Exploring symbolic design strategies in the making of place: experiencing deeper meaning in architecture
The granary, the watchtower, the guiding light — metaphors of transition for 2010>2011
Over 40 years of working as a designer, I’ve been thinking about the idea of a construction being — a place made — built as a allegory of something bigger — a larger symbolic idea. The idea relates to ancient symbolism for architecture — it’s never just a building, it’s surely far more…
But I’m not talking about sacred space (however powerful and impactful that might be) — I’m thinking more, in the opening utility, the idea of the symbolism of more directly “useful” environments and constructions that sustain humanity in varying ways.
That might relate to an experience as a child, being with my grandfather — the farmer in Colorado, exploring silos and grain elevators; then working in, and cleaning out, granaries — those hard metal cylinders of galvanized steel. Moving hay — and grains — barns, haylofts and cereal bins.
To architectural symbols — speaking of deeper utility: there are other forms — like water tanks — great spheres of water, held high, that emblem the spirit of the value of that fluid: precious. Surely, that structure is about gravity — but there are other tiers to that expression in building form. Tanks and places of containment are similarly compelling — that might range to the ancient principle of the aqueduct — the rivered channel from a source, to the outpouring of another source — or from another build containment, the cistern or holding tank, to another place of release. Interestingly, some of the most remarkable places are places of holding — the containment of something powerful (water) cherished and protected in a remote place, that finds its dispersal elsewhere.
Granary, eastern Washington
Towers have also, long been something that causes fascination for me. Seeing one, anyone, the key response is to climb it. If there’s a tower, how can you get up there — to see more? As boy scout, I learned to “lash” timbers to build surveilling towers — founded on ancient Roman principles of mobile, and likely martial, building. My biggest tower was 40′ — four stories, Ponderosa Pine, lash knotted with 1/2 rope, which would be about the Roman fortress standard (the Roman Centurion used leather lashings).
The idea of the tower is something that speaks to the concept of seeing out — being up, seeing out, further. And the guarding tower is the apex of sight, extended in all directions, seeing further than before. That momentary curiosity bespeaks the word: tower. Douglas Harper, etymologist, suggests that the word for tower is almost indescribably ancient — a pre-Indo European Mediterranean tongue (3,000 B.C.E.) — the higher place, viewpoint, light — or guard — tower. Watch tower.
Notes, and variants (see “belfry” as siege tower, for example) — here:
O.E. torr, from L. turris “high structure” (cf. O.Fr. tor, 11c.; Sp., It. torre “tower”), possibly from a pre-I.E. Mediterranean language. Also borrowed separately 13c. as tour, from O.Fr. tur. The modern spelling first recorded in 1520s. Meaning “lofty pile or mass” is recorded from mid-14c. The verb is attested from c.1400.
c.1300, “small tower,” from O.Fr. touret (12c.), dim. of tour “tower,” from L. turris (see tower). Meaning “low, flat gun-tower on a warship” is recorded from 1862, later also of tanks. Related: Turreted.
late 13c., “siege tower,” from O.N.Fr. berfroi “movable siege tower” (Mod.Fr. beffroi), from M.H.G. bercfrit “protecting shelter,” lit. “that which watches over peace,” from bergen “to protect” + frid “peace.” Originally a wooden siege tower on wheels (“free” to move); it came to be used for chime towers (mid-15c.), which at first often were detached from church buildings (as the Campanile on Plaza San Marco in Venice). Spelling altered by association with bell.
1823, “gateway to an Egyptian temple,” from Gk. pylon “gateway,” from pyle “gate,” of unknown origin. Meaning “tower for guiding aviators” (1909) led to that of “steel tower for high-tension wires” (1923).
1650s, “pertaining to the Etruscans,” from L. Tyrrheni, from Gk. Tyrrenoi “Tyrrhenians,” from tyrsis “tower, walled city” (cf. L. turris “tower”). EarlierTyrrhene (late 14c.).
“high, rocky hill,” O.E. torr “tower, rock.” Obviously cognate with Gael. torr “lofty hill, mound,” O.Welsh twrr “heap, pile;” and probably ult. from L. turris “high structure” see tower). But sources disagree on whether the Celts borrowed it from the Anglo-Saxons or the other way round.
Bear in mind, to reference, that this is merely the touch of the definition — that tower extends to many other words of height, erection, sight, light, watchfulness, sentinel, defense. To see the spread of Douglas’ overview, go here.
The most lonely, and the most powerful architectural symbol for me has long been the light house, or the light — or watch — tower. This is, too, perhaps the most ancient expression as well — of light seeker. The longest run back in time would be Semitic — for menorah, from minaret – the heart of that word being “nar” or light. The Semitic stem shows — n-w-r ” — to give light, shine” (cf. Arabic nar “fire,” manarah “candlestick, lighthouse, tower of a mosque,” (see minaret — Arabic manarah, manarat “lamp, lighthouse, minaret,” related to manar “candlestick,” derivative of nar “fire.”) The beauty of the metaphor of architecture, the deeper symbolism of place, making, will be about the construct of a world vision — what is scene, seen, visioned in the presence of the world. What are the heavens but a mantle of stars — a great cosmic tree, a mandala, the circle of heaven, the square of earth? The idea of something being held — even abstractly — in another layering of meaning is powerful in that it creates a kind of layering of experience. One might contemplate something in one construction of world vision — the building that holds a person in safety – but it might, too, be thought of in other ways.
Coming back to the idea of the watchtower, I contemplate:
the spiral journey
the personal spiral: ascension and exploration
the light from within, shining out
the concentrated beam: seeing more
being higher, what can be seen, scene beyond
the curve of space, designed
the telescope — upwards sight
what can be scene beyond — the heightened vista
As I look back to the keys of the world – the changes in the year, for me — I believe that this is one of the most profound. To not only look at the idea of the symbolic underlayment as something that is linked to the heart of experience, but that this thinking can guide nearly everything — every move has a superficial action; every movement has, as well, a deeper underpinning.
My search is for the deeper. And in the quintessential cherishment of experience, I look further to the idea of architecture and design being something profound and containing, about guiding and sensorial connection, and beauty newly found and discovered in the sensing of the touches of being.
Herein, the soul of the work, the story, the craft, the beauty, the brand.
Tim | Miami, FL
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THE DESIGN OF EXPERIENCES AND MEMORY
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