Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Dome of Heaven

I have an obsession that goes all the way back into my earliest childhood, an obsession with domes. Why this is, I have no idea. All I know is that at a very tender age, I made my first stroll into Dallas Hall on the SMU campus in Dallas, and was immediately captivated. I've known that building since I was 3 years old. I grew up in its shadow. For some mysterious reason, it never occurred to me as a child that the inside of the building might be something more than a collection of rooms. I remember being so surprised and astonished when I entered the rotunda for the first time around the age of 5 or 6. As I remember, it was not in good shape in those days. the paint was peeling from the faux Robert Adam ornament, and the glass in the oculus skylight was darkened with grime. But, I was still amazed to be looking at the structure from the inside.
My parents indulged my eccentric obsession with very generous side trips to state capitols whenever we did our road trips.

It's not just any dome that gets my obsessive attention. I've never been much of a fan of Bucky Fuller or his geodesic domes. They are too prosaic and centerless for my taste. The same is true of big stadium domes. The domes that have always won my love and admiration are the ones that have functioned as metaphor and proclaimed meaning to the surrounding city and countryside. That's the big problem with so much modern architecture, it doesn't even bother to try to articulate any kind of public meaning for the most part, and was never meant to do so. Modern architecture began as commercial and domestic architecture. It did not play much of a public or monumental role until after World War II. The only exceptions I can think of are just that, exceptions like Mies Van Der Rohe's monument to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

The dome almost always plays the role of a metaphor for the sky or the heavens; the sky, not as it is, but as we earthbound creatures experience it, as a great arching vault far above us. And within that metaphor is a host of different and sometimes conflicting meanings. The Pantheon in Rome was one kind of sky metaphor. Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was a very different sky metaphor altogether. The domes of Islam and of Baroque art were two vastly different kinds of paradise metaphors. And the domes of NeoClassicism introduce an explicit political element into the sky metaphor, as well as a very modern literal mindedness.

I have a little time off, so I think I will just play with this a bit.

Dallas Hall, SMU, Dallas, Texas

Dallas Hall, interior of the dome.

Glass in the Dallas Hall skylight


Grandmère Mimi said...

I tried to remember the first dome that I ever saw, and I cannot. The most impressive, not necessarily the most beautiful, was St. Peter's in Rome. I stood in under it in awe for a long time.

Counterlight said...

I'll vote for St. Peter's dome. It was my favorite part of the whole basilica; impressive and beautiful.