Monday, October 11, 2010

The Upside Dome

The Upside Dome in Leuven, Belgium by Gijs Van Vaerenbergh

Photographs are by Jeroen Verrecht.

Considered to be one of the seven wonders of Leuven in Belgium, Saint-Michael's Church is striking for its altar-like Baroque facade, designed by W. van Hees in the 17th century but restored in the years after World War II, for obvious reasons. As architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh point out, the impressive facade may enable one to overlook that the church doesn't have a dome. This omission is the inspiration for The Upside Dome on display in the church until the end of October.

Gijs Van Vaerenbergh have basically "generated the missing dome" via a suspension of hundreds of meters of chain at the crossing of the nave and the transept. If one looks up in this location, the typical situation is a concrete patch over the circular opening, as if the temporary cover has yet to be removed, revealing the missing dome above. It was not unusual for pre-industrial churches to be built in phases over the course of decades, if not centuries. Most famous is Brunelleschi's dome for the Duomo in Florence, Italy, designed and built in a competition after most of the church was done. In Leuven, for reasons I'm not certain, the dome was never built.

For the installation the designers utilize the technique of the catenary, "a curve assumed by a cord ... that hangs freely from two fixed points." In architecture the technique was most famously used by Antonion Gaudi for many of his designs, including the Sagrada Familia, still under construction. While Gaudi inverted his catenary curves to create spires, here the inverted dome is left hanging in the middle of the church space, drawing attention to itself but allowing views through the web of chains.

Unlike Leviathan Thot, Ernesto Neto's installation in Paris's Pantheon, The Upside Dome utlimately exists to reference something outside of itself, even though it actively engages the space. It speculates on the form of the missing dome; it focuses people's attention on the patched void over their heads; and it makes one confront the scale of the structure that might have been. An interesting byproduct of the non-intersecting catenary chains is the way the installation flattens into a lattice when seen from the side. As the images at left and below attest, that appearance is the prevalent one, given a weaker or stronger presence by manipulating the lighting in the space.