In My Own Words: Divine Order
Revealing soul within the soil of architecture.
ALL ARCHITECTURE, EVEN the most sophisticated, is a product of the Earth in one form or another. We might call this the ‘soil’ of architecture. People travel the world to visit beautiful cities: Siena, Venice, Rome, Kraków, Prague. We fall in love with the Italian hill towns and the beauty and simplicity of African mud buildings, but we fail to explain to ourselves why our ‘advanced’ society cannot create such buildings, towns and cities for itself. If the failure of these buildings and cities is that they lack soul, how can we add soul to the soil of architecture?
The world of form is so all-
enveloping and so close to us that we sometimes fail to realise its full power. A piece of cardboard will bend even under its own load; yet change the form by folding it to make corrugations and the same thickness cardboard will carry many times its own weight. A block of cast iron or steel will sink when placed in water, yet the same materials worked into an appropriate form will float and sail across the oceans. When several hundred people crowd on to a transatlantic jet and the load of all those people lift off into the sky, it is the power of form in operation; the power of form ‘performing’ what earlier generations would have called miracles. When a piece of Mozart’s music moves us powerfully to tears it is the same power of form in operation. Although the form of a Mozart symphony is of a different order than the aerodynamics of a Boeing 747 it is nevertheless the power of form being precisely applied in both cases.
When we step out of the skies and into the more familiar formal realms of the city we often seem to operate under the impression that form has lost its power. Yet if form can lift us both physically and emotionally into the celestial realms, by what means does it lose its power when it enters our cities? The truth is that it does not. Form continues to have power, but form used mindlessly releases power indiscriminately. The psychologist James Hillman suggests that contemporary cities are having a desensitising effect on their inhabitants. In his words urban form is having an “anaesthetic” rather than an “aesthetic” effect on humanity. In constructing our urban environments we seem to have forgotten that form has power: poor form makes us feel poor; well-conceived form makes us feel good. In other words, great architecture and art can heal; but out of the myriad of forms available to us, which are the forms that we should choose?
Animals were creating homes for themselves millions of years before Homo sapiens started to engage with this activity, and not only are these animal homes wholly ecological but their formal solutions are inherently beautiful. Now, since humanity is part of the unity of the natural world, it could reasonably be argued that the rules that guide us when we create form derive from the same source as the rest of Nature. Psychologists have recently been able to identify rules of perception that explain how we identify and respond to form. Interestingly, their work has demonstrated that human and animal perceptual systems share many of the same characteristics. The theories most influential in this field remain the
early-20th-century theories of the
The Gestalt school identified several principles of use to artists and architects, but the most important is that of balance – that is, the constantly shifting balance that balances all opposites within the constantly shifting matrix of reality. Interestingly the principles of form found in the natural world are not dissimilar to the Gestalt principles that also operate in the unselfconscious human building traditions I referred to at the beginning of this article. Vernacular building traditions have evolved slowly over long periods of time and thus possess some of the coherent organic order found also in Nature. As in animal architecture, vernacular architecture possesses an inherent beauty: the beauty of integrity and unity. Such beauty emerges from the totally balanced integration of a system, its function and use into the broader realms of Nature.
SO HAVE WE stumbled onto the reason why so many modern human-made environments fail to come up to the quality of some older towns and cities? At root the problem seems to lie in the spiritual posture that we adopt with Nature. Many people would now accept that as humans we are completely co-terminal with Nature. However, in claiming ownership, as we do, of that part of Nature that we call ‘self’, we not only separate ourselves from Nature but also separate ourselves from our own environments. Yogis tell us that the transcendental world of the spirit – the world of unity and pure consciousness – supports the relative world at each point. They tell us that the transcendental realm is a world without qualities yet gives rise to and sustains all qualities. They tell us that it is to be found in the ‘gap’ between the different states of consciousness: waking, dreaming and sleep; in the silences in music; between syllables in spoken language and even between our thoughts. The great 19th-century Indian holy man Ramakrishna Paramahansa was once asked, “Where do I find God?” His reply was, “Look between two thoughts.” This gap between perfectly balanced opposites is where life and spirit enter the relative world. It is also the vital middle ground between a subject and an object that defines the ‘mean’ and gives the meaning.
The gap is to be found between balanced opposites, and the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto identified such qualities as an essential ingredient of all art; “in each and every case,” he writes, “there must be a simultaneous reconciliation of opposites.” Aalto’s own work was a masterclass in this regard: his works abound in oppositions reconciled. I found it also in William Empsom’s analysis of poetry; and in the field of music Leonard Bernstein has described how both symmetry and the technique of balancing opposed phenomena can be used to structure a work. My own analyses of Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp and Ralph
Erskine’s work show oppositions used in a similar manner, a technique which I have argued elsewhere speaks of visual logic. The orderliness of a work which is sometimes treated very casually is thus revealed as the life-giving aspect of the work, which opens us to the transcendental sphere of life.
In conclusion we can say that it is order that gives life to a work and it is order that gives a work its spiritual dimension. It is in the perfect orderliness of a great work that the two worlds of materiality and spirit conjoin. Order is the agent that serves as the conduit between these two realms. Dare we say that ‘orderliness’ is next to ‘Godliness’?
The ideas above are developed more fully in the forthcoming book The Creative Gap.
Frank Lyons is a practising architect specialising in ecological homes. He lectures widely on the subject of humane architecture.