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The Abbey And The Pavilion

Part 1 Dissertation 2002
David Cawston
Newcastle University | UK
The dissertation focuses on two buildings: Saint Denis Abbey in Paris (1137-1231) and the German Pavilion in Barcelona (1929). These two buildings, though vastly different in terms of typology, technology and time, are united by the common intention of their creators Abbot Suger and Mies van der Rohe respectively. Both these men believed that buildings should express spiritual truth.
Essentially the forms of Suger's Abbey spring from a belief in Christianity's Creator and Redeemer God and the influence of Platonic philosophy. Three examples are studied: First, the Abbey is based on a holistic system of order and proportion that echoes the medieval view of the cosmos, as suggesteded by the scriptures and defined by Plato and Augustine. Second, Suger used contemporary technology to create larger windows which flooded his temple with light; light that symbolised Christ and which, in its very immateriality, was thought of all natural phenomena to be nearest to the invisible omnipresent God. Thirdly, these dramatic stained glass windows were also intended to create a vision of Heaven, described in the book of Revelation as a City with translucent walls of precious stones.
In contrast, Mies van der Rohe's Pavilion shifts the source of the Spirit from God to each individual. The space he creates in the Pavilion is intentionally open and neutral, free from all traditional references, so as to provide a new stage upon which modern man could redefine his own rules and way of life. Similarly there is no 'a priori' system of order binding the Pavilion's forms together. Instead, in the spirit of Empiricism, man is invited to impose order upon chaos, for example by finding hidden symmetries in the reflections carried on the building's walls and pools. Finally, Mies' creation seems eerily perfect and removed from the messy realities of everyday life. The dissertation speculates that this is a Nietzschean response to the consequences of Empiricism, namely a soulless mechanistic universe. The Pavilion asserts itself against this notion, for instance by rejecting the effects of gravity -its planes seem to float- thus articulating a belief in the spiritual nature of mankind.

David Cawston

'David Cawston's, The Abbey and the Pavilion: Architecture and Spirituality in two contrasting Eras, explores the nature of sprituality in architecture by comparing and contrasting two iconic buildings from different periods in history, the German Pavilion, Barcelona (1929) and Saint Denis Abbey, Paris (1137 - 1231). By looking at such timeless qualitative factors as light, order, hierarchy, wholeness, craftsmanship and colour, the student managed to produce a well-balanced and insightful study that convinces at several levels. It is fluently written, clear and intelligent, engaging to read with a strong grasp of the philosophical issues involved. The student is not afraid to engage personally with the debate and one gets the impression of the mind of a 'reflective practitioner' at work. The dissertation is beautifully presented with much of the illustrative material by the student himself. A polished and mature piece of work.'

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