Archives for the month of: November, 2014

IMG_0209 ‘Well, I never knew that and I’ve been here for over twenty years. Are you sure? Did you know that?’ Her friend, who looked as if she had been asked many such questions in those twenty years, nodded wearily and smiled apologetically to me. ‘Well, I didn’t. Are you sure? Charles Rennie who did you say?’

The Two English ladies had emerged from the small Somerset church and had met me on the steps outside. ‘You’d better hurry if you want any tea—they stop serving at eleven.’  I had explained that I hadn’t come for the tea but rather to see the church. That 120 years ago the Scottish architect and designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, then a trainee architect had visited the All Saints Church in Merriott while on a sketching holiday of the southwest. He had drawn the church’s tower and the following year had used that sketch as the design for a church he built in Glasgow. All this had prompted the astonishment and, well, frank disbelief from the first woman and a polite smile from the second. As I slipped into the church to catch the last of the coffee morning, I could still hear the two discussing the event of the day. ‘All the way from Scotland he said, surely not…not just for our church.’ Her steps quickened as she walked down the street. I expect there were phone calls to be made.

Inside, I met someone in charge of the situation who served me tea, carrot cake (homemade) and some history. The church had been there in one form or another for a long time. The square tower, with its unusually tapering sides and octagonal clock turret, had probably been built around 1500, but like all churches the whole was a mixture of times and styles. ‘We had visitors recently who just sighed when they saw the place—all messed up they said, bit of this and a bit of that.’  I reassured her that the church, which she was making carrot cake for, was a thing of beauty and that I had come a long way to see it. And it was, and I had. Like every old, working building this church was a palimpsest, overwritten by successive generations and reinvented for new purposes.

The tower construction that had so fascinated Mackintosh when he had sat at the far corner of the graveyard and made his pencil sketch in 1895 was likely a result of fiscal necessity over medieval style. The written guide inside the church described it as ‘curiously unfinished’ and suggested that this may have been because ‘they ran out of money.’ Well, their poverty resulted in a design that captivated one of the greatest creative minds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In truth, Mackintosh’s sketch gives the somewhat squat tower rather more elegant lines—lines that he would further refine and extend in his designs for Queen’s Cross Church in Glasgow. Perhaps he drew it the way he saw it that day or maybe he was already refining and redesigning as he sketched. Whatever the case, the Merriott Church tower undoubtedly became one of the key elements of his design and was the reason for my visit.

There has long been a desire to seek out the source. Whether it be the spring that gives rise to the greatest of rivers, or the inspiration for the greatest of ideas, we feel the need to explore their provenance. By retracing the footsteps of a creative journey we feel we might better understand the destination.

As I sat on the grass in the graveyard where Mackintosh had sat and looked at the tower just as he had looked, I wondered if I was indeed seeing the same sight. He was a creative genius and I am not, so were my eyes the same as his, were my thoughts of the tower his thoughts? Of course not, and the sadness is that I will never know what exactly he saw in those stones. I thought the tower was beautiful and unusual and oddly pleasing, but he took it and connected it with a mind full of art and design and architectural understanding and made it his own. And perhaps that’s what creativity is — an assimilation of what is there to be seen and what might be.

The following year, as well as designing his Church in Glasgow, Mackintosh also made a drawing that he entitled, ‘Part Seen, Imagined Part’. This is a study for a mural he was planning and depicts the figure of a woman rising from a flowering bush. But, it’s not that she is simply standing in or behind the bush, but rather that she seems to be growing organically from the tangle of tendrils and shoots. This fusion of the real, the ‘seen’, with the imaginary is one of the hallmarks both of Mackintosh’s work and the work of all creative geniuses. They take what the world has to offer and they refine it, develop it and make it rather magical.

In science we do the same, even more literally perhaps, for observation is the essential prerequisite of all discovery. The creative originality comes in how we then put those observations together. Mackintosh found the beginnings of his church design in Somerset, and 120 years later I rediscovered his viewpoint and found the beginnings of a better understanding of how we might look at the world and discover something new.

© Allan Gaw 2014

My books available on kindle:

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Stroll along the Unter den Linden today and you will find yourself in a world of embassies, high end hotels and the reconstructed grandeur of some of Berlin’s most beautiful architecture. You will also find a low 19th century Prussian building— classically columned and simple in its elegance, sitting slightly apart. This is the Neue Wache, or New Guardhouse.

When I had last seen this building, Berlin was a divided city, ripped in two by ideology and more than 150 kilometers of high concrete wall. The grand avenue of Unter den Linden was then in East Berlin and nothing like as opulent as it is today. At that time, as you passed through Checkpoint Charlie the world seemed to change from colour to one of black and white. Or perhaps more accurately, grey. There was a drabness to East Berlin in the 1980s compared to the sparkle of the West, but there was also an uneasy sense of the exotic and the forbidden.

I toured through the Eastern city one day in 1986, and I remember stopping at the Neue Wache to watch the changing of the guard. Grey goose stepping soldiers, chosen as much for their good looks as their jackbooted finesse, clicked their way through a meticulous routine that was watched avidly and silently by a grey crowd. The guardhouse had become a shrine to those who had been victims of fascism and was as holy a place as it was possible to have in the godlessness of East Berlin. As the soldiers finished their choreography, a newly married couple approached. The bride in her short, slightly grey wedding dress stepped forward to lay her simple, almost grey bouquet on the grave of the unknown solider—a tradition of the time. The scene was one of sadness and loss even at the beginning of a new life together, and I have remembered the Neue Wache with sorrow ever since.

Now, nearly 30 years later the city has been transformed. The Unter den Linden has colour again and this morning the Berlin half-marathon is using its length to pull thousands of runners up and through the Brandenburg Gate and on into the park of the Tiergarten. The sun is shining and the lime trees are in bud. And the Neue Wache has lost its grey guards. It is still a ‘holy’ place, now commemorating the victims of all war and tyranny, and thus it has its work cut out. But, it is now open for all to enter, welcoming and very different. Two young lovers sit on the steps outside embracing, unaware of the last couple I had seen there, who could have been their parents. Inside, it is stark with a modern bronze sculpture dominating the space—an old woman holding the dead or dying figure of a man. Tourists drift in and out to satisfy their curiosities, and groups of school children are herded and urged, without much success, to show respect. Now there are no barriers and there is no ceremony, but there is a sense of peace. When guards goose step and the world is grey, there is no peace.   Instead there is numbness and fear. When the colour is drained from life you can see neither beauty nor hope. And when there is no hope, there is little of life left.

Twenty-five years after the wall has tumbled, Berlin is still a building site. Cranes are everywhere and soaring glass structures vie with painstakingly restored masterpieces in stone for a place on the new skyline. Berlin is a city under repair but its recovery has been speedy.

Devastated first by war and then by politics, the city has in one short generation risen again to be one of the great European capitals, but the work is not done. It never will be. Life itself is a work in progress and the job of creating a home for the culture and history of Berlin as well as its 6 million residents and its millions of visitors is likely to carry on for generations to come. Roads will be relaid, trees replanted and statuary repaired. Even palaces will be rebuilt where they once stood before bombs and communism did their worst.

The mistake is to think that the work will ever be done. It’s not that kind of work. A city is made of ideas as much as stone and ideas are never complete; they are never finished. Ideas grow and accommodate the space we allow them, and then carelessly spill over the sides. They need trimming and styling to keep them tidy because they are always growing. One idea spawns another and they multiply if fed with just a little imagination.

Berlin, like all great cities, is a wonderful idea and in the last 25 years it has been nourished by the imaginations of the worlds greatest architects and city planners. Not everything will be to your liking because you are not everyone, but you will be hard pressed to find fault with the vigour with which this idea has grown and taken shape.

© Allan Gaw 2014

My books available on kindle:

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