Anything long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. (话说天下大势，分久必合，合久必分钟).
Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Luo Guanzhong
Hakuin – Enso (circle)
Architecture’s dream is to create a unity of place through the division of space. This is not only an area that we enter into with our bodies; it also is a subjective state that we enter into through our senses. The entry into this state can be defined physically – by an enclosure, a quality of surface, a sculptural form, or a relationship between interior and exterior; it can also be entered through a perceptual shift – a change in acoustics, the sensation of colour, a feeling of immersion, or an awareness of gravity. Unity occurs when there is no separation between self and surroundings; it is a place that can be experienced alone, but is best enjoyed with friends.
As an undergraduate, I always looked forward to Dalibor Vesely‘s weekly lectures on Phenomenology, which took me years to understand. Essentially, it is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. Technology and science create a divide between humanity and an increasingly distant natural world; in “Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation“, Dalibor claims that fragmentation is the defining characteristic of our times, and describes how the development of linear perspective in Renaissance Italy changed our relationship with the environment from being one of symbiotic unity to become one of objectivity and separation.
Now that a proliferation of media, cameras, images, and computer-based geometric worlds have industrialized the first-person perspective, he suggests that architecture has a major role to play in healing this disconnect. Through architecture, we can connect with the world immediately around us by transforming the abstract notion of space into the site-specific archetype of a place.
“I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Walt Whitman suggests a complex the idea of the self – as a being who is both individual and group. However, the creative expression of the collective self is dangerous when it challenges the politics of control. After all, Freedom, not Unity, is the core value of the United States of America. The country values the idea of the individualistic self above the idea of the collective, and it is the conflict between these ideologies that stirs global uprisings from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park.
The turn of the 21st century has many parallels with the beginnings of the 20th: technological progress and political turbulence have greatly altered how we view the world. We are now witnessing the precarious condition of the world’s mechanisms – the nation-state, the global economy, the family, our education, the natural environment, and our future. While it is tempting to retreat into the dream-state of escapism, architecture must contribute to the reality of the world outside. By allocating public space and safe zones of protest through installations within the fabric of the city, architecture can unite rather than divide.
Dalibor interpreted Cubism and montage as attempts to express the chaos of their times by combining multiple fragments through collage composition. When we asked him how many separate elements the ideal montage had, he answered, “… each should be made of two and a half parts – two that you can see, and the other half inside your mind“. If we can combine the sculptural, social, and subjective states of Architecture, it would augment our waking life with a zone of suspended disbelief – a place to unify the world around us.