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Space and the Body

Unedited Talk given to Oxford Brooks University School of Architecture, February 1996

To take a one week course with David Peat

A text only version of this essay is available to download.

One of the things that architecture and science have in common is a concern about space - its function, meaning and structure. The way space relates to mass and object.

Is space something given, something we must work with? Or is it very much determined by social and historical considerations so that our sense of space, our understanding of space, our use of space, and the way space relates to objects (the way they are placed in space, they way they determine the space in which they are placed ) are determined by what we already know and believe?

I want to explore space and discuss how space can be related to the body, its sensations and perceptions. I am going to suggest that changing our concepts about space - in architecture - is going to be extremely difficult and even painful. I is going to require a sense of sacrifice. It involves our asking about the role of the transcendent, the numinous, about the spirit in space.

Einstein opened the debate this century by showing the way space is tied to time. And above, time is very much the dominant metaphor of European civilization since the early middle ages and the appearance of the first town clocks. The significance of time is found in so many common saying, such as time is money, time is progress, efficiency, increase and accumulation, prediction, control, anticipation. None of these associations to time would mean much to the Naskapi, the hunters of Labrador. It is these very associations with time that helped to create our present society and which are now being questioned.

Our ideas of time are deeply tied to social, ethical and religious history - they are profoundly different from those of, say, many Native American groups who see time as cyclic, and as part of a process of renewal. Or the ancient Chinese who lived in the shadow of eternity. In turn, time and space are so intimately interwoven that our entire perception of space and the concepts we have about it are deeply conditioned by several hundred years of European culture.

All this is being questioned in science today and new orders of space are being called for. For example, the physicist David Bohm, rather than thinking in terms of new theories or ideas, set his program of research as the search for "A new Order in Physics" - something far more radical. An exploration of space and the experience of space is also occurring in the visual arts. The sculptor Anthony Gormley's "field" and "Critical Mass" explore how space is related to the body and, in turn, the way the body is related to the architecture its stands in, to history, and to the idea of a social critical mass.

Two Paradigms

Let me suggest two extremes, or poles.

1) Newton who saw space as an absolute, a backdrop against which the events of physics played themselves out. Space was the Sensorium of God. (To David Hockney, who experiences has synesthesia and whose sense of space has changed with the onset of his deafness once asked the writer: "Is space God?"

I want to connect this to a sort of mystical space, to space as archetype, space as the reflection of the eternal Idea - space generated by number and proportion. Space which is, in many senses, objective - i.e. does not include the human.

There are such idealized spaces in Piero della Francesca, in Seurat. It is a space of heaven. The space of archetypical number. There is deep serenity of mind in such space - yet a danger of austerity, of being excluded as mere human, individual, accidental.

There is also the space of Islam that directs us away from the contingent to the eternal and infinite but in a less austere way.

Newtonian space was overthrown by Einstein who showed that space responds to mass, it is curved and not absolute. Yet the deeper vision remains because Einstein believed that everything can be reduced to the structure of space - force and matter. Space then truly becomes the sensorium of god. However, I don't think that this sort of space can coexist with the quantum revolution.

2) Leibnitz proposed another sort of space. It is the space of relationship that are not a priori but arise out of the relationship of objects. Space then becomes a secondary thing - it is not the backdrop against which the world plays out its drama but rather space is generated out of process.

There are elements of Leibnitz space in some approaches to twentieth century physics. But essentially such notions of space move beyond these two poles to "an order beyond". For example, when physicists talk of "pre-space" they mean some sort of mathematical structure, an algebra perhaps, out of which emerges space, time and the structures of matter.

I feel this latter notion of space comes close to the concepts of space and order that were being explored by Cezanne; the space of Cezanne's apples and the fractured plane of the table that supports them. It also relates to a space that is not exclusively objective but begins within the human body.

New Orders

The physicist Bohm has calls for a new order in physics; an order to space and time, matter and consciousness. He points out that despite revolutions in physics we still use the old Cartesian Order, i.e. each object occupies a position in space defined by a set of coordinates. Such a space is continuous and infinitely divisible. But of course there are other ways of defining space - topologically and algebraically. Cartesian space relates to the notion of the co-ordinate grid which is itself metaphorically related to the perspectival grid, the grid of lines though which an artist like Durer saw the world. Perspective is a device where the world is projected outward, as something seen by a spectator.

But this is not the only way to experience space. Islam, for example, begins with the human experience and directs it to the infinite which always lies outside, unobtainable. Perspective excludes the human and represents infinity as a point - (in mathematics this is compactified space which includes "the point at infinity" - projective geometry.) So rather than directing the contemplative mind beyond the temporal into the infinite Perspective brings the infinite into the world of the temporal and dominates everything to this procrustean bed.

The physicist Bohm, in dealing with notions of space, appears to have begun with the sensations of the body: "I had the feeling that internally I could participate in some movement that was the analogy of the thing you are talking about. I can't really articulate it. It had to do with a sense of tensions in the body, the fact that two tensions are in opposite directions and then suddenly feel that there was something else. The spin thing cannot be reduced to classical physics. Two feelings in the mind combine to produce something that is of a different quality....I got the feeling in my own mind of spin up, spin down, that I was spinning up and then down. Then suddenly bringing them together in the x direction (Horizontal).... It's really hard to get an analogy. It's a kind of transformation that takes place. Essentially I was trying to produce in myself an analogy of that, in my state of being. In a way I'm trying to become an analogy of that - whatever that means."

The discipline of years of studying physics enabled Bohm to partly unfold these sensations in mathematical form. He also spoke to Einstein about this and learned that the physicist similar proceeded from minimal body movements. Einstein carried a ball that he used to squeeze when thinking about space and time. It is clear to me that the deepest "thinking"/intuiting takes place at this level.

In this sense we are very similar to Cezanne vision of his "sensations" and nature thinking itself through the medium of our bodies: "The Landscape becomes reflective, human and thinks itself though me. I make it an object, let it project itself and endure within my painting....I become the subjective consciousness of the landscape, and my painting becomes its objective consciousness."

"I am becoming more lucid before nature, but always with me the realization of my sensations is always painful. I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my senses.... Here on the bank of the river the motifs multiply, the same subject seen from a different angle offers subject for study of the most powerful interest and so varied that I think I could occupy myself for months without changing place by turning now more to the right, now more to the left."

Now all this fits my argument very well but to be honest I must also touch on a darker side. In many ways Cezanne had a miserable life, his painting was always a terrible struggle and he signed very few of them to indicate that they were "achieved". Cezanne was often rude and intransigent. He hated being touched to the point where it cost him his life. Returning from the motif one day he was soaked to the skin by rain. The painter collapsed in the road of a fever his female servant was too frightened to pick him up, several days later he died.

Realizing the sensations was a terrible struggle for Cezanne "the realization of my sensations is always painful." In some senses the search for a new order was similarly a struggle for Bohm and he spoke of the conflict he experienced when starting to do science.

The reason, I believe, is that these "sensations" lie very deep, at what Jung called the "psychoid" level, which is "neither matter nor mind and both'. They are levels tied to our deepest conditioning and earliest experiences of the world. Those artists and scientists who struggle to discover new orders must enter this world, a journey which involves a very painful sacrifice that can almost destroy the sensitive individual.

Activating these sensations can therefore mean activating incredibly painful emotions. Bohm, for example, would speak to me of painful tensions within the body, being connected to early memories and feelings that had become locked within the physical body.

To take a different tack the child psychologist Piaget pointed out that when science seeks deeper and deeper levels of reality and abstraction - as for example when we move from practical geometry, to Euclid, to topology, to cohomology, to abstract algebras we are, in fact, excavating both the history of human thought and, in reverse, the development of cognition at the earliest stages of life. To be a Bohm an Einstein or a Cezanne is to touch one's very earliest perceptions of the world and these can be bound up with incredibly painful sensations. Some are lying at the purely personal level of an individuals history, some are to do with the particular society in which on is reared, others are universal experiences ones of separation from the mother and the drive towards autonomy.

When I stand in front of Cezanne I feel these painful conflicts and struggles very clearly - it is a world away from Fra Angelico or Mattise. Some are able to make the passage, others can be almost destroyed by it. I think that this is something we are all struggling with in the present day.

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