Saturday, January 24, 2009

Well of Vision

While looking for something else entirelyor rather, while sitting here in front of a computer monitor and trusting an advertising-funded idiot-savant-of-a-search-engine to provide me with digital photographs on a certain topicI “found” (or rather, was servedby the same corporate search engine) an image of a different if not completely-unrelated structure.

This photo is part of the collection of a website called The Megalithic Portal. Original image location:

First glance: this strange granite monument seems to consist of a tripled (“six-legged”) Gothic arch, holding a crowned cross, over a natural spring in the middle of an uninhabited, treeless valley set among barren low peaks.

How astonishing!

Clearly not a pointless landmark, even if it isn't doing anything in a pragmatic sense, not even providing a shelter over the spring (which looks muddy, from the various photos I have since "found", as if grazing animals were trampling around its margin.) To use the jargon of architectural educators, the stonework “encloses space,” but it in fact does not protect or shelter the contents of the space in the least. Why? There was a symbolic reason for this ineffective enclosure. But do I know it? And why is there a religious symbol, or perhaps a symbol of monarchs ruling in the name of religion, suspended over the water? For just a moment, until I do a more thorough “search” (and follow some hyperlinks), it's all a mystery. But there was meaning: the builders meant to indicate some fact or facts, something of great importance to them, most specifically with a set of symbols that held transparent values for them.

Does it matter that I don't know what the builder or designer of this structure really meant? And (ignoring for a few more minutes the fact that in seconds the idiot intelligence of the Internet could provide me with more information than I need or trust) that I can't sprint across the intervening damp years and desolate mountain peaks and find out from them?

I have previously asserted (and even had a project dealing with the topic published, after a fashion) that a sort of revenant of the lost meaning, which I called the ghost of intent, can survive the designers, builders, and even the pragmatic purposes of a work of architecture. That sort of architectural "parapsychology" is in fact what leads me to search for information on—and sometimes visit, in my non-virtual fleshsuch mysterious structures as neolithic tombs, stone rings, and and other ruins or near-ruins.

It is my personal, biased, and largely unsubstantiated opinion that the presence of this ghost is more important than any of the other considerations that might or might not qualify something as a "work of architecture", as opposed to a lesser and easier-to-dismiss "work of building," no matter how concurrently well-made, valuable, and otherwise program-satisfying a work of building might be.

But how do you invoke and tie down to a single work such an intangible, ineffable trace? To painfully extend the metaphor, it is like the opposite of an exorcism. I'd like my work to be the vessel for odd, mysterious, and subtle if not invisible do I entrap these things and bind them to an idea for a building, when all of architectural cultureeducation and training—seems to have been relentlessly devoted to robbing me of the capability to do so? Once again, I strongly suspect myself to have been crippled as an architect, by the years of demands for clear paths ("partis") and pragmatic operations, for precedent, typologies, and pointless quibbling disguised as “critical analysis.”

Returning to the mysterious structure which prompted this musing, it is quite possible to find out who built this, and why. There, I've done it in an instant with a few keystrokes: the Queen's Well, (originally the Prince's Well) in a place called Glen Mark in Scotland. Quite a few people have visited and photographed the structure, which is not in quite so out-of-the-way a place as I imagined. In fact, I'm a bit disappointed to "find" photographs that show a trace of habitationa cottage of some kind, behind some anomalous trees in this heathery valleyquite near to the Well. And it was trivial enough to “locate” a reference to the designer (who was probably not the famous inventor of the seismograph), the client, and the monarch this commemorates.

Original image location:

But is the mystery and charm gone, now that I have done more "research"? I don't think yet abides. The ghost is there.

Which leads me to another idea for yet another "project." I'll add it to the list of things I want to finish...and call it another fantasy because I see nothing wrong with the category given the current state of reality. I'll try to invoke and bind that ghost, in a Lewis-idealized version of the Well, stripped of its explicit history and context.

A structure that doe not even shelter a spring...why would a spring need a shelter?...on a hillside that no one deliberately visits...

Eschewing the pointless and deliberately-debilitating combination of cross-examination and self-doubt that the powers-that-be would have me label “the design process,” what image first comes to mind?

Three roofs with greenery growing on them—corrugated roofs that do not joinare elaborately supported in such a complex way that they cannot provide shelter. These almost-pillars, which might be or mighnt not be construed as nonfigurative telamons, stand not over the spring but in a pool created by it. The spring is hidden by the pool, and is thus not only unsheltered but invisible unless you happen to be staring straight down into the greenish water from right above.

The pool itself lays in a sort of not-very-high artificial crater of lined stonework. This crater has a sort of ditch-moat of its own, which receives the spillover from the pool proper and guides it to a streambed that takes the water away and down the vale. The moat is covered by wide rusty cattle-grates that permits access for (careful) humans to the steps up the crater-walls but presumably keeps the local grazing creatures from further fouling the not-very-pure water of the pool.

Right below the surface of the pool are dangerous paths composed of large blocks of stones, a nearly hidden labyrinth that will undoubtedly grow more treacherous over the years. Since the water is not particularly clear, the paths' presence is only indicated by a tangle of oxidizing steel rails that loop and twist around standard railing height above the pool surface.

The point of this? Risking an unintentional, cold and slimy bath, the visitor can walk out onto the water and navigate to the central point of the crater, where (as noted), it is under the right circumstances possible to stare down into the green depths at the source of the water. I don't imagine that it is, really, much of a depth...three or so feet, at best. The up-flow of the water keeps this one point relatively free of drifting algae.

There. That's the vision, unencumbered by the crippling intellectual detritus of a pointless career in architecture.

But a vision exactly of what? Why should I or anyone want this, and why is there a watery ineffable thing in the “murky deeps” of that completely imaginary construct? I can't answer. Yet. But the ridiculously depressing immediate task is to convert those four descriptive paragraphs into a structure both visual and build-able.