The unity of ornament and function

The functional behavior of each living room is almost geometrical in nature. What makes the room work is the geometrical intensity, vibrancy, of its living centers, their degree of life. The fifteen properties, the field of centers, and the wholeness not only control the way that beautiful building look. They thoroughly and completely determine the way that buildings work.

Altogether I believe the functional life of buildings is created by the same field effect among centers which creates the field of centers in an ornament. Each functional “problem” is solved by the cooperation or integration of centers which arise within the building dynamically, while it is working. The field of centers supports not only everything we commonly call ornament in a building but also everything we commonly call function.

The wholeness is a physical system in which different centers modify each other through the geometric field effect. In this picture, centers may affect each other both geometrically and functionally, since all the effects among centers take place within the same domain. Ornament is just as important as function. Indeed, we cannot separate the two from one another. What we call ornament and what we call function are simply two versions of one more general phenomenon.

“Society must be described in terms of its intrinsic spatiality. Space must be described in terms of its intrinsic sociality.” In my language, they are saying — as I am also saying — that it is not really possible to keep function and space separate. Rather, what is needed is an integrated view of function and structure, in which the living character of space is visible as a characteristic of the integrated whole.

In my view, the compelling and driving force behind the Shakers’ idea of the hanging chairs was the creation of this “crown”. I believe that a purely mechanistic view — the Shakers did it to clear the floor or to find a use for their marvelous and highly practical pegs — is a misunderstanding, cause only because our understanding of what it means to be “practical” is so limited, so narrow, and so mechanistic.

I suggest that being practical, for the Shakers, included finding a system of centers which had a pure spiritual light revealed in it. It is the invention, creation and propagation of the crown structure of centers which meant everything because it was this which instilled in them, and allowed them to preserve, a spiritual state. And we do feel this in the rooms they made. If the Shaker room was a machine at all, it was a machine for inducing and intensifying this spiritual state in a person who is in the room.

Our difficulty, though, is twofold. First, we fail to understand the way in which this system of centers, when properly created, does induce a spiritual state in anyone who comes in contact with it. Second, we cannot easily find our way to a conception in which we understand that the creation of this crown — this system of centers — is not formal, but both formal and practical. Of course, clearing the floor is part of it, too; of course, using the ingenious pegs on the wall is part of it. But we do not easily understand a mentality which is both practical and spiritual at the same time. For us, it has to be either/or. It is either formal/geometrical — and then not practical and functional — or it is practical and functional but not geometric or spiritual. This conceptually limited view interferes with our efforts to understand the full, complex nature of life, and inhibits our attempts to create it.

The life which I am describing in this book can be created only when we understand that such a structure is both geometrical and functional and that it cannot be one without the other. It is not the two things added together. The conception of living centers which forms the crown is a conception which includes the fact that the floor is clear and dust-free, includes the spiritual state coming from this perfect emptiness, includes joy in the fact that the pegboard is a being-like structure made of centers which has life because of its internal geometry, and which is also practical and easy to make because of its geometry.

That wedding of geometry and function deep down in every center — that is the origin of true function, and the wedding we must make in our minds.

Did this start as a practical idea, which then just happened to be beautiful? I do not think so. After thinking about it carefully, I am certain that it started as a formal intuition about the field of centers, even if the maker did not think in this language, and that it then gradually fitted itself to the functional problem at hand. Again, it started with an instinct for what is beautiful. I believe the maker therefore concentrated, while working, on the wholeness, what I call the field of centers.

It seems hard to understand the idea that people were able to invent something practical by starting with the phenomenon of the field of centers. It goes against the grain of our contemporary moral intuition. However, objectively, it is not hard to understand. The field of centers deals with the idea that centers have to be supported by other centers. If we start with a geometrical attitude in which we try to make a field of centers everywhere, this then establishes a kind of seed-bed for practical functions because the field tends to create a structure in which the various centers are able to help each other functionally.

If, on the other hand, we fix the shape of something by trying only to be practical, not thinking about the field of centers, it is possible to get good results — but it is less likely. The field, I suggest, is the most fruitful structure that exists for function. If we ignore the field it does not mean that we cannot find our way towards it by purely practical and functional arguments — but it is less likely to happen.

#book/The Nature of Order/1 The Phenomenon of Life/11 The awakening of space#

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