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Essay — A theology student philosophizes over his meeting with the glass walls, open spaces and automatic lighting of South Campus. "The good thing is that we no longer find ourselves in a dark room, fumbling for the light switch, while we [...] wonder whether there, for example, is some psychopath from religious studies or even the devil himself waiting there to kill us."
Buildings are works of art too. Certainly in the sense that they raise and respond to questions. They are thought out, drawn up and constructed on earth, in one country, now, but for the purpose of the future, and they emanate from culture, ideology, a view of human nature and the past. It takes on an interpretative and reflective form in time and space.
And even after the building is erected – and is there, spatially, and after we use it with our bodies, sense it, and over time get to know it to such an extent that we no longer comport ourselves curiously and emotionally around it – it raises and responds to questions. We adapt it to ourselves and let ourselves be injected into it, and it frames us so it just becomes a building we know. But a building is more than a building.
February 2017, and the Faculty of Theology moved out to the district of Amager, to what was previously called KUA, but which is now called South Campus. It is an objectively well-functioning building with the technology that it should have. This applies, for example, to the self-regulating blinds that maneuver up and down according to what the light sensors conscientiously recommend, and an air conditioning system with the nice sense of situation that never gives too much or too little.
This means that a modest person cannot always find peace out there, but as modesty is the limit of the person, then this is good. An unhappiness like being too modest should be remedied.
There are a lot of glass walls. In that way, you never have to be alone. You can almost always see other people through the glass if you are out there during the daytime. From this open building you become open yourself. This means that a modest person cannot always find peace out there, but as modesty is the limit of the person, then this is good. An unhappiness like being too modest should be remedied.
The small reading room is also located with a large window section out towards the yard. Hidden, lonely moments with a book are avoided, and there is nothing more conducive to a more open, harmonious and positive thinking than to not be alone. This makes it possible to emphasize the collective in the reading and the thinking. So we, out there, can all pull ourselves up together, and more will probably finish their studies in the appointed time.
Loneliness can be a hindrance to productivity. And because of the large amounts of glass that allow for a sight of the heavens in many places, and the light that flows in, the feeling of shadows is barely noticeable. The shadows are there, of course, but in a shy, retracted way: umbra non grata. The confined spaces are gone, and because the lights turn themselves on when they detect movement, you avoid the darkness that remind you of death and insecurity. That the light that detects the motion turns itself off, and thereby saves power, is insignificant.
The good thing is that we no longer find ourselves in a dark room, fumbling for the light switch, while we – if we are just a little neurotic – wonder whether there, for example, is some psychopath from religious studies or even the devil himself waiting there to kill us.
If you get there early in the morning, or after the afternoon, you have to use your identity card on a card reader to get through some doors. They are at an appropriately low height from the ground to give you a vague feeling of being humiliated when you have to bow down. But fortunately, the doors are made of glass, so you can smile to those sitting on the other side, and get a little bit of fun out of the situation. Because the smile is easy-to-understand and belongs to everyone, because its practical usability is unlimited and is the shortest route between people whose happiness you hold in your hand, and with who you can build up friendships over time.
Also in the so-called classrooms there are narrow glass sections. This is excellent because it gives passers-by a reason to strut as they walk past. Those who sit in there also get ample opportunity to work on maintaining their concentration in distracting situations, and this may be the most practical theological exercise that takes place out there. It is a simulation of standing on the pulpit.
There are large open spaces and long walks that give you a sense of being at a small airport, which is certainly an incentive to travel. It’s about suspending that everyday life as often as possible and getting out and experiencing that world. And the many rooms that are next to the corridor also obviously have walls of glass, and it is the idea at one point to open up some shops. There are only 32 permanent reading places for a faculty of far more students, but fortunately there are sofa groups and what look like café tables here and there.
Many reading places are located on the corridors or displaced to the canteen, which is also called the market place, so you are close to the vibrant life, surrounded by others, and can constantly hear others interact. There is space for shops in the hallways, and there are loads of café tables, and if a central system is already installed to play music that motivates your purchases, there is ample opportunity to turn this into a shopping area in this part of South Campus that is the Faculty of Theology, and which presumably will be shut down soon anyway. The market place is already there, where the canteen is now. In a footnote, the food is served on large, robust tables with a smooth metal surface. After closing, these tables, that are attached to the floor, are suitable for beer pong.
In a closed yard there is a work of art by Ingvar Cronhammer. The artwork is called Gabriel, and is surrounded by some trees that have not yet blossomed, and some stone tiles, which are carefully placed in the grass. Along the glass walls there are some big wooden benches where you can sit and enjoy life. Gabriel is probably an angel, but he looks like a fallen satellite – and that’s just fine. If you are standing out there on a spring evening – in socio-cosmic confidentiality with everything and everyone – you may notice that the building’s exterior and interior is coated with enamelled metal plates that have been printed in a pattern that represents some upright and flopped books. This is how you symbolize that this is a literary university. At the faculty, many books are spread out in the corridors, while others are stored in the basement. The good thing about this solution is you avoid the boring library atmosphere that is by no means refreshing. Gathering too many books in one place emphasizes sensually and visually how overwhelmingly much has been written on questions that we people are struggling with, even today. That 90 per cent of all works are known to be boring reproduction is probably one of the reasons why they have chosen to spread out the library. Seeing too many books gathered in one place can be demoralizing and it is well to spare students the awful experience that can make them have to decide between boring reproduction and personal acquisition.
At South Campus – I think – they have taken particular care to please the eye. The use of the materials is not transparent even though there is a lot of glass.
There is much more to say about South Campus when you have been in contact with the building for some time and have become familiar with it. You experience the building with your body, with all of your senses, and you experiences yourself – first sensually, then culturally. It takes time. At South Campus – I think – they have taken particular care to please the eye. The use of the materials is not transparent even though there is a lot of glass. We are not familiar with the material whose creation process is hidden from us and we do not have to get hold of a door handle when entering the building on South Campus. A door handle is of course a building’s handshake. It is a question of courtesy.
When you first sense a building, you go from the whole to the details that you reflect on indefinitely, wondering what the meaning and symbolism is. Think of a church both inside and out, with all the details of ornamentation that is more than shape, perspective and proportions. We also sense a building with the body. We see a window and imagine standing there and looking out. We reflect our body into the size of the building. It is called the silent wisdom of the body, which, as an architect, should be considered when drawing a building. This probably did not happen when South Campus was drawn up, where the architects allegedly were surprised when a professor asked where the toilets were. They had forgotten to place them on the drawing.
When a building loses its connection with the silent wisdom of the body, both in terms of materials and size, it is isolated into the abstract world of the sense of sight. You feel like a stranger to the building, which you cannot recognize yourself in.
With the building also permeated by technology, and we feeling instrumentalized within it, and the materials produced in an incomprehensible technical way, the sight becomes yet even more destructive. More cold and distant. The use of materials also expresses something important. According to the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, the use of huge glass panels, enamelled metals and synthetic plastics expresses a repressed fear of death because we cannot imagine the materials getting old. The materials are conceived to be timeless and this is a serious shortcoming, and at the same time, the sight, due to the absence of the silent wisdom of the body, cannot integrate its other senses immediately into the experience, in this way abstracting vision from the perishable body. According to Pallasmaa, the sight-oriented architecture, which neglects the other senses, ultimately means a kind of nihilism. “Instead of enhancing man’s body-centered and integrating experience of the world, the nihilistic architecture demarcates and isolates the body, and instead of trying to reconstruct the cultural order, it prevents any reading of collective meaning.” The sight alone is desolate, just like unrestricted enlightenment dissolves everything. It is also about, for example, listening in a metaphorical sense.
Architecture is culture. It is art, and expresses answers to questions associated with being human; in time and space. The architecture we experience connects with the dead, so long as the architecture itself does not deny death. Death must be allowed to speak before the dead can speak. According to Oswald Spengler, every culture awakes “suddenly with a new look at death as if it understood the world’s secret”. When the culture dies, death dies. It does it with civilization which, according to Spengler, is mummified culture. Culture awakes with a glance at death and becomes a civilization when it has exhausted itself. The blood coagulates, the power fades and culture solidifies into shape: civilization. It’s been a long time since Spengler published his great work, The Decline of the West, and for us who still live in Europe his predictions make us wonder. We can’t do much with this, but his magnificent, artistically sensitive work with cultures is an overwhelming piece of work that we can be inspired by in several respects. According to Spengler, almost everything can be read into architecture, but if this is actually the way things are, we can never know. It is not positivism, and when Spengler falls into this trap, he is mistaken.
Where culture dies, civilization will remain. The city is a symbol of this, a formless form. The big city “draws the sources of life from the desolate landscape – the masses – which like dunes are blown into each other and away, like loose sand that disappears between the rocks. Here the human sciences and capitalism celebrate their greatest and last victories.” The last victories, it’s exhausted. The city is the symbol of death in a declining culture. But it is a symbol of death in the meaning of a death of culture, and therefore the death of death. Culture as meaningful, flourishing and creative suffers its undermining of form and its solidification as civilization.
There is no place out there, at South Campus, where you can settle down in a modest, secret conversation with death. And without death there is no life.
But culture can be revitalized. Spengler did not think so. For him it was the machine that decided and shaped the future. But it can be revitalized. If civilization comes into contact with death, in a glance like the one that recognized the world’s secret, death can speak, and then the dead can speak. And where the dead can speak: there is culture. There is no place out there, at South Campus, where you can settle down in a modest, secret conversation with death. And without death there is no life. Because the openness there that is not surrounded by the words of the dead is emptiness. The openness that opens something is denied in architecture’s historical transparency, because openness without a grounding in what has passed is nothingness. It is formless form without the sounding board of death, without whose repeated tones life cannot unfold.
The culture wakes up with a new look at death. Our view of death is the church. And instead of building a so-called recreation area on South Campus between the different faculties and departments, you should build a church that is our view of death. It is the preaching of its overcoming, but it is not ignoring it. We smile at death, but do not ignore it.
The above essay was originally printed in Studenterkredsens Tidsskrift, April 2017.
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