Footprints and Footsteps

“Buildings,” writes the art historian Mariëtte Verhoeven on the architectural patrimony of the Latin Crusaders in Jerusalem, built between the early eleventh and late twelvth centuries, “…although built on specific and fixed locations, change continuously, as does the culture around them.  Especially in a city such as Jerusalem, where many buildings are the markers of holy, often contested, places, religious buildings have undergone significant (physical) transformations during dramatic religious turnarounds, including changes of function or patronage, rebuilding and restoration, and neglect or demolition.”  In contrast to the dominant trend in architectural history, which focuses on shape, function and locations in its original forms, Verhoeven’s essay considers buildings precisely as palimpsests, created through intrastructural cross-layerings laid down over centuries.  Her motivation is “to do justice to and acknowledge the processuality of architecture.”

To learn to read a historically dense, sometimes chaotic piece of architecture in this way, for example the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem, one of the subjects of Verhoeven's work, is to study appearances in order to move beyond mere appearances.  It is to treat what is manifest as the visible remnant of what is no longer manifest, and also as the evidence of change that did more than refashion the original building plan.  To read architecture this way is to consider the original itself as just a point of departure, leading into continous revision that exists in the fullness of its coming and going only in the imagination.  A building understood this way belongs as much to the imagination as it does to the senses.



And what about more brutal cases of the same phenomenon?  I am thinking about cases not of alteration but of obliteration, in which there are few or no traces on which to base the practice of imaginative seeing.  The processual approach to architecture is dialectical by nature, and it seems to me an open question whether sheer eradication has a place in that dialectic, or simply ends it.

This summer I did some experiments to see whether a processual approach to visualizing the site of a destroyed building might generate a reconstructive imagination of it.  Could I create a process of looking capable of conjuring that which was not there to be seen––a visual method that could counter absence?  My strategy involved three simple actions:  determining the footprint of the non-existent building; walking that footprint; making photographs that would cast the gaze into and through the walked space so as to create a space of conceptual projection in which the lost structure can dwell in the imagination.

My first effort came in Vilnius, once renowned as the Jerusalem of the North, at the location of the Great Synagogue.  Opened in 1633 on the site of previous synagogues dating to 1440, the Great Synagogue was devastated during the Holocaust, and its ruins demolished in 1957.  Built in a Renaissance-Baroque style, it was surrounded by a labyrinth-like collection of a dozen other synagogues and communal buildings, forming a major center of Jewish religious life, and revered as the spiritual home of Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797), known as the Vilna Gaon, one of the most important of the post-medieval Jewish sages.

An international team of scholars working on the Great Synagogue site, led by the archaeologist Jon Seligman, describes the building this way:

“The Great City Synagogue was a tall one-story building with a slanted roof. Ecclesiastical restrictions specified that a synagogue could not be built higher than a church. To obey the law, and yet create necessary interior height, the level of the synagogue’s floor was set well below that of the street. Outside, the synagogue looked three stories tall, but inside it soared to over five stories. In the early nineteenth century a gable with a two-tiered wooden gallery was added on the western side. The entrance, with a vestibule, was located on the northern side of the building. The main prayer hall was square and could hold about 450 people. It had a three-tiered bimah in the center, set between four pillars in Tuscan style. The lower tier of the bimah was composed of twelve columns, while the upper supporting an ornate dome. The splendid two-tiered Aron Kodesh on the eastern wall was decorated with stucco carvings, representing vegetative, animal and Jewish symbols. The ark was approached by a twofold flight of steps, with iron balustrades. Hanging from the walls and ceilings there were numerous bronze and silver chandeliers and the synagogue also contained a valuable collection of ritual objects. On the northeastern and northwestern sides of the prayer hall there were two-storey structures, serving as the ezrat nashim (women’s sections), connected to the hall by small windows.”

Below is a painting of the synagogue from 1925, and a map of the Great Synagogue and its immediate environs before its destruction.

A version of the above map has been installed on the site itself.  This on-site map––immediately below––shows the footprint of the destroyed synagogue in relation to structures currently standing:

Using the on-site map as my guide, my experiment involved walking the boundaries of the destroyed Great Synagogue, and making photographs at the location of the building’s four corners as closely as I could determine them.  The sequence of pictures below combines close-ups of the on-site map with these photographs.  Each image of the on-site map is annotated with arrows pointing out the direction of the view immediately below it. 

Some weeks later, I found myself in Stawiski, Poland, a small town that was about two-thirds Jewish prior to the Holocaust.  Stawiski’s Jews built a synagogue in 1739, described in the town’s Yizkor book as follows:

“There was an old synagogue in Stawiski, which was built at the beginning of the 18th century.  Its structure was unique.  Its walls were very thick, like a fortress, and apparently, it was planned that it would serve as a place of refuge for the Jews in times of trouble. Its white arches were 12 meters high, and between them, there were boards inlaid which were painted greenish-white.  The Holy Ark rose the entire height of the hall, and was finely crafted.  The artistic wooden doors depicted many traditional Jewish themes, such as the twelve tribes, Moses and Aaron, the tablets of the covenant, the Leviathan and wild ox, the seven species for which the Land of Israel is known, as well as various other species of the Land of Israel.  The colors were very fine.  There was no more beautiful synagogue in the entire area.

“Next to it was the large Beis Midrash, and three other smaller houses of prayer and Torah.  On Sabbaths, various prayer quorums took place in them, with more of the common folk, who would not have had the means to merit a Torah honor (aliya) in the larger synagogues and Beis Midrashes.  The synagogues and Beis Midrashes always served as a place of meeting for the adults, as well as on occasion, the youth.  The communal life of the town was centered within their walls; there the simple folk heard the news about what was going on in the world at large. Local gossip also found an attentive audience there. …The synagogue served as the center of transmission of news about what was transpiring in the outside world, both Jewish and gentile.  Merchants and communal workers who would travel for business or communal matters to large cities in Russia or even Germany would relate their experiences and impressions to the population, who in general spent their entire lives in the vicinity of the town and its surrounding area. It is true that even “stormy” debates took place within the walls of these meeting places, regarding events that were taking place in their world, and in the general Jewish world.”

Stawiski's synagogue was destroyed in 1942.  Below is a prewar photograph of the building.

Today, the site of the destroyed synagogue is an open field beside the town’s fire station.  There was no sign or map marking the building, but the fire chief pointed out to me exactly where its footprint was situated––perhaps 75% of the size of the current field.  (And I should say that his knowledge of the town’s Jewish history turned out to be unexpectedly personal:  on his own initiative, he showed me documents from the fire station’s prewar archives, including the initiation certificates of a great many Jewish firemen, whom he considered brothers, integral parts of the fireman’s brotherhood.).

I walked the destroyed synagogue’s footprint, again making photographs at the four corners.  The photographs below trace my walk, which follows the footprint in a counter-clockwise direction, as illustrated in the map below, which I made subsequent to my visit using a Google satellite picture.

I began at the southeast corner of the site (no. 1 on the map) with a view to the northeast (no. 2).  Then I moved to the northeast corner (no. 2) and turned 90º to show the view to the northwest (no. 3).  I then moved to the northwest corner (no. 3) and turned 90º to show the view to the southwest (no. 4).  Finally, I moved to the southwest corner (no. 4) and turned 90º to show the view to the southeast (no. 1), the starting point.

The following pictures show the same site in a clockwise movement, beginning in the southwest corner (no. 4 in the map above) looking toward the northwest corner (no. 3), then moving to the northwest corner and looking toward the northeast corner (no. 2), then moving to the northeast corner and looking toward the southeast (no. 1).

A few days after visting Stawiski, I was in Jedwabne, Poland, a small town whose prewar Jewish population numbered around 750 people, just over 60% of the total population.  Jedwabne was the site of a notorious massacre on July 10, 1941, in which a group of at least 40 local Polish men––under German occupation but on their own initiative––locked at least 340 Jews in a wooden barn and set it on fire.  Similar but much less famous massacres occurred in the nearby towns of Radziłów, Sczuczyn and Bzury, and anti-Jewish repression, harrassment and perhaps massacres occurred in the nearby towns of Wąsosz, Grajewo, Tykocin, Kolno, Suchowola, Wizna and Zaręby Kościelne.

No photograph of the Jedwabne barn exists. As a proxy for it, below is a photograph of Jedwabne’s wooden synagogue, built in 1770 and destroyed accidentally by fire in 1913.

A memorial now stands at the site of the massacre in Jedwabne, consisting of a charred relic of the barn, and stone blocks that recreate the exact footprint of the barn.  I walked the footprint from the outside, then entered “into” the space of the burned barn itself.  From the inside, I walked the perimeter, and made photographs from the middle of each invisible wall, in the direction of the opposing invisible wall. 

I then stood in the middle of the barn, and made pictures in the direction of all four of its corners.

All three of my experiments failed.  None of my studying, mapping, walking, picture-making and geo-spatial imagining––my efforts to wind all of these into a single mental exercise with enough spring and heave to create something in the mind from nothing––none of it was enough.  The invisible buildings did not ever really come to mind.  At most they came close to coming to mind, the visual equivalent of having a word on the tip of your tongue, almost yours to speak but not quite.  And I do not think that they come to mind through the sequences of pictures and maps here, either.  I suppose I could ascribe it, at the least, to the cognitive gap that attends all photographs.  As a medium, photography pronounces a conceptual space distinct from the optical space it sets forth.  As a form of two-dimensional representation, photography is constantly solicitous of the third dimension––of architicture, of sculpture, of theater––just as photography’s strange and mercurial temporal stillness––at once fleeting and indefinite––is aloof toward media that more straightforwardly perform an experience of time, notably cinema.

On the other hand, I could say that all of these experiments succeeded, if it makes sense to speak of giving-shape to the nothing:  not converting the nothing to a something, letting the nothing remain a nothing, but not an inert, formless nothing.  Each of these experiments did succeed, at least a little, in retrieving the nothing from a condition of mere nothingness.  Each managed to dynamize the nothing into some kind of shifting imaginative presence, in the manner of negative representation––the method of describing something by means of what it is not.  When it comes to visualizing non-existing religious buildings, perhaps my experiments manage to cross paths with the tradition of apophatic theology, or the attempt to approach the divine in terms of what does not attach to it as being.

In each of these experiments, the augmented nothing––to give my findings a name––depended on architectural footprints, implicit or explicit.  I might say, to put my experience in the form of a conclusion, that the minimum condition for seeing the unseeable is to find where the unseeable actually touches the earth, because the nothing does touch the earth, does reside in a concrete location.  If we can find that location, matching our own actual footsteps to the actual footprint of the nothing turns out to be a pathway into the processual state of architecture leading to the other side of its materiality, what might be called its mystical materiality.  I am not speaking of a metaphysical entity but definitely an entity outside of history, and not something on which I would expect to find art or architectural historians working.  For artists, though, it seems natural enough to want to behold it.

A coda:  The Protestant Church in Vilnius, on Pylimo Gatve in the center of the city, is one of the best examples of Neo-Classical architecture in Lithuania, built between 1830 and 1835.  Like many buildings, it has undergone changes and renovations, one of which is quite subtle.  Sometime in the 1950s, the building’s front steps were replaced with headstones from the city’s old Jewish cemetery.  Stone masons prepared the headstones by sandblasting out the Hebrew inscriptions, although they could not remove them all. 

Standing before this building, I realized all over again: I do not know how to envision a city in time, positively or negatively. I cannot grasp a city whose Great Synagogue has an invisible footprint, and whose Protestant Church places Jewish gravestones quite literally at the feet of worhsippers. No, if I barely have powers of vision adequate for a single building, I have no powers adequate for the great city itself, in the North or wherever it may be.

Atlanta, September 2017