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Mental Mapping

“Architecture is actually a great deal better than it looks.” —Cecil D. Elliott

As a teacher of architecture and its history, I must stay keenly aware of that truth as I drag students through a chronologue of power points, from the stone age to the present — or as close as I can comfortably get. It’s one thing to teach them how to look without telling them what to see; to reacquaint them with the childhood skills numbed by our educational system; revealing the multi-sensory nature of being conscious in the World. I’ve written about this before but it seems as good a time as any to flesh out the story of my pilgrimage to LeCorbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp in Eastern France and make the case of architecture’s multi-sensory nature: It’s actually a lot better than it looks

Notre Dame du Haute is an icon of Modernism, easily recognized by all students of architecture. Its battered stucco walls and swooping brutalist concrete roof are characteristic of LeCorbusier’s post-war work and a contradiction to the cool rationality of his interwar practice. Our department once interviewed  a prospective faculty member who shared with us her recent architectural travel, which included a breezy glimpse of Ronchamp with her companions which had reduced the experience to ticking a box during a scavenger hunt. Wham! Bam! And on to lunch. I was reminded of my own encounter many years earlier and wondered if she and I had been to the same place.

The most obvious difference between our two encounters was access: she and her cohorts had arrived by rental car, while my colleague Joe and I were captive of public transport — at the time there was a single-car train into the village at about 7:00 a.m. and one onward train at 7:00 p.m. We were trapped in a hamlet in rural France for twelve hours.

Leaving the unstaffed depot we found a sign directing us to La Chapelle, through a triumphal arch worthy of Septimus Severus carved into the viaduct our train had just crossed. It was the equivalent to an architectural fanfare. What followed was a three-hour initial encounter which required all my senses, not just sight.

In architectural history, the concept of enfilade is important—a French word used to mean spatial sequence or progression; the psychological effect of entering a new and unfamiliar space from a previous one and carrying with you its memory. I suppose mine had actually started at birth, but technically it began at that arched definition of “entry”; marking the boundary between village and countryside. I’ll leave aside the sounds of crowing roosters and diesel tractor engines, rustling leaves. Entering one of the ugliest parking lots and homeliest visitor centers of my experience, Joe and I found a comfortable patch of shade and spoke of nothing in particular, waiting for the gates to open.

What followed was a multi-sensory experience which engaged everything but taste. I smelled beeswax. Thanks to an unannounced bend in the floor, gravity pulled me to the communion rail, which turned out to be painted steel, rather than wood, and cool to the touch of a sweaty forearm. I understood the chancel floor sloped in the opposite direction and distorted perception of its distance from the pews. The pilgrim’s path to communion was thereby made to seem intimate; reciprocally, the return to my seat became both difficult and distant thanks to the reverse visual effect. Meanwhile, with just the two of us present, the acoustic qualities of all those hard, unforgiving materials amplified every sound I made and in doing so made me be quiet; I was even aware of my own breathing.

After a while, other tourists began to arrive and complicate our observations, so we retired to the village for a two-hour lunch, and a return to the chapel in completely different lighting. Then down the hill again to write postcards and find the post office. then a final hike to the top for one last experience in the late afternoon just before our train. Though this happened more than thirty years ago, it is still vivid, an indelible memory I’ve shared with students and friends. It probably also goes without saying that LeCorbusier moved up several notches in my esteem. But the fringe benefit—one of several—was an appreciation for all my senses and a confirmation of Cecil Elliott’s observation: Architecture is far more than what we see.

Mental Maps

Mental maps, the cartography of the imagination, have played a subtle but essential role in the evolution of Agincourt. The first article Howard Tabor wrote for the year-long series of his Saturday columns leading up to the Sesquicentennial was a conscious look at the city he, like most of us, had taken for granted. Tabor challenged himself to walk to work—by whatever path presented itself; not necessarily the shortest route—and see something new or see something familiar but in a new way. The object he settled upon was the obelisk on the east side of the courthouse square (which isn’t square, by the way). Until that moment, I (as the person channeling him) didn’t have the foggiest idea there was an obelisk there or anywhere else in the city. But once he saw it, I had to explain its presence, even if Howard could not. So, in the space of probably less that an hour, I conjured a backstory that I believed was a plausible explanation for it.

Each time I imagine a place in Agincourt or its hinterlands, something similar happens: not only must I “see” that place, but I must also connect the dots and understand the path that had brought me there—in architecture, we call it enfilade or spatial progression. So, what began as a series of points, disconnected, floating in Jeffersonian space, became linked, and with those connections the terra incognita that had surrounded them itself became shrinking pools of as-yet-unimagined space. My mental map of Agincourt will never be complete; there will always be gaps, which is what makes this compelling for me. Now and then, I find others willing to suspend belief for just a little while and play.

My observations earlier about architecture—buildings, groups of buildings, and the space that surrounds them—plays a significant part in this creative process. Because our the memory maps we create are often shaped by senses other than sight. Recall Sherlock Holmes, Robert Downey’s 2009 film, where in he is abducted and taken by a circuitous route to a group of men intent on buying his service. At the unknown destination, Holmes relives the journey that brought him there, and uses characteristic London sounds, smells, the physical bumps from potholes in the pavement, and divines not only where he is but who is peaking with him. All because his habitual observation has become a richly textured and nuances mental map of the place he calls home.

So, let me challenge you to revisit your childhood. Make a mental map of your path from home to school: what did you hear, small, feel, and perhaps even taste along the way. Each experience becomes an event on that path, punctuation in both space and time, part of our personal sense of enfilade. And collectively they are the beginning of a mental map of childhood. If I did’t believe this was a meaningful aspect of our development as humans, I wouldn’t have brought it up.


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