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?