BY ZACH MORTICE
Labyrinths and mazes are meandering ways to get from one place to another. As such, they’ve mostly been placed in the arena of baronial garden follies like topiary: trimmed hedges, a gazebo at its center, some ducks in a pond, and a high five once you’ve successfully traversed from point A to B. But author Francesca Tatarella has found that labyrinths’ persistence over time and their geographic pervasiveness are clues to a much deeper truth. In her book Labyrinths and Mazes: A Journey Through Art, Architecture, and Landscape (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016), she sees them as a set of existential questions we ask ourselves. “Labyrinths help us draw closer to mystery, and stave off the fear that the unknown creates in us,” she writes. “They deal with questions such as: Should I even start a journey if I don’t know where it will take me? Will I get lost if I head down an unknown path? And if I do get lost, will I be able to find my way back?”
By navigating a labyrinth’s contours and completing its choreographed rituals of movement, she believes we can master a small bit of our inner world, which can help us bring life’s ambient chaos to heel. “Traveling through a labyrinth or maze takes away its power,” Tatarella writes. “If I manage to overcome my fear and venture into the unknown, I will find my way to the exit and prove to myself and everyone else how brave I am.”
Tatarella’s loose historical survey picks up with preliterate cathedral pavers and dingy (but impressive) earthworks, before proceeding to the Renaissance, where the follies we recognize today emerge. Of course, contemporary artists have set about deconstructing the labyrinth design tradition with both materials and methods. Some of these are neo-primitivists, like Italo Lanfredini’s Labirinto di Arianna, a series of sculpted concrete spirals that is fewer than 30 years old, but looks more ancient than the hill on which it sits. One maze is made of chain-link fence that first appears transparent just inside its perimeter, but becomes more opaque as you enter farther into the labyrinth, and layers and layers of chain-link stand between you and freedom. Another, by the architecture and art studio Gijs Van Vaerenbergh in Belgium, boasts imposing 16-foot steel walls, but has spherical, dome-like sections cut away, where visitors periodically emerge into atriums and plazas. The artist Olaf Nicolai’s labyrinth uses the bright green broom bristles often used by foreign-born Paris sanitation workers as hedgerows for an installation in a park in an immigrant-heavy suburb of the city; it’s a way of questioning assumed notions of cultural ownership. And there’s an entire subgenre of mirror-walled labyrinths tailor-made for any pop-culture sociologist’s riff on fracturing media climates or narcissistic ennui.
There are many examples of using the fundamental landscape architecture act—planting—as a pure delineator of space, with varying amounts of abstraction or whimsy. (One maze dedicated to Jorge Luis Borges spells out the author’s name in its hornbeam hedges.) In a more dynamic landscape architecture labyrinth, the Dutch artist Lucien den Arend planted 200 white willows three feet apart. Over time, as the trees grow, they’ll crowd out and rearrange the navigable paths, creating what the artist calls a “labyrinth in motion.”
Tatarella took some time to chat with LAM about how labyrinths have changed in function and cultural expression over time, and how landscape architecture is the hinge between the form of a labyrinth and its fundamental spiritual purpose.
Mazes are meant to be difficult to navigate and a bit intimidating to enter. But did you tour any mazes that were inviting, fun, and taught you something new about the experience?
The steel maze in [Genk, Belgium] was more playful, even though the architecture is really quite aggressive. The space inside the labyrinth is such that every time you’re in a room or space, you perceive what’s going on around you because there are [spaces] where you can see through. It’s not important whether you can see the exit, or just another [section]. That makes it more playful and gives you a [sense] of curiosity. [It] works more as a wonderful machine of amusement. There’s always an element of playfulness, and the fact that you’re going to do something that awakes your senses, your curiosity, your intelligence.
Most of the labyrinths you look at are in Europe and North America, and geographically align with what you could call the Judeo-Christian world. Are there strong labyrinth traditions in other places?
It’s something that goes through the world, but it develops in very different ways from one place to another. The labyrinth was [adopted] by the Christian culture, but actually it existed before Christianity, especially in Northern Europe. In Africa, there are many [labyrinths], but these civilizations carved labyrinths on stones, [and] it’s very difficult to find them. Also, they’re not places; they don’t [create] something that interacts with the landscape. That’s why I decided not to put them in the book. Normally, Chinese and Japanese [cultures] have left labyrinths in their texts as a metaphor of some other experience of life, because Eastern culture is more metaphysical. They didn’t need to transpose the labyrinth into something built.
Why specifically did the Judeo-Christian world adopt the labyrinth as a symbol of its beliefs and worldview?
The Christian tradition needed to represent the journey of the Christian man on earth, a journey toward something else that comes after, [in a time when] education had not spread through the population. The labyrinth is a pure path, it’s nothing more, [and] that’s very direct symbolism. That’s why you find labyrinths in the pavements of churches, because it was a very direct analogy to what they were preaching. The Christian world took the labyrinth and its symbolism and molded it to their beliefs.
In a literate society where parishioners don’t need a literal model of the dead ends and meandering paths that occupy us on earth before we reach an enlightened state after death, what spiritual purpose can labyrinths still serve?
Many people see [landscaped] labyrinths as a medium of reconnection between human beings and nature. It’s a sort of nonreligious prayer. Many people want to walk labyrinths alone because it becomes more of a meditative [experience.]
So landscaped labyrinths have a spiritual component that’s absent from, say, BIG’s maze at the National Building Museum, which is purely architectural?
Yes, it’s completely different. What BIG made was more like a game.
There was always a meaning [with labyrinths]. Pre-Christian women walked the labyrinth as a prayer [so that] their men would return safely from the North Sea. They had to deal with nature in its most aggressive [form]. Those men often didn’t come back. [The women] wanted to be immersed into nature to do that. It’s a written prayer that’s written into nature. And you live that work of design in a very spiritual way, a metaphor of a journey.
Very simply: Are labyrinths about the journey or the destination?
Ha! It’s always about the journey. You’re different than when you entered, but it’s the journey that changed you. The more receptive and the more attention you give to the journey, the richer the experience is. In that sense, it’s a metaphor for life. You know that you start the journey; you know that you end the journey. What [happens] in between is the part that is interesting.
Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. Listen to his Chicago architecture and design podcast A Lot You Got to Holler, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.