malaparte1

Spiritual Beauty

To start, a quick summary of pp.285-291 from Deyan Sudjik’s The Edifice Complex.

the edifice complexThis is a universe in which, however reluctantly, all of us, even the most powerful, must continue to face the unremitting possibility that at any moment we might cease to exist. …

I think we have to accept this.

Architecture is a device that allows us the chance to forget the precariousness of our position for a moment, to create at least the illusion of meaning when we measure it against its own internal logic and find some sense of correspondence and predictability. … Architecture can provide a reference point, against which we can measure our place in the world. 

And we can accept this as well – as long as we admit that those reference points may be illusory as well.

Making a mark is an impulse that can take on the aspect of a religious experience. … Attempting to root architecture in this way can be a reflection of a search for spiritual meaning or of scientific research. But equally it can be used as a political tool, in the attempts of one group to control another.

This last one is the theme of Sudjik’s book as well as a short history of architecture.

To place man-made architectural objects in a relationship with the landscape is one way to try to give them meaning; it is suggesting that they belong to a system. The landscape lasts far longer than mankind. Trying to make our objects part of that timescale offers the consolation of a sense of connectedness with a version of eternity.

This is interesting.

It explains why this next building continues to be America’s favourite building. The oft-quoted “timelessness” of the design is merely the reflected glow of the landscape.

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Similarly, the The Ancient Greeks had a bit of a knack for siting their temples. This is Segesta, the most apparently randomly sited of the bunch.

13 - segesta

This idea of building siting as spiritual connection explains why realities like this next image aren’t regarded as beautiful. It shows landscape to be no more permanent than buildings and we don’t like to be reminded of that.

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I like the simplicity of this simple wanting to associate with something unchanging. It’s actually a ‘spiritual’ basis for finding “peace” in certain juxtapositions of building and landscape. It’s not important what the style of the building is, but the fact that it’s juxtaposed with an apparently unchanging landscape. Let’s do a quick image trawl and see what we come up with.

This association with unchanged landscape could be a reason why some people think Eileen Gray’s E1027 a better house than LC’s Villa Savoye. Although it’s a close call, it could also explain why LMVDR’s Farnsworth House is generally thought superior to PJ’s Glass House. It also explains the appeal of this next building that associates not with changeable things like rocks and coastlines but with the very Sun itself. Like Stonehenge, only daily.

Alexandria_Library

It could also explain why little respect is shown to buildings that have no land or that are built on artificial land.

The simple shape thing was the one that mattered. Natural landscape trumps cultivated landscape but cultivated landscape is still better than a watery horizon. The boat was only good for the details.

small-grain-elevator

The landscape-as-permanence idea also explains why this next image is disturbing. It’s not easy to decide whether the building is leaving the landscape alone to do its timeless thing, or destroying it forever.

megaton city

Another thing that might be happening here is that, permanence of landscape aside, we are also picking up on the bigness of landscape. Landscape isn’t just more permanent than buildings, it’s usually bigger than them as well. This spiritual beauty is found in things that are not only everlasting but, if not awesomely huge, at least something far greater than us and our pathetic buildings. Meier’s Douglas House strikes the preferred balance.

the-douglas-house-ezra-stoller-600x603

I think this idea of the permanence of landscape as a spiritual (or at least a psychological) basis for architectural beauty has legs. It’s a credible way of making sense out of the world of architecture, if not necessarialy the world itself. It’s a basis for visual beauty that’s also quite separate from biophilia and the physiological predeliction for the sparsely-treed savanna landscapes we saw back in WE ♥ PLANTS.

Savanna

It’s also something quite separate from seeing beauty in the mere possession of vast quantities of land-nature. This is a political basis of beauty. And it’s also different from seeing beauty in the architectural articulation of that possession. That’s a societal definition of architectural beauty. In both these cases, I expect people possessing huge amounts of natural landscape are already quite happy with their place in the world. All these various bases for beauty aren’t random.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The land-as-permanence thing is way up there with the imagined highest level of human fulfilment. The possession of land and the display of that possession is political power and social posturing. The dwelling and its immediate surroundings relate to the belongingness of familial or other tribes. The construction of that dwelling hopefully satisfies the need for safety and the design of that dwelling for occupant physical health and comfort. So you see, although this landscape-as-permanence theory does have a lot going for it, it has little to do with the bottom of the pyramid that still we struggle to get right. It’s another way of saying that architecture and building deal with opposite ends of the market.

Sudjik continues.

Some architects look to the landscape and to the stars as their reference point. Other try to find solace in the idea that naturally occurring forms, such as crystal structures, or skeletal forms or molecular plant cells, can be used as the starting point for architectural form, to allow it to reflect some kind of inner harmony, by achieving maximum strength for the most minimal use of materials, for example.

Agreed. Although I think maximum strength for minimal use of materials is something worth pursuing for the sake of using less materials than to merely represent some inner harmony with Nature.

In mimicking such forms in their own structures, they evidently believe that their designs will achieve the same sense of balance and order as the naturally occurring world with its patterns and harmonic structure.

If only it stopped there. In addition to animal and vegetal, we also have mineral and landscape patterns and forms. This is landscape-envy, pure and simple.

08_08_05_iceland_data_islandia

You know the buildings – they’re the horizontal layered parks, the swoopy green roofs, the ‘groundscrapers’, the fake geological strata and mountains …

Beyond these clues [eh?!] in the natural landscape and the characteristics of organic matter, architects have looked to find ways of creating their own definitions of intellectual meaning that refer to architecture itself, rather than to naturally observable phenomena.

The classical orders are the classic example.

Symmetry is part of the conceptual kit of parts, so is the idea of a sense of harmony and rhythm, which seems to be a metaphor for finding a place in the world.

Other architectural approaches are less explicitly defined than classicism, because they are much more recent and less universally understood. Often they depend on analogy, or the creation of a set of rules that can acquire the sense of a moral force. …

As they become more widely accepted, they are taken up by larger and larger groups of designers, before eventually being replaced with another narrative. The idea that architects should design buildings to look as if they were made by machines, rather than the laborious and often messy process of handcraft that is actually involved, was a narrative current for many years and produced something called functionalism.

I won’t break the argument by quibbling over definitions. I imagine Sudjik’s referring to this.

When Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano designed the Pompidou Centre in such a way that the ducts and pipes servicing the building, as well as the structure holding it up, were made visible, they designed a system for design. The system is based on frankness, showing the constituent parts, and again IT HAS AN APPARENT LOGIC, SERVING TO CREATE A FRAGMENT OF EXISTENCE IN WHICH IF YOU SUSPEND DISBELIEF, AND DON’T ASK TOO MANY QUESTIONS, YOU FIND YOURSELF IN A WORLD IN WHICH REASON AND LOGIC APPEAR TO EXIST. … 

This is getting scary.

The architect has invented a set of rules that if followed carefully enough produce a coherent building, PROVIDED THAT YOU ACCEPT THE FUNDAMENTAL PREMISES OF THE SYSTEM. 

Really scary. It’s like God’s not IN the details, but IS the details.

Such systems can take many forms, including the belief in the power of numbers, an occult preoccupation that has consumed architects from every period, from the classical to Le Corbusier with his Modulor and his vain pursuit of logic, order and harmony through the hardly comprehensible proportional rules that he devised. And then there is the mysticism of a Christopher Alexander, or the pursuit of an architecture based on ecological imperatives.

I know it’s not the theme of Sudjik’s book, and I know that earthships are mostly
(but not always)

Architectural

manifestations of a particular system of spiritual beauty

earthship

but, as with maximum strength for minimum materials, ecological imperatives are surely worth considering for their own sake and not for any spiritual solace to be had from heeding them. Sudjik admits that 

Architecture has the ability to modify weather and light. In that it has power that for once is measurable.

but doesn’t follow it up – it’s not that kind of book. So screw maximum performance for minimum materials and screw ecological imperatives as well for they merely deal with tangible things and not the great intangibles. For anyone sitting in their house this evening and feeling a bit cold, you have this type of thinking to blame.

So there you have it.

IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT SYSTEM YOU HAVE FOR MAKING SENSE OUT OF THE WORLD. WHAT’S IMPORTANT IS THAT YOU HAVE ONE AND THAT IT’S SEEN TO BE SATISFYING THE GRAND SPIRITUAL PURPOSE.

It seems like this is just another justification for irresponsible architecture. It’s not the first time. By choosing to see materials usage and ecological imperatives only in terms of their potential for expressing “harmony with the universe”, Sudjik inadvertently shows us the mechanism by which worthy architectural agendas are processed into throwaway aesthetics. 

Amen.
(Take care.)

3 thoughts on “Spiritual Beauty

  1. Sam Cannon

    Maslow + Architecture not strongly bound. Should be. Think I am first to propose actual “Maslow Architecture” but Freud said, “Wherever I go, I find that an artist has gone before me.”

    Sniff out new BBC article coming up but not yet out. Keywords architecture and hierarchy. I don’t need to be first, just need to connect minds on this. Came in dream about “Maslow Hotel” in South Africa, but relates to Blackfoot cosmology and Maslow’s visit in 1938. Have lived in Maslow’s mind for 20 years. Zeitgeist giving me strong goosing.

  2. malcolmmillais

    Dear Sirs

    It seems your links to images are screwed up, as I keep getting a cliff top house in Italy whose name I’ve forgotten, unless of course I’m missing something ironic

    best wishes

    Malcolm Millais

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Hello Malcolm. Rather than irony, I expect some oversized image is choking the loading. The house on the cliff is Adalberto Libera’s 1937 Casa Malaparte (as famously worn by Brigitte Bardot in the 1963 Jean-Luc Godard movie, Contempt).

      Thanks – I’ll check those images
      Graham

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