Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
All together now: ‘One, two, Three …’
April 24, 2012Posted by on
It was either Goethe and Schelling who gave expression to the notion that architecture was ‘frozen music.’ No one is certain. In any case, the origins of this aphorism appear to lie with Pythagoras. It is, in other words, an ancient notion.
We are told that, while travelling the ancient world sometime in the sixth century BCE and experiencing initiation into ‘the Egyptian mysteries’, Pythagoras heard the sound of hammers upon the anvils of a blacksmith’s shop and, upon examining the different sizes of these anvils, noticed there was a correlation between their mass and the notes emitted. From this he was inspired to enigmatically remark: “A rock is frozen music.”
Pythagoras intended us to understand that upon being worked, a material’s hidden, intrinsic musical sound – its math – is revealed. Base materiality partakes of an elemental harmonic unity of the universe and that all discrete and visible phenomena depend upon a hidden substratum and result from the imposition of numerical limits upon a infinite continuum – a concept with which, in essence, twenty-first century physicists might not disagree. They might even accept Pythagoras’ contention that, upon being worked, a material form’s hidden, intrinsic musical sound – its math – is revealed.
It is also to this philosopher that we attribute the practice of employing a basic module of fundamental measure for an architectural schema: a practice rich in intellectualised neo-mythic undertones that know of no essential difference between fragment and whole, in which the overall dimensions of that whole are small integer multiples of a basic length.
Parametrics, in other words, is not so far removed from Pythagoras and neo-Platonism – a point that many architects are disinclined to ruminate upon.
Charles Peirce was convinced that the number three was peculiarly important. He repeatedly referred to a ‘law of threeness’ and often constructed his theories in these terms (most notably, Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness).
Buckminster Fuller had similar obsessions, but referred threeness to the remarkably stable structural characteristics of the tetrahedron. This exhibits a three-fold unfolding, but has four faces and four vertices, although one can only ever see three faces of a tedrahedral solid at any one time (and, more usually and conveniently, it is two). In other words, the forth facet is hidden, although easily disclosable by merely switching viewpoint (or rotating the tetrahedron). This ‘fourness’ corresponds to the inherent structural unity of the tetrahedron, now construed in terms of four viewpoints which, together, give us a conceptually true picture of the whole. This understanding is, in itself, a fifth principle.
Peirce dealt with the latter understanding as a Thirdness of universe. The causal and relational characteristics of the tetrahedron would have been appreciated by him as a Secondness. Firstness, however, was prepredicative and could not be conceptualised.
Kabbalistically, threeness is (to put it crudely) manifest as the principle of three pillars of the universe. Two of these can be considered as contrasting (not as opposites), corresponding to complementary but quite different principles. Creative idea (abduction) and a form given to it (Peirce’s all-important ‘schematic diagram’) are an example. However, the central pillar is different, typically being correlated with consciousness that is appreciated as a fourness, viz., four natures, manifestations, kinds of understanding and the like which – and, again, I am putting these principles very crudely – corresponds to Peirce’s notion of a Firstness. If you prefer, this fourness can be considered in terms of four parallel universes.
Another way to appreciate this Firstness – what Peirce imply denominated as Quality – is in terms of what, in turn, Ernst Cassirer referred to as a mythic awareness. We experience this as a field of feelings before we know it in derived, conceptual terms. Heidegger would have simply framed his in terms of Being and what he termed ‘called thinking.’ Wittgenstein even more simply muttered that it was all very ‘queer.’ Cassirer was less concerned with determinations of what was mythic than with mythic awareness as a mode of what Heidegger might have said was a behavioural way of ‘being with’ Quality. This ‘being with, Kabbalistically, is ‘the work’.
Like Peirce, Bucky construed the universe in teleological terms. Life was an antientropic principle in a universe that was otherwise entropic. But ‘life’ is yet another problematic term whose difficulties are focused upon a crucial issues: mankind’s conscious awareness and, qua man, his teleological intentions that serve his / her flourishing. What is entropic is not merely what, in Newtonian terms, ‘runs down’, but is a resistance that the antientropic meets with. The notion of ‘work’ implicitly embraces this concept and introduces another key differentiation: between a tendency toward what is vegetable in contrast with what tends toward enhanced consciousness. At the balance point is the age-old issue of animality, viz., instinct, desire, impulse, sociality and the like – an issue dealt with at length by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (3rd ed. 2007). The notion is ancient and fundamental to all esoteric traditions and is perhaps most explicitly dealt with by George Gurdjieff. However, it is fascinating to examine how this issue is framed at the beginning of the modern, secular period, e.g., with someone like Lord Shaftesbury, who is concerned with an ‘architecture of the soul’ and how a more rather than less desirable architecture is to be cultivated. MacIntyre, too, is deeply impressive in how he frames the issue in terms of morality and virtue whilst avoiding religious concerns.This ‘work’ is a fifth principle attributable to our tetrahedron that is subtley different from the fourth. It belongs to Peirce’s Thirdness and, at this point, all potentially confusing notions of first, second or whatever have to be dumped. We reach a point of concern with what one does after getting out of bed in the morning. It’s that simple.
We dream and awake to face the day. During that day the architect frames this entire body of concerns within a discursive tradition whose principal concerns are largely pragmatic. But that tradition has its ghosts who stand over one’s shoulder, subliminally influencing values, concerns and decisions made. And the notion of ‘frozen music’ is highly likely to arise, in one manner or another, as number, ratio or algorithm, as proportion, flow, harmony, elegance of form …
All too often, however, the ghost is an umpteenth-hand voice influencing prejudice and superstition. Numbers, symmetries and ratios (such as the Golden Mean) are introduced as a form of naive magic: ‘If I employ these, they might give me access to harmonious beauty, impact, success …’ There is a failure to recognise that one is merely dealing with hollow symbols, not active substance. The outcome may be impressive, but remains a mix of parody and perhaps farce, especially since, if we live in a universe of number, we are already, phenomenologically and by definition, of number as well as in it. To knowingly use number within the framework of Miesian living tasks almost certainly makes more sense than to merely represent it – in which sense the meaning of harmony and accord is enabled to penetrate deeply into the depths of one’s being. It’s not enough to symbolically express the belief that ‘all discrete and visible phenomena depend upon a hidden substratum and result from the imposition of numerical limits upon a infinite continuum’; one has to explore and live that reality. Otherwise, so what …?
It is here that we meet with another kind of threeness of a kind that Shaftesbury might have recognised: the mystery of abductive creativity resulting from musement; the equal mystery of a discriminatory capability rooted in obscurity overlaid by sentiment and prevailing tastes coloured by a tradition of conspicuous consumption (cf. Veblen) and potlatch (cf. Bataille), yet able to make judgments regarding relative goodness; and the problematic of character.
One can’t give direct symbolic form to these issues. Kabbalistically, they are simply references to the three pillars – a knowledge that, in itself, is interesting but, again, hollow. Architecture, in other words, may be interesting, but it might be that being an architect is a more intriguing and challenging topic of concern.