Author of the Month

Herbert Bangs M.Arch, Author of the Month for June 2008

The Magic of Architecture (cont.)
By Herbert Bangs M.Arch.

The proportions of the east and west elevations are essentially the same of those of the section above, but how did he solve the problem of the important south elevation facing the road? I first noticed that the 6' x 3' windows are double-square, superimposed, 3' x 3' square frames. I then found that when squares are drawn on the elevations their diagonals intersect the centers of the upper frames, and when the left diagonal is extended it is centered on the chimney as the chimney emerges through the roof. Even more remarkably, when I constructed a golden ratio rectangle on the elevation, the right side of the rectangle coincided with the side of the remaining square. The overall proportion of the facade may therefore be expressed with stunning simplicity as 1:Φ² and the succession of squares are united with Phi, the golden ratio!

South ElevationMeetinghouse Interior

Now I understand why, at a glance, I found the building beautiful! But could the unknown builder have intuitively selected these harmonic proportions without knowing why? I believe that he must have consciously understood the construction, if not the philosophical implications, of the forms that he chose, for we can sense, even from the photographs, the "magical" effect of the building.

In our mundane, mechanical and disenchanted world few of us can admit that magic may be truly magical: that shapes and symbols have the power to alter personalities and even affect the so called 'real' world of materiality. Yet in the early twentieth century the theories of Albert Einstein and the discoveries of the quantum scientists forever destroyed the simple, mechanical, comprehensible world of Isaac Newton. The universe has once again become a vast, mysterious, and ultimately unknowable matrix in which we live out our lives as in a dream. Many of the physicists who have explored this new scientific vision of reality have written of their growing awareness of the presence of a transcendental deity - not the anthropomorphic deity of Judaism or institutional Christianity - but an all-pervading cosmic mind.

Their vision is reinforced by the mystical insight into the nature of ultimate reality that has been described by the saints and seers of every faith in every age. And if we accept the interconnection of all things in a continual flow of divine consciousness, then a symbol, a rite, a musical phrase, or an architectural form that synthesizes a complex thought, becomes an agent of transformation that can effect change in the spiritual and material realms. This is the essence of magic, and perceived in the light of this understanding, magic is real.

Magic is recognized by those willing to consider the actual evidence without prejudice as a body of inexplicable but real phenomena that can not only irrevocably alter the personality, and the emotions, but events in the material world as well. Despite the continuing denial of those bound to philosophical materialism, there is convincing evidence that certain gifted individuals can bend spoons, cure illnesses, foretell the future, dowse for water, and produce the incomprehensible coincidences that Carl Gustaf Jung called "synchronicity." It may even be that such talents are latent in us all, and if the universe is indeed a flow of pure thought, it is perfectly understandable, even necessary, that the mind of the individual or the group can effect change in both the spiritual and material aspects of existence. When, therefore, we speak of the "magic" of architecture, we are using a term that has a far greater significance than that of describing a pleasurable aesthetic sensation. The magical form of a building, a landscape, or a garden moves in a subtle way to change the world.

Wall of Villa Rotunda

Magic is worked through symbols. A symbol is a synthesis, a representation of some aspect of thought or life that embodies a complex of associations in such a way that the awareness is concentrated upon the particular force or function that it represents. A symbol serves to concentrate the mind.An architect might use the Phi proportion or the musical proportions recommended by Palladio, to symbolically link the microcosm of the individual mind to the macrocosm of the ultimate unity.

The symbolic means that affect our most profound understanding and engage our deepest emotional comprehension are archetypal. They cannot be completely forgotten: they are always present in every culture, even our own, for they arise from our common heritage in the collective unconscious mind. These symbols are predominantly numerical and geometrical. The ratios and proportions, the diagrams, the roots, and the transformations of number and space of sacred geometry may be regarded as metaphors of an a' priori knowledge of the structure of the universe. This knowledge arises through the identity of man and the cosmos. Robert Lawlor, the author of Sacred Geometry; Philosophy and Practice, writes, Our brains and bodies necessarily shape all our perceptions and have themselves been shaped by the same seen and unseen energies that have shaped every perceivable thing. Body, Mind and Universe must be in parallel, formative identity.

Egyptian Temple

Nor are symbols, mathematical or otherwise, to be considered as if they existed only in isolation. Taken together they may constitute a language: a "language of the heart," to use a phrase of R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz who identified the existence of such a language in the temples of ancient Egypt. There the hieroglyphs, the ritual carvings, and the geometry of space and number combined to lead the mind to the higher spiritual awareness. In Egypt there was what Schwaller has called a "science of symbols."

Chartres Sculpture

It is noteworthy that in many ways we are led back to Egypt and to the advanced esoteric knowledge that the Egyptians once possessed. This knowledge was evidently passed on, through the Knights Templar, to the builders of the Gothic cathedrals. Even in our secular world these great Gothic buildings continue to work their magic, and we can still experience something of the higher spiritual awareness that was embodied in their symbolic structures.

The esoteric and mystical knowledge made manifest in the buildings of the past, of which sacred geometry is an essential part, is now lost to both architects and builders, and must be regained if they are to play their part in the spiritual reconstruction of our secular culture. This reconstruction has now become a necessity. We must, for our own survival, abandon the mechanical universe of philosophical materialism and learn to treasure our existence on this fragile planet for the magical and inexplicable thing that it is. The return of sacred architecture is only one aspect of the re-enchantment of the world, but one that affects us directly through the shapes and forms of the sheltering environments that we create. The art of building is therefore a way in which we may bring that which is sacred back into our lives.

Herbert Bangs,

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