A few weeks ago I saw the Mozarabic Hermitage Church of San Baudelio de Berlanga, and I can tell you it was one of the most impressive architectural experiences I’ve ever had.
Architecture is space, and here I felt that space with spine-tingling intensity.
Later, feeling like a bit of mischief, I looked up reviews of the church on the TripAdvisor website. Most of them were full of praise, but I was out for some sport, so I made for the negative ones.
“If it’s on your route, you could drop in. It’s free, but there’s hardly anything left of the paintings. […]Very small, and not very appealing”. As a title for their review, one person chose: “Hardly Anything to See”. Others put: “Very Small” and “Not Very Attractive”.
These negative opinions were based on the fact that not much is left of the fresco paintings inside the church. That’s true. It’s a pity that the place has been affected so much by humidity, neglect and the passage of time, but all that leads one to think that architectural space in itself is nothing, that the building is merely the chest containing the treasure, and that when the content is lost, the container is no longer of any value or interest.
Of course, “space” is not the same as “volume”. Space is about whether the walls are shiny or matt, or coloured; about how light enters, about reflections or opaqueness, the sensation of heat or cold in the building, what it smells like… Everything is space. And if, in this space, the paintings that once had a magical, unreal effect are now lost, then the trick has fallen flat, and the whole thing comes crashing down.
That’s also true. But this space, a space which, even despite such deterioration, is still so fascinating, so indescribable, has apparently ceased to exist in the blind eyes of those reviewers. “It’s not worth it”. “Hardly anything to see”.
Hardly anything to see? Hardly anything? Are you sure? How can anyone admire the frescoes of the elephant, the camel and the hare hunting scene … but not this amazing space itself, this pure space, this space-filled space?
And make no mistake, we’re talking about people who drove kilometres to visit a church: people interested in, or at least curious, about art. We’re not talking about ignorant yokels, but about people capable of appreciating the brushwork in a horse’s hoof or a bird’s wings painted on the wall. And yet they can’t see, they don’t’ even want to see, the delicate balance of columns and arches, the empty dome above the great structural mass, this magical house of cards with its spatial interplay, its changes in scale, its elevations and its dizzy heights… They’re not interested. “It’s not worth it”. “Hardly anything to see”.
Exactly! Hardly anything.
Would it ever be possible for these people interested in art to actually look at architecture? How could we make that happen? I’m not referring to admiring the number of medallions lining a gallery, or the craftsmanship of the corbels supporting the eaves of a roof, or the number of filigree lobes in a wrought-iron railing. I’m not talking about applied decorative arts, but about the spatial structure of the living organism that is a building. Will it ever be possible? Could someone, some guide, once and for all stop pointing out how many thingamabobs there are on the doobry of the whatjamacallit and start encouraging visitors to try to enjoy spaces in which there’s “hardly anything to see”?
Hardly anything. It’s not the treasure. It’s not the pieces of eight. It’s just the chest itself, and it’s got its own appeal.
Author’s Note: The images are screen captures of the reviews of the church at TripAdvisor.
Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor