Friday, June 09, 2006

Architecture and Mysticism

There exists within current architectural thought a division between theory and practice. The built is held to be separate from the theoretical. Such a distinction has no place and is detrimental to an understanding of architecture. The sharp, seemingly irresolvable distinction manifests itself in many treatises and architectural curriculum and is evidence of a deeper issue stemming from the attempt to describe instead of to understand.

The field of architectural theory encompasses architectural history, and here too a division has occurred. Many years ago the profession tried to sever vital links with the past in an attempt to do something new. History was further divorced from architecture. The later attempts of the post modernists to reconcile the division with history failed as miserably as the accusations levelled against the modernists that preceded them. Again, the issue was indicative of the attempt to describe instead of understand.

Understanding is not to be reduced to empathy or tolerance, although empathy and tolerance are virtues in themselves. To reconcile history and theory and the built environment, we must realize a higher principle whereby each is seen as equal to the others. We must understand that there is no difference between theory and practice; that theory has as much of a right to be called architecture as does the built environment, and that the built environment is intelligent. Theory becomes construct, and construct becomes theory when we understand.

To understand and not simply explain history we must come to it hermeneutically. The implication of hermeneutics is that understanding is expression. For history, this means that we are not searching for objectification, but instead an acknowledgment of the act required in approaching history. History is then inseparable from architecture as it is an act of creation whereby we bestow an order that would not be present without being thought. The organization of our thoughts is an organization of reality. Through this manner, hermeneutics is implicitly critical. It follows that theory is simply the interpretation we give to history and to the built environment. It does not follow that we apply an arbitrary meaning upon history.

Typology then plays an important role whereby understanding manifests expression. The interpretation of history through a hermeneutic key reinforces the notion of critical thought given the fact such hermeneutic keys are an expression of the times. What should be further noted is the paradoxical, yet common occurrence of an acceptance of knowledge passed to us from antiquity. The mending of the rift with history and the requirement that each new age must reinterpret by the mere fact that they are a new age is implicit within hermeneutics. What follows is a typology of architectural history.

Mysticism then, is this hermeneutic key by which I will attempt to interpret history with. In general, the hermeneutic key should not be thought of as a concept or notion by which to “re-contextualize” architectural history. Instead, the hermeneutic key should be thought of as an insight or understanding that allows the typology to present itself as a knowing or lucidness, the likes of which the architect should associate and learn to cultivate and distinguish. Mysticism is usually thought of as a distinctive mode of consciousness, i.e. union with God, and the response to that mode of consciousness, although such a division does not do justice to the original insights of mystics of the past. If we look at mysticism within its own tradition, it would be more accurate to say that mysticism is the knowledge of the unity of all things, although this may be inaccessible if not approached hermeneutically.

I shall quickly run through a brief history of architectural thought, and make explicit the presence of “mystical thought”. The source of occidental thought can be traced to ancient Greece, and we begin by looking at Pythagoras. His school of thought that is undeniably mystical has been incredibly influential in architecture. He articulated numbers, proportion, geometry, nature, and soul and emphasised their interconnections. Geometry and proportion can be summed up as the division of unity, and the unity of division.

Parmenides follows and radicalizes Pythagorean thought to a certain extent. He proposes that all that exists is unchanging and unified, and that which is changing is illusionary. What Parmenides is saying is that consciousness that is not mystical is not real. The implication of this is far reaching and imbeds itself within mystical thought until the present day.

Plato gives us the True, the Good, the Beautiful. What is true, is also good, and is also beautiful. We again see a differentiation that unifies, and is our heuristic that what is being disclosed is worthy of contemplation. Plato’s system provides the basis for all subsequent mystical systems. His articulation of God as well as Form and Space are indeed timeless. For architecture, form and space are key points of focus throughout the ages. Form is. The form of something is the essence of what it is. The essence of it is it being what it is. To see the form of it is to see what it is. Form is the intrinsic nature or essence. The form of man is soul. Form is to see. The original meaning of Form comes from the Greek words, eidos and eidon. These words literally translated into English mean “to see”, or “I see”. Form is space, and both form and space are being. Space then, is the receptacle of form. We know of space because of form. Space is hard to see because it is the negative of form, so to speak. To see the form, is to see the space. Space and form are ultimately articulations of one and the same thing because to see the essence of something is to see its space. Space and form are at once both one and two. It is important to note that proportion is space.

The complexities and depth of Greek thought taken by itself alone make it hard to continue with a brief outline, for when we arrive at the first Architectural treatise by Vitruvius, his equating of the laws of the cosmos with Architecture hold such a mass of implications that an articulation of its meaning becomes difficult. What should be noted is the unity. Throughout all history, the mystical thought presents itself through the realization and articulation of the unity of reality. The unity is maintained in the act of architecture through his use of proportion. The act of division through Architecture is the way in which man takes relation.

I shall give a brief description of Vitruvius, and his “Ratiocinatio”, as his work brings together “mysticism” and “architecture”. Ratiocinatio is the intellectual apprehension of Architecture, and it consisted of three elements that were a division of the same aesthetic phenomenon. The first is “ordinatio”, or the detailed proportioning of each separate part of the building, and the working out of the general proportions with regard to “symmetria”. Vitruvius begins with a unit of measure, or “moduli”, and creates a harmonious whole from the parts to create “symmetria”. Consistent proportioning of a building as a whole and in detail results in “ordinatio”. The second is “eurythmia”, or the result of proportion applied to a building and of the effect of such a proportion on the beholder. The third is “symmetria”, or what arises out of the assembled parts and their corresponding to the form of a building as a while. Ordinatio, eurythmia, and symmetria divide the same aesthetic phenomenon into three parts.

In chorological order, we have St. Augustine who united religion and philosophy by seeing the unity of God and being. As such, God plays an active role in human cognition and being. The influence of Parmenides can be seen here as human cognition is dependant upon God and because God is good, then any cognition without God is not good or illusionary. St. Augustine also united material with spirit, or in Platonic terms, saw the Form of Material. Augustine also articulates the doctrine of illumination, or the thesis that god plays an active role in human cognition. The doctrine puts forth the idea that the minds relation to intelligible objects is analogous to the senses and sensible objects. In addition to the mind and senses, there must be the object and an environment conducive to using mind or sense. In the case of vision, this would be light, in the case of mind, this is described as an illumination that occurs within us by that which is above us. Success comes in discernment of details. Illumination is meant to be an account of the conditions necessary for the mind to have direct acquaintance with intelligible objects. Also note that by direct acquaintance with intelligible objects, St. Augustine is implying a union between mind and object; again, the unity of all things.

I will only mention Boethius in passing as he was very influential during the gothic period. The architects of the gothic period are not well known and not many architectural treatises were produced at this time. What we do know of gothic architecture comes from looking directly at the buildings and from theology of the time. It follows that we can see the impact of mysticism on built form directly without making inferences from architects whose primary task was not the written word. What will be noted is the connection between numbers and proportion to aesthetics; proportion manifests itself in aesthetics. Architecture and the cosmos are united in medieval thought.

The next great architect is Leone Battista Alberti. He draws directly from the Greek tradition in his love of proportion and beauty. We have established how proportion fits into our study of mysticism, namely that by dividing proportionately we are uniting, and it follows that we should establish how beauty fits into our study of mysticism, namely that by seeing beauty we are seeing harmony or all the parts united together. Beauty, and hence mysticism, permeates every facet of Alberti’s thought. Furthermore, Plato established that what is good, is also beautiful, and is also true, thus tying Alberti to antiquity.

While many great and worthwhile architects and buildings influenced architecture between Albert and Le Duc, such as Palladio, I am going to avoid discussing them at present in order to continue with the rough sketch I have begun. Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-Le-Duc was a French gothic conservationist and architect, and it is fitting that I mention him in the same breath with Alberti. These two theorists hold the position of most influential across history. While it is an easy task to distinguish mystical currents in Alberti, it is slightly more of a leap to distinguish the same currents in Le Duc.

There are two issues that should be addressed in Le Duc’s thought. The first is his relation to reason. Within the tradition of mysticism, Tertullian emphasised faith in opposition to reason, and such influence can be felt today. The tension between intuition and reason would have to be understood if we are to resolve this issue. The second issue is a reliance on method that Le Duc emphasized. Having a hermeneutical method for correct mystical interpretation, for instance, is an impossibility as method precludes the necessary act of being required. The act of creation cannot be reduced to a method. The resolution of these issues and a correct interpretation of Le Duc has already been provided by Le Corbusier in his development of Le Duc’s thoughts.

Before we move on to Le Corbusier, we will look at Louis Sullivan. The 1800’s saw the rise of Transcendentalism in America and it had a considerable influence on Sullivan. While it could be problematic to bring transcendentalism under the umbrella of mysticism, I will propose that it is necessarily so as the movement can be traced back to mystical influences from Asia. What Sullivan is most famous for is coining the term form follows function. Function, like most other words, is often stripped of its meaning. By function, Sullivan meant life. So the form follows the life that is present. Life and the forms of life are identical, or at least life precluded the forms.

It is important to understand function as it was a very prolific concern for modern architects. Corbusier’s famous quote, “the house is a machine for living”, at once defines architecture as mystical through the act of living or being, and defines the (then) new machine age as being the form of a new, more enlightened humanity. Thus we have an optimism that arose from this articulation of form and function in a progressing society in modernist thought that has been misrepresented and attacked by post-modernists as a faith in technological progress.

What Le Duc gave architecture, and what was developed by Le Corbusier was an emphasis that architecture is mostly dependant on socio-historical and economic factors. Where Le Duc saw architecture as causally determined by such factors, Le Corbusier saw those same socio-historical and economic factors as bringing us into harmony with the laws of the universe.

The honesty espoused by Le Duc manifested itself not only in Corbusier’s adherence to seeing the form of a material, but also in a drive to keep each element of the building separate. Hence we get the trademark free fa├žade, free plan, etc. Not only was this honesty a justification for his advocating of standardized materials, but standardized materials also brought materials in line with the economic laws of the universe. The emphasis on materials owes its further articulation to Le Duc, but it was Corbusier that developed materials to the point of aesthetic which at the same time provided impetus for the separation of each element.

Corbusier saw style as a unity of principle animating all the work of an epoch, the result of a state of mind which has its own special character. Style here is linked with function, and to put it into terms that we have already established, style is the form of an epoch. The emphasis on society and the spirit of the age is directly consequential of the word completed by Le Duc.

For Corbusier, there was indeed a secret to Architecture, and he often spoke of a certain “ineffable” quality that Architecture possessed. The secret, he thought, lied in geometry and proportion. His development of a system of proportion that was used in all of his constructs places him as a student of Pythagoras. Geometry and proportion brought man into accord with the laws of the universe, and it is through rational processes that this is accomplished.

Rationality and the intellect were explored by Meister Eckhart. Very simply stated, he presented the momentum of the intellect as a differentiation that represented the only possible form of life. The rationalism that has existed in Architecture from Vitruvius does not exclude it from being a part of the Mystical tradition.

The first issue presented in Le Duc’s writings, his strict reliance on reason, can be understood as filling in where we lack understanding rationally. Rationality is simply the idea that our knowledge surpasses what is given by the senses. It naturally follows that rationality is mystical, and we have evidence of this in Le Duc’s quote, “I am contemplating a different object – the knowledge of the True – the development of the immutable principles of our art, as variously applied by differently constituted civilizations.” Plato established a tripartite division in what is good, is also true, and is also beautiful, so it naturally follows that Le Duc is brought under the mystical umbrella.

The second issue is the reliance of method. I do not wish the tackle a larger issue here when we attempt to describe how truth is come about, namely the deduction versus intuition debate. I will simply note that intuition is a Platonic articulation set forth and can be held as Mystical, and even though deduction is often set in opposition to intuition it should not follow that deduction be divorced from the pursuit of Truth. I shall depart from the issue at this point without coming to a resolution in hopes of approaching it at a later time.

We can see many connections between Mysticism and Architecture, and if we continue with Corbusier, we should look at the quote, “Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.” Compare this quote with St. Augustine’s doctrine of illumination; the account of the conditions necessary for the mind to have direct acquaintance with intelligible objects, and those conditions are analogous to the senses and sensible objects. What we know of Platonic Form, and what we know of light as illuminating, and what we know of correctness bringing man into harmony with the universe, it is but a small step to see Corbusier’s quote in a Mystical sense.

If we continue with our sketch, one cannot find a more explicitly self titled spiritual architect than Frank Lloyd Wright. His influences were Lao Tzu and American Transcendentalism. For Wright, form and function became one. He was influenced by the nature of materials, and even wrote of being able to see them. His treatment of post and beam is indicative of a certain trend that we see in mystical literature, namely the post becoming beam and beam becoming post; becoming one. His organic architecture emphasised the exclusion of anything that did not belong to the living purpose of his design; part related to whole which is simply the unity of division and division of unity once again.

Next we have Adolf Loos who presented the idea that every material had its own formal language. Again, seeing the form of a material is a Platonic and hence mystical idea. His issue with ornament was just the requirement that architecture function as an organic whole, and he sought to resolve the division between ornament and architecture. Loos, along with Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus focused attention on cultural development through technology, design, and aesthetics. Gropius sought to raise industrial processes to the position of realizing universal principles. Along with Loos and Gropius, we have Bruno Taut who valued gothic architecture and aligned himself with Meister Eckhart. His ‘glashaus’ was a modern day realization of the same principles upon which the gothic cathedrals were built.

De Stijl follows and gave rise to abstraction. De Stijl sought Truth through abstraction, or reduction to essential elements. These essential elements were evidence of a cosmic order. This axiomatic thinking can be linked to the rational school of Truth.

This outline highlights the most influential thinkers in Mysticism and Architecture up to the first half of the 1900’s. Since the 1960’s, architectural theory has had multiple issues vying for attention characterising it as a pluralist period. What this outline implies is the awareness that at the centre of architecture should be understanding, and certain factors that currently dominate the theory of today should not be ignored, but also should not cloud understanding.

We see from the works of Architects of the past that social and economic factors do not lie outside of Architecture but instead are understood and addressed by them. The criticism levelled against the modernists that the universal laws, and the ethical implications of those laws, failed seems to be accurate as the supposedly promised utopia never arrived. This again is a misrepresentation that does not come from an understanding. The industrial revolution did indeed improve Architecture and our understanding and our relation to reality, but it does not follow that a utopia should ensue. Le Duc, the founder of modernism as he first brought into consideration socio-historical factors, explicitly states that art is not dependant on degree of civilization. Any claims of an ensuing utopia were an exaggeration to begin with that did not come from understanding. Thus modernism, and the founders of modernism, did not fail.

The issue is much more subtle as there seems to be an increase in consciousness as mankind technically patterns its populace which was noted by the modernists, yet Le Duc said that Art is not dependant on degree of civilization. Le Duc was correct in claiming that the Greeks were very artistic and had yet to be equalled despite the lack of technological progress. What should also be noted is the taste for discovery and degree of conscious development works over a relatively long period of time. There was no noticeable change between the moderns and the immediately pre-modern, but there has been a change between pre-written history and present day.

What can we then say about architecture? From its etymology, Greek: arkhe: “beginning, origin, first, place”, and Tekhne: “art, skill, craft”. Techno: “art, skill, craft, method, system” it becomes clear that Architecture is a system based on what is at the origin. What then is at the origin? The religious experience or union with the absolute is at the origin. Every Mystical writer or Architect has articulated the absolute, and this articulation becomes the system. Architectural theory and material Architecture become one when we realize that both have the same origin, and to see that origin, whether in word or in material is to see the two united. To understand is to see the origin.

The gothic cathedrals that so dominate the thought of more contemporary architects are evidence of not only their validity, but of the nearness to the origin they enjoy. It is with great difficulty that any one architect is named as the master craftsman and it has done the era no harm. The constructs of the gothic continue to have much to show us about Architecture.

The issue with the profession today lies in the fact that most constructs, (I use the term construct here to denote both theoretical and written work), operate from an assumption that there is no origin. The constructs try to reveal what practical steps might be taken in an age whose aesthetics, technological faith, and ecology have been shaken to their foundations. The post-modernists often treat history casually and superficially. The simplification of architecture was interpreted as banality. Indeed, interpretation was stripped of its meaning as well. It no longer was a part of hermeneutics, but was instead what is applied to the subject. They reduced modernism to devices and contrivances. The work of the postmodernists shows themselves to be contrivance in an ironical twist. Irony is the only meaning possible in much of the post-modernist canon, and there is an acknowledgment that there is no escape from everything in life being contrivance.

What hermeneutics has given in the instance of looking at architectural history is nothing short of meaning itself. Hermeneutics and the manner of looking imply going beyond a superficial reading of Architecture. The self, when given to an honest interpretation of a construct, takes a special relation to the construct. That relation is characterized not only by lucidness, but by indistinguishableness between self and text. Only in so far as the self is contrivance can the construct be contrivance, and if one is truly honest then the self cannot possibly be contrivance.