As I so often do when considering this relationship, I turn in conclusion to Herbert Muller’s The Uses of the Past. I bought the book for $0.10, not knowing what it was, rushing to get the bargain buys at a Friends of the Library book sale. I just dumped the book in my shopping cart and it was the best $0.10 that I ever spent. In many ways, it is like Dimnet’s landmark work of the early 20th century and was published only a few decades after it. Muller’s words express, far better than any I have yet read, the wonder and the depth of the relationship between architecture and the soul. In The Uses of the Past, Muller proposes to examine the Hagia Sophia so that he might learn:

Upon close inspection, indeed, St. Sophia is an everlasting wonder in its anomalies. Its basic construction is honest, forthright, superbly solid; the more the architect learned about the secrets of its structure, the more he marveled at the resourcefulness and skill with which its builders had carried through an undertaking as bold and magnificent as the world had known, or yet knows. At the same time, there is hardly a straight line or a true curve in the majestic structure, even apart from the wear and tear of centuries. Everywhere one sees an exquisite care in the refinements of decoration, and an amateurish crudeness in the rudiments. The splendid columns of porphyry and verd antique are typical. There capitals, and the arches resting in them, are elaborately carved; their bases are so roughly finished as to shame an apprentice. And in inconspicuous places even their ornamented capitals are likely to be unfinished. Everything stands; but everything is wavering, bulging, or askew. [Admiral’s emphasis.]

Do you get a sense of the sensuousness that Muller gives the Hagia Sophia? Out of this magnificent edifice, we can hear the statements of civilization, leaders, workers, designers in their different voices echoing down the millennia. In the end, the structure, like humans, is neither good, nor bad. It stands as a testament to its own beauty; an end in itself. Out of this, Muller derives his insights:

What, then, does St. Sophia have to tell us? I should not restrict its meaning to the few implications I have chosen to stress from the drama of fourteen hundred years. I should insist only that there is no one simple meaning, and that we must realize the profound incongruities of the drama if we hope to rise on stepping stones of our dead selves to higher things. St. Sophia remains an inspiring monument, glorious and vainglorious. It is a symbol of humility and pride, of holiness and worldliness, of the power of faith and the limitations of faith. It is an everlasting triumph, of a society that failed. It may epitomize all the great societies and golden ages of the past, which also failed and still inspire. It calls for reverence, and irony. […] [M]y reflections failed to produce a neat theory of history, or any simple, wholesome moral. Hagia Sophia, or the ‘Holy Wisdom,’ gave me instead a fuller sense of the complexities, ambiguities, and paradoxes of human history. Nevertheless, I propose to dwell on these messy meanings. They may be, after all, the most wholesome meanings for us today; or so I finally concluded.

To the extent that architecture, in its canonical form of being, can give us this sense of complexity, ambiguity, and paradox within the human spirit — and deliver us to these messy meanings — it must act most surely of the arts upon the soul.

Advertisements