The bones of the Earth are made of stone. Since time immemorial and without record, humanity’s relationship with stone has been one of vital dependence. Serving first as shelter in the form of caves, then as tools in the form of clubs, axes, and arrowheads, later as megalithic constructs of ritual, and eventually magnificent works of art and architecture. Even today, at the ever-rising precipice of human technological progress, the tallest and most advanced buildings are inextricably tethered to natural bedrock, the depth of which proportionally reflects the height of their artificial counterparts. Prerequisite to the various metals, stone continues to serve, both literally and figuratively, as the very foundation itself of human existence.
Perhaps then, it is the ubiquitous nature of stone that is in part responsible for humanity having come to take for granted the philosophical lessons it holds for us. Modern capitalistic society can in large part be described as a transient and often nihilistic ethos, one of disposable commodification. Skyscrapers, designed and built using the best that modern technology has to offer, have a typical lifespan of fifty years or less, and yet many ancient structures remain standing to this very day, defying time and retaining their beauty – even in ruin. The Roman’s Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, Lebanon, is almost two millennia old. The Great Pyramid of Giza is approximately 4,600 years old. Stonehenge, roughly five millennia.
There is something to be said for the fact that these ancient builders and architects, with their comparatively inferior tools and knowledge, have in many respects outdone us. Without the advantage of computer-assisted design and industrial machinery, how can this be? It seems that they possessed a certain reverence, a spiritual motivation that we do not. They could have just as easily chosen to conveniently employ the use of “second rate” materials of their time, such as wood and mud bricks. Instead they chose the hard way, and aspired towards the eternal, embodying it in their creations through the use of stone. When Europe’s cathedrals and great churches were being built, their bishops, architects and stonemasons sought to capture the essence of the divine, infusing their work with sacred geometry, using elevated ceilings to guide people’s eyes and thoughts up toward something greater than themselves.
Stone is demanding in its application to art and architecture, requiring great effort and discipline to procure, move, and fashion. It is a subtractive process, where any mistake can prove fatal to the intended product, requiring meticulous care and attention to detail. The inherent properties of stone are that it is insulative, with generally low heat conductivity, and durable, with high compressive strength. As with all things in life, while it retains varying degrees of vulnerability to weathering and deterioration, stone is generally considered to be one of the most resistant materials in existence. These properties lend themselves to a compelling philosophical argument, that those who wish to live a life or build a world of enduring strength and beauty, should not only employ the use of stone in their craft, but model themselves after it as well.
Modern art and architecture rely too heavily on the pursuit of function, at the expense of form. It can be said that while form without function is vain, function without form is soulless. The value and incentive of function is obvious as a matter of purely utilitarian mechanics, while that of form is more nuanced. Form invokes the value of esthetics (or aesthetics, if you prefer). Esthetics is itself a philosophical inquiry into the nature of beauty and taste. The overall question of whether or not beauty and taste are objectively discernible, as opposed to subjective, is an often fiery and provocative debate, and not one that I intend to explore too deeply here at this time. I will, however, posit that stone as a medium of art and architecture has the power to both consciously, through the act of working with it, and subconsciously, through the act of observing it, influence people to cultivate an appreciation for quality as opposed to quantity. A defiant aspiration towards eternity – or at least the next best thing – as opposed to nihilistic surrender to impermanence. In any case, I surmise that myself and our readers can agree on this:
That more stone in art and architecture can only make the world a better place.
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Categories: Architecture, Art, Artifacts & Archeology, International, Museums, Opinion
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