Rationalism and Architecture

By Arthur Erickson

I used to tell my students, "Don't think. Do not let reason intrude into the creative process. Instinct, not reason, should be the guide; but your instinct needs to be informed by the extensive experience of life as well as your trade."

But Rationalism has been the predominant intellectual cast of the 19th and 20th Century. Without it we would never have entered the mechanized world we enjoy today. Just as Rome borrowed the forms of Greek architecture to decorate the surfaces of their brick aqueducts, baths, theatres and markets and spun their highways from Asia Minor to Britain, the Americanization of the 3rd world today is evidence of a similar technological takeover.

St. Francis unwittingly started the scientific revolution, the origin of which was the innocent glorification of the sensate world. Until then, that world had been only a symbolic expression of the divine will. With this acceptance of the world of the senses, came renewed interest in ancient Rome and the physicality of its architecture, sculpture and painting, giving birth to the renaissance. The immediate consequence was the rediscovery of the beauty of the human body, as celebrated in classical art and architecture. With it, perspective, the visual capture of space as the eye perceives it dominated art, culminating in the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. His preoccupation went beyond the appearance of the object to the mechanics of its perceived phenomena - how birds flew, fish swam, humans walked and so on. He was the first scientist of our era.

It has taken us 400 years of the observation and analysis of the natural world around us to fly, to discover how the eye sees, to develop macro and micro devices to explore the limits of outer and inner space and how the brain works, to develop the computer. The 19th century was celebrated as the "machine age" at the great Paris expositions. Our advances in mechanization have been based on natural phenomena: the jet motor from the propulsion of the squid, for instance. The 20th century has been the scientific age, in which science has moved from the mechanics of phenomenon to probe the unknowable itself, as the boundaries of reality keep slipping illusively away. Science and art have been close contenders in the race to grasp the cogent essence of reality.

Science is to be celebrated for what it has accomplished. But at the same time must be condemned for what it has done to our processes of thought. The "scientific method" was justifiable, but, being dependant on physical evidence to uncover the inner relationships, the mechanics, of a subject, it has taken us into a very questionable intellectual paradigm. The paradigm is the need to breakdown into working parts all observable phenomena. This analytical method of separating subjects into functioning parts is so imbedded in our consciousness that we are incapable of viewing the totality or the larger meaning of an object. The medical profession, for instance, views our bodies and our health in a mechanistic way, such that It will not be long before we will shop for body replacements, as we do for automobile parts.

The problem with modern thought is the inability to perceive organically; to perceive and give meaning to the whole over the relative importance of the parts. The analytical Paradigm penetrated all of the arts. One need only follow the course of painting in this century to read the progress of scientific theory. The impressionists and the post-impressionists, with their urge to discover the structure under form and the radiant energy of colour and light, the cubists expressing the space/time continuum of Einstein; the surrealists probing the conjunction of the conscious and subconscious mind, the non-objectivists and the abstract expressionists probing the mind itself with form devoid of content.

What has been the effect of this paradigm on our cities and our architecture? Europe is fortunate because its cities were developed in a pre-scientific period before the concept of "planning." The medieval city was a mini-cosmos; not unlike a living creature, it was organic insofar as circumstances, necessity and belief grew it. The American city, after the 19th century, became an aberration spun from the mechanistic viewpoint. The organization of the city was based on the compartmentalization that the mechanistic view imposed; the city was separated into interdependent functional parts under the guise of "zoning." The zoning of the newer American cities, invented for improving city life, instead created serious new social problems. Empty streets in the urban centres, impoverished areas on the fringes. Unfortunately new Asia, particularly China, is basing its planning and architecture on the Anglo-American zoning system promising an even greater urbanistic aberration and consequent social TURMOIL.

From a once very organic society.

Architecture followed a similar path. Mechanization demanded that the house be "a machine for living" as per Le Corbusier. Early modernism preached functionalism, the relationship of parts performing like a well-oiled machine. But more significant was the space-time component extolled by the cubist painters. Exemplified in Le Corbusier's Ville Savoie, raised on stilts from the ground with highly sculptural roof terraces and slotted facades allowing the penetration of view to the internal recesses of the house to the external spaces. Experienced simultaneously from all six sides, this was a clear expression of Einstein's simultaneity of space and time. Mies Van der Rohe in his Barcelona Pavilion abstracted the early romantic work of Frank Lloyd Wright, which extended the interior into its environment, uniting the object and its context as in the space/time continuum.

In this period, the confining skin that had enveloped all previous architecture was ripped apart to expose the interior and to link it to the exterior, the object with its environs. This was not simply a formal device but a profound reflection from the philosophical view, corroborated by physics and the ancient religions, that every object is only space and that all space is one. The object perceived by our senses does not, in fact, exist. Here, philosophy, art and science converged, anticipating the forthcoming revolution in thought, which would reject the 19th and 20th century delineation of institutions, medical, legal, governmental, political, religious and ethnic, into tidy confining parcels. We are on the verge of comprehending the universality instead of the specialty, the difference limiting every field.

We are also in the midst of a tremendous transition: from electronic to beamed energy, from human to artificial intelligence, from real to cyber space. Digits are replacing language so we now have an international Esperanto in glyphs. What is the sacrifice? The hand no longer directs the pencil. The eye no longer leads the line. Space, that ethereal dimension of architecture, is transmuted into two dimensions by the soulless manipulation of our latest software.

Since software has no conscience about human concerns or loyalty to any craft, it can make up anything; perform any task that our whims decree. Human whim is boundless, subject to no constraints but the subconscious fabric of dream or nightmare. Where are the limitations of discipline, the once precious constraints of proportion, scale, composition, technics and the nature of materials - what is the motivation, other than pure fancy, which floats beyond basic needs? How do we reign in the wild horse of our imagination; or find the bit to make it stop or turn on our command?

This revolution is far more profound than the machines themselves in changing our humanity, in expanding our vision, in making us aware of our common plight, in making all knowledge accessible, all actions accountable; space and time collapsible If our power challenges the will of heaven, what will be the consequence? The veil seems to be lifting, in spite of the turmoil, to expose a new reality. Are we only a device of the great dreamer, to make consciousness, in the end, conscious of itself?

In the last two decades we have seen the inevitable deterioration of the hallowed professions: the law, the church, that banks, the medical profession, science and the government itself. Both our belief and the credibility of any of these is waning.

But none of this matters. These institutions represented old values, suspect premises and redundant structures which will have no place in our lives in the future. We are witnessing a casting off of the old values that constrained the growing planetary conscience, which can't condone existing political, monetary, ethnic, cultural or religious conventions. All of these are being melded into a new awareness that is the result of facing new challenges and, more important, evolving new insights. Already, resistance abounds! We can see the emergence of extremism, a reaction to change in political, ethnic, moral and religious conflicts. Most of mankind is desperate to hold on to what is comforting in the familiar and resists change, especially that rends his cocoon of accepted values apart.

Yet, a futurist of the EUS has predicted that by 2025, just as the twentieth century eradicated the empires, the next century will dispose of countries. By 2025, countries will no longer be a necessity but a hindrance. The G* will be replaced by the CR 35: the 35 city regions that will be seated at the united world parliament. It may seem far-fetched, but having been in India in Ghandi's time, I saw the end of the indestructible British Empire. Recently, we have witnessed the nation conglomerates, like Yugoslavia and Russia splitting into ethnic units, fighting hegemony. Countries will be bygone entities once needed for trade and defense, as were empires necessary powers for trade and domination. We will see the breakup of China, of Canada and eventually, the USA. The political, ethnic and economic realities will no longer support central governments as once they had supported empires. Imagine a world of city-regions, where government is at the economic centers of culture, creativity and production, instead of being a remote arbiter of these. New networks like the European Union will replace the singular nation.

Our attention will have shifted from the differences of the mechanistic paradigm of contemporary thought to relationships, the universality that will dominate our new point of view. Basically, design is all about relationships. Relationship is the essence of design. "Do connect" was the simple admonition with which E.M. Forster prefaced one of his books. Connections other than mechanical connections are what mechanistic thought dispelled: The profound, unspoken linkages of meaning. Language has always been a hindrance to communication, for it says the obvious and can only imply the truth by words. Implication is the province of art rather than science, an aspect of architecture that needs nurturing. Yet today the arts are relegated to reason rather than insight.

My work has always had one major source, the land. The land is the compliment and setting for the building and vice versa. The play between object and context is to me the main source of meaning in a composition. My other crusade was to challenge those institutions which were long out of date. Thus I return to my earliest projects to explain this. Having studied the Oxbridge educational examples and the earliest precedent of the university, the 8th Century Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo, preserving the knowledge of classical Greece, I was thus urged to follow the earlier educational philosophy in my first major building complex, Simon Fraser University. My premise was that the existing North American University in its "campus" conception defied the very principles of university, by fragmenting the institution into its departmental disciplines. It isolated areas of knowledge rather than relating them. This was 1963 and to this date, in deference to the concept of interrelatedness, no department at SFU is allowed to have its own distinct building.

At the central, glass-covered mall is the library, theatre and student centre. The sciences requiring heavy servicing are brought together on one side of a large interdisciplinary quadrangle and the humanities on the other. Spaces were all are connected by a raised pedestrian bridge, with a glass cover to link each part of the campus to the two summits of the mountainside and containing all the services. The mountain site determined the principle of terracing as a formal motif. Antiquity crept in: the ruins of Pergamus, the quads of Oxbridge, the mountain site of the Aztec Monte Alban, the rice terraces of Bali in the overall terracing of buildings and land. The complex was built into the site rather than on top of it.

This unified concept was further developed in the University of Lethbridge in the Alberta Prairie. A farsighted faculty saw the benefit of reducing even the distinction between the sciences and humanities, as well as the distinction between academic offices and student residences. The extremes of climate required a compact building. As at Al Azhar, closed classrooms were reduced for an interconnected seminar space that would act as a student lounge on off hours, to meet a limited budget for lounge space. If one cut a slice through the building from the top down, you would find laboratories, offices, lecture theatres, seminar spaces, student lounge, offices and student residences; all interconnected and interchangeable. The complex spanned the dramatic landscape with an absolutely horizontal line of roof in contrast to the contours of the eroded river valley. The roof of the heating and air conditioning plant became the plaza and outdoor theater. the boiler stacks became the gateway to a path that led to the river far below.

The Anthropology Museum in Vancouver, sited on a 30 metre cliff over the sea, gave me the opportunity to place the collection of Totemic poles and native Long-houses beside a large pool which would seem to be an inlet, or like tidal pools left from the sea below. This would demonstrate how the art was derived from the creatures of the forest and the sea between which the village was traditionally sited. The ramp from the entrance down to the Great Hall would illustrate, in separate niches, the different styles of their art from the southern Salish nation to the Vancouver Island Kwakwatl, to the far north of the Queen Charlotte Island's Haida and the Alaskan nations. The difference in style is similar to the difference in expression of architecture from south to north between Italy and Scandinavia, of the various International styles of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance or Baroque. Climate, I gathered, was the key moderator of culture. But my challenge was to change the museum prototype of didactic display and secret storage, to, for the first time, open storage for the museum public! in this way, anyone could view any object in the whole collection and judge for themselves its role in the respective collection, quite independent of curatorial pedantry, although that would still elaborate the museum's message. After waiting 25 years to get water in the lake, it was finally filled for the APEC conference in November 1997; but emptied the next day, through the myopia of the Board of Governors. Only with the water could you understand the reason behind the siting. It recalled the native coastal villages and their critical relationship to the forest and the sea and the powerful creatures which they would incorporate into their mythic art.

The Chief Justice of the American Judiciary deemed the Vancouver Courthouse the most important innovation in courthouse design since H.H. Richardson's Allegheny Courthouse in Pittsburgh at the beginning of the Century. The prominent American critic Kenneth Frampton also deemed it the most important public square since Rockefeller Centre of the 1940's. The challenge here was to divest the courthouse from its overbearing, draconian image to a more appealing one, in line with the principle of the Justice System where guilt, not innocence, must be proven. The complex of three city blocks was to contain two other institutions: the Social Services Offices of the Provincial Government and the Vancouver Gallery of Art. I was intrigued by the opportunity to have justice, government and art in the same city complex and to relate the uniqueness of each institution through architectural form. But there was another consideration. the city had needed a central park, a meeting place for its citizens and a nexus for the downtown core. The Art gallery had always been a fringe institution with little attendance. Putting the gallery in the former neo-classical Law Courts building, a dignified and hallowed structure at the very center of the city, would immeasurably enhance the role of art in the public's mind. Government services on the other hand would be partially submerged under a garden as a barely visible presence. The garden climbed three stories up to a large pool from which cascades flowed down through richly planted landscape reminiscent of the terrain of the province. The Court's building, whose purpose was to be open and accessible, housed a great interior public space glazed and open to all passers by. It acts not only as a courthouse but also as a cultural centre for the city; large lectures, recitals, celebrations and banquets take place in the Great Hall. The complex, an early example of sustainability, was heated by the sun, cooled as in a greenhouse by the surge of fresh air from the bottom OF THE GREAT SPACE to exhaust at the top, with a huge underground storage tank to absorb excess heat from the lighting.

Designing the main symphony hall in Toronto, I had noticed that great music halls of the past used the architecture of the hall to modulate the sound; not acoustic baffles or superfluous decoration as most modern halls do, to accommodate the right reflection and reverberation time. I wanted the structure itself to modulate the sound. Huge, convex concrete piers support the concrete "pods" for seating in two levels above the orchestra level, carrying also the concrete leaves of the ceiling, which are supported by a stainless steel tension structure like a bicycle wheel. The bicycle wheel, besides its structural purpose, is like a chandelier for the auditorium, with a supplementary circumferential catwalk for setting up stage lighting. Slots between the concrete ceiling leaves are for air conditioning and for the arrays of the 2,000 woolen acoustical absorption tubes designed by Mariette Rousseau Vermette that dropped in various configurations to adjust the reverberation time of the hall for Baroque or romantic music. Acoustics, lighting, structural, and mechanical engineers all worked with Marriette and myself to achieve this gigantic instrument of sound modulation.

Convention halls are usually an aberration in American cities. Huge, faceless and dominating, they act as attractions to draw tens of thousands of delegates for a product show and then stand empty most of the time. We attempted to offset this by allowing for smaller venues and to involve the citizens of the city by making the rooftop available for civic events, the banquet halls for private functions and all open for the casual viewer. The roof has a splendid view over the harbour, protected by a giant tent, where it sits. Consistent with the concept of receding terraces, the entrance facade was stepped back, so as to reduce its scale to a more human dimension, engaging it more modestly with the street life of the city.
At the end of the civic mall, the city hall in Fresno, a country town, had the metaphor of the sheltering roof of a barn shaped to embrace a civic plaza where civic events take place. The round stage, when not in use, acts as a fountain attraction to a public park.

In the more urbane setting of Washington, DC, the Canadian Chancery sits on choice property opposite the National Gallery of Washington and I.M. Pei's east wing. We were to present a "Canadian presence." Our instruction from Foreign Affairs was to make it welcoming. There were twenty-five Washington committees to go through, all protecting the neo-classical image of the National Capital. Although I was sympathetic to the Lafontaine plan, I considered that abiding by the graceful neoclassicism of the city wasn't an honest expression of our time. To get through the many committees I decided to seem to comply; but with tongue in cheek. I would use the theme of colonnades so prominent in Washington; but not of a classical order. The heroic columns that seemed to support the dramatically long architrave across the entrance, would be of hollow aluminum and not support anything but half a glass vault. The rotunda columns would be missing two teeth. The reception hall would open onto a pool of water. The classical sculpture in the court, would be figurative but sculpted by an aboriginal native; in black not white. The concept of thrusting aboriginal native animistic art into the haloed classicist precinct of Washington intrigued me. Given a pool with a wave-shaped edge, the subject chosen by the great Haida Sculptor, Bill Reid was "The Black Canoe" (which he eventually called the "Ship of Fools"); for each animal in the canoe was biting or clawing the others around the chieftain, who stared impassively outward. It was Bill Reid's last comment on our society and its political system! He died a few years after completing this, his masterwork.

An aquarium for Toronto on its own island off Ontario place. The aquariums are beneath the platform level. The glass shards, like frozen ice , house the administration and exhibit space. The suspended coloured balls house theatres on different subjects. the image of the building resembles the transparency of certain jellyfish and plankton, which i had seen undersea in the Atlantic.

Overseas, in Johor Bahru (a housing and commercial extension of the city in the Singapore straits) the residential islands recall the traditional kampongs of the coastal region of Malaysia on stilts over the water.
A museum of glass in Tacoma, is connected by a bridge to the history museum across the ganglia of freeways, and displays a collection of modern art glass. since you arrive on the roof, the roof is an introductory display of glass art, set in infinity-edge pools, which step down to Tacoma's principal sea canal. The "hot shop" where they blow the glass is a tipped cone in form.

Architecture is not simply a form-giving language of conscious thought, which commits to a rationale. Although there is a purpose to the building and a logic to its organization, the concept for its form comes from the creative depth within the psyche, an amalgamation of the life experiences that have been assimilated into the ocean of the unconscious we carry within us. I never know during the act of design why I do what I do. I am sure this is common for any artist, writer, poet, painter, or architect. Picasso said, "I do not seek, I find". It is this moment of finding that is the "Eureka" of the creative act; its source unknown. It is only when I am asked why, that some of the influences can be dredged up out of the unconscious. You do not think your way through a design, you feel your way. The act of creation is dictated by an inner motivation, the feeling of what is right for a composition whose meaning is not yet, nor may ever be, clear to the creator. The rightness of a composition is arrived at beyond thought, but guided by its conditions and the sense of appropriateness. That is why I used to advise my students, "Don't think. When you design with thought, it is very restrictive. It is better to find your solution out of the chaos of your feelings and then begin to seek the structure, discipline and spaces that can clearly embody them".