There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern and a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in which he would like to wander, the strange flora and fauna, his own secret planet, the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or a structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.
Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!), Henri Rousseau, 1891
In Rapid City, South Dakota, USA, on the edge of the Black Hills, in a peaceful green space on the older side of town, there stands a delightfully unexpected structure: a carved wooden church in medieval style called the Chapel in the Hills. It is in fact a replica of the Borgund Church, a Stavkirke (Stave church) built in the late 1100s, which stands in Laerdal, Norway. So what, you may wonder, is it doing here?
Well, in the 1960s South Dakota native Dr. Harry Gregerson, the creator and preacher of the Lutheran Vespers Radio Hour, was looking for a way to expand his ministry and make something more tangible than a radio broadcast. He decided to build a structure near the Black Hills that could give vacationers a place of pilgrimage and worship. In choosing to make a copy of the Borgund church, he created a link to the cultural roots of the Norwegian Lutherans who settled in South Dakota. The Norwegian Department of Antiquities sent the blueprints of the church and a local construction company spearheaded the effort. The wood carvings were a joint project between the Norwegian master carver Erik Fridstrøm and Helge Christiansen of Rapid City. These fantastic flourishes inspire awe and yet seem quite at home here. Rapid City is right next door, and yet the area recedes into the hills, feeling quite remote and peaceful, an excellent place to meditate. There is also a small Norwegian museum and a stabbur, a small grass-roofed storehouse, that serves as a visitor center. The stabbur was built in Norway, shipped to Rapid City in pieces, and rebuilt here.
The flourishes on, in and about the church weave together Christianity with pre-Christian Norwegian symbols. The continuity between the Christian and naturalistic symbolism is both beautiful and striking. It can be interpreted as a refreshing acknowledgement that the same God might choose different ways to speak to different peoples. The first congregants of the Borgund church would have been converted Vikings, with minds shaped by Norse myths and naturalistic rituals.
Runestones are stones decorated with naturalistic motifs. The Vikings and the Celts were masters at making runestones; many of their descendants Christianized the art form so they could keep their artistic language. These two feature serpents and dragons, symbols of chaotic forces which shape time and nature, ambivalent forces which both destroy and build up. The rectangular, seated runestone on the left shows that time and Creation have been forever marked by the Cross. In the crucifixion, life has also been destroyed and rebuilt. Common themes were important to encourage conversion and promote understanding.
The entire church is circled by an antechamber/corridor. Weapons were to be dropped in this space and were not allowed in the house of worship. In case you think the Viking converts were progressive, you should know that men and women entered through different doorways and did not associate with each other in the church building. Children entered with the women until the young boys came of age. Young men were then allowed to use the men’s doorway inside the front entrance.
The men’s entrance with intricate carving. More dragons and serpents.
The women’s entrance on the side of the church, featuring carvings of lionesses, a rather ferocious symbol of femininity. Note the lioness faces at the bottom of the pilasters. I imagine these Viking ladies were not wallflowers.
One of the outside doors features a metal ring. In medieval Borgund, any criminal who was touching this ring could not be apprehended by authorities. It was apparently not unheard of for such people to starve to death on the steps of the church, covered in their own excrement.
Inside the church, there is a plain door with no adornments next to a sliding window that opens into the corridor. This was a station for people with leprosy, so that they could take Communion without entering the church proper.
III: A Ship of a Different Kind
The church interior is fashioned as an upside down Viking ship, cleverly using the most familiar of forms, but also turning it on its head. Look at those ominous faces carved on the high posts!
The altar and chancel area stand out for their simplicity. The pan fixed in the front served as a baptismal font.
IV: There Be Dragons
High atop the church building there are four dragons, fashioned like those that would have been at the prow of a Viking ship. In addition to serving practically as aids to drainage, they functioned much like gargoyles, impressing people and “chasing away devils”. The detail and the care that goes into each shingle, each cross, each flourish is absolutely marvelous.
I happened to catch a squirrel sunning himself on the high branches, mimicking the dragons astride the church. Nature seems playfully at peace with this Stavekirke from another land. On another day, in another post, I may take you on the walkway that leads back toward the hills, where the rabbits feed lazily, and the forest is peopled with life-sized stone figures that range from moving to creepy. But for today this magnificent building is more than enough.
We’re built of contradictions, all of us. It’s those opposing forces that give us strength, like an arch, each block pressing the next. Give me a man whose parts are all aligned in agreement and I’ll show you madness. We walk a narrow path, insanity to each side. A man without contradictions to balance him will soon veer off.
―Mark Lawrence, King of Thorns
Here is my second set of Mysteries, this time featuring the architecture and gardens of the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa.
The Philbrook Museum is a fascinating collection of art housed in a modified1920s villa, surrounded by formal and informal gardens. The house once belonged to oil pioneer Waite Phillips and his wife Genevieve and was designed by Kansas city architect Edward Beuhler Delk.
When we visited it was the end of winter, and the gardens looked remarkably good. I would love to go back when they are at the height of their beauty. Winter does lend itself to a certain kind of wistful mystery however. This particular day the sun lingered behind thick clouds, making for some fantastic effects.
I hope you enjoy these photos! Please let me know if you have favorites.
Mysteries, Second Set: Views of the Philbrook Villa
Architecture can create layers of mystery and depth in human life by recalling the past. Photography enhances that romance beautifully.
This group of photos feature Seminary Hall at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Tahlequah is located in the western foothills of the Ozark Mountains, and is the capital of both the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee Indians. The city gained that distinction after the Cherokee were forced from their homelands to the east onto Indian Territory in Oklahoma during the infamous Trail of Tears, so the place has a bittersweet quality. I have Cherokee ancestors on my father’s side of the family.
I thought these particular photos captured a delightful ghostly mood and that they make an interesting set. I hope you enjoy them!
Mysteries, First Set: Seminary Hall, Northeastern State University
Tickling the fancy, stirring the soul and stimulating thought, synkroniciti’s most viewed videos of 2014 are here for your enjoyment.
These ten videos received the most hits over the past year. I have also included one that didn’t get very many views, but remains one of my favorites.
Click on titles to read the blog posts associated with the videos. All of these videos feature creative people that have put their work up on YouTube or Vimeo and are not produced by or affiliated with synkroniciti. I am grateful to those artists and pleased to be able to comment on and share their work.
The picturesque and rugged high plateau region of northeast Ethiopia is a difficult land to settle. Most rivers in the north of the country flow west, finding themselves part of the Nile, while the few streams flowing through the northeast often dry up in the summer months. Villages here send their women and children to find and carry home water from shallow, unprotected ponds. These people walk for miles to procure scanty water that is frequently contaminated by animal and human waste, parasites and disease, knowing that their success or failure is the life or death of their family and community. It’s a heavy burden, physically and emotionally, and leaves little to no room for realizing individual potential or creative endeavors. The struggle for survival is everything.
An international team of architects, artists, sociologists, filmmakers and designers called Architecture and Vision, based in Italy, has come together with a plan to help harvest water from the air, freeing women and children for new pursuits and making the future of these communities more secure. The project is called “Warka Water”, named after a giant species of Ficus tree that provides gathering spaces for villages in the region. People meet under the Warka to learn, to make decisions, to share and to celebrate civic and religious events. The Warka is a symbol of village life, and this symbol itself is in danger. Ethiopia has lost 60% of its woodlands over the last 40 years.
By studying desert animals and plants the team has identified shapes, surfaces, materials and coatings that will help condense water from the air. The natural water collecting systems of cacti, the properties of spider webs, beetle shells and lotus flowers have come together with the structure of termite hives, as well as local architecture and basket weaving to produce the Warka Tower, a sustainable and relatively inexpensive means of collecting water.
The tower consists of a bamboo exoskeleton for support, a mesh textile that collects moisture and a water tank for storage. The newest version, Warka 3.1, also includes a canopy around the structure that provides shade and shelter from wind, increasing stability and humidity. Rotating mirrors have been added on thin, flexible antennae on top of the structure. Aesthetically, these reflect sunlight and moonlight and dance in the wind. Functionally, the mirrors discourage birds from flocking to the tower, where they would foul and drink the water produced there.
Warka 3.1, made principally of bamboo, hemp and bio-plastic, is projected to cost near $1,000 American dollars per tower and is designed to be built with simple tools by a team of four or five people. It is easily maintained without advanced and expensive machinery and leaves little to no footprint on the planet. Lovely, culturally relevant and useful, a single Warka Tower can provide up to 100 liters (over 26 gallons) per day. The structure weighs 60 kg (over 132 lbs) and is 10 m (over 32 feet) tall. You can read more about the design here.
It is inspiring to see what can happen when people pool their creativity together to benefit the community. Is there anything you can do where you are?
Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.
― Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
The Seventh Regiment, or Park Avenue, Armory in New York City is impressive from the outside, filling an entire city block with its Gothic Revival style red brick bulk, complete with square, crenellated turrets and trimmed with granite. Hidden within are opulence and workmanship which exceed the distinctive profile of the ornate facade, as well as an otherworldly ambiance created in its dark hallways and cavernous drill hall. Low lighting in public areas has preserved the candle-lit feel of the place and acheived an ominous mood, quickly broken in areas such as the basement or access stairs, which are brightly lit.
This masterpiece of architecture, completed in 1881 by George Clinton and recognized as his greatest work, was built as a home for the 7th New York Militia Regiment, also known as the Silk Stocking Regiment, which counted among its members Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, and George Clinton himself. The prestige of the 7th and the elite social standing of its members meant that the building was one of the few armories in the nation to be built with private funds. Not only was it a place for storing weaponry and training soldiers, it was a sumptuous social club that afforded a great deal of privilege in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No expense was spared on rooms designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White, among others. Elegant wood paneling, coffered ceilings, ornamental light fixtures and stained glass windows dominate a space that radiates luxury and gravitas.
In the center of the building is the drill hall, recently named for Airstream President Wade Thompson, a champion of the restoration and repurposing of the Armory who passed away in 2009. The room is 200′ by 300′ with the oldest balloon shed roof in the United States, a barrel vault supported by eleven arches of wrought iron in lieu of pillars. It is a cavernous space with a distinctly unique atmosphere and acoustic: reverberant, somber, spooky. These attributes make it an ideal venue for large scale performances and installations that deal with dark subject matter.
Public Domain Image via the Library of Congress, 1984
Less than a decade ago, the Park Avenue Armory was embroiled in controversy over plans to turn it into a performance venue and exhibition space. Groups connected with the 7th Regiment feared that performers, artists and their audiences would prove intrusive. As the plan to renovate what was a crumbling and increasingly dangerous building, with fallen ceilings in many rooms, a leaking facade, lead contamination issues and an infestation of rats feeding on litter, became contingent on money raised from leasing the building as a performance space, an uneasy bargain was struck. Plumbing and electrical systems had to be overhauled and updated, air conditioning installed, foundation footings strengthened and a new roof put on. Repairs necessitated replacing bricks in the facade, which are such as unusual shade of red that they could not be matched. Bricks were taken from another building built in the same era and cut down to size one brick at a time. Finally, in September 2007, Aaron Young’s GreetingCard, a 9,216 square foot piece created by the tire marks of choreographed motorcycles, was the first work presented in the Park Avenue Armory.
Video via Alldayeveryday on Vimeo.
Today, the Armory is home to the 53rd Army Liaison Team of the New York Army National Guard, the Veterans of the 7th Regiment, an after school program called the Knickerbocker Greys (founded 1881), the ceremonial Veteran Corps of Artillery (founded 1790) and the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House Women’s Mental Health Shelter, as well as the Park Avenue Armory Conservancy, which leases the building for unconventional productions of theater, opera, dance, performance art, fashion shows and art installations and also oversees and coordinates restoration efforts. There are vintage oddities everywhere–one of my favorites is a faded poster that proclaims “Concealment: If the enemy can see you, he can kill you!”. Scarcely readable, it seems to have followed its own advice.
I recently had the opportunity to perform at the Park Avenue Armory as part of Houston Grand Opera’s presentation of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger, an unflinching treatment of the holocaust as seen through the haunted recollections of a former Nazi guardswoman, part of the 2014 Lincoln Center Festival. You can read my article on The Passenger here.
Video via Park Avenue Armory on YouTube.
Stepping into the hall for the first time, already impressed by the sumptuous dark wood paneled staircase and the moody lighting of the front entrance, I was stunned and awestruck to see how well Johan Engel’s split level set had taken to the space. The upper levels represent a cruise liner traveling to Brazil in the 1960s and the lower level Auschwitz during World War II, ringed by railroad tracks with moving cars designed to look like actual barracks at the infamous death camp. Originally designed for the outdoor Bregenz Festival, the front of the set was compressed in the Wortham Theater back in Houston, meaning that there wasn’t very much space between the barracks, a rack of lights, and the end of the stage over the orchestra pit. This was not the case in the Armory, which made our frightened running and clambering in and out of the barrack “shelves” feel safer, at least initially. That is, until the realization that we had more space and the excitement of performing at such a venue in such a city took over. The outside world melted away into a darkness that made the story we were telling feel astonishingly real and dreamlike at the same time.
I’m not saying that the Wade Thompson Drill Hall doesn’t have its difficulties as a performance space. There is no orchestra pit, which necessitated that the players be placed back and to the left of the stage, creating difficulties in seeing the conductor and hearing properly. With a score as complex as Weinberg’s this is more than a little frightening, even with a prompter and television monitors visible from stage. There was no curtain, there were no wings, there was nowhere to wait backstage. Another challenge was that the walk from the chorus dressing room to stage took seven minutes, plunging down three flights of stairs, across the basement, past all sorts of strange artifacts, holes and cracks in the walls, dead pianos, stored works of art, and up a flight of stairs to the back of the theater. We were extremely grateful to our tech crew for rigging a paging system so that we could hear the show, and more importantly, our calls to stage.
It was all worth it. The personality of the Armory: dark, vast and old, is ideal for immersive experiences and intensified the mood of the production immensely. We didn’t need to rely on large amounts of fog belching out into the space to create an eerie ambience. It was already there. At one point the Armory itself lit up around us, giving the audience time to feel the full force of this piece about the horrors of genocide in a space which began as a support structure for war. Like other elements of the production–the barracks, the costumes, the shoveling of the ovens–the atmosphere of the drill hall is only a suggestion of a reality far more awful. That suggestion is terrifying enough.
I wish the Park Avenue Armory well as it continues its journey. As befits an aging soldier, it has put away most of its weapons and become a storyteller. It has much to teach and to reveal to those who will listen.
Images not credited are by Katherine McDaniel.
About the building, with lots of pretty pictures. Dizon, Inc
Less than 4 feet at its widest point, Keret House, the narrowest residence in the world, isn’t for the claustrophobic.
Polish architect Jakub Szczesny is famous for radical thinking inside a very small box. One day, as he walked through Warsaw, he had the idea that he could fit a very small domicile in a narrow 5 foot gap between an old tenement and a tower block at 22 Chłodna Street and 74 Żelazna Street. His drawings, which debuted in 2009, were considered a fantastic flight of fancy that would most likely never be built. In 2011, the architecture collective Centrala took on the expensive and innovative project.
The result is Keret House, named after its first resident, Israeli writer Etgar Keret, who used the space as a work studio. Keret’s personal ties to the area are deep. The house lies within the former Warsaw Ghetto, where the Nazis deposited and confined over 400,000 Jews. Keret’s mother, Orna, was one of them. As a child, she slipped through cracks in the ghetto to scavenge food for herself, her father, mother and younger brother. By chance or synchronicity, this structure is built in the very place of a Nazi checkpoint. She had to sneak past soldiers here every day in order to return successfully to her family, who all perished in those horrific and unimaginable days, leaving her alone in the world. The idea of living in this crack in Warsaw gave him a chance to interface with her story in a powerful and transformative way. If you would like to read his thoughts, please click here. Although Keret House contains amenities that Orna could not have imagined during World War II and none of the terrors of that time, it presents its own challenges. It is as if the stubborn persistence of humanity has found a way to take root in an impossible place, much like a weed growing up through a sidewalk.
The building itself is incredibly small, with an interior living space that is, at most, 47 inches wide and, at its narrowest, a slim 28 inches. The entire space is about 46 square feet. Polish law doesn’t allow for a residence to built to such small specifications, so it is classified as an art installation. The steel frame is covered by a thin semi-transparent polycarbonate sheeting that allows sunlight in, keeping the building light and airy, and maximizes the size of the former alleyway. There are two windows, which do not open, and the interior is painted white to guard against claustrophobia. Electricity is obtained from a neighboring building, while Keret House has its own water and sewage technology, unconnected to Warsaw’s water systems.
Video via Deutsche Welle English on YouTube.
There is a bedroom on the second (top) floor, while downstairs contains a kitchen, a bathroom and a living room. The kitchen accommodates a tiny sink and stovetop as well as a refrigerator with space for two beverages. If you need to use the restroom after drinking all that liquid, the bathroom is separated from the kitchen by a sliding door which doesn’t look completely opaque. That would be a deal breaker for me, I think. Oh, and you can take a shower while you’re on the toilet, if you’re in a hurry.
In the kitchen looking into the toilet www.shabbat_goy.com with CCLicense
There’s a ten foot ladder at the street entrance. This leads to a large trapdoor, sort of a glorified attic access door, that you need to clamber through and close so that you can stand on it. This is the apartment landing, from which you can climb a short ladder to get onto the first floor. You need to be reasonably fit as well as small to live here, and sleep walkers should not try it. Changing floors means climbing ladders installed in the space. If you feel like Spiderman, Szczesny says you can even climb on the steel structure itself. It’s an ideal space for an artist who doesn’t want any distractions and is guaranteed to curb the impulse for hosting wild parties. Apparently, eight people once fit in the Keret House simultaneously, but no one left with any desire to do that again!