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The Active Eye in Architecture
Sir George Trevelyan

First published in 1977 by The Wrekin Trust
This book is out-of-print, available only on this website
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5  The Primary Polarity


Let me stress again that this approach to architecture starts always from the strict observation of what the eye is drawn to do when it looks on a building. We are standing behind the eye and watching the movements which it is invited to make by the architectural forms. We watch how it selects certain key images and then likes to superimpose these on kindred images and see the ‘movement’ of merging and change that takes place through the revealing of differences. This can be a severe and accurate process of observation and has, as such, nothing to do with speculation or emotional sentiment. We inevitably find however that the process of active looking brings the building alive so that it begins to speak to us and the secrets of the forms begin to reveal themselves. Then, to interpret the sensory experience to each other, we have first to speak of them in musical or rhythmic terms or in adjectives that express feeling. In a group studying a building in this way we shall hear of the ‘thrilling shaft of moving light sinking like a sword between columns’, ‘the terrifying effect of circles cutting into each other’, ‘the exciting movement’ as a building is seen to swing, and so on.

Imaginative interpretation of the deeper symbolism is open to anyone and may be accepted or rejected according to taste. It is itself an exploration into a dangerous and exciting world. The point to make is that ‘meaning’ begins to rise in us as we learn to look dynamically at a building. This must not be forced by sheer speculation. It has the quality of true imagination, in which the inner meaning of things begins to speak. Yet always and again we must return from these flights to the basic process of observation by activated looking which is freed initially from all touch of emotion or intellectual interpretation. Every building calls forth a different looking. We approach each Without preconception. No intellectual knowledge is necessary, though the more we know, the richer, obviously, will the full experience be.


TodiNow let us look at one of the important examples of the centralized churches of the Renaissance – S. Maria della Consoliazione in Todi (Fig. 10). The design is obviously a cube with four symmetrical apses and a raised dome. But go actively at that building. Feel the swell of the apses as they press out from the cube. Move strongly with the eye-touch up and over and around until you get it – this building is a cube out of which in five directions an inner pressure has forced these forms. They have burst out, rather as a child’s balloon suddenly swells where the rubber is weakest. You can look in the same way at the plan and sense the strong heavy-cornered square with the balloon bulge in each direction. So strong is the pressure of inner space that it has lifted the roof an extra tier, like a gasometer and then burst upward with its dome.

We see and experience here a primary polarity in architecture, namely the weighty earth-bound cube form, sheer sub stance delivered over to gravity and a counter force of light and power and ‘lift’ which seems to attack and eat away and transmute the cube. The cube can be felt as a crystallizing process, as when fluorspar forms always in this shape. The counter-force is of the nature of a living energy, making and shaping ever changing forms out of the basic substance deposited into earth gravity. Gravity and what has been called ‘levity’ may be seen in creative antagonism. Here surely is a beautiful example of the Chinese principle of Yin and Yang. The exact polarity of dark and light, each containing the seed of its opposite, is a major key to design.

Steeples
St Chad'sWith this in mind we will consider two 18th century steeples. Here is a very fertile field for observation. The first is St. Chads, 1790, in Shrewsbury, by George Steuart (Fig. 11). Here is the basic cube, so articulated that at the corners it stands quite clear of the surrounding structure. The deep rustication suggests the infinite potentialities of forms as yet unrealized. Remember that we are to treat the heavy cornices as indications of the end of an image and beginning of its metamorphosis. Therefore move the eye so as to place (1) on (2), and so back and forth till it seems the cube is crushed under pressure and has fallen back into an octagon. But an interesting thing has happened. Two groups of pilasters have appeared which seem related to the subtly coupled columns of the portico below. Stage 3 strongly increases the contraction until octagon changes to drum, as if we have tightened the string-course. The pilasters, which be it noted stood clear of the string-course, have stepped forth as free and rounded columns. The eye completes the contraction through the dome into the golden cross. This intense contraction can be strongly felt as opposed to the horizontal axis of the church, which moves from the cube through circular and oval chambers into a huge circular nave in fullest extension. The two directions and tendencies work in balance with each other.

One more steeple, this time St. Andrew’s Church in George St., Edinburgh (Fig. 12). The cube is first clearly stated but at once the upper section begins to be worked on so that the corners are ‘softened up’ into panels. St Andrew's, EdinburghLet the eye play back and forth over sections 2 and 3. In 3, the corner area has collapsed in entirely and the funeral urn perhaps suggests the death of the motive below. The central block around the window is a clear development of the shadowed shape on the cube below. Note that the corners of this block have hardened into pilasters, incipient only as swags around the clock, but when we move to section 4 the contraction is again so powerful as to make a close drum from which the pilasters have now stepped forward as pillars.

Now for the final stage, the spire. Spires are such usual features that we rarely give ourselves the full sensual experience of the form. Start at the top and move down and up so that you sense the expansion and contraction. It is quite a definite optical experience and can be achieved even in the simplest diagram of the narrow triangle. The articulating windows in our Edinburgh example are discovered to be the fading out of the form first seen in the clock face and lower pediment and picked up in the aperture in the drum and they lead the eye to the point where, in the cross, the sequence of forms ceases, or passes over into an invisible stage. Symbolically we are drawn to see the converging lines cross and move on so as to make a reversed cone of light, reaching endlessly heavenwards. The striving of all spires seems to carry us beyond the point of ‘death’ symbolized by the cross, into a subtler realm of ethereal forms. Looking at the steep triangle of the spire we recall the form of the pediment, that low triangle lifted only a little out of the horizontal. We should experience the relationship of pediment and spire, the former firmly grounded and the latter poised in its upward surge. Between them stands the form of the pyramid, resting in absolute and immovable solidity on earth and yet, when we continue the lines to create the reversed cone, suggesting once again the polarity of the two forces of darkness and light. The pyramid of course has most complex spiritual symbolism into which we must not be tempted to enter, because our concern is simply the experience of related forms.

A house is basically wall and aperture in balance. The two express the primary polarity. (We are, of course, leaving out of account certain contemporary trends.) If there were nothing but the darker matter-forming principle, a building would be nothing but a solid cube, the basic crystallization form in matter. In your imagination see this cube eaten into by the counter power, a light-bringing principle, breaking windows and doors, hollowing out solids, articulating dead surfaces, just as it burst the holes into the monstera leaf. The plane left between the apertures then becomes the unit which, like the leaf, is worked upon and transformed. Just as ‘leaf’ contains within it the potentiality of all plant forms on every level, so ‘wall’, in this sense, contains the possibility of innumerable architectural forms. ‘Column’ in its variants is the essential form produced by this interplay. Indeed we might almost say that where light meets darkness, where solid is impinged upon by the counter principle, columns are born. It reminds us of Goethe’s realization that where light is in conflict with darkness colour is born, as, obviously, in a sunset. It is by active comparison of buildings that these forms begin to speak to us, for the primary polarity is at work everywhere.

The Majesty of the Dome
Now for the Dome, the supreme constructional and aesthetic achievement in architecture, and therefore, for us, likely to offer a profound experience if we can combine the play of images and the ritual dance with the moving building. The great architects of the Renaissance in Italy were all fascinated by the idea of the centralized church based on the plan of the Greek cross with the altar right in the centre beneath the lantern of the dome. Bramante in his ‘Tempieto’ in Rome on the site of the martyrdom of St. Paul gives the first ‘type’ example and in Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s it reaches its noblest expression. Alberti (1512) describes his ideal church as ‘planned in the centre of a beautiful square. Free on all sides, it stands isolated on a high platform... the perfect roundness, the quiet semi-circle of the dominating dome, the austere Doric order with horizontal entablature planned for the use of statues... ‘Campanella (1623) describes the principal church of the Utopian city-state. ‘The temple is perfectly round, free on all sides, but supported by massive and elegant columns. The dome, an admirable work, is the centre or ‘pole’ of the temple and has an opening in the middle directly above the single altar in the centre... In the dome are painted the stars of the sky.’ Wren as a great Renaissance figure offered his first design for St. Pauls in form of the Greek cross. It was rejected and the more conventional church demanded, which he designed with a strange steeple. The King gave him permission to modify slightly, whereupon he redesigned the dome in its present form. What is this other than the Temple of the Ancients standing upon its platform and dominating the city? St Paul'sIn style it differs notably from the lower church which reflects the Master, Inigo Jones. Wren, strangely, gives us a quite undecorated band which seems completely to divide dome from church (Fig. 13). To use a modern colloquialism, he seems to have ‘pulled a fast one’ on a cosmic scale on Restoration London. Here is fulfilled the classic ideal, the building open to the instreaming of power from the living cosmos to hallow the central altar, which however is invisible since it must stand in the middle of the Whispering Gallery.

But let us experience this dome. Allow the eye first to be taken and held by the great columns. Run up and down them and around the great drum, realizing the panelled break every four spaces which hides the buttressing supports. Below is that plain band, holding the potentiality of all forms. Above is the great cornice beyond which the columns re form, contracted into the simplest pilasters, as if they are gathering themselves in for the great leap. In the next stage they are transformed into the ribs on the dome. Imagine the columns elongated vertically and then bent inwards with the tension of Odysseus bow, to be locked in the rim of the lantern. Thus you can feel the power of the dome. Note that the lantern recapitulates the three stages in little, and then all culminate in the golden cross. Perhaps the golden ball is an image to parallel the heart/altar.

Let us make a different approach. Let the cross first take your eye, as if it had materialized from a higher plane. The patterns of the whole then appears in embryo in the lantern. Now start at the top of the dome and strongly feel it with the eye-beam, up and down, till its shape is vividly experienced. The eye tends to look pointwise and linewise and will first run down the ribs. You must teach it to spread outwards in all directions as a single gesture which embraces the whole dome. Here we must take a leap. Where do you feel that dome? Is it not true that you experience it as a kind of pressure in the head? Here is our clue. The dome of the head reflects the outer dome (or should that statement be reversed?). Thinking man is imaged in this great form. In our own organism we begin to discover that the temple is in the pat tern of Man, built in the image of God. If dome is head, then will not the great drum represent the heart system of man? The columns are like a metamorphosis of the rib cage protecting the altar/heart, seat of the soul. The active limb system will then be found in the church structure below. Thus out of the experience of bringing alive the dome with our active looking, we rediscover in our own organism the truth known by the great architects of the Renaissance, that the centralized church is a point of contact with the Divinity in the cosmos and that Man is truly the temple of the Spirit. We will develop this further in the next chapter.


I looked into a passion flower and saw in the threefold enhancement of the stamens a picture of the metamorphosis of St. Paul’s columns in the dome (Fig. 14). First came the ring of large outer stamens with their remarkable elongation, like the imaginative extension of the great columns of the drum. Then stamen and column alike contract drastically into a stunted ring. Then in their third stage the stamens cluster, for all the world like the dome, around the elaborate pistil, which rises like the lantern and cross. The petals below rep resent the main body of the church. So nature seems at times to speak to us in symbols.


Next chapter: 6. Man the Measure

This way! Click me and I'll take you to the next page!
The Active Eye in Architecture
Sir George Trevelyan

First published in 1977 by The Wrekin Trust
This book is out-of-print, available only on this website
Next page
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Start of the book
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HOME
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© Copyright Sir George Trevelyan and estate, 1977. This book may be downloaded and printed on paper in single copies for personal use and study only, in a spirit of fair play and without financial transaction. .