9 nov. 2013 | The rhythm of silence (on the work of architect Peter Zumthor / DAY 1)
We park the car at the edge of a rainy glowing landscape, in the middle of the Eifel Highlands, and start walking towards the “Bruder Klaus”-feldkapelle. Time already slowed down getting off the highway and driving along these small rural villages with their old half-timbered houses. Just farmers making their living in that area, already up for hours, woken up by the noises of their cattle. Looks like being back in medieval times.
The walk to the chapel takes about twenty minutes. I walk on my own. I guess, everybody knows this kind of feeling, a bit lonesome, walking and thinking. It sounds as if there is silence, but there is the wind. Listening well, somewhere in the distance, one can hear the noise of speedy cars on the German highways. Especially in this area, from Cologne to the NRW-region, these highways are everywhere and the monotonous buzz always present. Feels like small madness all the time being surrounded by “autobahn”.
One way or another I became very sensitive to these sounds. Strange because I always lived in the city and got used to the hectic and the urban soundscape. I even remember as a child I couldn’t stand Sundays, because the rhythm of daily life seemed to come to a halt.
But now, when I hear that world waking up with the baleful sounds made by masses of cars and trucks, it stresses me. It’s like nobody takes care anymore of anything. World in distress, everybody trying on his, her own to be somewhere in time. Erasing context and content. Losing the overview.
On the track towards the chapel one can still hear the turmoil, but after some time the wind takes over. The wind and a bit of rain calms the human mind. The walking becomes a repeating physical rhythm inducing a small trance state. The rhythm of steps. Thoughts pass my mind.
Repetition is the power of music. In minimalistic music, but moreover in a way themes are developed and appear back again in variations. Characters and their “Leitmotive” evolve. Perhaps by recognizing melodies we absorb the music and make it our own, like people identify with personages on stage. We assimilate rhythms, we easily participate in them and are surprised by syncopations and off beats.
The music that appeals me the most, is based on repetitive structures ; the chaconne, fuga and passacaglia, these old baroque forms developed out of the canon practice and still inspiring contemporary composers as Ligetti, Penderecki*, … . Some of them, as the Passacaglia for violin solo by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber* and the descending ground in the farewell song of Dido, the “lament”, are so simple, simply pure, and by that so moving.
“When I’m laid in earth”, a descending chromatic line of seven notes, the seven falling “lacrimae” being a favourite theme for Elizabethan composers, Dido walking towards the reign of Hades.
Its autumn and the ploughed soil embraces the raindrops. The walking track towards the chapel appears to be a transgression zone. The reddish earth reminding us, giving us the feeling being connected with nature and her cycles.
I really feel comfortable with people when I do not have to talk, when being together in silence. Of course I had to learn talking because it’s necessary to explain to your children, to communicate projects to clients, to teach, … but still at the end it exhausts me. I even got used to talking, getting the attention of others, being busy, … but still. At the end I prefer silence. In our culture when there is no talk it feels uncomfortable. We call long periods of silence “dead time”. In Japanese culture silence is interpreted as a sign of interest and wonder. Silence is associated with truthfulness.
I reach the feldkapelle and remember the first time I was here, inside. A strong smell of burned wood made me questioning about the building process. Apparently tree trunks, functioning as a tent shaped formwork for the rammed concrete, were put on fire in a finishing phase, the building itself becoming a fireplace, a chimney. The smell and wood disappeared, but one can still touch the black burned edges of the moulded concrete.
The concrete is colored by reddish sand of the Eifel Highlands, the horizontal lines of the layers following the glowing landscape. But the five sided irregular prism also stands like a monolith, proud, guarding, protecting the genius loci. Resisting the elements. Maximum three of the side surfaces of the prism are visible from one point of view, seeing a volume but only being capable to reconstruct it in the mind and understand, by encircling it.
Fire and earth referring to the first housing, when human kind and cattle settled down. A spiral curved oculus is pointing towards the sky. Before letting light and rain inside, it must have guided the smoke outside. Fire to keep warm, fire to bake the bread, to share.
The chapel has no reference to the symmetrical “Latin cross” ground plan. One can just pass on his own through a small entrance corridor. The shape reminds me of the space between the “praying hands”, the pen-and-ink drawing by Albrecht Dürer, the tips of the fingers touching softly up there and suggesting a roof inside. Entering the chapel feels like going underground again, to the origins of our beliefs. Into the catacombs where people had to pray in silence. It feels like being a child hiding under the protecting table. Feels like being in the primary hut, in the archetype of shelter, the one that Lars Von Trier created for the end scene of “Melancholia”.* I feel humble.
More rain is falling. We hurry back to the cars.
In some buildings we developed a code to be silent ; in museums, churches, libraries,… A silence that permits people to concentrate mentally ; reading a book, talking in silence, … When the theatre curtains go up and public lights fade out the chatter dies down to a murmur and finally to silence. A silence that, at that moment in darkness just as the play is about to begin, is pregnant of expectations and wonder.
As Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals do, the buildings of Zumthor extort silence themselves. Wandering in these spaces silence comes naturally. Echo’s emphasize every small sound, but softens them, make words inaudible. Spoken words become fragments of Gregorian chant, melisms fading away. People start whispering. The silence being a counterpoint to the whispers.
I never liked the collection of religious art in the Kolumba museum. What is, good heavens, “religious” art. As if there also exists an atheist art ? So this time I don’t enter the museum. The spaces with their curtains like old human skin, Japanese translucent paper, the pale and glossy floors reflecting the light so nice, the walking track on top of the ruins, … are however clearly in my mind. I walk around the building, following the old boundaries of the cloister which was ruined during the second world war. The old arches in Gothic broidery have been closed with masonry. Could be like parts of the Berlin wall with its houses and windows made inaccessible, but one way or another this intervention doesn’t look offensive at all. With their soft colours the bricks refer to the thick walls which made the intramuros and extramuros so clear in the Middle Ages. Above the ruins horizontal layers of masonry with thousands of small pigeon holes allow the light to enter. On top of these, big windows frame the view to the outside, the city of Cologne.
To quote Zumthor himself ; “to plan the building as a pure mass of shadow then, afterwards, to put in light as if you were hollowing out the darkness, as if the light were a new mass seeping in”.*
Trees have lost their leaves. There is a patio with some skinny trees enclosed to the museum. The fragile silhouettes of them contrast against the pale walls and ruins. Japanese calligraphy. The poetry and imaginary power of ruins.
The Kolumba museum is one of the few buildings where I like to see people dwelling around. As with the trees, the silhouettes of the visitors are being outlined in this kind of architecture and light. It seems like the lonesome wanderer in the painting of Caspar David Friedrich stepped out of the misty landscape and is wondering now in these atmospheres. Beyond that melancholy Zumthor’s spaces surround and comfort people, take care of us. The presence of people create another layer of looking, we look together, sometimes from the point of view of the other. We look over the shoulder of “the wanderer” towards so much abstract beauty and (de)light.
Jan Dekeyser | Saturday Nov. 9th. 2013
*1 “Passacaglia” (Symphony nb.3), by Krzysztof Penderecki ;
*2 “The Guardian Angel“, passacaglia for solo violon, Mystery Sonata’s (1676), by H. I. Biber ;
*3 “Melancholia“, a movie by Lars Von Trier (2011) ;
*4 “The Light on Things“, essay by P. Zumthor
“Atmospheres” / Birkhäuser GmbH, Basel 2006 (ISBN 978-3-7643-7495-2).