October 15, 2007

Dharmic Architecture

My mind has not been on the Dharma lately. Or so it seems. I have not been reading or meditating. The latest issue of The Shambhala Sun is still unopened in its plastic. I have not been attending sangha gatherings. I find my writings rambling, wandering on about this and that, but not in their usual way. I have no new philosophic insights into emptiness or the nature of mind to share, just the daily business of living.

Yet I feel that my practice is very rich at the moment, full of opportunities and learning. I am weaving together the threads of my life into a holistic whole which seems to give me greater strength. I am gaining an experiential understanding of the value of diligence and Right Effort. Despite all I have to do, I remain grounded in patience and compassion, and that (for the most part) prevents me from feeling overwhelmed (for most of the time).

My work has seen principles put into practice and applied at every opportunity. When I say “my work” I do not refer to the jobs for which I get paid, but my architectural design, that which I will make my life’s work. Always I have been interested in what buildings say. To me, buildings have always had a kind of life and presence of their own, and, like the people who build them, they always seek to communicate. When I design, it is with this in mind and what I want my buildings to say is both Dharmic and universal.

My current design works with interdependence and how that might be conveyed. Venturi would just post a sign with four foot tall letters stating “ALL THINGS ARE INTERDEPENDENT” on the outside of a Wal-Mart style box and call it good. I prefer the poetics of form and function to do my work for me, conveying the message no less loudly, but so much more effectively. I seek a building which demonstrates interdependence through the manner in which it functions in relation to the environment it occupies and the user it shelters.

While I struggle with this purpose in design studio, I seek ways to understand it in my architecture theory class, where I am writing my term paper on Architectural Communication. The theories are already there, but they have gathered dust since they were penned in the 1960’s and 1970’s when post-modern architects resorted to kiche and pastiche to convey meaning (slapping Doric columns on a façade to say “government” and other such cultural references).

I am more interested in how a building can communicate universally. Would a non-Buddhist, non-Westerner understand the message? Maybe. They might see how the water is collected and channeled to promote the growth of vegetables and flowers while all around has turned gold in the hot, dry climate of a Colorado summer. They might see how the rising rammed earth walls carry the solidity of the granite ridges ringing the valley and shelter the occupants from the northwest wind of a Colorado winter. They might see how the interior columns rise and branch like the trees from which they came, and how all of this comes together to make a warm, inviting, sheltering, and homey. They might.

But would they say to themselves “Ah ha! All things are interdependent!”? Probably not, but the exact words are no so important as the feeling itself.

Sometimes I see buildings which seem sad, almost depressed and I think that perhaps they had something to say once and never did get the chance. The designer didn’t quite express it right, or the budget got cut during construction. I see regret in those buildings. Sometimes I see buildings without souls, which never had anything to say in the first place, like big box stores and bad 1970’s apartment blocks. But often enough to give me hope, I see buildings which are happy, shouting out their message, or standing with quiet dignity because they know they don’t have to shout to be heard. These are well designed buildings. If you asked me what the message was, I might not be able to say exactly, for words do not speak the same language as brick, wood, space, and light. But I would know there was one and I would know what it was.

So now I go into my mid-semester critique to find out if my buildings is saying what I hope it is. I know that my buildings will always speak (if I built them well) and I know that the message will forever be informed my those things I value most – by the Dharma.

When a Dharmic Building speaks, does it say nothing?


SHLiung said...

Would like to share a Buddhist website with you: http://www.cttbusa.org/

Monica said...

Thank you Shliung. That is very interesting. I shall have to keep an eye on it. I'd love to go visit it.

TK said...

Interesting question. Dharmic people are supposed to perceive the form without grasping/listening, so maybe it doesn't matter whatever the dharmic building says. Perhaps it should just reveal form without saying anything?

Monica said...

Oh, NO! Have I stumbled into the Modernist trap all unwitting? Because they tried that and it sucked! It was so resoundly rejected by the public that the profession has yet to fully recover.

As the few theoriests have pointed out when applying semiology to architecture - humans tend to use EVERYTHING (they make or use) as a form of communication. Even if it just a stick placed on the ground. Everything touched by human hands is instantly imbued with meaning. Therefore, even though you have a very strong a valid point, I'm not sure anyone short of a Buddha themself would be able to create that kind of architecture.

And as I already mentioned, it sucked. (I mean really really sucked.)

Jorge Mejía said...

The semiological approach to architecture, based mainly on Eco's Absent Structure, is not very strong, theoretically speaking. I've found a more interesting point of view in Popper's model of the three worlds, in which knowledge and comprehension (the objective and the subjective, mind and spirit - call it whatever you want) are polarities joined by a third entity - which we really miss nowadays, in this polarized, fragmentary world. More than meaning, in a linguistic sense, the problem is ontological (being). And a bhuddist should know that this beign is a matter of wholeness which is verbally (semiologically) meaningless, impossible to grasp, for the most part. Structuralism works better, I shall insist. You check it out and tell me what you think...

TK said...

Well, that is probably true, that everything human are imbued with meaning. Tho, I also think that the audience can attach their own meanings if necessary, not necessarily same as what the creator meant, as long as the form is coherent. And that should be enough, at least in my book, since form, not meaning, is what art is about. (The form without sign!)

Monica said...

TK, I tend to believe the turning point for art came with the application of positivistic thought and the decline of a single dominant social structure (theologically justified feudalism) - at which time art because "art for art's sake" and lost its social meaning. The idea that art is all about form, not meaning, is realtively new in the current phase of human history even though it has been around longer than any of us have been alive. Which is why we tend to view it with such surity when the entire approach is in fact quite questionable. I refer you to Karsten Harries and his ethical aproach to architecture, or ethos.

Jorge, I am aware that the semiological approach to architecture gains short shrift these days. That is one reason for my research on this topic this semester - to determine the entire reasoning for an against it. I am not familiar with Popper and have never paid much attention to structuralism. I am aware of the recognized disparity between ultimate and relative truth to which I believe you refer. However, in the matter of my work I have purposely chosen to operate solely on the basis of realtive truth. Ths may change over time, but not soon, I should think. I will look into it.

Thanks to both for your insightful help.

TK said...

Urgh, all these theoretical/historical terminologies make my head spin :-)

Buddha repeatedly talks about form without sign and the triad of external (form), internal (meaning) and the contact (the nexus) in the Book of Six Senses. He was a modernist 2500 year ahead of the time! Anyway, a buddhist interpretation of architecture could make an interesting subject, I'd agree. Good luck with your work!

Monica said...

TK, don't suppose you would have a link to find that online?

TK said...

I found this online:

I'm yet to decipher the numbering system, but 40.1.6 and 7, which I happened to be upon this morning, mentions sign-less contact and making of sign. And 34.12.7 talks about perceiving form without grasping its sign as means of guarding the sense door. The translation is different from the Wisdom Books version, so you may have to read between the line. I wish Wisdom Books supply searchable CD...

The easiest thing probably is to read the whole book of 6 sense bases. Majority are repetitions, so it makes a fairly quick reading. (If you have time, that is).