Looking at “Upside Dome” by Gijs Van Vaerenbergh, installed inside the St. Michiel Church in Leuven, Belgium, is like seeing the underlying geometric logic of Western space bleed through from a hidden dimension.
The project was at least partially inspired, the architects write, by their recognition that the church itself actually has no dome: their intervention “takes this seemingly trivial fact as a starting point and generate[s] the missing dome in a remarkable way.”
Using the design technique of the catenary, a new structure emerges in the church. The Upside Dome is a real size scale model, comprised of hundreds of meters of chain, which is literally and figuratively the counterpart of the unfinished dome.
Abstract, bulbous, heavy with itself, this network of chains thus forms an inverted counter-dome—a reflective surrogate, a back-to-front double, an upside dome—inside the nave.
The actual installation shots are pretty cool, as well: glimpses of the church’s innards—its otherwise unseen attics and backspaces—complete with long chains dropped down from above.
The final result is both model and realization, then, simultaneously a demonstration and the final product.
In a sense, the geometry of gravity itself collides with the ornamental excess of Baroque architecture in a surprisingly appropriate and optically interesting way: the installation suggests a kind of minimalist Baroque, where emerging nests of curved surfaces take shape, mocking and repeating the logic of the buildings around it.
Way back in March 2005, meanwhile, I caught a lecture by architect Mark Goulthorpe at the University of Pennsylvania, where he demonstrated a piece of software that I believe had been produced in-house at his firm; it allowed the architect to model the hanging of chains in virtual catenary curves, and thus to generate a huge variety of possible architectural shapes for future projects. He produced, with the click of a mouse, live there in the lecture hall, new species of curves in space.
But the method of analog calculation seen in “Upside Dome“—that is, drooping pieces of chain or string through space until they stabilize—gives force and form to gravity and to the potential architecture tucked away in empty space.