Sunday, December 20, 2015

O Tannenbaum!

This is our Christmas tree. It’s a very modest 6-foot tall Nordmann fir but we’re very happy with it. We purchased it from a local grower who raises trees organically, with no chemical spraying. We like its shape, height, proportions, and the strength and density of its limbs (perfect for our particular selection of lights and ornaments). We like that it is festive and how it makes us feel the holiday season has arrived in our home. 

It is the history of the Christmas tree (which actually traces back to pre-Christian winter rites) and its persistence as a cultural icon that fascinate me. Trees in general have long been symbols of eternal life. Many regard the characteristically triangular shape of Christmas trees (like our Nordmann fir) as signifying the holy Trinity and a pointing skyward toward Heaven. Historians say the custom of hanging shiny ornaments on Christmas trees originated in medieval times when worshipers began decorating trees with apples (to represent the forbidden fruit) and wafers (to represent the Eucharist and redemption). Notwithstanding our personal religious beliefs, we all immediately associate them with the joyous spirit of the Christmas holiday. 

The effectiveness of Christmas trees as symbols is amazing (albeit culturally dependent), but perhaps no more so than many other visual images or signs we are familiar with. The Christian cross, the Jewish Star of David, and the Star & Crescent of Islam are iconic representations of religious beliefs. Likewise recognizable (and burdened by association) are the Nazi swastika, the Daoist yin and yang, flags of many nations, and corporate logos (such as the Nike swoosh and McDonald’s golden arches). 

Of course, humans have always designed buildings with the express goal of creating monuments to represent beliefs, ideas, or principles. The U.S. Capitol building is an example, with its central dome & rotunda signifying the Union flanked by separate wings housing the legislative bodies. The Eiffel Tower is another case in point, a grandiose celebration of technological prowess and Gallic pride constructed for the 1889 Exposition Universelle. We unthinkingly associate the expansive interior light and soaring height of the great Gothic cathedrals with the Divine and the power of institution they represent. Symbolism, whether intended or not, has been an inherent property of architecture throughout history. 

The geometry of many buildings is itself the key to understanding their meaning. For instance, the semi-subterranean, round forms of Chacoan kivas—symbolizing the peoples’ place of origin— distinguished them from the more common square or rectangular forms of pueblo residential architecture. The use of circles and spheres to express notions of perfection, wholeness, and the cycle of life has been widespread across many cultures. The potency of their symbolism is almost universal. Skilled architects are fluent with the grammar of all shapes and use it to achieve additional desired effects: conveying mood and emotion, directing movement, emphasizing points of interest, organizing, connecting and separating, etc. 

All Charlie Brown's Christmas tree needed was a little loving care.
Early worshipers favored the simple tapering profile of the decorated Yule tree for its symbolism. Today, the Christmas tree remains iconic (though perhaps too often coopted by the over-commercialization of the holiday). The point of this post is to remind myself once again how simple forms can express complex, layered meanings while also being beautiful and joyful—a timely lesson for any dispirited, world-weary architect.

I hope everyone is enjoying this holiday season. Best wishes to all of you!