Archives For Architecture

Deadly Gargoyles

September 8, 2014 — 15 Comments

gargoyle magdalenWhoever first considered gargoyles an attractive addition to buildings, must have had an odd personality. I have never developed an appreciation them.

What’s worse is when moonstruck (lunatic) architects deem gargoyles suitable for adorning churches.

There are too many examples out there to count. I am sure there are a number of websites devoted to them. But I don’t care enough to investigate.

It is one thing to shape a natural or fantastical creature to use as a rain spout on a building. Quite another, in my opinion, to opt for a grotesquery.

Churches should stick with symbolism that edifies the people. Admittedly, this can include some potentially gruesome subject, such as images of martyrdoms.

Our familiarity with the crucifix itself has dulled the impact of its terrible agony. We often fail to recognize the magnitude of the suffering Jesus endured.

Gargoyles were in the news this week. The reason for their appearance gave the title to this column.

A tragedy occurred in Chicago when a gargoyle broke free from a dated building and struck an innocent pedestrian. She was killed almost immediately by the crushing blow.

To make matters even more sad, the building from which the “ornament” fell was a church.

Second Presbyterian Church was built in 1874 and is a national historic landmark. Local news outlets report that it failed various inspections between 2007 and 2011, but passed them in 2012 and 2013. (The picture above is not of the gargoyle in question.)

Sarah was the name of the victim of this tragic accident. I invite your prayers on behalf of this young woman’s loved ones, especially her two children.

I think so little of church gargoyles that I included the subject in an as yet unpublished book set in the medieval period.

The nightmare gargoyle pictured on the top of the page adorns Magdalen College in Oxford. It was established in 1458, and was the school where C.S. Lewis began his teaching career.

In C.S. Lewis: An Examined Life, Bruce Edwards writes, “The college is noted for its wealth of gargoyles, grotesques, and stone portraits of notable people.”

Well, the college may be named after Mary Magdalene, but at least it isn’t a church. As for the stone “portraits,” they sound like a very agreeable adornment.

As lovely as Magdalen is considered to be, on the whole Lewis considered Cambridge University more appealing than Oxford. In a 1954 letter he wrote, “I’m afraid one must admit that, architecturally, Cambridge beats Oxford; there is so much more variety in Cambridge.”

In two other letters written the same year, Lewis revealed that there was much more to his new academic post than mere architecture that appealed to him. Oxford had taken Lewis for granted, and often belittled him because of his simplistic trust in Christ.

You know I am going as a Professor to Cambridge? My new college is Magdalene, Cambridge: a tiny little place compared with this, but a perfect gem architecturally and (I think) much more congenial socially & spiritually.

Did I tell you I’ve been made a professor at Cambridge? I take up my duties on Jan. 1st at Magdalene College, Cambridge (Eng.). Note the difference in spelling. It means rather less work for rather more pay. And I think I shall like Magdalene better than Magdalen. It’s a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they’re so old fashioned, & pious, & gentle and conservative– unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, hard-boiled, huge Magdalen. Perhaps from being the fogey and ‘old woman’ here I shall become the enfant terrible there.

It is not about architecture at all—or the presence or absence of grotesqueries. It is about finding a home where you know you are welcome and appreciated. A place where you do not need to remain constantly on your guard, because there are colleagues present who desire to see you humbled.

It is good to know C.S. Lewis spent the final years of his teaching life in an academic family that truly appreciated the gifted scholar in their midst.

Rational Fears

July 21, 2014 — 10 Comments

men at lunchFear comes in many forms. It also comes at many heights. This famous 1932 photograph shows eleven men—without safety harnesses—taking a lunch break during construction of the Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Simply looking at the picture of them leaning in various poses as they casually converse with one another is enough to send shivers up the spine of someone suffering from acrophobia.

I don’t personally have an “irrational fear of heights.” After all, I’ve enjoyed forays into the sky via the Eiffel Tower, the Tokyo Tower and the Space Needle in nearby Seattle. Still, I must confess that when I stand high above the earth on a piece of clear glass or acrylic that I do find it a bit disconcerting. It’s not as if I doubt the building is secure . . . but precisely what clear substance like that is worth trusting our lives to?

cracksIn fact, not long ago, a group of people were standing on just such a viewing panel when it began to crack. Two facts, it was new (opened in 2009) and it was on the 103rd floor of the Chicago building. The quaintly named “Ledge” was certified to 10,000 pounds, and it’s difficult to imagine the family standing on it, when it fractured, as exceeding that weight.

Let’s return for a moment to 1932. There’s a lesser known photo, taken the same day as the renowned image. It is even more disturbing. Check this out.

restThis shot was taken after the men had staged the lunch picture for the press. They were simply resting after eating, before returning to work.

Now, I appreciate rest as much as anyone, and far more than most. But, if I was on that steel girder, 840 feet above the pavement, I would be so hyper vigilant a tranquilizer dart couldn’t put me down.

That picture, frankly, scares me.

Fortunately, C.S. Lewis reminds us that there is nothing wrong with fear. Beyond sometimes protecting us from foolish risk-taking, the fear itself does not determine our reaction to it. In other words, a soldier can rightly be afraid on the battlefield, yet overcome that fear and do something heroic. Common men and women often surprise themselves when they overcome fear they might have thought would cripple them.

C.S. Lewis says it this way. “The act of cowardice is all that matters; the emotion of fear is, in itself, no sin” (The Screwtape Letters).

I’ve learned through the years that there is wisdom in learning about one’s own fears. Sometimes what we learn diminishes the fear. At other times, understanding our fears can prevent us from misattributing our emotions to another source.

For example, you might think you dislike a person who frequently invites you to share your thoughts with a group. When, in actuality, it might merely be your fear of public speaking, or your fear of having your ideas rejected that troubles you. Upon recognizing this, you might even grow to like the other person, seeing how they are confident that you have something of value to offer to the discussion.

Like every other fallen human being, I’m riddled with fears and buried under worries. It is beyond comprehension how God has manifested his love for us in his only begotten Son . . . truly we can cast all of our burdens onto his compassionate and willing shoulders.

In fact, it is during our darkest hours when, assailed by our personal terrors, we lean most upon his strength. Without a doubt, if severe unemployment has forced me to be one of those construction workers nearly a century ago, I would most definitely have been one praying man!


P.S. – Oh, and if anyone is curious about the flask held by the construction worker on the right, I’m sure it only contained water and not some useless form of “liquid courage.”

Civilized Savages

June 24, 2014 — 13 Comments

civilization-and-savageryWhat are the proper criteria for determining who is civilized? If you asked a score of people, you would probably end up with twenty different opinions.

In continuing my research about America’s first woman chaplain, I encountered an early American teaching resource that offered great insight into education during the early nineteenth century.

Some of it was quaint—“goats were made as profitable to the farmer as sheep.”

Some of it was insightful—“In America the Grecian architecture is prevailing, as it is better adapted than the Gothic to small buildings, and does not require splendid edifices to display its beauty.”

The text, Peter Parley’s Universal History, on the Basis of Geography, was used in schools and homes.

After finding confirmation of the point I was researching, I couldn’t resist skimming through the volume. Out of its myriad lessons, the one that got me thinking most seriously was a discussion of relative levels of civilization.

At the end of each lesson, several questions are posed. In this case:

Questions: What would you observe in traveling through other countries? What of people in a savage state? What of people in the barbarous state? What of people in the civilized state? What of people in the highest state of civilization?

Preceding these questions is the lesson proper, from which I now quote passages that correspond to the questions just listed.

In some countries the people live in huts built of mud or sticks, and subsist by hunting with bow and arrow. These are said to be in the savage state . . .

In some countries the people live in houses partly of stone and mud. They have few books, no churches or meeting-houses, and worship idols. . . . These are said to be in the barbarous state . . .

In some countries the inhabitants live in tolerable houses, and the rich have fine palaces. The people have many ingenious arts, but the schools are poor, and but a small portion are taught to read and write. . . . which may be called a civilized state.

In many parts of Europe, and in the United States, the people live in good houses; they have good furniture, many books, good schools, churches, meeting-houses, steamboats and railroads. These are in the highest state of civilization.

It appears that Peter Parley (the pseudonym of Samuel Griswold Goodrich) considered two factors to be the clearest measures of civilization—the quality of a society’s domiciles, and the access to learning and increase in literacy.

These are not inappropriate measures, although the latter dwarfs the former in significance.

I realize these lessons are intended for elementary education, so I don’t fault Goodrich for failing to address the subject from a more philosophical or mature angle. Nevertheless, I could not help wondering whether the societies that have attained the “highest state of civilization” are truly the least barbaric.

In some ways, the societies that have attained the loftiest technological levels might also be considered among the most savage.

I don’t have the time or inclination to pursue this thought any further in Mere Inkling, but I offer it to you. Some readers will agree that it merits reflections and others will consider it absurd.

Before moving on the Inklings, though, I wish to share a pertinent bit of wisdom from economist Thomas Sowell. “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

C.S. Lewis thought, and wrote, a great deal about civilization. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century there is a delightful remark, made in passing, that it is possible to retreat from civilization, once attained.

From the varied excellence of the fourteenth century to the work of the early sixteenth it is a history of decay; so that in turning from the Scotch poetry of the age to the English we pass from civilization to barbarism.

I end with a longer citation from C.S. Lewis which connects uniquely with the mindset with which Goodrich penned his textbook. Lewis also affirms true education, and the advancement of humanity towards that for which it was created, as the genuine mark of civilization.

One of the most dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century progressive optimism is the idea that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost. The normal state of humanity is barbarism, just as the normal surface of our planet is salt water. Land looms large in our imagination of the planet and civilization in our history books, only because sea and savagery are, to us, less interesting.

And if you press to know what I mean by civilization, I reply “Humanity,” by which I do not mean kindness so much as the realization of the human idea. Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end, and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes that potentiality for leisure, if you like for amateurishness, which is man’s prerogative.

You have noticed, I hope, that man is the only amateur animal; all the others are professionals. They have no leisure and do not desire it. When the cow has finished eating she chews the cud; when she has finished chewing she sleeps; when she has finished sleeping she eats again. She is a machine for turning grass into calves and milk—in other words, for producing more cows. The lion cannot stop hunting, nor the beaver building dams, nor the bee making honey. When God made the beasts dumb He saved the world from infinite boredom, for if they could speak they would all of them, all day, talk nothing but shop. (“Our English Syllabus”).


An illustration from the book, which taught generations of Americans that the heirs of the Vikings were still a picturesque and virile people.


I don’t have much of a gift for drawing, but I often find the simplest artwork quite engaging. Nor do I understand the mathematics necessary to become an accomplished architect—yet I definitely appreciate the majesty of finely designed buildings.

This, I recently learned, is another thing that I have in common with Jack Lewis.

We lunched at Wells after seeing the Cathedral. . . . I am no architect and not much more of an antiquarian. Strange to say it was Uncle H. with his engineering more than our father with his churchmanship that helped me to appreciate it; he taught me to look at the single endless line of the aisle, with every pillar showing at once the strain and the meeting of the strain (like a ship’s framework inverted); it is certainly wonderfully satisfying to look at. The pleasure one gets is like that from rhyme—a need, and the answer of it following so quickly that they make a single sensation. So now I understand the old law in architecture, “no weight without a support, and no support without an adequate weight.” (Letters of C.S. Lewis, 7 August 1921).

Lewis aptly describes how large cathedrals are built. Many “regular” churches display similar construction, albeit in more modest proportion. Like admiring the stained glass common to many houses of worship, gazing at their structural beauty can cause us to “lose ourselves” for a moment. Sometimes massive columns or graceful arches can even spark within us a sense of awe.

Awe inspiring architecture takes varied forms. It can be conveyed by simple scale. I have yet to visit Hagia Sophia (a dream I hold), but I have visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame. With the souvenir shops tastefully hidden away, it’s probably their age that most touches me.

The awareness that my brothers and sisters in Christ have offered prayers in each for nearly a millennia or more is sobering. And, I believe our wonderful friend C.S. Lewis was equally impressed by that fact.

Yes, huge sanctuaries are impressive, but a church does not need to be massive to impress. There is a modest church in Cambridge, England which my wife and I visited several times. It is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and it was inspired by the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Crusaders who had worshipped in Jerusalem carried home the vision of the simple edifice, and it was built in Cambridge around 1130.

When we lived in England, the congregation there was vibrant and reaching out to those without hope. Apparently shortly after we departed, it “outgrew” the facilities there and had to relocate to a larger building.

I don’t recall Lewis specifically mentioning this parish, although I can’t imagine him teaching at the University there and not at least visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And when he entered the holy place, I can easily picture him joining me in admiration of the artistic symmetry of the arches and columns, “with every pillar showing at once the strain and the meeting of the strain.”