Ancient Colophon

I’m reading Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World. He writes about Colophon, a mythical Greek city presently occupied and desecrated by hostile forces who have obliterated ancient Colophon with “high-rise towers devoted to the inscrutable bureaucracy” of the new forces and this has oppressive spiritual and physical domination has “replaced the free life of the Greek polis.” Archeanassa, a survivor of the ancient Colophon, is asked by a young woman to explain “how the old city of Colophon was built”. Here’s a bit of Archeanassa’s response:

Now there is much to be learned from gardens, and especially from gardens of the kind that I am describing. In such places the plants, buildings, and furniture have no special use. There is a purpose to the farmer’s fields and the merchant’s storehouse, but not to the lawns and statues in a garden. Each object is there for no purpose but itself. And we too, when we visit the precinct, leave our purposes behind. We wander in the shade, refresh our spirits with the sight of clear water sparkling over amber stones, and listen to the birds as they sing above us. And all for no purpose other than our delight in these things. Moreover, the garden is a social place. People cross each other’s path, fall into conversation, perhaps play games together or sit side by side at peace. And these ways of being in a garden are of peculiar significance, Perictione; for they too are free from purpose. People in a garden are beyond purpose, in a side-by-sideness that is also an alertness to the world …

There, in our municipal garden, we were at peace with each other and the world. And it is from peace that the city was built. …

And perhaps this is what I most dislike in this Colophon of yours—that it has no streets. Oh, I grant you, there are thoroughfares and boulevards, carved through the city like swathes through a field of corn. But these thoroughfares are not lined by houses standing side by side and leaning against each other. They are not overseen by dwellings, and their borders are not thresholds between public and private space.

Nothing stands along them in a posture of repose, and even the air above them is lashed and torn by wires.

To my way of thinking a true street is like a garden—not a means but an end. It is a place where you linger and take stock; where you meet and converse; where you stand beside objects that stand beside you. The new thoroughfare is not an end but a means: it is a conduit from one place to another. The buildings that occur along its edges are merely dumped there, offending both earth and sky by their inability to connect to either.

No sooner did houses arise in ancient Colophon, than streets arose along with them. For those old houses stood side by side, facing in the same direction. And people stood at the gates conversing. Soon, in front of each row of houses, a public space came into being, a space that was every bit as consecrated as the garden beside the temple. The citizens, in order to express their pride in the city, and to mark out the land not as mine or yours or his, but as ours, began to provide this public space with furnishings. They paved it with cobbles, lined it on each side with flagstones of polished slate, and erected little shrines of porphyry or marble, in order that the gods should be at home there, which was the home of everyone. Those streets stitched the town together, and provided arteries through which its life could flow. And so pleased were the Colophonians with their appearance that they discussed in the assembly how best to conserve them, and how to ensure that this public space should remain always ours, and never his or hers.

But I have not identified the real difference between ancient and modern Colophon, or the real way in which we shape and are shaped by our buildings. These things cannot be understood, it seems to me, in secular terms. Our architecture derives from the temple, for the reason that the city derives from its god. The stone of the temple is the earthly translation of the god’s immortality, which is in turn the symbol of a community and its will to live. The temple, like the liturgy, is forever, and the community contains not the living only, but also the dead and the unborn. And the dead are protected by the temple, which immortalizes them in stone. This is what you understand instinctively, when you see religious architecture. And it is the sentiment from which cities grow—the tribe’s will to permanence…

Everything we build can be built with a spirit that is at least friendly toward the sacred and transcendent. In other words, we can build in such a way that human structures are not purely instrumental and utilitarian, but are instead places that allow human beings to encounter one another and build community in unanticipated and organic ways, and even recognize themselves as members of a community in time.