Herbert Wright looks at some of the weird and wonderful architectures and structures – described or visualised by prophets, writers, artists, poets and filmmakers – with which we have tried over the centuries to picture what – if anything – comes next, after we shuffle off this mortal coil.
If we re-awaken after we die, what shall we see? If the afterlife brings us to some alternative para-reality, then what of its architecture? Architects have long designed for death with mausoleums and cemeteries, but these are earthly constructions. Admittedly, some tombs have in-built provisions for the afterlife. In Ancient Egypt, for example, it was common to be buried with possessions from one’s Earthly life, but also – in the case of pharaohs – with a boat to navigate the river and twelve gates of the underworld that needed to be passed through. Mexican drug lords similarly tend to stock their ornate mausoleums with luxuries, as if they expect to re-awaken to a high-life after death. But to find a structure that actually leaves this life for what’s beyond is another speculative matter entirely.
Stairway to Heaven
Jacob’s Ladder is perhaps a good starting point. The Old Testament book of Genesis says the ladder to Heaven came to Jacob in a dream. That’s also where the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe later aspired to reach, with their soaring stonework and the very shape of their upward-pointing arches. The last such English cathedral, Bath Abbey (rebuilt from 1500), goes further – on either side of the entrance are stone ladders, like great vertical louvred strips, with statues of angels climbing them. It was the Bishop, Oliver King’s dreams made solid.
Bath was also where Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang first tried to realise his own heavenward dream in 1994, with his work Sky Ladder, in which a hot air balloon was used to pull up 500 metres of ladder. Wind defeated him. In 2001, he was set to repeat his attempt in Los Angeles, but then all flights were grounded after 9/11. It was only in in June 2015 that he finally succeeded, in his hometown of Quanzhou, with fireworks lighting up his Sky Ladder in the early morning twilight.
William Blake transitioned the ladder into a Stairway to Heaven, in his watercolour Jacob’s Dream (circa 1800). Peopled by women, some with angel wings, it twists towards a heavenly radiance, like the passage towards light that people recall seeing in near-death experiences. That brings us to A Matter Of Life and Death, the 1946 British film in which a downed airman, played by David Niven, finds himself on the Stairway To Heaven (the film’s title in the USA, although directors Powell and Pressburger actually denied any direct heavenly reference).
In the film, this stairway has become an ascending escalator, flanked on one side by massive statues of historical figures, the only spatial markers along its seemingly infinite length.
Artist David McKraken’s Diminish and Ascend (2013), on the other hand, comes to a pointy end. The installation at Bondi Beach, Sydney strips back the staircase to a minimum (with Heaven indeed potentially accessible should one overstep its last tread).
The popular idea of Heaven floating on clouds, is something still echoed in structures from Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud City and Tiago Barros Studio’s Passing Cloud (both 2011) and even in NASA’s HAVOC mission visualisation, suspended high above the Hell of Venus’ blistering 462°C surface. Heaven’s clouds, however, support God’s throne, quintessentially portrayed by Victorian artist John Martin in his epic series of paintings Heaven and Hell from the 1850s.
Martin had more heavenly detail to offer in other works. In The Courts of God (1825), beyond a vast rectangular lake bounded by colonnades of Egyptian columns, gleams a great neo-classical citadel of domes and towers (and in one version, a minaret). A Matter of Life and Death meanwhile gives Heaven a distinctly modernist update, particularly with its view from beneath a plane perforated with great circles through which people look down into the darkness (not unlike SANAA’s Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne).
Both those visions portray a place of judgement, which might end with a one-way ticket to the other place, usually located underground. In Wilfred Owen’s First World War poem Strange Meeting (1918) he meets a soldier he has killed. The location is “down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped/ Through granites which titanic wars had groined”, where “no blood reached there from the upper ground/ And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan”. He recognised it as Hell.
The subterranean structure of Hell is described by Dante in his Inferno, written 700 years ago. Dante is guided by the poet Virgil down through the Nine Circles of Hell, implying detail about its architecture. This has provided a blueprint for Hell to be visualised, from Botticelli’s 1480s map to Infografika’s contemporary colourful schematic in which the journey starts at a metro stop rather than “a dark wood”.
We even have the equivalent of a rendering of the Sixth Circle’s City of Dis in Stradano (Jan van der Straet)’s late sixteenth century drawing (along with a fine series of pictures of the miserable souls down there). Another Flemish master, Hieronymous Bosch – and his many followers – produced some of the best-known represents of Hell in paint, like Christ’s Descent into Hell painted by an anonymous follower in the 1560s. It’s a fiery place dotted with Flemish buildings, and a variation on one of Bosch’s great organic architectural innovations: a face as inhabitable structure.
Herbert Wright is an architectural journalist and historian, author and art critic based in London.
Dante’s deepest level was not fiery, but an icy place where Satan is bound. And his first circle was Limbo. Contemporary limbos are often the familiar world, with the architecture the same and the afterlife seemingly real but unresolved and strange, as in the TV drama Life On Mars or Jens Lien’s film The Bothersome Man (2006).
The Irish writer Brian O’Nolan, under nom-de-plume Flann O’Brien, sets his Third Policeman (1940) in a surrealistic rural Ireland, and has an interesting architectural offering: a police station that is almost impossible to find, because it is hidden within the walls of a house that appears quite ordinary both inside and out.
But from Limbo, there may be escape to another afterlife. In Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the astronaut Bowman is placed in the limbo of a simulated hotel room, before ultimate rebirth as a Star-Child.
The set, designed by John Barry, is a hotel room with faux-baroque panelling and furniture, and a luminous gridded floor. Here the ultimate architect is represented by the presence in the room of the black monolith. Time jumps in silence here. You are helpless. Perhaps, if Heaven and its eternity exists, it is like this... without any follow-up. I