Architecture as Experience Radical change in spatial practice

We are interested in the ways in which places are perceived and appropriated across intervals of time or culture. Landscapes, buildings and urban environ­ments are reconfigured in incommensurable ways by different groups, with their own particular identities, concepts and preoccupations. The different groups, bringing different sets of ideas and experiences to bear on the places that they encounter, spontaneously have different experiences in their encounters. The linking theme of the chapters is the volatility of meaning of particular places in relation to how they have been understood by particular groups, whether as lieuxde memoire, or as neglected sites of forgetting. Each chapter deals with a building or place – a physical ‘object’, that has a degree of solid continuity – which has been experienced in more than one culture, and the experiences are documented so as to show the various ways in which meaning shifts when a cultural context changes, usually in ways that were wholly unanticipated by the designers of the places in question. The results are often surprising, because we tend to have an idea of a historic place as having an enduring meaning, so it can be rewarding to learn about earlier constructions of meaning that involve the same building.

The particular concern of the volume is to bring together fresh empirical research and animate it by contact with theoretical sophistication, without letting that overwhelm the material. To this end the theoretical stand­point of the book is set up in the opening essay on Stonehenge so leaving the following chapters free to explore its consequences. The use of archival research has long been a strength of architectural history as a discipline, the buildings themselves forming an important part of the evidence that is, in effect, part of that archive. There is a danger that as we all become more specialized, we tend to lose the correlation between theoretical sophistication and what happens when the theory is applied. This volume is an attempt to hold both in balance, and works as much by developing ideas from the consid­eration of empirical evidence – the archive of buildings and documents, and our experience of them – as it does from the reading of theoretical texts and seeing scope for the application of their ideas. The essays are arranged chronologically, based on the time when the building under discussion first appeared, starting with Stonehenge and ending in Las Vegas. The first and last chapters also act respectively as a general introduction and a conclusion, and so they belong firmly in their place at each end. For the rest, the ordering is as arbitrary as if we had put them in the alphabetical order of the authors’ surnames, or listed the buildings themselves alphabetically. There are points of contact from one essay to another, but they spark across at a multiplicity of moments, and to organize around one theme means to disrupt another. The texts are there to be used in a readerly way, as the authors and editors have certainly not exhausted the possibilities for interpretation that are on offer here. We hope that exposure to this collection will prompt creative responses in readers, and that you, too, will find that you can find fresh things to say about the places you experience and know.

Stonehenge is a very old structure, of uncertain date and uncertain purpose, but impressive enough for people across the centuries to have tried to give it a meaning. The chapter on Stonehenge draws attention to a few of the interpretations that have been attached to the building, major shifts in meaning going hand in hand with major shifts in dating the structure, as it was attributed to one cultural group after another – to Romans, Vikings, Druids or more ancient peoples. The combination of the building’s great antiquity and its sheer inscrutability, have meant that we still do not definitively know what its original purpose was, but the various speculations tell us a good deal about the preoccupations of the cultures of the interpreters. The ‘authorial’ voice is silent, but experience of the place has led people to intuit that it was a place with special properties, a burial place for kings, a Roman or a Druid temple, or an observatory for tracking the movements of the planets. The distance between the various interpretations means that they can be seen as quite distinct, which makes the building a good vehicle to explore the ways in which ideas attach to it, and can be detached from it when they are supplanted by another set that comes from a different intuitional starting point. In many cases the contested meanings remain as acts of the imagina­tion, but when it comes to engagement with the actual building, the stakes seem to escalate, and we find the police called in to protect the rights of one group (soi-disant Druids) against those of another. There can be a prolif­eration of interpretations and experiences, but the physical site itself does not proliferate and, from time to time, the multiplicity of meanings generates conflict.

The origins of the Meta Sudans in Rome are marginally less mysterious. The monument that is the focus of Elizabeth Marlowe’s essay was a fountain erected by the Flavians in the first century ce, but by then it was already a place with a history, as it had apparently been the point of intersection of at least two, and maybe as many as five, major roads, and may have been the setting-out point for Augustus’ administrative division of the city. In any case what happened was that this spectacular fountain eventually fell from significance, and survived in a ruinous state as a lieu de memoire of ancient Rome, until Mussolini found it inconvenient for his programme of re-establishing links between the ancient Roman past and modern Fascist Italy. It obstructed a processional route running through the Arch of Constantine. There is currently a project to reinstate a fountain on the same spot, which could be seen as an erasure of Mussolini’s erasure of this significant place, but the matter is complicated because the removal of surviving traces of the Fascist era is not seen as self-evidently desirable by all, especially not by those currently in positions of power in national institutions, which sit alongside those local to the city of Rome. So the project is contested, and it becomes a matter of impassioned concern, whose memories it is that are given expression in the solid substance of the place, and whose must remain as volatile imaginings, to be brought to bear only by those who have read about the history of the site. It comes down to an argument about whether to memorialize the Flavians or Mussolini, but in the case of an impasse, nothing will happen, and Mussolini will be the winner, but it would be a curious form of memorial – an open space, leaving a clear route for victory marches through Constantine’s Arch. The Pantheon is a much more conventional sort of monument, also in Rome, and dating from only about three decades after the Meta Sudans. It is one of the world’s best-known buildings, and Susan M. Dixon takes its ancient history as read, focusing instead on its interpretation by Piranesi in his Ichnographia – a map of the Campo Marzio section of ancient Rome. It was created using the recon­structive methods common to mid-eighteenth-century archaeologists: an admixture of a sceptical use of literary sources and an imaginative use of tangible artefacts including former reconstructions. Of all the structures figured on that enormous map, Piranesi chose only a handful to depict in the third dimension, in bird’s-eye views. One of these was the Pantheon which he rendered as a discrete part of the Baths of Agrippa; another figures the Theatres of Marcellus and of Balbus which sit provocatively along the Triumphal Way. Dixon explores Piranesi’s reconstructions as a means not only to understand further his method of reconstruction, but also to attempt to elucidate that method in terms of then-current polemics about epistemolog – ical concerns (how is the past known? can it be known for certain?), and about architectural and cultural reform (how can the past serve as a model for the future?).

Laura H. Hollengreen, in Chapter 4, examines the High-Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame at Chartres, which has the enviable reputation of having come down to us relatively unscathed. It did, however, suffer some concentrated destruction at the time of the French Revolution when it was secularized into a ‘Temple of Reason’. In addition to acts of vandalism to the holy relics of the church, which had been housed in micro-architectural structures in the cathedral choir, acts of iconoclasm were carried out against carefully selected images adorning both the interior and the exterior of the cathedral. The north transept porch of the cathedral, which faced the more private, clerical side of the cathedral precinct, was particularly affected, with a number of column figures removed in order to decorate a newly erected sacred mound inside the cathedral; other statues on the same fagade may also have been intentionally damaged at this time. These anti-clerical acts would not be particularly noteworthy were it not for the canny way in which events proceeded. For example, the reuse of statues representing Synagoga and Ecclesia as personifications of ancien regime and Republique, respec­tively, demonstrates that the temporal and moral relationship between the two was both understood and preserved, even as the physical context and nomenclature changed. Nevertheless, the removal and recontextualization of these and other figures from the cathedral intentionally violated clerical control over the building as well as the cloister space surrounding it; in turn, these acts significantly redirected experience of the building in a way that antici­pated the development of new urban circuits in the later nineteenth century, spurred by the arrival of the railway in particular. By eventually altering the citizens’ topological understanding of their city, the new paths fundamentally changed perspectives on, and perceptions of, the cathedral, paradoxically enforcing a formalist over a contextual understanding of the Gothic building that went on to dominate scholarship on Gothic architecture during most of the twentieth century.

There are three essays concerned with the transformation of spaces by way of processions, or publicly staged events. They proved to be the greatest challenge to the simple arbitrary system of ordering the essays chronologically, as Nancy Stieber’s essay concerns processions through the city of Amsterdam – and the city fabric cannot be given a simple unified date. Nevertheless, as a significant aspect of the series of processions under scrutiny here marks out the medieval part of the city, we have given it a vaguely medieval date, placing it as Chapter 5. Thematically its companion pieces are Chapters 7 and 11: Sarah Bonnemaison’s essay on an event in the Place de la Concorde – originally the Place Louis XV – which dates from 1772 (Chapter 7); and Helene Lipstadt’s, which concerns the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC, dating from 1921 (Chapter 11). In Stieber’s essay the theme of secular and religious experience of place re-emerges, this time in the relation between the traditional city fabric of Amsterdam, and specific experience of it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Like

Hollengreen, Stieber also considers the importance of patterns of circulation through urban space. Stieber examines how in the last decades of the nine­teenth century two groups in Amsterdam reconfigured the meaning of the city’s plan through their struggles for political and social emancipation. From 1886 the Catholics established an annual silent procession in commemoration of the 1345 miracle, which Catholic historiography credited for the rise of Amsterdam’s fortunes. From 1890, Dutch anarchists and socialists partici­pated in annual May Day parades creating a visible presence through the city. By examining the paths of these processions and, in the case of the May Day parades, their changing trajectories, a field of contested meaning is revealed, whereby streets, squares and buildings are reconfigured and territory in the city is claimed by groups traditionally excluded from power. The Catholic and Socialist paths through the city are viewed in contrast with those of the annual royal visit to Amsterdam. Police records of all these paths between 1889 and 1925 have been compiled, revealing a correlation between the historiograph­ical position of each group and the location of its trajectory through the city. While the Catholic silent procession defined the medieval territory of the city, that is, the period during which their influence was primary, the royal paths favoured the seventeenth-century districts, that is, the period during which the House of Orange established its authority. The May Day parades tell a more complex story. On the one hand, they privilege the portion of the city neglected by the others, the new nineteenth-century working-class neighbourhoods, site of the city’s contemporary expansion and future growth. On the other hand, over time, they demonstrate the increasing political power of the socialists through their gradual penetration into the core of the city to the places associated with the city’s origins, eventually transforming the Exchange and the Palace into sites of protest.

From here attention remains focused on Catholicism, this time at the Vatican City in Rome that comes under scrutiny in Donald McNeill’s attempt to capture tensions in the staging of the Vatican’s Giubileo in the city of Rome during 2000. It can be read in juxtaposition with Hollengreen’s discussion of Chartres, and Elizabeth Marlowe on the appropriation of ancient Rome. Here, again, we are dealing with a place of extraordinary longevity, as St Peter’s Basilica has its roots in a fourth-century basilica commissioned by Constantine, and the essay engages the temporal fluidity of theme of this volume as well as the relationship between secular and religious experiences of place and space. McNeill’s argument unfolds against the background of the Renaissance basilica and its attendant infrastructure, where the Roman landscape becomes the contested terrain of two sovereign states. On the one hand, the Vatican City, home of both the world’s largest institution (in terms of active members) and its smallest sovereign territorial state; on the other, the laic capital of the Italian nation state, the site of its government functions, the symbolic centre of a highly heterogeneous nation, the location of some of the world’s most important archaeological remains, as well as being the place of residence of a significant and politically diverse sector of the Italian population. Its city council has been controlled by political parties oriented towards the Left, but remains electorally marginal. As during the Fascist era, Rome becomes a fundamental battleground, this time for the symbolic shape of post-Tangentopoli Italy. McNeill’s analysis of a number of conflicts over the organization and staging of the 2000 event demonstrates a fundamental conflict between laicity and religious identity which pits the territorially rooted institutions of Italy, both at national and local level, against the extra-territorial (yet still territorially rooted) scope of the Vatican and Roman Catholic Church. This is evident in the conflict over the use of Rome’s symbolic public spaces, seen in the controversy surrounding the staging of Italy’s gay pride demonstrations in the midst of the most important Catholic celebration for many decades. Second, the pressure put on Rome’s mayor, Francesco Rutelli, to embrace a left-laic urban policy which clarifies the constitutional separation of church and state; and relatedly, the latter’s attempt to use the year as a means of pursuing a civic boosterism which levers in money from the central state. Third, the fierce battle over how the modernization of Rome (stepped up during the Giubileo) might be reconciled with the city’s fragile archaeological and architectural fabric. Through an exploration of these themes, an attempt is made to theorize the multiple politicized nature of the Roman landscape and, in particular, to pose questions relating to the territorial nature of the city’s spaces, and its layered sets of symbolic place identities.

Sarah Bonnemaison’s study of the open space that was once known as the Place Louis XV, sketches in the eighteenth – and nineteenth – century misprisions that made it first into a revolutionary space, when the guillotine was erected there, and the king was executed. It then became an imperial space, when – after Napoleon’s Egyptian campaigns – the great obelisk was erected: a literal misprision from the ancient world, suggestive of a bouleversement in the world order that could, in itself, have been the focus of a study. This essay, however, dwells primarily on an event that was staged to celebrate the bicentenary of the 1789 revolution, a spectacle that involved the black American soprano Jessye Norman giving a rousing performance of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, draped in a billowing tricolour, at the foot of the Egyptian obelisk. In enacting the event, embodying the history that she does, she called into question received ideas of national identity, the relation of the French capital with its former colonies and the normally unmentioned role of the slave trade in the nation’s history. The event made for a spectacular theatrical occasion, which entertained an audience that included world leaders, but its undertones were potentially uncomfortable, and certainly complex.

Our attention is focused on the nineteenth century in Christine Macy’s analysis of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, where a new discourse about the ‘lost frontier’ began to emerge as seen in statuary of wild American animals, rustic log cabins, ethnographic dioramas of native people in their ‘traditional’ settings and naturalistic landscape designs. At the centre of the fair, a lagoon with a wooded island designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted served as a site for a log cabin (by architects Holabird and Roche) for the Boone and Crockett Club, an important player in the conservation movement. Macy sets Olmsted’s lagoon and log cabin in a social and cultural context of fin de siecle America, and offers a critical analysis that reveals the complex and multiple readings of frontier that were operating in the 1890s, after the national census declared the frontier was over. Macy explores three readings of the ‘wooded isle’ beginning with the standard reading, put forth by Olmsted and Burnham, which presents the wooded isle as a respite from, and welcome contrast to, the ‘civilization’ represented by the White City. A second reading explores the extreme view of wilderness taken by a group of elite men, members of the Boone and Crockett club, who see the frontier idea (represented in the log cabin) as a lesson in willing primitivism and citizenship. This seemingly insignificant cabin has remained outside architectural scholar­ship, in spite of its prestigious commission and architect. Macy argues that the view of wilderness it represents became part and parcel of the eugenics move­ment advocated by American elites at a time of significant urbanization and immigration. A third reading of the frontier can be found in the popular detec­tive novels written about the fair. In this penny literature, the wooded isle serves as a site for lawlessness, carnevalesque inversions of ‘proper’ culture and freedom for men, women and, especially, children to act out liminal behav­iour on the symbolic ‘margins’ of society, preserved in the dimly-lit wooded undergrowth in the very heart of the White City.

The undertones of Deborah E. B. Weiner’s study are also, in their way, disturbing. In Chapter 9 she examines how a notorious Victorian lunatic asylum, Colney Hatch, dating from 1849, was closed and sold for commer­cial redevelopment as luxurious apartments. The late twentieth-century re­appropriation of the building works comfortably only if the traces of pain and torment of the earlier use are wiped away, and there is, here, a disturbing lack of comprehension in the way that the building has been aestheticized, so that features that were designed to prevent suicides are discussed in recent historiography as if they were invented for the sake of their decorative effect.

The theme of the radical re-use of architecture for purposes quite different from the original intention is taken up again in Zeynep Kezer’s Chapter 10, on the transformation of the Sultanahmet Prison in Istanbul, which was originally built in 1917, and then in 1997 it was transformed into the Four Seasons Hotel. Located at the heart of the Historic Peninsula, offering excellent views of Istanbul, and surrounded by such remarkable struc­tures as the Topkapi Palace Complex, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the hotel quickly became a favourite destination for wealthy travellers. The reincarnation of the prison as a luxury hotel radically transformed the building’s relationship with its physical surroundings and with its own history. Kezer argues that the building has become a heterotopic site that juxtaposes the alternate social orderings, incommensurate meanings and incongruous spatial practices engendered by the prison, the hotel and the historic site. Most obviously, Four Seasons Istanbul is a generic presence in an exceptional place. It relies on the uniqueness of its location for attracting business. Yet, by framing that location as one among many the Four Seasons chain can offer, it also reduces that uniqueness to ordinariness and commodifies what would otherwise be priceless. Kezer argues that for its primarily foreign clientele, the hotel exoticizes Istanbul, offering it as the ultimate conquest of tradition by modernity; while for the people of Istanbul it marks their city’s accelerated integration with the spatial logic of global capitalism. Still more dramatic is the slippage of meaning between the two different uses of the building. Ironically, despite the incommensurability of the prison and the hotel as modern building types, the inversion of the prison’s patterns of circu­lation, accessibility, thresholds of privacy and strategies of surveillance was achieved with surprisingly little physical modification. But, again, as in Chapter 9, comfort in the new accommodation (this time a five-star hotel) is not possible without suppressing the memory of its former occupants; the address alone (Tevkifhane Sokak 1/Jail Street #1) invokes its unfortunate history. The coexistence of meanings associated with both of the subsequent uses of the building suggests that temporal adjacencies, as well as physical ones, may constitute heterotopic relationships. As a site where multiple discrepant meanings converge, the Four Seasons Istanbul Hotel is a revealing example of the contradictions comprised within the spatial logic of high modernity.

In Chapter 11 we return to the theme of the ritual inscribing meaning in the city fabric, this time in the hands of Helene Lipstadt, making a close analysis of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC, and the ceremonials connected therewith. The symbolism of the ‘unknown soldier’ is, itself, ambiguous and capable of holding in play more than one set of meanings, as Lipstadt makes clear. The essay is placed here on account of the date of the monument that is at the centre of the study but, as the parades mobilized the general monumental city fabric set out to L’Enfant’s plan, it might with equal justification have been placed earlier in the sequence. In fact, though, the processional route was a long trajectory, as the unknown soldier’s body was brought across from the war graves close to the battlefields in France, and the business of disinterral, selection and transportation of the body became elements of a continuing public spectacle, not entirely choreographed and controlled from Washington, but with elements of pathos and solemnity drawn in from French experience and tradition. There were also elements of absurdity and unworthiness, as the site was chosen and the politicians made up their minds who would and who would not be in attendance. When the body arrived in Washington, it first lay in state under the dome of the Capitol building, where 100,000 people came to pay their respects, and it was then taken ceremonially along Pennsylvania Avenue (in 1921 a street with civic connotations, but still lined with a mixture of commercial and symbolic uses) to the White House, and on to Arlington National Cemetery. The congestion caused by crowds that broke through the controls of the police, meant that some of the car-borne official guests did not manage to reach the funeral ceremony itself, which was in any case designed as an open and populist event – the ceremony being broadcast by loudspeaker, and on radio (a remarkable early use of the medium). There were also unofficial ceremonies and unintended consequences. All through the process of the selection of the ritual, the bringing of the body, and its interment at Arlington, there were contested views and a play of alternate meanings, many of which were left to remain unresolved, particularly those where the institutional apparatuses of the official view were unable to limit and control the populist reappropriations of symbols and events.

Several strong themes emerge from the theoretically informed exploration of a diverse set of highly charged examples. The idea of movement as a means of experiencing space is seen in the paths that emerge in relation, for instance, to Chartres, Amsterdam, Istanbul and Washington. Moreover, activity is also an important barometer of socio-spatial practices; and we see how the meaning of spaces – in asylums, prisons and cities – can be reconfigured through the practices of parade, consumption and demon­stration. Indeed, these spatial practices rely on their social contexts as issues of class, gender, religion and politics are essential elements in our formulation of meaning. These contexts can reveal conflicting definitions as one place can operate as a multiplicity of spaces or lieux de memoire. The longevity of the examples discussed shows how buildings can be repositioned within urban frameworks. And it is here that the two generative vectors of this volume intersect. Although most of the chapters focus on a specific building, in all cases the place is taken up as a spatial signifier that belongs in a temporal specificity. In this way the building, itself, is seen to transcend its location in time, as it is continually reappropriated and made anew as new cultures are brought into contact with it. Architecture becomes experience, and continues and perpetuates that becoming.

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm