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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
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6  Man the Measure


We are finding over and over again that substance in architecture seems to crystallize into the basic cube, and that the dynamic power of life and light seems to dissolve this, lift it, make it vital. The four walls and roof become animated and certain parts become endowed with greater sensitivity and power while others drop into subordination. First a strong and simple thought. In the pillar the most ‘living’ condition is found to be circular. It rarely emerges circular from the wall but first, like a ghost, appears as pilaster, steps forward and abandons its square wall quality and takes on the roundness of a tree trunk, with the entasis of a living muscular organism. Life is always working to transmute the substance cube into the living sphere.

Ultimately all Life is consummated in and represented by the sun-sphere. The physical sun is but an image and embodiment of the spiritual Sun. Thus we come again out of a simple process of ‘active looking’ to rediscover for ourselves that tremendous principle of the ancients and their Renaissance followers, that circle and sphere represent Divinity and the square and cube its embodiment into matter. Poised in their working these two principles give us architecture. The variants on this theme in the plans for centralized churches teach us the infinite vitality latent in this archetypal pattern. But to understand it fully we must make it alive in our imagining and realize it as the working of two forces in creative antagonism.

We have contended earlier that ‘architecture’ does not truly begin until we have made our looking active. It is in that moment when the images begin to move for us that the architectural experience is ours. Till then the structure is just so many static forms, which may of course provide us with much aesthetic pleasure and intellectual interest. It does not however contain the full passion of architecture. To ‘know’ the building we must release that which is bewitched within it. In the moment of ‘active looking’, be it only for a few seconds, the columns become dignified beings, the dome or vault is lifted by power of imprisoned space, the shapes of decoration are seen in tension against each other, some with dominant power forcing back or restricting the weaker forms. We ourselves, in the sensitivity of our entire self and body, are part of the structure which moves around us. Every step we take the entire building swings in response. Space as we move from room to room contracts upon us or expands again, settles into an octagon or is released into a circle. Imagination has reversed the normal thinking and, as we gently walk, we allow ourselves to enjoy the illusion that we are still and the building is circling around us. It makes no jot of difference to the image whether we are moving and it still or we still and it moving. We recognize this easily from the cinema. It needs only a rudimentary imaginative turn-about in our thinking to get any building on the swing as we move. We must advance upon it gently as if we are stalking a shy creature. Unless we have something of ‘faery’ in our vision we shall never really discover the nature of the building. This is like a great being bewitched and imprisoned within the man-made fabric, and perpetually inviting us to release it by our activated looking. For a few seconds we ‘see’ and all is vibrantly alive. Analytical intellect with its restless cataloguing queries, is for the moment stilled. Imagination is at work, in love of the unique thing within the shaped substance. While this vision lasts the building is architecture and we are one with it. Then we click out and revert to our normal static looking. Yet we must feel that neither we nor that building are ever the same again. Something for which it has been waiting through the centuries has happened to it. It has in some sense been redeemed by being recognized. We pay it homage. The imprisoned princess has been awakened by the kiss. This is indeed a kind of love relationship between a man and a building, consummated inecstacy. Till those moments the building is mere structure and our study of it mere preparation for the moment of illumination.

Man is the measure of all things. This they knew in the Renaissance, in classical days and in the Middle Ages. Even nowadays, when it is largely forgotten, we are recovering this knowledge. The mysteries of creation are hidden in miniature in the human body. ‘Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts?’ The very structure of the bones has the mathematical and harmonic relationships of music. Truly Man himself is the Temple, so designed as to receive the living spirit. There fore Renaissance architecture is closely related to the human body. Further we must conceive that, subconsciously, the architect is externalizing his inner experience of his own body. Therefore in our active looking we find ourselves in the building. Architecture is in a true sense our own body and its ‘musical’ relationships set out around us in large. As an art its impact on us is so powerful because its scale is large enough to impress upon us the grandeur of these relationships. We walk into ourselves in the church and when we integrate that church into a vibrant, sensitized, moving organism we experience it in every part of the body. Our breathing and heart beat knows the great drum, the dome of our head presses with lifted thought into the dome and bursts through the central ‘chakra’ of the lantern to cosmic spheres, our thighs and calf muscles swell with the entasis of columns, our feet gently grip the pavement with sense of steadfast will within the foundation. Life pours into us through our looking. The vital harmonies of the building pour back into our own ‘etheric’ body and revitalize it. Thus we experience an extra ordinary enhancement of the vitality in us after we have activated our looking. We are altogether re-sensitized, cleansed and made more alive. It is a cathartic experience, in the nature of a meditation.

When first we discovered this experience in Palladio’s Il Redentore Church in Venice, the five of us spent an hour and a half in continuous movement and looking. Four of the party were quite innocent of any architectural history or previous experience of architecture. Yet when we paused after this period, we went in search of coffee not because we were suffering from ‘tourist feet’ and had reached that customary drained sense of exhaustion, but because we were so lifted with a heightened sensitivity that we had to earth ourselves again. Life is gifted back to us out of the organism and articulation of the building. Il Rendentore was in a small way like an initiation. We had achieved the hyper-sensitized state in which the whole structure had come alive. Then as we advanced up the nave the great circle of the dome began to emerge in swinging parabolas merging in fantastic stately dance with each other. When the lantern ‘broke’ over the moving shadowed lip of the dome entablature, the excitement made us catch the breath in wonder. Then as we approached the central point right beneath the lantern, all the curves approached the perfection of circles. We were filled with a holy awe as we were invited, or challenged, to step over into the inlaid marble circle which represented the sacred centre point. Were we worthy to enter? Were we fit to receive the cosmic power which was pouring down on to that point? Would it crush us or burn out the dark that was in us? We each stepped carefully and prayerfully into the magic circle as if this focus of the entire structure were vibrating within our souls. Then we were released, with relief. And then came a wandering tourist, guide-book in hand, and strode unwitting across this magic circle where heaven touches earth! We had at that moment been veritably lifted on to a plane of a higher vibratory rate, ever present for those who can find entry. The Muse of Architecture then gave us a fleeting glimpse of her beauty. For that moment the veil was lifted and we had been privileged and blessed. Then the vision splendid faded into the light of common day. ‘Architecture’ only begins when looking is activated. Till that brief moment all study is only preparation.

Now back to earth. Categorically this is not just the mystical vision, open only to those with developed faculties. It is the gift given to us as a reward for the matter of fact process of active looking. We concentrate down on to this purely observational process and through it imagination and understanding expand. Then we bring ourselves back and check up on the soundness of our basic ‘scientific’ observation of the processes of image-forming. Our forebears in the Renaissance, knowing Man to be the Measure, studied the harmonics of the human body and therefrom formulated architectural principles and proportions. We reverse the process through our enhancing and vitalizing our active vision of architecture, and so rediscover in it these proportions and articulation of the body. Out of imaginative vision we experience ourselves and rediscover in some sense that truth which modern thinking has largely lost – that man indeed is a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. We realize why it is that the process of ‘active looking’ works so well on Renaissance buildings, since in these the vision of Man is enshrined.

Let us invoke Palladio at the close of this chapter, having stressed that we arrive at the eternal concept of ‘man as the measure’ not from intellectual theory but inner experience. Palladio writes:

‘The most beautiful and most regular forms and from which the others receive their measure, are the round and quadrangular, because these are the only ones amongst all the figures that are simple, uniform, equal, strong and spacious. Therefore let us make our temples round. . . disclosing the unity, infinite essence, uniformity and justice of God.

From the human body derive all measures and their denominations, and in it is to be found every ratio and proportion by which God reveals the innermost secrets of nature. After having considered all right arrangements of the human body, the ancients proportioned all their work, particularly their temples, in accordance with it. For in the human body they found the two main figures without which it is impossible to achieve anything, namely the perfect circle and the square.’


Figure 15 illustrates the experience described on Page 50. Treat the two pictures as an exercise in active looking. They are kindred images, showing how metamorphosis can be experienced between buildings of different periods. Place one image over the other until they blend and leap into each other. In A, ‘Wall’ dominates with enormous weight and grandeur, as in a Roman triumphal arch. In B, wall has dissolved into life and given place to the great Corinthian columns. Furthermore the ‘anti-matter’ force has penetrated into the arch coves, to eat away the solid substance. An etherealizing lift has been given to all this mass of matter, and we make this conscious by our comparative looking.


Next chapter: 7. A Venture into Vanburgh

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. .