Geoff Baker celebrates the work of Jim Stirling

July 30th, 2011

At the beginning of my career I spent several years working closely with Geoffrey Baker.  I have often said that he was perhaps the most influential teacher in my life.  We came together in one of those rare occasions that life sometimes offers.  I had finished my architectural education and was looking to find someway of deepening my understand of design.  I met Geoff and was immediately taken by the similarity of his interests but particularly by the analytical techniques he had develped in his Phd to facilitate that interest.  Geoffrey was influential in helping me to articulate my own position in architecture but he went on to publish several books that introduced his analytical techniques to the wider architectural community.  These books that have examined the work of many of the leading architects of the era have had lasting effects on many students of architecture both young and old and remain permanent fixtures on the reading lists in some schools of architecture almost 30 years after their publication.  His latest book the result of some 12 years work, makes a valuable contribution to that list.  It is a masterful examination of the work of Jim Stirling and his Partners .  Stirling was quick to recognise the quality of Geoff ‘s work, in the early analyses he made of his work, this book would not have disappointed him.  I would encourage all of you who seek to develop their own architectural skills to put this book by their computer or drawing board, it will introduce you to a series of architectural tools simply explained and hard to find elsewhere.  It is in the bookshops, ……….go get it.

Stirling's Book Cover    Geoff and Frank with book    

The Architecture of Jim Stirling and Partners           Geoff and I looking over the book together.

A CASE for BEAUTY: Explorations of Form and Order in Architecture (Part 1)

May 9th, 2011

I am posting here parts of a keynote presentation that I gave recently at a conference hosted by The Rizvi School of Architecture in Mumbai, India.   The conference chaired by Professor Akhtar Chauhan, his students and staff was the 13th organised by the Rizvi School on the theme of Humane Habitat.  The 9th International Architectural Student Design Competition was held to coincide with the conference.

Akhtar at Lecturn  Debate on the Podium

Participants  Post Conference Celebrations

Conference Debate and Post-Conference Celebrations:

The paper I present here goes over some ground already posted on this blog but addresses more directly the question of ‘Beauty’.  For reasons of brevity some of the supporting analyses have been left out of this piece .  Hopefully it will all still hang together.

“I am delighted to have been invited to give a paper at this conference.  What makes these conferences special for me is that we come here to talk about a variety of issues in the context of ‘Humane Habitat’.  This theme fascinates me and has fascinated me for several years.  How do we define a ‘Humane Habitat’, what separates our discussions at these meetings from the discussions at any other international conference on architecture and urban design ….. what constitutes a ‘Humane Habitat’? 

So how do we define a contemporary ‘Humane Habitat’?  How do we distinguish ‘Humane Architecture’ from architecture more generally?  In extreme circumstances I think we all know when we walk into an inhumane environment, we feel depressed, impoverished, sometimes even threatened.  I guess if we chose to we could all create such environments in our minds, as architects perhaps some of us could even create such environments on paper, Frank Lloyd Wright controversially once said that he could design a house that would guarantee a divorce within six months.  If an inhumane habitat diminishes us, a ‘Humane Habitat’ must make us feel, enlivened, enriched.  A humane habitat meets our needs, tempers our environment, supports our day to day activities and in the best examples enables us to engage with the highest parts of ourselves.  A humane environment therefore complements us as a species by putting us in balance with our world and thus completes us.  If we allow ourselves to think at our highest levels for a moment, an environment that completes us, in every sense of the word must be beautiful.  So for me ‘Beauty’ is an essential aspect of ‘Humane Architecture’; indeed I think we should start to think of beauty as the defining aspect of Humane Architecture. 

Mother Feeding: Wyspianski 1905  Macierzynstwo: Stanislaw Wyspianski 1905

For centuries ‘beauty’ was used to distinguish great art and architecture from the mere mediocre.  Within Western culture Georgian architecture stands forward as one of the periods that are often considered to have generated some of our more beautiful buildings.  Georgian Architecture, that dominated the development of Bath, benefitted from the fact that it was able to evolve over several generations and that it worked with a limited range of materials.  It also used a restricted formal vocabulary that reflected the culture of that time.  Modern culture in contrast, is much more pluralistic in social terms but also in terms of the technologies available for use and the formal design systems that have developed to match that pluralism.  Interestingly within the pluralistic culture of modernism and post-modernism, beauty seems to have been forgotten and not just forgotten philosophically.  On sites between those Georgian examples that I just cited, more contemporary houses and flats have been built.  The Planning Department of Bath limited the scale and materials used to match the materials and scale of the Georgian context, but we will perhaps all agree that the elegance and beauty of the earlier examples is missing in these more contemporary buildings.  John Selwyn Gummer, former Minister of the Environment in the UK, recently said that “beauty had become an unmanly word” in our modern; post-modern world.  At the risk of damaging my manhood, for the rest of this paper, I plan to argue that it is time that we as architects reclaimed beauty, and reclaimed it as a defining quality of Humane Habitat.  This is not going to be an easy undertaking; we cannot return to the past but let’s see if we can get a little closer to a genuine understanding of how beauty might be defined to give a critical armature for our pluralistic culture.

Bathwick Hill Bath  Terrace Houses Bathwick Hill Bath

Georgian House: Bathwick Hill, Bath                            Georgian and Contemporary Housing: Bath

When ‘anything goes’, which has been a dictum within conceptual art and architecture since Duchamp, then beauty by extension is excluded.  Post-modernism in recent years has developed the same concept to new extremes, kicking any grounds for aesthetic judgement into touch.  It is commonly said that ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, an expression that in my view is wrongly interpreted to mean that beauty is a subjective phenomenon.  I will come back to this theme at the end of the paper.  Interestingly the world of post-modernism is also considered a world of subjectivity.  Within a post modern world everyone’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s.  It is not surprising that within such a world view that beauty has totally lost its foothold.

Urinal Marcel Duchamp 1917  Store Graz Austria Peter Cook

Urinal: Marcel Duchamp 1917                                      Store: Graz, Austria Peter Cook

So how would I define beauty?  Let me put my definition on the table straight away and then spend a little time filling out how I came to this position.  I would like to suggest that ‘beauty is the quality of a work that reveals unity’.  In my dictionary an artist, architect, or for that matter a poet, musician or any cultural contributor is someone who is able to recognise and express ‘the similarities within dissimilars’.  Architecture and the arts are therefore part of a process of reconciliation.  A cultural contributor of any discipline is someone who is pulling the world together; finding previously isolated fragments of reality that somehow belong together and through their skills showing how they can be conjoined, so that others can momentarily share the same experience of unity.  This definition if substantiated would give purpose back to art and architecture.  I plan to show how this has always been the role of great art and architecture.  Minor art would be those works that reveal a reconciliation of minor events or the reworking of reconciliations already revealed.  Great art and architecture would be those works that show for the first time the unification of more significant phenomena that had previously been considered distinct or irreconcilable.  Against this definition it is not enough to merely juxtapose differing phenomena, a technique that has lately become so popular; great art may shock, but it is not the role of art and architecture to shock as some in recent years have seemed to believe.  If we accept this position then the post-modern dictum that ‘anything goes’ loses its legs and we need to re-examine what we mean when we say that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”.  From this perspective ‘beauty’ is therefore free again to take centre stage within the disciplines of art and architecture, not as prettiness or sweetness but as a genuine contribution to the unity that culture can bring to a sometimes fragmentary world.

Girl with Pearl Earring Jan Vermeer 1665                      My Bed Tracy Emin 1999

Girl with Pearl Earring: Jan Vermeer 1665               My Bed: Tracy Emin 1999

If ‘beauty is the quality of a work that reveals unity’, then this suggests that there is an objective quality to the work.  We may not immediately recognise that objective quality in a rational sense, the sense of unity may just be a feeling of resolution, but for a work to create an experience of unity that is shared, confirms an objective dimension to a work.  Let us look further to establish how that sense of unity is created.  I suggested earlier in my definition that it called for the ability of the artist or architect “to recognise and express the similarities within dissimilars”.  What are the similarities that the artist is using?  Well first and foremost they are the similarities that reconcile the conflicting experiences within the artist’s life and then within the forms that they select to express that resolution.  At a fundamental level both experience and artistic expression are differing aspects of form.  Form is a word that describes many differing dimensions of our reality.  Like ice and water vapour being differing aspects of water, forms range from the ethereal realms of mental and emotional forms, thoughts and feelings, to the gross physical forms of mountains and valleys.  Form is what we are: when we think we think in form, when we feel we feel with form, when we touch, see and smell we use form and when we create we match our internal intentions, thoughts and feelings with external forms to express those intentions.

The world of form is so all enveloping and so close to us that we sometimes fail to realise its full power.  A piece of cardboard will bend even under its own load, yet change the form by folding it to make corrugations and the same thickness cardboard will carry many times its own weight.  A block of cast iron or steel will sink when placed in water, yet the same cast iron or steel worked into an appropriate form will float and sail across the oceans.  When several hundred people crowd on to a transatlantic jet and the load of all those people and their belongings lift off into the sky, it is the power of form in operation; the power of form performing what earlier generations would have called miracles.  When a piece of Mozart’s music moves us powerfully to tears it is the same power of form in operation.  Simple sounds, vibrations in the air, when arranged with the care and precision of a great musician’s pen, strike deeply into our psyche and can take us on a roller coaster ride through the highs and lows of our emotions.  Although the form of a Mozart symphony is of a different order to the aerodynamics of a Boeing 747 it is never the less the same power of form being precisely applied in both cases.

Paper Boat  Virgin Jet

When we step out of the skies and into the more familiar formal realms of the city we often seem to operate under the impression that form has lost its power.  Yet if form can lift us both physically and emotionally into the celestial realms by what means does it loose its power when it enters our cities.  The truth is that it does not.  Form continues to have power but form used mindlessly, releases power indiscriminately.  The psychologist James Hillman suggests that contemporary cities are having a desensitising effect on their inhabitants.  In his words urban form is having an ‘anaesthetic’ rather than an ‘aesthetic’ effect on humanity.  In constructing our urban environments we seem to have forgotten that form has power; that poor form makes us feel poor; ill conceived form makes us feel ill.  If urban form has this power to diminish us then we need to remember that the converse must also be true, and that a truly aesthetic environment is indeed a therapeutic environment.  In other words great architecture and art can heal but out of the myriad of forms available to us which are the forms that we should choose?  To open up this issue we are going to start with an examination of form making in nature and the natural laws that seem to control the making of those forms.

Animals were creating homes for themselves millions of years before homo-sapiens started to engage with this activity.  Fossils of spiders using web constructions have been found dating back almost four hundred million years; by comparison homo-erectus emerges only one and a half million years ago.  The complexities of animal constructions are also remarkable and sometimes staggeringly sophisticated.  The ventilation systems developed by termites in their nests, which have reached as high as four metres in some instances are amazingly elaborate.  Each species of termite has evolved a slightly different system but the nest mound of the Macrotermes bellicosus has developed an air conditioning system which is able to move oxygen around the mound and into its deepest chambers, providing a fresh supply of oxygen to each of as many as two million residents.  It is hard to believe how such complex systems have evolved within the natural world and how this information is able to be passed down through the genes.  Yet even within the same species, (Macrotermes bellicosus) the termites living in Uganda have evolved a ventilation system that calls on different laws of physics to those living in the Ivory Coast.


The ecology of an animal home is impressive.  It is coherent, appropriate in its responsiveness to need and wholly integrated into its environment.  It is as beautiful as the rest of nature and its forms seem to respond to the same natural laws that guide the creation of form more generally in the natural world.  The form making laws of nature offer consistencies.  Biologists and zoologists suggest that there is what they call a ‘convergence’ towards the most appropriate form for a particular need and context.  We see it within the mammal world.  Placental and marsupials have evolved in isolation on different continents for the last fifty million years yet each grouping have evolved similarly formed creatures limited by temperature size and environment.   In two instances, the parallels between placental and marsupial forms are so close that it would be difficult even for an expert to make a distinction without handling them.  Or again, a Basking Shark, an Ichantyosaur, and a Porpoise all share in common the form of a fish, even though the second belongs to an extinct group of reptiles and the third of course a mammal and more closely related to a horse than a fish.  The similarities of the solutions generated in all of these instances are causally brought about by the independent adaptation to a common mode of life, but the fact that they give rise to similar forms, suggests that within the natural world there are laws that govern the selection and order of form relative to context and need.

Since most of us would agree that humanity is completely co-terminal with the natural world then we might reasonably expect that the rules that we call upon when we take it upon ourselves to create form, could reasonably be argued to derive from the same source, generated by the same patent operating with the workshop of nature.  Over the last hundred years psychologists have been able to identify rules of perception that explain how we identify and respond to form.  Interestingly, their work has demonstrated that human and animal perceptual systems share many of the same characteristics.  Although much of this work was done almost a hundred years ago the theories most influential in this field remain the theories of the Gestalt school; their work examined the ORDER of FORM.

Red Objects   Aalto Window

SIMILARITY: Red Objects are related by Colour.       Window and Wall related by Similar Forms.

The ordering principles as defined by the Gestalt school of thought that are of most use to artists and architects, are ‘similarity’, ‘proximity’, ‘symmetry’ ‘closure and good continuation’, ‘figure-ground’ and ‘centre of gravity’.  In terms of our thesis for today if ‘beauty is the quality of a work that reveals unity’, and if the artist/architect needs to be able “to recognise and express the similarities within dissimilars”; the first principle that interests us here is that of similarity.  By way of example let us look at the principle of similarity as used in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.  If we start with a very simple symmetrical building, the Winslow House, we may be able to make the links back to the Georgian examples, before we move into more difficult territory.  It will also be interesting to observe how consistently these principles are applied.  This consistency acts as a reinforcement of ideas and such reinforcement seems to be an important part of any architectural language whether we are looking at the work of FLLW or Peter Zumptor.

Winslow House   Georgian House Vertical

Winslow House: Emphasises the Horizontal               Traditional Georgian has a more Vertical Emphsis

Winslow House:

Two principle design ideas:

i               To emphasise the centre

ii              To emphasis the horizontal

i               Emphasising the centre

  • The elevation is symmetrical
  • The main entrance is in the centre
  • The general proportion of the house is picked up in the entrance surround

ii              Emphasising the horizontal

  • The general form is a horizontal rectangle
  • ……as we have seen the entrance surround reinforces this
  • Over hanging eaves
  • Shadow line of upper windows
  • Shallow pitched roof
  • Wide and dumpy chimney
  • The stylobate: the raised ground floor
  • The transoms in the windows
  • Even the selected shape of the bricks

If we look at the development of FLLW’s work after the Winslow House we find that these two principles are developed further.  The emphasis of the centre changes, it becomes less about symmetry and more about an asymmetrical balancing of centre.  The hearth becomes the centre of an asymmetrically balanced dwelling.  The emphasis of the horizontal however is given greater and greater emphasis.  Let us look at the Robie House.

Robie House  Robie Copings

Robie House: 1908                                                    Copings: One technique used to Emphasise Horizontal


In the Robie House the idea of horizontality that was started in the Winslow House is developed much further here.

  • The extended eaves become the dominate form in the scheme.
  • The ground floor is completely concealed to emphasise a developed stylobate
  • The garden walls have heavy copings to emphasise the horizontal
  • Even the coursing of the bricks is emphasised, vertical joints played down, horizontal joints raked to strengthen the horizontal.

What we see here in the emphasis of the horizontal is that a third idea has developed.  The building is stretching out to embrace the landscape and in the process the inside and outside start to blend with each other.  What I am calling here a third idea was of course in his work for many years, he called it ‘the destruction of the box’ and I would like to come back to that later.

The themes developed in the first part of this paper have explored and perhaps explained the ordering structure of classical art and architecture in which the principle ordering device is bilateral symmetry the remainder of the paper moves into more complex yet equally powerful ordering systems.


Silent Lion

A CASE for BEAUTY: Explorations of Form and Order in Architecture (Part 2)

May 9th, 2011

In the second part of this paper the simple themes explored in classical and symmetrical designs is developed in the more complex realm of contemporary culture: 

“Although the principle of ‘similarity’ is of great importance within Gestalt ordering systems the most over-riding principle in operation is that of balance; that is the constantly shifting balance that balances all opposites within the constantly shifting matrix of reality.  Returning to our discussion of beauty and high architecture, when I stumbled on to the importance of balanced opposites in an architectural work, I could not be certain that what I claimed to be seeing was in fact justified.  It took some time before I was able to assemble enough examples and then the testimony of others to support my case.  Early one morning many years ago, I found these lines in one of Aalto’s essays.  “Whatever our task, large or small, starting from the day to day ugliness or the most sensitive emotional element, a town or part of it, a building, a traffic network, or then a painting or sculpture or everyday object, there is one absolutely vital condition that must exist for its creation before it can take on the significance that makes it culture.  There are other conditions too, but we will start with this.  In each and every case, there must be a simultaneous reconciliation of opposites.”

Balance The Balance of Nature: The constant Reconcilliation of Opposite Forces

Aalto  Door Handle 1  Door Handle 2  Window and Ear

Alvar Aalto:  “…… the Simultaneous Reconcilliation of Opposities.”

Aalto’s words helped to cement my growing conviction that aesthetics had an objective dimension.  The relationships that I was seeing in the works that I had been analysing were being seen by others and it was becoming clear that many great works could be understood as ensembles of balanced relationships.  Aalto’s own work was a master class in this regard, his works abound in oppositions reconciled, Juhani Pallasmaa’s recent analysis of Villa Mairea beautifully demonstrates this point.  I went on to find it elsewhere in architecture and then to find critics in other cultural disciplines pointing out the same phenomenon in their own fields.  In the field of music Leonard Bernstein has described how both symmetry and the technique of balancing opposed phenomena can be used to structure a work.  With particular reference to the balancing of these opposed forces, he writes “We are …. dualistically constituted, in the systole and diastole of our heartbeats, the left-rightness of our walking, the in and outness of our breathing, in our maleness and femaleness.  This dualism invades our whole life, on all levels; in our actions (preparation/attack, tension/ release) and in our thinking (Good and Evil, Yin and Yang, Lingam and Yoni, progress and reaction); and all these find musical expression in such oppositions as downbeat versus upbeat, half note versus quarter note and especially in the elementary musical structure of 2+2=4, +4=8, +8=I6, etc. ad infinitum.”  And in relation to a specific example he writes;  “But it’s not only in his operatic works that Berg has succeeded so remarkably where others have not.  His sense of drama, his deft and just balancing of the incompatible elements, tonal or non-tonal, carry over into all his compositions.  For example, his very last work, the beautiful Violin Concerto of 1935, solved that agonizing ambiguity to-be-or-not-to-be-tonal, in an equally satisfying way.”

Bernstein  Jung

Leonard Bernstein: 1918 – 1990                               Carl Jung: 1875 – 1961

In the field of psychology, Carl Jung experienced a similar phenomenon with his patients.  “This ‘outgrowing’, as I formerly called it, on further experience was seen to consist in a new level of consciousness.  Some higher or wider interest arose on the person’s horizon, and through this widening of his view the insoluble problem lost its urgency.  It was not solved logically in its own terms, but faded out when confronted with a new and stronger life-tendency.  It was not repressed or made unconscious, but merely appeared in a different light, and so did indeed become different.  What, on a lower level, had led to the wildest conflicts and panicky outbursts of emotion, viewed from the higher level of the personality, now seemed like a storm in the valley seen from a high mountain top”.

In his book ‘The Dynamics of Creation’, the psychologist Anthony Storr develops Jung’s thesis, and applies it more thoroughly to the creative process.  Storr is able to conclude that when an artist is able to deal with the conflicting forces in his life as described above, he not only resolves the conflicts for himself, but in expressing the reconciliation within the work, is also setting up a matrix that others with similar conflicting concerns can enter.  He quotes Harrison Gough: “Somehow, a creative product must be given a sense of reconciliation, of having resolved in an aesthetic and harmonious way the discords and disharmonies present in the original situation.  The work of art, for example, for a moment reorders and brings into balance the tensions of forms and space, and in so doing, moderates the inner tensions of the observer, giving him a sense of encounter and fulfilment”.  And he continues, “It is because the great creative artists can do this for us in their works that we gain so much more than mere pleasure from art.  By identifying ourselves, however fleetingly, with the creator, we can participate in the integrating process which he has carried out for himself.  The more universal the problem with which the artist is dealing, the more universal his appeal….…  We all possess inner worlds which are, to varying degrees, at odds with our external world; and the contents of these inner worlds and the tensions engendered by them have much in common.  The great creators, because their tensions are of universal rather than personal import, can appeal to all of us when they find, in their work, a new path of reconciliation”.  Beethoven is an example of an artist racked by the conflict in his personal life, conflict which he was able to take into his work and bring to a peaceful resolution.  In the most stressful periods of his life he is reported as saying that he could only find happiness in his work. 

Madonnas  Ecstasy of St Teresa Bernini 

The TWO Madonnas: Conflicts to be Resolved          The Ecstasy of St Teresa: Giovanni Bernini 1645 -1652

When an artist is able to reconcile conflict within his or her own life and give to it formal expression which can be integrated into culture, the work offers the invitation to all others struggling with the same conflict to share the reconciliation.  At this point the individuals capable of sharing the work in this way will find the experience both meaningful and therapeutic.  As Anthony Storr suggests above, the greatest artists seem to be capable of transcending the greatest conflicts and thus hold in their work a matrix which offers meaning to a wide cross-section of individuals and thus enabling a great step forward in culture. 

In architecture we had such a step forward when Frank Lloyd Wright was able to ‘destroy the box’.  He first achieved this, he tells us, not in the projects like the Robie House where the resolution of inside and outside spaces is very clear but in Unity Temple, a building that he had done earlier for the community in Oak Park, Chicago.  In Unity Temple, a fitting title for the place where this event took place, he successfully reconciled and showed there to be a unity between mass and space; earth and sky; those two great opposites that had remained irreconcilable throughout the entire history of architecture.

Unity Temple 1  Unity Temple: Oak Park, Frank Lloyd Wright 1906

In this building Wright set out to demonstrate a reconciliation of inside and outside, solid and void those two great polar opposites that had dominated architecture since mankind first pulled a stone to the door of his cave.  Wright was preoccupied with this reconciliation throughout his career and realised it in many great buildings by judiciously dissolving inside spaces through partially glazed walls into external terraces and the landscape beyond.  Interestingly however it was here in Unity Temple, a totally internal environment, that Wright felt that he had achieved this resolution for the first time.  “…there perhaps is where you will find the first real expression of the idea that the space within the building is the reality of that building.  Unity Temple is where I thought I had it, ……”  “You will see, there in Unity Temple…. …..the sense of the great room coming through- space not walled in now but more or less free to appear.”  “In Unity Temple you will find the walls actually disappearing; you will find the interior space opening to the outside and see the outside coming in.”

Wright referred to this idea as the ‘destruction of the box’.  At the large scale of the building we see it in the basic disposition of the elements.  Limiting our discussion to the temple block for the time being, we can see how the four stair towers pull themselves clear of the main mass and almost seem to skewer themselves to the ground.  These four elements thus form the solid anchor to the block and allow the central temple space to push itself out between these anchored positions.  The composition both grounded and freed thus seems to pulsate between these contradictory forces, with the one pushing and pulling against the other.  At the upper level of the temple element, the solidity of the envelop breaks down into lead-lighted glazing, articulated externally by six columns on each façade.  In a very real sense at this level, the interior is allowed to break out and light is allowed to pour in.  Almost as if to underline this spatial movement, the roof at this point stretches out in a cantilever structure to form a canopy to the clearstory. 

Unity Interior 1  Unity Interior 2   Unity Interior 3 

Placement of the Mouldings Dissolve the Corners                                                Form and Space Merge

At the scale of the major building elements we can see that Wright was able to create the impression of mass and space interpenetrating and oscillating with each other, but even when we examine the solid elements in this composition we find the same principles being demonstrated.  Internally the major temple space is penetrated by four solid stair towers and the space between these is layered with balconies.  When we examine these stair towers we find that their solidity is challenged by the way that Wright has decorated them.  Instead of using panels on each surface of the towers as was traditional at that time to reinforce each of the surfaces, the paneling is allowed to frame the corner of the tower thus effectively merging two surfaces into one.  The effect that this has is that it breaks down the corners of these elements and seems to bring space into the solidity of the towers.  The technique is repeated on the leading edges of the balconies and on the roof-lights above.  The overall effect is that mass and space start to blend into one another even within the solid elements of the design.  The form of the building thus begins to appear less substantial and one is left wondering where space finishes and where mass begins. 

Unity Temple 2  Unity Temple: Frank Lloyd Wright 1906 

What we see happening here in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905-06 seems to have been exactly paralleled by similar attempts to create a unity between mass and space elsewhere in our culture.  In the field of painting it was Picasso and Braque who paved the way in 1905-06, and it is Picasso’s `Demoiselles d’Avignon’ 1906-07 that made the first attempt at the dissolution of the solid, and the unification of Mass and Space.  The Cubist work that followed in the wake of ‘Demoiselles d’ Avignon’ developed this concept, writing about Picasso’s painting ‘The Resevoir’ 1909, the art historian Timothy Hilton writes: “In all the houses and in the form of the reservoir at the bottom of the picture, there is no longer any feeling that mass is being represented as mass, but rather that the facts of the visuality of the village are transformed into shifting and merging planes, that everything is being dissolved.”

Demoiselles d' Avignon   Demoiselles d’ Avignon: Picasso 1906

Again, directly concurrent with this movement in architecture and the arts, in the field of physics, equivalent relationships, this time in the form of equations, were also being used by Einstein in his famous ‘Theories of Relativity’ to relate energy and mass and space and time.  Jacob Bronowski’s account of this period is interesting.  “So the great paper of 1905 is not just about light, or as the title says, `The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’.  It goes on in the same year to a postscript saying energy and mass are equivalent, E=mc2″ …. “To us it is remarkable that the first account of relativity should instantly entail a practical and devastating prediction for atomic physics.  To Einstein, it is simply a part of drawing the world together; like Newton and all scientific thinkers, he was in a deep sense a unitarian.” …. “So in a lifetime Einstein joined light to time, and time to space, energy to matter, matter to space, and space to gravitation. At the end of his life he was still working to seek a unity between gravitation and the forces of electricity and magnetism.”

Einstein  Portrait  Albert Einstein: 1910

So Einstein, like Frank Lloyd Wright like Picasso were Unitarians, they were using the their ability to recognize ‘similarities within dissimilars’ to pull together parts of the world that had previously been considered separate, and in these three particular examples, concerned with the unification of mass and space, they quite remarkably did it in about the same year.  It is in this sense that I defined ‘beauty as the quality of a work that reveals unity’. 

FLLW Portrait  Einstein Portrait  Picasso Portrait

Frank Lloyd Wight, Einstein and Picasso were Unitarians:

It is interesting that in some recent correspondence with Lindsay Clarke, the Whitbread winning novelist he said that “beauty is lost in almost every discipline these days except perhaps mathematics”.  Good artists compose their work with great precision.  I would suggest that great art has a balanced wholeness which is sometimes almost given, at other times strenuously fought for in numerous redraftings.  The balanced organisation of such works seem to me to be not dissimilar to the complex matrixes of balanced equivalent relationships used in mathematics, and in great art, in beauty, perhaps no less precise.  In giving precise expression to these balanced relationships the concept of care is paramount.  To open up the middle ground of both experience and form the artist needs first to experience and feel the delicacy of the centre between life’s opposites and then balance the artistic form with the same care and delicacy as experienced within the centre.  The real middle ground cannot tolerate any form of grossness or crudity and throws off any attempt to enter that is heavier than the lightest thought. 


The Beauty of Mathematics: ….maths uses balanced equivalent relationships as does art.

I said at the beginning of the paper that the expression that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is an expression that in my view has been wrongly interpreted to mean that beauty is a subjective phenomenon.  Let me see if I can explain; my explanation has three elements to it.  Firstly, if you have followed my argument so far you will realise that the creation of beauty is far from subjective.  Artists are building formal relationships in their works to give physical form and expression to their inner forms and feelings.  This is an objective exercise, not dissimilar to that of scientists testing their hypotheses, in which the artist goes through a rigorous series of iterations to match their inner form with the outer formal reality of their art.  Sometimes the expression feels as if it were instant and given, at other times it has to be much more vigorously fought for.  Only the artist or architect knows when that balance has been realised in their work.  The smallest brushstroke or the slightest tonal shift can sometimes be enough to upset the whole ensemble and sometimes even after a work is complete the artist may remain critical of the whole, perhaps seeking to make minor changes here or there.  Such a process seems far from subjective and such a process does not sit comfortably with the post-modern notion that ‘anything goes’.  Secondly, the creation of a work of art has a qualitative dimension.  What does that mean?  Well simply expressed, some artists are more adept at handling form and are plainly better than others at creating a match between their inner content and the external realisation of the content in their art.  This does not make art subjective; it makes it qualitative and it just means that there are poor artists, just as there are sometimes poor mathematicians and scientists.  Finally, after the work of art has been created it has to be shared with the public.  At this stage you will get supporters and dissenters of the work but does this render the work subjective?  I would suggest no more than placing a work of science in front of the public, both will initially need their own small audience and both will need time to be accepted fully into culture. 

So to recap I would like to suggest that beauty should remain an essential aspect of contemporary art and architecture.  I hope that I have been able to present a definition of beauty that gives us a way of identifying a contemporary role for beauty within culture and a way for critics to discriminate between artistic contributions.  This definition has I believe given us a way to challenge the post-modern notion that ‘anything goes’, without diminishing the autonomy and individual creativity of a pluralist contemporary culture.  This definition of beauty could be used equally to analyse the Georgian examples cited at the beginning of the paper or any of the wide ranging languages of more contemporary architecture.  Hopefully it gives us a handle by which we can re-engage with beauty without recourse to the languages of classicism or abandoning the pluralism of our contemporary culture.  In my view it is time for beauty to be re-engaged in main stream art and architecture discourse, perhaps we here who have been championing Humane Habitat for many years, can lead that campaign.” 


Silent Lion


May 9th, 2011

I am posting below an article I wrote a few months ago following the news that Oxfordshire Planner Officers expressed concerns about Richard Meier’s designs for a house for Rowan Atkinson.  The house was subsequently granted planning permission by the Oxfordshire Planning Committee.

The news that the new country house designed by Richard Meier for Rowan Atkinson has recently been approved by the Oxfordshire Planning Committee despite being recommended for refusal by the authority’s planning officers is in danger of raising again the rather tired debate about Modernism versus Classicism in the British countryside.  But this would be entirely the wrong debate.  A more useful discussion would focus on the missing humane dimension of so much contemporary architecture.  In the dispassionate world of commerce its absence is rarely noticed but within the potentially more intimate residential environment of the private family home the absence is much more poignant and may account for the poorly expressed discomfort of the Oxfordshire planners.

Atkinson’s planning consultant Terence O’Rourke is reported as describing the new proposals as ‘a piece of 21st century high architecture’.  I am not sure that this is a helpful or totally accurate description of the proposals.  Meier may be a 21st century architect but the ideas that generate his work are firmly grounded in the early part of the last century.  The house could therefore equally be described as a piece of 20th century architecture or as a piece of ‘Old Modernism’.

Old Modernism

The ideas that Meier still uses in 2010 were new in the 1920’s and 30’s when Le Corbusier and other early pioneers of the Modern Movement created an architecture that expressed the spirit of a generation coming out of the first world war.  This generation rather naively thought that they could wipe clean the slate of history and build a brave new world.  Corb’s polemical articulation of that architecture was described in his famous ‘Five Points for a New Architecture’, first published as a series of articles in the journal he created, entitled ‘L’Espirit Nouveau’.  These five points set up powerful polemical dichotomies, purposefully disparaging of the old order; the new architecture was to stand elegantly above the ground on slender ‘pilotis’ (columns) instead of over damp and rat infested basements, the columned structure would create the ‘Free plan’ and supersede the limitations of heavy load-bearing structures with their awkward corners, lifting the buildings off the ground on pilotis would generate ‘free ground’ in the city to replace the congested streets.  The structural frame would in addition to freeing up the plan create the ‘free elevation’ and the characteristic horizontal strip windows of the era.  Finally, what Corb argued were the useless dark roof spaces associated with traditional pitched roofs could be replaced by the ‘roof garden’ the fifth of Le Corbusier’s five points.  The other dominant characteristic of this architecture that strangely does not get mentioned as one of the five points is that it is ‘white’.

Of course those aspects of architecture’s reality that in these five points were condemned by Le Corbusier did not go away.  Indeed after the Second World War, Le Corbusier’s own architecture took a radical change of direction.  By the time he was designing Masions Jaoul in Paris the 1950’s the five points had been abandoned.  The piloti had disappeared, such that the buildings sat solidly on the ground.  The houses were given load bearing structures, thereby limiting the effects of the ‘free plan’ and ‘free elevation’ and at the same time the roofs were vaulted thus denying the accessible ‘roof garden’.  Even the ‘whiteness’ that denied the buildings materiality had disappeared to be replaced by ‘Beton brut’, a new and extreme form of architectural materiality that seemed to be called in a Jungian sense from Le Corbusier’s psyche to balance the earlier denial.

The Young Old Guard:

Although we can see that Le Corbusier was able to move on from the extreme polemic of early modernism, the seeds of the architectural language that he had helped to create had been sown and were later to be picked up uncritically by a new generation.  Richard Meier was part of that new generation.  He emerged as one of a group of young architects working in New York in the 1960’s who came to international attention in 1967 following an exhibition of their work at the Museum of Modern Art organized by Arthur Drexler and later published in a book featuring the work of ‘The New York Five’; Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk and Richard Meier.  At that time this group to some extent shared the reductive language of the early modern movement but although some were later to move into new territory, Meier held the line.  “If I cannot be Le Corbusier, then I can be Richard Meier”, I seem to recall him saying in the early days of his career, and in a recent letter to the Oxfordshire Planning Department he is now clearly claiming the territory as his own, “Whiteness is one of the characteristic qualities of my work….”.

It is now seventy or eighty years since the stripped, architectural language of modernism first surfaced on the mainland of Europe.  To some extent it has since then been assimilated by contemporary culture.  In the commercial world, the steel and glass tower is now the established form for corporate headquarters in our cities but with a few notable exceptions on the domestic front its authority is less evident.  In the domestic world modernism has been largely limited to the styling of kitchens or bathroom interiors, it has rarely been allowed onto the High Street.  The question that needs to be asked is why the assimilation of modernism has been so partial and why does this reductive architecture continue to provoke such vehement reactions; the planning officer’s in their recommendation to refuse planning permission for Rowan Atkinson’s house branded the scheme an “ugly space age petrol station.”  Such inarticulate sentiments are a damning indictment of the British planning system; but if we can forgive them their childlike outbursts it surely indicates, just as with The Prince of Wales’ ‘Carbuncle’ and ‘Police Academy’ comments, a discomfort with something that they are unable to put accurately into words.  Let me see if I can help them.

The Conceptual Basis of Old Modernism

The generative principle of the language of early modernism and by extension the language that Richard Meier’s is using for Rowan Atkinson’s Oxfordshire home, is that it is derived from a strong conceptual basis.  Working conceptually takes the architect away from an immediate engagement with the experiential reality of the building.  Buildings therefore become objects that can be seen in abstraction, in idealised space, or as the idealised Platonic form, remote from the reality and untidiness of use.  Le Corbusier’s celebrated aphorism that ‘Architecture is the magnificent play of form seen in light’ is a clear description of such an approach to design, and here on the site of Handsmooth House, set in 6.5 ha of land near the village of Ipsden, Meier predictably chooses to present his scheme in precisely that way.  The principal rendering is not an eye level perspective showing the building and the gardens in context, as it might be experienced by ordinary mortals engaging with the day to day reality of life but instead we are offered an aerial view perhaps more familiar to the gods, revealing to us the house as a perfect ‘white’ form as it comes to rest somewhere in the Oxfordshire landscape.  Of course from such a perspective the dominant aspect of the rendering is the flat roof of the building, something that will never be seen in reality.

The Modernist conceptual approach to architecture is not limited to the way forms are used but also appears in the contemporary response to materials.  Within the abstract world of conception the search for the perfect platonic form by extension generates the need to conceive the perfect surface.  In the early modern movement the white surface was such an attempt to symbolise this perfect abstract conception, an idea that Meier continues to celebrate.  The surface was conceived to be boundless and capable of extension into infinite space.  To achieve such an expression in architectural terms the experiential reality of materials had to be suppressed.  A perfect conceptual surface is by definition without boundaries and without imperfections.  Many traditional materials; stone, brick, timber, displaying natural imperfections had to be replaced, or detailed to suppress and deny these imperfections.  Mouldings, weather drips, and over-hangs that were traditionally used to cast water away from the building were largely abandoned with the detrimental effects that we were to see later.  In such a cultural milieu the white architecture of early modernism became the ideal way to symbolise these conceptual ideas.  Of course suppressing the reality of the materials, or painting over them, does not mean that the imperfections of the materials had gone away, they were of course still there and given time they would resurface like the stretch marks on the aging Hollywood star, who had tried unsuccessfully to turn back time with plastic surgery.

The other dominant symbol of Modernism that conspired to express this conceptual view of absolute space in architecture is the Cartesian grid.  The regular repetitive grid has lain silently behind or within the iconic buildings of the era and of course it is found in Meier’s designs for Rowan Atkinson.  The driving force of this symbol is again a desire to symbolise the infinite.  The grid is in essence seeking to extend itself to infinity and so pushes itself out beyond the limits of the building to the horizons and into conceptual space.  The material that collaborated in this manoeuvre was of course glass; the anti-material material.  Picking up on the point discussed above, glass allowed the materiality of the building to be almost totally denied.  A glass building becomes ethereal and its reality as thin as its conceptual origins.  Glass structures at one level can become a veil of reflections and transparencies that offer views from one side through to the other, potentially reducing the presence and reality of the building to nothingness, yet at another level potentially extending the same building to infinity.  The combination of glass and grid thus become two key symbols within modernism and the modernist conceptual search for perfection and the infinite.

The Masculine Agenda of Old Modernism:

These then have been some of the key symbols of modern architecture and to some extent remain the dominant symbols of the present era.  Indeed we see all of them here in Richard Meier’s proposals for the Handsmooth House; the gridded plan, the ethereal glass box, the white finish and the pure form viewed from above and standing at arm’s length from the context.  However, these qualities, all conspiring in a conceptual view of architecture, represent only a partial expression of human reality.  In my opinion this kind of architecture provokes such strong reaction from the Oxfordshire Planning Department in this particular case and from the public and The Prince of Wales at a more general level, not because the ideas are new, clearly eighty years down the line they are not, but simply because such architecture is so partial.  Le Corbusier’s polemic of the 1920’s excluded much that is needed by the human psyche; we need the dark corners, basements and attics, we need the tactility of natural materials and we need the experience of a building in its context.  Although Le Corbusier was wise enough to redress the balance in the latter part of his career, many architects have not.  At the risk of being misunderstood I would like to say that what I have been calling the Old Modernism seems to me to have been generated from what feels like a masculine agenda or the ‘Yang’ side of the Taoist ‘Yin-Yang’ binary philosophy.

The Limitations of Conceptually based Art and Architecture:

Conceptual architecture, like conceptual art represents only part of who we are, it arguably represented who we were in the period between the wars, when masculinity was in extremis but a discipline that only displays half of its character, by definition is out of balance.  This is how I see the contemporary architectural and cultural condition.  The imbalance within contemporary culture needs to be redressed if a genuine humane culture is to be established.  If the qualities defining contemporary architecture and culture can be described as masculine the less apparent qualities that would be needed to redress the balance would comprise a feminine or ‘Yin’ programme.  In contrast to the masculine agenda outlined above that is largely defined by a mental search for abstract conceptual criteria, the feminine programme is much more concerned with the physical experiential qualities of materiality and tactile reality.  If masculine architecture is seeking a blue sky abstract perfection, the under-emphasised feminine qualities are characterised by a grounded everyday earthy material reality.

The distinction that I am making here between the masculine and feminine world views is of course metaphorical and although men and women may find it easiest to relate respectively to the masculine and feminine sides of this presentation, the paradigm is not gender specific.  Within Jungian psychology a man is said to have a feminine soul and a woman a masculine soul.  He suggested that it was each person’s role to work respectively towards a reconciliation with their male and female psyche and to live out such realisation in their lives.  What I am suggesting here is that at a cultural level the responsibility is not dissimilar.

The Missing Feminine Touch

If it is the feminine, ‘ yin’ side of our culture that now needs to be emphasised to redress the imbalance of the last few generations let me suggest an outline of what I would consider some of those qualities to be.  The first of the qualities in the feminine, ’yin’ programme I define as ORDINARINESS.  Whereas the masculine agenda in its simplest state starts by seeking the ultimately unrealisable perfection of the pure abstract Platonic form, the feminine principle starts by accepting life as it is.  The feminine principle does not seek to impose from the outside but rather works from within what already exists.  The feminine side of creativity therefore seeks to open up and transform rather than replace or dictate.  Such an approach calls for the ability to listen and observe; to identify the potential growth points within existing conditions and to allow those conditions to grow into something new.  Within the world of architecture the needs of the client, the landscape, the history and culture, the context more generally within and around the site and the environmental conditions relating to the building are all important sources of potential growth and transformation.  These are the existing conditions that I describe as comprising the ordinary.  Looked at from the perspective of the feminine principle it is the ordinary that is waiting to be transformed, extended, re-created, re-made.  Ordinariness therefore represents the ground conditions of the feminine approach to architecture but out of that ground of ordinariness, feminine creativity offers the potential of extension and growth into the extraordinary.

The feminine principle is essentially ORGANIC in character and therefore close to Nature in both the way it is able to work with relaxed geometries but also in its willingness to engage directly with Nature’s reality.  What do I mean by relaxed geometries?  Well handled, relaxed geometries can create an orderliness that is not dependent on the reductive order of old modernism.  The Cartesian grid and pure forms of Euclidian geometry preferred by the old modernists generate an easy orderliness for their work but its reductive order is not always able to resolve appropriately the elaborate issues associated with a demanding context or the sometimes tangled issues of a complex architectural problem.  Organic orderliness which constitutes the second of the feminine principles does not have these limitations; it has the naturalness of Nature’s order and is most easily described as Gestalt form.  Within Gestalt form a line does not have to be straight to join two points, a round form does not have to be perfectly circular to contain an area, a rhombus does not have to be rectangular or square to define a territory and a grid does not have to be regular to organise a space.  Of course Gestalt form contains the pure forms of geometry but is not limited by them.  We only need to look at some of the great cities of Europe; Siena, Amsterdam, Krakow, to realise that their organising power is not derived solely from pure geometry; streets are not always straight, piazzas not always square and urban grids not always regular.  The organic order of the new modernism is therefore a relaxed geometry that can accommodate and give coherent form to a more complete and holistic view of the world.

Closely related to the first two conditions and undoubtedly related to an acceptance of the ordinary is an acknowledgement of ERROR and tolerance of difference as legitimate aspects of the human condition.  An acceptance of error and tolerance of difference within architecture is the third of the feminine principles.  An acceptance of error immediately tempers the masculine quest for the unrealisable perfect form.  The architectural form in these terms loses its need to be coherent only within its own terms and wins the possibility of adjusting itself on a number of fronts to become coherent within a much broader context.  The need to achieve the perfect surface that we discussed earlier also disappears.  As the pressure to create the perfect conceptual surface subsides and a tolerance of difference is accepted, the natural qualities of the materials that are used to build architecture can once more be enjoyed and used for themselves with all their blemishes and imperfections.  From the perspective of the feminine principle, error is therefore not wrong but is just another aspect of the ordinary immanent world that needs to be assimilated.

It follows naturally from what we have said above that MATERIALITY can be fully engaged and enjoyed as the fourth feminine principle.  Within what we are calling the feminine view of architecture the qualities of materials do not need to be subjugated to fulfil a higher conceptual purpose within the masculine, ‘yang’ world view, but can be accepted as what they are for themselves.  The qualities of a material can be enjoyed and used to create a particular character or mood.  The clinical neutrality that emerged within modernism almost as a by-product of the need to create the perfect cerebral form, captured most closely as we saw earlier in the ethereal glass box, can now be replaced by the sheer joy and sensuality of materials.  When buildings lose the need to be neutral the way is opened up for an architecture that displays the variety and passion of life.  Architecture is therefore freed to address the particulars of life; to capture the particular mood of a specific project, a nursery school, crematorium, night club or maternity clinic.  From the feminine perspective the masculine world that was dominated by thinking and cerebral explorations is replaced by a world of feeling and emotion.  A world of feeling and emotion is a threatening world for those who seek security through control; however feelings and emotions also bring us closer to our deeper selves and open us to a perhaps risky but potentially more vital reality.

The Need for New Symbols:

These four points taken as a whole represent the values have been missing from our culture for too long.  The need to bring into architecture and culture more generally a symbolic expression of this deeper aspect of our feminine selves is essential for our cultural health.  Symbols are able to hold and give form to feelings and emotions; symbols speak directly to the psyche in contrast to the sometimes overly rational agenda within the masculine world view.  A schedule of areas and list of criteria, or a categorisation and separation of the city’s functions into different zones, so much a part of the early modernist manifesto, can speak about a certain level of architectural and urban need within the masculine world but are unable to capture the full depth of an architectural brief.  As we have seen already the neutral forms or symbols used within the masculine word were almost stripped of feeling.  The symbols that are needed now to redress the masculinisation of architecture are the potent symbols of femininity.  Instead of the glass boxes and overtly phallic gridded tower blocks that dominate our cities the feminine principle would rather emphasise courtyard, cave or womb-like structures that symbolise our relationship with the earth and with each other.  Such structures would be more sensual and free than the grid-controlled plan.  Earth bound structures that engage wholesomely with nature and set up positive relationships between the landscape, the elements and humanity are the types of symbolic forms that the feminine principle would promote.  Contemporary examples of such buildings do exist but as a minority within our unbalanced culture.

Humane Architecture  

So is this a call for a New Modernism?  Perhaps!  Is this a call to abandon the masculine agenda that gave birth to modernism and replace it with an architecture generated from the feminine principles described above?  Well no.  That would be too simple, to replace one easy extreme for the other.  The answer is much more difficult and actually much more mature.  The call, if that is what this paper is about, is for an architecture that is able to reconcile the two sides of the debate.  It is a call for a ‘Humane Architecture’ that celebrates and gives expression to the whole human agenda.  The Western mind set seems to have become locked within what we have been calling the masculine paradigm.  It could be said with good reason that British architecture has led the world in recent decades as it has moved from High Tech through a number of rebirths to what some call Deconstruction.  However throughout each of these transformations the architecture has not really shifted paradigm, at root it has remained stubbornly masculine in character.

Given the dominance of what I have been calling a masculine agenda in architecture it is not surprising that from time to time there are emotional outbursts from the public, from planning officers in this case of Rowan Atkinson’s house and even on occasions from The Prince of Wales.  It seems to me that their cries are from the ‘yin’ side of this discussion and not having good contemporary models to use as examples, they recourse to the past or to childlike ‘name-calling’ to vent their frustration.  The truth is however; as I hope the argument above has made clear, we do not need classicism or a resurrection of past styles to bring these symbols and values into contemporary culture.  The principles outlined above are not style specific.  Any number of personal architectural languages or styles could give expression to the principles outlined above.  What is necessary is a more informed debate that recognises the importance of both sides of the yin-yang, masculine-feminine divide.  Hopefully such debate will lead to a 21st century architect that will be comfortable with both her masculine and feminine sides and will thereby be able to give expression to a balanced view of humanity and a more ‘Humane Architecture’ for the 21st Century.

Silent Lion


February 21st, 2011

A little while ago I engaged in some short correspondence with the quantum physicist Max Tegmark. The correspondence was provoked by an article that he had published in the New Scientist ‘Reality by Numbers: an extreme take on a quest for a Theory of Everything’. His article drew conclusions about the universe that strangely seemed to parallel my own research in the area of ‘Beauty’. He argued that the “universe is not just described by mathematics, -it is mathematics”. And he continues, “a mathematical structure is precisely this: a set of abstract entities with relations between them.” “Modern mathematics is the formal study of structures that can be defined in a purely abstract way. Think of mathematical symbols as mere labels without intrinsic meaning. It does not matter whether you write ‘Two plus two equals four, 2+2= 4 or dos mas dos igual a cuatro’. The notation used to denote the entities and the relations is irrelevant; the only property of integers are those embodied by the by the relations between them.”

xx New Scientist Max Teg Feb 2011  xx Max Teg Portrait  copy

Let me include here part of a letter that I wrote to Max Tegmark in response to these ideas.

“I guess the reason the cover of the New Scientist interested me was because my own research, going back some 30 years in the field of architecture and the arts, has strange as it may seem, come to parallel conclusions.

My work has not reduced everything to numbers but it does conclude that culture is fundamentally a matrix of what I call equivalent relationships, we could call them equations perhaps, but equations between forms rather than numbers. The questions that took me into this realm were initially questions about ‘beauty’, or in architecture ‘what constituted good design?’

Alongside all the pondering described above I had been making very detailed analyses of some culturally significant buildings. To keep things short, these analyses revealed that the buildings I was examining seemed to be balancing formal opposites, it is not appropriate to describe that further here but I subsequently noticed the technique being used in other buildings and then found critics talking about the same phenomena in other disciplines, music, poetry and the arts. At the time I did not understand why this was happening it just seemed to be a part of the nature of culture.

Returning now to the discussion of meaning, the observation that I made was that meaning emerges as the fruit of a subject-object relationship. Once I had made that simple observation I realised that all perceptual relationships would give rise to totally separate meanings and therefore although meaning remains the outcome of the communication it could not be the vehicle of communication. I was then left with the question, then how do we communicate? The conclusion that I eventually came to was that we communicate through form and the relationships between forms, or more specifically through the precise organisation of form. For communication to take place it became evident that form had to be arranged in a series of equivalent relationships. When this penny eventually dropped I understood why the buildings that I had analysed had been arranged around balanced opposites and why the same types of relationships were considered important in music, poetry and the arts. The relationships within a work thus give the work its orderliness and as within the physical world the relationships range from the macroscopic to the microscopic. A work and indeed culture as a whole, is just a huge matrix of relationships and the more clearly and precisely the relationships are defined the clearer the meaning; the definition. It now seems very clear to me that the orderliness is very close to the centre of things which caused me some time ago to coin the phrase that ‘Orderliness is next to Godliness’.

From the ideas that you presented in your article I can understand that you might agree with the sentiments of such a statement if not the spiritual over tones. At the end of the first page of your article you call for “the symbols to be mere labels with no preconceived meanings whatsoever. Instead only the properties of these entities would be those embodied by the relations between them.” If you are able to follow the arguments outlined above it is possible to understand that even at the level of meaning all we have is just relationships.”

Discussion such as this for some of you may seem very far from the world of music, poetry, art and architecture. How can we talk about mathematics and logic in the same breath as art and culture? Yet it could equally be argued that it is even more strange to keep these two worlds separate. Is it not the same nervous system that gives rise to all aspects of our culture and therefore rather extraordinary that we have until the opening of the twenty first century seen these two aspects of our culture as so completely separate.

Food for Thought

Silent Lion


May 18th, 2010

Over the last few weeks I have posted on this blog selected sections of a chapter that I wrote for a book that has recently been published to celebrate the life and work of the philosopher Henryk Skolimowski on the celebration of his 80th birthday.  The book is called ‘World as Sanctuary: The Cosmic Philosophy of Henryk Skolimowski’, edited by David Skrbina and Juanita Skolimowski, it contains over twenty essays by contributors from around the world each explaining the influence that Henryk and his writings have had on their lives and work.  It also contains some personal reflections by Henryk himself on reaching his 80th year.

Henryk Portrait Henryk's Book Cover 1

Henryk Skolimowski in Conversation and Enjoying Bodmin Moor

Details of how to obtain a copy of this book can be found here

For those of you unfamiliar with Henryk’s works I list below a selection of his books.

Selected Books by Henryk Skolimowski:

  • 2010. Let There Be Light: The Mysterious Journey of Cosmic Creativity.     Wisdom Tree.
  • 2005. Philosophy for a New Civilization.     Gyan Publishing House.
  • 2001. The Dawn of the Ecological Era (with Ashwani Kumar).     Concept Books.
  • 1999. Dharma, Ecology and Wisdom in the Third Millennium.     Concept Books.
  • 1994. The Participatory Mind: A New Theory of Knowledge and of the Universe.     Penguin/Arkana.
  • 1994. Eco-Yoga: Practice and Meditations for Walking in Beauty.     Gaia Books.
  • 1993. A Sacred Place to Dwell.     Element Books.
  • 1992. Living Philosophy: Eco-Philosophy as a Tree of Life.     Penguin/Arkana.
  • 1991. Dancing Shiva in the Ecological Age.     Clarion Books
  • 1989. The Other Side, of the Rational Mind.     The Intl Cultural Foundation.
  • 1989. Out of the Cosmic Dust.     Vasanta Press.
  • 1985. Eco-Theology: Toward a Religion for our Times.     Eco-Philosophy Publications.
  • 1984. Theatre of the Mind.     Quest Books.
  • 1983. Technology and Human Destiny.     Madras Univ. Press.
  • 1981. Eco-Philosophy: Designing New Tactics for Living.     Marion Boyars.
  • 1967. Polish Analytical Philosophy.     Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Silent Lion
Read the rest of this entry »

REFLECTIONS on NATURE: Posing a Question

May 11th, 2010

I am including here part of the opening section of a book I have written about ‘Humane Architecture’.  Humane Architecture has its roots in Nature but a contemporary view of Nature takes us into much deeper realms than the Nature that informed the Renaissance view of humanity and which arguably has remained the dominant paradigm in western culture.  I do not include my conclusions in this short piece but pose a question that might open up some discussion or at least set a hare or two running.

“If every sub-atomic particle is on purpose then why not us?”     Wayne Dyer

“Nature is perfect.  Nature orders countless billions of systems within one total organised whole.  Its cosmic dimensions are boundless, its resources abundant and its possibilities infinite.  It is the rock on which we stand; it is the womb from which we were born.  Nature ticks in us as she ticks in every other living creature, every blade of grass, every stone, cloud or planet.  Nature feeds us intravenously with each of our needs.  We do not need to balance our metabolism, watch over our breathing or guide our heartbeat.  The reality of Nature renews our bodies day on day, week on week, year on year,[1] just as regularly and with equal precision to the cycle of the seasons, or the movement of the galaxies.  We could no more separate ourselves from Nature, than deny our own breath or rail against our own birth.

All this we accept: Nature is what we are.  What we fail to acknowledge however, is that as self aware beings we must also be all that Nature is.  At root the relationship we have with Nature must be reciprocal.  We are part of one integrated organic whole and as such, what is available to one part of the whole must be available to the other.  As self aware beings at some level an awareness of that deeper reality must be accessible to us.  As she is our breath, so we are her infinite capacity, as she is our heartbeat, so we are her boundless reality.  As she orders our metabolism, so we share in the order of her cosmic dimensions.  As we create, we participate in the cosmic plan, we extend the boundaries of Nature’s creation and we play at the table of the Gods.  Inseparable as we are from Nature we have no other fate than to share her perfection and to play within her Divine Order.

Although this is our reality, this is not what most of us live.  Indeed I already hear some of you denying that this could ever be so.  Yet just a little more thought will make us realise that the perfect reality of Nature, is the only reality available to us.  If the perfect order of Natural Law failed in any way for just a micro-second of reality, the cosmic order that holds creation together would collapse.  How could we conceive an evening in which the moon failed to appear over the horizon at precisely the moment, and in exactly the position it was expected?  Or the sun rise a moment later than it was scheduled?  Indeed how could the natural sciences, or any of the other sciences on which our present society prides itself function at all, if it was not accepted that Nature functioned with rigorous and absolutely consistent order?

Science today does in fact confirm that we are an absolutely inseparable part of Nature.  When we look at ourselves we perceive that our body has distinct limits and its edges are clearly separate from the chair on which we sit or the desk at which we work.  In quantum terms however, the distinction between solid and void is less clear.  At a quantum level the particles that make up our bodies are no more closely packed than the stars and planets in a galaxy and even those particles are just bundles of energy and information emerging from a kind of vacuum state of pure consciousness.  At this ground state particles of energy and information appear as if out of nowhere, whilst others disappear back into the void.  Every part of quantum space is in fact filled with an almost infinite amount of energy which vibrates as an element of the infinitely extending field of vibrations which make up the cosmos.  In a very real sense therefore we realise that our bodies and our environment are inextricably linked.  Indeed they are part of a quantum continuum.  In this context, seen from the outside, our bodies are just a local focused sphere of attention within the non-local extended field of consciousness.  The oxygen around us in the atmosphere is very little different to the oxygen in our bodies.  Some of the atoms in the air that I breathe today will have been taken in by countless millions of people in the past, some, we are told having been breathed by Christ, Aristotle, our colleagues across the desk from us, the whales in mid Atlantic and by everyone and every being from history in between.  Seen from the inside however this local focused sphere of attention is experienced as personal intelligence, my own, your own personal intelligence.  Over the thousands of years of human evolution, this inside view has evolved from the most elemental living organisms, through the instinctual stages of the lower vertebrates, into unselfconscious apes and eventually to the fully self-conscious, ego-centric beings that we are today: ego-centric beings that have claimed ownership of that personal sphere and now read themselves as separate, isolated fragments of the cosmos instead of as a wholly integrated aspect of that reality.

So, if we do accept that Nature functions with perfect order, and also accept ourselves as part of that order, are we not compelled to confirm that our personal and individual realities as well as our social realities are also functioning with the same cosmic perfection?  The logic is undeniable.  If we accept the logic of the argument above, if our reality is a perfect reality, why does the modern world seem so far from being what we might consider perfect?  If for a moment we assume that we are living in the perfect reality of Nature, it must follow that within the terms of that perfect world, our modern world must in those same terms; meet the criteria of that perfection.  But under what circumstances could the criteria of a perfect world be creating what many consider an imperfect modern reality?”

Let us consider for a moment an example within this perfectly functioning universe.  Within the natural world there is a particular species of butterfly that will only lay their eggs on one particular plant species[2], and they plant just one egg on each leaf.  The eggs create a yellow spot on the leaf, rather like a small yellow sticking plaster and thus marked other butterflies avoid laying a second egg on the same leaf.  When the caterpillar hatches it uses the leaf as its source of nutrients, one leaf is just enough to meet its needs, and the butterfly’s natural cycle is maintained for another year.  From the trees perspective however this activity is potentially fatal.  There are literally hundreds of thousands of butterflies intensely laying eggs in a relatively tiny location.  The tree can tolerate the loss of some leaves but not all its foliage, and so to protect itself the tree has developed a small yellow spot on a critical percentage of its leaves.  The yellow spot is the same size, shape and colour as the spot the butterflies create and so the butterflies when laying their eggs avoid the marked leaves and the tree as a consequence is able to retain its integrity.

Remarkable as such phenomena are they are not rare and to some, such events are read as being almost miraculous.  How could the tree know that it needs to generate a spot on its leaves the same size and colour as the butterfly egg, and how did it decide to colour only a certain critical percentage of its leaves with such spots?  Why was the tree ready to sacrifice the majority of its leaves to the butterfly?  We are not yet able to answer all of these questions, because they are outside the range of normal experience.  However, no matter how we perceive it, such activity implies communication within the insect and plant worlds and probably between these worlds.

Although we do not know where, at some point in the development of the butterfly-tree example described above, a communication must have taken place.  Information within a field of awareness was shared, and not only shared but acted upon with perfect effect.  Such a field of awareness which is sharing information is a definition of intelligence, the intelligence of natural law.  Now as we saw earlier the material that goes to make up our bodies is the same material that makes up the whole of the natural world, and is a part of a unified field of energy and information.  Every sub-atomic particle is on purpose and nature goes to the same field of energy and information to create everything from intergalactic space, to trees and butterflies, to our own bodies and thoughts.  The intelligence within nature is a continuous seamless field.  The basic vibrations of nature, the quantum events that structure the flowers, birds, mountains, rivers and stars, also appear in our own awareness as linguistically structured verbal thought.  In other words thought is a quantum event.  It is a fluctuation in the unified field of creation that transforms itself, as all quantum events do, firstly into sub-atomic particles, then into atomic reality, later into molecular reality and ultimately into the material world as we know it.  Out of the intelligence within the quantum field of reality emerges a continuous process of creation, and thought is just an impulse that issues from that field and marks the beginning of human creativity.  Human creativity is therefore contiguous with Nature’s creation.  Whatever form our works may take they emerge as part of Nature’s creation, be it a humble poem or the divine music of Mozart, in each and every case, when we create we co-create with Nature.  When we think thoughts we are actually practising brain chemistry.  Scientists now confirm that all our thoughts, feelings and emotions have chemical reactions within our bodies, so in a very real sense our thoughts are manifesting in exactly the same way as the impulses that engineer and structure the cosmos.  Our thoughts literally bring physical reality into being and those great artists who are able to avoid interference and function directly from the level of pure consciousness perhaps do shine the light of divinity onto our world.

Now although earlier we were not able to locate accurately the position of intelligence within the butterfly-tree relationship, within the human condition we are familiar with where intelligence resides.  The self-referral capacity of humanity means that we are aware of our own thoughts, intentions and actions.  We experience the rising of a thought or intention and can follow it through into action.  The self-awareness developed in humanity means that we are able to observe, participate in, and interfere with the creation and realisation of intentions as they arise from the field of intelligence localised within ourselves.

So if our thoughts and intentions are realised with the same efficiency that presides elsewhere in Nature, then we have a solution to the dichotomy exposed earlier.  If each of our thoughts are being realised, our negative thoughts along with our positive intentions, then we have reached a position where both the cosmos could be said to be operating with perfect order, whist at the same time, the modern, imperfect world could be seen as a perfect realisation of misguided human intentions.  Our imperfect world is thus perfectly realised within the perfect order of Natural Law.  The implications of this argument are of course huge.”

But let me leave you now to muse on these thoughts……


Silent Lion


[1]The skin replaces itself once a month, the stomach lining every five days, the liver every six weeks, and the skeleton every three months.  By the end of this year, 98 percent of the atoms in your body will have been exchanged for new ones.

[2] The butterfly is black yellow and red and belongs to the Heliconius species.  The plant commonly known as the Passion Vine is part of the Passiflora Species both of Central and Southern America.  This information was generously provided by Sir David Attenborough in correspondence with the author.

1906 and the Unification of Mass and Space

March 27th, 2010

Every now and again events within culture conspire to move us collectively forward, one such event remarkably occurred simultaneously in three distinct disciplines within almost the same year. Around 1906 in the fields of architecture, physics and art the great opposites of mass and space were shown to belong together. Although external surface events could arguably have influenced the three individuals concerned, it could be argued that the shift took place because each of the individuals was responding to similar internal directives. I am placing here a short extract from a piece I wrote some time ago that discusses this phenomenon. For those of you following these blog posts you will spot that the theme of reconciliation of opposites that has been running, is here being played out on the largest cultural scale.

Although all of you will be familiar with the way Frank Lloyd Wright reconciled such opposites in his early domestic work, I have chosen to discuss his designs for Unity Temple, a project for the Unitarian Community of Oak Park, because it was in this building that in 1906 he felt that he had first ‘Broken the Box’ as he put it. It is also interesting to examine this building because unlike the ‘Prairie Houses’ that came later, he was not able to use glass to dissolve the relationship between inside and outside space but was rather forced to confront directly the need to dissolve a solidly massive building into the spaces of its interior. It is rather difficult to condense these arguments into such a short piece as this but I hope you get close to enjoying the power that is released in these works.
FLLW Unity Temple Ext March 2010  FLLW Unity Temple Ext Close up March 2010 

Unity Temple 1905-06: Oak Park, Chicago

“At the scale of the major building elements we can see that Wright was able to create the impression of mass and space interpenetrating and oscillating with each other, but even when we examine the solid elements in this composition we find the same principles being demonstrated. Internally the major temple space is penetrated by four solid stair towers and the space between these is layered with balconies. When we examine these stair towers we find that their solidity is challenged by the way that Wright has decorated them. Instead of using panels on each surface of the towers as was traditional at that time to reinforce each of the surfaces, the paneling is allowed to frame the corner of the tower thus effectively merging two surfaces into one. The effect that this has is that it breaks down the corners of these elements and seems to bring space into the solidity of the towers. The technique is repeated on the leading edges of the balconies and on the roof-lights above. The overall effect is that mass and space start to blend into one another even within the solid elements of the design. The form of the building thus begins to appear less substantial and one is left wondering where space finishes and where mass begins.

FLLW Unity Temple Corner Int  FLLW Unity Temple Balcony March 2010

Unity Temple: Internal Corners are Dissolved   

What we see happening here in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905-06 seems to have been exactly paralleled by similar attempts to create a unity between mass and space elsewhere in our culture. In the field of painting it was Picasso and Braque who paved the way in 1905-06, and it is Picasso’s `Demoiselles d’Avignon’ 1906-07 that made the first attempt at the dissolution of the solid, and the unification of Mass and Space. The Cubist work that followed in the wake of ‘Demoiselles d’ Avignon’ developed this concept, writing about Picasso’s painting ‘The Resevoir’ 1909, the art historian Timothy Hilton writes: “In all the houses and in the form of the reservoir at the bottom of the picture, there is no longer any feeling that mass is being represented as mass, but rather that the facts of the visuality of the village are transformed into shifting and merging planes, that everything is being dissolved.”

Picasso Demoiselles March 2010    Picasso Cubist Portrait March 2010 

Picasso: Demoiselles d’ Avignon 1906-07              Ambroise Vollard 1910

Again, directly concurrent with this movement in architecture and the arts, in the field of physics, equivalent relationships, this time in the form of equations, were also being used by Einstein in his famous ‘Theories of Relativity’ to relate energy and mass and space and time. Jacob Bronowski’s account of this period is interesting. “So the great paper of 1905 is not just about light, or as the title says, `The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’. It goes on in the same year to a postscript saying energy and mass are equivalent, E=mc2″ …. “To us it is remarkable that the first account of relativity should instantly entail a practical and devastating prediction for atomic physics. To Einstein, it is simply a part of drawing the world together; like Newton and all scientific thinkers, he was in a deep sense a unitarian.” …. “So in a lifetime Einstein joined light to time, and time to space, energy to matter, matter to space, and space to gravitation. At the end of his life he was still working to seek a unity between gravitation and the forces of electricity and magnetism.”

Einstein as Young Man March 2010  Einstein Portrait March 2010  Albert Einstein

So Einstein, like Frank Lloyd Wright like Picasso were Unitarians, they were using the basic Gestalt tendency of the nervous system to pull together parts of the world that had previously been considered separate, and in these three particular examples, concerned with the unification of mass and space, they quite remarkably did it more or less in the same year.

It therefore follows that if as we have seen, the natural tendency of the nervous system is towards creating gestalt or unified wholes out of the dissimilars that confront us in day to day activity. It seems that part of the solution to the disorder in our societies and in the eco-systems described at the beginning of this paper, lies right here in our own heads, in our own nervous systems. It is quite remarkable, that this basic ability of the nervous system to create gestalt, a phenomenon so well understood for so long, could actually hold the key to such solutions. What we realise when we observe the processes of building languages, and cultural systems, such as the arts, music and architecture, is that it is this gestalt process that is projecting an order onto the world we perceive. It is Frank Lloyd Wright, Picasso and Einstein who are building the order we experience and it is we who extend and develop that order in our work, in our relationships, in our society. Organisation is thus perceived as the glue of the cosmos, and it is all a projection of our nervous systems. The order we perceive is the order we have made. This may seem far-fetched, but this all follows spontaneously from those simple experiments carried out by the Gestalt group at the turn of the century. Order is a creation of our mind.”

Silent Lion

Library Design: University of Bath

March 11th, 2010

Whilst teaching a Library design project at the University of Bath I recently gave a short presentation about the history of the Library.  I am posting it here for the students’ use and for others who might find it helpful.

There is very little text with the presetnation but the illustrations are rather self explanatory.  I have always thought that a library is a wonderful student design project, it has many useful dimensions; a relatively complex brief, variously sized spaces from small offices to large reading rooms, a  similar range of structural and constructional challenges, the usual contextual issues and a cultural-historical dimension that cannot be ignored.

x Library Presentation Nov 2009

Culturally a library might occupy several hundred or even several thousand users but unike theatres, concert halls or other public buildings the users do not approach or use the building as a group but rather enter as individuals engaging the collective knowledge of the culture.  This sets up a challenge for the designer; on the one hand to create an intimate space for the users that is appropriate for them to engage with the cultural contributors that have written the books, the music or websites.  Whilst on the other hand to create a building that some how captures the majesty of collective knowledge.  Knowledge is potentially infinite, starting with the early thoughts of antiquity and stretching into the vast stores of knowledge of the present day and into the future.  Though infinite this knowledge is vulnerable as the destruction of the first library of Alexandria demonstrates.

The examples used to support this talk engage these ideas in a number of differing ways.  There is a wonderful range of library precedents to call on, the selection here is necessarily limited and was selected to present some of the ideas mentioned above.  Others more concerned with the technological and social evolution of the library would have chosen different examples.  Rather immodestly I have slipped in one of my own designs for the new Alexandria Library Competition.  This scheme sought to capture symultaneoulsy the potentially infiite extension of knowledge on the one hand and on the other the vulnerability of the human condition just described.

I hope that it is of some value, …enjoy.

Silent Lion

Going a Little Deeper….balance and the Orderliness of Culture.

March 8th, 2010