Some of you may have watched Kevin McCloud Slumming it in Dharvai on Channel Four this week. It was a very powerful couple of hours television and worth watching the repeats if you missed it. Earlier this week I had been writing a piece about ‘Humane Architecture’ to be included in a book that was being compiled to celebrate the work of a friend, the philosopher Henryk Skolimowski. Rather serendipitously I was using Dharvai as an example of the point I was making, so I will attach part of that paper here.
The distinction that I make in this paper between the masculine and feminine world views is of course metaphorical and although men and women will perhaps find it easiest to relate respectively to the masculine and feminine world views, the paradigms are 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 or female psyche and to live out such realisations in their lives. So here at a cultural level the responsibility is similar. I am also enclosing this piece because it may answer some of the questions raised by an earlier piece on this blog. I hope that you enjoy it.
“……….During the creation and development of the ‘Humane Architecture’ programme it was possible to add more detail to these observations. It became clear that the masculine approach was only giving the student a partial engagement with architecture. Working conceptually was depriving the student of an immediate engagement with the experiential reality of the building. Buildings were therefore becoming objects to be viewed in abstraction, in idealised space, or as the idealised Platonic form, remote from the reality and untidiness of use. It was sobering to realise that these very same words could be used to describe the work of the early modern movement that saw architecture as pure form seen in light and which as Henryk will tell us had its roots in the Renaissance. The more I thought about it, the more it became clear that the modern world of architecture was literally a masculine worldview. Suddenly it was clear why our cities looked the way they did. The towers of glass and steel were creations built by a society that was largely wearing male glasses; we were building through the eyes of men.
In contrast whereas the masculine agenda 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 and I have described them elsewhere 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. The feminine principle is essentially organic in character and therefore close to Nature in both identity and in the willingness to engage with Nature’s reality. 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.
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 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 the masculine view almost as a by-product of the need to create the perfect cerebral form, captured most closely in the ethereal glass box, can now be replaced by the sheer joy and sensuality of materials. When buildings loose 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.
If the symbols that have dominated our cities have been the neutral masculine forms that 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 gridded towers 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 remain a minority within our unbalanced culture.
The dominance of the masculine principle, if that’s what we can call it, has been so complete that the feminine is barely able to surface. A few years ago I gave a lecture in Mumbai (ICHH International Conference on Humane Habitat at Rizvi University, School of Architecture) about ‘humane architecture’ and this metaphorical male-female division of the architectural world. After the lecture I was taken on a tour of the city. Glossy glass and steel towers were springing up everywhere, marking the city’s status as India’s leading financial centre. Between the towers people slept rough on the streets but then we came to Dharvai the slum capital of the city. The power of this area seemed immense, a whole community, vital, lively, trading and accommodating millions of formerly homeless people had grown up on the western edge of the city over a period of some twenty years. It was as if it had risen through the cracks in the pavement; a colossal illegal symbol of femininity. It was breathtaking, within a generation a city had literally grown out of the earth and displayed all of the qualities of the feminine architecture principles I had earlier described in my lecture, though I was not able to make that connection with my colleagues. The city had grown out of need, out of ordinariness, it was messy but related to the earth, indeed it could be said to be built of the earth, it gave shelter, accommodated industry and commerce, and encouraged trade. Within a few metres of this community the soullessness of the commercial towers glistened. The futility of this juxtaposition screamed loudly, the opportunity for reconciliation between these masculine and feminine principles was there to be taken but instead, like a bad divorce they were seen to be in conflict. The result was that the city authorities were slowly clearing away the slums and replacing them with the most appalling stacked minimal shelters, racked in ranks of four and five storey sterile blocks. Like a concrete machine the masculine principle was marching across the city.
The experience in Mumbai was revealing because the masculine and feminine principles were still vying with each other and clearly displayed the dichotomy. It was clear that neither the masculine nor the feminine principles alone were the solution. The need was to redress the imbalance. It is not enough to swing from a male dominant paradigm to a female alternative. The need is to create a Natural Order, a genuine balance between these two polarities. The healing that our culture needs will take place when the masculine and feminine agendas discussed above are brought into a genuine symbiotic relationship with each other such that each side is enlivened and enhanced by the other. The healing balm is to be found in the gap between these two great metaphorical opposites, just as transcendent peace is to be found in the loving conjunction of man and woman. The silent therapeutic middle ground that is between all opposites can be opened and held by great art and architecture. Great art has always performed this function. When the symbolic forms are found that are able to hold the opposites in perfect equipoise, the architecture will hold open a therapeutic gap for all and for all time. Once opened the gap cannot be closed and thus remains permanently accessible, offering therapy like a spa pool to all those able to enter.”