Monday 27 June 2011


The Zen circle becomes a commercial graphic for Norton and a ‘wait’ or ‘busy’ countdown timer for BCC videos and for Google searches. No doubt it is appearing in other guises also. Is our culture happy to take anything and use it for its own advantage, remote from – and perhaps not even recognising or knowing - any original source and intent? Does it matter? As a timer, it replicates only the sweep of the hands over the analogue clock face, paying scant awareness of or care for any more subtle ancient references.

Many years ago Walter Gropius wrote a critical letter to the Architectural Review magazine after it had published the work of a British architectural firm that had blatantly used the ancient Minoan bulls horn sculptural form at Knossos for a fibreglass skylight over a company restaurant area. It appeared to be a full-scale replica. The comment of this giant of modernism was that one should never use ancient symbolic forms merely as a different or ‘interesting’ shape for another totally unrelated, mundane function. More sensitivity and respect were needed in these matters than was being displayed in this skylight. No other person seemed to take any notice of, or possibly noticed this plagiarism; or maybe even cared – just an old man who had changed the world and architectural education. His learning model remains unchallenged even in the newest schools of architecture that, in spite of Gropius's obvious interest in and concern for things ancient, still brush these things aside as meaningless as they encourage the unique and different possibilities of the digital world as they beleive the Bauhaus might have. It is astonishing that no better educational model can be envisaged.

Perhaps the Gropius words need to be restated today in our era that concentrates so much on smart, different visual forms alone, rarely showing any interest in the meanings or sacred origins of anything. Religion is poo-hooed as an opiate of the masses, while other Marxist concepts seem to be pushed aside or mocked. It looks like a pick and choose mentality - whatever might be useful. Sadly, it appears that only ‘ME’ as self-expression is considered important – whatever this might be. Someone has to speak up because our professions seem to prefer silence to anything that might be critical of its shallow practices. Of course, here the critique is made of the graphic design profession, an industry that probably uses things ancient and meaningful most frequently and in the most rudely meaningless manner for the most crass and commercial of purposes. ‘For what should it profit a man . .’ comes to mind as everything becomes available for ‘ME’ to manipulate and to sell in order to prompt ever more sales.

For those feeling a little more modest and who might be concerned about this abuse, Wikipedia can help by telling us about Ensō, the Japanese word meaning "circle" - a concept strongly associated with Zen:

 Ensō is one of the most common subjects of Japanese calligraphy even though it is a symbol and not a character. It symbolizes the Absolute, enlightenment, strength, elegance, the Universe, and the void; it can also symbolize the Japanese aesthetic itself. As an "expression of the moment" it is often considered a form of minimalist expressionist art.

In Zen Buddhist painting, ensō symbolizes a moment when the mind is free to simply let the body/spirit create. The brushed ink of the circle is usually done on silk or rice paper in one movement (but the great Bankei used two strokes sometimes) and there is no possibility of modification: it shows the expressive movement of the spirit at that time. Zen Buddhists "believe that the character of the artist is fully exposed in how she or he draws an ensō. Only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true ensō. Some artists will practice drawing an ensō daily, as a kind of spiritual exercise."

Some artists paint ensō with an opening in the circle, while others complete the circle. For the former, the opening may express various ideas, for example that the ensō is not separate, but is part of something greater, or that imperfection is an essential and inherent aspect of existence (see also the idea of broken symmetry). The principle of controlling the balance of composition through asymmetry and irregularity is an important aspect of the Japanese aesthetic: Fukinsei, the denial of perfection.

The ensō is also a sacred symbol in the Zen school of Buddhism, and is often used by Zen masters as a form of signature in their religious artwork. For more on the philosophy behind this see Hitsuzendo, the Way of the Brush or Zen Calligraph.


"Horns of Consecration" is an expression coined by Sir Arthur Evans to describe the symbol, ubiquitous in Minoan civilization, that represents the horns of the sacred bull: Sir Arthur Evans concluded, after noting numerous examples in Minoan and Mycenaean contexts, that the Horns of Consecration were "a more or less conventionalised article of ritual furniture derived from the actual horns of the sacrificial oxen" The much-photographed poros limestone horns of consecration on the East Propyleia at Knossos are restorations, but horns of consecration in stone or clay were placed on the roofs of buildings in Neopalatial Crete, or on tombs or shrines, probably as signs of sanctity of the structure. The symbol also appears on Minoan seals, often accompanied by double axes and bucrania, which are part of the iconography of Minoan bull sacrifice. Horns of consecration are among the cultic images painted on the Minoan coffins called larnakes, sometimes in isolation; they may have flowers between the horns, or the labrys.

(refer to Wikipedia listing for links)

Monday 20 June 2011


I have described this very ordinary but intensely living quality of buildings and places in the first few chapters of THE TIMELESS WAY OF BUILDING. This quality includes an overall sense of functional liberation and free inner spirit. It makes us feel comfortable. Above all it makes us feel alive when we experience it. I add pictures of a few examples here, so that we have an image in mind of what this “ordinary” life is all about, both what it really means and what it looks like, as a structure when it occurs. Like biological life, it has a typical appearance. It is rather rough, not manicured. It is comfortable, rough around the edges, smooth as if it has been rubbed together. This kind of life is the ordinary life which is not connected to high art or fashion. It has nothing to do with images. It occurs most deeply when things are simply going well, when we are having a good time, or when we are experiencing joy or sorrow – when we experience the real.

The freedom which arises when life is at its most spiritual, and also most ordinary, arises just when we are “drunk in God,” as the Sufis say – most blithe and most unfettered. Under these circumstances, we are free of our concepts, able to react directly to the circumstance we encounter, and least constrained by affectations, concepts and ideas. This is the central teaching of Zen and all mystical religions. It is also the condition in which we are able to see the wholeness which exists around us, feel it directly, and respond to it. The association with bars is not entirely silly. Drunkedness, no doubt evil itself at times, also releases our ability to see the truth more clearly. The Romans said in vino veritas. When we have some loss of inhibition, our freedom to act and react is often truly increased. 

Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, Book 1 - The Phenomenon of Life, p.p. 37-38.

Tuesday 14 June 2011


The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 31st May 2011: the paintings hung for the Archibald Prize 2011 were on display. After walking through the familiar gallery spaces selected for this exhibition, one was left with the feeling that portrait painting in Australia is at a very low ebb. In short, the work was disappointing. The Gallery asks patrons to offer their opinion on the paintings and submit these so that the ‘People’s’ portrait can be nominated. This added another layer to the visit. Everyone seems to want to have a say. The packing room workers have already had their choice (Pat Moran by Vincent Fantauzzo: is this a shrewd move to keep it in the family?) There were more meat carcasses than persons in this portrait that made Francis Bacon (meat!) look mean. Yet the image of Moran was conventional, free from Baconesque distortions. The winner had been chosen too, but democracy seems to demand more – that the public should have a say – the People’s Choice, for what it is worth. Why? Is it just worth it for the publicity for the gallery, to encourage gallery visitations?

Moving slowly through the rooms in front of the chosen paintings, very few caused me to pause. There was only one outstanding painting – the winner. This was a stunning arrangement of thick - enormous - blobs of paint scattered sparsely on plain white canvas with a raw immediacy that materialised into the image of the familiar hatted head of Margaret Olley, but only when one stood away from the panel. It was not merely an image. Astonishingly it held every nuance one has come to see in and understand as this person’s features and character. The work by Ben Quilty was an amazing transformation of chunks of paint into gentle person. It was a skilful handling of masses of oil and a wonderful image of Ms Olley. So I didn’t bother to complete any form for the people’s nomination. Did it really matter? How was one to know if this voting was not going to be manipulated in any way?

The great disappointment was that it was difficult to pick a runner-up. I think that I might have chosen the portrait of gallery owner Ray Hughes. It glowed with personality in a rugged face that blushed as crusty paint over a central pot belly (not cast iron, but flesh). This body exuberance swelled over a rich Parisian bowl full of sweets – a pudding – and coloured the bulk of the canvas. The rustic face was nicely painted in much finely reworked, confident brush strokes and told of age and experience – a cheeky wisdom. The pretty pink shirt with fine white stripes defined profile of the body that filled the panel space over the lower pudding. This sweet, set alone on the void of a plain tablecloth, had an importance that seemed to define the colour choices for the portrait. It was delineated in a different style to the remainder of the work - as still life - and set things slightly askew. The face, high on the wall, was the last thing to be looked at here. The pot belly jumped out; the pudding (Paris might call it a sweet) defined the narrative that simply seemed to be that too much of a good thing gives you a big belly. The wonderful face was the last thing to be noticed. One had to look up to it, literally, after seeing the big, eye-catching belly, and then the pretty glass bowl. This fragmentation gave the portrait a somewhat schizophrenic presence. But I liked it much more than some of the others that told of private concerns like abortions, lost loves, or were poorly painted, like the self-portrait of 70-year old Ken Done: a plain, raw bright yellow background with a thick, quick black outline defining the head and shoulders, with a bolder brush stroke for the Hitler moustache. Was this hanging a 'thank you' gesture to an aging painter who has given Sydney and Australia such memorable graphics?

Strolling casually into other adjacent spaces, one discovered the Wynne Prize exhibition – gosh! Here the first prize for landscape painting or sculpture was given to the so-called sculpture that had a new motorbike shoved vertically into, and strapped onto, the rear basket of a old Eastern trishaw. Wow! One was left thinking that Richard Goodwin might have been better using this new bike on the road. It looked such a waste. The message he was seeking to transmit was not self-evident, nor did it reveal itself with time or distance. Even the title – Co-isolated slave – did not help here. This clutter all looked out of place. Was it some mystic revelation that I was missing, or was someone just being a smartarse? One was left puzzled, wondering why it had been selected as the winner. A quick walk around the gallery showed why. Landscape painting in Australia seems to be at a lower ebb than portrait painting. Bush fires, koalas, rocks, movie posters, and some native flowers seemed to be the limits of expression. It is a great disappointment especially with our expansive and beautiful country. There was little to compare between the sculptures and the landscapes. Some paintings were beautifully detailed and would have taken hours to complete. What a waste. The winner seemed a simple matter of expenditure and quick assemblage. Another ‘three-dee’ (dil-dum) item was a pair of boots made out of timber veneer. Ah! Is this a painted trees and wood link?

Then, on walking out, there was more: the Sulman Prize. What a bargain! The eye was caught by a wonderfully quirky image of a horse’s head in a red spotted bandanna centrally framed by the large entrance opening. It had a title referring to royalty - Princess Ann came to mind - but, in spite of its dominant presence and location, it was not the winner . . . strange. The chosen one was located anonymously amongst the rest of the entries. It was a gory image by Peter Smeeth called The Artist’s Fate. Gosh, this fellow must have some problems if he sees himself being treated in this manner – guts ripped open, eye poked out and testicles cut off by masked figures with a dog ready to clean up. Why was this selected? Empathy? One only needed to peruse the other exhibits to understand the title. It seemed that nearly all the other artists who had work exhibited should have been treated in this way. The standard was appalling. One can only be insulted by a so-called artist - 'a bullshit artist?' - hanging a canvas in reverse (framing and stapled side out) and calling it art. Was this entry mucked up at the last moment? Was it so bad that the jury decided not to expose it to the public? Maybe the jury thought the same about these artists as Smeeth does about – well, himself? What is the story here? What disappointments has he had in life? All I could feel was that it was a shame that the beautiful horse missed out on the first prize. Were the judges scared to offend the Royal reputation? Shucks. Let’s hope not. The strange thing was that this was the painting that had been singled out for a grand display, but not the award.

I walked out of all of these rather ordinary exhibitions feeling saddened by the state of art in Australia. Is this the best that can be done? These classic prizes surely encouraged the best available work in the country to be presented? It looked as though the artists were really struggling with their art. The astonishing thought was that if these works are what the jury had selected to be hung, what on earth must the remainder of submissions be like? Some of the material of the walls simply should not have been there. It looked as though the gallery was making up numbers just to have these exhibitions appearing reasonable, at least in quantity.

In a strange parallel, the Moran 2011 Prizes were being exhibited at the State Library of New South Wales. Why has Australia got two portrait prizes run in parallel? Is there a competition going on here between these institutions? The Moran Prize was for a portrait painting as well as a photographic prize, on two scales – contemporary general and schools. It included: The Doug Moran National Portrait Prize 2011; the Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize 2011; and the Moran Contemporary Schools Photographic Prize. So we went to see more portraits and the bonus photographs. It becomes confusing to recall specific works because one of the portraits was, unusually, in the Archibald and the Moran exhibition – ‘five bob each way’ for Deidre But-Husain: one with batman symbol, the other without? It is easier to recall the Moran paintings and photographs because the Moran prize had published a full colour Gallery Guide for its event. Unlike the Archibald that charged an entry fee for its exhibition, entry to the Moran exhibition was free. One now realised why there was so much hype about the People’s Choice. The only way to see the Archibald paintings that had been selected for exhibition was to pay this entrance fee. There was no guide to share with a friend. This made the Art Gallery look mean and greedy, especially with the very poor quality of its submissions. Suddenly the standing of the historic trilogy of prizes – Archibald, Wynne and Sulman - seemed to disappear, to lose their stature and significance. The smudging of these prizes together into a pay-for-one, get-two-free arrangement seemed to turn the displays into a crass supermarket promotion, with Wynne and Sulman becoming the sundry freebees, and suffering because of this. These prizes deserve better. Even if the work is poor, the exhibition experience must be stunning, whether it is paid for or not. Sadly even the display remains less than mediocre. The exhibitions felt as though they were demanding just too much effort that was only ever going to be addressed with a lazy nonchalance: just hang it! We still get paintings hung as twins to share a corner space that is occupied by two people seeking an appropriate viewing position for each, which happens to be the same location. Galleries should know better. It seems that they just don’t care how things are presented. It is alarming that even lighting gets no special attention other than just being switched on and off each day.Who cares if people will pay for this?

The Moran Gallery Guide is interesting. On looking through this colourful glossy book, one is immediately aware of the impact of the printing process on original images. After walking through the gallery spaces and studying the paintings of a variety of different sizes and textures, one sees in the guide the most rugged of surfaces presented as smooth as float glass, with large paintings reading as postage stamps, and miniatures actually appearing to be enlarged. Accuracy in colour reproduction appears to be the least of all problems. The changes in size and texture diminished the works. The bold dominance of the large had been lost, just as the mystery and intrigue of the tiny has been crudely exposed. Was this only a relative perception? One work was so small that it had been detailed with a pin. One was incensed by the changes that the publishing of them had made to these images. The paintings are all out of scale and character. Works that had to be looked up to with a cranked neck because of their extreme height, are now humbled below the eye. Paintings that had to be looked at from about 200mm because of their size and amazing detail, all shrouded in a heavy frame, now looked larger, certainly more exposed than they were in real life. With at least one, the size and frame was intended to be a part of the emotional experience of the subject – Kathryn reading the letter that finalised her divorce. This had been replaced by a confident glossy clarity. One slowly becomes aware of the importance of the artists’ presentations, even size and type of frame or the lack of one is critical.

I don’t know the answer to this, but reproducing all images in scale might help with the comprehension of size in a guide, as would the publishing of the actual dimensions of the image. Only the artist’s name and the title of the work have been printed. Still, this is better than nothing – perhaps? Look at the Archibald experience. The thought did occur to me: just imagine how many things in this world that we have come to know as photographic images. Just imagine how differently we must know these things that have been so removed from their original context. Is this a problem? Are we living by misguided fantasies? Do we have parallel worlds in our understandings? The odd thing was that the portraits at Moran seemed of a better average standard than those of the archibald Prize. Why? More money? Well, on looking this up, the answer is ‘yes.’ Moran gives $150,000; Archibald gives $50,000.

The Moran prize was given to Vincent Fantauzzo. You may recall this name as the artist nominated as the Archibald Packing Room Prize winner. His winning Moran portrait was called Baz Lurhmann ‘off screen’. No meat carcasses here, not even a face. This was a large painting of the forehead of Baz complete with the Norman Gunston band-aid slashed across the centre of the panel, with his hands over his eyes just below. The dramatic lighting came from one side, highlighting the left side of the forehead and the left hand, with heavy shading in the background and to one side. One had to take the artist’s word for it - that this was indeed Baz Lurhmann. The painting was in dark tones, almost in only blacks and greys, but the printed image shows more muted flesh tones that I don’t recall. What was amazing was the gloss surface of this painting. Did this depth distract from the reading of the colour? The reproduction modifies the painting's size – it is much reduced – and the depth of this gloss. The original surface was almost picture perfect, a fact that reminded one of the glossy prints of the old black and white photographs, and resin coatings on surfboards. The first recollection begged the question: was this ‘portrait’ painted from a photograph?
After thinking more about this question, one realised that it was not only the gloss surface but also the image itself that prompted this doubt. Here a so-called portrait was illustrating one of those silently glimpsed, private moments in another’s existence that exposes some of the subtle reality of inner being. Such situations as these are often ‘caught on camera.’ Indeed, the parallel photographic exhibition had several of these candid shots – children looking funny; persons concentrating thoughtfully; teenagers pondering futures; gay greetings. Here, in Fantauzzo’s work, we see a similar gesture of silent, perhaps tired despair apparently ‘caught’ as a painting. Should portraits be more than this? Why paint what a camera is much better at capturing? Why copy the camera’s eye? Why spend so much time crafting a captured instant as a portrait? 

Strolling around the gallery again after separately studying the exhibited portraits, I asked myself, after knowing of the Archibald ‘People’s’ challenge, what would I choose? Well, after quickly discarding most of the paintings, no doubt for purely personal preferences, I chose an image by Debbie MacKinnon: Dicko. One could see the face here. That seemed to be a good start. It shimmered with a beautiful delicacy of finely managed paint. One could see that the artist had looked at this person, had learned about his being. The texture of the subtly worked surface seemed to glow with personality. The eyes beamed with a questioning presence. The accompanying text noted that Dicko’s comment had been that the painting showed more than he felt happy to have exposed. This could be seen. This is why I would have selected this painting over the more photographically emotional image of Baz.

Another work shone out – literally: Julia Holden’s Muse. This was a video piece projected as backlighting in a box, where drawings were, in cartoon-style, layered to progressively create the face from sequential line markings that came to form the head, the features, the process of applying make-up to prepare for the final portrait that completed the cycle. It was extremely skilful and challenged traditional concepts of portraits. Why was Baz OK but not this? Sentiment? The photographic prize winner was sentimental too – cricketer with child: Jack Ately’s World Rare Disease Day - Steve Waugh and Sarah Walker, photographed backstage at the Sydney Opera House. Who could complain about this winning? It would be unseemly to object to such situations and circumstances being rewarded. Are we moving into a new Victorianism: Neo-Vic? Here it is interesting to read Ruskin talking about the Pre-Raphaelites in 1854:
It was asserted that they did not draw in perspective, by men who themselves knew no more of perspective than they did of astrology; it was asserted that they sinned against appearances of nature, by men who had never drawn so much as a leaf or a blossom from nature in their lives. And, lastly, when all these calumnies or absurdities would tell no more, and it began to be forced upon men’s unwilling belief that the style of the Pre-Raphaelites was true and was according to nature, the last forgery invented respecting them is, that they copy photographs.
John Ruskin, Lectures on Architecture and Painting, Routledge, London, 1854, p.181.

So even in this early period of photography, the accusations of copying – no, of ‘forgery’ - were made. This is interesting because it seems that there was every expectation that the copying of photographs for paintings was not acceptable. We need to debate more about this today, especially with digital possibilities making everything much more open and flexible. My preference is that I would like to see painting reach out differently to photography, to explore other things. The possibility of copying makes one reflect on earlier images, and ponder the possibility, perhaps, of Quilty’s Ms Olley being painted from a photograph? Was it? There is no doubt that out of all of the portraits, Archibald and Moran, Quilty’s is the best of all: but the photograph? Forgery? If a photographic image was used here, the painting has transformed the original with amazing skill and panache rather than merely reproducing it or its character, as the Fantauzzo work seems to have done. One fears that the Archibald winner of 2010, the portrait of Garrumul, had photographic origins too. In attitude and angle, the painting appears identical to the surprising photo on the cover of his first CD. It is an image only matched by the second CD which opens to the amazement of hands. All of this talk of copying photographs, of course, could be one of those quirks of fate where the most odd of ideas and characteristics come in parallels: think of the light bulb; and calculus. Is this something like synchronicity? Either way, one would always hope for a difference in outcomes with different media. Why else paint? Why else use a camera?

It seems that there is something competitive between the ‘grandfather’ Archibald Prize and the ‘upstart’ Moran Prize? My disappointment was with the Archibald. It holds the prestige and the history. Even not knowing that the Moran prize gives $300,000 to artists in all of its prizes for painting and photography, it is the Moran prize that shows greater hope for the future by encouraging today’s youth. The Archibald may have to change or expand. The Moran Schools Photographic Prize generated an impressive array of submissions that stood proudly beside those of the Contemporary Photographic Prize. It must have been a marvellous experience for the students to see their works exhibited beside those submitted for the Contemporary Photographic Prize. They would have learned a lot.

All of these photographs provided a quality exhibition. Oddly, they were more broadly ‘interesting’ than the portraits. It may be that interest has no value or significance, but things appeared to be so. Was this to do with the greater diversity in photographic subject matter? Its immediacy? Apparent honesty? There were doubts here too. The dominant image of all of the photographs was the delightful, playful and colourful structured image of Gerard O’Connor: Beach. It recalled Charles Meere's classic 1940s painting Australian Beach Pattern. The happy exuberance in the O’Connor image, with its iconic central bare breast - no sentiment here! -  was photographed on tonnes of sand in the studio and then digitally enhanced with added images and juxtapositions. This raises a new question: in spite of all the capabilities of our new digital world, should a photograph be, as it were, manipulated as a painting?

Nothing is ever easy.

Saturday 11 June 2011


‘Climate change’ came to mind on reading this piece:
. . the attitude taken by Caliph Omar when he gave permission for the rebuilding of Kufa in stone after the houses of reed had been gutted by fire. He imposed a limit of no more than three houses per [extended?] family, and also a limit of height which he defined as ‘what does not lead you to wastefulness, does not take you away from purposeful moderation.’ (Ibn Khaldun, Muqadimia, II, 231)
in R.A. Jairizbhoy, An Outline of Islamic Architecture, Oxford, UK, 2003, p.4.

There is an irony in the much used term ‘climate change’ as though this was an odd or unusual phenomenon. Climate changes every minute of every day, and we all know about earlier ice ages and the dramatic changes to our planet from similar impacts. So expressing some alarm at change seems strange. It is, of course, mere shorthand for ‘man-induced’ climate change – or change that has been critically accelerated by man's impact on the planet. But even this does not help a lot, as man will always have an impact on the planet. Establishing just what is what, what is acceptable, and what is the cause of what all remains a problem in this quagmire of greedy rationalism. It is this ambiguity in the origin of concern about change, its rate, and its cause, that seems to generate dissention in the ranks of those simplistically either ‘for’ or ‘against’ what has now come down to matters that relate to carbon. The core problem in all of this debate has been reduced to carbon, with the concept being: manage carbon and we will be able to mange everything else. Well, maybe.

Caliph Omar’s words might offer a better, more organic solution here. Instead of trying to argue the case using complex and frequently-challenged scientific data, why not just accept that one should always live with ‘what does not lead you to wastefulness,’ and with what ‘does not take you away from purposeful moderation.’ If this can be agreed as a principle, then the science can take a step backwards away from the screams of the limelight and quietly gauge the impacts of this more gentle and more personally-responsible strategy that seeks to overcome the black-and-white divisive approach to the analysis of the problem with our planet today. The Caliph’s words also highlight how we are not unique or especially clever in expressing concern on waste and excess today – recycling or otherwise. Indeed, his words give us an introduction into a feeling for things Islamic that might be useful for us in what we see, in our own self-centred culture, as our uniquely challenging times. We might come to realise that we can learn much from an understanding of things Islamic.

The publisher, Oxford, promotes the book by R.A. Jairizbhoy, An Outline of Islamic Architecture, as providing ‘core texts for colleges,’ but it is more than this. It offers a good introduction for all to Islamic architecture. Jairizbhoy ‘s ‘Outline’ seems to allude to our lack of understanding of his subject by playing with Pevsner’s title, almost as a sarcastic tease - Nikolaus Pevsner An Outline of European Architecture, Penguin, London, 1943. It stresses the great gap in architectural history as written by western civilization for itself. This void seems to reinforce the idea that history is written in the cliché self-interested manner. Take Bannister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture: even when updated, this publication treats the architecture of eastern cultures almost with a dismissive disdain. The page count of this monster classic tells the story, making one wonder if his book should not have been titled as Pevsner’s, with the addition of ‘and its origins.’

Putting this previous failure in the recording of things past aside, R.A. Jairizbhoy’s An Outline of Islamic Architecture is an excellent reference to begin filling in the gaps and expanding our understanding of things eastern – well, Islamic. The book has many illustrations, plans and sections, is well researched and is thoroughly referenced. The blurb on the rear cover says that at Harvard, (the publisher seems to need to use this name for its prestige), this book ‘was the single obligatory textbook for the course.’ One assumes that the course was architecture and hopes that the so-called ‘obligatory textbook’ list might have been larger; but the point is worthwhile exaggerating. This book needs to be read by all – just as a beginning to allow a branching out into other more detailed Islamic studies. Ogling at today’s growing number of coffee-table publications on Islamic architecture is likely to only reinforce our prejudices based on appearances. We need to know more in more detail: in context – and we need to make the change today. We should know more about Islamic architecture – and Islamic culture: in depth if only to be aware of another’s experience. Ananda Coomarswamy wrote in his paper Why exhibit works of art? about the importance of knowing about the culture and times that produced the art. He highlighted the danger of looking at other culture’s works through our eyes and with our expectations. Architecture is no different. This book will start to help us understand this culture – and to respect it. There is far too much hype in our media that places an unfavourable preconception on this world. We need to change.


“Beauty? What’s ‘beauty’?”
“Just, ‘bewdy’; what else do you want? An essay? A eulogy? Hell, you might get one if you are not careful. I was just pleased with it, that’s all.”
“With what?”
“Geez, do you always carry on like this? I was doing this crossword and suddenly saw the answer. You know how it is. With cryptic crosswords you struggle with options until suddenly meanings and letters just fall into place and everything makes perfect sense in different ways – so, bewdy: got it.”
“Yes, I suppose there is a sense of beauty in that - the fit and feel of completion - wholeness; the experience of satisfaction – almost elation.”
“You do like to complicate things, don’t you? I just finished it, nothing more.”
“No, I often think about beauty and its characteristics. Your exclamation reminded me of this and put an interesting proposition before me. It suggested something I had never considered previously.”
“What’s that?”
“That the experience of completing a crossword can be similar to that of beauty. That’s interesting. Beauty has a subtle sense that touches everyone differently, with everyone apparently having a different understanding of what it is – or might be. Yet it is one - one word referring to something that is comprehended by all. So it is tricky. It is difficult to talk about. You know . . . it gets messed up in aesthetics, and then anything is likely. People start moving away and avoiding things once this starts: it gets too, well, snobbish . . . pretentious.”
“Gosh, if it varies between crosswords and art, there is little wonder that people can’t agree or refuse to talk about it.”
“It is more than art - and crosswords: or cross words. People need to pay more attention to beauty: to consider its qualities. It is always more than a pretty or attractive painting or sculpture – or a clever work of architecture; or just feeling good or fulfilled about something: or even intricate dancing.”
“What is it then?”
“Gosh, philosophers struggle with this one. It’s not self-expression. Some say that it is a quiet feeling of amazement and wonder - almost religious - while others say that it is this and more: that a thing must be functional and/or comply with certain prescribed relationships before it can be beautiful. Buddhists have proportions for their religious sculptures that are essential if they are to be considered beautiful. Ruskin said that something needs to work - to function - well before it could be seen as being beautiful; that it has to be convenient. He saw it as a moral circumstance - truth was more important than beauty and the pleasure derived from beauty. When morals declined, he said that beauty became the most important quality, above truth. I guess that this is where today’s fashions come in.”
“Gosh . . . really?”
“Beauty is so significant an experience that even Mohammad (PBUH) forbade an effigy of the Virgin and Child to be effaced from a pre-Islamic Kaaba because, so it is reported, ‘He was touched by its appealing beauty.’ Beauty is so subtle, yet so powerful: it is personal, yet impersonal. It transforms and transfigures – quietly: silently. In Mohammad’s case, it let him accept an image of man – well, woman – when there was a general prohibition on the use of any image of a person in religious art.”
“Truly? What’s this ‘PBUH’ stuff?”

“’Peace be upon him.’ It’s a phrase that practising Muslims often say after saying (or hearing) the name of a prophet of Islam. I added it out of respect for this practice. It has its own touching beauty too, somewhat like the astonishing mystic wonder - the silence - in the beauty of Islamic calligraphy.”

 “Mmmmm. Well, you used it the first time you mentioned his name anyhow.”
“Mohammad (PBUH) would have liked the Rayonnant rose window in Notre-Dame de Paris too. Light was considered as the most beautiful revelation of God for Christians, and was manifested marvellously in Gothic architecture. Have a look at it. It’s an example of beauty that is visual – it tells about things much better than words.”

“It looks . . . wonderful - I’d say spectacular.”
“Yes. It involves a rich complexity of experience that we struggle to define in any appropriate way. Words can rarely express the depths of feelings involved. They can flatten feeling with their harsh logic and turn beauty into something described as surface-sweet: at best, suggesting a set of alluring, attractive appearances experienced as bland words. Take for example the Wikipedia listing – an accessible and popular explanation of our subject. I’ll read it to you without referring to or highlighting any of the numerous links:
Beauty is a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure, meaning, or satisfaction. Beauty is studied as part of aesthetics, sociology, social psychology, and culture. An "ideal beauty" is an entity which is admired, or possesses features widely attributed to beauty in a particular culture, for perfection.
This listing goes on to talk about the experience of beauty:
The experience of "beauty" often involves the interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well-being. Because this is a subjective experience, it is often said that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." In its most profound sense, beauty may engender a salient experience of positive reflection about the meaning of one's own existence. A subject of beauty is anything that resonates with personal meaning.
Then there is more about its Greek origin.”
“Gosh. Sounds impressive.”
“It might seem so, but just look at what is there. It starts by telling us what beauty is – a good-feeling characteristic – and then says something about its categorisation in academia. So far, there is not much there. Then we get the amazing statement that ‘perfect’ beauty is what is considered beautiful.”
“That is hardly worthwhile saying.”
“I agree. This is what a rational, analytical approach does to real feelings. The poetic aspects are eliminated. Yet words can carry feelings too – as in poetry itself: if only . . . ”
“Is the ‘experience’ part any better?”
“Well, a little, but it is nearly as vague and fatuous. It uses words like ‘in balance and harmony with nature’ that only encourage an idyllic, green approach in the belief that this – whatever it means – will give beauty. In one way beauty is subjective, but it is not a one-way process to be achieved by any strategy. Then there is something odd about it being ‘in the eye of the beholder’ when, in the first section, it is spoken of as being ‘admired,’ or possessing ‘features widely attributed to beauty in a particular culture.’ There is a big difference between a personal ‘eye’ and a whole ‘culture.’”
“It does get complicated, doesn’t it?”
“Well, what is being said is probably correct within its own, very narrow, quantifiable limits. Beauty can engender what could be called positive and meaningful experiences, but this really says nothing about the experiences. It only tries to name them.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“The danger is that the naming will be the full extent of any understanding of things beautiful rather than the experience and all that resonates and reverberates in this encounter.”
“I don’t know. We’re getting a bit deep aren’t we?”
“Beauty is deep - and elusive.”
“So . . . how do we talk about it?”
“We can talk about it only if we realise that words are not enough, and seek to understand what the words are trying to point to – that the words aren’t beauty or its experience: that we can’t know it as fact. The Buddhist saying about the finger pointing to the moon being seen only as the finger is a good reference to what I am trying to say.”
“Yeah. I see – I think, but I am . . . unsure.”
“Then there is the other Buddhist saying that is useful for understanding here too: If you find the Buddha on your way, kill him.”
“Why would you want to kill him? I thought Buddhism was a religion of peace and harmony. Why not have a chat and get to know him?”
“Well, the saying is merely pointing out that the search for meaning is never-ending; that if you have found the answer, then it is a false answer: move on: kill it. The search must go on - like the search for beauty. We can’t just teach it or pretend it has to do with pretty, or interesting, or different things.”
“So you reckon that’s it?”
“Well, in one small way. There will always be more – much more than any name or description can suggest or allude to. We need to be very sensitive when dealing with this so-called ‘characteristic’.”
“Just be careful. It is so easy to kill the thing that is so much loved: Wilde . . . Oscar.”
“No, I’m not angry or disturbed – just quietly relaxed about it now that you’ve explained it to me . . . . . and my name’s not Oscar.”

Wednesday 1 June 2011


We deal with colour as with sound – so far ruling the power of the light, as we rule the power of the air, producing beauty not necessarily imitative, but sufficient in itself, so that, wherever colour is introduced, ornamentation may cease to represent natural objects, and may consist in mere spots, or bands, or flamings, or any other condition of arrangement favourable to the colour.
John Ruskin,  Lectures on Architecture and Painting, Routledge, London, 1854: p.p. 102-103.


We may think that our era is uniquely responsible with its call for ethical investment and purchasing, but this is Ruskin in 1854:
The object that we ourselves covet may, indeed, be desirable and harmless, so far as we are concerned, but the providing us with it may, perhaps, be a very prejudicial occupation to someone else. And then it becomes instantly a moral question, whether we are to indulge ourselves or not. Whatever we wish to buy, we ought first to consider not only if the thing is fit for us, but if the manufacture of it be a wholesome and happy one; and if, on the whole, the sum we are going to spend will do as much good spent in this way as it would if spent in any other way. It may be said that we have not time to consider all this before we make a purchase. But no time could be spent in a more important duty;
John Ruskin,  Lectures on Architecture and Painting, Routledge, London, 1854: p.p. 68-69.