Tuesday, 18 November 2014

There's No Place Like Dome

The full height of both the outer and the inner domes of St Paul’s cathedral would fit neatly inside the interior of the dome of St Peter’s.

Begun by the larger-than-life Pope Julius II as a magnificent backdrop to his even more magnificent tomb by Michelangelo, St Peter’s was of such scale that its inception, design and realisation far outlived him. It became the cumulative work of countless craftsmen and the greatest architects of two ages, from Bramante, da Sangallo, Michelangelo, and Vignola, to Giacomo della Porta, Carlo Maderno, Bernini and Borromini.

^The dome of St Peter's inside the dome of Yamoussoukro

One hundred and twenty years and twenty one popes later, the dome of St Peter’s rose over the city of Rome, finally supplanting the Pantheon as the summit of muscular enclosure, of the cutting-off and claiming of air, of space, of the ether from nature, by man.

Many had been involved, many left their mark, but the madness and folly of beginning such an impossibly gigantic enterprise was all Julius’

As the Pantheon was all Hadrian’s, and the Hagia Sophia was Justinian’s.

The feat of enclosing as much volume of space as possible with no supports under a perfectly centralised, symmetrical structure. The warm embrace of a vast and soothing authority into which our sense of self willingly dissolves. The uniting of a multiplicity of visitors under the awesome envelope of a unitary force. The power represented may be God. It might also be his self-appointed earthly proxy.

Height and girth. Pure height means nothing, it is the reserve of the look-out tower, the medieval fortress, a simple act of thoughtless, artless stacking. Every little town, every duke and village hall has its tower, it’s just a matter of how long they continue stacking. Pure girth also means nothing, it’s just basic extension, the addition of row after row of column and beam. By this logic three hundred huts side by side would qualify as a great space. Height and girth however, now that is a way to elevate yourself above comparison to all but the most select of other builders.

An interior so expansive that it is like an exterior enclosed only by the magnificent dome of the sky.

On the periphery of Yamoussoukro, population 200,659 and capital of Cote d’Ivoire, there is a Basilica called Our Lady of Peace. The dome of St Peter’s would fit neatly inside its dome.

In March 1983 President Félix Houphouët-Boigny relocated the country’s capital from the congested bustle of commercial Abidjan to the heartland rural plains of his home village. Cote D’ivoire was flush with cash after a decade-long economic miracle, and the new capital of course needed monuments. Houphouët-Boigny was Catholic. The country was not, but that didn’t matter. He had a European trained architect in one Pierre Fakhoury.

The highest point of the church’s structural dome could not be higher than the highest point of the cross on top of St Peter’s, out of symbolic deference. But the dome had to be bigger. So the church is really just an immense dome, which starts low, much lower than the Vatican, and wide, much wider, so that as it reaches the same height as Michelangelo’s dome, it has spanned a far, far great area.

The building complex had to clearly and unmistakably recall St Peter’s, but not be seen as just a copy. It should be seen as the continuation of a long tradition, the next step in a logical sequence stretching back to antiquity. And why not? Why should Rome and the West have any sort of ownership over architectural lineage when they have always claimed so strongly that it is universal heritage. Universal.

^The dome of St Peter's inside the dome of Yamoussoukro

It has Bernini’s colonnades, but only the oval piazza, and weirdly, what looks like church around the dome is all colonnade, empty, the shadow of a volume. It has the dome, but the proportions are much altered, all the elements hypertrophied, swollen. It has the giant orders, but they are abstracted, stripped, their entablature like a gargantuan, blown-up monochrome facsimile of a small Venturi Scott-Brown illustration. It has classical articulation on its surfaces, but it is all in low-resolution, panelised and precast concrete.

Commercial classicising post-modernism had come to Yamoussoukro, as it had to countless cities all over the globe, but instead of building another shopping mall or five star hotel, or conference centre, or airport, or theatre, it built a successor to the great apostolic Basilica in the Vatican.

In the description of the plan, Our Lady of Peace Foundation’s text (1990,19) began with the statement that the circle is an ideal figure that “reflects the divine nature,” and it is in this image Our Lady of Peace Basilica is crafted. Moreover, the interior architecture of Our Lady of Peace Basilica ‘wished to be associated with a tradition which dates back to the middle ages, continues throughout the renaissance and which links the central plan to Marian devotion.’ The text also confirms that the dome is a form of architecture that ‘dates to antiquity and reminds us of the Roman Pantheon,’ which was appropriated by Christian architecture from the ‘very beginning’ –first at ‘Saint Sophia in Constantinople from [A.D.] 532, and during the Renaissance at St Peter’s in Rome, and more recently at Yamoussoukro.’
Extract from “Architecture and Power in Africa”, p121, ‘Designing the Monuments and the Cities’ by Nnamdi Elleh

Construction began on 10 August 1985, just as an intractable economic crisis was becoming an irreparable descent. It was consecrated on 10 September 1990 by Pope John Paul II, ushering in a second decade in which its economy would shrink by over 20%*.

The Bulgars called Tarnovo the third Rome. The Russians called Moscow the third Rome. The Ottoman Turks called Istanbul the third Rome. The Austrian Empire claimed to be the third Rome, as did unified Germany. Mazzini called unified Italy the third Rome, as did Mussolini. Paris? Often.

They all built accordingly, and wherever they were, be it on the Danube or the Neva or Spree, their buildings reflected a rootedness in a geography-defying, time-collapsing notion of continuity between the Italy of Empire, of concrete, vaults, arches and domes, the Italy of Catholicism, of colonnades and vistas and again, domes, and themselves, their ambitions, dreams and hopes of success, endurance and grandeur.

The greatest displays of power and wealth always come at the point of no return in which the ruling power has become too sure of itself, has too much control, has concentrated too much sovereignty in its own hands, has come to identify itself too greatly with omnipotence, with the oculus, with the centre of the vast dome that is the system it controls.

The year of the basilica’s inauguration Houphouët-Boigny was hospitalised in France and never recovered.

^Yamoussokro in the Vatican

There are many Romes around the world, there are countless inheritors of its image, always translated and understood through the eyes of the country whose heritage its leaders, its businessmen, its demagogues, its citizens want to deepen. There will always be multiple Romes, and they will continue to be brought forth, further and further afield as world culture bleeds into one swirling maelstrom whose immense complexity is only matched by the solidity of the traditional centres around which it turns, spreading the streets of the Seven Hills through Asia, Africa, the Americas, as fast as the internet and as solidly as the massive international contractors who throw up towns like blizzards.

And for each mirror image of one aspect of itself that is manifest, somewhere in the world, big or small, Rome itself changes. Every time a foreigner interprets the city in his own way, and builds a piece of this alternative Rome somewhere else, the city cannot see itself in the same way again. This St Peter’s cannot be seen without the knowledge of that other one, or two, or three, and the fact of knowing this in no way devalues the experience, or the building itself, rather it elevates it, proves its import, adds the gravitas of a thing that is worth copying, that it is worthy of the attempt to be superseded, repeatedly.

Rome has its suburbs. It has its hinterlands. It sprawls through what was once the countryside in endless marching rows of high density apartment blocks. But it also sprawls around the world, throughout civilisation, through time, through our imaginations, a reach which is just as physical as it is mental, leaving mammoth traces from Washington DC and Detroit, to Seoul and Tokyo, Sydney and Sao Paolo. A treasure hunt of huge Roman-inspired artefacts that can be traced around the globe like the archaeological ruins scattered along the Via Appia, only you have to take planes and trains to get there, or the internet, google street-view, Bing aerials…



Architecture and Power in Africa” by Nnamdi Elleh

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