Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Gateposts in Brittany

(More pics that I thought were lost.)

Architects use the term 'characters' for building elements that have an individual presence and are experienced as entities in themselves as well as for the part in the building as a whole. The gateposts of farms in Brittany are plausibly regarded as characters; you almost feel you should shake hands with them as you enter.

Partly it's their obvious human form: upright, freestanding, with distinguishable body and head (or at least separate top components; it doesn't do to push the analogy to the point of saying it's the ball or the entire upper thing that's the head. One could argue, equally, that the whole top is a body and a head, and the main column below just a plinth). Gateposts, I suppose, are columns, which on Greek temples had been sculptures and before that, in one theory, actual captives. (I've been meaning for years to read -- or at least look at -- Joseph Rykwert's classic, The Dancing Column.)

As they stand there confident in their unmistakeable form they seem to have a secret. They read as enigmas, as signs of something. They know something we don't. (Some gateposts in a London park in a photograph in Iain Sinclair's Lights Out for the Territory give me the same feeling.)

Irrespective on any heraldic significance the motifs may have (rope, ball), the number and configuration of the layers of the complex top clearly conform to some model of propriety. There would be a right way of doing it. Behind the shaping of the gatepost is some social order that knows what it's doing.

Clothing and hair styles in modern urban subcultures have the same effect. In the '60s Mod the width and shape of lapels, the length of hair on the neck, the size of the tie knot, the presence or absence of a shirt pocket collectively struck one as having a meaning: they were manifestations of some secret of life to which I had no access. Hence the confident self-sufficiency of his bearing.

The gateposts, by the way, are often double like this in Brittany. The gap between the pair of posts was obviously for people to walk through when the gate (now long gone -- these aren't working farms any more) was closed, but we never found out what that strange sill was for that you see in the top photo. It wouldn't keep cattle out or dogs or foxes or rats. Snakes, perhaps, adders being a problem in those parts?

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