Tuesday, 14 October 2014


It is astonishing, always a wonder beyond belief. It stands as an example of how ‘one cannot marvel enough,’ as Martin Lings wrote of traditional art. Such is its beauty. The great mosque at Isfahan, or Esfahan, the Mosjed-e Emam, also known as the Shah Mosque or Emam Mosque, is simply astonishing, the most beautiful building in the world. Or should this be a question? This mosque stands not only as a glorious structure, itself a constant astonishment, but it shares a context rich and equally marvellous: its Naqsh-e Jahan Square and surrounding buildings and nearby gardens; anchored by the memorable Si-o-se Pol or Bridge of 33 Arches that extends into the civic axis of the Chahar Bagh-e-Paeen Street, a broad leafy avenue / promenade continuing past the Hasht Behesht Gardens that link along formal boulevards and squares, through the Jardin Chehel Sotun into the Emam Mosque precinct. It is indeed an urban marvel, as its World Heritage listing declares. Beauty has a wholeness about it that is inclusive; it mysteriously resonates.

Yet one can recall Peter Zumther’s astonishing baths, Therme Vals at Vals, Graubűnden in Switzerland built in 1996, a delight beyond belief: a celebration of life itself, encompassing an emotional wholeness with love and care, to allow relaxation of the spirit and the delight of simple physical enjoyment. This building is skilfully and sensitively sited, is beautifully considered and carefully, lovingly crafted. It uses materials and light in a manner that embodies complex sensations in another way. Here living souls are allowed the enrichment of life-giving water that flows through the spaces and forms, both as a reality and as a cosmic metaphor  -“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely” (Revelation 21:6) - complete with dazzling slips of light - “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12) - sliding in through the secret, organisational slots in the concrete roof garden lawn above. It is life-enhancing. In a different way to this immersive experience, the Zumther chapel, Bruder Klaus Kapelle in a field at Mechernich-Wachendorf in Germany built in 2007, does likewise to the spirit, boldly but gently. There is beauty here too.

But surely one could never look beyond Chartres cathedral and its surrounds for incomparable wholeness and wonder? – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/gothic-thought.html  It would be too limiting to talk of the beautiful sculptures here, for there is astonishment everywhere, both sculpturally and spatially. Standing on an ancient holy site above an older Romanesque church, high over the surrounding plains surrounding Paris, this landmark of the spirit enriches a region while maintaining its strength and surprise in an intimacy with the individual, privately communicating silently in the tiniest of details, responding to the simplest of gestures, glances, meaningfully. Life is celebrated here too, but differently, in a way other than that we have seen before. It is an incredible display of concepts made real as outcomes in stone that enhance rather than explain or exclaim otherwise with the self-importance seen in today’s works. Gehry and Hadid come to mind as the leading figures here, best known for their fashionable, extreme, therefore newsworthy exaggerations and distortions; but, sadly, they are not alone. Totally devoid of this pomposity, Chartres surely must be the most beautiful building -truly incomparable; remarkable; unsurpassed?

But age need not be a prerequisite for wonder. The  Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque at Abu Dhabi - see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/abu-dhabi-hotel-mosque-heritage-centre.html  - remains an astonishing delight, memorable not for its effort and expenditure, although both were great, but for its experience, all new and astonishing, present as though past; familiar in its wonder, as wonder is. It is certainly a marvel – a thing of beauty, a joy. Perhaps one should say that the mosque itself, as a building type, is the most beautiful building in the world? Frank Lloyd Wright said that Sinan, known for the defining form of his many mosques, was the best architect the world has ever had. As an aside, one should note that, like Wright, Sinan trained as an engineer – a military engineer. Does one seek more than this?

Could one ever neglect that most memorable of twentieth century structures, Le Corbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut above the village of Ronchamp in France? This small, iconic building that stands high over the little settlement in the centre of the surrounding hills, as if marking the centre of the world, has become a site of pilgrimage for architects of this era. It holds an amazing presence that transforms being there into a quiet, spiritual experience even for the most sceptical of individuals. The great Renzo Piano has bowed before this gem: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/ronchamp-windsock-of-spirit.html  Could such a place ever be neglected in the search for the most beautiful building in the world?

Ah, but what of that ad hoc, ordinary masterpiece of the piecemeal at Dinan: the marvellous askew cathedral that was started as a thankful grant from the knight returning from the crusades to fulfil his promise? This Romanesque-and-beyond conglomerate structure stands high overlooking the stream which is linked to the cathedral precinct with a steep village street that clusters around the top cathedral and extends to the bottom stream with a graded assortment of things quaint, homely and enlivening of the spirit, like the cathedral itself: life affirming beauty, sure, assured, diverse, but present.

One could go on and on. Dan Cruickshank put together his architectural wonders as a set of 80, Around the World in 80 Treasures: see - https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7mfr-DQjGzSj2F7WVUXWZBWBW-mSyxxH  Is this the best approach – a considered collegiate coming together to present a group or series of buildings or places as a gathering to represent the best of wonders, encompassing variety in a combination to gather in all possible variations, as if to make wholeness and integrity of something as a smorgasbord? Is this possible? Is it desirable? Surely beauty is better than this considered collecting – more clear, more certain, more precise? Then one should always remember the five-set DVD series by Ovation, Architecture, yet another collection, a collation of architectural beauty; a series that should be viewed by all, such is its significance: see - http://www.ovationchannel.com.au/architecture-i-dvd  Here the singular separateness of each building remains as obvious as its listing in the schedule of the index.

Perhaps it is best not to isolate and categorise. Beauty is embodied, that is all we need and what we must strive for knowing our history. We need to know it well and accept that ordinary beauty is much more than the tourist promo hype and the edited magazine images that flood our senses today: it has depth that reverberates intimately: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/09/experiencing-things-poetic.html

The search for the most beautiful building in the world must continue, for having found it, we must discard it, like the Buddha: if you find the Buddha on the way, kill him. We cannot let the constant effort to capture beauty ever become a subject set in history, even though it must be celebrated. It must constantly be our story, our concern, a desire that can be stimulated by some of the world’s most astonishing outcomes in our past. As Wright once said, his best building is the one yet to come. This should be our aim too.

Perhaps we need to step away from granting awards and labelling places, categorising them into good, better, best, (see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/on-competition-in-art.html), and leave beauty to be discovered, revealed in its singular diversity of wonder, the true marvel that it is. It will not be forced, or otherwise driven. It needs to be cajoled, loved into being. It seeks not praise, or self-recognition. It ‘is not puffed up,’ as St. Paul said of love:

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.
1 Corinthians 13:4 - 8

Is beauty somehow linked to love; humility? Does wonder have pre-requisites beyond any rational analysis and self-conscious synthesis? How can mystery best be embodied? The questions linger, unanswered, as such questions must, for if they could be answered, tradition tells us that they would have been. However, in spite of this lack of any response, we should always remember that the creation of a unique ‘marvel’ does not recreate the special experience of beauty; it merely bewilders with the cliché ‘shock and awe’ sought by the self-promotion of self-importance of our ‘social media’ era: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/swell-sculpture-festival-2013.html

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