Glimpses into the future of the Middle Ages

Report on the International Conference of the IUA, Section Poland, at Warsaw

By Nold Egenter

With the recent changes in Eastern Europe something has happened in catholic Poland and its orthodox neighbours like the Ukraine which no one could have imagined in the West: an intensive revival of church building is taking place. Since independence in the Ukraine in 1991 around 500 churches are in the process of being rebuilt and similar developments expected in Poland.

For the architects this development will doubtless bring new and fertile activities. During communist times, a great deal of symbolic and formal knowledge about sacred Christian architecture was lost. Mainly for this reason the faculty of architecture (Konrad Kucza-Kuczinski) at the 'Warsaw University of Technology' has organised conferences since 1993 under the title 'ARCHISACRA'. In 1995 the conference was held for the first time on an international scale, entitled 'A sign in a contemporary sacral space'. In the introductory presentation (Kuca-Kuczinski) the general and comparative standpoint between religions was programmatically emphasised.


However, these perspectives were deceiving, both the international claim as well as the intercultural horizon were disappointing. The initial program was met neither thematically nor personally and most of what was discussed was specifically Polish and primarily catholic topics often with truly provincial character. Presentations dealing with other religions remained marginal (Walicka, Jewish) or absent (Japanese, Nagashima). The attractive poster was also misleading. It showed around 20 ancient signs of different religions in one frame and suggested a much wider horizon than merely catholic and orthodox churches in and around Poland.

This could all be excused, particularly if one remembers that the main objectives of schools of architecture are graphic and architectural design and not necessarily science, although many architects today talk of architectural theory to give their often irrational designs a scientific touch. However there were some further points which shed some rather questionable light on this event.


As mentioned in the introduction, most of the contributions alluded directly or indirectly to Mircea Eliades and the structural principles of sacred space. Eliade seems somehow to have been discovered here recently. His theses have even become a kind of doctrine since the pope has given his benediction for his books, particularly if the comparative position among different religions is taken.

Consequently, the whole spectrum of Eliades symbolism was vividly cited. Golgotha was considered to be the centre of the world, the holy mountain on which the catholic church was supposed to stand. The importance of orientation of the sacred in space was emphasised, particularly orientation towards the east and the rising sun. The axis mundi was cited and of course the celestial symbolism of the tent and the dome. However, what was reported scientifically readable and with some objective distance in the case of Eliade gained emotional momentums within the focus on concrete churches, even became (presumably also under the influence of present Roman constellations) directly confessive, often close to religious zeal. A sweet elderly nun for instance trembled in reading her paper and tried to convince the audience of her belief in the Eucharistic transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood of Christ and its implications for the design of altars (Walicka). There was great applause at the end of her lecture. Next, a priest reported on the history of the holy cross, respectively on its significance as a symbol of Christ's victory (the horizontal element of the cross being a symbolic embracement of mankind; Salij). Such religious zeal - which was characterised in other presentations - is unusual at an architectural school and in the auditoriums of a University of Technology in a modern metropolis! One author initially presented a painting of Christ with a burning heart and discussed how he used this as inspiration for his church-design (Kosinski). Another architect spoke about the construction of a cross made of natural logs (Buszko). Also statues of The Virgin Mary and of the good herdsman were considered as "urban elements". In this context Eliade's concept of revelation (hierophany) was interpreted in a purely confessional sense as "manifestation between man and God" (Trzeciak). The same author also suggested that we should return to "God's order of things."


However, Eliade's term of revelation is essentially conditioned by European theology and is thus not without doubts. In particular, it produces considerable distortions if applied to religions which have evolved in other cultures. In Japanese Shinto for instance, Eliade's theses - vaguely supported by secondary sources - are completely untenable. In addition, what Eliade takes as his reliable support, has its great weaknesses in medieval scholasticism. During those times Neoplatonism was rather unconditionally accepted and formed the theoretical basis of an absolute spiritual Church-constitution, mainly for political reasons against the strong worldly powers of the Franks and Ottones. This formed the fundamental political tension throughout the Middle Ages (the struggle about the universalities, the struggle of investiture, 1077 Heinrich's IV humiliation at Canossa; 1303 imprisonment of the Pope), and continues until our modern times. It forms a strong idealistic domain within the humanities which relies heavily on historistic deduction and forms the opponent of empirical outlooks. In short, if one considers these developments of the 'Kingdom of God' in the light of territorial politics, the functional aspects of the 'sacred' are revealed and Eliade's basis becomes questionable. On the other hand the objective history of sacred signs and symbols gains importance (Old Testament: Eternally burning thornbush). In any case, such things need to be discussed, if one wants to speak about architectural symbols on an international and culturally comparative level.

The main problem of the conference was that a real discussion of important terms such as 'architecture', 'sacred space' and' sacred sign', was avoided by relying on historistic projections instead. The neutral idea of the sign in the special context of 'semantic characterisation of sacred places' demands a much wider horizon. Otherwise one risks scholastically distorting one's materials and particularly the concept of the sacred sign. The toposemantic continuities of the Judaeo-Christian cultures with ancient Near Eastern cultural domains are very important - particularly their relations with well known signs and symbols of Egyptian and Mesopotamian ancient cultures.


Also, conceptually, it was often very unclear about what one was actually talking. One lecture for instance (Uscinowicz) emphasised the "transhistorical" role of tradition in search of the present, but based itself very concretely on written history when it tried to illustrate the "return to the primordial symbols". It related the first large axial system, oppositions and dualisms to the separation of heaven and earth, of light and dark as written in the Bible, and even referred to the opposition of naked and clothed in the creation of Adam and Eve! (Another paper derived the origin of the wall in architecture to the ousting of Adam and Eve from the paradise!)

Rather horrifying were these derivations of the 'primordial' based on the Bible in a purely medieval sense. They go far beyond some important modern insights. The Middle Ages had limited written historical sources. The Jewish Old Testament was the oldest text known during those times. Deriving sources merely from historical texts was legitimate: there were no other sources! Jerusalem was considered the oldest city, the Hebrew language was the first language and in written form was the first script. But today this type of reasoning represents an anachronism of many hundred years which can be excused when used by the scientifically uneducated. To anyone who knows about Near Eastern archaeology and its achievements or other domains of modern humanities such reasoning is simply unbelievable - even more so when it is presented on the level of a modern university. Terms like 'sign' and 'symbol' discussed merely in such superficial ways, become dangerously regressive if they are interpreted in this narrow-minded and purely historistic and medievalistic sense.


Furthermore, the organisers of the conference were evidently uninformed about recent developments in architectural research. Research which has developed on a global level since Amos Rapoport's 'Built Form and Culture' (1969). It has broken up the narrow horizon of the history of art as 'theory of architecture' and started to globally deal with traditional forms of 'dwellings and settlements' (Traditional Dwellings and Settlement Research, Berkeley, USA) and also began to research architecture in the wider vital environment (Environmental Design Research, Kansas, USA). Similarly, research networks in Europe, Australia and Asia which number around 2000-3000 researchers of various disciplines deal with architecture in the framework of ethnology and anthropology in the widest sense.

Compared to this level of research as demonstrated by many conferences and publications, the ARCHISACRA conference in Warsaw presented a level of discussion which might have been possible 25 years ago in a small group related to the planning of a local church, but today? No more! Certainly not at an international conference on architecture!

Thus, despite all the critical objections towards what was presented, there was evidently a strong aspect of informative isolation. In this context the conference indicated that such backwarded types of 'architectural theories' - given a politically and geographically isolated vacuum of information - might easily manoeuvre themselves into nationalistic mainstreams.

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