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The Essence Of Metaphysics In Indian And Western Architectural Culture

A Quest For Creative Renewal

© ©Amit Bhattacharya & Ritam Mitra

Introduction

Architecture is crafted in physical material, but it produces experiences that transcend the tangible world. With consciousness, architecture is created, but subconsciously it embeds and demonstrates a bold sensorial escapade through the interwoven tapestry of Nature, materials, and light. And it is through this memorial association and experience, a dramatic perception is evoked amongst users’ minds; thus metaphysics is reached and felt in the built realm.


Historic premises or extant landscape settings are replete with profound metaphysical senses. Read in conjunction between form (real and/or conjectural) and meaning, they always evolve and mutate the perception and psyche of human emotion. Carl Jung defines this as “archetypes”- the tendency to form a representation of a motif (or what Freud called archaic remnants). Accordingly to Jung's theory, the act of making these elements and their conscious meaning bring to the person the feeling of belonging to the world between mortal existence and transcendental history.


Contemporary building designs have been criticized for failing to infuse this sensation due to little or no reference to the natural and spiritual dimensions (Masran Saruwono, 2016). Modern Indian architecture was called upon to express the values of a new techno-social order with no parallel or linkage in the past. Set in international ‘functionalist’ language, it was from this arbitrary beginning point that contemporary Indian architecture attempted to retrace its beginnings and its departures. (Varkey, 2018) This essay is thus a quest for roots and links between earlier notions and global practice to reinstate the metaphysical regime in architecture.


The search is posited with meaningful queries,

How these architectural masterpieces have retained their vitality despite prolonged functional obsolescence?


What spatial qualities have rendered the historic architecture timeless?


Can these qualities be deciphered and reinstated in contemporary times? (Pandya, 2004)


Metaphysics in the Tradition of Indian Architecture

The task is demanding – to rediscover in the past the essence of its ethos of metaphysics and then to reinterpret it in the light of creative renewal. The search is about the idiomatic expressions on a spiritual level that constitutes the underlying principles beyond geometrically generated visual resultant.


The Sense of Centre and the Limit:

The sense of center in the Indian tradition was of the primordial centers of creation. A beginning point or potent void. This notional center is distinct and unique in its manifestations in built form – as a conceptual or ideational center but not necessarily as the geometric or physical center.


From this notion, the ‘directions’ were generated and thus establish the definition of domain or threshold (Varkey, 2018). These varied expressions are archetypal exemplifying the notion of transition both in tangible as well as intangible realms.


Attitude to Spatial Organisation:

The Indian attitude of space making is one of ‘layering’ – whole to part, part to whole. Spatially diverse elements overlaps to create multiple relationship amongst them. The result is experienced as a consecutive series of perceivably distinct realms with a great deal of informality- the shift of axis, surprise discovery of interstitial respites/ void spaces, yet a unique conglomerate of the precinct.


Attitude to Order:

Inclusivity wins over exclusivity in Indian “order”. It accepts complexity and multiplicity to create a divergent rather than the reductive resolute of singular entity. The ‘assemblage’ holds within it the underpinning of ‘multi-valence’ and manifests the form.


Thus it accommodates circumstantial articulation and provides visual clues for the visitor to decipher significance and sanctity of each realm.


Attitude to Dimensional Order, Proportion:

Ideas of spatial order or geometry, formality, symmetry and finite compositional balance acts as tool to orchestrate the experience of space. This recognize the correlated character and proportions while magnitude or precision may vary – a repetitive notion is generated than a mechanical cloning of identical resultants.


Attitude to Form:

The notion in Indian context is conglomerate (Varkey, 2018). It comes not just as envelope but as an outcome of thoughtful enclosure planning – bringing together diverse parts into a complex unity, working from whole to part and vice-versa. The forms are open and variedly perceived additive.


Attitude to Light:

All of Indian architectural form is constantly an attempt to break the sun into shadow predominantly. Contrast and surface rendition with natural light colours creates an awe into the mind of the perceiver and creates a theatrical engaging environment.


Attitude to Kinesthetics:

Indian architecture embraces the idea of discovery than a unified linear journey. Sequential unfolding organised around the schema of centre and sub-centres (acting like pause points), punctuations in physical route emphasize the episodic experience (Pandya, 2004). The personalised associative decoding of the inbuilt visual clues creates an engaging environment for the visitor in order to fuse the perceiver and the perceived into one symbiotic space-time continuum. Precision and perfection are not the key constitutional factors but the total is one vibrant assemblage.


Attitude to Symbols and Meanings:

Indian architecture is a manifestation of myths and symbols (Varkey, 2018). Meaning comes through the quest of self-discovery. Diffusion of cultural memories and their regional variants creates a metaphorical language to pre-existing natural archetypes. This mimetic symbols of both cosmic form and process, are represented in the formal design vocabulary and ritualistic expressions.


There are overlapped theories of concept of spatiality in Indian architecture. This inconsistency does not undermine but indulge in concept of pluralism/ coexistence of multiple interpretation at various philosophical levels. With a higher objective, this helps each individual to interpret and perceives the metaphysical aspect of space in discrete manner.


Philosophy of Metaphysics in Western Architecture

Like Indian metaphysical system the western system is also aligned with philosophical construct of spatiality. The difference lies is in the perception. Unlike Indian metaphysics which delves into the cosmic realm more, the western counterpart always tries to address the reality of timelessness of transcendence.


Metaphysics of Presence:

The origin of metaphysics in western philosophy dates back to the post Aristotelian era where Plato theorized the concept of metaphysics through the essence of “being and truth” in a physical realm. Later on modern philosophers like Martin Heidegger in his book ‘Being and Time’ argued that the Platonic concept has more of an attitude of pure presence upon an originary involvement with the world (Heidegger, 2008).


The presence to which Heidegger refers is both a presence of "now" and also a presence of omni-present eternal. This hypothesized (underlying) belief in presence is undermined by novel phenomenological ideas — such that presence itself does not subsist, but comes about primordially through the action of our futural projection.


“Architecture is the last stronghold of Metaphysics”

This mythical statement by Jacques Derrida renders the role of metaphysics within architecture, asan irreducible agent of the design process (Anwandter, 2018). During his collaboration with Bernard Tschumi for the development of the project for Parc de la Villete in 1985 Derrida noticed four critical points:

  • Dwelling as function (architecture as an object for a subject)

  • The symbolic dimension (architecture as a symbol of cultural categories)

  • Architecture as a subordinate medium to this symbolic function

  • The will of beauty and formal coherence inherited from the Greeks


According to him these always restrained the free play of architecture beyond physical realm. This analogy of him actually was the keystone for architects to take a deconstructive approach towards Platonic realism in western architecture.


Time and Timelessness:

Time by timelessness, and time by mimesis- the concept defines the realistic approach of traditional western architecture from which our Indian modern architecture is very much inspired and there is the Neo post-modern approach adapted to achieve the metaphysical state by rejecting the idea of using platonic solids which evokes renewed emotions (Yiassemides, 2014).


Hidden and visible realms:

The quest of “seen and unseen” - an eternal concept in architecture, starts with mere lines on sheets transcends into space or physical form. But in metaphysical realm these physical lines graduates as guidance or fragments of a greater phenomenon. Taking example of Church of the Light by Tadao Ando, where a known object like concrete wall shaped a form of “The Cross”. One is not physical yet its metaphysical presence is very much there (Dal, 1995).


Architecture as Emotions:

The genesis of modern architectural philosophy is an outset of functionality as 'scientific' approach to design. The results of this were visible during 1950-60’s as buildings bore an indistinguishable similarities. They were unable to express the joy, sensuality, tactility or pleasure being subservient to scientific rationale.


Part of the Metaphysical philosophy was therefore to detach architecture from 'function' and to allow a 'free play' of design to serve the function but also evoking the emotion of the space (Shahid, n.d.).


Abstract Quality of Space:

Being at the space evokes a sense of emotion unheard and inexperienced before which is in a way eternal. The western practice hardly intrigued the state of feelings in a deeper sense. For example, how does music is expressed through architecture? We all can agree that it can’t be expressed through puritan platonic forms. But looking at the Experience music project by Frank Gehry, the abstract nature of the structure compels oneself engaging into the harmonic nature of music, while finding anatomical resemblance in the form with a human inner ear.


The western practice has integrated biophysical building features with the cultural traditions. This creates the envelope, especially the interior space, creates images to its users and can lead to a pragmatic sensorial system.


Conclusion:

From the perspective of timeline we see a trend of counter progression in this whole metaphysical influence in architecture in Indian and western style.


Considering the comparison the preliminary era of western architecture was more inclined towards immediate access to the meaning, addressing the functional purpose mostly. Whereas in ancient Indian tradition witnessed a slow unveiling of deep transcendental meaning. Moving forward few centuries, we see in the post Neo-modernism era western architecture slowly adopting to this beyond physical realm ideology which is opening the possibility of experiencing a structure with a different level of consciousness. But at the same time the Indian form is now busy in mimicking the functional approach of the traditional western style. Which brings us to the conclusion of this study, that we see hidden patterns or cycles in these shifts of philosophy in both the cultures.


Our only objective is to enhance regard for the design process with a renewed attitude towards these patterns to unfold the inherent link between environment and structure beyond machinist purview. Should we be successful in our quest to reinstate the metaphysical approach, a harmonious living system would find its best alignment with cosmos.

 

AUTHORS

AMIT BHATTACHARYA

has over 7 years of professional experience in research and practice in the field of Architecture and Landscape. Awarded Gold Medalist and best thesis award during his master’s program Amit is currently pursuing his doctoral research in cultural landscape from Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

RITAM MITRA

as over 8 years of professional experience in the field of Architecture. Based in Kolkata he has been associated with eminent developments and also worked as research scholar in Jadavpur University with a focus on rural housing. His interest lies in research and writing on the theory of post-modern architectural regime.

 

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References and Further Reading

A+U Architecture and Urbanism: February 1998: Peter Zumthor.

Antoniades, Anthony: The Poetics of Architecture: Theory of Design New York: Wiley.

Eliade, Mircea: The Sacred and the Profane: The nature of religion Florida: Harcourt.

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Jung, Carl: Man And His Symbols, Dell: New York, 1964.

Koestler, Arthur: The Act of Creation London: Arkana, 1989.

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Norberg Schultz, Christian: Kahn, Heidegger and The Language of Architecture Oppositions 18: Fall 1979.

Pallasmaa, Juhani: The Eyes of The Skin: architecture and the Senses London: Academy Group, 1996.

Zumthor, Peter: Swiss Sound Box , Boston: Basel, 2000.

Zumthor, Peter: Thinking Architecture, Boston: Basel, 1999.

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Schorch, P. (2014). Cultural feelings and the making of meaning. International journal of Heritage studies, 20, 22-35.

Trivedi, K. (1993). Hindu Temple: Models of a Fractal Universe. International Seminar on Mayonic Science and Technology, (pp. 243-258). Madras.

Antonova, Clemena. "On the Problem of ‘Reverse Perspective': Definitions East and West." Leonardo 43, no. 5 (2010): 464-469.

Curcic, Slobodan, and Evangelia Hadjitryphonos. Architecture as Icon: Perception and Representation of Architecture in Byzantine Art. Princeton University Art Museum, 2010.

Lomholt, Jane, Paul Emmons, and John Shannon Hendrix. The Cultural Role of Architecture. Routledge, 2012.

Mallgrave, Harry Francis, and David Goodman. An Introduction to Architectural Theory: 1968 to the Present. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

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