Archetypes 2: the Cross

July 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

You can’t see the cross here, right?

Believe me, there is definitely a cross in this Black Painting by Ad Reinhardt (1960-1966). If you tilt your screen and squint a bit you will see it. Look around and you will notice that the cross, or the X, is one of the most pervasive spatial archetypes. Howard Hughes used it more than 30 times in Scarface (1932): x shaped shadows and visual compositions mark the movie echoing the scar of the protagonist and becoming the ominous sign of violence and death.

But crosses and Xs for me go well beyond symbolism: they are the most fundamental way to mark a territory, the root of the relationship between landscape and human presence – as in the Roman Cardo and Decumanus. The Cardo and the Decumanus formed a cross that projected on earth an imaginary heavenly order, as seen in this scheme that depicts the foundation ritual of Roman cities.

templum in terra
The Cross is a basic foundation element not only of the western city; most civilizations have produced cross-shaped configurations, and one of the most interesting for me is the city of Anjar (today in Lebanon), founded by Al-Walid I, an Umayyad caliph, in 714-15.

The plan features a central cross-shaped circulation space that we can imagine as an urban interior of sorts. This space manages the walled area by dividing it in four quarters, but it would have also have provided a shared, representative space for both commerce and rituals.

The idea of a space of passage that is both a connector and a symbolic element of sorts re-emerges also in Le Corbusier’s La Tourette Monastery (1956-1960). On the lowest level of the building, a cross of corridors links the four sides of the monastery. I stayed a while at La Tourette in 2003 and I remember ‘discovering’ this shortcut almost by mistake – it was a new way of experiencing the building and understanding the relationship between its parts, and while walking through it, I realized it was a cross and had a sort of ‘whoa’ moment. Cheesy, I know. And stupid, especially, as I should have known the plan of the building as every good architecture student… so, for those of you who have not seen it yet, here it goes.

Corbu of course just looooved his crosses… as his ville radieuse shows clearly (I won’t comment the obvious).

But there are less obvious aspects in this project – especially the monumentalization of car circulation that gave beautiful and scary results such as this one, where the cross becomes the ultimate embodiment of the very mechanical rationale of the city marrying again the symbolic with the prosaic:

Interestingly, Italian architect and critic Gabriele Mastrigli has suggested that Le Corbusier took inspiration for the layout of his City of one Million of Inhabitants from another paradigmatic cross-shaped project:

Bramante’s proposal for Saint Peter (a project on which he worked between 1500 and 1514). An interesting introverted cross, somewhat the opposite of the centrifugal Villa Capra by Palladio (ca. 1567), which becomes a fourfold viewing device open towards the surrounding landscape.

villa capraIf from the scale of the city we went down to the one of the building, we can take our catalogue of crosses even further down to the scale of the architectural element – with two of my all-time favourites: the very obvious miesian column of the Barcelona Pavilion (1929)

mies van der rohe barcelona pavilion column pillar
and the maybe not-so-obvious beam-pillar exposed cross of the House on a Curved Road by Kazuo Shinohara (1978).

This section for me is deeply moving – it seems like all the meaning of architecture is condensed in that one beam-pillar cross, the vertical loads and the horizontal ones, the thrust towards the sky and the need to bind all elements together. I always found this building a sort of existential statement on architecture that could belong equally to the Japanese tradition and to a classical genealogy: it is about weight, order, measure, and ultimately also about man – what else could the absurdity of the slanted roof cutting the structure be, if not the intervention of chance, hazard, and the twists and turns of human nature? Uhm, no, this is wrong, one should never write about architecture when architecture is that good. It simply speaks for itself and talking about it can only make it cheap. I feel like thrashing the last lines but I’ll leave them as a memento not to overanalyze again.

However, especially in the Christian West, the importance of the cross as a symbol cannot be overestimated. Even in the cases in which it is used simply as a formal device, as in this “Composition with Cross” by Suetin (1921-22)

the metaphorical charge is still very much present, inscribing even the most abstract canvas into the history of Crucifixion paintings to which this famous detail from Piero della Francesca’s Pala della Misericordia (1460) belongs.

But just to end, here is the cross-based painting that for me remains the most stunning. Naive at first – after all, it’s just a lamb – the canvas is probably one of the most thought-provoking ones I have personally ever seen. There is just no stopping the chain of associations that will burst in the mind of the viewer once the cross formed by the legs of the lamb has been noticed: crucifixion, Jesus, martyrdom, meaning and value of life, this image can start infinite reflections. Francisco Zurbar├ín takes us on a real tour de-force of formal and conceptual metaphors with his “Agnus Dei” (1635-1640) – see below.

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