Monday, June 20, 2011

Sacred space and the imagination

[ A guest post by Charles Cameron – cross-posted from Zenpundit ]
This post began with a photo my friend William Benzon took of an abandoned passenger terminal in Liberty State Park:

Without the greenery, I don't think I'd feel this was "special" in quite the same way. I might see it as prison-like, akin to those magnificent Piranesi prints in his Carceri series:
... vast, haunted -- the anti-cathedral.

Yet the grasses and small trees are there in Benzon's photo, green and vibrant -- and in their presence, the prison becomes a cathedral... not unlike the great ruined abbeys of England, Tintern, Calder, Whitby, Walsingham, Fountains.

Here's Tintern Abbey by JMW Turner, for a sense of how ruins were viewed in his day:
Somehow, in the workings of the human mind and heart, nature's grasses can keep a ruined space sacred...


But what of books?
The effect is austere by comparison, but the hush of the library slips into the high-vaulted silence of the cloister, and when I saw Bill Benzon's photo above, this photo of a bookstore in Holland was the first analogy to cross my mind...
The Selexyz Dominicanen bookshop is housed in an old church in the centre of Maastricht. A beautiful listed building, this former Dominican church was transformed into a bookstore by architects Merkx+Girod, resulting in an extraordinary combination of bookselling complex and church interior, preserving the unique landmark setting. It was praised by British newspaper The Guardian as ‘possibly the world’s finest bookshop’. Earlier, Selexyz Dominicanen had already received the prestigious Lensvelt Architecture Interior Award 2007 for the décor of the store.
Of course, not everyone thinks a bookstore is sacred, and a lot might depend on what books you browsed, or caught your neighbor browsing. Here's one negative report:
When your church community gets bored of reaching out with the love of Christ and doesn’t like to meet together anymore, don’t cry over it! Build a bookstore and coffee shop out of your unwanted worship space. The chancel is great for a cappuccino… And the worship space would house a nice collection of bargain-priced books, and kitten calendars:

So next time you despair that the church has lost its way, relax and sooth your aching conscience with a steaming latte – you can even sit at the crucifix table and plug into the WiFi. There are so many uses for old churches, why bother with renewal in the Church at all?
Even a ruined bookstore can have something of a sacred quality, though, as this London library photo clearly shows:
Surely, that's the last word in books -- what more could one ask for?


Still -- look. There's some sort of disaster, atrophy, ruin or sea-change in each of these images. What happens when an architect -- as skilled as the folks from who designed that bookstore -- builds a chapel in the forest?
With all the contemporary emphasis on modern sustainable architecture, sometimes we seem to forget that environmentally friendly architecture has existed for a long time. Built in 1980, Thorncrown Chapel was created with the idea of highlighting the natural setting, which was, and still is, an attractive natural setting for tourists in the area. The owner of the site, Jim Reed, hired well known architect, Frank Lloyd Wright alumni E. Fay Jones to design and build the site which used native timber to match the setting around it, and the result was a fantastic expression of architecture that was awarded the “Twenty-Five year award” by the American Institute of Architects.
It is as lovely by winter light:
as it is by light of spring and summer:
and yet I'd say there is something not ascetic but arid there: it has tried a great deal, but not died a little.


Nothing there is any which way ruined. And it is out of ruins that our hopes grow these days, as grass at times breaks through tarmac.

Tarkovsky's great film Nostalghia closes with a breathtaking shot...
a sacred space in pure, delivered, imagination -- a single shot which to my mind, having seen the film and left the movie theater speechless, must be accounted the greatest single work of surrealism yet...

in which the protagonist, a Russian exiled in Italy, sees finally the lonely Italian abbey that has come to symbolize his loss of hearth and home, all loss, all absence -- with his home nestled inside it, the little pond, himself, his dog...


  1. Hi bill,

    Totally lovely site.

    Couple of bits of info you might like from our Lit history.

    1. 1798, Turner began including quotes from poets—for instance, Milton and Lord Byron—as accompaniments to his paintings in RA catalogue entries.

    2. Wordsworth, I don't think had any idea Turner was doing this , but in the same year wrote Lines on Tintern Abbey.

    3.1798 - Coleridge and Worsdworth publish Lyrical Ballads , here's the mission statement in the preface:

    "The principal object […] was to choose incidents and situations from common life."[1]

    "Describe [those incidents] […] in a selection of language really used by men."

    The rural men far from social vanity use their language to express feelings in a simple and unelaborated manner, more in connection with nature. He also claims that such a language is more permanent and philosophical because it results from "repeated experience and regular feelings".

    Throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way."[3]

    Make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature..."

    Now all of this Romantic movement, had nothing to do with the sentimental stuff it spawned. Back then all these guys wanted was a uniform kind of approach to art and literature and try to show , not unnaturally elevate, how the thoughts dialects and actions of uneducated folk could be as artistic and meaningful and expressive as those who had the luxury of education. It also
    had an 'unhippy' lot to do with nature and meaning.

    I make this point because I think there is a close parallel between the aims of the original English Romantic Movement and your interest in 'common' street art. Also you are examining how nature takes back the structures we build.

    Wordsworth hated bollocks by the way which is why he and his sister chose to write in, what was for the time a simple form and 'common' structure.

    One unrelated point if you have time check out the Coleridge lectures , this is just one aspect of a fascinating series you will find him hovering around the notion an underlying (deep) structure.

    These guys also believed in the need to feel a shared ownership of the landscape that was around them- there was almost a totemic power in 'naming' that captured this sense.

    Do you know what Coleridge, Dorothy and William Wordsworth , and the Fricker sisters did to show how they felt they were linked into the natural system around them?

    You'll love this:,r:0,s:0&biw=1000&bih=637

    And they tagged their names all over the place.

    Remind you of anything?

    Cheers bill


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  4. Bill really sorry about this, I did you a massive post linking your ideas about contemporary street art and the English Romantic movement.

    ( It's Ok I did it real quick , I worked up there an used to chat to Pam Woff and that lot.)

    JMRT's picture is often used to illustrate Lines On Tintern Abbey by W. Wordwsorth( Published same year 1798, because the image shares, along with your other eclectic art interests, so many of the characteristics of original Romantic ideals.

    Did you know this crowd were high profile Graffiti Taggers? There weren't any spray paints or many streets but they did this all over the place.

    Mate of mine had a gatepost near his house above Dove Cottage covered in the stuff. STC. WW.etc

    If you want to know why they did this , check out the preface of the Lyrical Ballads for a mission statement

    Then check their theory of the importance of 'naming' in landscapes.

    You'll make the connections.

    Wanna know anything about this area just ask .


  5. On STC and "deep structure", see this:

  6. Well, this is quite wonderful.


    Bill's comment on my post was this picture of his -- sadly, the comments section HTML doesn't allow me to post it as an image, so if you click on it you'll see what Bill pointed out to me:


    If you look closely to the left and the right, you'll see graffiti on the walls. I can't help but think that the writers who paint here have some sense of sacred space while they're working. Though they might balk at that characterization.

    BTW, that arch is over an almost mile-long cut through the middle of Jersey City. I took a Brooklyn graffiti writer down there and he said, "paradise."

    It's a magical place.


    As I told Bill, his "tunnel/sky" photo and comment opens up exactly the kind of consideration (and thus conversation) I was hoping for -- as do your comments on the WW / STC graffiti.


    My big question, I suppose, is whether there are varieties of sacred space" (the "secular" sacred included) in much the same way there are "varieties of religious experience" -- and if so, whether we can begin to classify them as moods...

    Background here would be the notion of rasa in Indian philosophy / Abhinavagupta, and my piece In the words of a Tibetan Geshe.

    Moods strike me (too) as where the essences of different esthetics reside, the precise modes in which "beauty" comes to be found "in the eyes of the beholder".

  7. Ah, yes, Charles. Excellent question, that os sacred spaceS, plural. And the notion of rasa (as I understand it from Patrick Colm Hogan) would seem to apt.

    And then we have liminal spaces. Are they a superset of sacred spaces, or a subset of them? Or neither?

    And I think of graffiti writers as having to trespass to do their work, and churches as sanctuaries.

  8. Liminal spaces have the potential to go in anyone of a number of different directions.

    "Even a ruined bookstore can have something of a sacred quality, though, as this London library photo clearly shows:"

    That is clearly a wartime propaganda image. The government conducted mass observation on the public and the manner in which it reacted to heavy bombing.

    If people stopped in their day to day activities and began to focus on the damage around them it was an indicator of very low moral and potential unrest. If as in the photograph above people engage in normal activity despite the destruction it's the type of image you want to promote.

    I don't think what is said about a sacred quality is incorrect, I think the issues touched on in this somewhat interesting topic have always been open to debate, dispute, and different ways of seeing them.


  9. Just as the subject lights up Bills interest in graffiti it lights up mine with the wildman the creature I study.

    I can't look at the first image of the library used without imagining seeing wildman in the centre of that high vaulted cloister vomiting forth greenery.


    The ruins and vegetation speak of hair and it's symbolic uses, profane, sacred, magical.