Architecture for the Heavens
Posted on February 4, 2016
I rose early and stepped outside into clear cool darkness, it was well before daylight. I started my routine brisk morning walk through the tree lined neighborhood, head down and lost in thought. Suddenly, as I rounded a corner and the trees cleared and I was stopped dead in my tracks. Low in the Southern sky was a huge full moon moon trailed by planets—Venice, Saturn, Mars, Mercury, were there others? The vision in the sky was amazing, and the surrounding landscape was transformed by light. I was struck with the thought that the way we interact with the heavens and the world around us has so much to do with light. What would the ancients have made of such a moonscape—what would it foretell—would it bring celebration and wonder? Would it bring death?
Past civilizations have often built structures to contemplate the heavens—tracking the interaction of form and light—Stonehenge, the temples of Tikal, Giza’s Necropolis. It made me think about one of the most interesting examples that I came across when traveling in India. It is just outside of New Delhi and the memory of walking through it never leaves me. Not ruins—but structures that have been sliced open and revealed to the sky—they are actually large sculptural shaped scientific instruments constructed in brick and plaster. They are not usual of the architecture India or of the period or anything else I have ever seen. Exploring the site you feel as if you have been shrunken and allowed to enter these over-sized three-dimensional sundials—becoming part of man’s attempt to chart the universe.
Designed by the mathematician and astrologer Sawai Jai Singh II—who later went on to design Jaipur city and is remembered as one of the most enlightened kings of the 18th century and beyond—the Jantar Mantar is one of 5 celestial observatories built in India in the 1700’s. Using the principles of Indian astrology, these buildings were built to accurately predict eclipses—at the time considered bad omens—and other astronomical events.
One thing I did not realize until well after my visit is how many artists through history were inspired by these structures. Of early note, two British painters—cousins who had trained at the Royal Academy in London—were lured to painting in the East by rumors of fame and fortune and the desire to set themselves apart from the landscape and flower painters that were their contemporaries. They traveled throughout India, creating numerous romantic images that captured what India was like before The 19th Century. Other artists and many images abound, and obviously these shapes—seemingly not of their time and place—capture artist’s imaginations.
Later—around 1950—the sculptor Isamu Noguchi traveled to India with his Leica camera intent to create a book on public spaces of the world. The book was never produced, but the photographs are now being exhibited at the Noguchi museum through a series titled Noguchi as Photographer—the photos of the Jantar Mantars of Northern India comprised the first exhibit of his photos held just recently in 2015.
Already known for his early figurative work and his subsequent transition to abstract sculpture, he used his photos from India as inspiration for much of his work that followed—designing play structures and public spaces, collaborating with his good friend R. Buckminster Fuller on many interesting projects, and famously creating the relief at Rockefeller center News that stands above the entrance to what was then the Associated Press Building.
I think that the long term fascination with the study of our cosmos combined with the convergence of beauty and functionality of these instruments have inspired generations of artists—and hopefully will continue to do so for many more to come. I love to see the ripples of the structures of Jantar Mantar across time and space. Now when I ponder the heavens, I’m left to wonder what other wondrous works of art and architecture—ancient and modern, could be left to discover.