Rites of intent: the participatory dimension of the city

Temple, Nicholas (2014) Rites of intent: the participatory dimension of the city. In: Cityscapes in history: creating the urban experience. Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey, pp. 155-177. ISBN 9781409439592


The study of ritual in architecture has recently attracted renewed interest by anthropologists and architectural historians. This attention, no doubt, has been partly a response to a growing recognition of the importance of ritualized space in deepening our knowledge of cultural practices and belief structures. Important questions inevitably arise from such enquiries about the role architecture has played historically in shaping, even defining, ritual itineraries. Perhaps the most familiar question is the following: to what extent can architecture be understood as ‘frozen ritual’? Or to put it another way, when certain religious or civic ceremonies are no longer performed, but their architectural and iconographic legacies remain, can these physical and visual references serve as repositories of the earlier rituals, which can in turn be made legible in some way? The question could be likened to an analogous argument that certain period instruments preserve their own musical traditions and heritage, even when that music is no longer performed.

In this study I do not aim to address this question directly but rather to examine a broader related issue concerning what knowledge and understanding we can gain from examples of the past when considering the question of ritual space today. My reliance here on a comparative method of investigation, to elicit the key aspects of ritual space, draws inspiration from Lindsay Jones’s seminal study of ritual in sacred architecture. The intention of this hermeneutical enquiry is to draw upon examples from the period of Early Christianity to explore the idea of a syncretic ‘morphological pattern’ of ritual architecture, not, however, in the sense of the stylistic or formal characteristics of a building, but rather in the inter-relationships between spaces and the actions that take place within them. As Jones states, in the context of sacred architecture, a hermeneutical understanding of ritual space must ‘of necessity, be constituted (or problematized) in terms of what I term ritual-architectural events rather than in terms of static constructional entities’.

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