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Criticalista: The Forest Metaphor


The Forest Metaphor

The Drassanes Reials (royal shipyard) of Barcelona has recently reopened after a lengthy renovation (by architects Robert and Esteve Terradas). The largest work of Catalan Civil Gothic architecture, it is an example of a space that (at a time when architects like to employ nature metaphors in their work) could be likened to a forest. Hundreds of diaphragm arches of subtly different spans rest on a nearly uniform grid of square stone columns.  Scandalously simple, yet powerful.
Mid 18th century map of Barcelona's shipyard
But this shipyard can also be seen to bear some similarity to an another important building: the Great Mosque of Córdoba. Both of these works repetitively and relentlessly employ a single structural system over an expansive area. The beauty of both of these spaces comes precisely from the repetition of similar structural elements at a scale so vast that exterior walls become almost imperceptible from deep within, creating the impression of an infinite space. Indeed, this mosque was described by Muhammad Iqbal as having "countless pillars like rows of palm trees in the oases of Syria".  

Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba
Plan of the Mosque of Córdoba (before Christian intervention)

The architectural uniformity of the Great Mosque is especially noteworthy when we consider the fact that the original mosque was built in four stages, each by different architects. In this day and age, such "cloning" is considered to be unacceptable: when Romaldo Giurgula proposed expanding Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum--another example of beauty (I know, sounds corny) through architectural repetition--by simply adding on more of the same, he was vilified by the North American architectural establishment. Had each of the successive architects of the mosque tried to outdo each other in cleverness, originality and creativity, the resultant space would never have achieved the same quality. The mosque's conversion into a Christian temple and the building of a cathedral as an "intervention" in the very centre of the structure became perceived as a disruption. Charles V himself famously regretted permitting the cathedral's construction before having visited the site himself: "something unique in all the world [was] build something you can find in any city."

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