Bricks • Mortar • Imagination • Words

The Texts - Rosa Ainley

A trick of the light

She told me, 'It's for anything special.' But she was wrong. It's for the sacred and the everyday. It's for custom and revelation and this is where the two meet, between the altar and the stage, and entrance is between the two. The sacred may be the most important function of Orchard House but it isn't the most frequent use. Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) has it that an essential part of any religious system is the absolute polarity of sacred and profane. Here in this building designed for the worlds of the spirit and the senses to meet, altar and stage face each other, part of the same space - or at opposite ends of the room, if you prefer.

This is what it's not: it's not a church (but it is sacred and a place of congregation), it's not a barn (but it is a reworking of one). It's an outhouse, a permanent marquee, a decorative shelter, a pavilion of cedar and oak flying its colours, a boat aground and overturned, a giant birdcage skeleton. This is what it is: hall theatre meeting room gym sacred space garden room community centre living room

Nutley Hall, the main house, the Victorian mothership, overlooks Orchard House from a vantage point above. Its loud red-brick and cross gables, its imposing chimneys shout volumes. It's all sharpness and angle; Orchard House is flatter, softer, speaks another language (probably several and not all of them verbal). But inside Nutley Hall is cool and airy. It's painted - in my mind's eye though not in fact - in modish indistinct sea colours of mist and vapour. It's almost unimaginable that everything that happens in Orchard House used to happen there: celebration performance festival concert party discussion service exhibition conference recording session dancing presentation demonstration orchestra fete eurythmy ceremony talk social gathering meal play

In Orchard House the rigours of frame and acoustically lined-up timber come together in softness and curve and round. It's not arch or elegant or flagship, though it certainly makes its own statement about modesty and majesty. It's easy with itself, it's come into being with its sharp edges already rubbed off. This is a building that's about weathering, acquiring the patina of age. It's not a shiny new - it's a glow of fitness and use.

Orchard House grew from the question: 'What's the need?' This is the vision and the answer, 12 years on: a group building that reflects everyone's wish, or so they all say. A common purpose makes a shared vision. But if you're looking for a suspicion of dissent, even consensus fits the bill. It's inarguable: circular logic even, now that it exists. That's the tension-contradiction.

Here's another tension to ponder: strength-softness. The delicate spines of the carcass frame its display, lightly holding and supporting. The ribs of the substructure cut through the parallels of the timber making segments out of the sections between the ceiling struts. They bulge outwards like grapefruit segments, giving two dimensions the appearance of three. Tightly measured precisions work for immeasurable, uncertain effect. Materials and structural forms have their own eloquence; wood purrs, but does concrete talk? 1 Soft forms emerge from fine geometries and hard numbers.

There are seven pillars of wisdom, seven colours in the spectrum; lots of fives in the Judaeo-Christian tradition: Jesus's wounds on the cross, points of the Star in the East, books of the Jewish Pentateuch, and five senses; four dimensions; and the threes of the Christian trinity and the Steiner doctrine: willing thinking feeling. Orchard House is based on the five-sided pentagon, a most ancient and powerful symbol. Steiner, with an interest in how the body reads and reacts to geometry, believed that the pentagon was the most dynamic, natural human form. 2The Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio believed the basis of architectural harmony was found in the proportions of the human body, and Leonardo da Vinci's ubiquitous drawing of his ideas can be read as outlining a pentagon. These systems of proportion and dimension, along with the Fibonacci sequence are linked by the Golden Section or Divine Proportion, all of them bringing a measure of order and meaning to the chaos of existence that religious belief tries so hard to tame.

Built forms of the workings of power are often underpinned by geometry, just as the forms of temples and churches are dictated by it, just as the geometry of the pentagon underpins the design of Orchard House in both section and plan. So we're back, caught between the altar and the stage joined in space by spectacle and performance.

1The speed of sound in soft wood (3.350 m/s) is remarkably similar to that in concrete (3.400 m/s).

2Extending the sides of a pentagon until they meet forms the pentagram, the five-pointed star-shaped figure (also known as the pentangle, pentacle and wizard's foot), first mentioned in relation to nature worship in Mesopotamian writings, c3500 BC. Now popularly associated with the Black Mass it is often cited as a talisman against witchcraft and supposed to typify the five senses. Although the RC church is credited with smearing it as a symbol of devil worship in an attempt to convert pagan believers, the efficacy of the pentagram may be due to it being a symbol of the trinity since it resolves into three triangles. Perhaps the use of this powerfully dual-natured symbol figures in Steiner's much-disputed reputation as both charismatic mystic and dabbler in the masonic and the occult.

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