Architecture is always unfinished. Architecture is completed elsewhere.
When we try to realise the completion of architecture there appear before us two mysterious places which, as it were, vie for mastery over this process. One is the place of the making of signs (the place where meaning is made), the other is the place of their destination, their ultimate designation (the place these meanings point to). The ends of architecture appear caught in a tension between these two poles.
Except that there is no completion. The process of finishing, is always just that, a process. Architecture is always unfinished (architecture is completed elsewhere).
Moreover we quickly find that the two places of architecture's putative completion are themselves, finally, infinite. Not only residing in stone. Both elsewhere.
Two elsewheres. One seems to result from an arrangement of matter taken as a marking, whilst the other appears to reside in the place to which this marking is taken to refer. Semiotically speaking, matter does not speak, material itself is not a sign - unlike a word, the figurative meaning of which is considered a sign of a sign (signified becomes signifier, giving us a second meaning, the semiotic definition of a symbol). With material, with matter as such, its meaning is simply whatever its name, or signified, happens to be, and we do not distinguish between types or levels of meaning; only between function and meaning (architecture does not have 'second meaning', for most the experience of architecture is its first meaning, even if, semiotically, this might be called its 'second' meaning). In architecture, as with things - even those altered things we call 'culture' - the key differentiation is between the thing (signifier, also here the means of expression, the material), its function (what it does for us) and its meaning (signified, which may range over a variety of semantic fields, from proper name to poetic association). Three qualities then: the material, its physical use and the use we find for it in the world of signs. Otherwise put: what it is made from, what we take it as, what we take it for (matter, use value, sign value).
But these refinements leave us with only one potential 'elsewhere'; that which lies somewhere in the realm of meaning. The end product of our architectural experience; our second 'elsewhere'.
Whence then the first? (Or can it be that it has evaporated in the course of our search for distinctions?)
We have seen that it cannot reside in a first signified (indicating the relation of the sign to symbol). This trail, the trail of meaning, anyway leads us to our second elsewhere, a mysterious index whose path we have yet to explore. Or could it be that there is a secret hiding in matter? But matter does not speak. Where is it that another presence is to be found? A presence drawn to non-presence as the source of its seeking, a movement towards the unmoved mover that instigates the movement towards meaning. A presence that finds in matter a parallel presence beyond function. The placing of desire in stone.
Again, the two elsewheres.
The first is that which arrives in response to the invitation of the sign, the call; the answer. An answer that is always waiting. First. The motive that urges us to take the qualitative step that takes us beyond the boundaries of the present situation, beyond architectural symbolism. First. The need is in ourselves; whence the fuel that stokes the fires of symbolic space, of architecture as sign and, coming full circle, of our response (what in ourselves answers this call from stone and glass, the inner voice which invites us to take the step). Before the question, the answer; before the invitation, the response. Waiting. Source of (the beyond of) architectural symbolism.
And the second, the beyond (of architectural symbolism)? The non-place to which that symbolism would point. That part of meaning, which pointed to, we can not find. And so about which we can say no more...
Architecture finishes with last things. The end of architecture is eternity. At its best (and often even at its worst) its lines and relation to the sky lift us upwards, send our eyes to the heavens. Yet architecture is always also on a loop back to the beginning, back to its origins, first things; the eternal presence of ourselves. Ourselves, the makers of signs. Eternity and our present selves. Two ends of the thread along which are strung our world, the truth of our senses, our beliefs. Our ends, architecture's ends: our ends, architecture's end. Architecture never finishes with last things.
There is no point in talking about matter. Matter just is (even physics changes the definition of matter from theory to theory and from math to math, eventually evaporating it into probability and vibration). No matter. The configuration of matter into space is our concern.
What if we were to speak of configurations of space then and divide them according to their relations with themselves: one referring in (self-reference), the other referring out (to a metaset). One a space that intensifies itself, that declares itself important; the other a space which indicates a place of greater intensity, of yet greater importance than itself.
Configurations of space. We may divide space according to our perception of it as a container, as a solid, a product of the earth, enclosing air or water (such as a room or a valley). Or as an index; as a solid enclosed by air or water (spire, mountain, island). Each form gains its increased power of significance from its relation either to itself or elsewhere, from its relation to an outside - most significantly from its relation to the sky. This distinction applies equally to space which is received, found (Nature, place, objects) or that which is refashioned by ourselves (human culture, built place, cultural artefacts).
Are there then two kinds of space? Not quite (this is bit like saying that there are two kinds of matter). Space must first be valued and hence become place, to have a... place in our calculations and aspirations (in this sense only are there two kinds of space: space that remains space and space that becomes place). The value comes from ourselves; space as such has no intrinsic value. It is of value to us, or to some other point of view (we, or they, find it so). Better to say there are two kinds of sign-space, two kinds of place (leaving aside unvalued space: that which has not acceded to the status of place; degraded place, which has fallen back into space; or bad place, where it is negativity that makes the place stand out from the surrounding space - the site of evil as yet unhallowed by its transformation into a memorial). It is place which appears to us to be like a room or like an index. However, if it is place (including negative place) with which we are concerned, it is not just any place that draws our attention here. It is architecture as place. Not with place as architecture, although much of what is said will also apply there - 'there' being the place of genius loci or 'the spirit of the place' (our personification of geography as an explanation of its affective force). Nor directly with the place of architecture, even if inseparable insofar as its role in human culture is concerned; its (architecture's) role as the most general frame of cultural life makes of it a room out which we do not often stray; in which, therefore first and last things must have their place.
What more then can we say of this place, this valued space, which must also include that 'non-place to which... symbolism would point.' The infinity of the non-place as no-where place (based only on the prompting of that which would suggest it) appears to be opposed to that which would suggest it (as sign and thing, deixis and place). Yet, as the parenthesis in the previous sentence indicates, all we have is its sign (a sign which may not even belong to it). Belief in a no-where place, all-important but invisible to the naked eye, is an indispensible function of all belief systems, ideologies, world-views. It is also a product of the 'all too' human tendency to posit, almost as a general default, a realm both exterior and anterior to the one which we inhabit - an exteriority usually, but not exclusively intuited as being 'above'. This anteriority is usually also a posteriority and an a priori (a larger set than that of our temporal being) providing us with a temporal designation that is outside of time, our concept of eternity. Whether perceived as rhetoric or belief (rhetoric from the 'outside', belief from the 'inside') this 'place' -mental or actual- plays a governing role in all issues touching on community or 'world' in any expanded, meaningful, or metaphysical sense (that is, not merely empirical). Kissing architecture like the sun, intensifying the symbolic propensity of architecture's topmost portion (and the tops of its features in general) this symbolisation is perhaps at its most powerful in architecture that points or otherwise celebrates its relation to the skyline. It is also that which stands above us - but may be found to inhere in some manner to all aspects of our artificial urban horizon (that which stands, or spreads out, before us). This relationship suggests the term 'solar' as a shorthand representing this complex of meanings. It is here that the twin sets, finitude and infinity, and temporality and eternity, display their gilded overlapping in the burnished light that shines down from the realm of bronze and polished stone, transforming quotidian lead into everlasting gold.
Finitude /Infinity: Temporality/Eternity
Finitude; not least in the face of the infinite, seeking in the infinite the truth of its being. Finitude and infinity. The former fallen where it is not redeemed in the light of the latter. The latter existing only through the good offices of the former. The sacred 'here' and 'elsewhere' of our world. Not (in this instance) the opposition of sublunary existence to the beyond, of the everyday to the marvellous, the profane to the sacred. Rather, it is the miraculous insistence of the sacred in the lining of our world that we find revealed in our architecture, soaring in the blue of its sky. The sacred (our demand for it, our call for what there is no longer supposed to be any call for - witness the speed with which rationalists and secularists move to sacralise dates, places, and people, both in their private lives and as-and-when they approach the shrine of State power). The infinite perspective is its guise on earth; finitude rests in the palm of its encircling hand.
Finitude and infinity; a divided continuum ranging from the present with its current function and meaning, to the trace of past and future, to the echo of eternity. Two layers of meaning; the present and its invisible ends (only clouds, dreams floating about the horizon, windows depicting the future and the past) and the doubling of this presence into a parallel world with exploded horizons; eternity. (Two ends which come full circle in the eternal now; ever-present birthplace of the rhetoric of the outside of time).
Two layers, two ends... two kinds of architectural sign.
Two kinds of architectural sign... or better: two kinds of architectural sign-space. One founded upon interiority; the other upon exteriority. One is akin to a room, a hollowed form framing empty space (kin to the special places of Nature, the space become place of genius loci). The other presents itself as a material presence. If one is an enclosure of space, the other takes the form of a filling, a feature set apart in space. Of the latter, we are here interested in the aspect which, regardless of its power to draw vision to itself, simultaneously points away, points elsewhere, its entire form functioning as a gesture. Such a presence self-frames when not otherwise enclosed and not only gathers space around itself but points (figuratively) to a place beyond that space. Unlike the statue which also self-frames, but which may point away from itself gesturally, through the deixis of a part (its arm may indicate a direction) or an elsewhere may be suggested semantically, as the present part of an extended lexical field (as a deity, allegory, or personification indicates the realm in which it is reputed to reign). Each space or filling of space may be further defined by its relation to finitude and its choice of a beyond.
(I) Interiority; the sign-room. The first kind of sign-space, the sign-room, a framing of space that bears significance, is itself further framed by a 'sign-door'. All architectural thresholds are fraught with symbolism. Entrance ways are particularly prone to the gathering of meaning as they involve the crossing of thresholds, real and symbolic, between interior and exterior. Most significant are those thresholds we must cross in order to enter a space apparently set aside from the everyday. Such spaces, sign-rooms, framed extension, have become 'place' and are often also sites of ritual. They may be the places set aside for ritual, moreover, participation in them may itself constitute a ritual act. It is in our interaction with them as framed space (entry, the experience of the interior and exit) that they either are themselves the space of ritual purpose, or lead one towards those spaces reserved for ritual ceremony. Doors and arches here function as a sequence of portals, and at a certain stage their interactive intensification may even suggest the entrance to another realm (witness the iconostasis of Greek Orthodox Churches).
Interiors. Entrances. The path into the enclosure. The passage that leads to the tomb. The altar at the end of a sequence of rooms. (Like a Romanesque interior, a Russian doll, or a box-within-a-box, type of space, where each cube contains another, the result: spatial intensification). Witness also the sequence of chambers in Egyptian temples, and in Greek (Classical) then Christian places of worship as part of the passage to the altar, place of mysteries, holy of holies... Follow the passage to the Carolingian burial crypt, with its entrance and exit passages. Witness the intense reframing of the space of the crypt in all churches, not least when one is denied entry and can only stare through some aperture, arch or gap left between altar and floor, revealing a glimpse of the last resting place of an incumbent immortal.
The successive ribs and passages of framed entry portals offers up to us the sequential pulse of an architectural opening and closing. The pulse of thresholds; the constricting and opening out of horizons (breath of ritual space). Containment and giddy liberation succeed one another like a dream of escape. A dream of colossal hallways. From a climactic corridor of open space we close again into the columns of the cave; cage of the holy. This is the vision of the inside as sanctum; realm of incense and smoke. The heavy folds of hangings bringing with them the curtain of obscurity. Obscure because finite.
The promise abiding at the end of the finite (the hidden secret soon to be revealed). Spaces end; the house of the arcane symbol; an infinity of symbols suggesting the timeless beings that populate the timeless being of the infinite. A transcendental mimesis. Such spaces are finite, but draw everywhere on the invisible omnipresence of the infinite which they never cease to suggest. (With ritual this abiding barrier may finally suggest its own crossing.)
(II) Exteriority; sign-pointers (architectural indexes). The deflected gaze. Features call us to follow; eruptions lead the eye. Details. Parts of buildings. Whole buildings in themselves. Anything that may act as a deixis, the needle of the compass. Transcendental magnetism: something more is indicated ('there is something more') but elsewhere. These indicators may take the form of 'fillers'; signs sitting in frames. Such signs are further divisible into mimetic representations and part/whole relations; symbols rather than indexes. Such is the role of the angel in Western art history, companion of the mimetic saint (the latter's sanctity itself gained by its part relation to the heavenly abode). More cogent from the point of view of the architectural eye are those signs that point; compasses whose pole remains invisible, arrows without any discernible target, indexes of the infinite. A 'filler' framed only the sky, whose lower limit is the horizon and whose outer-limits are the corners of human vision. A 'filler' whose paradox is to indicate the void.
Spire, tower, minaret and pinnacle, indeed the top-most parts of almost any significant structure, speak to us of larger things, draw us towards weightier matters, point... elsewhere. It is the top that makes the structure significant; that makes it mean... ultimately. It is this feature, along with its omnipresent relation with the sky, that gives an architectural top its 'solar', or social symbolic quality, that reminds us of our fascination, of our debt even, to an ineffable beyond, the place of the transcendent, of immutability, of a stone-like certainty, cast-iron, written in light, written in air.
The eternal. The outside as ground; rhetorical trope in stone (the hidden secret which is unspeakable, of which it is forbidden to speak : of which, being unspeakable, one is forbidden to speak). The infinite. (It is the unlimited quantity opened by this indefinite deixis that succours the leap into the realm of infinite difference governed by a quality as absolute as it is other). The infinite: but drawing everywhere on the omnipresence of the visible, the finite, without which it could have no purchase on the course matter that is ourselves. (A relationship formalised in ritual; event where the identity of the finite and infinite is the condition of human identity).
(III) Combinations. Or it may be that one is combined with the other such that 'fillers' fit frames or frame themselves, as when 'pointers' are found in 'rooms' or 'rooms' on 'pointers' (and finally all fillers and pointers are self-framing; when we see them as part of the 'solar', when they are framed by the sky - mounted against the horizon and staged by the fall of light).
When indexical 'pointers' are found within 'rooms', they are framed by the interior that enfolds them and their deixis manages to maintain a sky-bound, even abstract, quality. When we find pediments and pinnacles placed within interiors their index either is felt to pierce the ceiling they would appear to indicate or they seem to dispense with the last vestiges of sublunary trappings that may adhere to the space around them and their deixis becomes infinite. And so the infinite is drawn into finite space and eternity is present in the sacred places of the temporal.
The finding of enclosures on, or within, 'pointers' seems mainly to occur in the form of an embedded 'room' (we are leaving aside the functional rooms, or space that may be enclosed within buildings that point; these only carry interest insofar as they can be seen from outside and so carry a symbolic charge). Such spaces are like a theatre, a room with one wall missing, a open-ended receptacle found embedded within pinnacles; perhaps visible only by its windows or apertures, or as slots for tombs - empty post-Reformation niches. Or as the symbolic, exterior, aspect of the functional look-outs (or 'sound-outs') of watch-towers, bell towers, and minarets.
The combination of 'room' and 'pointer', of 'frame' and 'filler', is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in the ubiquity of the ever-versatile aedicule. Often adapted into some form of alcove or pinnacle, but always replete with pointed (pointing) top.
Combining pointers with rooms
(I): pointers into rooms. Aedicules
are often found within rooms (as, for example, in the Pantheon,
Combining pointers with rooms (II): rooms onto pointers. Aedicules are themselves also found on the exteriors of pointing structures as openings, windows, niches, as sign-spaces. It is part of the ambiguity of every arch that it partakes of a pointer, its sense of kinetic upward motion, as well as of a cover, or top-most portion of a sign-house. Apertures within and without many forms of structure make the most of this double valency. This is a combination found, above all, in the entrance, or even in the entry front of a building - true even of a cathedral West front in its entirety. The public face of a building (laid open like a book for us to read) gazing out onto an open space or public square; which (functionally) consists of little more that solar top (a sign, a pointer) and an entry portal. The first frame in a sequence of frames, first arch in an ever-intensifying sequence of arches; first indication of a room, of a space to enter, a place in which the soul may exalt. In which we find the proper place to exalt. To exalt that which must be exulted. Exalt that which must be exalted. Part of the route to the other place pointed-to by the sign outside.
Again (reprise): the place pointed-to; elsewhere. Invisible; sustained by a faith that begins at home. (No matter how hard we try to locate its origins ...'elsewhere'.)
Exterior deixis: home (page). Full circle. Elsewhere. Or else where?
Here. Here and there. Moving out. Coming back. Knowing when we have reached the limit and are in fact beginning to go backwards, thinking we are going forwards (but finding ourselves heading in, instead of out). The art of politics (or at least of the politics of theory, if not the theory of politics) consists in finding that place, that bend in the road, the limit (at once historical, metaphysical, temporal) beyond which the traveller can only return (knowing when 'a single', a 'line of flight', becomes a return journey). Finding the limit, the rim, the edge of an epoch. Otherwise. Building a bridge that leads back to where we began. Crossing. Catching sight of ourselves on the way out.
Architecture; catching sight of ourselves on the way out.
Copyright 2004 Peter Nesteruk