This way! Click me and I'll take you to the next page!
The Active Eye in Architecture
Sir George Trevelyan

First published in 1977 by The Wrekin Trust
This book is out-of-print, available only on this website
Next page
Previous page


Start of the book
Download a zipfile
HOME
Articles   Books
Brief biographies
Close encounters
Photos


4  Interlude on Metamorphosis in Plants


We have discovered the pleasure of the eye in taking forms which themselves are inert and making them alive, plastic and mobile. The static forms of architecture, once released as images, are found to possess an inner life and direction of growth and to follow certain distinct stages of change, including the ability to transform into each other. What makes this way of looking so exciting is that we indeed initiate it and nothing happens without our active doing and yet we seem to be watching an objective living process. Here we realize that our looking runs parallel with what is happening all around us in nature. Forms are continuously appearing, changing and undergoing transformation. A great symphony of metamorphosis is taking place before us in the huge integrated organism of nature. Some of the changes are vastly slow like the sculpting of the mountains. Some, like the growth of the plants, can with an imaginative effort be made almost visible and some, like the cycles of change in the clouds, can be watched as they are happening. Since our looking at architecture as an active deed seems to relate it to the perpetual processes in nature, it will be helpful to give this further consideration and the reader should not feel this apparent diversion to be a waste of time.

The growing plant serves our purpose best, since here is something of a size the eye can grasp and yet changing slowly enough to appear at any one moment to be still. Our activated thinking is therefore a necessary factor. It is above all to Goethe that we owe the conception of the metamorphosis of the plant. Combining as he did the thinking and observation of the scientist with the vision of the poet, he found himself in distress at the limitation involved in the merely analytical and intellectual approach to the plant world as typified by the cataloguing mind of the 18th century.

Goethe's study of Greek sculpture had led him to 'see' the inner growth of form ('Bildung') portrayed even in static marble. He realized that the normal technique of botany did not get near to the living being of the plant as an organism in a cycle of growth. He needed some form of looking which could unite itself with the life in the plant.

At any one moment the plant is merely an 'appearance'. In a day it will have changed. To see the plant in its wholeness we must somehow include in our looking every changing moment of its life. The 'real' plant must be something super sensible, moving through a cycle from the seed and back to the seed again. Here is the true magic of nature. There is in each plant something invisible which can catch and hold particles of substance from air, earth and water, shape them into form and then move through miraculously beautiful changes until it rests again in the seed. Yet the entire plant is not concentrated in the seed, which is a point where matter is returned to formlessness, to 'chaos'. Rather must we see the Being of the plant as a living thought-form on supersensible planes, an Idea in the Platonic sense, united with the seed, to flow again into appearance when conditions in springtime are fitting. Goethe realized that he must find a quite new approach in his thinking if he were to achieve a living experience of the plant. He must learn to think with nature and observe the growth of the plant so closely that he could in thought move through the entire cycle of changes from seed back to seed as an act of creative imagination. Then the time would come when the idea behind the plant would enlighten his thinking.
He saw that this involved exact observation of all the forms in their changing, but also a high development of visual imagination in merging one image into the next. He called the technique 'exact sensorial imagination' ('exacte sinnliche Fantasie'). He recognized that there was an absolute qualitative difference between this form of looking and the usual botanical analysis and classification. His looking was dynamic. In his method, artistic vision and scientific observation, synthesis and analysis were united and the living organism could really be approached. Anyone can teach himself to look at plants in this way, and there is delight in the exploration, for the plants begin to 'speak' to us in a new way.

Goethe's looking led him to the theory of metamorphosis. His discovery is that from first to last the plant is all 'leaf', in the sense that each plant organ is a transformation of a basic organ and each form can change into the next. We must here clear a possible source of confusion. By 'Leaf' ('Blatt') Goethe did not mean the stem-leaf. This itself is a manifestation of the basic organ. Some other word is needed ('phyllome' has been suggested) to imply the archetypal ideal organ which underlies every organ of the plant and is able to transform one part into another.

It will be sufficient for our purposes to illustrate the principle from a single plant. Meadow buttercup is a fine example, readily available. Look at the series of stem leaves from the bottom of the stalk to the calyx. It is well to set them out in series on a white cloth, so that the eye can link one image to the next. Clearly we see that starting with a simple form, like a melody stated, the plant makes two or three attempts before achieving what our artistic eye tells us is the perfection of its foliage leaf form. At each change the pattern becomes more refined and then begins to fade as if there were no energy left to produce its strong shape. It 'dies', but to 'become' again on a new level. In infinite variety the process can be seen in different plants, as if some designing and creative power were perfecting with delight a statement of strong form and then making it more ethereal. In the meadow buttercup the leaves are gently gathered into sepals to form the calyx. In the compositae this is often very sensational, the leaves transforming into a whorl of bracts which is a veritable vortex, spinning as a climax to the spiral leaf development round the stem. Then a miracle of metamorphosis happens and the leaf appears transformed as coloured petal. Materially an immense refinement of coarse leaf substance has taken place. Often nature hides her principle of metamorphosis, and it is frequently the 'sport' or accident that gives us the clue. Who would guess that the crimson petal of the tulip is the low leaf transformed? Yet when a tulip throws a petal half-an-inch down the stem it is actually half green foliage-leaf and half coloured petal. Stamen is easily revealed as 'leaf'-petal transformed. White water-lily shows this clearly, demonstrating the entire development from leaf to stamen. We have to teach our eye to look dynamically and to move from one static form to the next, sensing the development between them. The rose frequently shows a petal turning into pollen-bearing stamen. In many plants the thorn is metamorphosed leaf, while bulbs are leaves developing below the earth.

Goethe recognized that the process of development and refinement of form in plants worked through a threefold cycle of expansion and contraction. First comes the expansion of foliage leaf contracting into calyx and bracts; then the splendid expansion of corolla contracting into the meeting point of stamen and stigma, and finally the swelling into fruit followed by the final contraction into seed. So the cycle is completed and ready to start all over again. Seeing that every part of the plant is a metamorphosis of the archetypal 'leaf' organ, Goethe came to the conception of the archetypal plant, the 'Ur-pflanze'. This is supersensible, but alive and real as a creative force or being, and capable of developing into a thousand different forms. It is no single plant but holds the potentiality of every plant form within it. All plants are thus seen as specific manifestations of the archetypal plant which controls the entire plant kingdom and gives the clue to nature's artistry in creating forms. It is in ceaseless play within the world of plant form, capable of moving backwards and forwards, up and down, in and out, through the scale of forms.

When he discovered this during his Italian journey, Goethe was filled with unutterable delight. He declared that he could now invent plant forms, even if they had never been realized on the earth plane. He sensed that his thinking was one with the plane of archetypal Ideas which reflect themselves in the changing shapes we see in all the kingdoms of nature. He had arrived at an organic approach to nature, his imaginative-dynamic thinking supplementing intellectual analysis without sacrificing scientific method. He had indeed become a 'reader' of nature.

The development of this thinking is itself a phenomenon. He called it 'Ganzheitsdenken' – thinking into the wholeness of things.

Nature, we must conceive, is a vast organic whole, all parts interrelated. In the workings of nature there seems to be a lifting of inert substance towards greater lightness and a more etherealized state. The living plant makes its gesture of opening its chalice towards the light, lifting dark substance towards a realm of higher frequency and offering a point where ethereal formative forces can stream down into the earth plane. We might say that there is a process of redemption perpetually at work in nature whereby forces of light and life are drawing inert matter back to a higher level. Here is a polarity at play and it seems to be the same as we are finding in architecture. (See Adams and Whicher 'The Plant between Earth and Sun', a remarkable study of the working of the ethereal formative forces. Also Ernst Lehrs 'Man or Matter' (Faber) for a fine and authoritative statement of the Goethean approach to the science of nature.)

One further example from the plant world may be given which will be particularly revealing for our active looking at architecture. This is Monstera. The great lower leaves are simply rounded. As they develop up the stem, gaps appear in the fleshy parts between ribs and the most perfectly developed leaves are a network of spaces As ribs drive outwards like stretching fingers, a counterforce works inwards consuming the membrane between them. It is as if two processes are working against each other, the earth drive to create leaf substance and an ethereal supersensible force which eats away this substance until ultimately only a delicate structure of ribs would be left. This is of course reminiscent of Gothic vaulting. Let it be clear however, that we are not to think that the architect copies nature. Aristotle rightly said that 'Art imitates nature, but only in the way that nature works'. Grasp the concept that Nature works as one whole and that not only the whole, but also every part is in a cycle of metamorphosis. Man is an integral part of nature. We must not separate. He is indeed the conscious crown of nature. There is a great truth, even for us today, in the concept that man is the measure of all things. Thus his creation in architecture, whether he admits it or not, will mirror the great processes always going on. He is indeed a conscious instrument for morphogenesis, the birth of forms. He is that point in nature where she becomes conscious of herself and therefore moves over, to the delight of God, from unconscious to conscious creation. Man follows God in imagining forms into being. Divine Imagination created life and form and in it a being which could itself begin to make forms and so mirror the archetypal world of living Ideas. When man becomes creative in his thinking and looking both as scientist and artist, and allows the spiritual ideas to light up in him, we can see it as Creation Mark II, a new stage in the Divine process. But always man's creation will image the way in which nature works, since he can never escape from being a part of the wholeness and can never think or imagine anything which does not already exist in the great continuum of Thought and Imagining which underlies the created world.

By looking into the plant world we can with imaginative vision watch the birth of forms and their transformation. If we are really to approach the living plant we need to adopt Goethe's way of dynamic and imaginative looking. It is to be stressed again that there is an absolute qualitative difference between this 'reading' of nature and the static intellectual analysis of botany. It is furthermore a step far beyond even the loving knowledge of plants of the gardener or artist. It is a positive technique of perceptive thinking in close parallel with living nature so that a new understanding is given.

Now I would submit that our active looking at architecture has the same qualitative difference from the usual study of buildings. We are doing first an active deed which lifts the dormant forms on to an imaginative plane where they may appear to flow into each other. It involves the same qualities of 'exact sensorial imagination' which we found in Goethe's looking into the plants. In the latter case the scientist/artist eye is watching the inner movement within outwardly static appearances in nature. A tree trunk is static, but the imaginative eye can see the liquid flow of substance through currents and vortices and can innerly experience the rising of the sap. The transformation from leaf to petal, not visible in outward motion, can be thought through and thus experienced. In architecture we are not given this inner movement. We therefore have to discover it as a dynamic within the forms of the images themselves. This cannot be discovered unless we take a positive step to activate our looking by acute observation coupled with imagination so that the images become 'alive'. Thus I would submit that this technique of active looking is truly Goethean in its approach. Be it made clear, however, that it was not a case of trying consciously to apply Goethe's manner of thinking in the field of architecture, but that it came as a fresh experience and discovery in looking at buildings. Goethean thinking offers an active approach to the organic and the living. It comes therefore like a fresh breeze in the mental climate of our time, overweighted with materialistic doctrine and intellectual analysis. It offers to those who are open for it, an approach to the formative Ideas from the realms of creative spirit which are working within and behind the outward appearances and processes of nature and the material world. We may expect this kind of thinking to invade and explore ever wider fields of knowledge and observation, and there are indeed signs of this happening, often among those who have never studied Goethe's manner of thinking.

This chapter shall close with the story of Goethe's looking at his beloved Strasbourg Cathedral as a young man in his early twenties. So deeply did he work his active thinking and looking into the complex forms of the building that it became clear to him how the unfinished tower should have been completed. Later he discovered architects' drawings which showed his intuition to be correct. He knew that in art as in nature, the enhancement and metamorphosis of forms carried an inner necessity which enabled the looker to discover the secrets. He framed the ultimate dictum:

"The masterpieces of man were brought forth in obedience to the same laws as the masterpieces of Nature. Before them, all that is arbitrary and imaginary collapses: there is Necessity, there is God."


Next chapter: 5. The Primary Polarity

This way! Click me and I'll take you to the next page!
The Active Eye in Architecture
Sir George Trevelyan

First published in 1977 by The Wrekin Trust
This book is out-of-print, available only on this website
Next page
Previous page


Start of the book
Download a zipfile
HOME
Articles   Books
Brief biographies
Close encounters
Photos

© Copyright Sir George Trevelyan and estate, 1977. This book may be downloaded and printed on paper in single copies for personal use and study only, in a spirit of fair play and without financial transaction. .