Our built environment is a kind of manifestation of our consciousness, our awareness of our place in the world, and a statement of our relationship with others, the world at large, and our selves. The ancients understood this, hence the mystic forms of the Egyptians, Mayans, Druids, as well as other old civilizations like India, where the practice of vastu shastra (“science of architecture”) prevailed, and still resonates today. Much like Chinese geomancy, the principles of vastu shastra governed the design, layouts, proportions, ground preparation, spatial orientation and siting to balance the beneficial flows of energy between nature and the dwelling’s inhabitants.
Most modern-minded skeptics probably dismiss these geomantic practices as backward superstition. Perhaps younghorn architects today are more drawn to the parametrically designed, computationally generated curiosities of our technological age, rather than the seemingly esoteric architectural texts of yore. Yet, perhaps the ancients knew something more about the very essence of architecture, and its effect on the consciousness, than we do today. They understood that architecture is a microcosm of the greater Universe, and is not exempt from the laws of Nature. Take, for example, the Hindu temple, conceived and built as a model of an infinitely fractal cosmology. Via Data Is Nature:
It’s not just that these temples appear to be algorithmically generated, the ancient Vastu Sustra texts provide procedural rules or recipes for their design, layout and build (including the positions of ornaments). The texts transmit recursive programs, by verbal instruction, to masons so that according to Kirti Trivedi, the Hindu Temple becomes a model of a fractal Universe. A model which represents ‘views of the cosmos to be holonomic and self-similar in nature’. The idea of fractal cosmology is no stranger to western academia. In 1987 the Italian physicist Luciano Pietronero argued, in his paper, that the Universe shows ‘a definite fractal aspect over a fairly wide range of scale’ based on correlations of galaxies and clusters, their spatial distribution and average mass density.
‘According to Hindu philosophy the cosmos can be visualised to be contained in a microscopic capsule, with the help of the concept of subtle element called ‘tammatras’. The whole cosmic principle replicates itself again and again in ever smaller scales’ – Kirti Trivedi
These mind-blowing temples, built by hand before the advent of any computer-aided whatnot, seem to embody something beyond what our modern, Newtonian, mechanistic minds can fathom. But perhaps our technological tools, something that the modern world excels at developing, are helping us get to the forms that the ancients once prescribed. Data Is Nature:
The initial temple plan is based on a grid form known as the Vastu-Purusha Mandala. Tellingly Trivedi remarks in his paper that the Vastu-Purusha Mandala is ‘not a blueprint for a temple, but a ‘forecast’, a marking of the potential within which a wide range of possibilities are implied’. The significance here, should not be underestimated. A ‘potential for possibilities’ within a predefined rule-set predisposes architecture to be governed by a degree of emergence. While emergence in parametric architecture arrived, recently, with computers and algorithms, India has been enacting emergent masonry for thousands of years thanks to the open rules of the Vastus Sustra.
But form must have some kind of context, which informs it and those within. In this fascinating talk linking modern research into vastu shastra and architect Jonathan Lipman, AIA (educated at Cornell) describes how the “superstitions” of geomancy may have a foundation in science. For example, vastu shastra suggests that east one of the better directions for sleeping, recuperating and “brain coherence.” Lipman cites studies that proves these principles may hold scientific water, and convincingly makes a case why a modern science of architecture — like the one that vastu shastra has upheld for centuries — should be developed. Correctly made architecture would be a way to “hack consciousness,” says Lipman, and not only would a house be made like Corbusier’s “machine for living,” it would be a machine that would actually work and be a healthy, nurturing place to dwell.
Image: Vijayanagar, Hampi, by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra