Constructing the Ineffable

I left New Haven this weekend thinking that the YSOA’s conference on sacred space (Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture) had little relevance to my thesis. I didn’t expect it to be especially revelatory, but I had hoped that Friday’s topic, Memory and Identity, would at least give me something to think about. Now, a few days out, I’m thinking that maybe it did give me something to consider.

The weekend’s proceedings lingered over the question of what makes space sacred, with words such as “transcendent,” “beautiful,” “aesthetic,” and “symbolic” surfacing repeatedly. While I am not explicitly interested in spaces of transcendence, I am concerned with spaces that transport or translate—that re-frame the view or re-position the viewer. Everyone at the conference seemed to agree that sacred space was somehow special, apart from daily life, and that its meaning was personal yet also communal, deriving its significance in part through historical narrative. I suspect that these same terms apply to the kind of space in which I am interested—space that shifts and re-frames. At the very least, both types of space are trying to do something, to provoke an altered state, rather than merely accommodating or sheltering.

I’ve been preoccupied with the construction of identity and the way such identity is perceived. At the conference, Miroslav Volf spoke of sacred memory that shapes identity to define sacred communities, claiming that architecture becomes sacred only when it is a site of remembrance, of sacred memory. He also spoke of the manifestation of the sacred as unpredictable and experiential—its meaning found through experience and presumably thus variable based upon individual subjectivity. Interestingly, Volf framed [sacred] memory as concerned with the future (“remembering the future”) insofar as memory shapes our hopes (for the future) and hope influences memory. Sacred space is thus a space not only of experience—of the past made present—but also a horizon—the present projected to the future. Sacred memory defines horizons of expectation: Who we are; Where we belong; What we expect; and What or Whom we ultimately trust.

These four parameters, which Volf identifies as abstractions of the marks of sacred memory, are certainly connected to memory and identity. Whether or not they actually characterize the sacred doesn’t really matter to me, but I do feel the need for some other term to stand in for sacred (a term which I haven’t yet found, or at least haven’t claimed). I’m interested in space that—through its relationship to memory, to self-consciousness, to the positioning of self—looks toward Volf’s “horizons of expectation” without being explicitly sacred space itself.

Given that the manifestation of [sacred] space is unpredictable and experientially based, and that it occurs through inherently personal processes and with probably a high degree of specificity, how can it be…designed? Or, as Mark Taylor put it: if the sacred is ineffable, if it cannot be thought, then how can it be figured? His response was to suggest that perhaps it may be figured through de-figuring. I don’t know what this means, but it sounds snappy. Also snappy was his assertion that violence and the sacred are inseparable, that both provoke terror. He asked what it would mean to memorialize, to imagine, to figure absolute terror, to figure the unfigurable.

Peter Eisenman suggested one possible approach in presenting his Berlin Holocaust Memorial, noting that what is important is the memorial’s silence, its denial of image. And Taylor suggested that (rather than dwelling on the absence of sacred representation) architecture should embody the failure of representation through its gaps and fissures—through the “unavoidable imbrication of the rational and the irrational.”

Gaps and disjuncture; silence; layering; re-positioning experience; shifting perception by moving through space—these are the thoughts that I’ve come away with. Hopefully not so ineffable after all.

1 comment:

bryan said...

I must admit that I've always had difficulty considering Eisenman's memorial to be "without image."It would seem that the heaps of photos of the thing prove that it has captured the collective imagination and provides some sort of recognizable think. Now, I suppose that we generally use "image" to mean "one thing," but when I start to wonder what the relationship is between image and icon. Are the two mutually de-valued? Doesn't pattern recognition begin to build up an image of the thing, arguably something that is even more lasting than any one icon?

Anyways, Taylor's presentation sounds interesting... a sort of architectural regression therapy.