Sunday, May 28, 2017

...a pointless rock wall as a metaphor for the myopia of the culture-bound...

Israeli West Bank Barrier - Justin McIntosh. CC License.
A wall is defined as "a structure that defines an area, carries a load, or provides shelter or security".  Seems simple enough, but simple definitions are themselves walls that hide complex realities. 

Walls can be made from a large variety of materials and serve a large variety of purposes.  There are many kinds:  Curtain, Mullion, Partition, Party, Infill, Fire, Shear, Knee, Cavity, Pony...and that's just in building lingo.  We won't even go into Facebook walls and firewalls.  They can be works or art or canvases, even the screen for vast and complex animated films.  From Banksy to Blu, the ordinary can be made into something extraordinary, a reclamation of our shared environment.  We don't think about them too much, but we should, for they define us as humans as much as opposable thumbs, binocular vision, and the use of tools.  

"Tear down this wall!" signaled the end of a nearly 100-year geopolitical duopoly whose ramifications are still defining the world in which we live.  The wall in question came crashing down, and the clouds of dust are still settling.  Within this murky atmosphere, the blind and our one-eyed kings are clamoring to put walls back up.  The rich retreat behind them and some western nations are debating them as a way to keep the migrants out.  The collision between globalization and nationalism may well be a story of walls, or a lack thereof.

Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv. Public Domain.
But enough with the stentorian platitudes.  This post came about after seeing a photo of Trump at the Western Wall -- he loves his walls, -- and an EFL class I gave using public art and urbanization as its theme.  We discussed the Vietnam Memorial Wall, and I intended to do a short post about the two walls as places to grieve, where people leave mementos of their grief, whether rolled up pieces of paper with prayers written upon them, or mementos of a war whose combatants are now dying off.  The memories will soon be gone, but the wall will remain.

Some of the most famous walls -- The Great Wall of China, Hadrian's Wall, The Berlin Wall, The West Bank Barrier, Trump's proposed border wall -- were erected to keep people out...or in.  There are score thousands of lesser-known walls all across the world, like their cousins the fence, making manifest the abstract lines on a map that define the boundaries of private and public property, from the homeowner to the state, from anonymous mud-brick dwellings to the only human structure visible from space.  They shelter and protect us from the outside world, from threats real and imagined.  But I wanted to speak of other kinds of walls.

Some of these walls are metaphors, like Pink Floyd's Wall, the emotional barriers to shut out the world, to compartmentalize experience, the kind of walls that allow a preacher to spread the gospel on Sunday and snort methamphetamine with male prostitutes on Saturday.  Or in this case "where traumatic experiences are represented as 'bricks' in the metaphorical wall [the hero] constructs around himself that divides him from society."


The Walls of Jericho were blown down a trumpet....the Walls of Jerusalem and countless other cities the scene of great mayhem and carnage.  Alexander the Great scaled walls like a spider, single-handedly jumping into a walled city to inspire his troops along their unstoppable march to India and back to Macedonia.  And when there were no more walls to breach, he died.

"Shaka, when the walls fell" an episode of Star Trek, this is a phrase uttered by an alien trying, incidentally, to break down the walls between humans and his race.  In that episode, the language barrier is eventually overcome.  The aliens speak in allegory and though Capt. Picard and crew understand the words, the meaning is lost without knowing the ur-tales to which the allegory refers.  When the walls fall, the language barrier drops.  Dialogue is established and when Riker asks Picard if they'd made friend that day, Picard can answer that at the very least, they didn't make an enemy.

Some walls exist only because they are all that's left of an edifice, like The Western Wall, the last remaining remnant of Solomon's temple.  Jews go there to mourn the destruction of the Temple and pray for its reconstruction, leaving prayers on rolled up papers pushed into the crevasses.  It is the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray -- the holiest site is actually behind it.  Some rabbis teach that the Foundation Stone is located near the El-kas fountain, opposite the exposed section of the wall and where the Holy of Holies once stood.  As a practical reality, the wall symbolizes the great obstacle to the restoration of Judaism, for Islam's second-holiest shrine, the Dome of the Rock, sits atop the Temple Mount.  Its destruction would unleash Armageddon.  As long as the Dome of the Rock stands, the Temple cannot be rebuilt.  It is an impassable wall with apocalyptic ramifications.  As the location of the Foundation Stone, it recalls that our earthly creation was in effect the separation of Man from God; it is a great wall separating Heaven from Earth.

In addition to the mosque on the Temple Mount, Muslims revere the wall because it is believed that the Prophet's miraculous steed was tethered to it by Muhammad during his night flight to Jerusalem.

Stoning the Devil in Mina - Al Jazeera English. CC License.
During the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca incumbent upon all able-bodied Muslims with the means to undertake it, Muslims also perform a ritual called the Stoning of the Devil.  Pilgrims throw seven pebbles at three walls (jamarāt), from east to west, in order to reenact a part of Abraham's pilgrimage, where he threw pebbles at three pillars.  For safety reasons, in 2004 these pillars were replaced by walls.  The walls represents God's temptation of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael to renounce the sacrifice of Ishmael.  They also represent casting away base desires and are a repudiation of the self before God.  This renunciation also serves to bring the pilgrim closer to God; the walls in effect represent not just temptation, but sin itself, and thus represent, much like the Western Wall, the separation of God and Man.

Again, like the Western Wall, walls serve a stand-in for the buildings themselves.  Sacred Walls:  Learning from Temple Symbols, is a book about the symbols found on the walls of a Mormon temple, symbols which communicate to the faithful.
Both books and buildings have voices.... However, even though architectural symbolism existed before the written word, the message of a building is often difficult for most of us to recognize.

For Latter-day Saints, temples are the most important and symbolic buildings in existence. Through temples the unique doctrines of the restored gospel are communicated...

This unique and fascinating book is designed to help you see the House of the Lord with new eyes as you examine the “voices” of temple exteriors along with the “voices” of the Book of Mormon....
Gate of a Hunting Ground - Jean Jacques Lequeu. Public domain.
This is no different from a Catholic cathedral, which is in many ways a Bible in stone, a visual didactic tool for the illiterate.  It is "architecture parlante" -- or speaking architecture.  Architecture parlante may be as simple as an inscription or phrase, a quote perhaps, to instruct and to declare the building's purpose.  Or it may be that building's form reflects its purpose:  the cooper's atelier is shaped like a barrel, the brothel resembles an erect penis (yes, those were real proposals).  The idea of architecture parlante was originally "voiced" at the time of the French Revolution by architects Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Étienne-Louis Boullée, and Jean-Jacques Lequeu"The same concept, in the somewhat more restrained form of allegorical sculpture and inscriptions, became one of the hallmarks of Beaux-Arts structures" and was a recurring feature of American civic architecture.  The severity of Modernist architecture saw a decline in the use of ornament and inscription, but Post-Modernist architects have revived it.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is composed of three parts: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the Three Servicemen Memorial, and the Vietnam Women's Memorial.  These latter were erected to appease early critics of the original memorial -- which consisted of the Wall alone -- who deemed it shameful because of its unconventional design, black color and lack of ornament.  Sad to say, architect Maya Lin's gender and ethnicity were a factor in much of the negative reaction (Ross Perot reportedly called her an "egg roll").   It's since become highly regarded, if not revered.  The Memorial Wall is a wall that doesn't enclose or bear anything at all.  Like the Western Wall, people leave articles, not prayers necessarily, but personal mementos.  As one travels along the wall it gets higher and the names of the dead eventually rise over one's head.  It's a mournful black, and a mirror in which one can see oneself reflected.  It is spare, elegant and deeply moving.  It has the atmosphere of a holy place, like an outdoor temple.  Visitors are hushed and while there is no wailing, there are a lot of tears.  It's perhaps one of the most powerful memorials in Washington, and has been described as a "wound that is closed and healing".  In a sense, it is architecture parlante, and it is a dialogue.

The three soldiers appear to be looking at the wall and there is something archetypal about their number: Three Kings, Freemasonry's Three Ruffians, The Trinity.... 
Cliff (cliff1066) -  CC License.
The Women's Memorial also depicts three uniformed women evoking perhaps the Three Mary's, with a wounded soldier.  It is a Pietà in all but name.

The wall has proven so popular that at one point three half-sized portable versions traveled across the country and to date have attracted tens of millions of visitors.  There are four other traveling versions of differing scale, and four fixed replicas.

The idea that architecture can communicate something, a set of ideals or civic virtues, may be a high-falutin' topic to be bandied about by art historians and architects, but something in it resonates in the popular imagination:  "If these walls could talk...." some people say, as if the walls, silent witnesses, retain memories of scenes enacted within them, like video cameras which record but cannot play back.  The artists Blu and Banksy have made them speak, however, often quite eloquently.  The simple wall, however, unadorned, can often speak volumes.  While ostensibly barriers, they can serve to identify where one space meets another and serve as points of communication.  Why have more than one space at all?  Boundary stones, fences, great walls....are these basically human equivalents of pissing on rocks to mark a territory, like most graffiti?  One piss stain upon another?  I dunno, It's too late for more of my grade-school philosophizing.  I just thought it was neat how that photo of Trump at the Western Wall popped into my monitor about the same time I was discussing the Vietnam Memorial Wall, two walls where people feel compelled to leave stuff.  The rest is just riffing.  Breaking on through to the other side.

And with that, I'm Audi 5000.


Looks like I hit "Publish" too soon.  Reading about the Robert Frost poem "Mending Wall" (of "Good fences make good neighbors" fame), I came across the following analysis of the themes, stating more or less what I was trying to say at some point in the post:
The poem explores the contradictions in life and humanity, including the contradictions within each person, as man "makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries".  The poem also explores the role of boundaries in human society as mending the wall serves both to separate and to join the two neighbors, another contradiction....Then, in "Mending Wall", Frost meditates on the role of language as a kind of wall that both joins and separates people.


  1. "Looks like I hit "Publish" too soon."

    Oh I'd say you waited about four grafs too long, mate. Then again, breaking boundaries - and lots of other things - is what you do.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Haha, glad you're still around. Even when you're throwing sarcastic barbs my way, I chuckle. You always remind me never to take myself too seriously. Hope you are well.


Thanks for taking the time to comment!

Need to add an image? Use this code: [ximg]IMAGE-URL-HERE[x/img]. You will need to remove the the boldface x's from the code to make it work.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.