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Jay Lemke is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York. He has also been Professor in the PhD Programs in Science Education, Learning Technologies, and Literacy Language and Culture at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and most recently adjunct Professor in Communication at the University of California - San Diego and Senior Research Scientist in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). Professor Lemke's research investigates multimedia communication, learning, and emotion in the context of social and cultural change.

Feelings in Places that Used to be Churches



Continuing my explorations into the kinds of feelings we have in particular sorts of places, I am going to pivot from my previous discussion of feelings in libraries to feelings in a bookstore that has been set up in a converted church. The strange tension or offset in feelings between those we have in bookstores and those we have in churches helps to open up our awareness of the richness and complexity of both these kinds of feelings.

The town in the Netherlands where the bookstore is located also contains a famous hotel which has been set up inside the church attached to a former monastery. Once again, the offset of feelings between those natural to being in a church and those we associate with the public spaces of a hotel raises questions about the nature of both these sorts of feelings as well as the unique and somewhat strange feeling of being in a space which evokes both.

Particularly in Europe today there are far more old churches, especially in city centers, than there are worshipers to fill them. So, they have been converted in many cases to other uses. In addition to hotel and bookstore, in another town in the Netherlands there is one that has been converted into a museum for the history of mechanical and automated musical instruments. Perhaps most famously, in New York City there was in the 1980s a church that had been converted into a disco, Club Limelight. In each of these particular cases I have personally experienced the feelings evoked by these hybrid spaces.

In an earlier posting in this blog about feelings in rather dramatic spaces, I offered some comments and observations on feelings in the famous Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. I will be building on those in the current discussion. (See “Feelings in Places: Contradiction and Inspiration” January 5, 2018.)


 Oude Kerk, Delft


For the most part, the church spaces I will be talking about are those in the form of a Gothic cathedral. These spaces are among the most powerful and evocative achievements of Western architecture. Because they have such strong feelings associated with them, when they are hybridized with other radically different functions such as that of a hotel lobby, a bookstore, or a disco, the tension, contradiction, or what I will simply call the "offset" of the feelings that pull us toward one type of space or the other are dramatically magnified. In such hybrid spaces we have a unique opportunity to become more sensitively aware of the nature of these feelings.

As I have previously discussed feelings in the Sagrada Familia, which is a modern fantasia on the theme of the Gothic cathedral, and feelings in a variety of historical and contemporary libraries, it seems appropriate to begin with a Church-Bookstore.


The Dominicanen Bookstore in the town of Maastricht in the Netherlands was constructed inside a 13th century Gothic cathedral. As also in the case of the Church-Hotel in the same town, the modern construction was designed to be free-standing inside the ancient building so as not to damage it or compromise its original architectural integrity. In the bookstore, there are the usual ranges of bookcases around the walls on the ground floor. But in the center there is a three-story steel construction with its own internal staircase to provide additional display and storage space for the bookstore.

Depending where you are in the church-bookstore your gaze may take in scenes that feel very normal for a modern bookstore, including a small coffee shop. Or it is possible to look in a focused way at the original Gothic architecture of the space, minimizing the intrusion of the bookstore elements. But most of the time your gaze encompasses both. Standing on the freestanding bookstore construction in the center, on the second or third level, you can look out at the longview of the original cathedral nave, or just at a short view through the steel bookstore construction to a Gothic stone window.


Now a bookstore is not quite the same as a library, though they have many elements in common. I think comparing the feelings one has in libraries versus bookstores can be somewhat illuminating. Libraries, particularly old ones, evoke feelings of quiet, age, and the accumulation of books and knowledge over very long periods of time (see blogposts “Chronopaths: Feelings in Libraries #1 and #2” from 2017). They feel somewhat solemn, not unlike churches, and evoke a feeling of hush and quiet. Bookstores on the other hand are busy commercial spaces, and their book stock tends toward the contemporary, including modern-looking editions of older classics. While you can seek out a quiet corner in a bookstore, people happily chat and joke with one another in a bookstore in a way that would not feel as comfortable in a library. The book publishing industry has acclimated us to the notion that reading books is a form of entertainment and buying books is a happy, casual leisure activity. The library on the other hand evokes more the sense of reading as a serious occupation.

Browsing books in the church-bookstore also produces predictable accidents of contradiction when we happened upon contemporary books whose themes and cover images, being  particularly comical or perhaps sexual, seem especially out of place in a church. We will feel this again in the church-hotel where the presence of the bar, a visually prominent wine collection, or some slightly kinky works of art jar with the general feeling of being in a Gothic cathedral.

It is also the case of course that collections of books are not out of place in grand religious spaces, as many of the great old libraries of Europe were attached to monasteries, the seats of bishops in Cathedral towns, and universities which were originally built for the training of priests. Literacy was virtually a monopoly of the church in the Middle Ages. The preservation of literate traditions and culture was one of the great achievements of the church that built the great cathedrals of Europe.

But what about a Church-Hotel?



It is also true that monasteries and many churches have histories of offering hospitality and even sanctuary to travelers and refugees. One such former monastery in the town of Maastricht is now the Kruisheren Hotel. The image of the hotel lobby here provides an evocative mix of the Gothic cathedral elements and those of a familiar contemporary design-hotel lobby. Once again there is a freestanding construction in the center of the former church nave with its own staircase and some other ancillary constructions connected by glass bridges above the ground floor.



In the dining room the Gothic elements are especially prominent visually, dominating the space. Once again, we might reflect on the relationship between sharing food and church and monastic traditions.




Still, as the longer view across the breakfast buffet towards the Gothic windows shows, being in this space is a thoroughly hybrid experience, at one and the same moment very modern and contemporary in facilities and function and yet still thoroughly embedded in the soaring and sacred architectural feelings of the Gothic cathedral.

Even more here than in the church-bookstore there is a sense of being in two feeling-spaces at the same time, which are in one sense a single space with a single complex hybrid feeling, and also two separable spaces that are somewhat offset to one another along a dimension we may not have realized even existed. A dimension in feeling-space in a different sense.

What are we to make of the modern architect’s free-floating flying saucer chandeliers in this space? They are clearly an attempt to bridge between the two feeling-spaces. Providing and reflecting light high up in the nave, which is a principle of Gothic architecture, and yet fiercely contemporary in their own design, almost as if flying saucers, aliens, and angels could be mashed up into a pointer along that new dimension in the hybrid feeling-space.

Now two more examples, one somewhat low-key and one more dramatic.


Yet another church in the Netherlands in the city of Utrecht has been converted into a museum (Speelklok Museum). It is a museum for the history of musical clocks, music boxes, player pianos, and far grander constructions and contraptions of the 19th century for making automated musical instruments and indeed whole orchestras run on crank power or steam power. In all cases these clock-like constructions were fully automated music players with melodies and harmonies determined by metal and paper rolls and metal plates coded with the appropriate notes and timing intervals.

Within this Church-Museum there is indeed at one end the great organ that one might expect, and it too probably has some player-piano like arrangement at its keyboard. As a museum, it is in many ways traditional, with long aisles of glass cases filled with the smaller instruments, chiming clocks, and music boxes, and larger rooms containing the much grander and often quite beautifully decorated orchestral contraptions. It also has a carillon in the interior space, natural perhaps for a museum, but reversing an inside-outside expectation for the church. Particularly from the upper-level balcony and looking up, as in the image here, we get a fairly strong sense of the gothic architecture of the space. Once again it is true that cathedral churches with their bells that played various melodies as well as ringing the hours were among the first to automate music playing. But on the other hand, many of the larger musical contraptions, some of which are as large as a good-sized truck, were characteristic in their own time of fairgrounds and dance halls, which were spaces evoking feelings very much at odds with those of a Gothic cathedral.

Museums and churches do perhaps share some feeling qualities in the same way as churches and libraries. Museums tend to be quiet spaces, spaces where we do a lot of looking and some learning, spaces in which various treasures are lined up for our gaze, not unlike the way in which chapels in cathedrals display paintings, stained-glass windows, and monuments to people long deceased, as well as some ecclesiastical treasures. Even so, there is once again the sense of an offset between our feelings of being in a museum space and our feelings of being in a church or cathedral space. We are more aware of each of these because of the contrast with the other. And yet if we spend long enough in these hybrid spaces, we realize that the feeling of the hybrid space is not a combination of feelings from other spaces, even though we may analyze it that way self-consciously and reflexively. The experiential feeling is a single feeling, if a strangely unaccustomed one.

Bringing us to our final example, the Limelight Club disco in New York.


In the original disco the presence and feeling of the church was pushed into the background by the lighting and the intense feelings generated by the music and the activity of dancing. The disco was active mainly late at night and the interior was left dark except for dramatic spotlighting and strobe lighting or light show effects keyed to the music. The architectural elements of the church were everywhere, but often unlighted and in the dark. This was particularly true of the main dance floor space and its balconies, compared to some of the lounge rooms and hallways off to the side.



For comparison, we have an image showing the interior in full light during construction or reconstruction. Much more of the architecture of the church, a sort of neo-Gothic, is now visible and the contrast is between that and the very modern steel construction and technology.

The Church-Disco also reminds us that all these hybrid spaces are not just visual displays but true spaces through which we move in characteristically different ways. One walks slowly in churches, museums, and perhaps even bookstores, but you expect to dance and jump around in a disco. You can also shout and wave your arms about, and if you're going to talk you will most likely be doing it in quite a loud voice. Feelings in spaces are also a product of the activities we perform there or that we feel we might perform there.

In churches we listen, sit, observe, walk slowly, and perhaps sing or pray. In museums we walk, look, and perhaps read or quietly comment to someone. In bookstores we browse, read, buy, and perhaps chat or have a cup of coffee. In hotel lobbies, we stroll, sit, chat, meet people, and pass through on the way to somewhere else. The bodily components of our feelings are strongly influenced by these activities and our expectations about them. We do not normally imagine ourselves dancing in a church, and the music people danced to at Limelight was certainly not the music we expect to hear in a church, not even a very progressive one.

The ambient sounds of spaces are also evocative of our feelings in them. The sound inside a cathedral nave is quiet, echoing, and occasionally overlaid with the music of an organ. So different from the sound of a hotel lobby, or a 1980s disco. Sound, we realize also includes silences and the sense of an ambient sound-space so well known to the designers of concert halls and opera houses, but increasingly also of restaurants and schools.

In all the cases of hybrid spaces, the experienced feelings we have are unitary. We feel what we feel. The associations we form from these feelings may lead us to connections with churches, museums, bookstores, hotels, and discos. Different associations may lead us to an awareness of different dimensions within the single feelings that we have at single moments, and the evolving feeling-trajectories that develop over shorter and longer times in the course of our encounters with and activities within these spaces.

The feeling of being in a disco in a church, or in a hotel lobby within a cathedral space, is its own unique unitary and singular self, a feeling of a new kind, unfamiliar but at the same time capable of making the already familiar strange, so that we are all the more aware of how our more usual feelings feel, because they are now slightly offset to a new and hybrid feeling. Experiences in such spaces can be tools for probing more deeply into the richly complex dimensions of experiential feelings.

We may perhaps also realize that every space is in some way a hybrid space, that it evokes feelings and associations along multiple dimensions with the feelings we have had at other times and places in similar spaces. And every feeling is likewise felt at the intersection of chains of associated feelings, memories, imaginations, and experiences.




Feelings in Places -- Contradiction and Inspiration

Grand Place in Brussels


What kinds of feelings are evoked by standing in this famous grand plaza in the heart of Brussels?

This photo was taken in the early evening with light still in the sky but also with the illumination of the buildings already turned on. It had also recently rained and the brick pavements were still wet. There are no people in the large central area of the Plaza because it had been temporarily closed off before a crew arrived to start filling it with a garden exhibition.

The first feeling here is of the grandeur of scale. You really do want to turn around 360° to take in the entire Grand Place on all four sides. This strongly emphasizes the three-dimensionality of the experience. It’s not like just looking at a static view of the building; it’s a feeling of being inside a very large structure, while still being completely outdoors. This complexity of feeling between being enclosed and being outdoors layers two sets of somewhat contrasting sets of feelings on top of one another, but they are still experienced as one single unique feeling.

There is also a contrasting pair or two contrasting poles of feeling around the issue of light. It is neither day nor night but somewhere on the edge between the two. The sky is still blue and not black and clouds can still be seen. But the building lights are on and the illumination of the buildings deliberately creates a dramatic contrast between the directly illuminated areas and the background. Similarly, the empty central area of the plaza is still wet, reflecting many of these lights. Looking at their reflections on the cobblestones highlights the contrasting feelings we have about darkness and light.

Light is fading, night is coming. It’s dark enough that we feel joy and comfort from the lights, and yet light enough that we still feel the normal orientation upwards from a darker ground to a lighter sky. Even traditional visual analysis readily shows other compositional features that our feelings are responding to. In the photo the scene is neatly divided between the ground area, the buildings, and the sky almost in equal thirds. Moreover, the architecture of the buildings focuses attention on the vertical columns or pilasters which connect ground and sky, and the narrowing roofs, gables, and pointed decorations or finials along the roofline in effect create arrows pointing our gaze upwards into the sky.

But how do we feel in this experience of a visual scene? When we are there, we are not seeing it as in a photo. It is not a two-dimensional scene of formal composition and arrows. We are moving about in the plaza, we are turning around to see the full panorama, we are feeling the cooling temperatures and the wetness in the air. We are standing on that ground, feeling it beneath our feet; we are breathing the air of that sky, and we can if we like walk over and touch the stone of the buildings. 

There is a feeling of exhilaration, of amazement and appreciation at the beauty of the scene. We are energized by the drama of the lighting as well as by the dynamics of this space that seems to lift us up towards the sky both in our gaze and in our bodily feeling. And all this melds with those contrary pushes and pulls of ground and sky, light and dark, enclosure and openness, being outside and yet also inside.

Because this is a place that you naturally enjoy and inhabit by moving around inside it, you also feel the sense of scale directly through motion, a strange combination of judging distances and sizes visually in relation to the size and height of the human body, but also by the time that it takes to walk at a leisurely pace from one point in the square to another. The feeling of movement in walking through the square is subtly modulated by the scale of distance that the square itself creates in relation to our movement within it.

We feel not just with our senses, but with our whole bodies-in-motion as we actively explore this space and respond to the feelings it evokes in us.


The Sagrada Familia


We see here an interior view of one of the most famous buildings in the world, the great Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona designed by Antonio Gaudi.

As you may know, this building has been under construction for about a century and I was quite amazed by the changes to the interior from when I had last visited about 10 years before. At that time there was little or no color, the columns were unfinished, and the floor of the Cathedral was largely taken up by large blocks of cut stone waiting to be hoisted into place, with small fenced in walkways for tourists to safely navigate through the areas still under construction. The basic shapes were already in place and it took only a little imagination to see the outline of the completed structure. But the experience once the fine details of decorative art were added 10 years later was far, far beyond what I could have imagined. 

The universal magic of cathedrals, especially those of the famous Gothic era, is the way in which they pull the eye and lift the spirit upwards to create a feeling of lightness in a space that is basically constructed from thousands of tons of heavy stone. This magic and the feelings it evokes come from two basic principles. First, that the columns are as narrow and as long as possible, leaving as much open space as possible and pulling the eye upwards. Second, that most of the light enters the space from high up near the roof, so that the light of Heaven appears above us and the structure of the church through its columns and pillars connects us down below to Heaven above. For some this feeling also exaggerates our smallness as we walk on the ground below. And that may even be highlighted by the fact that in the old cathedrals we are often walking on the graves of people buried under the floor.

But this is not a Gothic cathedral. There is one a few miles away in the oldest part of the city, a very large one that Antonio Gaudi would have known well. On the outside, his cathedral is an amazing flight of fantasy, especially in its intricate and colorful decorations. The interior here is somewhat more traditional, but with startling differences.

As you walk through the space of this cathedral your eye is constantly seeing new and different details and marveling at how so much variety has been so artfully integrated into a single structure. Every column looks slightly different. Different sides of the same column are differently decorated. The columns branch out at the top like trees to suggest an organic form, a forest, maybe even a Druid Grove. Traditional cathedrals emphasize a much more predictable uniformity and a much more solidly separate reality from the reality of nature and natural organic forms. In this space, the traditional effects of Gothic architecture are moderated, softened, and melded more closely with the forms of nature. 

We feel wonder and awe here, we feel elated and even entertained, we feel that we want to keep looking at every piece and every detail and from every angle because there is always more to see and everything we see is worth looking at. But it's not all about looking. We are also moving around in this space, feeling it with our bodies, touching the stone with our hands, and in our imaginations climbing or soaring up into the higher levels, the cathedral’s forest canopy. 

And in fact, it is possible to climb up a lot of stairs in the side walls to look down and view the Cathedral from a higher level. That feeling looking down is not the same as this feeling looking up. Even just walking around on the main floor, the experience and our feelings shift and change from the view when we enter to the changing panorama as we circulate around and constantly lift our heads and our gaze to the amazing detail above. Just as the traditional Gothic  architecture pulls our gaze upward by letting most of the light in at the upper stories, as also happens here, but in addition now the complexity and visual interest of the decorations, built into the architectural forms as well as applied onto their surfaces, lies mostly up in the higher reaches of the Cathedral.

Our attention is focused upward and this evokes in our bodies a feeling of being lifted upwards, of wanting to rise up into the glory above.


Salzburg Glory


Walking in the center of old Salzburg just around the time of sunset, the direct light of the sun had already disappeared from down in the streets alongside the river, concealed behind the steeply rising hills above. But it still shined on the towering clouds above the city, left over from a recent storm.

Seeing that glorious sight just above the roof line of churches and cloisters made me feel that it was the very prototype and inspiration for a vision of Heaven. Whether in classical painting or in the light coming in the upper stories of a Gothic cathedral, the Glory of Heaven is felt by us very much as we feel in seeing the skies illuminated as if lit from within.

It would be truly difficult for an artist to capture the amazing effects of light and color of the actual scene in real life. Even a photograph reduces the dramatic effects and visual dynamics. Apart from the limitations of paint or film, in the real scene those clouds are moving and the sun's illumination of them is changing slowly but continuously as the angle of the setting sun keeps changing. What is shown in the photograph was a transient moment and the drama of the scene peaked at about this point but only lasted for at most a few minutes. 

You don't need to believe in a Christian Heaven to appreciate the glory of this scene. We can perhaps guess that our feelings in response to natural phenomena, especially our aesthetic response, arises through thousands of generations of our co-evolution in environments like this. We are the children of this planet and nothing bears truer testimony to that fact than the emotional response we feel to mountains and oceans, forests and sunsets, starry skies and flashing storms.

But it is still wrong to reduce the richness and complexity of human feelings to just their biological basis. It is not wrong and in fact necessary to understand the role of the body and its evolutionary history in supporting and being the medium for the feelings that we feel. But we do not feel anger or fear, fight or flight, pure and simple. Everything we feel is re-mediated, modulated and enriched by language and culture, what we have heard and said and thought, by our personal histories and our acquired desires and fears. Biology may make us more wary in the dark, but it does not explain why some people love the night or feel comforted in quiet dark places.

Evolution may play a part in our appreciation of the sunrise, or the joy and relief of seeing the sun appear after a storm, but it cannot fully explain the spiritual uplift of a scene like this.


Chronopaths: Feelings in Libraries #2

In Different Libraries, in Different Eras


Different libraries can clearly evoke in us very different feelings. It can be fascinating when looking at pictures of various historical libraries to imagine the feeling of being in them. I have been in some of these and others like them, and I know how different they feel from modern libraries or even those from the 19th century.



For the fullest sense of contrast, compare the libraries in my previous post with this one in Vienna. This is library as palace. It is a testament to the political power and wealth of a ruling dynasty in the age of European grandeur. As you walk through the space of this library you feel as much impressed by the marble floors, the classical sculptures, and the ornately sculpted and painted ceilings as by the books. You feel what you are meant to feel: the nobility and grandeur, the wealth and power of those who collected and owned these books.

If you focus on the books almost as an afterthought, you will see that they are recessed and although partly illuminated, hardly touchable or ready to hand. Each one bound in leather, each one asking to be treated as much as an object of value as a source of knowledge. This does not feel -- at least I think to the modern observer -- as a comfortable place to commune with books, to reach out and touch them, to casually open them to explore.




Somewhat similar but less Imperial, this library in Prague, part of the same Habsburg tradition and culture, is a little bit more like a church than a palace. The books are more out front and they more completely define the scene and the experience compared to the library in Vienna.

The light feels gentler, the floor softer, the atmosphere more contemplative than Imperial. The mood and feeling has shifted considerably. I can also imagine that the quality of sound is different, changed from the sharp echoing of marble to the softer acoustics of wood. The feeling here is quieter, calmer, more accepting of the visitor and less alienating, so that we feel not so much impressed as inspired.



In the Royal Portuguese Library another element has been added, the work desks for library patrons and scholars. This clearly is meant to be a room for reading and thinking, perhaps for writing notes and copying out passages from books.

It still sets out to impress and it still uses the books as a feature of architectural decoration, much as if they were wallpaper. But it does so in a beautifully aesthetic way that creates a soft calming feeling conducive to the quiet contemplation of a Reading Room. The feeling here is of a serious place for serious work and it is harder to imagine casually and playfully exploring its treasures.




Finally, here is the library of Trinity College in Dublin, built in the classic tradition of Oxford and Cambridge: a gentleman's library, a testament not to an Imperial Dynasty so much as to a lineage of scholars and a succession of professors, an aristocracy of the Academy closely allied with the real aristocracy that probably paid for the library to be built.

From the feeling of quiet and contemplation, of a serious place for serious work, we have moved on to a sort of Church of Learning. The busts of scholars and professors might well be those of saints, the Romanesque arches and the long nave could belong to a cathedral. The feeling here is that this is a testament to order and organization, everything and everyone in its proper place. 

The richness of the wood and the binding of the books still evokes a feeling of being at home in a place made from the forest but shaped to human purposes. People feel comfortable with wood, we instinctively feel the majesty of trees and forests, and here wood dominates over stone and the feelings of wood contrast with those of stone and marble. Compare the feeling you imagine you would have in this library space with that of the imperial library in Vienna.

How do we feel in each of these spaces? And why do we feel as we do?

Chronopaths: Feelings in Libraries #1


 “Like all men of the Library … I have wandered in search of a book.” (Borges, Library of Babel)


One of my fondest memories of my years at the University of Chicago as a student is the feeling I had exploring through the book stacks in the old libraries on campus.

There was a feeling of mystery and adventure, of whole new worlds of knowledge to explore. I came across volumes hundreds of years old that should probably have been under lock and key. I found myself among books written in languages and alphabets that were totally new to me. And above all there was the quiet and comfort I felt alone in the library, just me and the books, never knowing what treasure I might pull from the next shelf, what new horizon of ideas and questions I might find.

The first picture here approximates that experience in so far as it was taken in the newer library at the University but with many of the same books in the same order of arrangement. In the old libraries light was not so bright, the floor was not so polished, and the bookshelves themselves showed the patina of age. But they were also narrowly spaced apart and rose to about the same height, giving the same feeling of being enclosed and protected and so near to all the books that you could hardly resist touching them or pulling them off the shelf for a quick look at what they contained.


The second picture from a much older library approximates a little more closely the mood and feeling of the older libraries on campus in my day. But they did not have this open plan with stacks of books rising up to a very high ceiling and accessed along walkways that might just feel a bit precarious.

But the light is more like the light I remember, the old metal of the book stacks more what echoes in my memory. And the books surely look old, and what after all is the difference in feeling between a library and a bookstore except for the fact that in a library most of the books are older than you are. In a library especially an old library history becomes physically tangible. In my time I touched books more than 300 years old, books that might have been held by the famous people who wrote them or by their friends. There is also a unique smell of old books, partly from leather, partly from old paper, and partly from dust. All these things contribute to the unique and special feeling you get in the book stacks of a great old library.


Like everything, libraries also evolve and change and come to evoke new feelings as well as echo old ones. In the third image we see the book stacks of a very new library in China. The library is filled with light, although slightly subdued light. The books are arranged on shelves, but there are no dividers and no separate book stacks or bookcases, all the books appear one after the other in an almost unending shelf that wraps around the whole enormous space of the library. The stairways to access the books seem almost to float and disappear so that the total experience is one of being on the loose in the Valley of the Books.

To some it may feel as if the books rise so high as to be out of reach. Or perhaps we may feel drawn up to explore them and see what lies on the very top shelves. Historically, for long periods in many libraries the books were hidden in so-called closed stacks and only the librarians could actually wander in them. In many ways this new library is a return to much earlier models of libraries in which the books were out front and on exhibition perhaps as status symbols of the library's owners as much as for easy access.

In which of these Libraries would you most like to wander in search of your Book?



Chronopaths: Feelings in Place #3

A View in Graz

 Looking out a well-placed window onto the roof of a modern art museum set in the rolling landscape of a small city not far from the Alps.


Feeling the thrill of being high above the landscape. Feeling the imagined danger of having nothing but a pane of glass between you and a long fall. Feeling wonder and amazement at the bizarre but sensuous architecture of the building's roof and openings to the light. Feeling the radical contrast between modern uniform colors and textures, simple shapes and surfaces versus the complexity and richness of the natural shapes of hills, trees, mountains and clouds.

Feeling drawn backward away from the window back into the museum interior, but also feeling the pull to fly out and soar through the magnificent scene in front of you. This push and pull is interrupted by the great curving surface of the roof seeming to push our line of attention off towards the right. That feeling is strengthened by the reflections we see in the roof of the scene around to the right and even below and behind us 

The town and the museum are centered in a river valley where the land rises steeply up on both sides. From our vantage point here, we are as high or higher than the immediately surrounding hills and buildings. We float above but we still feel pushed and pulled, drawn forwards and back, pulled out and around. We stand still but our feelings imagine us moving in all these ways, creating a dynamic sense of activity even while the scene before us remains static and tranquil.

Once again, the way we feel is a rich contradiction between rising and falling, steping back and moving forwards, relaxing and adventuring, feeling restful and excited. Two different esthetics blend and clash, the ultramodern and the classical, and the feelings that go with each of these. With the modern, we feel attracted to our sense of amazement at the possibility of building such a structure and its triumph of imagining outside-the-box, but we also feel some regret and alienation because this industrial modern style does not agree with our human need to have things around us that follow the natural patterns of millennia of human evolution in the way that the landscape outside does.

These feelings are heightened by the contrast between trees, hills, mountains, clouds, and sky that we are seeing on the one hand and the ultramodern building we are in and also looking at. Everything that appeals to us about the rolling wooded hills and fair-weather clouds in the sky is so very much not what appeals to us about the modern architecture. And yet that curving glass roof also reflects the clouds, the hills, and the much more traditional buildings below. The museum is trying to blend in and to stand out. We are caught in between for better and for worse. We can love the hills and admire the building. We can feel the excitement of visiting the alien imagination of the museum, even while we might find ourselves more comfortable living in one of those older buildings down below.

The special feeling of this place and this view is rooted in its contrasts and contradictions, in excitement and restfulness, in feeling affinities -- however contrary -- with both these worlds at once.