The Architecture of Consciousness

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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

Kandariya-Mahadev_Temple

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

Art & architecture stores memories of the past

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Art and architecture are repositories of memory, the stories we tell ourselves as a culture. I came across a mention of French art historian Henri Focillon, and the impact of his thinking on art history. Most people may think of art history as a flowing continuity, where one style “progresses” into another. But Focillon envisioned history as layers, embedded within works of art and architecture, exuding meaning and memories of the past. It’s an interesting thought. Via Shigeki Abe, of Chuo University:

As an art historian, Henri Focillon always viewed works of art on the horizon of time. Placing something on the horizon of time means to always treat it as something in the process of transformation, pregnant with the past and leading toward the future. Works of art are, of course, nothing more than a spec in the chronological scheme of things. As living things, however, they are always connected to the past below the surface, and their forms retain traces of the time that has elapsed.

From time to time, Focillon asserted this connection to the past in a bold manner. For example, in his article “Prehistory and the Middle Ages” (“Senshi Jidai to Chusei”) written in 1941, he links and discusses these two periods of history, separated by thousands of years, with great ease. According to Focillon, history is structured like a geological formation. It is made up of many overlapping layers, from the older layers at the bottom to the surface layers at the top. The fact that the older layers are usually not exposed, however, does not mean they have disappeared. Likewise, ancient periods of history live on as the older layers, so to speak, in our collective consciousness or the subconscious of individuals, and they sometimes exert an effect on the history of surface layers from deep inside.

I wonder what ancient things does our collective subconscious still remember: matriarchal societies? Our nomadic pasts under a great landscape of stars, slavery and ancient wars that still continue today…?

Art is not made in a vacuum, and it makes sense that art is made as a reflex of these latent impulses of remembrance. I suppose that is why it can resonate so profoundly with us, while we subconsciously know that new images, a new layer of continuity, is urgently needed today. Ultimately, we all play a part in (re)making this layer history. Read more over here.

Radiant City

Radiant City by Jim Brown& by Gary Burns, National Film Board of Canada

Shining a light on the inherently dysfunctional structures of North American suburbia, this National Film Board of Canada docudrama Radiant City is named after French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s utopian and unrealized Ville Radieuse concept, which envisioned a new, modern way of living and urban organization, featuring clear and almost “totalitarian” demarcations between living, working and leisure. Via ArchDaily:

Today, in the aftermath of Modernism, Le Corbusier’s built cities are hardly ever described as Utopias. Brasilia, for example, has been harshly criticized for ignoring residents’ habits or desires and for not providing public spaces for urban encounters. In addition to this, the Unité-inspired apartment blocks, which lie on the outskirts of nearly every major city today, have become incubators of poverty and crime; most have been thoroughly remodeled or demolished.

It’s certainly worth a watch, and if you’ve ever lived in suburbia, it is eerily familiar; as that is one of the characteristics of suburbia: that it attempts at the familiar yet ultimately feels incredibly alienating. Imagine growing up here; environmental author David Orr pegs our society’s current sense of massive “displacement” squarely on this kind of urban development, resulting in our detached relationship to our environment, allowing for its degradation.

James Howard Kunstler, an outspoken critic of suburban sprawl, says this in the film:

80% of everything that has been built in North America was built in the last fifty years and most of it is brutal, depressing, ugly, unhealthy and spiritually degrading.

The suburbs are a kind of modern purgatory; a result of chasing an empty, modern dream at the expense of true community and connection with nature and our fellow human beings. “Turning our backs on the world,” in a way. A pretty dire situation that we’ve built ourselves into; can we get out of our personal and collective suburb before it eats up everything? I certainly hope so.