Saturday, November 08, 2008

Playing Heidegger in Heidelberg

Just now I was looking through a few photos taken over the past couple of weeks. Well, a few may be a bit of an understatement. Unfortunately, the world of digital cameras has certainly destroyed my sense of discretion in terms of taking pictures.

We had the most wonderful opportunity this last week to go visit Tanja Badenheuer, a good friend and old roommate of Kara's, in Friedberg, Germany, where she is currently working as a German teacher. Tanja was a most gracious host and let us all camp out in her front room for several nights, while playing a fantastic tour guide of her small but lovely city during the day.

On Halloween, Tanja had to work a fairly full day, so Kara, the girls, and I drove down to Heidelberg to see the apparently well-known Schloss Heidelberg, an old castle picturesquely perched on the slopes overlooking the town of similar fame and name. The castle was absolutely fantastic, having been built in many phases over many generations, and likewise having been destroyed in a seemingly equivalent number of phases (and probably generations, though I'm afraid I wasn't paying quite close enough attention to the tour guide to say for sure).

In any case, as I was looking over the myriad of photos I had taken, I was struck first by the soaring majesty and power of the castle as shown in the large-scale wooden model depicting the fortress as it had been a little over 200 years ago. Massive masonry towers stood at each corner, and huge abutments defied any who might plan to attack. Medieval turrets, battlements, and crenelation were intermixed with fanciful residence halls executed in renaissance and baroque splendor. It truly must have been a splendid sight when in its full glory.

My photo journey quickly jumped two centuries as I went from pictures of the model to pictures I had taken of the actual castle. The once mighty towers had been blown apart by the French army during the thirty-years war, leaving parts of the castle appearing almost as if a section plane had been placed there by a behemoth architect, exposing wall thickness, floor levels, structural systems, et. al. Unmaintained roofs had disintegrated under years of storms and rain. Only facades remained of once-existent palaces, their windows opening to nothing but sky no matter which way you look through them. (Interestingly enough, the 280 000 - liter wine barrel in the cellar was still intact.)

The juxtaposition of the recreated model of the castle and of its actual current state sharply impressed my mind. I believe architects often like to think they are leaving a lasting mark on the world by giving physical presence to the creations of their mind. Yet no matter how thick we build the walls, from the moment the final touch is placed in any construction (and even before), all the forces of nature are working together to break it apart, to weather it away, to bring it down. Seeing masonry walls greater than 6 meters thick that had simply been split in half has a somewhat sublime and sobering effect on an aspiring builder. And as I looked over these images of ruin with thoughts of Piranesi rambling through my mind, I came to the very distinct conclusion that nothing, absolutely nothing, that we build can truly last forever. I could spend all the days of my life trying to build some monument to my existence, some proof that I lived in this world, that I was a part of this world, that I even attempted to contribute to this world, only to have it all reduced to rubble in a century, in a decade, or in a day. In America, we try so desperately to keep Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater from falling into the water, while in Greece, Manolis Korres works tirelessly to piece back together the vestiges of the Parthenon. Be it less then 100 years old, or more then 2000 years old, the battle we wage is the same, and the eventual outcome equally as grim and as certain.

Does that mean we shouldn't build? Of course not. But perhaps it might also cause us to pause and consider how we invest our time in this life. In addition to building the physical, albeit ephemeral, structures of marble and stone, we must build the intangible, yet potentially eternal, relationships that give meaning to life.

In essence, I believe that the average you or me can have a more lasting impact on the world by loving a friend, by being true to a spouse, or by teaching a child, than Isadore or Anthemius had, even were they to have built a thousand Hagia Sophias.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your thoughtful, perceptive commentary. Nothing tangible we acquire or build in this life "lasts forever." Often the process of building teaches, and enlivens, us as much or more than the finished product does. The fact that a series of generations can work over time to create a functional castle (with few, if any, enduring blueprints or plans)is as remarkable as the finished monument. It is an act of faith to begin to build either a structure, or a friend.

Keep smiling!

Bruce Richards said...

Good insight Jason, and cows usually last even shorter amounts of time than castles. I was glad my dad and grandfather had your perspective when I drove the tractor through the fence years ago. My aunt recently sent me pictures of where the farm used to be in Farmington. Everything is gone (except the old outhouse that use of was discontinued before I was born), including our house and Grandpa's house. It makes me realize that the barns, fences, tractors, houses, and even the cows aren't what's important. It's the people who lived in them and the lessons they learned. I'm glad my dad and grandpa know that I'm more important than a fence or tractor. I'm sure Brooklyn will be glad one day that her dad knows she is more important than a computer.