Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Sancta Memoria of a Blog

This blog was begun almost nine years ago as a light-hearted quick take on the state of urbanism of the last decade. But in quick time, it became my outlet to ruminate on foundations of urban design theory. Most of that attention looked not at present events and trajectories in urban design but at the past, sometimes the ancient one.

When I was at the cusp of theoretical transitions and using the blog as a forum of sorts with other bloggers I regularly interacted with, I was regularly churning out material that would take me weeks to frame and research and days to draft and re-draft. I would say that writing heyday on this blog was during those shaky years from 2009 to 2011, following the housing collapse and recession that rocked the architectural and planning professions. The crisis forced much invention in the planning and urban design world, and it was a kind of crucible that made my thought take a sober turn to questions of organized city building. (This happened not just to me, for that crisis generated the best thinking after Jane Jacobs on urbanism out there. The humility of the Strong Towns organization's thinking and, closely aligned, the "Lean" and "Tactical" approaches of urbanism are among the best creations of what that new alacrity in thought produced.)

My wedding in Chippewa Square
In 2012, my attention to the blog largely vaporized as I became very engaged in the event asset planning for Obama's 2012 Democratic National Convention, an experience that carried me more deeply into community work, which commanded not just my personal endeavors but my intellectual paths of discovery. Blogging about those things was untenable, even though the medium is in some ways more appropriate. I thought about blogging about that work of course, yet, somehow, blogging about that stuff seemed a disconnect from the nature of trust-building and situated work. Also, I just could not justify the extra cost to my personal time and relationships. To which point, I should add not incidentally, I finally got married last year. Note not a single post on Proper Scale since November 2014, the month I began courting my wife, Megan, in earnest. I got wed to this wonderful woman in, where else?... Savannah's Chippewa Square. Yes, at the heart of the Historic District and at the foot of James Oglethorpe's statue, a place meaningful to me partly because of my work for this very blog.

But since 2012, the blog has had a second life for me.

I can probably recount many of my blog posts from 2010 to 2011 to you from memory. That is partly the consequence of the nature of writing something that has become so meaningful to my personal and professional life. The blog posting drove me to realizations about the city that are irreplaceable in value, to which I keep returning in my thought and practice. Indeed, I find myself often linking to my posts in explaining things to others, and so the posts have become an inventive armature for my work and thinking. I often reread my posts to think anew about the topics that composed them.

This second life of Proper Scale has been very interesting to watch in hindsight. This is a courtyard filled with relics of my mind's wanderings and encounters. In a way I could not have foreseen then, it has become what I yearned for in an early post from 2009: a cathedral for sancta memoria - a story-filled dwelling for generating cross-thought and happenstance discovery often leading to spiritual awe.

So... to dust off the old blog after a two year hiatus, and to begin readdressing some of those new realizations from my journeys of late, I re-post that post below.

Here I celebrate the sancta memoria this blog has truly gifted me with.

What Medieval Pictorial Narrative Has To Teach Us
(first posted on Proper Scale on February 8, 2009)
Place is something the soul itself makes for storing images.
- Albertus Magnus, Dominican Friar in Cologne, 13th Century

In the Middle Ages, the role of architecture was to shelter body and edify soul. I say “architecture”, but I mean to include “visual narrative”, for art in that period was seen as an embellishment of architecture. The greater population in those days was, for the most part, illiterate, and so, for quite pragmatic reasons, churches had to convey the sacred stories of the Bible pictorially. 

But the role of transmitting sacred history in medieval architecture (and art) tends to be overemphasized. In fact, if you were able to ask an ancient learned person in Trecento Florence, particularly a skilled rhetorician, what role “Architecture” represented to him, you would probably have been surprised by the answer. He would have winked at you and said, “To remember”…or, “To prepare a lesson”, or, “To revisit topics that have long puzzled me,”…or, even, “To discover insights that I have long overlooked among the subjects of my learning”. Architecture, you see, was a physical embodiment of human knowledge. It served a rhetorical purpose. Not only was architecture used as a vessel to transmit knowledge, but it even provided the springboard to new insight.

How could a 14th century philosopher be provided with such a conception about architecture? 

Simple. You need to first know that ancient thinkers did not have readily disposable pieces of scratch paper lying around to jot down their brilliant flashes of insight. Nor were some of them even trained to write well. Paper came only into common usage at the end of the fifteenth century. Previously, if they did have access to scores of papyri or vellum parchments, they would probably not have composed on them random notes of scattered thoughts, brainstorming exercises (yes…I know DaVinci was a quirky exception), annotative outlines or what you and I call “rough drafts”. Most thinkers certainly would not have recorded anything on them without first deliberating what was to be said to painstaking perfection, and that they would only write down slowly. That was not a process conducive to unbridled thinking through writing. One gained the temerity to pick up the quill pen only after first deliberating long and thoughtfully where one was going with a given thought. The medium was too precious.

They did have wax tablets and sand, of course. Unfortunately, if you used these, you would soon find yourself, after a flurry of thoughts, suddenly running out of space. You would have to go back and erase what you wrote, defeating the purpose…Or, worse, someone just as eager to record a thought would inevitably erase your precious scraps of unformed discourses, mistaking your storage for later as a sign of neglect (or, someone would mindlessly step on your sand writing). So what these folks had to resort to, as strange as it sounds to us today, was to sit down and memorize the elaborate thoughts they wanted to recollect and rework later.

Fortunately, they had incredible memory tricks at their disposal. One of the most important skills they cultivated was to use buildings and images as tools for recollection. First, they would carefully memorize the spaces of memorable buildings, noting not only their rooms and structural elements, but also the various decorative reliefs and murals on the walls. They analyzed every square inch of an illustrative work or painting, noting what the subjects were doing, what they were carrying in their hands, and so on. They would then use these symbol-laden elements as associative hooks for thoughts they wanted to store. Literally, the architecture/artwork became a “place” for them to hang their thoughts.

The role of art from antiquity through the early Renaissance, particularly in ecclesial art, was not only to embody human knowledge but to aid the practice most important to intellectual prowess in those days: rhetoric. Moral and philosophical thought, including prayer and spiritual meditation, were pursued using the techniques of rhetoric. St. Augustine’s writings, for example, are merely recorded works of rhetoric—“speeches”, really. The memory technique described here, called “architectural mnemonics”, was perfected by the early Greek philosophers, who were all skilled rhetoricians.

Architecture served as a tool to aid the speech-maker. To understand how this worked, say you were composing a sermon. As you reflected and came upon a statement to make, you would look to attach it by association to an element or artwork of the building you knew well, typically an image-laden church. For example, if you wanted to make a point about the capricious actions of a certain Medici boss (who shall remain unnamed) you would try to imagine him as King Herod in the nativity panel series. You did a similar thing with all the other parts of the sermon. As you composed the discourse in your head and strung your various points to artwork by associative links, the composition would literally start to take shape on the church walls. When it was time for you to deliver your speech, all you had to do was to retrace your prepared discourse through your mental image of the church, from element to element, art panel to art panel. As soon as you came upon the Herod image in your mind, you would think “Medici boss” and immediately recall the moral point you had stored for that portion of the speech.

Imagine being able to recall an entire discourse spontaneously and without great difficulty! But there was a second advantage produced by this technique that was in some ways more significant than mere recall. Obviously, the image-laden church would force you to work with a pre-existing tableau for your own arrangements of meaning. This was not such a great a straightjacket as you might suppose. You just had to be pretty creative about your associative linkages. Maybe, instead of using the Herod painting, for example, you imagine the Medici boss with head of one of pigs in the Gerasene Demoniac painting. This would help you to better transition to one of your other related points regarding the abuse of ferrymen and farm laborers. In such a way, the church would invariably order your prayers, sermons or scholastic/philosophic discourses. Not only would the church hold your orations sequentially together—like a pastor’s notes on the lectern—but it would also prod you to reconsider and rework your thoughts as you extemporized new insights from the networks of pre-existing associative links you had already built up on the walls. This often led to surprising insights that one would not have found otherwise. The church would thus marvelously become a vessel for private revelation. What would inevitably happen is that an orator would deliver a better speech than he had prepared. He would have plenty of moments of unanticipated, inspired insight.

Sometimes, among learned monks, the vessel of deriving “Holy Ghost insight” from associatively preserved memories was not a church or a panel of art but passages of scripture that they were thoroughly familiar with (which they typically were since some of them spent most of their time copying the same passages of scripture). For example, if they had the first chapter of Genesis memorized, they would use the seven day account of the creation story as a “place-holder” for their thoughts. By making associative links to the elements of each day, they could compose a seven-part prayer or sermon that could be recalled later to share with others or to reflect upon further. This insight to the latent creative function of Biblical narrative, the art of recollecting and composing ideas by using a narrative or poetic substructure, was called sancta memoria. Art panels in churches served a dual purpose, to provide communal narratives and to provide visual props for sancta memoria.