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Buildings and feelings by Trevor Jones

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Architecture carries history. Or so we seem to believe. The stones and beams, the carvings and ornaments are imbued with messages that travel seamlessly across the centuries from the long-dead craftsman’s hands to the modern mind and sensibilities. Visiting Poland confuses this process because buildings, in fact nearly whole cities, have been rebuilt as near-exact replicas of what existed before. So which part of what one feels comes from the original making, and which part in the perception?

This is an example of the kind of thoughts that drifted in to my mind between the leisurely coffees and exploratory strolls of my Polish holiday this year. We arrived in Gdansk, somewhere I should have known about (the second world war started there) but didn’t. I took photos, of course, but they couldn’t capture the claustrophobia or the vertigo that a previously unknown building - St Mary’s Church - induced in me. The scale, also, was insufficiently described when viewed on a smartphone screen, hardly the way to actually experience a building after all. The exterior clearly advertises the claims to fame the guidebooks make about it being the “biggest brick church in the world”. It is greedy and brooding as it masks the sky from view.

This presence, an austere looming over insignificant humans, is exaggerated by its brick clothing. Its shear size relies upon layer upon layer of this most human-scaled unit, this baked bit of earth that fits in one’s hands, with its thumb-sized joints and fingertip scaled texture. No matter what structural lectures one attended at architecture school about strength in compression and masonry bonding, it seems inconceivable that this brick edifice, reaching into a crescendo of spires and spikes and punctuated by elongated windows, can reach such a around the huge mass of the building for over a day of sightseeing, we were offhand - even foolhardy - in our decision to go inside and follow the general crowd heading up the tower.

Penetrating the dark and rust-reminiscent brick skin, the white interior is a surprise. Again the scale feels vast but in an elegant, soaring and uninterrupted fashion rather than the slight menace of the stacked bricks. The scallops articulating the underside of the roof are quite beautiful, organic like petals or stars; a filigree, like solidified fabric catching the light. However, our glances upwards were brief, intent as we were to climb the tower, as good tourists are instructed to do. So we paid our fee and brazenly started to climb the stone steps.

The creeping horror of claustrophobia is hard to describe. The stairs barely an arm’s reach across spiralled coolly and solidly. I remember the feel of the cold masonry walls, for there are no handrails or grips, being damp, but this may not be true. I recall the smell of damp too, and the echoing of footsteps and sound of breathing. Time expanded in that twisting tower and the scale slowly suffocated. Up and up we went, as if in time with a slow ticking.

Little did I expect to arrive halfway up into an Escher drawing: a scratchy, grey, vertiginous series of stairs and walkways floating in an enclosed but suddenly vast space. A contraption of timber, brick and concrete contained in the brick skin like the home of a mad inventor. Looking down at this point paid off for one found oneself examining the dusty, mottled scalloped topsides of the pristine arches below. Concrete stretched like skin across ribs, like a magician giving away the secret to his tricks.

Metal cages rattled as we now mounted steel stairs, the metallic smell layering onto the dank and dust already in the air. Huge bells, almost in reach if not for the wire enclosures, threatened to pull the whole edifice down around us by their sheer weight.

And, at last, at the top of this dream-like sequence, a propped ladder took us out onto the roof. It was tiny and disappointing, with a bored attendant roasting in the sun. Trapped like animals on this small platform the green of the copper spires winked at us unnaturally. The city sprawled around us but gave away few stories. The shiny tiles formed an overheated terracotta prison of artificially high, baked slivers of earth offering little in the way of comfort.

The descent was an exaggerated reversal of the experience already described. The masonry walls smooth and unyielding beneath one’s hands. The danger of tripping and falling overwhelmed the senses. Light from mobile phones only added eeriness.

Once on solid ground again, the interior contained by the monstrous construction was both more and less impressive. The white was refreshing and the windows familiar. The slabs underfoot were reassuring. But we felt like we’d endured and survived something and this subsumed the traditional tourist experience. My memories of the building are a series of disparate elements and feelings: of darkness and light, coldness and heat, solidity and instability. It’s hard to assemble them into a coherent whole.

Perhaps the strange history of making and then re-making after violent and wilful destruction somehow creates architectural incoherence. Just imagine all of the hands that have made and remade that building. Did they feel linked to the builders that came before? Were they trying to represent their time or a specific past time? Did they imagine us, in the future, using the building, touching the parts they’d made? The changing methods used to build, replicate, mend and replace contribute to the feeling that nothing quite adds up to a single entity. It’s like an attempt to freeze time has actually dissolved reality. Forms were copied but with new materials, new technologies and sense became distorted. Or perhaps, it’s a question of something more fundamental: that the horror and grief of things experienced and witnessed over 700 years have simply been built into the brickwork, as real as materials, and that’s what’s so disquieting.

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