Monday, February 25, 2013

WHALSAY’S KIRK



That constant surprise of discovering the special and sublime in what we see as the ordinary; the rich and refined in the presumed base and bland; the elegant in what we assume to be the rough and coarse; the refined in the supposedly crude; care in things apparently neglected; thoughtfulness in perceived carelessness:

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

(William Blake’s the first verse of Auguries of Innocence)

- this is always endearing, always engaging, enriching; always confirming. It is the ‘yea,’ the ’yes’ of life, true sustenance for the spirit. The experience creates an example that one can embrace as an ambition - an ideal that begs the question.



If this corroborating delight and delicacy can be presented and experienced in such a simple and unpretentious manner, then why is our world so devoid of this transformative ideal? Why is the ordinary left to be so less than ordinary, alone, singular and struggling, striving to be nothing at all but a conglomerate of whims promoting the mundane and ME: my vision and hopes, my interests and interpretations - my experience as my expression - no matter how perverted or singular these might be, all irrespective of the other, one’s neighbour: see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/on-language-shetand-dialect.html  Why is the world happy with this status quo? Why is it accepted as being adequate without any protest or alarm? Has the competition of commerce changed us? We remain attracted to and seek out things that startle, distract and entertain without ever raising any questions. How does such a remarkable fineness of quality and quality of fineness get embodied in such blandly brash and everyday boldness: in such apparent crude familiarity; in what is brushed aside as a familiar crudity - the ordinary? How can our ‘run of the mill’ world become the vehicle for presence?




This is an important question for today. Our era knows how to exhibit, how to display, how to scream, how to attract attention: to parade, to perform, to be pretentiously ostentatious, all as a guise for what is described as ‘creativity’ - unique design; bespoke: just for ‘ME’ to exhibit skill, genius in the theatre of self-expression where ‘I’ need to be noticed: where ‘I’ can be what ‘I’ want others to see me as - ‘ME’ alone and special; standing out: on exhibition - a star. It is an association with its screaming demand to ‘look at me,’ that belittles the modesty and wonder of the glimmering glow in the infinite dark of the universe. The exclamatory declaration is just too easy to achieve. The stance has now become embodied in the cliché that categorises art as self-expression. In architecture, this hackneyed understanding becomes iconic in the work of Gehry and Hadid, and is seen frequently displayed in structures different and distorted just as an indulgence to be noticed. Dubai comes to mind: the tallest; the most outrageous; the most expensive: square; round; diagonal; stepping; twisted. Extremes catch attention and become possible in a world that can do anything, just because anything is possible. What is difficult is to embalm beauty in the ordinary, the everyday; in the unseen, the undeclared; in things modest, gentle and mild, where meaning can endure, enrich and endear subtly, without pride; without prejudice - effortlessly, almost, but never, carelessly: always with a certain nonchalance and humility.




The capturing of the spirit in things ordinary and everyday - see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/05/everyday-architecture.html - is so much harder, so much more difficult than any eye-catching advertising and self-promotion. Until we are able to understand this circumstance and manage it with a relaxed and concentrated skill, then we will be less, relying only on the hyped buzz of the new model, the latest phone, the new smart car, the super-clever gadget, all in the latest of style, for our interest to be stimulated and our hopes raised; until the next wave arises which will be tomorrow. We thrive on the expectation that tomorrow will always be substantially better when, in the quiet of the night, we know it rarely will be; that it will merely prove to be superficial: the same thing faster; prettier; smaller; restyled. Our world is full of such distractions, things different for the sake of difference; for entertainment; for indulgent enjoyment; to distract from the boredom of the everyday and the quiet challenge of things personally meaningful that can know contentment: see http://springbrooklocale.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/who-or-what-is-tourist.html



Imagine a world that holds meaning in the raw, substance in the bland - everywhere, everyday without exaggeration or boasting. It is not nostalgia or whimsy that allows one to pine for older and other tines where things ordinary were embodied with meaning, although our era likes to see it in this disparaging, ‘outdated’ manner. Aldo van Eyck spoke of how the Dogon basket embodied the universe - reminded one of it - with its symbolic square base and round top: to see the whole world in a basket; to hold infinity in your hand, everyday: see his writings in Team 10 Primer. How is it that we no longer know anything about how the most simple forming is able to reference the most esoteric of notions; of how one can be constantly reminded of things subtle and substantial? It may seem romantically optimistic to recall such eras with an apparent enthusiastic idealism and to envisage similar futures. Is one being blindly selective, ignoring the truly crude and rude; the real hardships and awkward social situations that came with such times, only seeing these other worlds through rose coloured glasses; with the luxury of today’s context? Is this pining as much a distraction itself as our ‘progressive’ entertainment - its tourism, movies, DVDs, videos, games where make-believe promotes and supports dreams of a better tomorrow that never will or can be?






No: not until one experiences the soft in the hard; elegance in the crude, the basic and bland will this be understood, such is the attractiveness of today’s gadgets and their persuasive promotions. Sigfried Gideon, in his classic Space, Time and Architecture, published a plan drawing of an early Egyptian mud brick building. The image was so simple, so mundane, but so profound, it could only astonish. It was ordinary, so ordinary, in the same manner as the kirk at Whalsay was, yet, like this kirk, it was special: it held power and mystery in its mundanity.







Whalsay is one of Shetland’s islands located a thirty-five minute ferry trip from Flugarth on Laxo Voe, that narrows off Dury Voe on the northeast of Mainland. The ferry links to Symbister, Whalsay’s only village, remote with two shops, a school, a hall, some historic places and just a few other facilities. Private homes, both new and old are clustered in the small town and are scattered, gathered and battered on exposed, treeless hills across the island in random bunches that have names and wonderful water views. The main road starts at the harbour and leads east through Symbister to the golf course and beyond, to the airstrip at Shaw. That's it. There are a few detours, and loop and branch roads that lead to small settlements and private places. One such route takes the visitor around the local charity shop, up and down a hill to a land bridge, an isthmus that joins a small, isolated and bare mass of land on the north of Whalsay. It has a distinctive presence on the map, sitting, mushroom-like, midway along the northern edge of this island. The road terminates at a graveyard - a walled enclosure. It is a beautiful wall, a dyke or dry-stone wall that unusually uses a mix of very large and very small stones in a regular and distinguished pattern.






There is a church. It is no cathedral, just an ordinary, dour, dark stone box with a gable. The stonework of the graveyard wall has a more interesting pattern than that of the church. The building looks awkwardly high, simplistically ungainly, with a few rectangular, symmetrical openings placed as a child might illustrate a house. This church was hardly worth a second look. Was it too high; too blank, too barren? Just what was wrong here? Was it simply a lack of imagination? Maybe it was the harshness of this remote place that limited the effort? Strange, Muness Castle and the Mousa Broch both have island locations that did not limit their expressions or distort their integrity: see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/muness-castle-unst-shetland.html and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/mousa-broch.html 





It was with some reluctance that the graveyard was entered. The intrigue of a stroll through an old graveyard was the only thing that encouraged any engagement - the touch of people, memories, names, and stories past: their notations, cryptic lives, spelled out as a diagram of history, sketched and etched on stone inside stone walls, the surrounding dykes that define this burial place on an exposed knob beside inlets and the open sea - Houb to the east, North Voe of Brough to the west, and Linga Sound to the north. This was Kirk Ness on the north edge of Whalsay accessed from the road that loops through Brough and Creadyknowe. The place held a quality that one gives to those religious outposts like Iona where the hardships of cold winds, icy gales, and barren rocks exposed the monastic spirit to persistent danger and tested its endurance. The success of the outcome - mere survival - was paralleled with the intensity of one’s love of the Lord.




It was a bitterly cold, windy and icy day. This location also presented the ascetic challenge for the visitor’s stamina, the individual seeking - well just looking through the ancient lichen on the weathered and worn stone and at the brilliantly brash, gold lettering incised into newly polished, alien black stone. Unlike the old, local stones with letters that have been blasted into shadows, shallow grooves hazed into illegibility describing a longing, belonging, just being there, subtle and content, there is a certain uneasiness in the new. The recent stones hold a raw and awkward nagging discontent with having to be placed on this display, in this place. They seem to declare the outcome of a transaction with the monumental mason rather than record any love through subtle and caring expression, even though placed there with love. “I'll have the black scroll with the gold; large: or the granite oval, or the Teddy bear, with no colour infill; etc.” Sad - sigh. Why are we unable to go beyond this and do better? Why are we unable to capture meaning, things subtle in the ordinary, things special in the apparently careless? Did the old stones that hold character today look so pretentious when they were new? Is lichen the moderating factor? Time? All things fade and diminish, even brashness.




I look at the church. Yes, it is crude; large; simple; crass. Just look at that entry - out of scale and childishly, simplistically axial. Look at the bell tower: gosh, so small and insignificant, added as a cliché might be, roughly, ill-considered, awkwardly - with no style or thought for other possibilities. The eye wanders to the east. What is that box doing butting and jutting. Is it just a bad connection; a rude addition, or just uninspired and careless? It looks like half a house jammed into the side of the church with a crushing connection that is both vulgar and uncouth. Why? Just look at that stair: large, ponderous, out of scale, just as the door and the bell tower, but here too big. One wanders on: names; best wishes; a loved dog; nostalgia; sentimental gushes; more slick sheen and polish contrasting with the battered and old with its engaging moss, algae, fungus and lichen, all discoloured and romantically broken: just ruins, neglected and worn down. There is a Gothic feeling lingering here in the older portions of this place - an attractive feeling of mystery and age: of time itself.



But what draws the eye back? There s something here. Is it the massing? There is something satisfying. Could it be the sculptural forming; the juxtaposition of the volumes that holds the eye? What engages here? One strolls around to consider this inkling. The stair becomes subtle. It has a Corbusian, a Mediterrean, quality. The junction is indeed attractive. The diagram of use - the kirk’s functions - is exposed; the programme: the manse and the church. Like Garnier’s Paris Opera House, this little place seems to have been shaped precisely by its functions with each mass identifying a purpose, declaring it. Sullivan’s form and function? Unbelievably this seems to be so. Why does this massing - this building - now appeal? Something has gelled. There is rigour here - weighty substance: an intelligence and understanding that hold meaning in the mean and hard, that true protestant, Presbyterian rawness - that democratic community of care that abhors waste and exuberant expression. This is the Whalsay kirk: the Whalsay Parish Church, Shetland, at the fringe of the North Sea.





One has to get a glimpse through the windows in order to see more, to understand more. Unfortunately the door is locked. There is something un-Christian about this that reminds one of the repeated disappointments of being barred from, excluded from entering, mosques, even when one is sensitive to this expression of faith. Still, even by peeping into the lower windows on the north, there is more and more to discover in this simple, impressive place. The surprise is the interior plan that can be pieced together through the reflective haze of old glass. The seating is sideways. There is no nave; no aisles; no core axial progression. The front door is a side entrance, but still the main entrance. The gesture of entry places man in a location of humility. There is no grand vision of God here, just a place for worship that is connected directly with the manse, the minister’s residence - his home and the congregation’s, side by side, but juxtaposed at a functional and symbolic right angle - that of the cross.




The link with the manse is the axis from vestry to pulpit. There is a gallery too. All the seating on both levels forms a ‘U’ around the pulpit that is positioned on the centre of the side southern wall in a double-height volume. There is an intimacy here, personal warmth. Everything is gleaming beige brown, a strange bland but rich fawn, full gloss enamel. There are a few bits of stained timber but not much. The interior reminds one of the Lunna kirk interior: economical. This smart black and white exterior on the Mainland nearby, has the same sideways planning; the same central pulpit; the same gloss beige on everything with just a little stained timber. It is probably the closest kirk of any age to Whalsay: see




What a surprise! What an idea! The democratic vision of the old church is revealed so dramatically; so intelligently. The congregation is around and above the minister who is in his raised, central octagonal box in between, at half height. There is a human quality here that one sees more explicitly at the Lunna kirk where excluded lepers were included, given access to the service through holes in the exterior southern wall. At Lunna, access to the upper level was via an external rear stair. Did this both differentiate and combine other users too? What happened here, at Whalsay? There were interior stairs to the upper gallery, but apparently no location to include lepers.



Flowers in the window reveals revealed a care and homeliness here, consistent with the intent of the planning. The revelation was that it was so light inside; that this solid mass could be so open, bright and transparent, even on this freezing, dull and windy day. One could see through, across this space into distant landscape. How could it be so vibrantly glassy when so massive and blandly solid; droll? A stroll to the south exposed the skill of the thought and intent in the making of this place. What were first seen as four large crude, mindless rectangles that a child might use to illustrate a house unimaginatively, could now be seen in their true functional contexts. The central two windows were tall and high, located either side of the pulpit. They illuminated the double height space. The other two smaller and lower openings were located further along on each side of the pulpit wall and illuminated the congregation below the gallery. All the glazing was divided into small squares, but the whole opened up the interior to the bright sky of the south. One was going to say sunny sky, but Shetland is rarely sunny; but it can often be brilliant, especially so when the bare sun does blaze in a blue sky on those very few special days when Shetland must surely be the best place in the world.





Then the organization of the southern wall is noticed. The downpipes are part of the whole patterning, with them being placed just where they were needed, in the very best Arts and Crafts fashion. The whole was more than satisfying, both as an elevational pattern and as a functional light box made for worship without any distortion or exaggeration. The church held the wonder of light for all to enjoy: the light of the world.






The kirk was indeed a surprise on surprise with its expression in so simple and ordinary a manner, unmannered, using half a typical croft house butted up against the classic form of a large house, a tall Shetland bőd - the house of man and God, each carefully articulated and identified, differentiated not with a cross but a bell, similar to Corbusier’s convent at La Tourette. Even the roof forming maintained this division, both beautifully and sculpturally. The unusual shaping of the hip roof was used to terminate the manse and provide the valley link with the simple gable roof of the church. The whole development also had some of the massing qualities of the Dominican convent, where each part had its own form and separate identity within the whole. The division here was stark - there was a clean break in the roof and in the reading of access. While the church entrance was dominant in its western façade ‘side’ entrance, the private access to the manse was via a stair hidden behind a wall, offering no welcome or encouragement to even a member of the congregation, let alone a stranger who might stumble onto it.






This ensemble was impressive. The more one studied it, the more remarkable it became. The more one walked around it, the more one came to appreciate its location in the graveyard with its unique isthmus context. Here there was a division not only between the living and the dead, but also between the sacred and the profane. This piece of sacred ground was itself distinguished from the nearby housing that overlooked this site. It was indeed special. In its simplicity, it held some of the qualities of Shaker architecture. In its care for people and principle, it did likewise. In its subtle display of wonder, it held the authority of a Shaker piece of furniture where every force had its form: see Thomas Merton, Seeking Paradise, The Spirit of the Shakers, Orbis Books, New York, 2003 and 





This Whalsay church is an example of how ordinary things can be so meaningful. It shows us how affected and shallow some modern works can be: distortion for the sake of display - of ME and MY ideas. As in most quality art, traditional art, the wonder is subtly expressed without any knowledge of who was involved. The person, the maker, is irrelevant. As the Shakers noted: once a workman started to express some pride in his work he would be removed onto other tasks. Humility was a requirement. Maybe that is what is lacking today - honesty and humility? The kirk at Whalsay stands there to remind us of the potential that we know little about any more, and, unfortunately, care so little about too.


One should consider the Whaslay Parish Church, lest we forget.


NOTE: 30 October 2014
It is interesting to discover that St. Malachy's Church in Belfast has the same sideways orientation as the Whalsay Kirk: see - 
http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/drawing-belfast-command-character.html

9 MARCH 2017
NOTE:
Whalsay
1867
Location: Kirk-Ness Whalsay
Built: Remodelled in 1867. The Kirk is on the site of an earlier church (1733)









Service times:
Minister: Rev Irene Charlton
Contact: Rev Irene
Tel: 01806566767
Email irene.charlton@virgin.net
The following is a translation, from the Latin, of a historical document relating to the 'Vicarage of Nesting and Quhilsay' (Whalsay) dated A.D.1567
"Adam, by the Divine mercy, bishop of Orkney and Zetland, to the Archdean of our church of Zetland, or any other vicar of the same, wheresoever constituted within our diocese of Zetland, within divine benediction: Whereas the vicarage of Nesting and Quhilsay in Zetland, situated within our church of Zetland, now vacant by the death or deceased of sometime Sir George Strang, last vicar and possessor of the same, belonging to our presentation in full right, we have provided and conferred, as by the tenor of these presents we do confer, to a discreet man, Alexander Kyncaid, conjunctly and severally, procurator, and in name of Alexander Spittell, son of Alexander Spittell of Blairlogy, absent as present, by placing our ring on the finger of the said Alexander Kyncaid, fully committing the cure, government, and administration of the same to the said Alexander: To you, therefore, and each of you, we give in charge, straightly enjoining you in virtue of holy obedience, and under the penalties prescribed by the laws, that ye forthwith induct and invest the said Alexander Spittell, or for him his lawful procurator, into the real, actual, and corporal possession of the said vicarage of Nesting and Quhilsay respectively now vacant, according to the custom; firmly restraining gainsayers or rebels if, haply, there be any such, by the ordinary authority. In faith and testimony of which, all and sundry the premises, we have commanded and caused these our present letters of collation, or this present public instrument, written by a notary public, to be confirmed by the hanging to of our seal: Given under our subscription manual, at Edinburgh, the 20th day of May, in the year of the Lord A Thousand Five Hundred Sixty- Seven, and of our inauguration the ninth year"
Adam,
Bishop of Orkney and Zetland
Ref: Goudie, Gilbert 'Antiquities of Shetland' page 147. Publisher: William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, 1904

https://www.preceden.com/timelines/150324-the-history-and-the-here-and-now-of-shetland-s-christian-family

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