WHY I BECAME AN ARCHITECT—Part 1
(above) At the outset of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, the ancient Roman poet Virgil leads Dante to the entrance of Hell (The Inferno). Above the opening is inscribed “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” Gustave Doré‘s illustrations date from the latter 19th Century; Dante’s poem dates from the 14th Century.
I would like to tell a short story—or perhaps not such a short story—about the reasons why I chose to become an architect. Exactly why this blog’s readers should be interested in my recollections about such a matter I cannot say, and perhaps I am mistaken in spinning out such a story here. Still, I feel compelled to do so and can only hope for the readers’ tolerance.
I’ll quickly pass over my early obsession with drawing, and the first time I saw Gustave Doré’s engravings for Dante’s Inferno, however pleasurable it might be to linger on the great illustrator’s use of pure line in his startling visions of Hell. I will pass just as quickly over my childhood memories of the engineering works built by my father, co-mingled with memories of jet bombers and fighters that enflamed my imagination—as I have already spoken of them here. Instead, I’ll take up the story at age sixteen or seventeen when, some years after my father’s death, when I—an only child—lived with my mother in Indianapolis, Indiana, and was attending high school. This was the mid-1950s.
For whatever reason, I had taken up painting, oil painting. Setting up my easel in our modest living room, I painted pictures of everything from copies of paintings in a how-to book of bowls of fruit to images of pure light, that is, light that emanated from within the little canvas boards I’d bought at an art store. Where the impulse to make such images came from I cannot say, but oil paint was perfectly suited to the task (acrylics had not been invented yet), though I do recall that I tended not to blend the strokes into smooth transitions, but preferred to build them up from separate dabs and daubs, so that the light was broken down into elements proceeding from an intensely radiant center to a gradually deepening darkness. I only wish now that even one of these paintings had survived.
I cannot recall, as well, whether I painted these pure light images before or after I had come across pictures published In Life Magazine of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos. I suspect it was after, because I had been so moved by them. No doubt my light paintings were a form of imitation, without the heroic figures I couldn’t draw anyway, of the great artist’s expressions of a troubled spirtituality. The twisting and turning, the contrapposto (I later learned the term) of the figures portrayed an unnamed inner conflict having more to do, it seemed, with the struggle of the human psyche against itself, rather than the Biblical stories the paintings ostensibly illustrated, or against the domineering will of God.
Christianity is in some ways a religion of self-torment. Fear of afterlife retribution for our sins against the laws of the church weighs on many less heavily than the pain of personal guilt from moral failures and of an erosion or outright loss of faith. This has had a baleful effect of European society by placing conflict at its core, as well as a mood of negation. But also, it’s been a boon for the arts, giving them an inexhaustible source of affecting ideas. Or, to put it another way, the arts have not been merely ornamental, but central to people’s struggle to “find themselves’ in a world without clarity, or certainty, of meaning. The very different worlds of Dante and Michelangelo testify equally to this condition, and led me slowly, inevitably towards architecture.
to be continued
(above, below) Two of Doré‘s many scenes of Divine punishment for the sinners in Hell.
From Michelangelo Buonarroti’s frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Vatican, Rome, painted in the early 16th Century:
(above) God dividing the light from the darkness, from the Biblical Book of Genesis.
(above) The Prophet Jonah, from the Biblical Old Testament.