alan balfour
Spiritual Constructions ::
Alan Balfour

Two Arguments

The first argument sees blind faith as the only comfort for the majority in the future world.  The world population, which has doubled since 1957, will double again within the next thirty years.  India, for example, will have a billion people by the year 2010.  The results of such exponential growth will begin to consume, with frenzied suddenness, all the dependable surface resources, field by field, valley by valley.  Think of a cluster of villages in central India surviving on the meager produce of tiny plots of cultivation, finding fuel for cooking in the dung of cattle and from the branches of the stunted trees that thinly cover the ground.  Then consider that in a period of weeks all could suddenly be wasted, and the people must move to find sustenance, and as they move, they are joined by swelling numbers, forced into a search without end, for all the land they pass through is overworked and wasted and there is nowhere left to go but to the great city.  And the great city swells like a lake in flood, and the people say, “If India survives, the world will survive.”


And there will be a thousand cities like Bombay, with uncountable millions, for whom abstract political order will be meaningless, for whom spiritual construction, no matter how immaterial, alone will maintain order and form the evolving reality.  Religious fundamentalism is only the most coherent expression of a much more extensive condition.


The second argument proposes that world industry must manipulate the world population for the survival of both.  Television has made entertainment out of tragedy, making us voyeurs, making us hapless witnesses to a regressing world.  Persistent exposure to disaster has blunted the edge of compassion.  The increasing tolerance of the obscene and horrific, coupled with an equal feeling of impotence, has prepared the world not just for the droughts and famines, catastrophic accidents, and civil disorder, but also for the exploitation of global resources by the new world industries.  Industries whose nature and survival owe nothing to the idea of a nationhood.


The imperial and colonial policies of the nineteenth century often masked their essential economic agendas behind religious and civilizing causes.  With their increasing detachment from the constraints of national laws and policies, world industries seek increasing freedom from any constraints in stripping the natural assets of weakened nations.  It is clearly in the best interest of such world industries to favor the emergence of weak and accommodating governments, not only to allow exploitation of resources, but also to encourage the growth of apolitical and amoral urban societies with a healthy appetite for consumption.  Such exploitation feeds an increasing political and economic regression in which stability is maintained by a combination of military force and the stimulation of artificial realities.  The Indian and Hong Kong movie industries are powerful agents in this stimulation.  In this devolution there is no return to the natural and the primitive.  This is a world in which the most advanced products of destruction and gratification will be instantly put to use wherever they are needed.


Out of these two conditions new constructions of the authentic and the artificial will emerge.  They will form the most significant objects in the imagination and in the reality of the new millennium.  The forms, of course, will depend on the size and the nature of the illusions and of the mysteries they involve.


Let me offer a few brief tales on the structure of spiritual desire.  The many small gods of Japan appear to offer the most convenient instruments of spiritual security.  The Shinto shrines on so many streets vie with the automatic drink dispensers to salve the spirit.  Throw in some money, clap twice, be quite open about the help needed, and go on through the day reassured that the ancient spirits are looking after you.  As I became accustomed to these red structures surrounding simple yet mysterious aedicules, I sensed that all else in these cities could change or disappear, but the community would retain meaning if these temples survived.  Constructing small instruments of spiritual comfort fulfills an ancient and deeply felt human need.  In Manila, in Naples, in Istanbul, in Bangkok, coexisting with the vast spiritual engines of the privileged, neighborhood shrines are but a step away from the household altars, and through the tolling of bells, the burning of sacred prayers, and the pouring of water, they ease the path of the spirit through the moods of the day into the shifting burdens of life.


New constructions of spiritual desire are emerging in both the old and the new world.  These assume forms significantly different from ancient places of ritual.  The ubiquitous clapboard shed that now is home in various shapes and sizes to all the necessities of life in the fringes of the towns in the American South more and more often houses the neighborhood palm reader.  People increasingly need the guidance of the soothsayers whose inventive futures will give confidence to those whose lives are without distinction.  The same form of structure, here made in cinder block, can be found at the heart of the constantly growing settlements that ring Mexico City.  These sheds anchor the spiritual life of the people, not in the caste-bound mysteries of Catholicism, but in the accessible platitudes of Jimmy Swaggart and the many other zealous U.S. evangelicals.  Through the slums of the cities of Central and South America, the same rude concrete structures carry a myriad of satisfying, though often dark and dreadful mysteries – from the voodoo clubs in the mud-sliding hills above Rio, to the worship of a tailor’s dummy, made up to look like Al Capone, in a solitary shed on the outskirts of a small town in Guatemala.


I find this last place emblematic of both the invention and the desperation of people without hope.  The shed with its corrugated roof is approached down a small cobbled lane flanked by some farm buildings.  On entering and waiting until the gloom clears, there appears, in the place of the high altar, a department store dummy with gray-pink flesh and painted eyes sitting in a chipped enameled barber’s chair.  Someone has carefully, too carefully, marked the upper lip with a pencil line moustache.  The deity wears a trench coat, collar up, and a snap-brim fedora is pulled down over the eyes.  The figure sits casually on the chair, cross-legged, one hand on the rest, the other holding a cigarette in a long yellow plastic holder.  The attendants, two middle-aged women, take care of its needs.  One ensures that a cigarette is constantly lit, burning in the holder.  The other, every few minutes, pours a carefully measured shot of bourbon whiskey down the sodden fibrous lips.  The deity, whose origins did not prepare it for receiving continual doses of bourbon, has a weak stomach, with the consequence that the ritual scene sits in the middle of a puddle of muddied whiskey.  The smell is strong.  In the darkness a few people prostrate themselves before the figure and mumble incomprehensible prayers and requests.  This ritual differs little from the hysterical cries of the evangelicals committing themselves to God or the dazed frenzies of the voodoo dancers as they will themselves possessed and guided by fierce external force.  The figure in the barber’s chair, though, is unusual.  Most of the new spiritual activity in poor communities, a rejection of autocratic religions, doesn’t require the presence of a symbolic figure to focus the ritual.  Rather, the spiritual activity demands shared personal commitment within a trusting community free from any notions of higher earthly authority.


A contrast to these spiritual performances, which appear to seek withdrawal from reality, present and future, has been the construction of artificial destinations.  These structures, of a deliberately epochal scale, are elaborate and synthetic and manipulate mass imagination into experiencing the illusion of fulfilled existence.  The artificial destination is surely architecture’s greatest achievement:  from the Temple of David to all the compelling machines of Rome that still constrain the Western imagination; from the Colosseum to its inversion in the metaphysics of Hagia Sofia, whose representation of heaven was to hold the Christian imagination for a thousand years, displaced in the end only with the construction of the cathedrals, whose great shafts of stone sought to consume all other realities.  The shift from architectural artifact to instrument and machine occurred in the nineteenth century.  The railway train in a literal sense made destination artificial and gave rise to the mass idea of traveling for pleasure.  The Crystal Palace became the tempting artificial destination of the nineteenth century and the first world structure concerned with stimulating in mass population the idea of consumption.  It added a host of artificial journeys that were much more concerned with action and experience than with symbol and revelation.  And the floods of new products that poured from the factories provided artificial realities, artificial journeys, for all.  The landscapes of twentieth-century desire produced the movies and flight and radio and an explosion of invention affecting all aspects of existence.  The movies became the great artificial destination in which illusion far overwhelmed reality in the passive imagination.  And as testament to its significance and necessity for the spirit of these times, the movie has expanded into machines that can provide infinite manipulations of any conceivable presence, infinite presencing of what is no longer seen as artificial.


In this I see an emerging vision for willful landscapes of artificial reality.  The construction of artificial destinations is shared by industries and governments.  Cathedrals are constructed to satisfy the mass imagination, as much to deceive and pacify as to inspire and entertain.  The dilemma for architecture lies in the ability of such constructions to embody brilliantly monstrous deception.  The profundity of this condition was dramatized in a discussion I had with a young Chinese student who had been in Tiananmen Square during the protests.  His concern was to share a vision that had haunted and frustrated him since the crackdown.  It was a dream.  A dream that somewhere in China a community of people, thousands upon thousands, would come together and begin to build a great cathedral.  The vision was specific in his imagination.  It would be Rheims rather than Chartres.  He had read about it in his history books and had subsequently visited and been awestruck by this immense pile of harmonically ordered stone, shaped by innumerable hands to become a perpetual symbol of community and faith.  He said he believed that both in the act of building through several generations and in the eventual realization of such an epic structure, a spiritual and political path would emerge that would confirm and secure a meaningful future.  I didn’t ask if he was Christian, for it seemed clear as he spoke that his visions had all to do with politics and his love of people and little to do with notions of salvation or the life hereafter.


Let me conclude with some dreadful scenarios, not as Delphic political pronouncements, but as landscapes of probability forcing the designing of future reality.  The new power in the world will be the global industries, whose products will range from the essential to the stimulating to the destructive.  They will assume authority over nations and divide the earth into several realities.  Among them will be the reserve lands, abandoned regions whose small populations and insufficient resources are of no interest to world banks or producers except as a dump for the corrosive wastes of industry.  They are excluded from the consumption program except to be used and abused.  The resource lands are rich in natural resources but poorly developed.  Consequently they are dominated by the global industries demanding to be fed through unsparing stripping of their mineral and vegetable assets, particularly where there are docile populations and accommodating governments.  Here populations, large and small, will be kept powerless and become essentially the property of industry within which there will be little chance for individuals to prosper.  The ambitious will leave for the great cities.  Here, irrespective of cultural and productive history, uncontrolled population growth and consumption will demand a balance.  Stability is essential to consumption.  Here, in combination with religions, old and new, vast artificial destinations must be constructed for the spirit and for the flesh.  These will become the reality engines of the new millennium.


The idea of making a great and artful construction that will have a compelling influence on the faith and obedience of the masses is an essential characteristic of advanced cultures.  Architecture has always been the premier instrument for establishing order and authority.  But now I sense something dreadful being cultivated.  Monstrous deceptions, cynical creations of vast portentous dimension, conceived as the cosmic palliative, conceived to address what must be a future of intolerable insecurity for the many.  Constructions that combine the communal ritual commitments of the new religions with all the elaborate machines of illusion that are now the most fruitful products of the world industries.  Construction conceived to give meaning to meaningless existence, subtly tempting and gratifying all the desires of the flesh as necessary indulgence through which salvation will be achieved.  Vast and intricate constructions, these spiritual engines will present a reality so completely satisfying that even those who know it is corrupting will be seduced and silenced.


And for most of those involved in the production of these vast constructions, it will seem like a golden age, it will be compared with the building of the cathedrals.


But a few will resist feeding a corrupting reality.


A few will continue to search for ways to create objects exploring the mysteries of existence.  And their work will embody the prophetic future.

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