Thursday, March 22, 2007

On caves, cities (and cava)

Another slightly frantic couple of weeks in general praxis land - travelling up and down the country, via London, Glasgow and Dundee, from Smoo Cave in Durness to another sort of cave entirely - the lecture theatre in the basement of La Pedrera in Barcelona. I spent three days in the far north of Scotland preparing for the summer residency with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, visiting the site and talking with visual artists who live and work in and around the Balnakiel Craft Village. Then, with Jackie and other colleagues from London and Chicago, I travelled to Barcelona for the much-anticipated "present as future" event.

Interestingly a philosophical thread emerged that connects the work in the almost primordial - and relatively untouched and underinscribed - environment of the remote Scottish cave with the conference (Present as Future: education, heritage and the arts) in Barcelona - technopole, hub of modernism and urban innovation. "La Pedrera" translates from Catalan as 'the quarry' - it's a slightly derogatory nickname coined by the folk of Barcelona because the building looks almost as if it is carved from the landcape. Gaudi's building is a landmark site which is a rich source of metaphor, visual jokes and a totally groundbreaking form of building design inspired by organic forms.

The opening lecture of the symposium, the whole of which was superbly curated (one could even say 'orchestrated') by our friend Eulalia Bosch of Gao Lettres, came from Juan Navarro Baldeweg, the distinguished architect who designed the building and museum that houses the replica of the Altamira caves in Cantabria, northern Spain. He spoke about the metaphor of the cave as the most primordial form of human shelter and used this as a point of departure for a meditation on the relationship between painting and architecture (the altamira caves house some of the earliest examples of painting), between geologic sedimentation (the gradual build-up of vertical structures by way of the horizontal layering and compression of fragments) and the ways in which horizontal forces disrupt, excavate and enlarge the internal spaces of cave (usually it's water working its way into the faultlines and cavities of the rocks, and its so easy to see how this has happened at Smoo).

As humans we have a strong urge to make marks on the landscape, to construct buildings, to act out our presence in the world, partly in response to our basic needs, and partly because we have culture - we want to decorate our caves; we want to communicate our world-views; we want to express our values and beliefs; we live in brief timespans and we make monuments to our own mortality. And successive generations of humans leave their own sediment on the landscape, reminding me of another small fragment of my life, the Current 93 song Earth covers Earth.

In the simplest sense we can see construction as the interplay between lines, horizontals and verticals, straight lines and organic curved lines, as a play between design on paper in 2D, and how mark-making, plans, and designs translate into 3 dimensional forms. Building is a form of inscription on, and interaction with, the landscape. It is a performance - a play between materials, physics, geography, economics and - as Navarro pointed out - the forces of gravity, the elements and the social purposes of making buildings. So architecture itself is always a kind of gestamstkunstwerk, and a metaphor for processes of creation in general. Juan Navarro talked about how the human hand acts on the landscape, how the body occupies and interacts with geological, geographical and architectural space, and how architecture is a form of 'artificial geology'. As we construct the world - literally through the manipulation of materials, and metaphorically through language and symbols - we make and remake ourselves in relationship to the spaces and territories that we occupy.

The Altamira caves, Smoo and even La Pedrera could be seen almost as a kind of geological memory, as markers of generations of human interactions with the natural environment laid out and carved out from very different kinds of landscapes. They are rich reference points for thinking about the relationships between nature, culture and society, not only in very particular localities but also in a universal sense. Navarro's was one of several absolutely astonishing presentations - a kind of virtuoso interplay between speech, text, image, story, memory and identity - and has set off some interesting lines of thought for the project in the summer.

The metaphor of sedimentation came through very strongly - layer upon layer of memory, history, objects and narrative, settling one upon the other, with occasional sudden lines of disruption and fissure cutting in. Geology works on million-year timescales. As humans we exist in the blink of an eye in 'long now' time. Our conversations in the quiet, northerly, eternally changeable Smoo also touched on the notion of the cave as the primordial 'interior' space - a kind of dark interior place of the mind, and as a place which might trigger self-reflection and exploration of those dark recesses of the mind that fuel creativity and doubt. Jung, in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, refers to the story of the young men who slept in the cave in the 18th Sura of the Koran: "the cave is a place of rebirth, that secret cavity in which one is shut up in order to be incubated and renewed...Anyone who gets into...the cave which everyone has in himself, or into the darkness that lies behind consciousness, will find himself involved in an - at first - unconscious process of transformation..." The mind is like a cave too, that we carry around with us - as Jean-Claude Carriere pointed out in another bravura speech, wherever we go, we carry our imaginarium with us.

Another strong metaphor which came as we emerged from the dimly-lit, basement lecture theatre into the sunlit streets of Barcelona was that of light and dark in learning - my main reflection was that for educators there is often a tendency to want to shine light into those dark recesses in a kind of 'will to reveal', when sometimes it's more important to think about light and shade, perhaps leaving some dark spaces of the unknown, opening up some spaces for exploration, questioning and doubt, rather than seeking to circumscribe and specify and know everything.

The other major ingredient in the Smoo collaboration will be music - and that, as a form of sonic architecture, will be very interesting to add to the cast of players in the theatre of the cave.