Messages from the beyond (and architecture), at the top of Harris Green.
I HAD A HORRIBLE SLEEP last week and spent the whole night dreaming contemporary architecture: a hellscape of raw concrete, metal, glass. Manicured carpets of lawn patrolled by concrete edging. Rectangles of trapped water. Not a smidge of sexy ornamentation or decorative relief. Not a curlicue. No architectural whimsy, nothing stray, no accidents. Caprice banished to other neighbourhoods. Proof, again, of grotesque results when cold-lit rationality is permitted to argue for hope, and also an oblique architectural re-phrase of the axiom: Those whom the gods wish to punish are fitted with shoes a size too small.
I’m interested in that wonderful white cake that commands the top of Harris Green, east of Cook and adjacent to Pandora Avenue as that road spills downhill (no message there, of course) from edenic, suburban Shelbourne toward the busy hell of the city centre.
In an effort to eliminate any ambiguity about the purpose of the building or the meaning of life, large black capital letters proclaim: FIRST CHURCH OF CHRIST, SCIENTIST.
When we were younger and cleverer, it was “First Church of Christ, Taxi Driver” or “First Church of Christ, Hairstylist.” Har-har. Daring adolescent wit.
The church is a neoclassical architectural pile, built in 1920. Viewed from the lower Cook Street end of sloping Harris Green, the church is not just visual arrival, but—deposited at the heavenward apex of the tree-flanked Harris Green—celestial arrival, too.
Both the name and the presence of the church suggest intention. This is noble architecture: broad, welcoming stairs, the domed roof, the entire church volume confected in white, white, white.
I don’t know my columns—Doric? Ionic? Prolific? Manic?—but six of them carry the dentilled roof on their shoulders with their feet rooted on a broad, staired front entry porch.
Meaning, meaning! All this religious symbology and locational presence mean something. Suddenly in my mind are Katherine Battle, soprano, and Frederika von Stade, mezzo-soprano, as Hansel and Gretel, singing the Evening Prayer (“Abendsegen”) in Humperdinck’s eponymous opera:
Evenings, when I go to sleep,
Fourteen angels with me keep,
Two stand at my head,
Two at the foot of my bed,
Two are at my right hand,
Two are at my left hand,
Two in covers tuck me,
Two at morning wake me,
Two that point the way to rise
To heaven’s paradise.
Not fifteen. Not “a bunch.” Fourteen. That kind of intention and certainty. My imagination tells me to keep the idea of certainty (and the world’s lack thereof) in mind as I study the church’s architectural identity and its name.
So, what are the meanings of “,” and “.” branded like declarations across the church façade? I wish I had been secreted behind the curtain, listening as founder Mary Baker Eddy and other church originals, a century-and-a-half ago, announced that disease was illusion, and how faith in Christ the Healer was the correct path; how the comma by design was a message to the congregant to subordinate self-regard to informed faith, considered faith, and to a higher, more cosmic grammar than our own; and the period after “Scientist,” like the gavel hitting the block, is intended to reject any ambiguity about moral direction, divine plan or human purpose. In other words: “Sold! This is true.”
I type “First Church of Christ, Scientist.” into Google, hoping to fill a gap in my knowledge. But instead of a river of information, a message slowly writes itself across the computer screen in flaming letters: “Safari will not open this page for you, you irreligious, over-clever, sarcastic un-believer. Judgment Day is coming. Change your ways now, you little shit.”
Wow! Talk about being seen to the depths of your shabby soul! It’s pretty clear I don’t have a starring role in the Divine Plan.
I made some of that up, just in case you were wondering.
Wikipedia explains that Christian Science “...is a set of beliefs and practices developed in 19th-century New England by Mary Baker Eddy, who argued in her 1875 book, Science and Health, that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by faith alone.” It further explains that Eddy and 26 followers were granted a charter in 1879 to found the Church of Christ, Scientist, and in 1894 the Mother Church, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, was built in Boston, Massachusetts.
Eddy described Christian Science as a return to “primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.” According to Wikipedia, “Adherents subscribe to a radical form of philosophical idealism, believing that reality is purely spiritual and the material world an illusion. This includes the view that disease is a mental error rather than physical disorder, and that the sick should be treated not by medicine but by a form of prayer that seeks to correct the beliefs responsible for the illusion of ill health.”
Ah, the illusion of ill health—an illusion that has reduced entire societies—those infected and the rest of us who are merely constrained by new rules of everyday social conduct—to, as my friend Howard suggests, “the walking wounded, everywhere.”
We can write popular little anthems to hope and best sellers with “The Courage To…” in the title, but even the organs and skin have cognitive powers and they get the changeable weather right now in a skittering range from faint hope through worry to outright terror. Between COVID 19 and the lurking threat of a renewed Trump autocracy, underwritten by an ever-more-crazy public, these are not the best of times. Both COVID and Trump, as I see it, are expressions of the deep ecological “adjustment” to come, and the message from the current moment and the next is: “Bundle up, hunker down!”
What primitive times…murderous, suspicious, distrustful, awash in conflict, mad on a grand scale, and shot with anger so fundamental, so organic, that ideology can’t even touch it!
THE DAZZLING CHURCH, white as the days are dark, manages to hide other quiet riches. If you are driving or walking, give yourself time for a slow, appreciative tour of beautiful Rudlin Street flanking the church, a humble, residential island between busy uphill Johnson and city-bound Pandora. A short street, Rudlin terminates at Fernwood Road, and while it may be short, it throws out lovely arms: Rebecca and Camosun Streets, and the not-so-distant Yukon Street, a hidden gem which runs off Chambers, two blocks north of Pandora, uphill of Cook.
All of these are more or less intact residential streets, still studded with smaller, century-old homes, like these on Rudlin; though in some cases, large, fairly upscale and well-maintained family homes contend in an eye-popping beauty pageant.
Bela Tarr, director of the film Werckmeister Harmonies, states: “I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another…All that remains is time. This is probably the only thing that’s still genuine—time itself; the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds.”
But “mislead” implies that people could be led elsewhere. If you take story away from people, the whole thing, civilization and existential identity, collapses. People are story and history: explanation, interpretation, purpose, direction, re-examination, misstep. History written and being written, as adjacencies collide, then resolve, then re-collide. We’re hungry for pattern and meaning, which may explain both the comma and the period across the church facade—that is, the use of the comma to produce a sense of hierarchy, and the period a defense against abstraction; finality; a guarantee of order. Order: faith’s promise that conduct and discipline are possible.
You thought there were no guarantees in this life?
Please, you just need to be more scientific. Period.
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.