Sunday 30 August 2009

Education and Architecture

It seems to me that one of the things a teacher can do to "re-enchant" education is draw his students' attention to the world we live in, and to the world we have built around us - the language of form in architecture. We can connect this easily with mathematics, geometry, astronomy, music, and history. An article by philosopher John Haldane in The Catholic Herald for 30 August 2009 even gives us a way to connect it with biology.

The architects of classical antiquity and of renaissance and later neo-classicism were resolute humanists. For them, man and measure go together, either with man being the measure of all things, or else in his measuring cosmic order through his ability to discern mathematical sequences, ratios and parallels.

The principle architectural expression of this abstract ordering is the fa├žade or wall divided into parts: surface and spaces defined by classical geometry. When competently conceived and executed such schemes are undeniably pleasing, like the rhythm of a well-ordered rhyme. But the inspiration is less to do with what is observed in nature than with what is reasoned to through mathematics and philosophy. The Gothic, by contrast, takes its key from the living world of ordered growth. From beneath the earth the germinated seed breaks through, first establishing a stem, then branching, next putting out leaves and buds, then in turn producing flowers and fruits. The order is not one of mathematical design but of organic progression; and it pre-exists invisible but immanent within the seed.

Like plants, Gothic buildings grow out of the earth and are developed upwards, drawing material from below but reaching for the light. They represent a recognition of the order of nature and an identification with it; acknowledging and seeking to imitate divine design.
Of course, the "living world of ordered growth" is itself a mathematical order, and the Gothic masons probably understood it as such. Nevertheless, Haldane is absolutely right that in a Gothic cathedral we easily imagine ourselves "standing beneath the canopy formed in an avenue of over-lapping trees, or imagine the undersides of the leaves of those trees." And it is surely true that "the power of England's Gothic cathedrals to prompt wonder at the order of nature and to encourage speculation about the source of that order is not altogether diminished. Hundreds of years on from their first appearance they remain sources of theological inspiration and reminders of the possibility of integrating intellect, imagination and sense in the embodiment and recognition of religious meanings."

Born in Britain but living in California, the architect Christopher Alexander believes that architecture should be rooted in a profound understanding of the human person as spiritually transcendent, yet intimately related to the cosmos. His book series The Nature of Order (2004) opens with an assault on the mechanistic idea of order, which he traces back to Descartes in the seventeenth century. He argues against this idea that matter and space possess degrees of life, because the elements of which they are made relate to each other as mutually supporting “centers”, making the whole more than the sum of its parts. He illustrates this by means of the patterns in a Turkish carpet and the architectural and decorative features of buildings like the Alhambra and Chartres Cathedral.

Alexander defines fifteen structural features that correlate with degrees of life. This enables him to become quite practical in his recommendations. The examples he chooses are eclectic, ranging from mud huts to palaces, from Shaker furniture to Persian glassware, from electrical discharges to cell walls, from the branches of plants to the cracking of mud and the formation of crystals and feathers. He suggests that his approach offers a way beyond Hume’s fact-value distinction. Our feeling-response to things, properly discerned, is an objective measure of their structural wholeness. The implications of all this for education remain to be explored.

Take a look at the "50 most extraordinary churches in the world" and see if you agree with your friends on which are the most beautiful!

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