Living Form

by Sam Buntz

[Note: I have never taken a course on architecture or its history—these observations spring from personal reading and my own internal reception of the art. So, any scholarly expectations should be diminished.]

William Blake once wrote, “Grecian art is mathematical form; Gothic is living form.” By this Blake illustrates something that a great many people have likely noticed: there’s a difference between the Parthenon and Chartres Cathedral, and the same kind of difference continues to manifest itself in contemporary architecture. The Parthenon exemplifies an ideal geometric design—its columns and its scale are impressive, but it isn’t very human or homey…The Classical World lacks the quirk and eccentricity of the Medieval World. You wouldn’t want to have a sleepover in the Parthenon—but, by contrast, you might not mind dragging a cot into Chartres or other Gothic cathedrals. The cathedrals are certainly as monumental as the Parthenon, but they relate to the humans who enter them quite differently. (Curiously, Islamic architecture—with its insistence on pure geometric pattern in many of its designs—strikes me as being closer to the impersonal Greek mode, as opposed to the personal Gothic mode. This would be true for the spare interiors of so many old Puritan churches, as well.).

The great cathedrals are, after all, modeled on the human form—attempting to mimic the proportions of a Universal Mother, a feminine embrace containing the human congregation. The same is true for Hindu temples, which are explicitly modeled on the human body, with the central space also functioning as a kind of womb in which the divine presence can be received. Also, the cathedrals’ ascension from dark depths up to bright heights mirrors the progression from ignorance to wisdom that religion attempts to instigate in the human mind through its rituals, its art—its full aesthetic package. In Gothic Architecture and other specimens of “Living Form”, there are metaphors hidden in everything—and even if we aren’t consciously, intellectually aware of them, they resonate with us. We encounter ourselves, in Wallace Stevens’ words, “more truly and more strange.”

Overall, Modern Architecture—despite its “Modern” tag—feels more like a parody of the Classical Greek style: it’s much closer to the Parthenon than to Chartres.   Its structures are vast and impersonal—titanic and functional, but not pleasant. They try (unsuccessfully, in my view) to negate E.F. Schumacher’s dictum, “Small is beautiful.” (Not that Gothic Cathedrals are small either—but they are comprised of small moments of beauty which create, in the aggregate, an impression of a larger Beauty: the universal experienced through the particular). Modern and Post-Modern buildings appeal to the mathematical mind, but not to the human whole (and not to the emotions, in particular). The designs of contemporary elementary schools and corporate skyscrapers both insist on geometrical purity, but they typically lack any kind of human touch. They don’t seem like buildings made for people—the building is primary, and the human is secondary. They decidedly fall onto the “tool” side of John Ruskin’s injunction: “You must either make a tool of a man or a man of him. You cannot do both.” Humans seem instrumental in relation to these structures.

Along with Blake, I find this to be the wrong approach. The architecture I find most inspiring includes Gothic Cathedrals and Hindu and Buddhist Temples—also, the Neo-Gothic revival and “Arts and Crafts” movement spearheaded by Ruskin, William Morris, and other great, British aestheticians in the 19th Century; Art Deco Architecture; Anthroposophical Architecture (which is a lesser-known style, but frequently an affecting one); and certain rare examples of Modern and Post-Modern Architecture, bucking the more common traits of those schools. There are probably more examples and styles that would resonate with me if I knew about them—but this should be a decent sampling.

This duality between the Classical-Impersonal-Inorganic-Functional and the Gothic-Personal-Organic-Romantic is true for visual art as well as architecture, and to some extent for popular music (people who are really into contemporary House and Techno music appreciate pattern—but they lack an affinity for the subtle, emotional forces that guide pattern in, say, R&B, or the better kinds of indie rock.) I wouldn’t wish the more impersonal and geometrical style out of existence—but it seems present to a greater extent than it should be, indicating an imbalance in our own mode of being. I think it hints that we’re not paying enough attention to the more human aspects of…well, humanity. The strictly quantitative, mathematical part of the mind is (to put it somewhat paradoxically) the least human part of human beings—it strains for a pure objectivity divorced from the tastes of the subjective person. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, I don’t think this part of the mind can function as it should unless it is harnessed to the interests of the whole person, the subjective being. Otherwise, it becomes a deranged Sorcerer’s Apprentice (like in the famous Fantasia sequence), producing and designing without any thought for the humans served by those designs and productions. It leads one into the world described by Thoreau’s famous quotation: “We have become the tools of our tools.”

Contemporary visual art furnishes numerous examples of this problem. I like a lot of contemporary art, but I find myself left cold by, say, sculptures that are un-ornamented green pyramids or paintings that are perfectly square canvases painted entirely black. Again, it’s like a parody of this more geometrical and less human style of creation. I’m not saying that art needs to always be representational—but I tend to prefer art that conforms to the human shape in some way, or to natural shapes. It needs to feel alive and impart a sense of life, as opposed to feeling dead and sterile (which sounds obvious enough) 

For instance, Anthroposophical Architecture aims to create structures that appear to have “grown” rather than been fabricated: a worthy goal. By contrast, the qualities of art objects that seem “produced” as opposed to “created”, tend to heighten a rather eerie, mechanical, inorganic sense of being… Basically, they seem soulless. They only appeal to the conceptual, measuring part of the mind, and leave out the emotional and imaginative aspects of the human being—they totally eschew the insights provided by one’s dream life or fantasy existence. On the other hand, one can create art that seems excessively based on feeling—all pastels with no edge, for instance; something totally soft. The point is really to create a fusion—since humans are a fusion between reason and feeling, between impersonal capacities of thought and personal relations. But our mental instruments of thought and judgment should always submit themselves to the feeling and perceiving core of our being. That way, the tools will remain in their toolbox until needed, rather than in a position of power and control.        

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