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Exploring the way

Graduation work by Pim Lucassen

With the retreat of religion from the public domain the popularity of pilgrimage is increasing. A new and more pluralised spirituality is arising, but current religious infrastructure does not seem flexible enough to cope with this change. Through a phenomenological exploration of the experience and landscape of the Camino de Santiago this thesis aims to facilitate a new spirituality through design interventions along the route.

The framework for a new spirituality

Throughout history pilgrimage has been regarded as a relatively individual form of devotion, consisting of a journey and destination. The open and pluralistic character of pilgrimage provided a framework to adopt the new workings and motivations of changing spirituality in Europe.Through the division in destination and journey the pilgrimage landscape encompasses both the local, fixed, and self-contained space of the destination, and the more fluid and landscapes of the journey. Together, the total landscape is able, through motion, to transcend these elements in the geographical space to form a body of surfaces with multiple inscriptions that build up over time and mark the presence of different cultural groups: the collection of religious infrastructure. The challenge is to find an adequate spatial representation of this infrastructure in current times.

Being the most geographical form of devotion there exists little knowledge on how to design on pilgrimage landscapes from a landscape architectural point of view. The landscape is essential to the experience of pilgrimage and pilgrimage landscapes are more susceptible to experiences of spirituality and religion. In this design-research the case of the Camino de Santiago was subjected to two phenomenological methods; one including a first-person experience of me walking the route and the other a study of other pilgrim’s experiences. Through a landscape- and diary analysis, aided by an elaboration on rites de passage, it was found that the Camino’s landscape types overlap with the experiential structure of the pilgrimage.

Beyond the landscape of pilgrimage

The Camino de Santiago starts beyond the Pyrenees where the French routes from Paris, Vezelay and Le Puy join up (figure 1). The landscape of the Camino de Santiago can be divided in five parts from east to west: the Pyrenees and its foothills, the rolling vineyards of La Rioja, the Meseta of Castilla y León, the Montes de León and the Sierras de Galicia, and the green interior of Galicia (figure 2).

Figure 1: The Camino de Santiago and its Spanish branches

Figure 2: The five landscapes of the Camino de Santiago

However, the landscape that I have been speaking of does not exist only on maps. The fact is that the majority of what this landscape is made of is hiding in the memories and the texts of pilgrims. To gain a deeper understanding of the pilgrimage landscape it is necessary to become part of the legacy and to embed oneself as a pilgrim. There are values to be gained through a personal experience of the landscape and the phenomenon that in the end make it worth designing on it.

After a diary-analysis on the environmental, physical, social, mental, and spiritual aspects, my pilgrimage could be divided in four stages. My experience follows a linear course during which I grow into the values, customs, and rhythms that belong to the temporal identity of a pilgrim. The journey follows a similar stage-like course as described in the rites de passage (figure 3). Applicable to almost all rituals this theory divides rituals in three parts; separation, limen and aggregation. Especially apparent in the pilgrimage-ritual there is an overlap to be discovered not only between my personal and other pilgrim’s experience, but also between the general experience of pilgrimage and the landscapes of the Camino de Santiago. Putting together these elements, a grand story can be formed.

Figure 3: Rites de passage explained

Where experience meets landscape

Within this grand story, the pilgrim is, much like the postmodernity’s flexible approach to religion, able to ‘shop around’ on a smaller and more personal scale. This approach posits the creation of several small scale interventions along the route. Within the framework of interventions the dialogue between modern and traditional, apparent within the concept of critical regionalism, can be used to bridge the differences between the regions while keeping a recognisable style for the pilgrim.

The interventions are called stations. The stations, which take the form of a rest area, viewpoint or retreat, do not propagate a distinctly Christian message or experience like the old religious infrastructure did. Instead they propagate events, experiences or messages that can be interpreted in multiple ways, but always have their basis in the common rites de passage of pilgrimage. I chose places based on my own experience, to form a guide for the future pilgrim. The stations represent where experience and landscape could, but not necessarily should, meet.

Figure 4: The nine stations in the grand story the Camino de Santiago

A station revealed

The nine stations are used to empower unique experiences and strengthen the existing larger landscape- and experiential structures (figure 4). Shown in detail is the fourth station: On the Stage. On the Camino’s middle section (limen), on the high plateau, the walking motion is becoming a habit. With forward motion achieved, space is freed to engage the challenge mentally. In the open space the elements have free play; the pilgrim is reduced to a pawn on the playing field, an actor on the stage of pilgrimage. The flat landscape and the road ahead is a stage and everybody on it is engaged in the play, one can see others suffer, resist or radiate of joy. Here, everybody is living their own scene. This initiation holds no secrets but the ones locked inside the individual pilgrim’s head:

Figure 5: On the verge of flying

“With the row of tall poplars the straight path passed one of the few perpendicular elements in the landscape. Hardly noticeable in the perpetual motion the path slowly slopes upwards. I have put my walking pole in the back of my neck. Instead of resisting the gusts of wind I allow them to have free play. With my arms dangling over the pole the wind sweeps me back and forward, pushing and pulling me as the path rises (figure 5). I am longing to take a rest in the nearby village, hidden from view. I wonder if the upcoming hill will provide the comforting view of some houses. Up the slope and nearing its summit the wind seemed to lift me up even more. Getting closer to the edge of the horizon I am overwhelmed by a sensation of flying. As I seemingly fly over the edge, views open up and a village is nowhere to be seen.”

The station consists of a single wall along the edge of the path (figure 6).

Figure 6: A slim line

The wall-form strengthens the feeling of being on a stage. On top of the concrete base the basic form is constructed of layers of rammed earth blocks; a construction style indigenous to the area called tapial (figure 7).

Figure 7: Tapial and the wall’s details

Walking alongside the wall strengthens the sensation of going upwards (figure 8). With the wall becoming ever more lower the tension builds up to the moment when the sensation of flying is achieved.

Figure 8: The shape of a wall

In the hot summers pilgrims can find shade around its base and in winter the thick clay (barrio) walls can share the warmth of the sparse sun with the pilgrim. Adding to the element of flying the concrete capping allows swallows to build their nests underneath the wide ledge (figure 9). From afar the smooth, layered wall is hardly visible as its slim section blends into the straight line.

Figure 9: Sharing the stage

The grand story is everywhere, but the individual differs

In the end, through following the common thread of the pilgrim’s experience of landscape and pilgrimage a design is reached that both accommodates new spirituality and serves local embeddedness. With pilgrimage being an instrument t, treating them as equals, and opening physical and mental portals to whoever may partake, it is important to treat design on the route in an equal way. Through its open-ended character visitors are easily able to accept, ignore or relativize the design and their particular experience of pilgrimage and landscape.

The pilgrimage landscape of the Camino de Santiago is as diverse as the many pilgrims that walk it. However, as for the pilgrimage ritual, the process of designing on a pilgrimage landscape can be subjected to some general steps: identifying the existing vernacular landscape, the experience of the ritual and landscape, and the common grounds in the ritual and landscape. So, the particular case may be unique, but the process does not necessarily have to. In this way the design and research process that was applied here can also be used in other cases.

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