Further Deepening the 'Natural Imagination'

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The Natural Imagination
The realm of architectural discourse today is much possessed by death and by the notion of architecture as the embodiment of memory. In so far as Memory, 'Mnemosyne' in Greek mythology, is the Mother of the Arts it is the very source of that mode of the architectural imagination that feeds upon artifice and reflection--the whole culture of conventions, mythical and stylistic, that in turn transmutes the day-to-day transactions of utility and the prevailing lore of technology into symbolic statement. It is the world of ideal form, of abstraction and allusion and manner woven from a history that is unique in time and place; and what it draws upon is that body of knowledge and sensibility that we will call the Artificial Imagination. An eloquent example of it would be Borromini's San Carlino which condensed the three geometric forms of octagon, cross and oval into a structural system that simultaneously offers and reiterates at different scales a formal triune reading that is explicitly symbolic in its reference to the Trinity: construction, abstraction and symbolisation have rarely been pressed to such lengths.

In Wilson's view, the 'artificial imagination' deals with 'abstraction, allusion and manner', while the 'natural imagination' stresses anatomy and the 'energy' of the human figure, thus employing a 'body metaphor'.

But our experience of architecture is far from being encompassed by such learned response and reflection. Indeed in the very first instance quite other responses are at work, a whole array of instinctive reactions triggered by the nervous system and marked above all by the quality of immediacy.

On aspect of this instinctual reaction received its most celebrated formulation in aesthetic terms in the idea of Einfülung, or empathy, first defined by Robert Vischer and Theodor Lipps as the reincorporation of an emotional state or physical sensation projected upon the object of attention. Its popularised expression in architectural literature appears in Geoffrey Scott's Architecture of Humanism where he writes: 'These masses are capable, like ourselves, of pressure and resistance . . . we have looked at the building and identified ourselves with its apparent state. We have transcribed ourselves into terms of architecture . . . It has stirred our physical memory . . .'2

The theory underlying the chronosomatic imagination likewise makes metaphorical use of the body, however, in this case, the 'body metaphor' emanates from human physiology rather than human physicality. In other words, the chronosomatic imagination draws on the body's internal operations and not on the body's figure and external movements.

Similarly Le Corbusier talks about the column as 'a witness of energy' and we are drawn into a world in which remote transpositions of the human figure participate in an exchange of forces, of pressure and release, of balance and counterbalance in which construct and spectator seem to become one.

But in its confinement to aesthetic sensation alone, the notion of empathy is patently too limited: yet it does bear witness to a level of experience that has far deeper repercussions and that is as deeply rooted as it is paradoxically unacknowledged--the sense, however abstracted, of a body-figure and the ensuing notion of Presence that flows from it. Michelangelo (for whom the human body served as the supreme image for all that he had to say, both sacred and profane) in his one written statement about architecture testified to it when he wrote '. . . and surely architectural members derive from human members. Whoever has not been or is not a good master of the figure and likewise of anatomy cannot understand [anything] of it.'3 With its stress upon anatomy this statement far outruns the conventional concern with the abstractions of Vitruvian symmetry. This mode of experience is real, active in us all, compelling in its impact. I hope to trace the source of this body metaphor and, in so doing, to show that it goes beyond instinctive sensation and is structured like a language, replete with its own lore and imagery no less so than the Artificial Imagination; furthermore it too has its memory, albeit of a more archaic order. And I will call it the Natural Imagination.

In the theory of chronosomatics each physiological function, (e.g., fertility, assimilation, metabolism, osmosis, etc.), along with being a distinct corporal operation, also describes a particular mode of the human imagination. The metaphor is simple yet penetrating--the fertile imagination is the most reproductive, the assimilating imagination is extremely absorbent of data, the metabolic imagination simultaneously destroys as it creates, and the osmotic imagination, as we shall see, is the operation (or 'code' or 'chemistry') that produces the 'instinctual reactions' that move Wilson so deeply.

Concepts of psychological 'position'
Two of the architects most notable for the subtlety and precision of their spatial compositions, Adolf Loos and Hans Scharoun, were given to quoting Kant's statement that ''all our consciousness is grounded in spatial experience'. From the moment of being born we spend our lives in a state of comfort or discomfort on a scale of sensibility that stretches between claustrophobia and agoraphobia. We are inside or outside; on the threshold between. There are no other places to be.

The writer who, more than any other, has offered us helpful clues by which to relate what I have called the Natural Imagination to this grounding in spatial experience is Adrian Stokes.

The background of his formulation lies in the unpromising discipline of psychoanalysis. However he brings to bear upon it first the intentions and sensibility of a painter and, second, extraordinary powers of interpretation and evocation such that, in the phrase of David Sylvester, 'the texture of his writing is analogous to the texture of our actual experience of art'. Time and again his interpretations ring true.

The basic notions of inside and outside are fundamental to both Wilson's 'Natural Imagination' and to chronosomatic' concept of an osmotic imagination. The main difference between the two theories, however, arises from their respective sources of inspiration. Wilson looks to Adrian Stokes and thus also to psychological interpretations of humanity's relationship with the environment, whereas The Body, The Imagination, and Architecture interpretes the operations of human physiology as the most influential factor behind human imagination.

From Melanie Klein's work on infant psychology Stokes takes the concept of two polar 'positions' or modes of experience through which (it is claimed) we all pass in infancy and against which all our subsequent experience in life is re-enacted. (That the word 'position' with all its connotations of physical space, presence and stance, was chosen to define a psychological state goes a very long way to meet the case that I shall be putting forward.)

The first 'position' is identified as an all-embracing envelopment with the mother, of one-ness; what Freud called 'the oceanic feeling', a kind of fusion which is most sheltering. This form of attachment is grounded in an intimate experience or the protective and sustaining qualities of the mother-figure which at this stage is largely received as an unfocused, all-enveloping environment in a kind of emotional and aesthetic short-sight. By definition the nature of this mode of Envelopment is spatial, physical, tactile. There is a close analogue to this 'position' in the architectural experience of interior space that is modelled in rhythmic forms of flowing and merging continuity. It is argued that this position of Envelopment is succeeded by a fundamental and shocking change to the contrary position of Exposure or Detachment--of an otherness in which the infant becomes aware both of its own separate identity from the mother and from all other objects out there. This experience is the beginning of objectivity and self-sufficiency. The architectural analogue for the 'position' of independence lies in the experience of open space and the external confrontation with a building's wholeness and self-sufficiency, the carved and massive frontality of its stance over-against you.

"The ultimate place where the molecules of the air of earth come and go is the alveolus. That is far into the lung. That is truly the shore, the border, there where the great outer meets this single inner. 'And he brought them to the border of His sanctuary.' The alveolus is the sanctuary, small, and there are many. Through their walls the gas molecules pass in, pass out. We are unaware of the passing, have usually neither the pleasure nor the unpleasure of our breathing. Someone said that the infant however takes big breaths and feels the air running all through its healthy body, and that this is one of the primal pleasures of life. Possibly that pleasure would have encouraged the infant to expand chest and lungs to the uttermost and thus body and head would appear to have been emerging together, physiology and psychology."
Gustav Eckstein, The Body Has a Head (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1969), p. 177.

Adrian Stokes points to the significance of the varying combinations by which these two extremes are conveyed to us''4: normally, even in excellent buildings, that one or other of these modes predominates. He then draws an extraordinary conclusion: that it is uniquely the role of the masterpiece to make possible the simultaneous experience of these two polar modes; enjoyment at the same time of intense sensations of being inside and outside, of envelopment and detachment, of oneness and of separateness. A number of other writers have recognised the two poles of experience (Warburg's 'identification' and 'detachment' for instance); Stokes alone[?] perceives the secret to lie in their fusion and upon this rests the originality and significance of his vision. 'In reflecting such combined yet antithetical drives a work of art symbolises the broader integrating processes. This is the unique role of art.'5 (I liken this paradox to the well-known optical phenomenon of Gestalt psychology which claims that it is not possible to register simultaneously both the vase and the kissing profiles. The counter-claim that great art can achieve this 'impossibility' is a criticism of Gestalt Theory.)

The one architectural masterpiece that Wilson does not mention with regard to the 'simultaneous experience of . . . inside and outside' is the Pantheon. This temple, erected by the Emperor Hadrian in Rome, dedicated to all the Gods, and which today is a Roman Catholic Church dedicated to Mary and the remains of countless martyrs brought from the Catacombs in AD 608, not only brings the outside in literally through the open oculus of its dome, but, all the more, brings the entire cosmos inside through its architectural articulations. The Pantheon's interior comprises three horizontally stacked zones. The lower section of the drum corresponds to the earth, the terrestrial, where humanity pays homage to the gods. The attic section of the drum, above the earth and below the dome, is where the gods themselves reside. And the dome, with its moving circle of light shinning through the oculus as the sun and the (former) gilded bronze rosettes within the coffers as the stars, comes to represent the vast universe above.

In terms of osmosis, the Pantheon is the architectural semi-permeable membrane through which as equalization of the outside and the inside occurs.

The Pantheon

a prime example of osmotic architecture

Ward-Perkins says, "With the building of the Pantheon . . . architectural thinking had been turned inside out; and henceforth the concept of interior space as a dominating factor in architectural design was to be an accepted part of the artistic establisment of the capital" A. Boöthius and J. B. Ward-Perkins, Etruscan and Roman Architecture (Harmondsworth and Baltimore, 1970). p. 256. Perhaps we should rather say: Architectural thinking had been turned "outside in!"
Christian Norberg-Schulz, Meaning in Western Architecture (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1975), p. 100.

The ambition and daring of the Pantheon design are utterly Roman, but in its planetary rotundity the building is also suffused with a quality of seeking for the comprehension of things beyond knowledge, a quality that records Roman sensitivity to human limits. The Pantheon exists because of a particular man, but the stirring and eloquent message preserved in the universality of its forms belongs to everyone. This is why it is the temple of the whole world.
William L. MacDonald, The Architecture of the Roman Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 121.

One of the most wonderful buildings in the world which conveys its ideas is the Pantheon. The Pantheon is really a world within a world. The client, Hadrian, and the architect, whom I don't know the name of, saw the demand of this pantheonic requirement of no religion, no set ritual, only inspired ritual. He saw the round building, and a very large building. I imagine that he probably thought the building should be at least 300 feet in diameter; he changed his mind because there were no craftsmen who would make such a building, and it was out of the stream of economy. Economy meaning here that there's no man around to do it. I don't mean money--1 don't meanbudget--I mean economy. And so the Pantheon is now a hundred and some feet in diameter. The dome, the first real dome made, was conceived with a window to the sky. Not because of ethereal reasons, but because it's the least distracting, the one that is most transcending. And there is a demand from saying nothing specific, no direction; that's what form says to you, feeling and philosophy. It says no direction to this . . . no oblong . . . a square not satisfying here . . . too far and away at the corners. The round building is something which is irrefutable as an expression of a world within a world.
Louis I. Kahn (Alessandra Latour, ed.), Writings, Lectures, Interviews (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), p. 151.




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