October 30, 2007

Dharmic Architecture 2: Meaning & Phenomena

Thanks to those of you who gave me food for thought on “Dharmic Architecture.” As TK pointed out, since as Buddhists we are supposed to stop searching for the meaning behind phenomena (which too often simply means assigning our own meaning to them) and accept the world as it truly is, perhaps architecture should follow this dictate. Architecture, as phenomena, should not attempt to have meaning beyond the physical embodiment of functional requirements.

There are some architects who have attempted to do just that, starting with the International Style in Europe in the 1920’s & 1930’s and later with Modernism in America after World War II. However, as one architectural critic and theorist observed, as soon as their “meaningless” architecture was created, it naturally acquired (or was ascribed) a meaning and began to stand for something beyond itself. This something would later be called “functionalism,” a conceptual theory whole unto itself.

The question is then, did even functionalist architecture acquire a meaning by its own nature (perhaps simply as a work of human hands) or the attribution of meaning to it simply a symptom of the samsaric condition Buddhism implores us to overcome?

On another route of inquiry, is it helpful for use to categorize architecture (or other products of human culture) among the “phenomena” which need have no meaning? Or is this “phenomena” solely the natural world, change, time, and those similar elements beyond significant human control? (Leaving aside the question of our ability to control anything at all, for the moment.) If architecture is included, then so must be other products of human creation, such as the written word, which operates solely on meaning. If we do not look for the meaning behind the ink printed on paper, then we see only ink and paper, and possibly shapes and lines, but not a soliloquy by Shakespeare. That would be a tragedy.

I am suddenly reminded of a moment in the move Short Circuit during which they are trying to determine if the robot Number Five is “alive,” or sentient. They try the inkblot test and Number Five dutifully describes both the chemical composition of the paper and the coffee which was spilled on it, but then…after a suitably dramatic pause…calls it a butterfly, a flower, a bird.

So, the question remains, should architecture communicate? Should it try to mean something beyond sticks and bricks. A professor of mine recently pointed out the similarities between the words “edifice” and “edify.” It sheds light on a rather interesting position. If my goal is to “help people” perhaps that goal can be best served by teaching – not in the traditional sense of a teacher in a classroom, but in the more subversive realm of teaching through subtle suggestion, example, and bringing to light. In order to teach, one must communicate. (Even teaching purely by acting as an example communicates some meaning.)

The Buddha did not teach by refusing to communicate.


TK said...

Poetry, an art that uses words as an element, has its own version of modernism that says poetry should not mean, but be. Words of course have concrete meanings, but a poem composed of words may or may not be written to convey a meaning. And shapes and lines are also elements of poetry that even Shakespeare employed.

They say the evolution made us assign meanings to things that we see, for, if we didn't, we would've been less successful in surviving. And it could be just a projection of this natural evolutionary tendency that makes us see meanings even in meaningless forms like ink blots. So, I guess you could say it's a samsaric conditioning.

I'd think that architecture, the functional constraints aside, is a form of art. In that regard, I'd guess it should do what arts do: reveal possibilities that others do not see or show new way of seeing things they see, using sticks, bricks, lines, shapes and colors. But then, I know next to nothing about architecture, so I'm probably not the best person to get an opinion from. :-)

greenfrog said...

Perhaps there's a useful answer to be found in the experience of the Stupa at Shambhala?

jessa walters said...

hi there...i found your blog from "in limine: life through yoga blog." reading your profile, we come from very similar backgrounds and have headed in similar directions philosophically. although, i am orginally from minnesota....and now call berkeley, ca and daegu, south korea home. i look forward to reading more of your writings soon.....

Monica said...


Hmm...modernist poetry huh? Sounds suspicious...but then I tend to think anything with the word "modern" attached to it is so much bunk. Probably as a side affect for my opinions on modern architecture. :-)

As for not knowing much about architecture - it's all just so much BS anyway, so I wouldn't worry too much.

Architecture is art in many ways, but to me it is also much, much more than art. Or perhaps not more, because that sounds like it devalues art somehow. It is just broader than art, covering so much more, and how deep it is depends on the skill and will of the architect.


Good point! The Stupa is the world's greatest teaching tool, a 3D mandala, and is so packed with meaning it is practically bursting at the seams!


Nice to meet you! I bet Korea is cool!


ND said...

Remember the post modern movement in architecture, trying to deconstruct even buildings.

It is interesting to note that J Derrida that invented deconstruction of 'texts' comes very close to the emptiness 'concept' in buddhism, i.e. there is no pure meaning in a text.

Applying it to architecture would give that there is not a single meaning in an architecture, it is all empty of its own meaning.

Finding meaning where there is none, is an intellectual exercise.


Monica said...


I always thought the "decon" arguements were interesting, but not terribly useful for architecture. They rely on the notion that in order for something (such as a word) to have meaning, it must be part of a dualistic pair in which its partner has the exact opposite meaning. Up/Down, Light/Dark, Inside/Outside, etc. And that once you remove the opposite, the word itself has no more meaning (black would have no meaning without white, etc).

However, I tend to think that removing the "A" does not also remove the "B." We just might then know the "B" by another name, or take it for granted in a way that didn't acknowledge it at all. I think of the case of ultraviolet colors. To the human eye we cannot percieve them or tell them apart and so call them all "grey" (or black) although scientists now know there are several distinct ultraviolet wavelengths, just as there are several distinct visible light wavelengths. So, what is the complementary (opposite) color to ultraviolet? There isn't one, but that doesn't mean ultraviolet doesn't exist.

And since humans are intellectual creatures who like intellectual exercises, then meaning in architecture may actually be appropriate. Besides, if everything is "empty," it is ultimately "empty" whether we attempt to imbue it with meaning or not.

While it makes for nice debate, I tend to think Derrida for architecture is a moot issue.

greenfrog said...

IIRC, the Heart Sutra tells us not only that form is emptiness, but also that emptiness is form.

As I understand the general point, it is that the fact of emptiness does not necessitate a nihilistic or indifferent response -- if emptiness can take the form of a suffering person, compassion should lead us to act to alleviate the suffering, even while we see that the suffering is, itself, a kind of emptiness, a contingent arising that will subside.

If that's right (and I think it is, but I'm a juvenile Buddhist), then it suggests to me that we should engage with the forms that we encounter with all the compassion and curiosity that we can muster, all the while seeing those forms for what they are and are not.

Monica said...

Hehe. I think I can do that. Curiosity (and creativity) I've got down!

Of course, my studio prof's creative recommendation for the day was to paint! my beautiful glulam wood scissor trusses orange on one side and green on the other. Makes me suffer just to contemplate it, but I am dutifully trying to let go of my attachments to my beautiful glulam trusses. I told her not to hold her breath.

Ah, emptiness!

greenfrog said...

I'd vote for emptiness over green and orange trusses.