Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: magic
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.
March 20, 2012Posted by on
I have a friend who is putting together a Dictionary of Details, together with an app and a web and … whatever. He has a nice collection of lists from all kinds of architects, around the world. And he’s probably waiting to hear from you! I think this is an exciting project, but confess to a different curiousity about the topic as such.
Why are details interesting? Why are they significant? Charles Eames certainly thought they were all-important. Sherlock Holmes did. Elit Noyes Rem remarked about details that, “in them he should be able to read, or at least see reflected, the character and spirit of the entire building – as to see the universe in a grain of sand.” Koolhaas appears to have built a career on ignoring them, but that might be because his office doesn’t ignore them (as you may have noticed). For most architects details have a special quality. An otherwise good design with poor details is ruined. A poor design might blind us to its good details, but there is no reason why this should be a match of incompatibles. Or is there?
When Mies muttered about God and detail he may simply have been another significant architect voicing off, thereby exercising influence over others. So far as I am aware he never told us why God would be in the details. His ‘goodness’ had no basis. But you won’t (apart from Rem) find many architects who disagree. They positively get excited about details, as if these possessed a magical quality.
Ernst Cassirer was a rare philosopher fascinated by what he referred to as mythic awareness – a state of mind that engages the rational mind with a strangely fluid Other of qualities that have all the depth we associate with the unconscious, with all that is mysterious, all we don’t really understand. Before him, Charles Peirce actually addressed the prepredicative simply as Firstness, or Quality.
Both Peirce and Cassirer dealt with the door between these two realms as one of feeling, not conceptual thinking. One feels such things before one knows them, before one can articulate them intellectually. And, in the tradition of magic, there is no difference between part and whole. To possess a part (a lock of hair, a finger nail …) of your enemy is to possess something of them as such and give you access to exercising an influence over them.
The architectural version of this is the somewhat absurd tradition that, given a fragment, the whole of which it is a part can be reconstructed. But this isn’t so mad. Forensics are founded upon this principle. Archaeologists all over the world can take bone fragments and reconstruct whole beasts from them and tell you about their eating habits, how they gave birth, etc. DNA can be employed to bring the beast into being. Chickens may well be the means by which eggs reproduce themselves.
But there is another basis to this body of belief and sentiment. The architectural whole – conceived and constructed as a discrete entity – not only gives reference to the human body, as Vitruvius believed, but to all bodies. Every such architectonic entity is a body modeled on all of nature’s bodies, not just our own. And mankind has always marveled at nature’s reproductive capacity to give birth to such bodies, to grow them from infancy to maturity, to repair damaged parts, sometimes to reproduce whole missing parts, and especially to harmonise the disparate parts of a body into a harmonious whole. The unity of an architectural body, in other words, is simply modeled on who we are and what is around us, on how we comprehend nature as a whole and the universe as a whole. My body, his body, a Man’s body? Vitruvius and Leonardo were on target only in the sense that they identified mankind as a unique kind of body. But the real point is simply a body, as such.
While, at one level, this is the Greek Acropolis and Alberti’s churches (to which nothing could be added or taken away without detriment), at another level it is the witch doctor playing with that nail cutting. This is not to passage from the sublime to the ridiculous, but merely to move rationality toward a marriage with feelings and modes of awareness that are more open and permeable to a realm of knowing that was referred to by Henri Bergson as ‘dureé’: where there is no past, present and future, only a temporal fluidity, in which our mental filters weaken …
There is no mystery to this. But there is mystery within it, coursing through it. Mystery especially attaches to how a part seems to exist for itself, for other parts and for the whole they all make up. And from this it is a small step to the mathematics of number, ratio, proportion and even the magical attributes of such things. Number enables us to inform an architectural body with a unity that is at once real and symbolic, a simulacrum of a natural body … Except that it’s life is our life and not one of its own. The things we make our our ‘extensions’ and we dream of one day – like Doctor Frankenstein – producing a living artefact
Cassirer drew our attentions to our interface with this realm. In this, he was not so distant from a phenomenologist such as Merleau-Ponty. Like Peirce, they all pointed in the same direction, to a place where, as Wittgenstein put it, rationality hits a bedrock. It can go no further. Witch doctors know about it; Hollywood knows about it. Scientists are scratching away at the surfaces of the issue. Mathematicians have been dealing in this realm of paradox for some time. Product designers such as Eliot Noyes and Charles Eames considered detail to be all-important, as did Rams and Ives does. Architects get excited about the significance of details; they find God in them. And the witch doctor finds the devil in them!
So, next time you are designing a detail – not just to keep the rain out or make an apt interface, but to embody significance – be aware that you are in a strange territory. Personally, for me, that strangeness can never be found in what is merely beautiful. Such ‘beauty’ means so many different things (as on an ~Ives Apple product), but never ‘stangeness.’ Interestingly, I can only find it when I am confronted by paradox – such as the detail that is, at once, precise and yet casual, ordinary. It’s a cliché, but the Japanese have a long tradition in seeking out this quality. But turn away from all that. One sometimes finds this quality in ad hoc building rather than professionalised architecture. Now, that is a real parodox, isn’t it!
The personal reference near to me, here, is that of Richard Burton, a retired architect whose practice (ABK) has now just closed forever. He has a house in Kentish Town, just down the road, that is full of such detail. And he has an aged chalet in Switzerland even more full of such carefully considered, casual and seemingly ad hoc details. And yet you won’t find this in his firm’s work – or, not that I know of … and I’d love to be contradicted!
Meanwhile, my other friend is still collecting lists. Some are witty and shift away from artefacts to social situations, e.g. the feet that poke out beneath the curtain of a polling booth (from Jeremy Till), but such wit is a different concern to that of paradox and strangeness. You might laugh and chat about it. You don’t do that with strangeness: you nod, wink, smile … and probably stay quiet.
Anyway, on that note I thought I’d add another ‘living detail,’ arguably with a touch of magic and myth in its ingredients … (at Milan Cathedral):
By the way, if you want to send a set of ten favourite details to Wayne Head, use this email link: Wayne Head