by Ralph White
One of the pleasures of creating programs at the Open Center in the 1980s, when we were still housed in our unforgettable original home at 83 Spring Street in Soho, was to bring presenters over from Europe to give us insight into topics that few Americans had addressed at that point. One of the most knowledgeable and gifted speakers from England was Keith Critchlow, professor of architecture at the Royal College of Art in London and a walking encyclopedia on all matters relating to Plato, sacred geometry and sacred architecture.
Those readers who remember the third floor on Spring Street will recall a long, narrow space with exposed brick walls and a wooden floor which could be adapted to events in numerous formats. On this occasion, Keith was speaking to a packed crowd so eager to acquire this rare knowledge that it threatened to spill on top of the looms left by a prior class in Navaho weaving. Our speaker’s theme, was the sacred architecture of the great Sufi mosques in Central Asia, in Samarkand, Bukhara and other fabled cities along the Silk Road. Many participants already knew something about the sacred proportions of Chartres Cathedral in France and the mystery school from which it emerged, but this was totally new material.
We gazed in wonder at the sheer beauty of these mosques, their perfect domes and arches, their exquisite minarets and tiled mosaics, and their uncanny ability to evoke a profound sense of the holy. Their perfection was, in fact, reminiscent of the Taj Mahal itself in India, and this is no coincidence as the most famous tomb in the world was built by a Moghul emperor whose culture originated centuries earlier in this part of Central Asia. It was the descendants of Babur, the founder of the Moghul Dynasty, who crossed the mountains and passes of Afghanistan to rule large parts of India for centuries and create such edifices as the Red Fort in Delhi where Sufi poetry festivals were held on many evenings at its ‘court of love,’ both spiritual and erotic.
Keith Critchlow, in his relaxed and unpretentious manner, took us through the way in which the influence of Ancient Greek architecture, geometry and the symbolic number had made its way to these remote regions of what is now Uzbekistan. He elucidated yet another link in the golden chain of sacred knowledge and left us all in awe. He showed the many ties between Western and Islamic culture going back centuries, and the humility with which the Sufi architects of the Silk Road had barely indicated their identities in a tiny and obscure part of their vast sacred buildings.
So once again, East met West, the ancient infused the modern, and part of the spectrum of lost knowledge was reconstituted downtown on Spring Street in that magical, narrow building that was the Open Center’s home for its first 25 years.
There is a special joy in finding spiritual connections between distant regions of the earth, and between different cultures and epochs. This has remained one of the Center’s core interests as we move into a multicultural world in which both our commonalities and our differences are celebrated. And we look back with pleasure on those illuminated nights in the Eighties when the veil of ignorance parted and we saw if only briefly, the underlying unity between all world religions.