Italy, Buildings, Architecture and Meaning: Allowing the Transcendent to Shape the Present

I can still vivdly remember the trip my wife and I took to Italy, our first time to the Country and our first time overseas together. After scoring flights through an auction sight for $200 a person round trip, we jumped at the opportunity. The only catch was we had to fly out of Chicago. Given that we live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, this meant adding the 12-14 hour drive across the border to the 8 hour overnight flight to the 7 days we had off over Spring Break to make this happen. Most sane people I would imagine would see this as less than rational despite the $200 tickets. My insanity managed to override my wife’s comon sense, and so off we went leaving at 3:00 in the morning to make our evening flight to the great city of Rome. This leaves the story of an adventurous ride home driving on a Sunday on a broken altenator and two purchaesd batteries for another time. Suffice to say that 

As would be expected, before we left I spent a good deal time researching places to stay, tips, and other helpful information that might help us navigate a foreign Country. Nothing prepares you for stepping off that plane though, and the minute we set foot onto those old stone streets we were struck with that sense of being somewhere strange and unfamiliar. This perhaps became most aware after checking into our accomadation and heading out to grab some food. If you have never experienced Italian culture, unlike Canadian culture which moves at a quick space and expects a certain kind of attentive service, there when you sit down to a meal they expect you to linger. Eating quickly and asking for your cheque and tracking down your server is considered bad etiquette. It’s a good thing I didn’t know it at the time, but cutting your pasta is also something considered on offence.

As we would venture further to explore the city the next day, we would discover that it was common to simply shut down at random times to go and spend time with company and food in their many many public and communal spaces. This is frustrating for a Canadian looking to shop or expecting attentive service but it’s also an element of their culture that I eventually brought back with me as something that I valued.

Perhaps most striking of all was the deep connection that Italians had to their streets, their public spaces, their Piazzas, and their buildings. Everything is designed so as to life up your gaze to the tops of their buildings, which are bursting with life and creativity, but then to shift your gaze back down to the funcionality of these spaces. These buildings and spaces are meant to be lived in and occupied, with each structure and space and monument and building telling a story. This was so drastically different than buildings in North America where they are designed to turn our gaze upwards towards progress but never downwards towards this same sense of life life and culture.

The height of our trip of course eventually brought us to the famous Colloseum, a building with a story that reaches far back into the pages of history. A building that I never thought I would get to see in my life time. Walking up to it in the daylight reveals its majestic and towering presence over the cityscape, but it was approaching it in the evening that was most surreal and which left me most humbled. You see it in  pictures all of the time, but to be standing beside it, touching its stone and walking in its shadow is something altogether different. That’s when the lights come on illuminating under the overlooking moon and the stars. I remember pressing my hand to the stone and just standing there beside it for a good long while, eventually finding a seat on the surrounding hillside to just sit with the larger than life image for a while. It reminded me of just how vast and dynamic human history really is. Many of the people who had lost their lives in this space (and others just down the road) I would imagine came with some tough questions about the world they inhabited, and as I considered the crosses that now adord the entrance ways, and how the structure now stands as a symbol of Christian piety and grace, it struck me that for as big as the structure is, the world that surrounds it under the setting sun and the emerging moon and stars is that much bigger. And for as big as our world is and as unfamiliar as this ancient setting might feel for my modern deyes, the story of humanity and God and Creation looms that much bigger.

In the book The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories, author Edward Hollis walks us through the stories of some of the world’s most significant buildings, which then tells the story of humanity, which likewise flows out into our own stories as we consider our place in this world and the ways in which our architecure helps to bind us to it, both in the present and in our historical and cultural memory. Buildings and architecture are not static entities but places that actively invite us through their presence into these interconnected stories, into participation with the human story.

Similarly, Paul Goldberger’s book Building Up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architectue, along with the complimentary and perhaps more emotionally available The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton, help us to see how it is that these buildings, in their construction and deconstruction, participate in our growth and offer us meaning.

Recently I came across a film by Director Eugene Green called La Sapienze, an American born French filmaker with an interest in educating young voices about the power of the arts and artistic expression. La Sapienze is a stylistic and creative expostion on our relationship to the architecture that we create. The film begins with a lecture being given by one of the main characters (Alexandre), a middle aged architect who has seemingly lost his passion for his work and who needs to find and rediscover some inspiration. This scene and this lecture establishes two important elements of this film’s story and arc. First, it establishes the inherent connection between buildings and our worldview. Buildings are at their heart both creative and philosophical exercises, and what we hear in the words of this lecture is the expression of a fundamentally modernist worldview that informs the buildings he creates, and thus also his life. For the architecture that he imagines, these buildings are and must be about progress, and thus to lose one’s inspiration and is to lose sight of how it is that we are able to build forward into the future.

The second thing that emerges from this scene are the human characters that build and occupy these spaces. Here we are introduced to our second main character, a middle aged woman (Alienor) sitting in the audience listening to her husband speak about architecture. In a brilliantly imagined scene, the camera focuses in on her face as the lecture comes to a close and the audience, including her, is applauding, and then it stops and lingers as we see her shift from a smile to a sudden blank expression. This blank expression leads us into the next scene where we encounter the couple sitting across a table from each other at a restaurant locked in a seemingly emotionless gaze.

The Director establishes all of the charcters in this film in an equally emotionless state. Their faces stay static throughout and the lines are delivered in equally static form. It’s unsettling to say the least, but what this does is continually call our gaze to shift from them to the world that surrounds them, specifically the buildings that carry the emotional weight. It’s an intentional contrast meant to capture the way these buildings are as alive as them, able to inspire and to give life.

What’s startling about this Directorial choice as well is that the arc of the film is interested almost entirely in their emotional journey. As the story pushes forward, this couple eventually decides to go on a journey to Italy to try and reclaim some inspiration. Being around that old world architecture might be able to spark some of this within him, and she comes along to be part of the journey. This is something I can very understand from our own journey to Italy. While there, they encounter a younger man and woman (Goffredo and Lavinia) which then sparks this journey of self exploration set alongside this intergenerational dynamic, between Alexandre and Goffredo and Lavinia and Alienor. The relationship between the young man, who is brimming with optimism, and the aging architect seemingly stuck in his cynicism begins to pave the way for a larger discussion of how it is precisely that the past, captured in our buildings as memories, connects to our future. And as this discussion and this journey unfolds, what becomes more and more clear is that these buildings and the philosophy this architecture represents is a symbol of the relatiionship between this couple, and thus the relationships that inform our world as well. To recover inspiration for the creation of and presence of this architecture is recover inspiration for their struggling relationship.

I have long been fascinated with architecture and buildings, particularly the spirit that they exude and the way in which they help to tell the story of a specific place and time and people. Further, what has often been interesting to me is comparing the approaches of modern artchitecture, which tend to be future oriented expressions of idealism and progress, to that of the old world which progress often tears down in its wake. This is one of the great allures of Europe and the East, is a world where history and story comes alive in the protection and persistant presence of its buildings. They invite us into a larger story. And yet, in both cases we find a similar sense of ethos illuminating from the buildings that a society builds, be it this old or new world tendency. As this aging architect is toured around the Italian city by this young man, the film walks through the nature of a building in terms of what it is and what it does. Its ability by design to draw our view upwards towards the focal point of its story, while also having the levels and layers of its story draw us back to the ground level in particular and specific ways. In every great architectural design there is an interplay with light, space and shape as it does this horizontal and vertical dance intended to bring together the creation and the creator, the building and the human story.

What lies at the heart of this film’s interest in this idea of the horizontal and vertical elements is this image of the Church. We learn that the aging architect, a professed atheist, refuses to build Churches. The buildings he is interested in building should be symbols of progress and humanism, not these antiquated ideas of imagining God at the center of our world and our ideas. And yet what becomes clear as he is forced to encounter these Churches in the old world is that the architecture he envisions in its place holds an equal centering presence and force. They represent an equal god if you will by nature of expressing the particular worldview that defines our story. All buildings point to which god it is precisely that governs both the world we occupy and the stories that inhabit it. They all direct our gaze upwards towards something, and then bring us back downwards in order to ground this story within our relationships. We cannot excape this fact. And as the conversation unfolds between this architect and the young man, what begins to boil to the surface is how it is that we can imagine this power playing out in our lives in a meaningful way. At tension is this sense of a relationship between the creator (the architect) and the creation. And the way that buildings humble us as places located in the shadows of the past and in the potential inspiration of the present is by connecting our creation to something other. How it is that buildings imagine the future has a lot to do with how they are able to preserve and tell the stories of our past. As we create these buildings, these buildings then draw us to a greater awareness of the source of this creation that comes from outside of ourselves, the inspiration if you will. This is the very life and light and beauty that inspires us as given Truths, as given mystery that flow from this creation. This is how buildings take on a life of their own, and this is then how we are able to participate in life together, with these buildings centering and anchoring us in something greater than our human accomplishments. They draw us together to the other, to the beauty, to the spirit of life itself. They help to tell the stories that bind us to this other and to one another.

This isn’t necessarily at its core a religious film, but religion does bleed from the crevices of its story and its arc. In actuality, I think this just might be one of the most profound representations and arguments for faith I have encountered in quite a while. It hits on some things that I found quite meaningful, and it wraps it up in some symbolism and visuals, and more pruposefully an emotinally laden and very human arc that really strikes at the heart of what it means to exist in this world and to be empowered by this mystery that creation, be it ours or the greater source that these creations beckon us towards and help us to imagine. I found myself so profoundly taken with how it brings all these working parts of the discussion and the journey together into a really beautiful and immenently cinematic portrait.

It is also, and this is part of the film’s impact, a cautionary tale. Not simply of neglecting the relationships in our lives that point us to that greater meaning, but of neglecting the past and the stories that connect us to the past. There is something about modern architecture that stands in danger of losing sight of what it means to be human in connection to the divine, however that sense of the divine translates for you. Modern architecture tends to be swaddled in this constant interplay between the flat and emotionless nature of modernity and its streamlined and effecient expressions of progress that render them synchronized, economically proficient and given to sprawl, and these grand structures and monuments that point us upwards towards those same enlightenment ideals without anything to bring our gaze back downwards, without a way to contextualize the god of the deeply rooted modernist ideals back into our human story in a meaningful way. It tends to be, for a lack of a better word, detached. This is perhaps no more apparent than the struggle many Asian cities face with the constant push for progress encroaching and hiding, and in many ways burying the richly centered nature of that old world architecture. And as we arrive on Western soil, we can see something similar even with our more recent history. A society built on these images of a past divided between Greek and Roman philosphical influences that reveal remnants of these images peeking out from the rubble of what has largely been bulldozed and forgotten. Images of those grand old monuments with Greek and Roman markers and appeal hidden in the refabricated buildings of our modern sensibilities. The age of the skyscraper continuing to tower over these pieces of our past as the now dominating story. It’s a similar story that plays itself out over and over again across the great cities that populate North America.

The real questions in light of this film’s journey are, what are the stories that these buildings tell. To where do they draw our gaze, and to what end are they able to redirect our gaze downwards with fresh perspective. How do they inspire not just the building of our cities as a present and living memory, but the human stories that imagine them, occopy them and give them life. To where do these buidings illuminate the necessary light that allows us to engage with the mystery of this world in all its shape and profound interest. And how does this mystery then inform our lives and our relationships with meaning, especially in a communal sense.

A powerful film with powerful quesitons that will be staying with me for a long, long time, and it is in these questions that my own memory of my experience in Italy, and the inspiration I brought back home with me from that experience.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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