When cities were in turmoil, and brigands loose in the land, a man’s home was, of necessity, his castle. …
For all one knows there will always be an Englishman who refers to his home as his castle. The conceit persists unchallenged because the castle in question is fictitious. Imaginary. A gulf of about ten centuries separates the modern individual from the time when castles were a common commodity, actually a necessity. Apart from ruins, what passes for castles today are the products of architectural taxidermy: mummified mansions, national monuments, and occasional houses of royalty.
Castles, the strong metaphor of our presumed self-sufficiency, are an Old World institution. The combination of residence and fortress occurs mainly in Europe, Asia and Africa. Americans have their eccentricities, their penchant for the pseudo medieval, but seem to draw the line at castles. To him, a castle is not a house or a home but a moldy container of the darkest aspects of the Dark Ages. They are the fossils of architecture, an uncomfortable reminder of a time when wars were fought with arrows and lances, when killing was a handicraft rather than an industry. No architect within living memory has been commissioned to build a castle and Alcatraz and San Simeon, a sort of grafted heroic silhouette, does not count.
Castles represent a link , a forgotten tie between architecture and the natural environment, pivotal points in the landscape. Topographical accents par excellence, they are always commensurate to nature’s scale. It borrows its protective coloration from the environment in much the same way that a practiced Japanese “steals” the trees’ silhouettes of his neighbor’s garden. The feudal touch is usually provided by an eye-catching cliff, a mesa, or a dense forest,all of them anathema to the democratically minded builder. After all, whenever modern people but up a building, in country or town, they seem bent on destroying the natural setting. Any outcrop- a tree, or boulder is usually pulverized to better visualize the creation. Man is a leveler at heart. For his flight of thought he needs,as it were, an airstrip, an expanse of nothing.
It was only during the Crusades that the incombustible castle emerged. It was hideous chapter of history, but a castle built on high ground, treason excluded, remained impregnable; that is until gun powder came into use. It was perhaps the only time when a walled in, well provisioned populace was justified in experiencing a feeling of absolute security in the face of an invader.
But life was not worth living in a castle that was never assailed by forces stronger than the elements. Only during a siege did its true merits come to the fore. Dousing assailants with pitch and molten lead, missiles as deadly as bullets. A siege in full swing pinpointed the imperfections in layout and structure, and the burgrave would make a mental note to have the level of the moat- a castle’s Plimsoll line- slightly raised, or to make the hard edged towers round.