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.