Architecture: from time of mind to time of nature
Copyright (c) 2020 Ettore Rocca
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
«To judge Architecture, add time to the elements of judgment» (Ponti, 1957).
In this article, I deal with two conceptions of time. The first is the time of human mind, i.e. the time of human thinking, acting, imagining and producing. It is the time of the history of civilizations: a stratified time that increases itself. This time is spatially accumulated in cities, where there is a layer of historical civilizations on top of the other. It is also the time of memory and historical narrative; it could be the history of literature, of architecture, of economics or of science.
The second conception of time is the time of nature; here there is no accumulation, but continuous flow, transformation, substitution of everything with everything. It is the time of birth and death, as if it were a theatrical stage where figures enter and leave. Finally, it is the time of the body, of our body, that is born, grows, decays and dies, leaving room for other bodies.
These two temporalities conflict. Every human generation, indeed, every single human life, seeks a balance in this conflict. We try to confer a meaningful and human temporality onto the temporality that natural events grant us. We try to imagine and produce objects that develop, and if possible, improve what we have inherited, and then entrust them to those who come next. The dynamics of culture survive individual lives. The works of Cézanne, Van Gogh, O’Keeffe, Bourgeois enter the narrative of the history of painting and survive their authors. When we elect World Heritage Sites, we order them so that they can tell the time of human thinking and acting. Natural sites also become part of human time, simply because they are recognized, chosen and preserved by a specific generation. However, everything we imagine or do, as individuals, as generations, as a society, is ultimately entrusted to the time of nature, that time in which we can date the formation of the solar system and its future destruction, that time of which history of human thinking and acting is a very short chapter. On the other hand, human activity always tries to humanize the time of nature, to inscribe it, in an extreme attempt, in human time.
I cite only two examples, more or less known. The first one is the lyric Damnation by Giuseppe Ungaretti (1916): «Closed between mortal things / (Even the starry sky will end) / Why do I crave God? » (Ungaretti, 1942). Ungaretti portrays natural time in just two verses but encloses them between the title of the lyric and the last verse, which instead refer to the time of human thinking and imagining. «Damnation» is the human way of naming (and protesting against) the time of nature, just as the aspiration to God and to salvation is part of human time. Eschatological time, that is, both the time of damnation and that of salvation, is part of the human spiritual time. The second example is the lyric Naenia by Friedrich Schiller (1799), who opens with the words without appeal: «Even the beauteous must die!», And ends with the two verses: «Even a woe-song to be in the mouth of the loved ones is glorious, / For what is vulgar descends mutely to Orcus’ dark shades» (Schiller, 1799)1.
Although the beauty that unfolds in human temporality is subjected to the time of nature, the human being can nevertheless say this in a Klagelied, in a woe-song, which in turn aspires to beauty and thus restores again, with a last attempt, the time of human mind.
All kinds of art try to bring the time of nature back to the time of mind. In a short essay entitled “The ruin” (1907), the German philosopher Georg Simmel expresses this point as follows: «In poetry, painting, music, the laws governing the materials must be made dumbly submissive to the artistic conception which, in the accomplished work, wholly and invisibly absorbs them» (Simmel, 1907)2.
The law of the time of nature is subjected to the creative law of human time. However, this does not seem to me to happen only in the fine arts, but also in technological and scientific research. The development of a new material, a molecule or a vaccine are also examples of human manipulation of a matter that is brought back to human purposes and thus incorporated in the time of human thinking and acting.
Nevertheless, within the archipelago of the human arts, as for the interrelation between time of nature and time of mind, the role of architecture is different from all the other arts. As Simmel puts it: «Architecture is the only art in which the great struggle between the will of the spirit and the necessity of nature issues into real peace: that in which the soul in its upward striving and nature in its gravity are held in balance» (Simmel, 1907)3. This perfect equation between human mind and nature – and between temporality of nature and temporality of mind – is achieved thanks to what can be interpreted as a cunning of human thinking and acting: «Although architecture, too, uses and distributes the weight and carrying power of matter according to a plan conceivable only in the human soul, within this plan the matter works by means of its own nature – carrying this plan out, as it were, with its own forces. This is the most sublime victory of the spirit over nature – a situation like the one we obtain when we know how to guide a person so that he realizes our will through his own. His will has not been overpowered; rather, the very tendency of his own nature is made to execute our plan» (Simmel, 1907)4. By means of these sentences, we understand why a couple of decades earlier Friedrich Nietzsche had affirmed that architecture is the supreme art and the supreme expression of artistic intoxication and of the will to power (Rocca, 2008). Not because architecture is a more beautiful art than the others, but because more than any other it is capable of taming, harnessing, manipulating (in any sense, even pejorative, of the term) the forces of nature. Architecture is the most sublime victory of the spirit over nature, Simmel echoes.
According to Simmel, the breakdown of the perfect balance between human mind and nature occurs when the building begins to go to ruin: «This unique balance – between mechanical, inert matter which passively resists pressure, and informing spirituality which pushes upward – breaks, however, the instant a building crumbles. For this means nothing else than that merely natural forces begin to become master over the work of man: the equation between nature and spirit, which the building manifested, shifts in favour of nature» (Simmel, 1907)5.
In the ruin, the time of nature regains possession of human time. If before it was human activity that gave shape to natural matter, in the ruin the relationship is reversed: «Nature has transformed the work of art into material for her own expression, as she had previously served as material for art» (Simmel, 1907)6.
However, Simmel’s reflection must be radicalized. We must not wait for the stage of ruin to observe that in architecture the time of nature takes possession of human time. The stage of ruin makes perceptible something that had already happened when the building was realized. According to Simmel’s thesis, the architectural project succeeds in making nature fully realize human will, as if it were the will of nature. Indeed, as if it were the will of nature. This means that, paradoxically, what appears is nothing other than the will of nature. The victory of human thinking and acting immediately is reversed into its opposite. In the Hegelian dialectic of the master and the servant, the servant ends as master of the master he had had to serve (Hegel, 1807). In the same way, once realized, the architectural project – the supreme human manipulation of nature – becomes nature, is delivered to the time of nature: almost as if it were a reversed fairy tale in which, in the end, the natural monster is not transformed into a prince, but the prince is transformed into a natural monster. The architect believes that he or she can manipulate nature by bending it to his or her own will, but in the end, it is the architect’s work that does the will of nature. For architecture, it is not necessary to wait for the stage of ruin to become nature; at the same time as the project becomes a built reality, it is ruined, becomes a ruin. In other words, from its very beginning the building is completely inscribed, without rest, in nature and in its temporality.
For this reason, the first principle of architecture is for Vitruvius “firmness” (firmitas), and for Leon Battista Alberti “necessity” (necessitas). This means that architecture was born to last (it does not matter how long, it can be centuries or a decade), therefore it was born as a submission to nature, and as a submission to the time of nature. If architecture does not recognize this point, it betrays its task, its vocation. So when architecture puts sustainability, resilience or climate change at the centre of its attention, as has happened in the last two decades, this means nothing more than that architecture is finally understanding what it has always been: human power that becomes nature, time of mind that becomes time of nature.
Architecture is the most natural of the arts; it is the most inhuman of the arts, whether we want it or not, whether we recognize it or not. The natural turn of architecture can only mean recognizing what architecture has always been, namely a project that becomes nature, human temporality that becomes natural temporality.
To this we can add two references, the first to the fifteenth century, the second to contemporaneity. That the building is like an animal body is an issue repeated over and over again in Alberti’s De re aedificatoria (Alberti, 1485). It may seem a nice metaphor referring to the holistic character of the body, which is also present in the building. However, following the line of thought briefly developed above, the similarity between body and building takes on a much greater importance. The body represents the time of nature in us. In the course of our lives, we ourselves are that equation, more or less exact, between gravity and inertia of the body, on the one hand, and formative force of the mind, on the other. In ourselves, the two temporalities are opposed daily and must be balanced again and again. Our works and actions – and the consequences of them – survive us (and therefore enter the time of human history), but our living body is inscribed in natural time. What I do gives spiritual form to the physical energies of my body, but illness and finally death bring my actions and works back to the brutal form of the time of nature. In this sense, the building is a body exactly like my body. It will produce cultural consequences (social, economic, aesthetic) on the human beings who live it, but as such it is a body inscribed, for better or for worse, in the time of nature. Moreover, for Alberti, the ultimate goal of architecture is to reconstruct «the absolute and fundamental rule in Nature» (Alberti, 1485)7 and apply it to the building.
Nothing would seem as distant from the Italian Renaissance as contemporary Japan. Yet, there is a line that connects Alberti’s reflection on the building as a body to Hiroshi Sambuichi’s statement that «architecture should become one detail of the Earth» (Sambuichi, 2017). The internal balance that governs a body, in which Alberti was interested, expands in Sambuichi to the body within the forces of nature in their entirety: «If the building shall survive for many years, if it shall exist a long time and thrive like a plant, it should be like a plant, which is adjusted to the air, wind, and sun. Architecture should be a very small part of the Earth’s circulation and function. It should absorb the sun, make photosynthesis, eject oxygen – and finally inhale CO2 to clean the air. We should make architecture that becomes one with the Earth’s cycle. [...] As the forest is a detail of the Earth, architecture and cities should be like these forests. [...] If new and young architects would think like that, the architecture in about one or two hundred years will grow like forests and become beautiful cities» (Sambuichi, 2017). In his projects (Sambuichi, 2016), Sambuichi affirms he wants to bring water, sun and wind to manifest themselves. For example, in the Inujima Seirensho Art Museum (2008), Sambuichi uses the ruins of a copper factory by combining them with what he calls the energies of «moving materials» such as water, light, and wind. The ruin, i.e. the old chimney, however, does not remain a relic, but actively becomes part of the museum’s energy cycle. Ruin enters the natural time of death and rebirth, so that finally the crumbling building cannot even be called ruin. In his renovation of the Oziruzu Tower in Hiroshima (2016), Sambuichi establishes an almost intimate relationship with the ruin. Here the ruin is one of the most painfully symbolic of humanity: the so-called Atomic Bomb Dome, the skeleton of a building not far from the epicentre where the atomic bomb exploded in 1945. In designing a new roof for the tower, Sambuichi almost makes a temple of the wind, he calls it «a hill for the wind», that wind that allowed Hiroshima’s nature to be reborn. In designing it, says Sambuichi, «I thought of the power of nature to take care of the landscape» (Sambuichi, 2017). Even the tragedy of destructive human violence is thus inscribed in the cosmic time of nature.
The more the architectural project is aware of the relationship between building and the time of nature, the better it will be able to think of building in the temporality of human thinking and acting. The first point is a presupposition of the second, not the other way around. If I consider the ruin as an accident that happens at some point in the life of the building, I can only do bad projects. In other words, if I consider the time of nature as an accident in the human history of the building, I will distort the task of architecture and its place among the arts. If, on the contrary, I understand that the ruin names the very essence of the building – as it names the belonging of the building to the time of nature – only then will I have the prerequisite to appreciate, for example, its aesthetic value. Furthermore, only by understanding that the building is born already as a ruin will I be able to imagine the possibility of rebirth, will I be able to understand that the building is always a body in ruins and a body that can flourish again.
We cannot understand the human time of building unless we inscribe it in natural time. And yet, paradoxically, this understanding is one of most genuine acts of the human mind.
1 «Auch das Schöne muß sterben! […] Auch ein Klagelied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten ist herrlich; / Denn das Gemeine geht klanglos zum Orkus hinab».
2 «Die Eigengesetzlichkeit des Materials in der Poesie, Malerei, Musik muß dem künstlerischen Gedanken stumm dienen, er hat in dem vollendeten Werk den Stoff in sich eingesogen, ihn wie unsichtbar gemacht».
3 «Der große Kampf zwischen dem Willen des Geistes und der Notwendigkeit der Natur ist zu einem wirklichen Frieden, die Abrechnung zwischen der nach oben strebenden Seele und der nach unten strebenden Schwere zu einer genauen Gleichung nur in einer einzigen Kunst gekommen: in der Baukunst».
4 «Die Baukunst aber benutzt und verteilt zwar die Schwere und die Tragkraft der Materie nach einem nur in der Seele möglichen Plane, allein innerhalb dieses wirkt der Stoff mit seinem unmittelbaren Wesen, er führt gleichsam jenen Plan mit seinen eigenen Kräften aus. Es ist der sublimste Sieg des Geistes über die Natur – wie wenn man einem Menschen so zu leiten versteht, daß unser Wollen von ihm nicht unter Überwältigung seines eigenen Willens, sondern durch diesen selbst realisiert wird, daß die Richtung seiner Eigengesetzlichkeit unsern Plan trägt».
5 «Diese einzigartige Balance zwischen der mechanischen, lastenden, dem Druck passiv widerstrebenden Materie und der formenden, aufwärts drängenden Geistigkeit zerbricht aber in dem Augenblick, in dem das Gebäude verfällt. Denn dies bedeutet nichts anderes, als daß die bloß natürlichen Kräfte über das Menschenwerk Herr zu werden beginnen: die Gleichung zwischen Natur und Geist, die das Bauwerk darstellte, verschiebt sich zugunsten der Natur».
6 «Die Natur hat das Kunstwerk zum Material ihrer Formung gemacht, wie vorher die Kunst sich der Natur als ihres Stoffes bedient hatte».
7 «[…] absoluta primariaque ratio naturae».