Abedian School of Architecture
The notice arrived only a few days prior to the date of the event, on the 29th March 2016. The E-mail promoted a Colloquium with a title that appeared to include everything and anything obscure, emotional and esoteric: Place, Time, Beauty, Ethics and Hope. It seemed that if these over-meaningful matters were going to be discussed, then they might as well be done with in one ‘in-depth’ session rather than drag them out over a series of months: short and sweet.
The other issue was the timing of such an apparently significant event: the short notice suggested that the whole afternoon had been slapped together very quickly, almost as a desperate afterthought to grasp an opportunity. Perhaps the title was a result of this haste: whack a bit of everything from everybody’s subject matter into the title and call it a ‘colloquium,’ as this sounds better than a ‘seminar;’ more exotically erudite, scholarly – and aren’t universities uniquely intellectual? The invitation did mention that the ‘renowned Finnish architect, theorist and writer within his field of understanding,’ Juhani Pallasmaa, has been invited to Australia, and, one could perhaps surmise, been allowed to speak at Bond University, ‘courtesy of the Australian Institute of Architecture Foundation.’ So was it the discovery that Mr. Pallasmaa was available that generated the rush to put on a ‘colloquium’ for him and others to speak at? The list of speakers seemed to confirm this haste, with all ‘supporting acts’ but one coming from Bond University itself: self promotion? The odd one out, apart from Mr. Pallasmaa, was Jeff Malpas, who was described oddly as ‘Distinguished Professor, University of Tasmania.’ Are there some ‘undistinguished’ ones? Was he up here on holidays, or otherwise engaged at Bond University, perhaps under some ‘ideas swap’ or academic time-share arrangement – you scratch mine and I’ll scratch yours? It is a game that is played by our places of learning.
I was away when Mr. Pallasmaa was at Bond last year, so I was pleased to be able to accept the invitation. I was aware of his subtle, sensitive and perceptive architectural writings, so was keen to hear the man talk. The Easter change in weather was giving us a softer light with cooler days under blue sunny skies. It was a pleasure to get out. Settling down into the awkward Forum space of the Abedian School of Architecture – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/exploring-definition-edge-condition-of.html - one expected the usual tardy start; but surprisingly, Adrian Carter called everyone in to their chairs only some fifteen minutes late. Did he want to impress Mr. Pallasmaa with his authority?
Mr. Carter quickly introduced the first speaker, and, after some fumbling in the setting up the forgotten microphone, the colloquium started. The programme for the day had Jeff Malpas talking on Where the world begins: place and creative practice. This was to be followed by Dr. Julie Kelso, with On Restfulness; Damian Cox on Cinematic Moral Beauty; and Marja Sarvimaki on Kaiwai: Activity space and invisible boundaries. After a break, Juhani Pallasmaa was to speak on Time, Melancholy and Beauty; with the session being finished by Raoul Mortley with a paper on Apophatic treatment of space, time and hope. The day was to be concluded with a general Panel Discussion. The titles make it clear how one might guess that the name of the colloquium is a collage of words selected from the list of papers to be presented. The other alternative could have been to contrive a new phrase to identify the colloquium, but perhaps there was too little time for this invention.
Mr. Malpas started by defining his subject as involving the difference between space and place. His argument was that there was no such a thing as ‘place making.’ He expanded the concepts in great detail. Papers like these are difficult to summarise as they involve subtle ideas, careful language, and innuendo that really needs a specific review after a thorough reading of the text. Notes could be taken, but sitting while scribbling notes as the presenter talks involves one in the same distracting way as a camera does – it takes one’s attention and concentration off the immediate primal experience of listening and seeing, feeling, understanding and experiencing with some integral coherence. A different stance is required. One’s expectations are redirected to detect and select the ‘useful’ and ‘interesting’ words and ideas to be recorded, or to see the landscape selectively framed as a potential print: see – http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/03/shetland-illusions-misunderstanding.html So it is that the day became a matter of attending to the moment. The notebook and pen were put aside in favour of a more personal involvement in meaning: such was the subject matter. With Mr. Malpas, one has to ask as Heidegger asked: “Why can’t I formulate ideas as precisely as Cézanne paints?”
One’s initial question was why did Mr. Malpas choose this speciality subject? It was initially raised by Aldo van Eyck in one of his essays in Alison Smithson’s (editor) Team 10 Primer, MIT Press, 1974. It was here that van Eyck, who had spent time in the Dogon villages in Africa, coined the concept, ‘place not space,’ arguing that ‘place’ was more inclusive than the abstraction of modernism promoted by Bruno Zevi’s Architecture as Space: How to Look at Architecture, Horizon Press, New York 1957. Prior to this, Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture, Harvard University Press, 1941, had become the transformative text for all architects, even though Einstein, who knew more than most on space and time, had suggested that it just a lot of suggestive rubbish. Such is the world of architects.
But why did Mr. Malpas not talk about or identify these references, instead of choosing to tackle his subject in his own manner as though it had no history but his, that it was HIS discovery; HIS revelation: after all, he was a ‘distinguished professor.’ Place was van Eyck’s notion of a concept more inclusive of experiences and nuances than the cold, rational, easy, loose abstract mystery of space. The concept stimulated the change from modernism into post-modernism. Here signs and symbols could be knowingly embodied in buildings along with other complex social and cultural references: and the rest is history. Why is the 1960’s thinking now becoming so attractive again? - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/10/exploring-definition-edge-condition-of.html
The next speaker, Dr. Julie Kelso, presented her paper On Restfulness with a couple of new more recondite title options – it was a work in progress. The research involved the Jewish notion of the Sabbath. She referenced the work of Heidigger (Poetry, Language, Thought, 1951); Abraham Joshua Heschel (The Sabbath: its Meaning for Modern Man, 1951); and Luce Irigaray (The Forgetting of Air: In Martin Heidegger, 1983). Dr. Kelso presented a spirited argument of the concepts of rest, with the Sabbath seen as a pause for regeneration or an essential spiritual requirement, placing concepts into the feminist philosophy of Irigaray. This is yet another paper one would like to spend more time perusing and considering. The energy of the presenter’s performance does play a role in how one receives and understands information.
Damian Cox spoke of Cinematic Moral Beauty. After managing to get the last couple of minutes of the film Rosetta to play, (equipment usually sets some kind of unique challenge at the wrong time); and after explaining the broader context of this scene, Mr. Cox read from his text. Rosetta is a 1999 French-Belgian film written and produced by the Dardenne brothers. Mr. Cox described it as a morose movie with a transformative end. His enthusiasm for the work of the Dardenne brothers fostered this detailed deconstruction of the film that dealt with the most subtle of physiognomic gestures. The matter of moral beauty had to do with how one interpreted the scenes. It was the silent change in the face at the very end, the humanity in the countenance that was apparently grim and gaunt throughout the film, that Mr. Cox defined as the experience of ‘moral beauty.’ One had to be generous here and take a lot of what Mr. Cox said in good faith. It all seemed reasonable, but, like the other papers, it appeared to suffer from some stolid academic structuring of poetic experience. Is all beauty not ‘moral’? Is it not the very nature of beauty to be moral? Was this idea of ‘moral beauty’ merely something fabricated for academic intrigue, a PhD subject? The phrase had a catchy feel to it, like ‘the axis of evil.’ One might even ask: Does beauty have ‘an axis of evil’ that it encompasses, perhaps overcomes?
The final presentation before the tea/coffee break – listening can be tiring - was a paper by Marja Sarvimaki called Kaiwai: Activity space and invisible boundaries. Ms. Sarvimaki has specialised, concentrating her research on things Japanese. The title of this paper sounds metaphoric, but the study dealt with real, perceived boundaries with no obvious presence. The talk started with almost an aside, by pointing out that Tokyo was a city with a hollow core; that it had no postal address numbering system that was comprehensible, as its system was based on the historical development sequence rather than simple progression.
The paper then went on to analyse a Japanese religious festival procession that had specific rules of right of way, and several specific destinations of roadside shrines to be visited: one per division. Her work was based on Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs, 1983. The whole pattern of boundaries did exist, but only as cultural knowledge. They were no less precise because of this physical lack of identity. These interesting phantom lines divided blocks without any essential reference to existing street patterns, or to any other arrangements. They formed the grid lines that defined the rules for ‘right of way’ or ‘give way’ policies for the processional groups. Somewhat like a board game, the idea was for all parties to visit all shrines; but there was a disrupting strategy to this ‘game’ that could cause frustrations and battles if negotiations were unsuccessful. The ‘winner’ was the group that had visited the largest number of shrines.
The most telling photograph that Ms. Sarvimaki showed, exposed the line as linear space, as nothing between two groups aligned, precisely mirror-imaged for negotiations. It was a surprising talk revealing matters that would be completely unknown to the casual visitor. What else does Japanese culture hold? But there must be rules for the demarcation of these invisible boundaries. The Japanese are not ad hoc about such things: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/shide-paper-power.html The observation has to be made that this talk ignored the religious significance of this event. It dealt only with the mechanics of it, an approach that seems to reinforce the idea of the irrelevance of religious meaning in our world today, in the same way as the event’s becoming a tourist attraction has.
The day was running late, so a quick break was taken, with the attendees being asked to reassemble to take their seats again at about ten past three; another first: to impress the important visitor? Juhani Pallasmaa rose to speak on Time, Melancholy and Beauty. One supposes that the colloquium had to be ‘on time.’ Mr. Pallasmaa stood formally erect and erudite behind the lectern with his small cards in his big hands, deliberately reading from these in exact sequence with a careful precision, phrase by phrase, chapter by chapter, formalising his recorded quotes with a spoken “Quote – Unquote” definition. This was a subtly sensitive analysis of art, architecture and experience. It is truly a paper that needs more thought. His core reference, his source of inspiration, was Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark. What was a concern with Mr. Pallasmaa’s thinking was that, while he held a position on beauty that was directly taken from the traditional notion of things, that nothing could be beautiful unless it was functionally perfect, he diverted from the traditional view of things when it came to ordinary experience. He spoke of his time at Karnak as being the most meaningful in his life, likening it what Kahn might have experienced there. Who knows?
This personalisation of experience, interpreting an occurrence through individualised feelings and emotions, is challenged by tradition. Tradition says that one must fully understand the complete context in which the art/architecture of any era was made if one is to truly understand it. Bringing one’s own intimate self and experience into the equation, or bringing the art/architecture into one’s own world, only layers the work with one’s potentially misguided, perhaps hopeful preconceptions. Tradition saw it as essential that this imposition, this unique, personal re-interpretation did not occur. It only added an irrelevance, a personal whim that had no role in the artwork other than to deface it. Indeed, the rigour of making was such that these divergences had to be kept at bay with strict rules and requirements.
Pallasmaa emphasised that beauty had nothing to do with signs and symbols. Again, tradition would reject this idea. Along with function, beauty could not exist unless the work conformed in every way to the essential signs and symbols. A statue of the Buddha had to comply in every way with specific proportions and gestures before it could be beautiful. It was considered better to copy another quality work than to invent one’s own version of it, no matter how ‘creative’ one might have thought this approach to be. Ananda Coomaraswamy, in his essay Why Exhibit Works of Art, makes the traditional position very clear. Mr. Pallasmaa needs to check this reference because it might challenge his thinking. Things personal and bespoke were considered by tradition as merely idiosyncratic asides to be avoided. They were unnecessary distractions. Self-expression was considered a misguided irrelevance.
This magical talk was filled with quotable lines. It needs to be published for review so that the charm and coherence can be properly reviewed and considered. One would not want to be bewitched as though by a conjurer’s trick using sweet words and stunning quotes.
The last paper, (supper? - such is the richness of the subjects), of the day was by Raoul Mortley, who spoke on Apophatic treatment of space, time and hope. This was the sense of ‘negative’ designing, managing nothing: the void - The Way of Water, a metaphor for time. It was a short, sharp presentation that needs more analysis. The references to Greek meanings and a review of Keat’s Ode to a Grecian Urn, sought to clarify what was a mystical notion: the core of creativity. Everyone starts with a blank sheet of paper, well, a blank screen, and brings along history and being. It is what is done with these that is critical.
The afternoon was running late. One had to go. But there were lingering questions: why is everyone so careful to avoid religion in every way, in the everyday? Many of the notions spoken about in the colloquium were matters managed traditionally in religion, by religion. After all, religion is just yet another aspect of our understanding of the world and our selves, so why ignore it? Why is it relegated as a meaningless aside, indeed a distracting danger, that involves the personal whims of irrational cranks and zealots? Dr. Kelso was the one who came the closest to matters religious, Jewish, but still religion was but an aside to be managed ‘philosophically.’ If one looks through Bannister Fletcher, the majority of the illustrated buildings included in this comparative history is what one might crudely call ‘religious’ buildings; or buildings based on matters of religion, to celebrate or to accommodate them. If we are to acknowledge the traditional perception, then we will never understand these buildings until we understand the religions, the beliefs from which they arose, as well as the cultural contexts of their eras.
It seems as though our rational, scientific minds have made matters religious too mystically unclear, doubtful; too personal to be relevant; but most of what we heard today was unclear, was personal, not because of any failure in the skills of presentation, but because the subject, Place, Time, Beauty, Ethics and Hope, is ephemeral, elusive, evasive. We might like to think that we can analyse and rationalise our experiences and not change them, but, at their core, they remain vague and uncertain guesses: it is what they are. If religion can help us cope with this understanding, this intimate revelation of intrinsic issues, then why ignore it? Just because this aspect of knowing might have become sloppy and sentimental, run by extreme fundamental rationalists, does not mean that it is irrelevant. One might point out that it is arrogant, cavalier, almost contemptuous of man today to shove religious matters into the ‘freak’s corner,’ a world of partisan drumbeaters. In this regard, Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul needs to be read. It was McIntosh, a Quaker, who, along with others including local residents, a Canadian Indian elder and a Professor of Theology, stopped a giant quarry in the beautiful mountains of the Island of Harris. He was also part of the group that made it possible for the residents of the nearby Island of Eigg to buy their land off their dismissive laird. The book shows how religion can play a critical role in life without any cringing or apology: with true integrity and meaning, authority and relevance.
We need to consider this, because most of the analysis of the esoteric and emotional matters discussed today, rationalised this experience, transformed it from its magical mystery into words, layers of considered sounds and phrases that reorganised and justified it for further analysis. This is dangerous, as it changes man; takes man out of the lived experience and replaces this numinous world with matters wrapped up elsewhere, frequently defined by our language as being a unique attribute of the quality of the building or art being experienced, not a part of being. Man is, and will be. We need to know more about this being and its accommodation if our art and architecture is to flourish. The great danger is that the rational mind begets rational attitudes. Creativity is not rational; it is spiritual in its essence. It requires humility and respect. We need to learn how to manage the void without filling it up.
The Abedian School of Architecture should publish these papers presented at the colloquium so that their true value can be revealed. Might they be put on-line? If these proceedings were not captured for YouTube as they usually are, then the record should be the papers. This would allow folk to spend the time needed for review and reverie in order to better understand these spoken performances that can just too easily engage, amaze and entertain in their own misguiding way. Raoul Mortley said that he had printed out his paper for distribution, but this was never followed up. Maybe all papers should have been made available on the day? Still, it was an interesting seminar that accepted the challenge of raising matters that we hear so little about today. I guess that we have Juhani Pallasmaa to thank for that – thank you. The matter does need to be analysed and discussed in greater detail. At the very least, a complete schedule of all references to publications made in these talks should be recorded. If they have stimulated these speakers, they may well do the same for others.
. . . .
There are a couple of ponderings following this ‘Fool’s Day’ event: each speaker spoke with a singular, almost self-satisfied authority that seemed to separate itself, pay-wall itself off as it were, from the other speakers, the audience, and the rest of the world, while offering no currency that will give access to the understanding of the issues raised. There was something singularly heroic in the presentations. This is MY research: look; listen; admire; acclaim; next. Why do people clap after these presentations? Is it a part of the cultural recognition of an ending? Is it to acknowledge ‘brilliance;’ or just a matter of habit? Are folk pleased that the suffering has been terminated? Is it all of these? There is something strange here, as when the passengers clap on the landing of a plane; and after folk have been formally wedded. “At last!” - ?
There was something egocentric, self-important in these ‘personal discoveries,’ these almost over-smart understandings that are from MY research, that make them immune to reality: they smart with a silent arrogance in their own interplay of self-referential significance. Is this the ‘ivory tower’ syndrome? The academic format is a real worry. Each speaker seemed to stand and present a clever collage of collected smug quotes, assembling them in an array with ‘quote – unquote’ effects, as if the suggestive beauty and meaning of other’s words and worlds taken out of context had an essential potency and power that added authority to MY logic; that merely by laying these things together, the argument was enhanced; confirmed.# Is this something like Australia’s love of accents and experience from abroad? Is it like the idea that I am important because I have a photograph of myself with Prince Charles? The irony is that these same speakers would probably argue the case for the unique importance of context, but seem oblivious to their abuse of it in the cut-and-paste fashioning in the style of the academic world. What is being missed in this forced patterning, this special formatting of thought? What might the raw experience of understanding remote from these demands really be? What is the poetry of lived experience?
One does need to look more closely at these papers in order to overcome the ‘put-down’ of the quote that offers an unspoken challenge to the doubter: you are not only provoking me, but questioning ‘X’ also, and maybe even ‘Y’ - Q.E.D. “Go away!” Each quote needs to be verified to see if this is what it is really saying or inferring. One is left asking how any of these papers can change a life. Is the paper merely a part of climbing the academic ladder – the CV notation might read: ‘2016 -paper delivered at colloquium with the grand title of Place, Time, Beauty, Ethics and Hope’ - or is the intent to transform perceptions so as to make life, its living and expression, better, more potent: truly enriching? Surely the challenge is to put all of these thoughts into simple language. If the idea is significant, then it should be able to be stated succinctly and precisely without the academic structure that appears to demand the over-clever use of unusual words to enhance relevance and meaning in a jigsaw of special cross-references all made by ME. It is here that religion can be seen to be useful. It has worked with the knowing of the unknown for centuries; yet it is never sufficiently ‘academic’ enough to have a role in understanding. It is always ‘too personal, too irrational:’ but what is our world if not this?
The lack of reality and genuine, personal concern for others, empathy, in this carefully structured organisation of ideas that gives relevance to matters only if presented in this special format, comes to life with the sad circumstance of Zaha Hadid’s death that had been announced just that same morning. Not one word was said about this at the colloquium that had papers referring to death, hope and beauty. The situation only highlights how remote the words are from real life and death; how abstracted the phrases are; how the speakers are necessarily self-centred, engaged in their own intrigues that speak about life and its living from the outside of the rose garden, looking in objectively without sensing its perfume or wonder. It is ironic that, while academia might like to engage its power of thought on matters personal, matters personal are mocked as being irrelevant by the ‘learned folk’ in our universities. Religion is personal; it needs to become truly engaged in all of this rich intimacy, not just to have its subject matter hijacked and spoken about in the irrational world of rational analysis.
Abedian School of Architecture
Faculty of Society and Design
1.00 pm - 5.00 pm, in the Forum
Friday 1st April, 2016
In recent years there has been an increasing recognition that our cognition and the conceptual metaphors that we use to understand the world around us and communicate that understanding to others, either linguistically or through creative endeavour derive from our embodied experience.
The Colloquium on Embodied Experience at the Abedian School of Architecture, Bond University on the 1st April 2016 brings together outstanding thinkers to present and discuss their understanding of such significant themes within embodied human experience, as Place, Time, Beauty, Ethics and Hope, amongst other related topics.
Courtesy of the Australian Institute of Architecture Foundation, the renowned Finnish architect, theorist and writer within this field of understanding, Juhani Pallasmaa, Emeritus Professor at Aalto University, Helsinki and the 2016 Droga Architect in Residence, will be participating as a keynote speaker at this colloquium; complimented by presentations and panel discussion with Jeff Malpas, Distinguished Professor at the University of Tasmania, together with academics from Bond University, Associate Professor Damian Cox, Assistant Professor Julie Kelso, Professor Raoul Mortley, Dean of the Faculty of Society and Design and Associate Professor Marja Sarvimaki.
All are welcome to attend and participate in the discussion.
Professor, Abedian School of Architecture, Bond University
13:10-13:30pm Where the world begins: place and creative practice
Distinguished Professor, University of Tasmania
13:30-13:50 On Restfulness
Dr. Julie Kelso
Assistant Professor in Philosophy, Bond University
13:50-14:10 Cinematic Moral Beauty
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Bond University
14:10-14:30 Kaiwai: Activity space and invisible boundaries
Associate Professor, Abedian School of Architecture, Bond University
14:40-15:00 Coffee /Tea Break
15:00-15:40 Time, Melancholy and Beauty
Emeritus Professor, Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland
15:40-16:00 Apophatic treatment of space, time and hope
Raoul Mortley, Professor of Philosophy,
Dean of the Faculty of Society & Design, Bond University
16:00-16:20 Wine and Cheese
16:20-17:00 Panel Discussion
For further information contact:
Professor Adrian Carter
# NOTE: 8 April 2016
The idea of using another’s work and ideas to develop thinking and further investigations into a subject is a necessary part of research and understanding not only in the academic world, but also more generally in life. Alastair McIntosh in his HELL AND HIGH WATER Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2009. p.32, comments on this circumstance:
There’s no way that I would be able to get my head around the complex mathematics that goes into building a climate-change model or the technology by which trace gas measurements are extracted from ancient ice cores. As such, trust in the work of others and a reasonable presumption of integrity is both necessary and precious.
In many societies, the trust held by the educated is considered a sacred responsibility. It holds together nothing less than the group’s worldview.
The feeling that one got from the speakers at the Colloquium did not come with the humility that recognized another’s thought. Rather the quotes were presented as distinctive discoveries, personal revelations; as a ‘lay down misère’ that came with the silent thump of the hand hitting the card table with a boldly confident certainty as the body leaned forward to observe the response to defeat and to enjoy the victory.