The Kalima translation project, affiliated to the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), has published the first Arabic translation of the book entitled “Architecture, Mysticism and Myth: Sacred Geometry”. The book, considered a study on the architectural theory dating back to the late 19the century, was written by William Richard Lethaby. It was translated into Arabic by Dr Taha Abdul Aziz Al-Douri.
It is a unique book in its presentation of the aesthetical expression that still radiates with its warmth and colors about the architectural theory. The book presents something unique and deep of the age it covers, and still attracts interested people and researchers. The book leads into a renewed inspiration, that is why it is enjoyable, and contemporary readers should read it and form an opinion about it. It includes many things that sharpen the mind and are linked to the scarcity of resources, ambiguity of the roots of the past, and the cutting off of relations we are living through now.
Lethaby explains in “Architecture, Mysticism and Myth: Sacred Geometry” that architecture and construction are different from each other, indeed completely separate, even though architecture was part of parcel of the construction, like soul and flesh. This idea is the key to Lethaby’s book that is distinctive in its presentation of the architectural theory, through the proposition of a comprehensive logic across time and space that began at the dawn of aesthetic expression in the late 19th century and beyond. The book is distinguished by having an ambitious spirit associated with its concept of the theory out of the spark of the flames of human thought. It extracts from that ambitious soul things that illuminate expressionist features and aesthetic features in the Victorian times, when the author lived. It simultaneously tries to shed light on other practices with the same illumination through soft criticism that was consistent with the spirit of the era that saw the revival in the evaluation ofthe expression sources and origins of human thought.
Unlike the philosophical principle in assessing the sources of thought, Lethaby, who had professional architectural background, was distinguished by having a vision that transcended the boundaries of countries, beliefs and ages with apparent smoothness and balance. He distanced himself from the pure philosophy as well as the building techniques and crafts and moved to blend the research-based documentation with the suspense of myth and anecdote in a system that includes a lot of things enjoying the appeal of mystery and wide imagination. What increases the diversity of the text and its suitability to various categories of readers from the interested ordinary people to the researchers is that fact that Lethaby is an architect and a builder, whose knowledge of the details appears in the formation insights and ability to explain structural features or functional logic as required.
The book’s chapters (12 chapters) have a sequence presenting architectural symbols that were repeatedly mentioned in similar contexts and the author suggests they are originally the same despite the different setting, circumstances and methods of construction.
Following an introduction that raises the need for aesthetic expression for the stability of self, and the relationship between architecture and building - like the relationship between spirit and soul as mentioned above, the first chapter deals with the traditional and legendary models of what the author calls “the fabric of the world”, which is the structural system through which the sky goes above the earth and the sky is linked to it. This is followed by addressing the expression of these cosmic developments through the role of Buddhist worship places and early temples that were built on construction methods borrowed from traditional perceptions of the relationship between the sky and earth. An example for that are the domes above a circular place of worship, which is the typical construction of the "Stupa", the Buddhist traditional temple with its relatively small size and introvert structure that is based on the place of worship under the dome, in reference to the central deity in the sky. These perceptions of the universe serve as a focal point for the following chapters that put forward examples of architectural expression for the relationship between building and the four different directions in the different sites and circumstances. Such architectural expression discusses the relevance between the role of worship places and well-established rules that explains the reasons for the choice of the construction site in proportion to the movement of the sun and route of the moon.
After demonstrating the significance of the four directions, an intellectual and spiritual center of the inhabited world is specified. Lethaby puts forward Jerusalem as a recognized center, although his presentation of this tradition is more of cumulative knowledge not based on a unified intellectual reference or foundation linked to specific time or intellectual school.
The following chapters goes deep into exploring symbols derived from nature or similar to natural assets that have appeared in the architectural expression to imitate universal things in the context of the built environment.
He began with the tree bearing the precious stones, which is mainly a tree of a precious metal such as gold or silver, whose branches have been decorated with diamonds and rubies, emeralds, onyx, fruit that means life. The tree in its details combines the beauty of the appearance and splendor of the universe. This happens when melody is sung and the breeze infiltrates its branches, teasing its mineral leaves and rocky crystal fruits. Here, the metal ring is mixed with the crystal in cacophony of tunes, color and reflection of light that captivates senses.
The book highlights a move from the tree of life to the orbits of the planets and the relevant astronomical meanings and architectural designs that interpreted the repeated appearance of the planets and their reflections in the ancient buildings. In this point, Letharby discusses the similar forms of representation and their meanings from one place to another and from one country to another. He then moves from the paths of planets to the labyrinth that has been mentioned on a wide scale since the ancient Greek mythology and the idea of death in the arms of the bull man, who lived in the cellars of the Palace of Knossos in Crete. The bull man left numerous victims, until love defeated his legend, when Ariadne the smart lover give the end of the thread to brave Theseus, thus bestowing her intelligence and warmth of her passion on the championship and courage of Theseus. He then fought the bull man and defeated him, to find his way to light and freedom, and the heart of Ariadne at the other end of the thread. The labyrinth continues in the cathedrals of the Middle Ages as proof of the affiliation of the architects who designed these cathedral and priests who sponsored the building with the support and money of the church, until these labyrinths had become land to walk and play in the gardens of palaces of the Renaissance and beyond, carrying in its course a microcosm of the features of adventure and the potential loss that exists in the universe.
Lethaby then makes another reference to the sky and the planets in the architectural expression, through the sun’s ascending the gates of temples and palaces in the golden sun’s gates, including the symbols shown in the eighth chapter. The last four chapters show cosmic symbols that strongly exist in this world, such as the sea and the sky as sources of inspiration for masterpieces of architecture and human history that describes them. An example is the description of Suleiman tiles of the flour that in their serenity and refinement resembled the surface of water, that is why Queen of Sheba lifted her dress as she thought it would sink in water. He also presents a picture of the starry sky in the temples of the ancient Egyptians. Letharby presents various representations of the sky with the appropriate color and shape such as drawing stars on the ceiling or in metaphorical forms, such as painting a woman with her body extended to cover the wall and the ceiling and down to the opposite wall.
William Richard Lethaby was born in Barnstaple in 1857. After spending a period of training in the office of a local architect, he had moved to London in 1879. At the time, he was destined to meet with John Ruskin and William Morris to become a man of consequence in the movement of arts and crafts. He was appointed in 1896 co-director of the then newly-established Central School of Arts and Crafts. By the 1900, Letharby became the first professor of design at the Royal College of Art. Between 1906 and 1928, he worked as a surveyor at Westminster Abbey. He gained fame as a very important figure in the development of the English architecture through the theory of architecture and its ideas rather than construction.
The book translator is Dr Taha Abdul Aziz Al-Douri, who has obtained a PhD in architecture and specialized in history, theory and criticism from the University of Pennsylvania under the supervision of great scholar Joseph Rikurt. He contributed to the design and construction of the health care institutions in New York for about ten years before moving to the UAE as a visiting professor in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Sharjah. He then worked as an assistant professor of interior design at the American University in Dubai, and then an associate professor and administrator at NYIT in Abu Dhabi. Dr Al-Douri has many interests including media, cinema, plastic arts and his artistic works had been displayed in New York, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.