Ruled by lines

Focussing on external aspects of buildings- whether the walls are straight or curved, for example – completely overlooks something fundamental, namely, how the flatness or curvedness of forms affects our inner disposition as human beings.

If we are going to explore how architecture affects us it’s useful at the outset to distinguish between our awareness of the creative process compared to that of the end product. Comprehending the creative process itself is normally the unobserved element in our ordinary conceptual life. When creating something our attention is typically not directed towards our own activity, but towards the thing being created.

When we don’t notice what’s alive in us while creating it’s easy to overlook how our inner world becomes our outer world; how our thoughts, feeling and moral disposition are mirrored externally in the world around us, that is, our surrounding world becomes a reflection of our inner condition. No matter what we do we create self portraits in one form or another. The designers internal physiognomy becomes the outer habitat of their clients.

How we treat our planet is how we treat ourselves. How we treat ourselves is a picture of our values, abilities and how we see ourselves. We have shaped our world in our own image and it is now shaping our children.

So whatever inspires and motivates the owners or developers, architects and builders, consciously or unconsciously, during the design and construction process is embodied in the very fabric and quality of the building, which then exerts a continual influence on its inhabitants. It either impoverishes or nourishes them.

In this sense the building is both a physical product and a medium between the inner world of the creators and the inhabitants. This results in two works of art. The outer work is the actual visible structure, the physical object we can photograph. And the other art work grows within each person experiencing it. This inner ongoing artwork is the invisible evolution of our development as individuals. This inner work is stimulated by many things, including the outer art work. Through the catalysing influence of the architectural spaces, forms, colours, quality of light… experiences can be brought to life that affect our growing awareness. This inner personal work of art is always being further refined, it’s always under construction. And is the invisible yet ever changing, everlasting end product, always in process.

Mainstream architecture is largely concerned with outer physical structures and building styles, whether classical, modern, or organic. In contrast, a building designed to nurture and refine human sensibilities, only reveals it final form in the inner life of human beings. Our spiritual and psychological maturity is neither immediately apparent to external observation nor is it subject to the laws of physical matter, hence its elusiveness. Perceiving this non-physical process requires the disciplined refinement of subtle faculties of cognition over and above those normally thought of as required for designing and constructing buildings.

For example, consider the difference between how a violin maker and an architect work. The usual method of the architect is to produce line diagrams and then to extrude them up into surfaces to be able to model them in 3D. This is usually done on-the-flat, on flat paper or a flat screen. Models are then made by reproducing these diagrams. Either by printing the diagrams onto cardboard and lifting them into the vertical position, or 3D printing.

In contrast, during the process of carving a violin the subtle doubly-curved surfaces of the instrument are made visible using bright lights, set up on the sides of the studio at worktop level, to cast shadows and highlight the undulating surfaces. The sculptural form of the surface becomes visible through the interplay of light and shadow. Seeing and carving this relief requires bifocal vision and two hands.

When looking at the world through a single eye we see a flat picture. By combining the two flat images, each seen from a slightly different angle by each of our eyes, our sense of spatial depth is created. This also helps us develop the sense that we occupy a unique spatial position in the world relative to everyone else and everything surrounding us. Our stereoscopic vision helps to give each of us the sense that we occupy a unique and individual place in the world. I am here and you are there.

Conversely a flat surface cannot cast a shadow onto itself and in this sense does not stimulate bifocal vision. Since each of our eyes is connected to each half of our brains, single eye vision is one-sided because it connects to either predominantly left or right brain activity.

As far as our visual senses are involved, producing line diagrams on flat paper only requires the use of a single colour-blind eye and mostly the left half of the brain. The plan, section and elevation “views” are actually thought-diagrams lacking genuine visual content in relation to the buildings they represent. With the building being made in the image of these conceptual diagrams, what was supposed to be the means to the end, the flat diagram, has become the expression of the end itself. Most buildings are block-of-flats; flat roofs, walls and ceilings…enlarged diagrams. The main human faculties engaged during this process are a single colour-blind eye and half a brain.

Ideally we would like buildings to reflect the whole human being. By focussing on how we create, the possibility exists of becoming aware of both the source of this process within ourselves, and its potential affect on others. A design and construction process which supports the full and healthy expression of our creative capacity is an essential ally to our ongoing cultural and spiritual evolution, both personally and socially.

Keith Struthers
Cape Town, South Africa
August 2000

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