred in our Surroundings.



    ArchWeek Photo

    The wonderful sacred and organic designs of Antonio Gaudi—parks, apartment houses, cathedrals, houses, and public buildings—have given a special flavor to the entire city of Barcelona.
    Photo: Tom Bender

    ArchWeek Photo

    Built as a pleasure retreat for the royalty of India to escape the summer heat, Dal Lake in Shrinigar manifests a magical vision of a community living in cool, fragrant gardens on terraced slopes.
    Photo: Tom Bender

    ArchWeek Photo

    Adalej Village stepwell. The solution to dry-season access to water also created a wonderful place for community, away from the heat and sun.
    Photo: Tom Bender

    ArchWeek Photo

    Adalej Village stepwell is revealed throughout the dry season, as the water level recedes.
    Images: Tom Bender

    ArchWeek Photo

    A riverside cafe terrace in Prague provides one of innumerable places for the residents to enjoy the beauty of their city.
    Photo: Tom Bender

    ArchWeek Photo

    The long avenues planted with towering cedars create an unforgettable setting for the Shogun shrines at Nikko.
    Photo: Tom Bender

    ArchWeek Photo

    Building with the Breath of Life has recently been published by Fire River Press.
    Photo: Tom Bender


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