Today I have copied a passage from the great work by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Citadelle (The Wisdom of the Sands), a book I discovered quite late, which describes exactly the climate in which the work of the Bossche School evolved.
‘… of my father’s palace, where every step had a purpose.
It was a spacious abode, with its wing reserved for women and the enclosed courtyard where the fountain sang. (And I command that the house be given a heart in this way so that one can walk to as well as away from something. So that one can enter as well as exit it. For otherwise one is nowhere. And it does not mean that one is free, if one is not.)
There were also barns and stables. And it happened that the barns were empty and the stables unoccupied. And my father resisted the idea of using one for the purpose of the other: “The barn,” he said, “is a barn first and foremost, and you do not live in a house if you no longer know where you are.”
“It does not take much at all,” he also said, “for the use of something to be more or less fruitful.”
“Mankind is not livestock to be fattened, and love matters more to him than profitable use. You cannot love a house that has no face and in which steps have no direction.”
There was the hall reserved for the great envoys and where the sun was only let in on the days that the sandy dust rose, kicked up by the horsemen, on the horizon lined with great banners among which the wind blew as on the sea. It was left empty when little princes of no importance came. There was the hall were justice was exercised and the hall to which the dead were carried. There was the empty room, the purpose of which no one ever knew; perhaps it had no purpose, or it must have been to teach the meaning of mystery and the fact that not all things can be fathomed. And the slaves, who trotted along the corridors laden with their burdens, carried heavy carpets that hung limp from their shoulders. They climbed stairs, pushed against doors and descended more stairs, and depending on whether they were closer to or further away from the fountain in the centre, they would grow more or less silent, becoming timid as shadows near the women’s domain, where an unguarded glance would have cost them their lives. And the women themselves: calm, arrogant or secretive, depending on their place in the house.
I hear the voice of fools: “What a waste of space, what untapped riches, what discontent caused by neglect! Those useless walls should be torn down and those stairs levelled; all they do is make walking difficult. Then man will be free.” And I reply: “Then men will become like livestock in the city square, and out of fear of boredom they will invent stupid games that will be dominated by rules anyway, but rules without grandeur.
For the palace can foster poetry. But what kind of poem can one write about the futility of the dice they cast? They will likely live on for a long time from the shadow of the walls, the poems of which will inspire their nostalgia; then the shadow itself will fade and they will no longer understand them.”
And where then would they find joy?
So would it be with a man, lost in a week without days or in a year without days of celebration, that shows no face. So would it be with the man without hierarchy, who envies his neighbour and who, when the latter bests him in some way, endeavours to bring him down to his own level. What joy could they then still draw from the dead pool they would collectively form?’
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Citadelle III
For you this is not about a fictional palace but about a real house, which I truly believe has a special ‘face’, a face that will hold one’s interest to such an extent that one will not, out of boredom, seek diversion in other things. A stay in such a monastery should in itself awaken the passion for monastic life, and then, as a result of such an interaction, the inner life can only flourish.
Exupéry’s comparison of architecture to liturgy is also most felicitous.
What unfolds through the building, with its hierarchy of spaces, culminating in the consecrated church, is the same, in terms of space, as what happens through liturgy, with its recurring days of celebration, culminating in Easter, in terms of time.
Through its consecration the building acquires the same sanctifying power as the liturgy with which it identifies, but this consecration must be grounded in clearly visible forms.
Last time I wrote you about the great distinction between architectural and natural forms. When I last paid you a visit and strolled around the garden with the Director, or rather around the grounds that are to become the garden, I was struck by how different laying down a garden is from building a house. In the garden nothing more is needed than to refine forms provided by nature: a few trees removed here, a few birches added there to mitigate the transition between the artificial forms of the building and the natural forms of trees and surroundings. In nature there is an inscrutable variety of forms; in architecture a few clear forms, all rectangular and defined by a few exact measurements. I particularly recall the huge stacks, square stacks of hundreds of square bricks all in the same format, whereas in nature no two forms are the same and never the same size.
It is from those small uniform bricks that the limited variations of your house were created quite consciously. You saw them ‘grow’ up: the piers of the halls, the walls with the open windows, the rows of piers of the inner courtyard and the frieze of the upper windows, all the same square forms, one a bit longer, another a bit thicker or a bit flatter.
They are all forms from a very limited gamut, to which we can, so to speak, give names: blocks, bars and slabs. What occurs in nature in an infinite range of forms, we have to produce in a very limited range, so that we may comprehend it all.
And what is true of the piers and the walls is equally true of the spaces: bar-shaped corridors, block-shaped stairwells, slab-shaped halls; and these forms too are very limited. They are defined by the ratios between length, width and height, and these ratios are always seven in number, just as music has an octave of clearly distinct notes.
With minor variations, the same forms recur throughout the house; one learns to recognize them as the forms of this house. They give it its own face, which will come to be loved.
Although the play of forms, that of the columns and window openings as well as that of the spaces themselves, is much more varied downstairs than upstairs, you still find a lovely horizontal slab shape for the stairwell, long bar forms for the corridor and above all the purely balanced shape of the cells.
As one continues to move through these spaces, they eventually harmonize into a spatial melody. The more simply your house is furnished and decorated, the more clearly perceptible these ground motifs will be.
We experience all of this more than we see it; this in no way diminishes its impact. This is even more true of the harmony of measurements, about which I will tell you in one of my next letters.