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Lost Worlds

Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment

by Eugene Victor Walter
University of North Carolina Press, 253 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Architecture of Exile

by Stanley Tigerman
Rizzoli, 192 pp., $35.00

All three books under review, though each in a quite different way, are concerned with man’s loss of a religious attitude toward his environment. They seem to imply that the end of the old cosmologies and the weakening of the old religions have deprived us of the power to situate ourselves in relation to the moving forces of the universe. Losing hold on man’s place in the cosmos has had, they say, disintegrating effects on the way we make our local habitats. According to Joseph Rykwert, “We have lost all the beautiful certainty about the way the world works.” For him this has had especially deplorable results for our cities, which have lost the religious defenses against disorder and squalor enjoyed by their predecessors in the ancient world. He sees the religious and cultural traditions that preserved the buildings and cities of ancient and medieval civilization as irreparably destroyed:

The arbitrary forms thrown up by harassed planners and architects are evolved on an irrational residue, motivated by unstated spiritual as well as aesthetic prejudice whose very irrationality contributes further to the instability of the community.

E.V. Walter holds the more optimistic position that “the archaic way of seeing, thinking and caring is not lost,” although he thinks that science, and especially social science, has gone a long way toward destroying it. Stanley Tigerman, the most pessimistic of the three, and the closest to revealed religion, is gloomy about our prospects for recovering spiritual health. He thinks that the kind of search for origins that the other two authors have pursued is doomed to failure, and that the only way forward is through scrupulous, devout attention to biblical texts. Or so I interpret his message, which is put in language that I find far from clear.

E.V. Walter’s Placeways is the most attractive and accessible of the three books under review, although the philosophy on which its conclusions are based is hard to accept in detail. Walter discusses prehistoric caves, Renaissance cities, and modern slums, among many other places, all by way of expounding a “holistic” theory of the way people authentically experience the places they live. He maintains that

in ordinary life, some people still do grasp a place as a whole through a balanced experience of intellect, common sense, feeling, and imagination. Our technical languages, however, do not express the unity and coherence of this holistic experience, which gets factored away by geography, local history, architecture, city planning, sociology, environmental psychology, and so forth. Fragmenting the experience of place in the abstractions of the special disciplines reinforces the split between our methods of feeling and our methods of thinking. It also spoils the human environment, vitiating our ability to build and inhabit good houses, communities, and cities, because the conventional ways of thinking about houses and urban space do not grasp the reality of places as wholes.

He tends to identify this process of fragmentation with the intellectual inheritance of Aristotle, and he wants to offer the reader a Platonist antidote.

The kind of “environmental degradation” that especially concerns Walter is the loss of meaning that he finds in conventional thinking about town and country planning. “For the first time in human history, people are systematically building meaningless places.” For Walter, feeling and imagination are at the core of the way in which we apprehend “topistic reality,” or what might be called the nature and characteristics of places. He aims to correct our approach to the environment through a mental integrity that balances intellect, common sense, and imagination. He rejects the intellectual assumptions of social science and its idiom of “social problems,” which seem to him mere “graveyards of inert ideas.” He criticizes people who have a merely manipulative approach to the environment, and regard it at best as an organism that must be made to serve their needs, and who fail to take account of the interdependence and interpenetration of things that together confer their individual nature upon a place.

Walter’s book tries to offer a point of view and a vocabulary (“theoretical resources”) to people who are seeking a new way to look at the built environment and the natural (as he calls it) landscape. He especially commends to them the sense of place he attributes to archaic cultures, from that of the paleolithic artists of the French and Spanish caves to the dream world of the Australian aborigines. However, ancient Greece is his central reference point, and the core of his argument is that Plato, as he interprets him, believed places to contain a complex of immanent powers and energies. Wherever he touches on Plato, he emphasizes the elements in Plato’s thought that insist that the apprehension of truth needs qualities that are not primarily intellectual.

Walter’s treatment of Plato’s theory of knowledge, an austere subject, is not quite rigorous enough to carry conviction. It is, for example, very hard to identify in the Phaedrus the full-blown doctrine of the affective energy of sacred places that he sees in it. Walter also sees Aristotelianism not only in a hostile but in a rather fluffy manner. To make Aristotle’s philosophy the single parent of Newtonian physics and modern science is too loose for a philosophical argument, and too much in the spirit of William Blake’s taking the bad angel into a stinking pit containing the moldy skeleton of Aristotle’s Analytics. Some people may assent to Walter’s doctrine of the immanent energies of places, but it is hard to see how they could be persuaded by his philosophical argument alone.

As a critic of urban life Walter is in the tradition of Lewis Mumford, and therefore in the tradition of Ruskin and Carlyle. He seems drawn to the Victorian sentimentalism about the Middle Ages and would like to see it revived. Still, to judge from the way he cites a modern study of an Anglo-Saxon industrial slum in Thetford, he is uneasily aware that the Victorian myth of the Middle Ages was founded on fictions that no self-respecting modern medievalist would tolerate. He reproduces an engraving by Pugin, that prince of visual romancers, of a “medieval alms house.” Neither Pugin nor Walter mentions that the Pugin’s alms house is an idealized representation of the Hospital of St. Cross at Winchester, still less do they remark that Cardinal Beaufort’s refoundation of the hospital was not for the indigent poor but for distressed gentlefolk.

Walter also follows Mumford in praising the social equality reflected in the topography of medieval cities, in which rich and poor were not usually segregated into different quarters. It is true that the quarters of medieval cities often owed their identities either to the region of origin or to the trades of their inhabitants, or to the powerful family that dominated them; apart from those in newly cleared thoroughfares, the rich were not clearly separated from the poor. But it must be added that the big housing groups, often like small villages, in which the rich lived were literally fortified against the rest of the city (in Italy they were often “towers,” in London “castles”). Great displays of civic solidarity were made for the big religious festivals, but most medieval cities were as cozy socially as rattraps, as can be verified from reading Dante about Florence. Walter’s apology that “hatred and repugnance added meaning to the texture of daily interaction” is feeble.

Medieval societies were not kind to the poor, as Walter thinks; they were harsh and often cruel. In Henry II’s England wandering men were mutilated and exiled even if found innocent of crime. Walter shows too much indulgence for medieval conditions, ignoring the frequency of internecine feuds and claustrophobic squalor. He manages, in a long discussion of plague in medieval cities, which were thereby rendered “bad places,” to disregard the fact that plague often killed as high a proportion of the population in the countryside as in the towns. The hideous and frequent combination of famine and epidemic that affected these old societies, known to modern historians as “demographic crisis,” seems to have passed Walter by, along with other things that do not fit with the rosy Victorian-socialist view of the old order.

Though Walter makes mistakes, they are warmhearted ones. He sometimes wins over the reader by his very inconsistencies; for example, having gone to Manchester, the historical seat of the wicked industrial city stigmatized by Engels, Walter fell in love with the enemy. Poor old Manchester of the 1970s, its industries gone, its heart bombed out, its low-grade housing being demolished in favor of concrete boxes—all this inspired affection in Walter, not contempt; and even a protective love of the brokendown neighborhoods that the planners were then busy in leveling. I suspect that Walter would approve of the conduct of a bright student I have heard of at the prestigious Manchester Business School, who quit his courses and went to live in the ruinous Moss Side nearby, where practically no one had a job within a radius of two miles.

Walter’s feeling for the particularity of places, for what he calls their “expressive space,” is impressive and convincing. His peculiar gift is not to suggest or to describe places, but to stimulate thought about the manner in which we conceive them. He writes:

Once, standing in a crowded lift inside the Manchester Central Reference Library, I heard one passenger ask another, “What is Crimble?” The other replied, “Crimble is a place—a place in the world.” The world and its places, I mused. I never did discover Crimble, but the fragment of conversation served as a catalyst. What could one say about Crimble, I wondered, or about any other place, to describe it, capture its qualities, and reveal its meaning? The dialogue in the lift set me thinking about the world and its places, and how we represent them. For some reason that still puzzles me, my whole self tuned in to the whole experience of Manchester, communicated by the living and the dead, expressed in its streets, buildings, and people, as well as in the old books, maps, and pictures. The images of Manchester that flooded my consciousness are not private fantasies. I did not invent them. They inhabit the collective imagination.

Walter’s feeling for space is justified by a Platonic realism that is hard to swallow; but his argument for a total, personal response to places has deep roots in our culture, and is hard to reject out of hand. It is true that a large part of our lives is taken up by the emotions we feel for places, either as we know them or as we remember them. He is quite right in saying that by ignoring these feelings common to all, social scientists and urban planners make new wildernesses in our cities. Walter’s message is broadly conservationist and populist: he insists that we should not demolish what is old, ugly, or run-down, if ordinary people live there and are happy there. How he wants to handle the more prosperous parts of town is much less clear, though redevelopment is clearly not his favorite word.

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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