THE SYMBOLISM OF ARCHITECTURE
Buildings have power. Just in terms of their sheer size, they command human respect – and the more imposing, aged, skilfully constructed and ornate the building is, the more power it has over us. Expensive to site, to construct, to furnish and even to maintain, every building and structure represents an investment of resources. As such, they are a natural backdrop for symbolic meaning. The most basic level of architectural symbolism is in broadcasting the building’s purpose. The White House in Washington DC, with its covered porch, curtained windows and broad wings, is clearly a home – and just as clearly a magnificent one, on a grand scale. Westminster Cathedral, in London, is obviously a place of worship. The more prestigious a building, the likelier it is to make a strong declaration on this level. At a deeper level, different elements of a building’s specific design can also carry volumes of meaning. Even something as basic as the position and design of a window makes a statement about the building’s role with respect to the outside world – large, expansive ground-level windows are an invitation in, and probably mark a shop; little slits are a warning to keep out, and most likely indicate a prison or medieval keep.
Every piece of architecture is of course symbolic in its own right, as well. Buildings carry encoded within their shape a whole wealth of significance and meaning. Any structure immediately declares all sorts of information regarding it’s owner or inhabitant’s wealth, status, taste, history and circumstance. Just by the fact of its existence, and the market forces involved in owning and maintaining structures, a building comes to summarise certain lifestyles and attitudes. A small, grimy mid-terrace town house and a ramshackle old cottage may both indicate comparative poverty, but even so the associations of the two structures are very different.
Design philosophy, as well, has significant bearing on a building’s symbolic structure. Modernist architecture – the infamous featureless concrete block – was a rallying cry of efficiency, utility, practicality and value over sentiment. When the Post-modernist backlash occurred against Modernism, it emphasised playfulness, visual impact and sheer exuberant fun, at the cost of architectural features that were utterly superfluous, useless even. But it was a strong symbolic statement: “There is more to life than soul-less purpose.” Perhaps inevitably, architecture since then has fallen between these two extremes, acknowledging that beauty is as important as utility, and that both cost and aesthetics have value. Even so, something as superficial as last-minute exterior styling can greatly influence a building’s symbolic power. Consider the differences between similar buildings, one styled after a pagoda and one decorated with mock-Tudor beams.
Which brings us back to the White House, with it’s high-impact white dome and pillars. Right from the start, George Washington was determined that the presidential home had to indicate the power and status of the president to other nations and rulers. It was designed to mimic Imperial style, showcasing the majesty of his new republic. It had to dazzle and awe, to show that America was strong, capable of as much pomp and ceremony as any other nation. At the same time, it had to show the citizens of the nation the best that their country – and they themselves – could aspire to. Although Washington never slept in the building, his vision for it endures. It is a living symbol of American power and hegemony, the “People’s House”, the heart of the American Dream. With its famous reputation for excellence in all things, it strives to symbolise American culture itself.
Washington’s ‘Masonic Zodiac’
Given the influence that Freemasonry undoubtedly played in the formation of the fledgling United States – Washington was a dedicated life-long Mason, as were many other founding fathers – it is perhaps inevitable that modern-day conspiracy theorists and anti-Masonic detractors should seek to find evidence of gigantic cover-ups in the capital. The human mind is particularly adept at picking out patterns. It is the defining characteristic of how our brains work. So those who have sought patterns in the layout of the city have found them, and found them in abundance.
According to the conspiracy theorists and Masonic detractors, several gigantic symbols can be seen built into the very layout of Washington, D.C. The most famous of Freemasonry’s symbols is the crossed Square and Compass. A reasonable impression of this symbol can be found starting at Capitol Hill. Taking the Capitol building itself as the head-point of the figure, the left leg of the compass is said to be formed by Pennsylvania Avenue and to extend down to stand on the White House, while the right leg of the compass is Maryland Avenue, extending down to the Jefferson Memorial. The square that crosses the design is formed by Canal Street and Louisiana Avenue.
As if this were not proof enough (sic) of some fuzzy evil-doing on the part of Freemasons or Satanists or, well, someone, the White House itself is said to be the southern-most tip of an inverted Pentagram – a sign that has recently come to be associated by the popular media with Satanic activity. The inverted pentagram spreads up north from the White House, inside the intersections of Connecticut Ave and Vermont Ave north to Dupont and Logan Circles, with Rhode Island Ave and Massachusetts Ave going to Washington Circle to the west and Mt. Vernon Square to the east. The centre of this pentagram, a terrifyingly evil thirteen blocks north of the White House, is the Masonic House of the Temple on 16th Street. Some theorists even go so far as to include the location of a Masonic ‘Rule’ symbol cunningly encoded into the city… in the form of a straight line.
Pentagons and Pentagrams
For conspirologists looking for evidence of Satan’s hand in the US government, the final nail in the coffin comes in the admitted unusual form of the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Department of Defense. As five regular concentric five-sided polygons, all the Pentagon is missing is the internal connecting threads to turn it into a “Satanic” (sic) pentagram. An awful lot of paranoid conspiracy buffs take this as a certain sign that the US military machine is in league with Lucifer himself. Some even maintain that the missing links are in place in the form of underground corridors connecting the five wings, and that the spot in the very centre of the courtyard is actually a prison for vile demonic entities.
The Department of Defense has a predictably mundane explanation, of course. The five-sided shape of the structure was supposedly chosen to represent the five war-time branches of the US military: the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard. That is as may be, although the inclusion of the Coast Guard – who are not overseen by the Department of Defense during peace times – seems to be stretching the simile a little.
The number five has plenty of provenance as an appropriate symbol for the Department of Defense in its own right, however. As well as representing vigilance (via the five senses), five was the number sacred to the Greek God Ares (and his Roman counterpart Mars), the God of War. In the Kabbalah, the fifth Sephiroth is that of Geburah, which symbolises the severity and will-power to do that which is necessary to protect the whole. With its five by five structure, the Pentagon could quite easily be an ancient Greek temple to the God of War.
Architectural details can carry just as much symbolic weight as entire buildings, of course. The Pantheon in Rome is one of the city’s oldest surviving structures. It was originally built as a temple to the Roman gods in 27BC, remodelled in 120AD, and converted to a church in 608AD, which is how it survived. Architecturally symmetrical, the temple dome is the same width as the height of the walls, a massive 143 feet. The dome was made from poured concrete by Hadrian’s architects, using a technique which was then lost for well over a thousand years, and it was the world’s largest dome until well into the twentieth century. Its sanctity as a temple however is derived from a 30-foot hole in the top of the dome, the Oculus, or all-seeing eye of the heavens. All the temple’s illumination is provided by the Oculus, and internal markings provide information about time, date and the equinoxes and solstices. The Oculus is the breath of the divine in the structure – light, information, access to the heavens, fresh air, a way of staying in contact with nature… It is the symbolic power of the Oculus that turns an impressive feat of architecture into a sacred space.
At the opposite end of the scale, overt power and massive-scale work can be used to make a comparatively subtle symbolic point – even without leaving Rome. In 1929, the Vatican recognised Mussolini’s Fascist Italy as a state. To celebrate, Mussolini proposed a splendid new thoroughfare, the Via della Conciliazione, or ‘Reconciliation Street’, to lead straight up from the Tiber river to St. Peter’s. A slum dating back to Roman times, the Borgo, was sprawled in the way, so Mussolini had it torn down, along with the buildings either side of existing roads and any other structures in the way.
In their place, the government built a wide, gleaming road lined with buildings that exemplified the best in Fascist architecture. The view of the Vatican that the new road provided from the river was – and still is – breathtaking. But the new street, wide and in perfect repair, lined with first-rate buildings, also doubled as a perfect symbolic stage for parades, marches and rallies. The Vatican at its head merely added a subtle touch of historical and religious authority to any activity. The very fact that so much havoc and relocation should be undertaken merely to provide a venue with a little extra symbolic authority is, in itself, a very strong symbolic statement of power.
In some instances, entire landscapes can become symbolic spaces. Glastonbury is a small town in south-west England. Although it is now surrounded by farmland, until the 6th century it was almost entirely surrounded by marshland, and the Celtic people are known to have considered it a very holy place, a gateway to the next world, and possibly even the isle of the dead itself. Glastonbury is literally shaped and surrounded by an amazing number of Christian and pre-Christian holy sites, including two sacred hills, an abbey, two holy wells and a supposed ring of earth-line figures representing zodiac signs.
The best-known feature of the town is probably Glastonbury Tor, a pendulous natural hill tipped with a thirteenth-century tower, all that remains of a church to St. Michael. The hill is carved with an ancient Celtic earth maze, a set of ridged paths that leads about and around the hill repeatedly in a sacred spiral dance, until it finally comes to the top. According to Celtic legend, this was the site of an entrance to the realms of Annwn, the underworld, and there is a legend about St. Collen meeting Gwyn Ap Nudd, the King of the Fae himself, on top of the hill. The Tor is a very strong symbol of the power of mother earth. The hill with its tower (earlier, a stone circle or spiral may have adorned the top) is clearly reminiscent of a female breast. The spiral maze surrounding it is a serpent-line, a physical symbol of spiritual power and energy, and the acquisition of knowledge.
The other important hill in Glastonbury is at the other side of the town. Wearyall Hill is supposed to be where Joseph of Arimathea landed following his departure from the Holy Land after Christ’s crucifixion. He planted his staff in the hill, and it is said that a holy thorn tree grew from it that flowered twice a year, once around Christmas and once around Easter. At the end of the hill, Bride’s Mound used to be the site of a holy well devoted to the celtic fire goddess, along with two chapels, one to her Christian counterpart St. Brigit, and one to Mary Magdalene. A stone now marks the covered well. With symbolism drawing on all four of the classical elements – Brigit, Joseph’s staff, and thorns all representing fire, Mary Magdalene and the well for water, the hill itself representing both earth and air – this would have been a very powerfully-associated spot.
At the foot of the Tor, two still-active holy wells nestle in the grounds of the abbey. The Chalice Well is so-called because legend says that it is the hiding-place of The Holy Grail, as deposited by Joseph after his arrival. It is known to have been in continual use for at least two thousand years, and possibly much more. For a portion of the year, the waters of the Chalice Well run red, due to iron content. Symbolically though, it is said to represent the menstrual blood of the earth mother – and chalices themselves symbolise the divine womb from which all goodness pours forth. As such, they are the essence of life itself, the earth’s gift to sustain all living things. The Chalice Well has never failed (unlike many springs, which go dry from time to time) and as such is also symbolic of eternal and boundless life force. To the Celtic tribes, wells and springs were gateways to the spirit world, places where the veil rubbed thin. With its red waters, the Chalice Well was particularly appropriate for communing with the goddess.
The counterpart of Chalice Well is the White Spring, which flows from underneath the Tor. Its waters are high in limestone, which gives them their white colour. Known as a healing well, the White Spring is another powerful gift of the earth mother, symbolising the milk from her breast. This is doubly emphasised by spring’s origin in the Tor.
From the earliest times right up until the rule of Henry VIII, Glastonbury town and the surrounding area had been set aside from the laws of the land. The ruined abbey is a testament of those times, when all legal issues for the town were decided by a council of twelve priests. Even the kings had no authority in the town. Its holiness was deemed so great that it was left to govern itself. Henry revoked that right when he destroyed the abbey and slaughtered the monks, but the ruins of the Abbey still symbolise the town’s sanctity.
The most ambitiously speculative – and least known – element of the town’s landscape is the Temple of the Stars, a set of twelve astrological symbols surrounding the town. Said to spread ten miles wide, the Temple was supposedly constructed on the advice of Merlin, King Arthur’s wizard. It was formed from dykes, roadways, paths and earthworks, depicting the old zodiac signs in a wheel around the town. It was long-lost, until its supposed rediscovery in the 1920s. Real or not, a ring of signs around the town is another strong symbolic link to the feminine mystic principle, in a town already dominated by it.
The Past Reflects The Present
A more enigmatic – and far more famous – use of sacred space is the world-renowned megalithic monument Stonehenge, also in southern England. Construction at Stonehenge took place in a number of phases. The first phase, around 3000BC, was the construction of a circular ditch and bank, the henge itself. Just inside that was a ring of 56 pits, which may have held a ring of wooden posts and cross-bars, and four ‘station stones’ were arranged inside the circle in a rectangle. A break was left open in the henge bank, marked by the placement of the so-called Slaughter Stone, and the Heel Stone was some 80ft away, down the avenue.
After some uncertain construction two hundred years later, possibly wooden, the next major phase was around 2100BC, when an inner ring of five massive ‘trilithons’ – two pillar stones joined by a horizontal lintel stone across the top – was constructed, and surrounded closely by a ring of thirty tall pillar stones joined at the top into a circle with thirty horizontal lintel stones. Over the next five hundred years, an innermost horseshoe of giant standing stones was added inside trilithon ring, and another ring of sixty standing stones was erected between the trilithon horseshoe and the lintel circle. Finally, around 1400BC, two more rings of pits (the Z and Y holes) were dug outside the lintel circle, again possibly holding wooden constructions.
Some facts pertaining to Stonehenge’s symbolic meaning are certain. The giant sarsen stones, each weighing up to 45 tons, must have come from a quarry 30 kilometres away. Without the use of wheels as a technology, that must have been a serious feat of construction. The smaller bluestone rocks weigh around four tons each – a mere four tons – but can only have come from the Preseli Mountains in Wales, almost 400 kilometres away.
Then there is the famous matter of the monument’s solar alignment. On midsummer’s day, at dawn, the sun shines through the largest trilithon rocks to illuminate the innermost altar stone, which (when cleaned) sparkles, thanks to its mica content. It is the only day of the year on which that happens. Then, a few minutes later, the shadow of the heel rock falls through the same path, and it too covers the altar stone. The Z and Y circles hold 30 and 29 pits each, which averages at 29.5 holes, the precise length in days of the lunar cycle. It must have been an important spot, because more than four hundred burial mounds are to be found nearby.
There are many competing ideas regarding Stonehenge’s true purpose and meaning, of course. In terms of modern symbolic thought, the concentric rings are representative of the female womb, particularly with the opening of the avenue. The sun – and shadow – piercing the symbolic womb at midsummer makes for a powerful temptation to describe Stonehenge as a temple to the earth mother and sky father. The powerful stones penetrating the earth may emphasis this aspect.
There also appears to be quite a lot of astronomical lore bound up in the rings and patterns, enough so that some theorists believe the site to be a giantic calculator – although why, in this case, it would have been built in stone and not wood is never explained. The concentric rings, reinforced, have led occasional theorists to suggest that the site was a mystic prison, holding some mythic evil in place (now long-escaped, presumably). Other, less ornate megalithic sites have led some new-age thinkers to suggest that Stonehenge is a power conduit, an energy sink for a theoretic earth force. It has even been suggested, perhaps semi-seriously, that Stonehenge is supposed to represent a giant ribcage.
In fact, there is only one thing that Stonehenge definitely symbolises today, and that is easily its most important association – the mystery, power and elegance of prehistorical enigmas.
The Louvre is one of France’s most enduring symbols of grandeur. Now one of the pre-eminent museums in the world, it has had many illustrious functions over the course of its career. It was first built as a fortress in 1190 by then King Philippe-Auguste, to protect the royal family and their valuables from thieves and attackers. In 1360, Charles V reworked the building extensively, turning it into a light and airy palace. It then remained the seat of the French Kings for centuries, until the court eventually moved to Versaille. In 1726, it started its life as a museum, but it was only in 1793 that it was opened to the public. Its magnificent collection includes European paintings from the Renaissance (1400) through to 1900, European sculpture from the Gothic period (1100) up to 1900, selected artwork from Asia and Classical Greece, Rome & Egypt, and a selection of important furniture and jewellery.
The Louvre held a reputation for being confusing to navigate for years – some areas of the palace were out of bounds, pushing the museum’s internal structure into a twisted L-shape – and people even had difficulty finding the way in. Its most recent reorganisation aimed to simplify the internal structure, opening up a closed-off wing and restricting access to the more confusing locations. A new grand entrance was marked by an enigmatic pyramid of glass in the courtyard, designed by the architect I.M. Pei.
The original building is a masterpiece of palatial grandeur. Executed in classic European style, it is tastefully ornate on yet a massive scale, a clear display of power, wealth and status combining with aesthetic sensibility. It is a building that makes one think that the inhabitants are not ‘richer’ so much as simply ‘better’. Like most institutional places of cultural significance, it aims to over-awe and impress the visitor before they ever get inside. ‘This is important’, the architecture says symbolically. ‘More important than mere people. Pay attention. Learn about your superiors.’ While modern museums and art galleries are gradually moving away from this emphasis on architectural space, this cultural imperialism is absolutely standard in older buildings. The British Museum, like the Louvre, remains a towering, awe-inspiring edifice, a temple of knowledge at which the profane can come and worship in the hope that the merest speck of enlightenment may rub off on them.
All of which makes Pei’s pyramid harder to understand. In a clear homage to ancient Egypt, it is built along the same general rules, save that it is made entirely of untinted glass. It is smaller than the surrounding building – just – so as not to detract from it, yet that merely focuses the attention more. It invites visitors in, but then dumps them in a retail zone under the museum, rather than in the museum itself. It is context free, as bland as possible, unthreatening – and so jars horribly with the shameless majesty of the Louvre. All glass and steel, the pyramid is ultra-modern, hi-tech, almost analogous to a television or computer screen: all things that the USA are, but that the French are not. In the end, what it really seems to symbolise is the transformation of art into product, the great commoditisation impulse of modern American culture reaching into Europe’s historic roots.
A totally different ethic was at work during the design and construction of the Canadian Museum of Civilization opposite the Parliament Hill in Ottawa’s Parc Laurier. Designed to suggest natural forms and geological processes, it’s evocation of the landscape of post-glacial Canada quickly earned it significant public interest, and status as an important global cultural project.
The CMC building concentrates on integration, evocation and inclusion rather than overwhelming awe. In a country of immigrants, a unified national image is a very necessary tool. Rather than try to bully people into respecting a collection, as the Victorian-era museum movement did, the CMC seeks to get its visitors excited about learning more. In homage to the first human inhabitants of the landscape, some fifteen thousand years ago, it attempts to recall the landscape that they would have been met by.
The Curatorial wing holds the museum’s collection vaults, the massive secure storage areas where objects that are not being currently displayed are held, for preservation or research. Symbolically, this is the museum’s buried wealth, and the building itself seeks to reflect that. Architecturally, it is designed to call to mind the Canadian Shield, the bedrock outcrop which holds so much of the nation’s mineral wealth.
By contrast, the façade of the public wing is the huge glass spread of the Great Hall. Designed to call to mind the front of a melting glacier, the public wing is pregnant with possibility and creation. Copper vaulted roofs will eventually be covered with verdigris, symbolising grass and vegetation reclaiming the frozen territories. At night, the Great Hall is lit from the inside, glittering across Ottawa like a jewel, tempting them to come and investigate for themselves. The hall itself is shaped rather like a canoe on the inside, highlighting its native debt.
Unlike the traditional western grid pattern, the Public Wing of the museum is laid out along the basis of a pair of parallel lines, intersected by a circular track. This creates the feeling of a crossroads rather than a hall – an appropriate symbol for a country that has been, culturally, a crossroads where people from all parts of the world have come and exchanged elements of themselves. In never buying the myth of the immigrant melting-pot, Canada has become something more important and honest: an exchange. The layout of the public wing symbolises the power of that structure.
From first inception through to last stroke of execution, the CMC seeks to avoid preaching, dominating or patronising in any way. Instead, it symbolises the national spirit of exploration and independence – an empowering contrast to the mores of old Europe.
There are certain symbolic elements common to the spaces that the major religions make use of, right the way around the world. The buildings are set apart from their surroundings, either literally by walls, hedges and distance, or figuratively, by differences in architecture and style. There is an entry space, when you noticeably move from the profane to the sacred. Inside, there is a deliberate cultivation of stillness, usually compounded by dramatic lighting and, where possible, oppressive or impressive architecture. The common idea, of course, is to emphasis those powers greater than man, and to leave the visitor in no doubt as to where he or she stands.
The superlative church in Christendom – the largest, grandest, most historically rooted, most decorated with masterpieces of artwork, and so on – is St. Peter’s Basilica at the entry to the Vatican, as befits the heart of the Catholic religion. Thoroughly traditional in its use of symbolism, it seeks to convey a strong sense of awe and historicity. To be in St. Peter’s is to be humbled in the presence of the Lord and his Church. Despite the changes recommended by the Vatican II conclave – namely, making church architecture and services more accessible – St. Peter’s remains unashamedly resplendent.
The current basilica was commissioned during the reign of Pope Nicholas V, 1447 to 1455AD. The old basilica dated back over a thousand years to 325AD, and by the fifteenth century it was in a very poor state of repair. Nicholas asked local master architect Bernardo Rossellino to design a replacement. Work started in 1452, but was stopped on Nicholas’ death, and not resumed until the early years of the sixteenth century, by which time all that had been achieved was the demolition of the old basilica. Pope Julius commissioned another architect redesign the replacement, Donato Bramante. He started a plan based on a Greek (equal-armed) cross with a large central dome.
Bramante himself died soon after taking the commission, in 1511, and the work passed to the master Raphael, assisted by Antonio da Sangallo and Giocondo da Verona. They perceived more space was needed, and changed the design to a Latin cross plan. Construction started, but outlasted the architects once again – the last, da Sangallo, dying in 1546. Michelangelo was commissioned, and returned some elements to Bramante’s design, along with doing design work on the dome. Construction however outlasted not only Michelangelo, but also two more architects, Vignola and Giacomo della Porta. The dome was finally completed in 1589 by Domenico Fontana, and inaugurated in 1593, and the last elements of construction, some new chapels and a façade designed by Carlo Maderno, were completed in 1614 – a full 162 years since work had been started.
This history alone is a strong symbolic statement of the power and authority of the building. A century and a half in the making, realised with the vision of ten master architects and countless scores of craftsmen and artisans… this is a building that took twice as long to be born as most of us can hope to live. Such endeavour is a very powerful symbol of the Church Eternal.
The Benediction Loggia runs above the entrances to the church. This is the balcony from which the Pope gives his Christmas and Easter blessings to the square, the city and the globe, and when a new pope is elected, the announcement is made from here. Symbolically, the Loggia – and the Basilica itself – are the interface between the Catholic church and the world at large. In keeping with this, the archway to the left side of the basilica is the Arch of Bells, and serves as the entrance into the Vatican State; a visa is needed to enter.
The entrance to the church itself consists of five ornately-illustrated doorways, representing the breadth of human experience of religion. The leftmost door is the Door of Death, illustrated with scenes showing the passings of the Virgin Mary, Christ and Pope John XXIII. The next is the Door of Evil and Good, depicting scenes of St. Augustine defeating heresy, various martyrdoms, and the Vatican II council. In the centre, doors from the original basilica form the official standard entrance, and depict scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary, and the apostles Peter and Paul. To their right, the Door of Sacrament depicts the grace in all acts of sacrament, and on the far right, the Door of the Holies is illustrated with a range of scenes including Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, the Annunciation, and the conversion of St. Paul.
A totally different form of symbolic holy space is found in the Church of St. Brendan the Navigator, in Hilliard, Ohio. St. Brendan was an Irish monk from the sixth century AD who legendarily searched the oceans around Ireland looking for the Isla Beata, the Blessed Isles. During this time he certainly made it to Scotland, Wales, England and France, and it is thought he may have ventured as far as Greenland and the Canary Isles.
Building on the symbolic power of St. Brendan’s spiritual journey, the Ohio church dedicated to him has had its roof designed so that its front looks like the prow of a mighty ship. Symbolically, the church is Brendan’s boat, and the congregation are joining him on his visionary journeys.
On the inside however, the spatial emphasis is entirely different. The internal space projects upwards, forming a cone over the congregants, symbolising the tents that have been such an integral part of Old Testament lore. Tents have long been symbolic spaces where the visionary can actually contact the divine; they are place to actually meet with god. By consciously linking back to the Tabernacle of the Hebrews, the Holy of Holies which held the Ark of the Covenant, St. Brendan’s is making a powerful statement about being a place outside of the regular world. Christianity, however, is far from the only religion to consider the tent a good place for dealing with divinity.
The focus of this inside space is a large stone altar on a dais that thrusts into the main area of the church. Seats cluster around in semicircles, a symbolic audience for the altar. Square-topped, but with a triangle carved out of the base, the altar is simultaneously table and tomb, container of both life and death. It’s low height is invitational, but to which purpose? A tall monolith stands behind the altar, curiously reminiscent of the megalithic people – a remembrance of Brendan’s Irish heritage perhaps, but, like tent and boat and tomb, hardly a strongly Christian symbol. At what point does invitation and accessibility become dilution?
Map as Territory
Possibly the single largest religious monument ever constructed, the Hindu temple Angkor Wat was built for Khmer King Suryavarman II during the 12th century. The temple was part of Angkor City, the capital of the Cambodian Khmer Empire from the 9th century through to the 15th,which held over a million inhabitants – a scale undreamed of by contemporary Europe. During the fifteenth century, the Hindu temple became an important Theravada Buddhist shrine, but without losing any of its power or meaning.
Widely regarded as an architectural masterpiece still today, Angkor Wat is surrounded by 5km of moat – symbolising the primordial oceans from which the world was birthed – with an ornate 475m causeway crossing it. It’s proportions and sense of balance are masterful, and the detail demonstrated in the sculptures and bas-relief is equally inspirational. With its west-facing orientation and left-to-right bas reliefs – following the standard Hindu funereal patterns – Angkor Wat was almost certainly a funerary monument for Suryavarman.
Vast, complex and beautiful, Angkor Wat is a dazzling complex of towers, chambers, vaults, galleries, courtyards and porches standing up to almost 700 feet tall. The topmost level supports a quincunx cross of five towers, each with a somewhat conical shape, carved towards the top to look like tapering columns of lotus flowers. From profile, the whole temple overall is symbolic of the lotus, representing the true soul in the moment of its opening to perfection. Angkor Wat is the universe in miniature, captured in stone – the cosmos symbolised on earth. Its central tower, rising from the heart of the monument, is the mythical Mount Meru, at the heart of the Hindu Universe. Furthermore, together the five towers are Meru’s five peaks. The outermost wall represents the mountains at the edge of the world; beyond it, the moat is the primordial ocean. Angkor Wat isn’t just sacred space, it is a symbolic mapping into the heavens itself, at once a representation and identity – a portal on the grandest scale, through which Suryavarman could be passed into the arms of the waiting gods.
Synthesis of Space
In 1953, the Beth Sholom Jewish Community – newly relocated to Elkins Park, Philadelphia – entered into negotiations with one of America’s top architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, to design them a synagogue. Wright rose to the challenge magnificently, and the building – which was inaugurated a few months after his death – has become one of the most celebrated modern synagogues in the western world.
Wright spent many hours in conversation with the community’s founding Rabbi, Mortimer J Cohen. Wright also drew on his own religious knowledge – as the son of a minister, he had a deep experience of the Bible. Determined to convey a powerful religious message, Wright created a structure that still managed to creatively embody and convey many Jewish symbols. As synagogues traditionally merge local architectural styles with with Jewish symbolism, Wright wanted to create a modern American structure that still had a powerful sense of Jewish identity.
The building is hexagonally based, partly to represent the shape of the Jewish holy symbol of the Star of David, and partly to recall the feel of two joined hands, because Wright felt that a place of worship should have the feel of being in God’s very hands. This impression is emphasised by a pair of extensions at the front of the building that represent the thumbs of a pair of joined hands. The main entrance is shaped with a covering which resembles the Cohanim blessing gesture made by the Israelites on entering the Tabernacle, and the building’s three vertical ridges are clearly decorated with Menorah. The roof itself is a towering edifice of gleaming planes that suggests the shining crags of Mount Sinai during the revelation, but also, in a parallel to St. Brendans, recalls sacred tent space, the Tabernacle of David, and even native American Medicine Lodges. It seems less out of place in a place of worship for a culture with a history of architectural syncreticism, however.
Symbolism without Symbols
Of all the major world religions, Islam is the least inclined to make use of symbols, considering representational images inappropriate. This has traditionally posed a few problems for Mosque architects seeking to make a building as impressive or ornate as possible. There are ways to ensure symbolic power without the use of religion-specific symbols, however. Iran’s best-known mosque is the Masjed-é Emam Mosque in Esfahan’s Emam Khomeini Square. A stunning blue-tiled complex, the Masjed-é Emam took 26 years to build during the reign of Shah Abbas I, finally seeing completion in 1638. It’s double-layered dome is over 160 feet tall, and its minarets – the towers from which the call to prayer is issued – are themselves over 120 feet tall.
The mosque is an incredible work of art. Every surface, inside and out, is covered in calligraphic and abstract designs picked out in blue tile with gold highlighting. It is tasteful yet evocative, calming and spiritual, and carries strong symbolic messages of power and sanctity without ever having to resort to depiction of any particular symbol. The internal architecture, which is frequently occluded, serves to heighten the sense of mysticism. The domed central chamber and southern chamber are illuminated by gridwork windows worked into the design of the domes so as to provide a seamless light source. The southern chamber, furthermore, is designed as a perfect echo chamber at a few spots, a further technique for helping to awe and delight the faithful. Despite its absence of depicted symbols, the Masjed-é Emam remains a powerful symbol of religious strength and unity.