12 August 2009

But It's Not Too Late!

In Ben Katchor's monthly installment over at Metropolis Magazine, he takes on air-shafts and it's worth a look. As ever, his combination of drawing and the poetic written word raise our sights beyond the mere architecture and structure of buildings but take us to the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, as it were.

This month, Ben imagines an itinerant architect traveling the coast, persuading building owners to return light and air to those buildings that lack them. Johann Vantis is a man on a mission.

"But it's not too late! Renovations are possible. Commodious air shafts can be cut into the existing structure."

I can relate, as can many of those who see our buildings and believe we must do better in their care and protection. Staring at the picture last night while working with one of my children on her Hebrew (prompting the relevant question from the 9 year old, "Why do Hebrew schools teach you to read Hebrew but not speak it?") I suddenly realized that the air-shaft cut into the center of the Katchor's drawing bears a striking resemblance to a coffin!

Take a closer look.

I went to bed amused by this, wondering what it all meant and then this morning awoke to my books--these days I rise early and converse with Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, whose commentary to Psalms brings me complete and unmitigated pleasure.

Psalm 20 opens with the words, "To the One Who grants victory, a psalm to David. The Eternal will answer you in the day of trouble; the Name of the God of Jacob will raise you on high."

Hirsch opens by citing the parable of the father and son who are traveling on a journey and the son is anxious to get home. The father says, "Remember it well my son, you will not see the city until you have first beheld the cemetery; only when you will see graves before your eyes will you be near the city." Hirsch elucidates by writing, "God will give you help once your distress becomes urgent."

Don't immediately conclude that this is an uncaring, distant God. Rather, consider this Psalm and Hirsch's commentary to it in the context of Ben Katchor's drawing. What might it mean that our buildings are made with the dedication and remembrance that they are sanctuaries during times of trouble as well as exaltation? Consider the paradoxical pairing of a glorious architectural achievement that also embraces the grave!

This awareness of our beginning and our end is, the Sages argued, our awareness of God. That we are a part of what precedes us and what will succeed us. "The recognition, awareness of and trust in God as revealed to Jacob in his trials and tribulations will give you the inner exaltation that you must have in order to persevere until help will come at last."

That's why I write about our buildings so much. Their state of disrepair is not any longer a source of shame but, ironically, an opportunity to see the grave and therefore rise up to a state of shared communal exaltation.

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