Friday, June 6, 2014



The were two short extracts from Oliver Sacks, The Mind’s Eye, Picador, London, 2010, that caught the eye and challenged the mind:

She had discovered for herself that there is no substitute for experience, that there is an unbridgeable gulf between what Bertrand Russell called “knowledge by description” and “knowledge by acquaintance,” and no way of going from one to the other.

Given enough time, Sue might have been able to see all seven levels on her own, but such “top-down” factors - knowing or having an idea of what one should see - are crucial in many aspects of perception. A special attention, a special searching, may be necessary to reinforce a relatively weak psychological faculty.

In spite of the ‘unbridgeable gulf,’ Bertrand Russell’s categories of knowledge do appear to have been given a relationship in architecture where esoteric theory often drives outcomes for one to experience in the subtlety of unique form and place: in 'MY' work. All architectural activity is based on some theoretical premise, be this some simple, naive practical belief, or a pure philosophical approach that is seen as the shaping force behind experience: or so the profession likes to believe. Designs are explained using various adopted conglomerate theories to rationalise the outcomes. It is as though one cannot trust intuition or precedence.

Given that Russell suggests these forms of knowing, “knowledge by description” and “knowledge by acquaintance,” have no necessary or possible relationship, ‘an unbridgeable gulf,’ perhaps the profession needs to reconsider its broad approach that likes to hypothesize on strategies and then analyse outcomes as some form of proof. The whole approach might need to be reconsidered. Is the profession working on a totally false premise? Is it wallowing in words for the sake of sounds and status?

The second quote from Sacks might help us understand this matter. Seeing what we believe (see:, looked at how statements and images modify our perceptions. Sacks points out how ‘knowing or having an idea of what one should see’ can shape what and how one sees. Indeed, this was precisely the proposition in Seeing what we believe. Most works of architecture become familiar to us through print publications and photographs perused prior to the experience of the place. One carries ‘baggage’ to the initial encounter. Is this manipulation supporting the rationale behind the profession’s use of theory and the assumption that this might hold some relevance for understanding and experience? Are we being told how to see; what to see; how to experience; what to experience?

The proposition could be that theory in architecture is a mere indulgence, a participation in pseudo academic worlds and words seeking to illustrate genius and different cleverness; an attempt to tell others how flippant oddities are so logical; how 'MY' work, opinion, perception is so intellectual. Are the carefully framed and cropped photographs a part of this charade that wants to reinforce its own platforms of belief? Are these photographs and texts determining how we experience buildings and place, providing preliminary understandings to this experience? Do these theoretical games change the way we see? Do they distort our experience? Are we living in a ghosted place; a fantasy, phantom world?

Why are we so distrustful of our emotions? We seem to be placing every importance on “knowledge by description” while trying to influence, to manage our “knowledge by acquaintance,” even though our bodies might be telling us something different. Is our general discontent shaped by a latent schizophrenia? The whole profession dislikes emotive matters, seeing them as personal and unreliable indulgences, matters to be pushed into the background behind the facts. Has science had this impact on our attitudes to our work and our works? Have we forgotten Paul Auster's words, that 'even the facts don't tell the truth'? Or Harold Pinter's writing of 1958: 'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.' Feelings can be as true and certain facts.

The world of feeling is included in matters religious where evasive gentle, sensitive and subtle issues are engaged, made accessible. They are matters that the ordinary world excludes so brashly, harshly: it destroys these sensitivities; mocks them. One dare not mention these concerns in any architectural debate. One would not have the nerve to suggest that there might be some essential relevance or necessity here other than in some broad, theoretical manner that remains irrelevant for our world and us today.

Yet the history of architecture is full of buildings celebrating matters of feeling and belief - religion. These structures encompass a deep and complex symbolism that we simply categorise as having an importance to the past, if at all, describing the ideas as being merely the superstition of uneducated peasants. Still, we drool over these buildings and places while we distrust their beginnings and inspirations. There is an enormous gulf here that places matters emotional into the field of aesthetics that can be described, rationalised, separated from any aspect of personal experience: my feelings. It is indeed that separation between “knowledge by description” and “knowledge by acquaintance,” where acquaintance is kept in the realm of the ad hoc; the irrelevant; the personal; the random flippancy of unreliable feelings. Description becomes the most important matter. Things have to be able to be described, explained; hence the importance of words and structured images that illustrate these texts.

There will have to be significant changes in our attitudes before we are capable of giving experience the full importance it carries. The subject is more than ‘experiencing architecture’ in Rassmussen’s analytical manner. Here matters of humility, compassion and contentment become involved. Already one can hear the moans and groans, and the frustrated pencil tapping on the table that demonstrate an irascible discontent that comes with the silent ‘claptrap’ categorisation: ‘go away and do something sensible.’

All of this and one has not even mentioned ‘love’; but it is love that lies behind it all: that rich, emotional caring commitment that defines outcomes with a clear and exuberant honesty, exhorting a contagious involvement in life itself, and its living and sharing: its mystery; its beauty. St. Paul said that the greatest was love:
'And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.'
1 Corinthians 13:13
But what sense does this quote have in any architectural debate? This is the core of the matter that needs attention if we are to understand more about our “knowledge by acquaintance": our experience and architecture.

This is an aside that starts another reverie: theories. All action has its theory or theories, but why are some concepts so invasive so as to become the core issue to be promoted as the experience to be experienced - c.f. Ghery/Hadid?
What might be a reasonable proposition for starting any architectural work? The traditional craftsman's approach was: 'having concentrated, he started work.' Maybe, in our complex world today, at the very least, the proposition might be that every part of a building, no matter how tiny and ‘irrelevant,’ should be given its right respect - right size, right place and right relationship: the accommodation of its necessity. One could call it Buddhist design (c.f. Schumacher Buddhist Economics). Engineers seem to understand this better than architects: consider the Firth of Forth bridge. In this context, consider also Hadid’s steel roof framing for Glasgow's Riverside Museum of Transport that has been specifically shaped to suit a theory; and then think of the wonder of any flower, its simplicity, its integrity.

The strategy seems to be: whatever it takes.

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