A street in Tokyo | Circa 1950 | Source unknown
Wholeness is everywhere. It can be viewed through a microscopic and telescopic lens. It is in nature and, therefore, it is in our nature.
Some places are more whole than others, some contribute to the life of the world more than others. It is beyond simply not liking something and it is not a matter of relative opinion. It is an objective matter that is also intensely personal (or subject-orientated) at the same time.
In our time however, people have seem to completely forgotten, whether intentionally or not, what real life – life that was constructed from the whole, that made us feel like we belonged – felt like prior to the rampant industrialization period of the 18th and 19th centuries. Prior to the Machine Age, the world simply looked and felt differently.
Look at the image above. How was it that the people, the carts, the trolley, the telephone poles, the buildings all seem to be able to work together? Is this just the angle of the photographer? I don’t think so. Something very profound and delicate here is at work. If I were to Photoshop the image so as to remove the bicycles and carts from it (because I believed somehow they were “cluttering” or “distracting” to the image ), I will have, in fact, destroyed the wholeness of the image resulting in something that lacks life. The wholeness of the image depends upon the presence of the carts and the bikes as much as the carts and the bikes depend upon the whole.
The point is this: it is not the part that makes the whole, but rather, the whole makes the part. The “part” really is one of many smaller wholes that comprise of one, single, unbroken whole or the whole. The carts and bikes in the image above are parts. Simply being a part does not guarantee wholeness. It depends on how these things are arranged. This, in turn, depends upon the steps that are taken to arrive at that arrangement of parts which, because of how they are arranged, result in the complete, unbroken whole of the image. These steps have to do with the sequence of unfolding, a process defined by Alexander, which deals with the order in which something is done.
One can image a myriad of steps that the photographer used to capture this one moment of Japan’s street life. It probably, however, did not go like this: Load the film, randomly pick a lens, climb up a random balcony or street car, close your eyes, and just shoot without looking. Wholeness, given its complexity, can never really be casual. It is a disciplined practice requiring great attention and care to detail. Working from the small decisions, one at a time, to the large decisions is truly the only way something can arrive at wholeness. Of course, it is practical to consider the scale of the project in question. The first decision in planning out a city block, for instance, would not be deciding where to put the public bathrooms.
Having considered this image of wholeness as seen above, why is it that the people intrusted with developing this kind of space – city planners, architects, developers, governments, ect. – resort to making places that are show below?
Image Credit: http://www.fastcompany.com/1204698/suburbia-rip
A street in the U.S. | Sources unknown
Money, politics, ignorance, lack of collective will. These are easy answers. I believe that it goes far deeper than this. The real answer lies in the normative machine-like way of existence that human beings have adopted over several centuries. We have permitted ourselves to behave, work, think, and do things in concert with a mechanistic worldview of human life. It is a worldview that pervades every aspect of our lives; we have gained much from it, but we have forgotten why we adopted it in the first place: to make human life better, not machine life. In the images above, we see a street that has resulted from this way of thinking. The developers and the city would probably say that this is the most practical, cost-efficient, tried and true, standard way of doing things. That we don’t need to think twice about it – a little bit of asphalt here, some cheap metal light posts, a sliver of green crap, and we’re good to go.
Here’s what is most maddening about this mechanistic worldview: it is not just happening in our streets, it is very much present in our contemporary buildings.
Image Credit: Sources available upon request.
Is the feeling of architecture in the 21st century really any different than the feeling of the two asphalt-laden streets above? What is the point of trying to look cool if it ends up looking the same in the end, if it feels lifeless in the end?
It is not just about architectural movements and styles over time. Its not just about the battles between deconstructivism and post-modernism or this -ism versus that -ism. The issue is far more practical, far more real, far more consequential. Does it actually feel good to be there with your own heart, body, and mind? Does the architecture make nature, life, spirit, humanity – whatever you call it – actually better than whatever was there before or does it make it worse? Expensive, new, and hip does not automatically make it good. It is not that difficult to ask yourself to think about architecture with this question in your mind, it is about trusting yourself to take it seriously.
Maybe there is an answer in-between. But I think this mostly arises from the same neutrality that the mechanistic worldview has imposed on people. I would guess that at some moment in your experience of the building, you may realize that it wasn’t all what the magazines and photographers wanted you to think it was really about. In order to get you to “buy into” the building, the magazines and photographers piggyback on imagery, shove it in front of your eyes, and call it art. They are not interested in hearing about how the building affects you emotionally. This attitude is what perpetuates more of the same, and, if this is the “future”, we are going to wish for something more like the street in Japan. Something better from outside our windows.
This document is a collection of thoughts, ideas, sketches, and observations of a young architecture student living in the 21st century. It is intended to serve as a resource and vehicle for personal connections that extend beyond virtual domains. The main subject of this blog is an inquiry into the elusive nature of wholeness. The purpose is to identify wholeness-making building methodologies and examples of 'whole architecture' throughout history.