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Lost Worlds

Walter seems unaware that a large part of modern literature testifies in his favor. It is unlikely that such a cultivated writer is really so innocent of poetry and fiction; perhaps the vastness of the subject made him ignore it, especially since the scope of his book is quite big enough as it is. But it would, for example, be difficult to find any writer with a stronger sense of place than Dickens, the Jeremiah of the city and the poet of its suburbs. The desolate riverside landscape of Victorian London, its squalid criminalized “rookeries,” Bleeding Heart Yard, the terrifying city grave-pits spilling out their half-buried dead—these are balanced by Dickens with suburban idylls, by the child-wife Dora’s incompetent ménage in Kentish Town, by Mr. Wemmick’s aged parent in the little house with parapet and drawbridge. Walter’s chapters on “sick” places, “ominous” places, and the “energies” of places could all be illustrated from Dickens.

Places as defined by Walter’s philosophical realism are, of course, different from the places recalled by imaginative writers, which are fully known only in memory. That we dream of places we have never seen, and that our minds are filled with places we knew, but no longer exist as we remember them, Walter is aware of but does not emphasize. In Proust’s great novel there are three Norman towns called Balbec: first, the one the narrator dreamed of as a boy, with its Gothic-Romanesque cathedral, half-oriental (from the echoes of Syrian Baalbek), but swathed in Atlantic fog and mist; then the town he knew as a young man, the luminous, worldly watering place with its frieze of ambiguous maidens; then the place remembered in later life, the shifting seascape which he perpetually interrogates about a lost, dead, distrusted love. Proust knew that a philosophy of place has to contain a philosophy of reminiscence.

In Stanley Tigerman’s book the place dreamed of fills almost the entire imaginative space. The Architecture of Exile, although written by an architect and full of plans and drawings, has more to do with the religious understanding of exile than with architecture. It tries to combine Jewish and Christian theology, biblically inspired architectural fantasies, and theological interpretations of some buildings constructed with religious motives in mind and of others that were not. The result is an unsatisfactory book.

The problem does not lie in the structuralist method Tigerman chose: it is easy to see that semiotic treatment of key biblical texts is an attractive way to try to get a new understanding of their meaning, especially when the biblical signs are considered as visual as well as linguistic stimuli. The trouble is that Tigerman has published something more like the rough notes for a book than like a properly finished text. In the acknowledgments there is a reference to the “coalesced state in which the text now resides”: I wish that it had come together more happily. The author prefers unsubstantiated assertion to argument. For example: “Knowledge is connected with finitude, and is not important in the search to return to paradise. Simplistic thought of the kind apparent in Eden, however, will no longer be possible in a world devoted to renewal through knowledge.” How is “simplistic thought” “apparent” in Eden? Perhaps we can say that an earthly paradise implies simplicity, but is that the same as “simplistic thought,” and in what special way is such thought “apparent” in the biblical description of Eden? The conversations that took place there were not very fully reported. How does Tigerman know any of the things he asserts in this passage?

The obscurities in Tigerman’s text are not all his own. It is full of long, involved quotations from theorists of language and religion, which he explains to the reader only partly or not at all. The meanings he attributes to artifacts and buildings, and the descriptions he attaches to them, are sometimes inaccurate, misleading, or wildly wrong. All this is to be regretted, since some of the ideas in the book are interesting.

That we walk as aliens and exiles in a land where man once dwelt as a native and spoke familiarly with God is an idea common to Judaism and Christianity, and basic to Tigerman’s book. His thesis seems to be that man seeks to return to the Eden he lost by his first disobedience. He does so either by somehow seeing through the biblical texts and finding God’s original instructions, or by disregarding the earlier rebellion, and trying to make a new earthly paradise in which man will be reunited with God without divine guidance.

Tigerman sees Solomon’s building of the Temple as a sort of nationalist act of defiance against God’s wish for his people to give his Word absolute precedence over all other religious expressions. Tigerman comments that “it was not the will of God not to allow the Jews to construct a Temple in which to worship Him; it was His will not to dwell in such a structure.” Solomon placed the ark of the covenant in a Temple that had too much in common with the temples of the heathen. Tigerman’s book is mainly concerned not with nostalgia for Eden (though he speaks of this), but with nostalgia for the lost Temple that ceased to exist over two-and-a-half millennia ago. The appearance and dimensions of Solomon’s Temple are described in three only partly compatible biblical versions (I Kings, 5–7 and II Chronicles, 2–7; Ezekiel, 40–43). Tigerman relates somewhat repetitively the speculations of those who since the Middle Ages have tried to reconstruct the appearance of the vanished Temple, and, sometimes, of its distant successor, the Temple of Herod, constructed in the first century BC.

From Richard of St. Victor and Maimonides through seventeenth-century architects and divines (including Isaac Newton), through rows of obscure Bible commentators and biblically obsessed architects, Tigerman lists the theories and reproduces the drawings of the Temple; he ends by offering in an appendix the Temple reconstructions of his own architecture students. The effect is somewhat numbing. Like many who are taken with signs, Tigerman ends by treating one sign as just as good as another. When he led me to the Temple speculations of the American architects of the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial, I felt the return of the gloom that used to settle over me years ago, when I was studying different versions of the metaphorical Temple of the Freemasons. That the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is actually a place on the earth’s surface, incidentally, does not seem to interest Tigerman; he makes no substantial reference to its archaeology, or to its present visual appearance. In Walter’s terms, Tigerman has no sense of place at all.

Tigerman has interesting things to say about what he sees as the effects of man’s alienation from God on classical, medieval, and Renaissance architecture. He views the medieval monasteries as examples of displacement of the true religious center of the buildings from God’s altar to the cloister, which he thinks ought to be peripheral. Benedictines would perhaps reply that they do the work of God before his altar in choir, in church, where they participate in the divine sacrifice and repeat the Psalter and the Office. But the criticism provokes thought. Tigerman throughout the book contrasts the metaphorical nature of Christian thought with the very different, much more literal and concrete nature of rabbinical thought, and his book is, perhaps, more than anything else a contribution to the relations between the two religions.

When he comes to the Renaissance the ahistorical element in Tigerman’s thought prevails. He can be forgiven for thinking that Renaissance men were fully conscious that they were such, when they certainly were not. But in treating Renaissance architecture as basically irreligious, he is rejecting the academic achievement of modern Renaissance scholarship and returning to the ill-informed common-places of the Victorians. Fifty years ago the great art historian Rudolf Wittkower wrote that Renaissance architecture was not an architecture of pure form, but was “based on a hierarchy of values culminating in the absolute values of sacred architecture.” Wittkower’s explanation of the religious symbolism of centralized Renaissance churches is one of the basic texts of what is still a great academic tradition. I find it odd that Tigerman should not bother to debate with this tradition, but behave as if it had never existed.

The treatment of detail in Tigerman’s book is wretched. He begins poorly with four illustrations, only one of which is accurately described, and not one of which has anything to do with the Garden of Eden, which they are supposed to illustrate.* Things are not always so bad, but it seems a pity that a book apparently inspired in the first place by a conversation with the distinguished Bernini scholar Irving Lavin should contain an illustration captioned “Pietro Bernini’s two columns on [sic] the baldacchino at St. Peter’s, Rome.” The columns are by Gianlorenzo Bernini, and not by his father, Pietro; it would also be an odd baldacchino that stood on two columns. But the reason for the strange caption is Tigerman’s obsessive concern that every possible fragment of evidence should be made to refer to the Solomonic columns, “Jachin” and “Boaz,” which stood in front of the Temple. The evidence is stretched in an arbitrary and tendentious way. Tigerman describes Holbein’s drawing of the “device” of the great Renaissance scholar Erasmus, which shows Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries, as containing a “guillotine,” suspended between “the two columns deriving from Jachin and Boaz.” How Tigerman knows that they are so derived is mysterious, as mysterious as the presence of a guillotine predating the French Revolution by over two centuries. Erasmus’s device (Tigerman fails to mention that it is his) also contained a motto in Greek, “Keep the end of a long life in view,” and Tigerman’s “guillotine” was probably a vacant caption left for the later insertion of the Greek characters. The contempt with which Tigerman seems, by omission, to treat humanistic scholarship is disturbing.

No such reproach can be leveled against Joseph Rykwert, a learned, witty, allusive writer and architect who called attention some years ago to a good many of the subjects and sources used later by Walter and Tigerman. Probably his most influential book is not the one under review, which first came out in 1976 and has now been reissued in a paperback edition, but On Adam’s House in Paradise, an essay on the primitive hut in architectural history published in 1972. This was an impressive and often scintillating venture in the history of ideas, which could not have been undertaken by anyone with a less than excellent knowledge of the Western cultural tradition from the classical period to the present.

Rykwert pointed out the three examples, for architects, of ideal constructions in the Scriptures: Noah’s ark, the tabernacle in the desert (which had been taken up by Le Corbusier in 1926), and the Temple in Jerusalem. He also drew attention to what was at that time a neglected episode in architectural history, the reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple in drawings by the sixteenth-century Spanish Jesuit Juan Bautista Villalpando (an episode discussed at length by Tigerman). But the liveliest and most interesting part of On Adam’s House in Paradise was its fine, though controversial, exposition of eighteenth-century ideas on nature and primitive man in their application to architecture.

The main part of the more recent The Idea of a Town is a study in classical archaeology. Rykwert analyzes the religious rites used by Romans to celebrate the founding of towns and their origins in earlier Etruscan traditions of augury. He intends “to give some idea of what the ancients thought and felt about their towns, and how these ideas related to their general conception of the world, the dead and the immortals.” Rykwert does not shirk technical and complex issues, or contested ones such as the relations of the Etruscans with Asia Minor. One suspects that his temerity may get him into trouble with the classical historians. His subject takes him to the center of the Western classical world, to the vestal sanctuary, the mundus or foundation ditch, and to the Palatine huts belonging to the origins of Rome. He sees Roman grid planning not as a utilitarian device but as an inheritance from primitive religious customs. He also supposes that an Etruscan grid plan provided a precedent for Roman builders, though his evidence for this is controversial.

Rykwert’s book is not, however, primarily intended for the readers of the Journal of Roman Studies. It is a book with a thesis intended to influence the way we look at cities now. To Rykwert the foundation of an ancient town meant the acting out of a dramatic show of the creation of the world, a show that was then literally built into the plan of the town, whose axes had to be aligned with those attributed to the universe. This cosmic drama had subsequently to be repeated in the recurrent religious festivals that reminded the inhabitants of the religious sanctions that lay behind the town’s communal life. This was not, according to Rykwert, just a characteristic of Roman life that has affected its successor civilizations, but a powerful connection between a cosmic sense of creation and the places people live in that is to be found in human societies in all parts of the world. This sense of connection “must have roots in the biological structure of man,” and “must receive support in the formal movement of natural recurrence: day and night, the phases of the moon, the seasons, the changes of the night sky.”

By generalizing the argument to this extent, by assimilating Roman towns to Bororo, Hausa, and Tiwi villages, Rykwert is asserting a form of primitivism, a sort of Rousseauism that (it would be fair to add) he shares with Lévi-Strauss, although he has no use for Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist methods. Rykwert thinks, as so many modern men have thought, that urban life is “a parasitical form of existence, a form of social disease.” The reassertion of “traditional” cultural values (he adopts the adjective “traditional,” regrettably, from the French mystical writer René Guénon) could, he thinks, revive us. He makes his dislike for the rationalizing individualism of urban life plain by a striking discussion of Freud’s lectures on hysteria, in which Freud took as an analogy of hysterical behavior the conduct of someone who was moved to deep melancholy by Edward I’s monument to Queen Eleanor at Charing Cross in London, or who sobbed in the presence of the monument to the Great Fire of London of 1666.

Rykwert’s book is subtitled “The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World,” and the use he makes of anthropological method is vital to its argument. Its weakness is that he draws on quite different kinds of sources for the anthropology of different cultures. The archaeological evidence he uses for Roman and Etruscan life has its own historiographical method and tradition. But as soon as he leaves the classical world to look for parallels elsewhere, he uses entirely different, and to my mind heterogeneous, methods. He has gone shopping around the primitive and not-so-primitive cultures of the world, selecting religious rites that look comparable. Hindu instructions for the founding of temples are taken from ancient religious writings; what actually happened when a Hindu temple was built is left obscure. Leo Frobenius—not a writer much in favor with modern anthropologists—is cited at length for the buildings and customs of a barbaric “Mande” tribe in West Africa, which cannot even be confidently identified as having existed. They certainly were not the cheerful Mende who looked after me in Sierra Leone in 1944. Rykwert’s next witness is, rather amazingly in view of his different anthropological perspective, Lévi-Strauss on the Bororo. The building customs of different peoples are reported in different ways; and the discussion is moved abruptly from African peoples to ancient China, with no particular attention given to China’s vastly different historical background. It is a worryingly unequal procedure.

The model for this combination of anthropology, history, and myth can only be James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and Rykwert’s book is open to all the objections made against that great but probably mistaken work. The parallels between the building rites of different cultures and civilizations at various historical periods are striking, but the room for misunderstanding and distortion is large. To accommodate the immense range of reference the terms used to generalize get more and more stretched, and the sexual symbolism of town foundation rites, which is treated cautiously when Rykwert is talking about the classical world, starts to take over. Since the time of Durkheim early in this century anthropologists have been questioning the adequacy of the principle of cosmic order, on which Rykwert seems to depend, to explain social organization, and they have been looking for other, more powerful explanatory concepts. Rykwert’s book recalls not only Frazer, but some of the other nineteenth-century writers on myth, legend, and language; he sometimes seems sympathetic to Bachofen’s idea of the Great Mother as the presiding cultural influence of Western civilization, before she was displaced.

All three books under review show that places live different lives in the imagination from the ones we find in textbooks on “urbanism.” The authors deal with powerful symbolic patterns that can grip people’s minds and fill their imaginations in quite unexpected ways. Anyone skeptical of Rykwert’s claim for the perennial authority of building foundation rites should read or reread Goethe’s Elective Affinities, in which the apparently eccentric foundation ceremonies of a new house exert a sinister, symbolic force over human destinies; the image turned up again recently in the film Heimat. Tigerman’s pursuit of Temple fantasies may at times seem rather off balance, but the history of Freemasonry shows how powerful are the dreams he is playing with.

That we in the West live in a cold, godless society that is indifferent to the sacred and excludes it from our environment is not quite so evident to me as it seems to be to these authors. Only a century and a half ago, the more or less godly founding fathers of innumerable townships in the United States were as a matter of course building places of worship in their new habitats, and the meaning of religious buildings to the local communities may not be quite as dead today as is sometimes implied, however ugly or coarse many would find the promotion of popular religion now. I also wonder what the revival of ancient cult sites and the growth of new ones, which Walter seems to want, would really mean. The British have some idea of what might be involved from the annual scramble of Druids and hippies for the midsummer possession of Stonehenge. Walter remarks on a British police notice at Stonehenge: “DRUIDS ONLY PAST THIS POINT.” If bureaucratizing new religious cults is one of the ways forward, I would prefer to avoid it.

  1. *

    He claims that the illustrations show conjectures about the nature of Eden, but they seem at best to be vaguely connected with gardens, and never connected with Eden. The first shows God measuring the universe, and not God measuring “the universe (Eden?),” as is stated in the text. The title of the second is “the cubit presented as divine measurement,” which is odd, since it shows a cube (the mathematical figure) and not a cubit (the biblical measure). This illustration includes buildings that cannot belong to Eden. The third is a mosaic once in St. Peter’s, called in the text “the birth of Christ in a metaphorical garden”; however, the upper subject is Christ enthroned between St. Peter and St. Paul, and the lower subject has no connection with Eden. The fourth is accurately titled, but still has nothing to do with Eden.

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