New Eden (New Harmony IV)

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Nested among a garden of fruit trees next to the Roofless Church in New Harmony is another sculpture by Stephen de Staebler, the Angel of Annunciation, which is easy to overlook, despite its tallness.

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A small plaque on the church wall nearby quotes a poem by Staedler that states that arms are for doing, while wings are for being.DSC 1886

This angel is deeply conflicted. The arm sticks out of his head like the wings. The head itself, whose face is just recognizable as such from the side, is split in half when viewed from the front.

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One of the two feet is cemented in, the other free to walk. Where does this leave us?

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There is another sculpture in this garden, without plaque or any indication of authorship: A piece of wood, hanging from a tree.

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It’s not a sculpture. It’s what is left over from binding the branches of an aging tree together to keep it from breaking and falling apart. An attempt can never completely be a failure. Doing and being can still be one.

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The Roofless Church (New Harmony III)

Most churches I know make a clear claim about what they stand for. As one might expect, the Roofless Church of New Harmony, designed by architect Philip Johnson, is a bit different:

Trees, a brick wall, and behind all that, a hump. That is what it looks like from the outside.

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The distinction between outside and inside is already misleading. There is a proper wall on one side, a gate on the other, a door hidden by smaller piece of wall behind on the third side,

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and a large balcony on the fourth, with a view onto a lake. This gives the enclosure of the church the semipermeability of a skin, both offering protection and letting breathe.

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The interior is simple: A fountain, a few sculptures, no amenities like benches, chairs, or altar. The ambiguities continue with what I called the hump: It is a second enclosure, a large dome made out of cedar shingles, resembling both a bell and a flower that seems to hover over the earth.

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The appearance and the material are organic, but its function is to enclose sound. Lacking human visitors, birds have taken to it, exploring the echo of their voices. 

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I liked this place a lot. There is no force that locks you in or out. Wall and bell coexist in a paradoxical, perfect balance. It is your choice to feel inside or outside, to speak or to be silent.

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The Other Labyrinth (New Harmony II)

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New Harmony has an interesting history. If was founded by a religious group, the Harmonists, in 1814, and sold in its entirety to Robert Owen and William Maclure in 1825, who created an experimental community, offering a public school and library. While this community project failed, many people stayed on, and new and old traces of the traditions are still visible in this town.

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The Harmonists were fond of labyrinths for spiritual enrichment. The original version is gone, but there is a replica from 1939 that one can walk.

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There also is a marble floor plan of a more complex labyrinth. In its reflection, a third labyrinth becomes visible: The Athenaeum, designed by the architect Richard Meier. It is a labyrinth both in its interior and exterior.

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The term labyrinth is sometimes used specifically for the unicursal mazes used for meditation. The mythical purpose of the labyrinth was, however, to contain the Minotaur, and I don’t think a unicursal labyrinth would have helped.

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In the third volume of Julia Golding’s remarkable Companion Quartet, the author adds a twist to the labyrinth metaphor: Connie, the hero, has special abilities, she can bond with mythical animals. When evil forces (required ingredient in most children’s books) threaten to invade the maze of her mind, she makes a Minotaur to its sentinel. 

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In the fourth book, she faces the ultimate evil against which she cannot win, by definition. Her solution is mind bending: She lets it inside her labyrinth and makes it part of herself, becoming a new person.

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On top of  Richard Meier’s amazing building is a narrow bridge like passage, connecting the stairs that lead to the outside labyrinth with the winding stairs that lead inside.

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The Fence Had a Hole (New Harmony I)

The soul pattern of a bridge is a straightforward one, we use it to cross from one state into another. I have mentioned related patterns before, that of multiple crossings and that of the arch. Today we talk about the pattern of the closed bridge.

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This is the Harmony Way Bridge over the Wabash River in the town New Harmony (about which we’ll learn more next time). The bridge opened in 1930 and was used as a toll bridge, and was designated as structurally deficient, and has been closed since 2012.

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It has been clearly adorned with warnings, as you can see. But somebody cut a hole into the fence, and those who know me can guess what happened.

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Which brings us to the point of this pattern: A closed bridge can be used for crossing, but there is a price to pay. You don’t cross such a bridge casually, you hesitate.

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Angelopoulos’ mindshattering film The Suspended Step of the Stork distills this moment of hesitation. What happens in us when we consider to leave, to cross over? 

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Standing there, looking back, and looking forward can last an eternity. Don’t do this often.

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The Chapel (Utah 2019 III)

A little way east of Kanab, along Highway 89, is a popular roadside attraction called the Toadstool Hoodoos. The short trail takes you through a somewhat desolate landscape.DSC 2013

You might encounter children running around and screaming sandwar! and the like, which makes you wonder whether they just toppled all the hoodoos over.

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Most peaceful people come to enjoy the landscape above and hoodoos like the ones below. 

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For me, the main attraction however is a little secluded space at the far wall of the plateau that I called the chapel.

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If it was made by humans, I would call it an intriguing piece of architecture. You can see it as a face or a heart, it is both closed and open.

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The interior has some pre-human wall art to contemplate the passing time.

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Nobody ever goes there.

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Teotihuacan (25 Years Ago)

The first three days of my Winter Break excursion to Mexico in 1993 I spent in Mexico City, and one of them in Teotihuacan.

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By bus it takes about an hour to get there. I should have arrived much earlier, to beat the crowds and have better light. One of the most fascinating aspects of this place is how little we know about it.

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It had been abandoned by about 700 CE, reaching a population well over 100,000 before. The reasons? We don’t know. Who lived there? We don’t know. Of course there are speculations and theories. 

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What fascinates me is the discrepancy between the longevity of what’s preserved and the fragility of what is gone. Did they care what would survive? If we knew we’d be gone in a century, would we care to leave something behind?

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Would it be art, pomp, or an attempt of a message?

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Perhaps it should just be a vision: This is how we liked it to be. This was us. 

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What to keep…

My first visit to Dresden took place in the early 1990s. It was a foggy day in December, and one of my lasting memories is the enormous pile of rubble in the city center. Dresden331

The ruins of the Frauenkirche hadn’t been touched since the bombing at the end of the Second World War, but after the reunification of Germany, a decision to rebuild was made quickly. This summer I became curious how things looked like today, so I visited Dresden a second time.

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What may we forget, and how should we remember? Some of the temples and monuments that have been destroyed in the Middle East in the past few years were intended to last until the end of time by their creators. Arrogance, or trust in a protective higher power?

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We live in volatile times. A carelessly written email can haunt us for the rest of our live, while a mouse simple click can erase decades of work stored on a hard drive.

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If only we could attach an expiration date to everything we do, it would be easier to decide what to keep and what to let go.

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