We have to find ways to bridge the divide between art and architecture and create truly iconic images that heal the rift in our contemporary world view, argues Julian Spalding
It’s a joke among curators that architects take their revenge on art when they design galleries. The most famous instance is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, built for paintings to hang on walls that curve and sculptures to stand on floors that slope. This was, of course, before the putsch of conceptual art, which betrays its spuriousness by squatting in spaces, rather than creating its own.
No one in the past would have understood our current distinction between architecture and art. The job of both was to create imaginative, meaningful space, the only difference being that buildings were usable as well.
Pyramids fall between our modern conceptions of art and architecture, being useless yet massive constructions. But they express what both art and architecture in the past were about: to make apparent our profoundest perceptions of life.
The problem for us is that our perception of life, our ‘world picture’, has changed so greatly in recent years that we’ve become blind to the meaning of the great monuments of the past.
Our world picture begins to form when we’re very young, when we tirelessly ask ‘why?’ in our attempt to see how everything fits together. Then we cocoon our minds in assumptions that protect us from uncomfortable uncertainties beyond.
When we broke through the taboo of carving into our mother’s bones, we developed stone building with remarkable speed
Artists and architects throughout history have given physical form to their world pictures, which have never been more substantial than illusions, although people always think that they’re a reality that is fixed for all time, as we do of our world picture today.
Until the past 500 years most people around the globe, very sensibly, assumed that the world was flat. This assumption had a profound affect on everything we did and made. Water always remains horizontal whichever way you tilt the cup. The tides were only explicable if the earth itself was moving, breathing in and out as if it were alive, for water cannot rise of its own volition.
Our first world picture had at its heart the Mother Earth, an immense, breathing, hirsute, life-giving body, floating on the ocean of the universe. The Stone Age is a total misnomer for the long period of our history when it was taboo to cut into what we still call the ‘living rock’. Our architecture then was purposefully ephemeral and has disappeared.
When we did eventually break through the taboo of carving into our mother’s bones, crucially in Egypt a mere 4,500 years ago, we developed stone building with remarkable speed. Only a century separates the first elaborate stone buildings at Saqqara from the world’s biggest, the Great Pyramid at Giza.
The top of this pyramid stands precisely above the centre of its immaculately flat base – a bewildering achievement, since it was made of two and a half million hand-chiseled limestone blocks fitted together with gaps of less than half a millimeter.
Swiss author Erich von Däniken, given his space-age world picture, had no idea what pyramids were for, and thought aliens must have built them. But the truth is that pyramids were much more down-to-earth. They were erected in Mexico, Egypt and China to bind the forces that held the flat world together, to prevent disasters rocking it. Their immense weight harnessed the most mysterious force of all – gravity, the power that pulled us down to our grave in opposition to the life force that raised us up.
People believed, as many still do, that our souls had come from the stars. We took pride in walking upright, whereas today, in our round world, we slouch.
People believed that pyramids stood at the centre of their flat world, which had to be square, for it had four directions. Amazingly, pyramids the world over were alike, but this was because their builders didn’t know that other people and other centres existed.
The fact that no contemporary documents explain why people built pyramids or any of the other great monuments of the past was not because the reason for their shape was a secret kept close by an élite, but because it was too obvious to mention. The Parthenon was the Greeks’ vision of a beautifully ordered, rectilinear universe, which celebrated the daily journey of the sun and encompassed, within its dark interior, the Mother Goddess Athena, floating on a flat lake. Its sculptures should be returned to it because its art and architecture were aspects of a whole.
Gothic cathedrals were symbolic journeys of rebirth from west to east, culminating in elevation to the stars, built by northern people who still believed in the magical power of trees.
The Taj Mahal was a vision of the drop of divine semen, described in the Koran, falling on the light along the horizon, the veil that bathes our lives, from birth to death, in mystery.
After Columbus had sailed over the edge of the world and come back, Pope Julius II ordered the destruction of Emperor Constantine’s old rectilinear St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and built a new church in which everything curved, from the pillars to Bernini’s world-embracing colonnade.
He commissioned Michelangelo to paint a ceiling to reassure any doubters that God still reigns over us despite the roundness of the earth. The word ‘baroque’ means ‘misshapen pearl’ – the new spherical world had to bulge to accommodate heaven.
We have now come to see ourselves as inhabitants of a tiny planet spinning in the immensity of space. This vision was given architectural form by Jørn Utzon in his Sydney Opera House, which consists of segments of a sphere ranged to look like sails, gleaming white, as if our planet were going somewhere – an image of hope, beauty and technological advance in the space age.
Sydney Opera House construction phase 2 1966
Thirty years later this vision had soured. We realised we’d become a disease on the face of the earth and were destroying our fragile environment. Frank Gehry, in his Bilbao Guggenheim, caught the world’s imagination by creating an image of a bubble in the process of disintegrating, just after it had burst.
There is still bad feeling between art and architecture. Many curators think that Gehry’s Guggenheim is just as oppressive of the art it contains as Frank Lloyd Wright’s. We have to find ways to bridge this divide.
Art and architecture both spring from our need to give visual expression to our perception of who and where we think we are. We nowadays know a great deal more about the universe but this doesn’t make our existence any less mysterious than it always was.
We will need to harness all our visual creativity to create truly iconic images for our times that encapsulate our sense of truth and wonder. And to achieve that, architecture and art will have to join forces again.
Julian Spalding is an historian of culture and former director of art galleries in Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow. His book Realisation: From Seeing to Understanding, published by Wilmington Square Books (£8.99 paperback) was chosen by The Times newspaper as an Art Book of the Year in 2015