- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

Margaret Visser, the Canadian writer who can find a universe of meaning in a shaker of salt or the tip of a man's hat, has turned her intense gaze on architecture. The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church (North Point Press, $27, 325 pages) is an exhaustive, encyclopedic tour of a single Roman church, Sant' Agnese fouri le Mura, focusing both on its specific celebration of a 12-year-old girl martyred for her Christian faith in 305 A.D. and on the universal expression of faith that every church in its own way embodies.
From the threshold and the narthex, down the nave, past the sacristies and side chapels, and finally approaching the high altar and the tomb where Agnes lies buried, the author catalogs the architectural and artistic marvels that fill the church, as well as the theological strategies the designers employed to tell the Christian story and encourage believers in their faith. New churches, the author notes in one of the book's plentiful and fascinating asides, are baptized in much the same way individual believers are, with the walls anointed and sprinkled with water.
With a vast history dating from the time of the Roman persecutions down to the papacy of John-Paul II, Sant' Agnese presents a treasure trove of associations and historical meanings for the indefatigable writer. Through the design and decoration of a single church, she explores the role of virgin martyrs in Roman times, the changing image of St. Joseph (from God's hapless cuckold in the Middle Ages to the paternal role model of today), the role of relics in church history (critical through their diffusion to decentralizing power in the church), and the iconography and theological messages embedded in the mosaics that cover the small church's ceiling.
In a lengthy discussion of catacombs and early church burial practices, the author even finds occasion to note the architectural etymology lurking behind the word "fornication." Rather daringly, the book contains not a single diagram or photo, necessitating more than a few labored descriptive passages where the reader longs for a simple picture.
But the central conceit of the book — that faith is a journey and a church in its basic design is architecture's way of expressing and enhancing that journey for the believer — comes through powerfully both in the details assembled and in the power of the writing. "For anyone who is not spiritually allergic to churches, to walk into a beautiful church is to encounter understanding, to hear echoes of the soul's own experiences of epiphany." A church is "a hole in the hard walls of the rackety everyday, a reassurance that, thanks to the care and attention of my fellow human beings, a place has been made ready for silent contact with something enormous, something present, for any one who wants it."

In a similar albeit more lighthearted vein, Darlene Trew Crist's American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone (Potter, $22.50, 144 page, illus.) explains the history and mythology of those glorified downspouts that we associate with European Gothic churches. The book, which the author calls a "primer on American gargoyles," looks at the art form and the none too surprising way that we in the United States appropriated these didactic architectural elements for academic and commercial buildings as well as ecclesiastical ones.
Gargoyles, and their nonfunctioning counterparts, grotesques, have animated buildings as far back as Pompeii. "They were first used," according to the writer, "to lure pagans to Christian churches." The theory was that the pagan images might put the newly faihtful at ease. Additionally, the gargoyles diverted evil spirits away from the sanctuary, catching them and spewing them out and away from the church.
In subsequent chapters, the author explains the various types of gargoyles, and their relatives, gotesques and griffins. Her examples are drawn primarily from New York's Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine; Chicago's Woolworth Building and Tribune Tower; Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania; and Washington's own National Cathedral.
The author's descriptions are simple explanations of the carvings' features, sometimes supplemented by quotations from the sculptor. The "Candid Cameraman" from the National Cathedral, for instance, describes a duck in human clothing. "When one looks more closely, however, the whimsical gargoyle holds a secret in its mouth: the scrunched-up face of a photographer is seen peering from behind a camera!" Carver Malcolm S. Harlow Jr. adds, "I thought it would be fun to poke a little fun at the tourists."
In these cases, the author is making sure the reader appreciates the subtleties of the piece. At other times, she speculates on the ambiguous meaning of certain images. "Confused Horse," from Princeton University, for instance, prompts her to write, "Symbolic of the predicament of many students, he appears to be searching for someone to tell him what to do, where to go and how to get there." Therein lies the fun of the book. With a bounty of images, beautifully photographed by Robert Llewelyn, it isn't long before one gets into the spirit and begins to concoct lives and stories for these fanciful creatures. An extensive resource guide including addresses and websites assists anyone inspired to pursue their newfound interest.

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point Press, $30, 289 pages, illus.) is a screed, but a very cogently argued one. Florida architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk plainly hate the kind of housing and transportation arrangements that the market seems to indicate most Americans prefer.
Pioneers of the controversial "New Urbanism," the two lay out the most complete argument to date for a return to the best aspects of traditional urban planning. (Their handiwork can be seen locally in the Kentlands development in Gaithersburg, Md.) The husband-and-wife team, writing here with town planner Jeff Speck, say they are not against growth or the car, but that sensible urban planning and the rights of the pedestrian have been sacrificed to serve the needs of the developer, the zoning board, the regional mall, the commuter, and the exurban pioneer. The result, in far too many places in America: a loss of community, a dependence on the car, and a crippling absence of human scale in the public square.
What is most impressive is the seamless nature of the Duany/Plater-Zyberk argument. They have clearly thought long and hard about what makes a city work. The endless shuttling endured by soccer moms springs directly from the single-use, single-income zoning patterns of suburbia, where residential homes are strictly segregated from the shops, ball fields, and Zany Brainies that the kids have to get to. Postal rates go up incessantly, not because of waste and fraud, but because mailmen have to service increasingly far flung suburban sprawl developments.
Even that national scourge — incompetent elderly drivers — has its origins in poor town planning and "auto dependency," the authors contend. "It is the reason why we see otherwise reasonable men and women falsifying eye exams and terrorizing their fellow motorists," they note. "They know that the minute they lose their license, they will revert from adulthood to infancy and be warehoused in an institution where their only source of freedom is the van that takes them to the mall on Monday and Thursday afternoons."
As is clear from the preceding passage, New Urbanists such as the authors see a heavy moral component in the look of the nation's streetscapes and public plazas. And like moralists everywhere, they are not shy about laying out detailed, often coercive remedies to help their less enlightened fellow citizens live "right." Still, "Suburban Nation" is a bracing, occasionally shaming indictment of American suburban sprawl and a persuasive argument that we can do better.

Ellen Sands is an architectural designer and critic.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide