Architecture used to be invested with particular significances that in our turbulent, agitated age have been lost.
Any building – though particularly houses and temples - used to be considered a small model of the World, as it was seen as symbolically unifying in a whole the three levels of life. The foundations stuck deep in the dark, material Earth, the roof, immersed in the full light of the spiritual sky and the walls, doors and windows on the horizon of the human life.
Building was therefore not considered a mundane activity but a deeply spiritualized one, a direct continuation of the Creation itself. Across all cultures, houses or temples – and by extension settlements themselves - were ‘working’ within the local culture and religion to help people understand their own place on Earth (see drawing). The symbolic power of the message they used to convey was universal and we still feel it today.
Nowadays the situation is radically different. Most of us don’t seem to have anymore a clear idea of what we are doing on this planet. The amazing development of science in the last few centuries have made us the depositaries of unprecedented levels of knowledge. We can literally peer further in space and time than ever before. The question ‘how’ – how the Universe works - is been answered with more and more clarity. But the question ‘why’, why we are here and what is the purpose of our existence on Earth, is not. The centuries-old preoccupation of religions and philosophy has little relevance for the everyday life of well-fed people, it seems. And as always Architecture faithfully follows our mindset. Buildings are not anymore a symbol of the World – they have become the World itself. It is hard to discern in the contemporary agglomerations the sense of clarity obvious in any Medieval town.
But wait a minute. The mad urban universe we are creating to ourselves is a hugely complex entity that could be seen as talking, in millions of tones and colors, about the huge complexity of life and Universe itself! The contemporary agglomerations may therefore be seen as better - if definitely less clear - symbols of a complex Universe than the primitive – if charming – earlier ones.
The amassed architectures of ever-growing megalopolis do tend to be schizophrenic and self-referential. They do disorient and hardly seem to reflect any preoccupation beyond the most material ones. But buildings still have their foundations stuck deep in the dark, material Earth, the roof, immersed in the full light of the spiritual sky and the walls, doors and windows on the horizon of the human life.
Maybe all what is needed in order to restore to Architecture – and to the world it creates – its original sense of meaning is some simple, light intervention focused more on revealing to us what is already there than on creating something new?