Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Bluestone of St. Patrick's Cathedral

I've a feature in the new December (inside) interior design magazine, 'Design, Philosophy and Freedom'. The writing was commissioned after the State of Design festival, earlier this year.

I'm looking into the materials and design of St. Patrick's Cathedral, and works from the recent NGV exhibition Vienna: Art and Design.  A sample:
As an atheist, I am often uplifted and rejuvenated by cathedrals. For example, St Patrick’s cathedral in Melbourne gives me a powerful impression of human freedom. Importantly, this is not because of its metaphysical symbolism – that is, its suggestion of some other reality, beyond the here and now. Today, churches do not mean what they once did: they cannot point to a divine maker, invisible but above or alongside us. ‘What… are all these churches now,’ wrote Nietzsche in The Gay Science, ‘if not the tombs and sepulchers of God?’ And no doubt, St Patrick’s was designed by Wardell, consciously or unconsciously, to inspire good Christian submission. The spires dwarfing us, angels hovering overhead in high ribbed vaults, pews for kneeling, the raised marble sanctuary: all reminders that we are small, physically and cosmically. But as an atheist today, none of this bothers me – I have no struggle with the designs of faith. I render unto Christians their own profound faith. By my experience of St Patrick’s is quite different: I’m overcome by a vision of my own humanity, as a free labour. In this, I’m engaged and inspired by the building itself – its form and substance, rather than its strictly religious significance. 
This begins with the materials. The stone, for example. Much of St Patrick’s is built with local bluestone, and the effect is striking. Most obviously, the cathedral looks like it was designed to withstand the centuries – as, indeed, it was. There is no hint of plasterboard and staples – these stones have lasted millennia, and they will continue to endure. In other words, there is a primordiality to stone, which gives the building an air of ancient stability. For the designer and Melbourne’s laity, this was a consequence of faith: in the continuous and coming kingdom of God. But for me, it is simply a work of boldness and hope: belief in the future, and its value. It liberates the imagination from the here and now, and allows us to envisage ourselves, and our descendants, flourishing in years to come. It says: this building matters. 
The stone also gives the impression of immense effort – of gravity defied. Obviously concrete and steel skyscrapers give a similar effect, but they are constructed from artificial materials: substances that yield to moulding and shaping. In other words, their existence, as materials, is to suit high-rise structures. Whereas the ridged, undulating bluestone in St Patrick’s has simply been cut from the ground and left in rough blocks. These suggest, not flexibility and fitness for purpose, but weight, solidity, resistance. And yet they tower above us, decorated with botanical shapes and gargoyles, illuminated by amber glass. There is a Promethean aspect to this: a sense of the intense effort and determination required to cut, transport, lift and mortar tonnes of rock. In other words, even if the cathedral were simpler and easier to build than Eureka Tower, as a design, it still evokes immense drive and ambition: an unwillingness to accede to gravity and inertia, and the passion to replace bare earth with grand edifices. These are the connotations of stone.

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