Writers' Workshop for ARCH 531 / McGill University / School of Architecture / Fall 2012

Week Two: Horizons of Order

The placing of the cornerstone of a building exemplifies the idea of a ritual re-enactment of a myth while also speaking about the laying out of an order.

Mircea Eliade, who touches upon these ideas when speaking of archaic man, states that “an object or act becomes real only insofar as it imitates or repeats an archetype.”  The cornerstone itself has no value, but acquires its significance through participation in repetitive myth-making.  As Eliade states “among countless stones, one stone becomes sacred.”

Cornerstone rites are prevalent in many cultures.  In the 1920s scholar Sinclair Stevenson recounted such a ceremony in India:

“Before a single stone can be laid, another ceremony has to be performed.  The astrologer shows what spot in the foundation is exactly above the head of the snake that supports the world.  The mason fashions a little wooden peg from the wood of the Khadira tree, and with a coco-nut drives the peg into the ground at this particular spot, in such a way as to peg the head of the snake securely down.  This seems a tactless thing to do, but the reason given is that the snake has a tiresome habit of shaking its head and so causing earthquakes and wrecking houses (even a tiny shake knocks a house down), but this peg keeps it and the house firm.”

Sir James Frazer spoke of a ritual in Greece alive in the 1950s:

“In modern Greece, when the foundation of a new building is being laid, it is the custom to kill a cock, a ram, or a lamb, and to let its blood flow on the foundation-stone, under which the animal is afterwards buried.  The object of the sacrifice is to give strength and stability to the building.  But sometimes, instead of killing an animal, the builder entices a man to the foundation-stone, secretly measures his body, or a part of it, or his shadow, and buries the measure under the foundation-stone; or he lays the foundation-stone upon the man’s shadow.”

Referring to a cornerstone ceremony of your own research, please elaborate on what the rite articulates.  What significance could the laying of such a cornerstone hold for us today?

15 responses

  1. “Where you are headed is more important than how fast you’re going, yet people are consumed with speed rather than direction.” – Stephen R. Covey

    Cornerstone rituals would not seem to fit within today’s requirement for efficiency and productivity. As entrepreneurs often believe that time is money, buildings are often rushed to completion, at the expense of care and attention to details. Apart from churches and religious temples, cornerstones rituals have almost completely disappeared–opening parties being more profitable and guests knowing what they have paid for. Seemingly in opposition to such fast-paced approach, a french company called La première pierre sells cornerstones with custom text. The company seems to be aware of the importance of such a ritual, yet offers exclusively online orders, insists on the speed of delivery and mentions only the festive aspect of the event. This illustrates our very bizarre relationship to the past and rituals–the cornerstone mason will never have seen it as part of the building. While the sacrifice is arguably unnecessary for the building to hold, the burial of the builder’s tools or others artifacts from the time of the construction is a powerful image and commitment to future. By taking the time to craft a cornerstone before the completion of the assembly, one opens its mind to wonder about its relevance and impact in relation to the flow of time. Cornerstones and their associated rituals could be of utmost relevance today, acting as a commitment to making things as good as possible. It might be an excellent way to resist the consumerist pressure at play on today’s architecture–but only if it implies taking the time to make it well and not ordering it online.

    September 16, 2012 at 5:28 pm

  2. Thanks for an intriguing contemporary example Madeck. It would certainly be difficult to bury a shadow online.
    You bring up the idea that the cornerstone stands not only in front of the myth that it perpetuates, but as a symbol of crafting. Could an intensity of devotion to crafting help overcome the “consumerist pressure” that you rightly speak of?

    September 17, 2012 at 11:53 am

  3. Amalin

    To better understand the significance of the cornerstone for us today, we must first recognize its symbolic value as a ritual from the past. Thomas Barrie states: “Religion, mythology, and ritual are fundamental elements of human consciousness and society and have long served as a means to explain the world and humans’ place within it. […] The architecture, in addition to directly symbolizing the belief system, in essence acts as a stage that accommodates and facilitates the enactment of the myth through ritual.” Consequently, archaic man made no distinction between the constructional elements and the ritual – both the shelter and the ceremony were necessary and any dissimilarity between them was insignificant. This relatively primitive view of causality explains the importance of the ceremonial notion of the cornerstone in architecture – an enchanting and spiritual practice.

    However, the “Laying of the Foundation Stone” ceremony at St. George’s Hospital in Tooting, South London (March 28, 2001) displays the cornerstone in a very different fashion. The modernized rite serves now as a ‘time capsule’ – a hollow stone containing a collection of items immortalizing the moment of construction. These items commemorate the period in which the cornerstone was placed, and sanctify the idea of progress. Despite our passage from a spiritual to a secular world, the placing of the cornerstone remains a gift to a higher power and shares many of the same attributes with the primitive rite, but it has lost its original motivational function. The documents locked away in today’s cornerstones have little to do with primitive man’s tradition of celebrating sacred spaces – they play the short-lived role of a utopian vision of time and progress.

    September 17, 2012 at 7:14 pm

  4. reckon

    In 1880 the Ancient Egyptian obelisk known as “Cleopatra’s Needle” was to be moved from Alexandria and raised in Central Park on one of the highest points in Manhattan; a gift from an Egyptian khedive hoping to gain favour with America.
    The Freemasons had a strong presence in New York in the late 19th century and they had an intense interest in the obelisk because of the markings and arrangement of stones beneath the pedestal. Local members were invited to lay the foundation for the obelisk. Nine thousand Freemasons marched up Fifth Avenue for a sacred cornerstone ceremony. The cube of polished marble that had been found under the pedestal represented a revered symbol for the Freemasons, the Perfect Ashlar (a stone that has been smoothed and dressed by the experienced stonemason).
    As has become common practice in modern cornerstones, a number of boxes were prepared to be used as miniature time capsules and fit into spaces enclosed by the steps below the monument. The capsules could be applied for and the majority were used to preserve some examples of existing civilization.
    The erection of the obelisk in New York presents an eccentric merging of myths and rituals of different cultures. An Ancient Egyptian monument, loaded with symbolism and meaning, has been transposed to American soil to be subjected to the current-day Freemasons’ cornerstone ceremony. Does the execution of new rites on this ancient obelisk suggest a disregard for the myths already contained within it (highlighted by the fact that it has been callously removed from its original and meaningful location)? Moreover, if rituals are merely re-enactments, is the original significance lost over the years to sheer mechanical repetition?

    September 18, 2012 at 12:02 am

  5. labyrinth

    Throughout the history of architecture, the rituals of laying a cornerstone have represented the link between the mythical and the real. But in modern times, the mythical and the real are no longer inseparable; we understand our surroundings through a rational cause-and-effect relationship of which we can control, or at least understand, without the help of higher powers. As a result, the cornerstone ceremony has been transformed into a ritual marking a significant moment in time, a point at which mankind celebrates an achievement in its own progress and development.

    This can clearly be seen in the laying of the cornerstone of the Freedom Tower in New York City. The ceremony took place on July 4, 2004, and consisted of a series of speeches, performances, and photographs – none of which were dedicated to the mercy of a higher power – before the stone was set in place unceremoniously by a crane once the crowd had dispersed. However, two years later, after plans for the Freedom Tower had been altered, the cornerstone was actually removed, and transported to Long Island, where it was put on display to the public. On December 17, 2006, at a ceremony to mark the construction of the newly redesigned tower, important figures and relatives of the deceased wrote commemorative messages on the first steel column to be installed, which was to form part of the base of the tower.

    Here, we see the spiritual significance of the cornerstone destroyed; it has become an arbitrary building component, easily removed, replaced, and displayed for public consumption, that has severed all ties to the cosmos. It has been reincarnated as a symbolic gesture marking a mere point in time, simply a physical memory of an accomplishment in the progress of the human race.

    September 18, 2012 at 12:33 am

  6. UVN

    Though the cornerstone embodies the archetypal mark of a mythic ceremony held during the erection of a monument, builder’s rites were not solely performed during the establishment of the foundations.

    Around 700 A.D., the Scandinavians practiced the rite of “topping out” a newly completed building by hoisting a tree over the structure. The mythological roots and the numerous narratives of the tradition vary slightly, but can be reduced to a common attempt in re-establishing balance in the universe, which they understood as Deity. In some accounts, this pantheist ritual was performed to propitiate the spirits of the trees that had been cut down to give place to, and to provide materials for the construction.

    Today the exercise of topping out is still extant; and though vestiges of folklore remain, the ceremony has taken on a new dimension. Most often, modern topping out ceremonies are denoted by the placement of the last beam upon the structure. In some instances, trees are still used, but rather symbolically than by rite. The tradition – which has slowly shifted from ceremony to celebration – is now a media event, used by builders for publicity. Moreover, when trees are substituted for flags, the ceremony expresses the power and prosperity of the state, which no longer holds ecclesiastical connotations. This modern shift in importance from the sacred to the profane also reflects man’s displaced concern with himself, rather than with God; the contemporary topping out ceremony is essentially a celebration of man’s work and achievements in erecting the structure. Topping out has become “flashier”, and much less sacred; it is, in sum, an expression of pride and of power, and a marketing gesture.

    September 18, 2012 at 7:21 am

  7. Reckon’s comments regarding the impermanent quality of certain cornerstones is extremely interesting. Does our modern culture dismiss the rituals of predecessors due to a lack of understanding, or is it a deliberate act to diminish that cultures significance in an attempt to further exemplify the greatness of our own? If the latter is the case, than no better example than Washington D.C. exists to showcase this. Perhaps the most extravagant example is the neoclassical Capitol building. When it was erected in 1793, all ritual cornerstone ceremonies were preformed. What is interesting is that although records exist that document this event, all efforts to actually locate the original cornerstone have met with failure. Myriad extensions, each with their own cornerstones, are what precipitated this loss. Which begs an interesting question: if a cornerstone is the physical manifestation of the metaphysical boundaries of the demarcated space that is to be inhabited, can there be room for growth?
    It seems contradictory to allow for ‘room to grow’, as it were, since the purpose of the cornerstone ceremony, as I understand it, is to set the boundaries of a building ‘in stone’. It defines not only the intention, but cements the promise. The promise is what the ceremony enacts. It is a point in the timeline which cannot be reversed, changed, or added upon. The killing of an animal sacrifice is permanent and irreversible, the stone, once surrounded by the buildings’ multitude other stones cannot be changed, and finally, the boundaries cannot be added upon. Perhaps this is an overtly simplistic view of what is, in certain respects, a mystical ceremony incredibly rich in historical and mythical weight, but in today’s culture of fast builds, countless AutoCAD revisions, and delayed decisions, perhaps the inferred permanence that is implied by the cornerstone ceremony is exactly what we need.

    September 18, 2012 at 9:35 am

  8. Fine commentary. Amalin points to how the construction does not represent an absent ritual, but is the ritual itself. The “time capsule” version seems to speak of a fear of not being remembered in the absence of ritual. The merging of rituals that reckon brings up might offer clues for contemporary practice with architects being asked to build far away from their homelands. Do try to answer the questions you bring up reckon. Labyrinth’s example of the crowd having left the site already for the placing of the Freedom Tower stone is striking. Perhaps if the president had been operating the crane that wouldn’t have happened. UVN justly shows how the cornerstone is only one element of the building involved in ritual. Tree toppings, beam smearings and roof coverings belong to the same world.

    September 18, 2012 at 9:57 am

  9. Esiolé

    Cornerstone ceremonies are not restricted to cities, temples and institutional buildings. In traditional cultures and up until quite recently, they were also crucial in the building of houses. “Since the habitation constitutes an imago mundi, it is symbolically situated at the Center of the World.” (1) The house embodies the vision we possess of the world, the way we are connected to its sanctity. In some Masonic rituals, the cornerstone has to be placed facing northeast, with great precision. For Masons, the north is a place of darkness, of ignorance, that is not suitable for men and only brings despair. On the opposite, the east fosters light, knowledge and wisdom. By placing the cornerstone at the meeting point of these two antagonist forces, the Masons are thus ensuring that the future building will make its dwellers go from evil to good, from profane to sacred, from darkness to light, reenacting eternally this rebirth, this sanctification. Laying the first stone of the house becomes as important as laying the first stone of the world itself. As Eliade also points out in The Sacred and the Profane, when building a house, a man is creating his own universe that mirrors the one we live in. “Exactly like the city or the sanctuary, the house is sanctified, in whole or part, by a cosmological symbolism or ritual. This is why settling somewhere – building a village or merely a house – represents a serious decision, for the very existence of man is involved; […]”

    Nowadays, the laying of a proper cornerstone is not anymore a significant part of the rituals and ceremonies that remain at the core of building construction. However, it doesn’t necessarily imply that cornerstone rituals have completely disappeared of the process of building. The desanctification of the world by science and technology fosters a perception of the universe that is completely different of what it was just thirty years ago. The opposition of physical and virtual existence has modified the perception of the Universe, but also altered the way people perceived what used to be their own sacred universes. The physical limitations that used to dictate the boundaries of one’s territory have been discarded by the almost infinite possibilities of Internet and the virtual technological world.

    Thus, there has been a shift in the perception and meaning of a cornerstone ceremony that no longer needs a physical manifestation, for one’s universe is no longer necessarily based on a particular physical site. The new sacred space, the new spirituality is virtual, in the sense that one’s sacred universe is not confined in a limited physical range. The virtual construction and inauguration of spiritual and sacred dwellings remains a ritual, a ceremonial. “Every construction and every inauguration of a new dwelling are in some measure equivalent to a new beginning, a new life.”

    The laying of a cornerstone is still important in today’s society however different, for it is the symbolism more than physical objects that now embodies a new sanctity of space and place.

    September 18, 2012 at 10:43 am

    • Trebuh

      Although the origin of the cornerstone ritual is obscure, the historical purpose of the rite was entirely religious. Accordingly, the purpose of the cornerstone rite was to affirm the stone as sacred. In The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade elaborates on this idea by stating that manifestation of the sacred is made in ordinary objects, for example a stone. Moreover, she states: “[…] the sacred is equivalent to a power […]”. Given the cornerstone often forms part of a structure’s most elementary components, it serves as a reference to which all subsequent pieces are ordered. Consequently, it is symbolic for the strength and significance of an architectural structure.

      Over time it would appear the cornerstone ritual has begun to embody more of a community focus, rather than its traditional religious purpose. Modern ceremonies held to commemorate the laying of a cornerstone are often held for public buildings; mainly religious, governmental or charitable institutions. In current times, cornerstones commonly possess special engravings listing names of those involved in the structure’s existence or commemorating a past event. The cornerstone can also serve as a time-capsule, whereby meaningful objects are kept in a hollow space of the stone to be recovered years in the future. One example of a recent cornerstone ritual is the opening of St-Bernard’s school in Orillia, Ontario, where each class was asked to donate an object for time capsule. The cornerstone ceremony was used to bring together the school community and mark the occasion of the beginning of a better future in a newly constructed school. The power of the cornerstone presently does not possess a religious meaning, but arises from simultaneously commemorating the past and celebrating the future. The tradition of laying the first stone and marking that occasion on the stone itself in the form of a plaque, an engraving or a time-capsule preserves past historical traditions. Since this ceremony now often takes place in a communal setting, it allows for the celebration of a project that may bring value and meaning. The cornerstone becomes a piece of society by itself, through commemorating various figures or a specific point in time.

      September 18, 2012 at 11:13 am

  10. Amalin

    I tend to agree with Esiolé. When referring to the cornerstone, Eliade suggests: “among countless stones, one stone becomes sacred.” yet I firmly believe the land itself is sacred, and the architecture should be appreciated as the spiritual ceremony – without the crutches of superstition or religion. In the words of Valéry – through the architect Eupalinos: “Tell me (as you are so susceptible to the effects of architecture), have you not observed when walking around this city that some of its buildings are dumb, while others speak. And that there are others still, and are the rarest, that even sing?” Great architecture can extend the spiritual nature of a place as a result of the conscious interaction with its context and form. Is the cornerstone necessary to achieve this today?

    September 18, 2012 at 11:09 am

  11. petersburg

    Like sfumato, I was also interested in the Capitol building in Washington D.C. But I think the ceremony’s importance can also be related by the participation of the current President of United States at the moment of the ritualistic laying of the cornerstone. It was first executed with President Washington in 1793. Despite the missing original corner stone, President Roosevelt re-enacted the ceremony in 1993 with a new “ceremonial stone” as a commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Capitol. It was even held on the actual day and hour as the original. Moreover, the “ceremonial stone” has been kept in the Capitol for the next commemoration for the 300th anniversary. In fact, it has been accorded such a great importance for the building’s role as seat of government; however, in this case, it became a repeated practice through generations, surely in the hope that it will keep being “a blessing to the nation and a credit to the citizens thereof” as said by George Adams, grand master of Masons in Washington. In fact, the presence of Freemasonry in these ritual practices on a public or religious building is part of architectural history. Freemasonry tends to reproduce historical rites, to give full sense of form, situation, permanence and consecration. The dedication of the cornerstone was held as ruled by Masonic tradition with “corn, the symbol of plenty, wine the symbol of refreshment, and oil, the symbol of joy and happiness”. The following quote from Mircea Eliade justifies the Freemasons dedication to this ritual practice even nowadays: “These beliefs and practices manifest themselves in
    a variety of perennial and persistent cultural expressions due to deep needs in the human psyche.” The ritual of the cornerstone as an allegory demonstrates that the location of the original stone is not important; it is the ritual that is constantly repeated. Every new president who takes part in one of these rituals does it to renew the sacrifice, as though to bury his shadow under the foundation-stone.

    September 18, 2012 at 9:52 pm

  12. VDSY

    The roles of the cornerstones have evolved throughout history, as have the ceremonies related to their laying. As a part of the rituals for the foundation and erection of buildings, to lay down a cornerstone constituted a link with the mythical, the action of mankind in the balance of the universe, the eternal cycle. What was then the mythical versus the real?

    These actions, rituals, were directly linked with the participation of the man in the creation of something greater in the world. These stones, ordered the rest of the construction. It would marked the world forever.

    Nowadays, everything is planned and we now have new benchmarks localizing the buildings in our physical world. This first gesture of “building” is now extremely precisely planned. The final result is anticipated. There is not so much left to discovery, and the contributions to the world do not necessary stands the same heights.

    Looking back, in 2008, McGill University as started a new ritual while unveiling the cornerstone of the Montreal Neurological Institute for its 75th anniversary. Some buildings may not share the same values in our time, but there are others which are parts of the exceptions. This may be acquired through the creation of a particular place for specific objectives, visions ; «In 1934 Wilder Penfield charted a future where Montreal would give the world hope for conditions from migraines to stroke to Parkinson’s disease. As the first to map key functional regions of the living brain, Penfield created an institute that fostered creativity in all who came to The Neuro to study the brain and care for patients with neurological and neurosurgical conditions.»


    The unveiling of this cornerstone, not a foundation stone rather a piece of masonry with a cavity, had the goal to put in today’s perspective the main objectives of the period leading to the establishment of the institution. The mission, the values and the vision for this building were brought back throught this time capsule inserted in the stone. This cornerstone may not hold the same character as his predecessors, but some rituals are still going on with specific buildings. Some of them still carry a lot of importance for the society. And in these cases, the meaning of the construction of this particular building may brought back the idea of implementing a modification in the life, that this building is an important gestures and that it does contribute.

    This ritual with the Neuro will be hold in 75 years from now, unveiling an enriched time capsule in hope to keep fulfilling the vision of the building. It is a new form of ritual, another kind of cornerstone, linking the world with something greater, not preserving the past in the stone, but rather keeping the meaning of this specific architecture alive through rituals ?

    September 18, 2012 at 11:37 pm

  13. Good thoughts everyone. The growth of a structure, as sfumato mentions, would certainly question a cornerstone ceremony, as would the practice of moving a building. Esiolé speaks of another challenge: an unbounded virtual world. Our movement around the planet and technological changes could be seen to dismiss the need for such rites. But even a nomadic culture could have such a ritual, if only for the night. Trebuh seems to place faith in the idea that in the move from religious to communal purposes, the ritual may still be valuable. This would imply a shift of intention and of meaning. Petersburg suggests that the ritual itself carries more weight than the location. This notion would certainly be in line with those cultures that ritualistically rebuild their religious buildings every so many years. VDSY brings forth a modern example of the time-capsule cavity as a reminder of the founders’ “mission statement.” Rather than relying on an oral tradition, the time-capsule seems to desire to guarantee that the objectives have been met by future generations.

    September 19, 2012 at 10:53 am

  14. beaupré

    Perhaps I could take a different perspective to understand the significance of the cornerstone in the past and present. Paradigm shifts in the human consciousness brought about different meanings to rituals. For thousands of years, only celestial beings provided the answer to our own knowing and destiny. Cornerstone ceremonies in pre-modern times always had a sacred or mythical dimension to the exercise, performed to bless the building and to assuage superstition. The unfolding of modernity was characterized by a new consciousness that we were no longer at the centre of the universe, but we have assumed the role as the controlling subjects of the cosmos. When rational truth seemed like the only path to our redemption as humanity, we began to view these rituals differently. The cornerstone is stripped away of its spiritual essence, left only with its symbolic value.

    Likewise, sacred rituals of the Catholic Church have also been undermined by modern consciousness. To achieve the Catholic sensibility relied on confidence in the imaginative and narrative infrastructure that underpin the faith. It became very easy for parishioners turn their backs on organized religion when the Church fails to justify long established canons. The Celebration of the Eucharist for many Christians today has become a symbol of God’s grace rather than the embodied Body of Christ. If the sacred or mythical dimension is no longer preserved, rituals lose substance and meaning. In both examples of rites, they fail to align themselves with the present paradigm of human consciousness. These phenomena indicate we, as modern subjects have only assumed an increasingly alienated position in the world.

    September 20, 2012 at 1:51 am