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Solar Evolution                                                                

 

 

The House of the Solar. Lying between the realm governed by the ideal and the constellations of the ideal realm. A line drawn by ontological dividers. The skyline; meeting place of the heavens and social aspiration; of matter and light. From wall to urban canyon, from the comfort of earth to glass finitude (the reflective mission of architecture made transparent) structures rise to the place of the infinite. Eschatologies in stone; signs that span temporality and eternity.

 

The solar; a relationship of stone and sky, the path of the eyes rising up to the cross, the crescent and the stars.         

 

The evolution of sacred inner-space in the cultures of monotheism is well known. Christianity, through the adoption of the basilica form, transforms prior tradition by moving away from a temple with inner sanctum (where the congregation must wait outside) to a hall with the congregation inside (a tradition maintained in Islam in the structure of the mosque). Inclusive form replaces exclusive division, hierarchy is displaced into the interior, the faithful are at least gathered under one roof.

 

Less well known is the evolution of architecture's external sites of intense signification (and its consequent impact on our collective expectations for the built environment). The sacred communication of architecture has also undergone a sequential evolution, the results of which are embedded in our nervous systems to this day. In the West we have become accustomed to the top part of a given building acting as the carrier of the broader forms of symbolic significance (or the top part of any lower part, or of any sub-section, as in the entry-portal or window). Our culture claims its architecture by marking its upper portion; the solar. Religion (belief priorities in alliance with the State) provides the key signs. Skylines proclaim their sacred loyalties. The invisible ties of the social are incarnated in stone in its assault on the heavens.

 

Hypsosis. The eye-leading property of light becomes an architectural mimesis; an exponential curve into flight; the illusion of stones that float.

 

Yet the western solar does not stand alone. It is a tale of two traditions (which will, moreover, like lips, like vines, touch and intertwine). In contrast to the pointed roofs of northern or wet climate cultures, we find in the flat roof of the South the source of forms suited to countries which are hot and dry: the Arab and African form (heir to the Neolithic Near East - point of origin) and the sacred architecture of Pre-Columbian Meso-America.  The cultures of dry climates find their architectural and symbolic continuity in a plain solar strip, underscored and so differentiated from its lower portion (in early forms) by horizontal post holes, drainage outlets and wooden supports.  This upper segment acts as a frame for windows or other apertures to be found in the middle of the building. Lower down an entrance may find itself enframed by an enfolding middle. Or it may be some form of representation or scripts that are presented in this way.  The solar strip finds its symbolic function to be that of a framing device.

 

The line petrified into matter; the gift of architectural form.

 

Opposed to the flat form is the pointed form. The Western, Greek, or Roman (but also Gothic) form is based upon a pitched roof (at its simplest represented by a tent), often supplemented by overhanging eves, atop of walls and, in the building's front face, an opening, an entrance, expandable into a colonnade (the pediment and portico form). A basic pattern is generalised into a rule for all subsequent architectural styles; a point of origin theorised by the French architect Laugier - an origin he regarded as the source of all Classicism in architecture (and so of the Neo-classicism he championed).

 

In this way, in the cultures of the North and the West, the triangle becomes the home of sacred decoration. Above a holy entrance, a sacred sign (a sign over a door, the basic 'front', the basic formula of western sacred architecture). Secular forms also will imitate this formula - even if two hundred floors intervene between entrance and sign. By contrast, in the cultures of the South and the East, the dry flat-top form 'merely' frames the middle section, their place of the sign, where statues and other forms of depiction dominate. Minarets and obelisks do, of course, point; however in contrast to the Gothic style, where everything points, no matter what its function, it is only doors and minarets that point, mosques as such do not. (The dome points whilst enclosing a large space. Less like a pediment, more like a pyramid, its overall rising deixis is often augmented with a sign placed at its apogee.)

 

Already, however, there is the danger of seeing in the binary relationship between the two kinds of solar, the tension between Christian and Islamic cultural traditions (a new 'East v West', to succeed the decayed cold war binary of Capitalism and Communism).

 

Yet if we raise our eyes to peer over the horizon imposed by our Indo-European backyard, then we will see that a culture from the opposite end of the earth arrives to disturb the birth of this new East/West opposition. China and the Far East, China most especially, with a long tradition of its own, also use the pointed roof, however the 'pediment' space, in the West acting as ‘front’, as entrance, porch, the ground of appearance and reception is now the ‘sides’ of a long-faced building, is removed to the wings - so pushing sign and decoration up to the solar. Statuettes of the gods and immortals are found abiding in the roof-tops and decorated beams of the Chinese solar (and a double roof -in use since before the Han Dynasty- doubles the beams on display and ‘underlines’ the roof as solar feature). The more the holier - and the more important the building (count them on the roofs of the Forbidden City). The traditions of the Chinese and Japanese, the Greeks and the Romans (and not forgetting the Gothic style) follow the same pattern. They have arrived independently at the same sacred configurations of roof space, of pointing, of the solar.

 

Proximity to the sky encompasses a world; with such a plenitude of significance that if the upper part does not function as an index, a symbol or a feature, then it will function as a frame. The top edge, whatever form it takes (not least in its absence) always conveys significant meaning.

 

Desert architecture is different. Mud bricks will not survive uncovered in the rain without a branch roof, but in the baking sun they are ideal building materials. Together with Turkey and the Near East, one country, perhaps more than any other, may stand as the exemplum of this style and its evolution: Egypt. The flat roof of Egyptian building was the one feature that was not imitated by Greeks and Romans, unlike the pillars (and even their long colonnaded fronts were anticipated by Hatshepsut); cultural appropriation is delimited by the geo-politics of the sacred. The sacred architecture of Egypt may be read as the alternative 'ideal type' to the pointed styles of the West (whose 'ideal type' is Greco-Roman Classicism). The triangular pyramid, to be sure, points absolutely; it does nothing else (unlike other pyramids in other cultures, such as pre-Columbian America and Ancient China, which function as platforms) - but it is an exception. The Pylon with its dramatic front aspect can more properly be regarded as the most important religious building of Egyptian architecture; even in Egypt, with its cultic treatment of the Dead, the temple takes priority over the funerary monument. The top edge of the Pylon, even if decorated, frames what is below, rather than points upwards. When a sense of soaring does occur it is rather the function of the entire building, elevating its signifying face into the monumental, than a particular contribution of the building's top (the impact of the entire Pylon versus the impact of the pediment or the spire). Even in the representations found inside, upon the inner walls of the building and in the pages of books, this pattern obtains (the Book of the Dead). The Egyptian upper edge separates that which is to be framed (signs, entries) from the sky - to which its own decoration, however, often points (geometry, little triangles, tips of leaves).  It is logical that the land of the hieroglyph should produce buildings that function simultaneously as picture and frame.

 

Desert Architecture. From the antiquity of the Persian Empire, with its fabled centre, Persepolis, to Rajput palaces, even to the Institute du Monde Arabe (in rainy Paris), the flat roof is used to cover a vast hall, the flat roof is supported by a forest of pillars. The exterior form either frames a monumental entrance, the openness of the building itself, or encompasses a field of signs. Calligraphy fills the frame of the mosque front (often topped by a deictic dome, part parallel, part inversion of the Western triangle and entrance). On the front wall of the Institute the 'grill-style' window form of hot climates covers the public face of the building; a face for signs. For we read the faces of buildings just as we would read any passing face.

 

Two Variations. (i) Pre-Columbian Meso-American pyramids both point and also possess flat-topped roofs for ritual practices. The step-form pyramid offers a compromise of solar styles such that flat-topped buildings too can point. In the Assyrian Ziggurat (and the Mayan temple) the top edge (whether flat or jagged) clearly functions as a frame; as an amplification of its own larger form, giving it outline even as it meets the vertical lines rising up through the encircled middle. This doubling of the shape adds to the rising effect, giving a symbolic upward point and rise to the sacred level. These raised platforms, in the Pre-Columbian pyramid, function as the meeting places of the gods and men, and so as the site of the sanctification of the elite, their justification in terms of the sacred. In cases like this it is the entire building that points and not just the top edge. We find a similar pattern in the Egyptian monumental pyramid (functioning as a shelter for a tomb, as well as an external pointer and reminder).

(ii) The second variation is found in South Indian temples, especially those of the Dravidian style, as exemplified by the temple town of Madurai, and combines picture with structure. In general form and in the presentation of signs these buildings are like Egyptian Pylons; ornamented entrance ways, with a decorated drum on top which partly interrupts the soaring, pointing effect, but clearly caps the profuse decoration of the body of the building. Despite the height there is no spire and all the most important information appears on the body (middle) of the building (which often appears as if built with bodies). Signs to be read (as also in the temples of Khujaraho further north, which by contrast are oriented as a Western temple, with the entrance at the short end).

 

 

Time-lines: two 'ideal types'; two sacred lineages (two solar genealogies).

 

(I) The 'flat' genealogy (the House of the Horizon). The structures of Mesopotamia and Egypt spread to Persia and the Indus valley ()from mastaba to apadana.  Egypt evolves the Pylon as the key structure of ritual (framing top; decorative message to middle): the pyramid can only sit on the horizon and point. African and Arab flat roof forms pass into Islam. Across the world, the Meso-American pyramid evolves into a similar form, combining a cumulative sense (the point) with flat features. The 'flat form' does not only occur in dry climates, it also occurs in the temples of the Pre-Columbian Americans, in tropical Africa and in South East Asia, where it appears in marked contrast to the dwellings of rainforest tribes and of the tent style or pointing forms.  The ceremonial, religious, or State form of architecture is opposed to the means of shelter.

 

(II) The 'pointed' genealogy (the House of the Forest). From the round tent to the ridge, the point passes through the wooden Megaron to the stone of the Greeks, to the concrete of Rome, and so to Christianity, the North and the West.  The architecture of Capitalism becomes that of the World in the evolution of the Western Solar as we know it today. Across the world, China evolves a similar form of pointing and decoration - the placing of signs (gods to solar) but on a building whose ‘front’ is its long side (so incorporating the long top edge of the ‘House of the Horizon’).  

 

 

The flat forms of the Near East find a place in the architecture of the West in the compromise represented by the evolution of the piano nobile, simultaneously a floor and a feature (ornamented balconies, and bearer of the largest windows) framed by the building's top and bottom sections. On the smallest scale the piano nobile is found between the vestigial solar top of the palazzo form (or cornice) and the rougher forms of the entry floor. As in the architecture of the flat form, it is the middle that is framed (a sign indicating an elevated position in the social hierarchy). The piano nobile appears to be an early medieval variation on the Roman high rise concrete dwellings (the Insulae), which were known to possess such a floor. With the addition of many levels of intervening floors, the piano nobile effect, either moved upwards or disappeared into the curtain wall, a development of key importance to urban secular architecture and so to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century architectural developments (and not the result of an appropriation by an incipient Modernism of styles from the East and the South, at that time under colonial rule). However the disappearance of the piano nobile left the solar effect of the building's top free to dominate the building in symbolic terms. Since the decorated cornices of the Renaissance, the solar had returned to the flat top (the Flat Iron Building, New York) as an eye-catching, eye-rising feature - variations on the pointed top where to be restored in the 1920s and further developed from the 1970s onwards.

 

It is often useful to distinguish between the solar top as top, and the top strip as a frame for the middle. In the first case the top captures the eye and leads it to itself or further on upwards (in the last century the middle is usually plain and repetitive, as in the modernist skyscraper). In the second case the middle is a clearly framed feature. Information (or its absence, signifying brute massiveness) placed in the middle is the key source of significance, as in the case of the Egyptian Pylon and the Mayan Pyramid; although it may also be placed on the top as in the case of the Roman Triumphal Arch (again, a sign above an entrance) and its present day avatar, the advertising hoarding.  In addition, the flat-top in modernism becomes a site of symbolic decoration, precisely in accordance with the pointed tradition to which it is heir, as such it functions by topping, not framing, the middle section. In this way, it 'finishes', that is completes, the building as a whole, its skyward gesture marking out a place for itself in the collective skyline of the city.

 

Axis of light: vertical compass; the needle is pointed at both ends. The pull of gravity and the fall of light are transformed into the rise of architecture and the lifting of the eyes. What comes down must go up. The fall of light into gravity's mirror.

 

The western tradition of secular urban building appears to run from Roman secular housing apartments (the high rise and flat-topped Insulae) and similar, if roofed, early medieval forms through to the Palazzo tradition (Renaissance to Art Nouveau). A minimally decorated, functional top edge, with the piano nobile as key decorated zone, evolves into the solar feature from Art Deco to Post-modernism. The proximity to the sky always lends some significance to a building's top edge. In this way in the West the framing (top) floor always becomes a solar, even if only a strip. However if the solar is totally absent, if the gift of the sky is ignored, then the result is a sense of unfinishedness, the sending out of a negative signal. Sometimes (at best) the sense of unfinishedness, of pure functionality, may exude a (dated) science-fiction ambience; but usually the effect is cheap and throwaway. No solar sacrifice has been performed at the top of the building to signal its value (and so that of its inhabitants). If such an economic sacrifice confers identity, then solarless architecture may properly be said to have no soul.

 

The present manifestation of the flat-topped tradition may be found all over the Middle East and Africa. In Saudi-Arabia, Riyadh possesses two recent buildings (c. 2001) which offer an instructive contrast of symbolic traditions as manifested in monumental architecture. Richard Rodgers' contribution, the Al Faisaliyah Complex, is a 'western' tower, an engorged solar needle leaping skywards, dividing the horizon into two, and tapering to a point. Whilst the Kingdom Centre, the other tall building irrupting from the flat horizontal of the desert (it is in fact marginally taller than the Rodgers) is a building with a hollow centre, an absent middle, whose top rim functions as a frame for the empty space below; a space which takes as its content the city, its desert landscape and the sky. It thus acts as a mirror of the geography and the national culture it encompasses. However the mirror not only reflects the external; it is an internal mirror, a mirror of a culture and a civilisation that is also held up in the framed space of the building. This is the space of Islamic iconoclasm, a religious abstraction, with an otherworldly deixis - as well as providing space for 'top' offices, the site of elites (similar things could be said about the National Commercial Bank, Jeddah, with its hollow centre, and demarcated solar strip outlining a flat top).

 

The Western equivalent to this feature and its effect is the Grande Arche de la Défense in Paris's ultra-modernist financial quarter. Models of monumental arches and minimalist cubes notwithstanding, the impact, that is to say, the symbolic functioning of this building is precisely that of the flat roofed style, complete with all the framing properties inherent in the latter. Yet what is it that is framed here? Only Paris, capital of a nation, set in its paysage, the nation's cradle. National identity is the content supported by this apparently abstract or minimal structure. Although built upon a secular site (or perhaps because of this) the internal significance is not that of the invisible God of the West and of Christianity, but rather, the effect of underlining another invisible god, the sublime nature of capital (as well of the Capital) of the market, the invisible hand and its role in French collective identity. Protests against mondialisation notwithstanding (really only protests against Americanisation, that is, a matter of national identity and not anti-capitalism) the Grande Arche frames the new religion of the West: Capital, invisible and omnipotent. (See also, 'La Défense: Form, Time & Identity').

 

Prosopopoeias in stone, the two towers in Riyadh evoke two geo-cultural traditions; but perhaps only one future.  The abstract architectural deixis of Capital as the true sublime of the West, taken over from Christianity, complements the abstract space of the invisible god of Islam (after Judaism); a tradition whose abstraction will also lend itself to the defacto worship of the invisible hand of Capital.  In this war iconoclasm is the worst defence. Desert and forest have inspired an intricate philosophical architecture housing minds as well as bodies. Only to provide the skins, material and symbolic, which will hold the new wine of the new world religion?

 

What of modern China, epitomised by the transformation of Shanghai? Do we see the same architectural developments, combinations or contrasts that we saw in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia? The first option is the basic transplant of western modernism.  Such forms are to be found in many eastern European capitals after the fall of communism. Decontextualised high-rise hotels and office blocks (not matching the vernacular in material nor style, rather glorying in their difference) replace -equally decontextualised- Russian-style high-rise buildings. In Warsaw, for example, this contrast can be seen in a tale of two hotels; a Stalinist monolithic wedding cake versus an all-American metal-plated monster cigar case. The alternative, evolving now, lies in the fusion of local culture, of vernacular traditions, local solar features, with the building techniques of the modern high rise office or apartment block - the completion of the Iron Age revolution with the entry of iron into architecture (which has taken humanity three thousand years). Interestingly it is in Shanghai, China's business capital and eye to the West that we find, side by side with the expected imported styles, the marks of an unmistakable cultural and so metaphysical appropriation. In the planned 'hole' at the top of the World Financial Centre, the 'pagoda-form' moulding the appearance of the Jin Mao Tower, and the half-moon temple form of the Grand Theatre. In each the entire building, but especially those features contributing to its solar impact, is a performative of the union of economics and the sacred. (The same might be said of the Patronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur, where vernacular detail reclaims the general form and frames a space rendering it a part of its culture through the literal content of the frame as of its figurative content, its metaphysics). In Beijing, the administrative capital, we see numerous Western style office blocks (also, more adventurously, the huge dome of the National Grand Theatre).  With a confident economy and a proud cultural heritage, several post-imperialist generations now feel that they have mastered Western imports (economic and cultural) and have turned them into the basis for their own production (their own brand of capitalism) - following the lead given, until recently, by Japan.

 

Do the creations of Frank Gehry offer a combination of styles, East and West, modern and vernacular? Or do they represent a new departure, one bringing to the fore the entropy theme present in architecture from the 1960's onward (as late-modernism, deconstructivism, or postmodernism). A theme, moreover, to be found hovering residually in the background of western culture as 'the ruin'. Gehry's creations seem to combine the entropic thesis (the illusion of motion, of defying gravity, of being on the verge of collapse) with massive solar impact. No longer is the sun to be pointed to, it is to be replaced. In a new answer to a very old tradition Gehry combines the general pointing of his structures with the capture of light through reflection. The entropy theme adds a temporal reference suited to the metaphysics of the twenty-first century as they are influenced by the cumulative revolutions in physics of the twentieth century and move into the next millennium. The style is a temple to impermanence, for which the best medicine is homage. Architecture, visible antidote to entropy, disguises itself as its sworn enemy (like a ritual inoculation). A Gehry is the true temple to twentieth century physics, a well as the most radical product of twentieth century technologies in computer-led alliance. Perhaps the two options presented here are not mutually exclusive, Gehry's massive sheds appear more like a deconstructed Pylon (its signs condensed into shining material) than any other architectural form.  In this style the entire building is suffused with a generalised solar impact (like Liebeskind's War Museum of the North, elegance in a steel shed with a hollow spire). Reflective metal is an important part of the new twenty-first century solar; together with the new glass architecture which includes many buildings that point, are triangular (right-angle), but are not pedimented (Manchester, like any city successfully rejuvenated during the 1990s, is a good example of these architectural trends). Whether as eye-catching, bright, reflective, rising, continuous or differentiated (the features on top of Salford Quays tower) the new solar continues its tradition to become the key meaning-making feature of today's architecture. The new metal sheathing incarnates the sublime in reflective skin, the solar force, reflected, literally in a furnace of glowing metal, makes of the whole surface a symbolic deixis. A solar temple.

 

 

 

 

                                                Copyright 2002 Peter Nesteruk