Monday, April 09, 2007

Above all others the sense of sight

Ionic Order on a plain shaft egg & dart decoration on the capital between the volutes, abacus, architrave, and what looks like a rosette on the frieze. with dentil molding over the lintel in the background, Chicago

Doric Order with fluted columns and simple capital of echinus and abacus supporting entablature with undecorated architrave, frieze of alternating metopes and triglyphs and guttae and a cornice supporting mutule blocks, showing a coffered ceiling, Chicago

Corinthian Order, Composite Order, Tuscan Order, Nonce Orders-not pictured

All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things. (Aristotle)
This majestic observation lies at the heart of the humanities,. Hence, I use it as an introduction to architecture, which in order to learn you have to start looking at and reading about.

For Aristotle, our desire to know defines us as human. This desire springs first and foremost from the senses. Sure, he says, our senses are useful to us, and that helps account for our desire to know. It is through our senses, after all, that we first encounter the world, and are able to negotiate our survival; we live both with our senses and by them. But we also love our senses in and of for themselves, which also accounts for our desire to know. Just as we desire things in any and all of our other senses—taste, touch, smell, hearing—we desire things that we see. Hence, the Chicago window, for example, used so effectively to bring in natural light and to display the merchandise, making it appear more desirable.

Hence too, I think, my interest in teaching and learning about architecture. Seeing things, as Aristotle says, brings to light the many differences among things.
Though most of us don’t hunt, our eyes are still the great monopolists of our senses. To taste or touch your enemy or your food, you have to be unnervingly close to it. To smell or hear it, you can risk being further off. But vision can rush through the fields and up the mountains, travel across time, country, and parsecs of outer space, and collect bushel baskets of information as it goes. Animals that hear high frequencies better than we do—bats and dolphins, for instance—seem to see richly with their ears, hearing geographically, but for us the world becomes most densely informative, most luscious, when we take it in through our eyes. It may even be that abstract thinking evolved from our eyes’ elaborate struggle to make sense of what they saw. Seventy percent of the body’s sense receptors cluster in the eyes, and it is mainly through seeing the world that we appraise and understand it. Lovers close their eyes when they kiss because, if they didn’t, there would be too many visual distractions to notice and analyze. (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses)
We see things in the physical world. In order to make sense of them, to distinguish, qualify, and sort them out, we use abstract thinking. If my students learn one thing in their writing, however, I wish it will be to be to give me the particulars, the things they see and feel and touch, shoving most of their abstractions off the table entirely. But only after they've begun to use abstractions to think with. To do that best, I think it helps to gather appropriate groups of words you can use effectively to describe what is going on.

For architecture, then, this might start with (1) the architectural lexicon or dictionary plus (2) some basic formal elements such as point, line, shape (circle, triangle, square), volume (sphere, pyramid, cube), and texture, and finally (3) a handful of general relationship terms-that is, terms that identify both features and how they relate to other features and to the whole-such as, for example, pattern, repetition, juxtaposition, alternation, similarity, contrast, variation, balance, symmetry, rhythm and rhythms, proportion, transformation, and the like.