My personal conflict with the profession of architecture began months into my third year of undergraduate studies. I became repulsed by the profession because it is essentially highly materialistic in nature — bordering often on narcissisms and whims, imposing itself on the earth in all its pompous supposition of creativity and art. I was glad, thus, to hit upon ideas in books by Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa and German pedagogue Hugo Kuekelhaus that elucidated the role of architecture in shaping and directing human society in ways that are humanizing in quality, and even metaphysical.
I had been drawn towards the field of architecture tempted by the idea that it would hone an inner creativity which I liked to believe I possessed (although one’s educational background had succeeded very well in subduing it to the point of annihilation). But once in the field, a fear of being creative gripped me deeply because it struck me that creative intelligence was radically different from normal intelligence, of the kind that our schools encourage. Grappling with this struggle to rebuild the very foundations on which the mind had been conditioned to think over the past many years led to a jarring realisation that one would have to start from scratch. To revive the spirit, for that is where true creativity and intuition stems from, is an onerous task once it has lain dormant for years.
Kuekelhaus’ laments on these ‘human factories’ that characterise today’s society in the name of education and success, struck me as true. A childhood in a metropolis, deprived of sensory stimuli and engagement with one’s surroundings – is this the root cause behind one’s fears to discover who this subdued inner creative being is, and what it is like to feel, sway and dance with it? In such a setting, instinct was rarely allowed to rear its head, and intuition was largely dismissed as claptrap.
It was later that I came across George Simmel’s account explaining how the sheer magnitude of external stimuli that confront one in a big city affects one’s mental life and numbs one’s emotional being into a state of antipathy. Laboratory studies on young animals have shown that there is up to a 20% increase in brain size and intelligence when they are raised in an enriched environment. The impact of minimalistic and information-less environments on the emotional and intellectual development of a child is therefore a serious concern.
Having shuttled back and forth between sterile city environments for most part of my life, this foray into an architecture school opened my eyes up to the greater meaning and role of spaces in creating environments for human growth and interaction. Kuekelhaus and Pallasmaa lucidly state how architecture affects the lives of people. Our senses allow us to connect with the inner world and, second to nature, it is architecture that takes on this role of supplying such sensory stimuli – stimuli that confront and change, oppose and combine, creating polarities of experiences. Bodily interaction is hardly encouraged in staid city environments, where one is ensconced in one’s personal bubble, devouring knowledge from books under the assumption that it would prepare one to take on the world. But at what cost – numbed senses, a withering spirit, and a growing alienation from nature?
These books are an essential read for members of the architecture community, and have opened up an avenue of exploration for me. I began to understand materiality, and previously dominant images of plastered white walls and reflective glass began to give way, in the palette of my imagination, to more tactile images and sensations of natural materials – perfect in their imperfection and changeability. Materials now are not just things — they are capsules of time, having the ability to evoke imagination, stimulate oral and tactile sensations, and create spaces of primordial comfort. Romanticism, despite all the nostalgia and emotional excess that it is accused of possessing, is a more appealing frame of mind to hold than nihilism, for it re-instates a bond between man and nature. However, much of the architecture one sees in the world today is nihilistic. Post Modern architecture has been characterised by a need to defy universal laws – to defy gravity, and create an illusory state of immateriality, agelessness and perfection. Pallasmaa, on the other hand, argues that great architecture does the precise opposite — it reinforces a sense of gravity and earth; and Kuekelahus propounds that one must surround oneself with phenomena where universal laws become apparent. Which is true? Is this old-fashioned thinking? Does the Deconstructivist approach stem from man’s growing desire to overcome nature and exhibit his dominance over it? Or is it a move towards self-transcendence, to aim for a state where one can leave behind one’s notions of time and space and begin to see some wonderment in the unnatural and unreal?
When I observe that materiality reinforces the notions of life and death, time and duration, I find that more appealing. For it is an awareness of an approaching death that ‘gives living its passionate intensity’ (an age old Spanish view of life), grounding us in the reality that all that is is in the present. The cerebral pleasure that comes, however, with being in modern environments, is very seductive because we have been conditioned to like things that conceptually fit our notions of this mechanised world, rather than listening to the heart. Even if something leaves one feeling utterly cold, one can conjure up an intellectual explanation for its validity. Man’s conceptualising abilities are boundless, but his ability to feel and to acknowledge this very real, intense and internal sensation within his being, has become dormant. For our educational systems have allocated far more importance to the cerebrum than to the senses. As a result one has lost the ability to really feel what the body most responds to.
How can architecture serve as a means to re-awaken man’s senses? From these readings, one surmises the following:
1. Materiality: Kuekelhaus finely comments on the resonance between our inner and outer worlds through the analogy of materials to body parts – woodwork to tendons, stone/brick to the skeletal-muscular system, concrete to the mixing processes of metabolism. The very visceral response that engagement with materials brings forth in us can be attributed to this resonance that they evoke in our bodies. However, hidden processes of construction and a weakened sense of materiality have taken hold on the contemporary mindset, through the use of materials like reflective glass, metals and plastic that strive to create an illusory state of agelessness. Materiality evokes tactile sensations and creates spaces with a characteristic warmth, second only to being in direct contact with nature. Different materials suggest different forms and modes of application, and these create a harmonious balance with the forces of nature and gravity, generating spaces that they inherently suggest. Working with materials suggests working with a certain order, and when these elements come together, they create ensembles that have the power to be rich in stimuli, and evocative in elements of space making.
2. Gravity/mass: By working with forms that gravity suggests, one can create forms that seem to stem from the earth naturally, establishing a harmonious relationship with the surroundings and making the universal law of gravity apparent. A haptic plasticity can give way to form-making that is mouldable around the edges of the earth on which it imposes itself. The sensation of mass appeals to man’s primordial need for comfort, a feeling that perhaps stems from our associations with sacred architectural spaces, sculpted from rocks and stones, merging into the landscapes. There is also another kind of beauty in defying gravity, in seeking to soar above the rules that tie us down. Respectfully lifting itself off the ground, allowing the ground to flow freely below it – this is another approach.
3. Details/colours: Details create little nooks for personal associations, having the ability to evoke memory and dream, oral sensations, and to create a private dialogue between the viewer and the viewed. Colours too can influence one’s state of mind and create unconscious oral/tactile associations.
4. Polarities: Life is a process patterned by polarities realized in time, and architecture provides the spatial components for the manifestation of these polarities. Light v/s dark, mobile v/s immobile, warm v/s cold, narrow/wide, high v/s low, concave v/s convex, before v/s behind, straight v/s bent, in v/s out – spatial creation of polarities, with an interplay of elements of time, such as light and shadows, creates differential experiences of being that enrich the human condition.
5. Light: By playing with light, one can create varied experiences of spaces, heightening the sense of time and change. Variation in light quality can generate desired ambiences – ranging from contemplation to intimacy to communion. Bright illumination hinders thought processes, whereas dimly lit environments stimulate the imagination and heighten tactile experiences. When light and shadow tactfully come into play, they can generate beauty and mystery.
6. Scale/Proportion: These are the intangible elements of space making that nevertheless work in close association with our bodies to create particular feelings of invitation/rejection, hospitality/hostility, intimacy/monumentality. Varied volumes and spaces generate characteristic acoustical environments. The rhythmicity/proportion of elements arranged in space can create varied sensations of order, and facilitate movement and interaction. Variations in scale can bring about this oscillation between self-immanence and self-transcendence that Kuekelhaus considers crucial to bring about a subtle relation to the cosmos in everyday life.
7. Natural environments: By introducing elements of water (ponds, pools), sky (courtyards, skylights) and earth (landscaping), one can incorporate nature into architecture, providing ample sensory stimuli.
8. Levels: By moulding variations in levels and volumes, one can create changes in the perception of three dimensional space. There is the possibility of action implied by a work of architecture, and we project fragments of ourselves onto the space around us, just as we do with each other, by projective identification. This process of bodily engagement can be utilized by incorporating interactive elements such as this.