Angels in the Architecture

[For clarification: this post was written when this blog was named ‘Angels in the Architecture’]

Some of you may have wondered where the title of this blog comes from.  It does not (necessarily) refer to angels of the sculpted stone variety.

Paul Simon’s Graceland album was one of the soundtracks to my youth, played in the car on family holidays and later, when I learned to drive myself and would sing along loudly to my heart’s content.  I loved the cheerful quirky lyrics and bass guitar riffs coupled with the rhythmic harmonies provided by South African musicians including Ladysmith Black Mumbazo.  It’s music that makes you feel good and it easily remains my favourite album of all time.

And all of that before I knew anything of the fascinating story behind the making of the album.  Then last year I went to see a screening of Under African Skies in the Black Box in Belfast.  This documentary film combines footage from the original making of the Graceland album in 1984 with recent footage of Simon’s return to South Africa for a 25 year reunion tour.

Under African Skies Trailer: Includes a clip (at 1m45) where a band member describes hugging Paul Simon – it was his first time hugging a white man, and he was sure he would be sent straight to gaol for doing so.

The trailer doesn’t nearly do the documentary justice, but it gives you an idea.  The album was highly controversial at the time because it was seen to undermine the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa.  It is a powerful, touching story about music and its ability to unite people across all sorts of boundaries.  When the film ended I went straight into the ladies toilets and cried my eyes out where no-one could see me and think me an over-emotional eejit!  It profoundly moved me.

The words ‘Angels in the Architecture’ come from the last verse of the song ‘You Can Call me Al’, to which I’ve known and loved every word for as long as I can remember, without any clue or much thought about what the lyrics actually mean – they just sounded great, had a wonderful rhythm and painted delightful visual pictures of dogs in the moonlight, cattle in the marketplace, roly-ploy little bat-faced girls and such likes. (You should be able to play the video on the youtube link above when the trailer ends, if you like – at the time of posting it’s the middle one on the left, with a pink background.)

When my husband and I got married last December we had a Cabaret seisún in the evening during which many of our friends sang and played and read poems and told jokes.  Our very dear and gifted friend Peter McKinney kicked things off with a wonderful slam poem he had written for the occasion.  Being a fellow lover of the Graceland album, (indeed he was with us when we went to see Under African Skies), he worked that line into his poem, changing it to ‘Aisling in the Architecture’.  As a result, that particular line of Paul Simon’s song has taken on some additional personal meaning to me, causing me to ponder over what the line, and the song more broadly, might mean.  Paul Simon himself seems to have remained quiet on that front, but many different (highly imaginative and sometimes far-flung) interpretations by others can be found online, for example on  I won’t get into interpretations of the song’s meaning here, because I think part of its beauty is its openness to multiple readings.  I’ll just tell you what the expression ‘Angels in the Architecture’ has come to mean to me.

An angel in the architecture on Church House in Belfast. Great photo taken by 'Albert Bridge', and found on Wikimedia.

An angel in the architecture on Church House in Belfast. Great photo taken by ‘Albert Bridge’, and found on Wikimedia.

On an initial reading it might conjure images of beautiful cherubic sculptural detailing in classical buildings, ‘spinning in infinity’ as the next line of the song goes.  Even in that most literal sense it can be seen to be connecting architecture to a higher moral (or celestial) purpose.  Much like the expression, usually attributed to Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, that ‘God is in the Details’ (or the contradicting adage that it is, in fact, the devil who is in the details), it suggests a connection between ethics and aesthetics: if it looks good, it is good; if it depicts angels, it is angelic.  However that connection is one that I seek to debunk in my research (No, Wittgenstein, for me ethics and aesthetics are not one and the same!  Not in this sense, anyway.)

I prefer to consider the expression a metaphor.  Because I do believe that architecture, and by turns its architects, have the ability to do good, or otherwise.  But for me the angels in the architecture are not winged creatures or other beautiful details and careful ornamentation.  Rather, I see the angels as being the experiences and emotions and connections that architecture, at its best, can enrich and facilitate for those people who live their lives within and around it.  They can be something that architects deliberately design for, or they can happen just by chance, or as a result of the way people choose to use or adapt the building.  I’m particularly interested in how architects can design for such ‘angels’, because I know for sure it isn’t through shadow gaps or pilotis or cantilevers, as much as we architects might sometimes be guilty of fetishising them!

And so when it came to finding a title for a blog about my research and other thoughts on architecture and ethics and power and the world, there could be no more fitting title than this one, which pays tribute to an artist I admire, to a work he produced that built connection and negotiated difference in another contested territory (South Africa), and to the ethical possibilities of architecture.  That is why I have called this blog ‘Angels in the Architecture’.

I strongly urge you to buy the 25 year anniversary Graceland album, which comes with a free copy of this incredible documentary.  Watch it with the sound turned up, listen to the album (on repeat), and form your own interpretations of his songs, and your own opinion on whether he was right or wrong to go to South Africa in 1984 and make that album in the midst of apartheid.


7 Comments on “Angels in the Architecture”

  1. paulbower says:

    Fascinating Aisling! Have you watched Wim Wender’s film ‘Wings of Desire’? it’s a personal favourite. It is a film about condemned ‘angels’, sentenced to co-habit and listen to the minds of a divided population in Berlin (pre-1989) Wender’s film is also done in such a way to have multiple meanings and possible interpretations. I happened to watch it for the first time when I first came to Belfast in 2005. I try to watch it at least once a year.

  2. paulbower says:

    One last thing – you may have already read this. But Jeremy Till in 1995, called architects ‘angels with dirty faces’ May be useful?

    Jeremy Till, ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, Scroope, University of Cambridge, vol. 7, 1995, pp. 14-

    • Thanks for your comments, Paul. I’ve not seen that film, it sounds intriguing. I’m not sure I’m convinced by the idea that architects themselves could be the angels in the architecture, no matter how dirty their faces, but I’ll keep an open mind until I’ve read Till’s paper!

      • paulbower says:

        I share your concern. But, I think Till refers to Wender’s ‘angels’ when making a case for rethinking/rereading of practice:

        “Architects are possessors of both specialised knowledge and conditioned,
        evolving, understanding as they move between the roles of expert and user – because
        we are all users in the end as well. It is an acknowledgement of this combination of
        knowledge and understanding that is central to any reformulation of practice which
        has the potential to empower the user. I have previously suggested the figure of
        architects as ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ – a figure which oscillates between retreat
        and engagement in the world; in the endless flux these angels dissolve the futile and
        static oppositions of dialectical thinking. Instead they are androgynous dreamers of
        worlds full of flaws and contingencies, at times hovering like light doves, at others
        returning to grounded messy experiences. With feet on the ground, these angels evade
        the delusions of utopia, but as sceptical optimists they never succumb to Tafurian
        despair in the face of other forces. The knowledge of such angels is constantly
        mediated by common experience and this, in its impurity and restlessness, is not seen
        as a threatening imposition but as a productive force of change.”

        Taken from:

  3. […] of bad jokes and a musical intro extracted from Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al (see previous post) and that just about sums up my ‘set’.  Admittedly the musical intro seemed like a great idea […]

  4. macdubh says:

    “Angels in the Architecture” refers to the great gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe. A good example is York Minster. These were built with very slender internal pillars and the good people that attended could not believe that these would support such a massive and tall structure. The priests ((who could not, or would not) understand, preached that there were “Angels” in the “Architecture” holding the whole thing up. Now, of course, the craftsmen (masons) who built the structures had developed the “flying buttress”, which is external. They also knew about the “capstone” which the romans (“what have they ever given us?”) had designed to build arches.

    Of course names of the masons, craftsmen and labourers have been lost to history. Instead, for instance, in the case of York Minster, we have a litany of the priestly class who did sweet FA.

    The masons knew the truth which is why there is enmity with the church of rome.

    Alan Garner wrote eloquently on this

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