Hunt The Symbol
Charles Jencks (Charles Jencks)


Charles Jencks 1985

©Monica Pidgeon

What was symbolic architecture in the past? This is a question we must ask in looking at symbolic architecture today. In the Egyptian period, Egyptian pyramids were really, more than just everyday symbols, they were cosmic symbols. But like all great symbols in architecture, they united the everyday with the eternal. And really an Egyptian pyramid is the most potent architectural symbol probably ever designed. It's oriented north, south, east and west, and it's a very vivid symbol of life and death. It's between death, the desert and life, the Nile. And the Pharaoh would be buried there, facing the North Star, the star that never moved, and to his left would be ultimate death and to his right would be the morning sun. And that's how you get basically the geometry of a pyramid, the four-square geometry. Oriented to the very everyday things of Egypt, such as the Nile and plants that grow out of the Nile, and the morning sun and oriented also to the evening sun which represented in a very vivid way the gateway to death.


Egyptian Pyramids

©Charles Jencks

So if you look at the pyramid in any depth you find that it is a very powerful symbol because of its 4 square plan and its very simple shapes. If you look in more depth, you find that it has a kind of exact symbolism which makes it again a very profound and resonant one, what I'd call a multivalent symbol, that is to say, it's, on a fundamental level, a representation of the origination myth of the Egyptians. Egyptians believed that the world was a chaos, a watery chaos. And like the Nile which flooded every year, it was a vast sea of black indistinct, well, mud. And this mud which would come every year would bring life with it and as the waters receded, little islands would appear out of the mud and these had the shape of a primitive pyramid, or which you could call a primeval mound. And that primeval mound was worshipped by a stone called the Benben stone, and from that Benben stone the basic pyramidal shape came, just as you get it from allowing sand to fall from your fingers. And you can see then that the basic shape stems from these fundamental cosmic ideas. And this symbol was developed in a further way so that, as it was first built with stepped pyramids you got the metaphor or symbol of steps to the gods, and in the pyramid text you can read the very first idea of a Pharaoh with his people stepping up to heaven. And then the second symbol was one mentioned by Pliny the Elder when he says the obelisk is a petrified sunray. In that sense, the little pyramid at the top of a pyramid called the pyramidion, is another petrified sunray and again when the sun goes down, as you can see, you get a very vivid exact symbol of this meaning, the Sun God basically, Ra who is born and dies every day.

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