A Psychophysical Approach to Architecture
A tale of two buildings: the Temple of Poseidon in Greece, and Goethe's childhood home in Germany
After visiting the oracle we went to meet the Earth Shaker. This is the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, Greece:
Whereas in Delphi the living landscape had taken me out my head and into my body – here at Sounion it was a strictly intellectual affair!
I couldn’t stop thinking about Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, and the deep philosophical differences between this classical “Apollonion” architecture and our modern western “Faustian” architecture.
Spengler’s insight was that great cultures grow and develop organically from out of a central idea - a unique “world-feeling” – and this central idea is tied to a particular landscape and the people who live there.
The Western/Faustian mind perceives the universe as infinite space: the Classical/Apollonian as well-ordered aggregates of bodily forms beneath a corporeal vault of the heavens. A third civilization — the Near-Eastern/Magian — conceives of the universe as a cavern.
Oswald Spengler; The Decline of the West
It will come as no surprise to anyone that the Ancient Greeks world-feeling centered around BODILY FORMS. The landscape that inspired this central idea was the archipelago Greek Islands, and is expressed in the location and design of the temples.
In contrast, the modern western world-feeling was inspired by the great forests of northern europe, expanding in INFINITE SPACE, both horizontally and vertically, up through the trees towards the light – the gothic cathedrals are forests made of stone.
Here is Spengler again, discussing the classical architecture and then comparing it to the western:
In no other Culture is the firm footing, the socket, so emphasized. The Doric column bores into the ground, the vessels are always thought of from BELOW UPWARD (whereas those of the Renaissance float above their footing), and the sculpture-schools feel the stabilizing of their figures as their main problem. Hence in archaic works the legs are disproportionately emphasized, the foot is planted on the full sole, and if the drapery falls straight down, a part of the hem is removed to show that the foot is standing. The Classical relief is strictly stereometrically set on a plane, and there is an inter-space between the figures but no depth.
A landscape of Claude Lorrain, on the contrary, is nothing but space, every detail being made to subserve its illustration. All bodies in it possess an atmospheric and perspective meaning purely as carriers of light and shade. The extreme of this disembodiment of the world in the service of space is Impressionism. Given this world-feeling, the Faustian soul in the springtime necessarily arrived at an architectural problem which had its centre of gravity in the spatial vaulting-over of vast, and from porch to choir dynamically deep, cathedrals. This last expressed its depth-experience.
Oswald Spengler; The Decline of the West
Now let’s compare this with some “Faustian” architecture, and what could be more perfect than the childhood home of Goethe himself. Spengler sees Goethe as the Plato of western culture (with Kant as the systematising Aristotle.)
Here is Goethe’s house in Germany, followed by a quote from his autobiography. Look at how the upper floors of the house reach out further than the lower floors, expanding out into infinite space, and as if built from ABOVE DOWNWARD –how very unGreek.
I happened to be reading Goethe’s autobiography on the plane to Athens (no I don’t synchronise topics with locations!) and so stumbled across this passage which perfectly expresses the difference between the two word-feelings and their architecture(s):
In Frankfort, as in many other old towns, when anybody put up a wooden structure, he ventured, for the sake of space, to make, not only the first, but each successive, story project over the lower one, by which means narrow streets especially were rendered somewhat dark and confined. At last a law was passed, that every one putting up a new house from the ground, should confine his projections to the first upper story, and carry the others up perpendicularly.
My father, that he might not lose the projecting space in the second story, caring little for outward architectural appearance, and anxious only for the good and convenient arrangement of the interior, resorted to the expedient which others had employed before him, of propping the upper part of the house, until one part after another had been removed from the bottom upwards, and a new house, as it were, inserted in its place. Thus, while comparatively none of the old structure remained, the new one merely passed for a repair…
This new epoch was very surprising and strange for the children. To see the rooms in which they had so often been confined and pestered with wearisome tasks and studies, the passages they had played in, the walls which had always been kept so carefully clean, all falling before the mason's hatchet and the carpenter's axe,—and that from the bottom upwards; to float as it were in the air, propped up by beams, being, at the same time, constantly confined to a certain lesson or definite task,— all this produced a commotion in our young heads that was not easily settled. But the young people felt the inconvenience less, because they had somewhat more space for play than before, and had many opportunities of swinging on beams, and playing at see-saw with the boards.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Autobiography of Goethe
There are many “Faustian” themes in this one passage and I’m sure Spengler knew it well when he named the western culture after Goethe’s famous play.
This was my first time back to Greece after having read The Decline of the West. I was never stupid enough to think “oh they’re just like me!” when in Athens, but they have never felt so alien to me as they did this time. Just an utterly different worldview, shaping and moulding them – from the ground up it seems.
I have been trying to develop a movement practice for westerners inspired by the Ancient Greeks for a while now. I've found many similarities and interesting connections, but it never quite clicked.
“Embodiment practices” are popular in the west right now because of some of the side effects of the Faustian culture, specifically the more abstract, and less embodied worldview. I imagine most people thinking about this stuff would rather be a bit more like the Greeks…
But it would be a mistake to think the Faustian approach is all bad, and to pretend you can just throw it all out by an act of will, and then just plug-in the world-feeling of another culture, ripped from the context of its own “body.”
So the new task: how to develop a “Faustian” movement practice?
This email arrived in my inbox at the perfect time to give me some new angles to explore in my own studies, much appreciated.