Robertson Davies once said that a truly great book should be read, in youth, again in maturity, and once more in old age; as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.
I personally reckon a great building should be like love; exciting when it is new; dazzling when it is mature and satisfying and permanent when it grows old.
A great building, wrote Louis Kahn, must begin with the immeasurable, must go through the measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be unmeasured.
Let me first state here that I am not an addict of buildings; I am more of an unwilling enthusiast. My passion however, is history, and buildings are simply history cast in stone. You see if you look at any building; you can easily see the aspirations, the hopes and the achievements of a society; the Arc de Triomphe (in Paris) for example was commissioned in 1806 after Emperor Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz.
Buildings glorify what a society deems to be glorious. In ages past,for instance, buildings immortalized conquests; ancient buildings like the Al Hambra remain testament to the Muslim domination of Europe. Today buildings like the Burj Khalifa try to recapture the Islamic renaissance. In today’s world, where wars are not fought in battle fields but in stock markets and through trade, has it ever occurred to anyone that banks tend to have some of the most imposing and elaborate buildings? London’s tallest building, the Shard, is owned by a consortium which includes the Qatar National Bank, QInvest and the Qatari Islamic Bank.
If you look at the list of the World’s tallest buildings it will occur to you that a majority of them have a relationship with banking, trade and finance.
Buildings also play another role; they tell you what a society considers moral or religious. A lot of buildings of note in ages past tended to be places of worship; Islam gave us Charminar and the Shah Mosque – Egypt gave us the Pyramids which played a religious role, Greece was decked by elaborate temples. Christianity provided numerous medieval churches; Isn’t it strange that brothels, for instance, have always been located at the dingy, dark areas since antiquity?
In short, what society is ashamed of cannot be cast in stone, meanwhile every city you can imagine has a tomb to an unknown soldier to celebrate virtues such as bravery or sacrifice.
Mount Rushmore is a sculpture that was intended to represent 150 years of American history; of those years, only Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln were chosen to have their faces on the rock; could you imagine the catastrophe if someone like George Bush Jr. was cast on that mountain?
The Taj Mahal was built during Shah Jahan’s empire and it was the high point of the Mughal dynasty, and it was attribute to the love of his life; his wife Mumtaz, who died while giving birth to their 14th child. Do you think he would have built it for some mistress?
Like Aldous Huxley once said – ‘Marble, I perceive, covers a multitude of sins.’
| The article is a guest post written for A Chiselled Cornucopia by my best buddie, Joseph Kongoro @josekongoro