PROF. JOHN HALDANE
Neil is one of our founding members and so we suggested that he might be the first practitioner to participate in this planned series of discussions. He suggested inviting John Haldane to speak with him on the subject of Doubt. If any of you are familiar with Neil and his practice, Reiach & Hall, his practice has a very strong sense of certainty, but in his teaching the themes of doubt and melancholy and contemplation feature highly in the way he encourages students to think about their place as architects, their roles in architecture and more broadly in society. The relationship between ideas and architecture is a pretty problematic one, and when you get to the relationship between architecture and philosophy it gets really problematic. So without further ado, Neil.
It was Friedrich Nietzsche that said: “One must have a chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” And James Attlee, in his book Isolarion, writes that writers and artists when they are immersed in a project, experience the everyday as if saturated with significance, every overheard conversation, radio report, article in a newspaper seems somehow connected to their project. And so it was in struggling with the notion of doubt that I began to experience this sense of connections expanding in all directions. The territory of doubt opened up alarmingly before me. Every grey heron, every skene of geese or roe deer, hesitant in thin crepuscular light, viewed from an early morning train heading north, of course, struck me as hugely portentous. It became more and more difficult to even begin to frame a position.
In the spirit of an isolarion, a detailed map, I am therefore indebted to Professor Peter Davidson and a chance conversation on a book that he thought would interest me, specifically, The Claude Glass by Arnaud Maillet. In the 18th century, small convex black mirrors were carried by artists, travellers and aesthetes, to view sublime landscapes. Turning your back to the view and looking at it reflected in the black mirror had the effect of abstracting the scene, of simplifying the colour and tonal range and thereby containing and imbuing rude nature with a painterly quality. Maillet talks of it as an idealizing mirror. The notion of a Claude glass acted as a metaphor that began this modest reflection on doubt in architecture. The idea of a mirror is a recurrent idea in my own architectural work.
As an architect who is primarily involved in the making of space, I understand that architecture is a practical art that exists to serve; yet it is much more than that. Ruskin talked of an architect as having two responsibilities, one to create shelter. I read this as the ability to create a functional, appropriate plan and section. The other responsibility is to imbue this armature with the ability to touch us deeply. The first we must and can achieve without exception, the second may only be an elusive ambition. Why do some buildings and places move you yet on the face of it, their image is almost indefensible? The difficult building; the visually challenging; the awkward plan; lately it seems as if only difficult tastes satisfy. I seem to have lost my sweet tooth.
We are told that we are living through a time of great upheaval. Many are troubled and unsettled, there is an increasing air of doubt about the future. However, it is not the tremors that trouble our political, social or economic landscapes where my interest lies. My interest lies in architecture and aesthetics where I believe a constant companion, doubt, should shadow our every mark. I am interested in the vague, the half-truth, the peripheral, the indecisive; my interest lies increasingly in the aesthetics of marginal conditions and forgotten architects.
In Greek mythology, Apollo is the god of poetry, medicine, architecture, and especially of light and the sun. Dionysus, the Greek equivalent of the Latin Bacchus, was symbolised by wine and presided over the riotous country festivals called Bacchanalia. With Nietzsche and The Birth of Tragedy, these tutelary figures become the poles of two personality types and two opposing categories of artistic inspiration. Apollo, according to Nietzsche, is without question the god of poetry in the Homeric vein, epic poems about gods and heroes. He is the patron of statuary, but his triumph is architecture, an art of balance and symmetry. His light falls vertically from the sun itself. He is the god of the eternal and immobile zenith.
Doubt and certainty go hand-in-hand. As an architecture student of the 1970s doubt was inexcusable, a weakness, architects needed to understand a brief, know how to solve a problem, know how to make a consistent, rigorous plan and develop that plan in section then render it in the most truthful construction, maintaining an honesty to materials. The architectural fruit of that period, a kind of rational fundamentalism, now lies as windfall, rotten and ignored. Black and white, true or false, good or bad, doubt was missing and along with it, joy. Doubt lies between known things. It is on the margins, at the edges; something tenuous that connects certainties, fragile and ephemeral. It is well known that discoveries and revelations happen between disciplines, between art and science, between medicine and physics maybe between art and architecture and hopefully philosophy and architecture. These are the territories of the creative mind. “Art is something which lies in the slender margin between the real and the unreal.” Chikamatsu Monazaemon.
The American artist Robert Rauschenberg echoes this sentiment when he says: “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. I try to act in that gap between the two.” Melancholia has always been associated with both doubt and the creative state; it would seem that melancholia too, inhabits those marginal and tenuous, places and connections. AC Grayling writes: “The state in question is not misery or grief, but a kind of melancholy, in which it is possible to feel and understand things not available in other moods, for our moods are like tunings on the wireless, picking up truths at different frequencies.” I am thinking of angst as opposed to anxiety, of melancholy as opposed to depression, both angst and melancholy crucially contain an element of hope. This reflective state of melancholy seems to heighten awareness, a kind of sad sensitivity.
Gavin Morrison and Sigurd Sandstrom in their haunting publication, Grey Hope, the Persistence of Melancholy, state that, “the sense of melancholy persists; its mellower existential reflective form is a gentle but penetrating sadness that may even be an actively sought companion. They aim for melancholy to be culturally understood as an active psyche and not an affliction requiring elevation.” It has been said that we in the North are predisposed to the rising of the dark humours. Robert Burton writing in The Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621 states that: “The worst climate for provoking melancholy is thick, cloudy, misty, foggy air.” He concedes however that melancholy was not without benefits. He comments that melancholic people were imaginative, the best wits and capable of profound study and deep meditation.
Sad sensitivity, an impression of sadness in the land may be due to the sense of unpopulated open space, of a cleared land. The Caithness writer Neil M Gunn in his wonderful essay Highland Space talks of the horror vacui, a fear of the void, vacant places and sterile distances that can afflict visitors from the labyrinthine cities and landscapes of the South. In thinking of the in-between it is perhaps the nature of light and twilight, in particular, which contributes to a feeling of sadness, stillness and our very particular sense of place. Peter Davidson, so eloquent, in his book The Idea of North describes the geographic zone fifty to seventy degrees north, the land of the twilight. Shetland, land of the Simmer Dim, lies on twilight‘s meridian of sixty degrees north. He talks of: “The region of the white nights, the antechamber of the true North.”
Davidson’s most recent book The Last of the Light, About Twilight is: “A meditation on twilight in the Western arts and imagination.” It is quite simply erudite, scholarly, poetic and beautifully written. A.F. Bollnow in Human Spaces explores other twilight spaces including, fog, falling snow and the forest. In Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, The Chasseur in the Woods, a soldier is hastening into the arms of death, signified as a dark forest. Northern romantic artists have long sought that sombre quality of fading light as a medium for their tragic narratives. They actively sought ambivalence and uncertainty in their renderings of fading light. Caspar David Friedrich expresses an aching longing in his paintings.
Vilhelm Hammershøi painted his Copenhagen apartment over and over again. Stripped of all signs of domestic life these stark interiors evoke a sense of loneliness and silence. The white doors seem to be in quiet conversation with one another. Here hope manifests itself in the glimpsed light of the adjacent room.
Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, explores meaning in architectural space. He talks of the polarity of cellar and attic, the marks of which are so deep that, in a way they open up two very different perspectives for the phenomenology of the imagination. Indeed, it is possible, almost without commentary, to oppose the rationality of the roof to the irrationality of the cellar. A roof tells its raison d’etre right away: “It gives mankind shelter from the rain and sun he fears, the cellar, it is first and foremost the dark entity of the house.”
The attic with its clear view, lofty and lucid ideals lends itself to an early modernist view of the world, ordered, democratic—white. A legible plan elevated without angst or trouble. The cellar however conceals deeper more difficult intimate passions.
Michel Foucault refers to Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, in an essay ‘Of Other Spaces’: “The spaces of our primary perception, the spaces of our dreams and that of our passions hold within themselves qualities that seem intrinsic; there is light, ethereal, transparent space, or dark, rough, encumbered space, a space from above, of summit, or on the contrary a space from below of mud: or again a space that can be flowing like sparkling water, or space that is fixed, congealed, like stone or crystal.”
Foucault talks of Utopias and Heterotopias. If I understand these correctly, a Utopia is an unreal vision, a perfect place while Heterotopia is a real place but a place that is also apart, it has a sense of otherness. It is neither here nor there. Foucault talks of a mirror being heterotopic, looking into a mirror you are both here and somewhere else. Modernism tended to utopian vision, unrealistically optimistic, clear, confident and collective. Another parallel approach may be to create a heterotopian visions, real, hesitant, discreet, incomplete and individual.
An isolarion is a 15th century map that describes specific areas in detail but does not provide a clarifying overview of how these places are related to each other. The Situationist movement of the late 1950s who proposed the creation of situations, situations that would fulfil more primitive human desires in a critical attack on capitalism’s banalisation of people’s lives. They coined the term; derive, to drift, akin to Walter Benjamin’s aimless wanderer, the flâneur. The city is experienced directly through the everyday; they actively sought happenchance and surprise. The idea of drift is personal, erratic and inconclusive; linked to ideas of tolerance in architectural terms this is the space allowed for in order to make different and often conflicting elements come together. It seems to me that this position of doubt, of drift, is an important state of mind in the current world situation where capitalism is on the ropes and the majority now view the world with less than optimism.
Are the marginalised becoming the centre? I enjoy the idea that the city is merely a hugely complex shifting and accumulating layering of each citizen’s personal isolarion not something that can be planned or controlled. The city is an accumulation of stories and acts, unaccountable and un-measurable. Nimble and flexible architects and artists are moving into the gaps rendering the visionary master plan redundant. What is required to my mind in artistic and architectural practice is an open and loose frame of mind coupled to almost surgical levels of skill and observation.
Japanese culture fully understands the concept of the space between, twilight spaces, the Japanese have a term for this space; Ma. While the goal is the creation of a sense of space and distance, enveloped with a pervading stillness, the techniques used are far from vague. The execution needs to be precise, practised and superbly controlled. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei using literally millions of handcrafted, hand painted porcelain sunflower seeds to create something of huge power and silence.
Italo Calvino in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium describes the qualities that were close to his heart and critical to literature. In a lecture on Exactitude, Calvino drew on the qualities of the vague initially to act as an opponent in his argument in favour of exactitude. Vague is derived from vago, to wander, noting that in Italian vago also means lovely, attractive. Vago: “Wandering,” Calvino continues: “carries ideas of movement and mutability which in Italian is associated both with uncertainty and indefiniteness and with gracefulness and pleasure.” He asks what qualities we need to savour the beauty of the vague and indefinite, concluding, what is required is: “A highly meticulous attention to the composition of each image, to the minute definition of details, to the choice of objects, to the lighting and the atmosphere, all in order to attain the desired degree of vagueness [...]. The poet of the vague can only be the poet of exactitude.” Writers of Japanese haiku would recognise these qualities.
Japanese architects explore the ethereal, the half said, indeed a traditional plan lacks any clear distinction between the functions it contains; it is at once a dining room, a living room, a sleeping room. It is an immaculately conceived shifting space that moves to accommodate the acts of life. In Foucault’s words the space flows like sparkling water.
As we move to extreme positions the real architectural programme to create shelter for humans is lost and the building becomes about the architect. The notion of an architecture of doubt is not concerned with being paralysed by indecision but by that delicious feeling at the beginning of a design when all is possible, you are lost in the labyrinth of ways to go, to drift through this world of architecture, literature and art with no fixed target, no real scholarly agenda, and no end game, drawn by the attractions of the terrain. “I used to be uncertain of my confidence, now I have confidence in my uncertainty.” William Turnbull.
Let me first thank Neil for his very interesting and thought provoking reflection. There’s a great deal there that could be discussed. What I have to say will touch on it but perhaps only briefly in the first instance, but we’ll have an opportunity to have a further exchange at the end.
If one were to give a history of philosophy, it would be characteristic to divide it in to modern and pre-modern philosophy. The pre-modern would refer to the philosophy of the ancient world, the Greeks, the Romans and the medieval period. So then the question is, when does modern philosophy begin? The standard answer to that has been that it begins with the life and the work of Descartes in the 17th century. So what is it that Descartes did that allows us to speak of the beginning of modern philosophy? Well, he shifted the focus of philosophy from the world, of thinking about the nature of reality to thinking about the nature of thought itself. Descartes was interested in the nature of knowledge. The term that philosophers use to describe the theory of knowledge is epistemology. Interestingly that term, although it has a world-wide currency now, originated believe it or not, in St. Andrews with James Frederick Ferrier in the 19th century, who actually coined the term, epistemology, to refer to the theory of knowledge. It’s really with Descartes that this begins, and Descartes’ philosophy is characterised by a ‘method’, and it’s the method of ‘doubt’. He famously wrote a set of reflections called the Meditations, and then he sent these around Europe and invited people to respond critically to them, and he received a series of so-called objections to his Meditations. He published replies to those objections. So we have the Meditations, the objections and the replies to the objections. This quote comes from replies to objection seven which were replies toward meditation seven. I put this in because he makes the connection with the architect. He says: “Throughout my writings I have made clear that my method imitates that of the architect. When an architect wants to build a house which is stable on ground where there is sandy topsoil over underlying rock, or clay, or some other firm base, he begins by digging out a set of trenches from which he removes the sand, and anything resting on or mixed in with the sand, so that he can lay his foundations on firm soil. In the same way, I began by taking everything that was doubtful and throwing it out, like sand [...].”
So the Cartesian way, and by the way Descartes is the author of the Cartesian coordinates in geometry, but the Cartesian enterprise he likens to that of an architect building on solid ground, and his complaint with earlier philosophy is that people were given to building or articulating rather complex structures and philosophical systems without having determined whether they were being built on solid ground, and in order to know if we are building on solid ground we have to excavate the sand, and the method of doing so in this case, the method of excavation, is the method of ‘doubt’. He continues: “Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my ascent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those which are patently false. So for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions it will be enough if I find in each of them, at least some reason for doubt.” Now this is very radical indeed, because what Descartes is saying is, I have to set aside not only the false as a foundation for philosophy, that’s clear enough, but I have to set aside even that which I can doubt, in fact, that which can be the subject of any sort of doubt whatsoever has to be set aside. That is a very radical method indeed. In fact it’s so radical that you might draw the conclusion that nothing remains. And famously Descartes Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, he thought, at least I know that much, because even though I ‘doubt’, I’m conscious of the fact that I’m ‘doubting’, and consequently I can know that I exist. This is, by the way, an echo of a philosophical discovery made over a thousand years before by Augustine when he writes, Si Fallor Sum, Even if I err, I am. The question is whether Descartes was able to reconstruct anything once it was the subject of this sceptical doubt. I want to turn next to one of his critics, Pierre Gassendi, a very interesting thinker, and Gassendi raises a question about Descartes method that I think is a good question. By the way, when a philosopher says this: “There’s just one point I’m not clear about.” What he means is: “I’m absolutely certain of the following.” It’s a rather courteous way of cutting someone off at the knees. He says: “There’s just one point I’m not clear about, namely, why did you not make a simple and brief statement to the effect that you were regarding your previous knowledge as uncertain, so that you could single out what you later on found to be true. Why instead did you consider everything as false which seems more like adopting a new prejudice than relinquishing an old one?” So Descartes’ criticism of the scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages and the philosophers of the ancient world was that they operated on the base of prejudice assuming that they knew certain things and he wants to set aside prejudice or pre-judgment and start afresh, and Gassendi here is pointing out that in a sense he’s just introducing a new prejudice, the assumption that we know nothing, and that that is prejudicial and moreover that it’s disabling. He goes on: “This strategy made it necessary then for you to convince yourself that by imagining a deceiving God or some evil demon that tricks us, whereas it would surely have been sufficient to cite the darkness of the human mind or the weakness of our nature.” What Gassendi is saying is that doubt is a real feature of the human condition and that it has to be taken account of. But the real kind of doubt is not this peculiar philosophical doubt that Descartes introduces on to the scene, which has bedevilled us ever since, the possibility of imagining that everything I believe is literally false, that I am here with other human beings, Descartes is saying you’re not entitled to that because some evil demon, or god is inducing an illusion around you. And Gassendi is saying that kind of hypothetical doubt is unreal in a way, or at least as fantastical as the assumption of total knowledge. What’s much more interesting is this aspect of the human condition, the darkness of the human mind or the weakness of our nature. And this ties with what Neil was talking about earlier. Remembers when I said that Descartes Cogito ergo sum, related to Augustine’s Si Fallor Sum in his great work, The Confessions. Augustine says that as a human being there are three marks of our woundedness, the darkness of the intellect, the disturbance of the passions, and the irresolution of the will. Setting aside Cartesian doubt doesn’t mean we embrace certainty. I want to suggest that we should understand doubt in the way Gassendi’s did, as a permanent and enduring feature of the human condition. It’s an aspect of our condition that we will always be in a situation of irresolution, of disturbance and of darkness. Let me say a brief word about knowledge and doubt. When Descartes was concerned with the relationship between knowledge and doubt he was using doubt as a method of determining what, if anything, we know, and by know, he meant, know to be true. But in fact doubt as a method or as feature can afflict or assist three different aspects of human intellectual operation. Descartes was only interested in the ‘speculative’. He was asking himself the question, what am I to think or what am I to believe. The question, what am I to believe, has as its goal, the true, that what we want to believe are true things. Belief is oriented toward the true, which is the purpose and point of speculative thought. But there are other ways of thinking, there’s also practical thought, and practical thought’s question is not what am I to think but what am I to do. And the proper object of practical deliberation is not the truth but goodness. A third aspect of human thinking is, a human response to the world, to ones condition and the condition of others, not the speculative or the practical, but the affective, the question is, what is the appropriate thing to feel. Some of the great writers of the seventeenth century introduced the category of the fine, and that the fine is the appropriate object of feeling. When we ask ourselves what might be appropriate to feel, sometimes the answer to that will be disgust; the correct feeling is sometimes a negative feeling. Sometimes it will be one of affection. Again returning to Augustine for a moment, when he tries to define the question, what is the nature of society, he says, a fellowship of people united by the objects of their affection, but he could as easily have said, united by the objects of their disgust. What I want to suggest is this, for Descartes and his radical modern philosophy doubt was ultimately disabling. He refused to build on anything other than solid rock and then never found any, or the rock on which he built crumbled away. How should we respond? Not to set aside doubt, but to reconsider doubt in a slightly different way, to see doubt as a method of discovery, a method of resolution to help to formulate what am I to think, what am I to do, and how am I to feel.
It seemed as if there was some common ground emerging between what both of you were saying. This is a caricature of what you were saying, but could we say that if you’re talking about modernism or if you’re talking about Descartes, that was about certainty, and that there is a problem with certainty, and that after modernism, whether philosophically or architecturally we’ve emerged into a much more sophisticated understanding in which we embrace doubt in a rounded way rather than part of an inquisitorial process, and as a result of that we have a richer and more complex architecture or more meaningful architecture, and a more certain and rewarding outlook on the world. My concern is that you’re caricaturing modern philosophy and caricaturing modern architecture, because modern architecture has a phenomenal richness that embraces both doubt and certainty. And similarly, radical modern philosophy has a complexity to it that brings us closer to grasping reality.
Let me just see if I’ve got the gist of this. Essentially speaking yours is still a somewhat conservative position. You could think of Descartes as classically conservative because he has this simple polarity; knowledge on the one hand, ignorance on the other, and with knowledge comes certainty and doubt is associated with ignorance, and this oversimplifies things. I come along and say, well yes he was wrong to polarise things in that way because doubt needn’t be seen as the enemy of knowledge, it can be a method of discovery, of enquiry and so on, a recognition of our fallibility and limitation, but it doesn’t have to be disabling, and he was wrong to treat it as such. You might still say, well that’s interesting, whether you’re working it out in philosophy or in a method in art making or something of that sort. But it doesn’t take sufficiently seriously the extent to which we have been pushed into a quite radical position now, which is one of radical diversity, in which there is no possibility of having this rather congenial resolution. Is that about right?
Well I think this is partly a political question, political in the broad sense, I don’t mean the party-political sense. I think that deep at the heart of western philosophy in its modern incarnation, is a very significant divide between the Anglo-Saxon English speaking world and the continental European world. Those of you who are familiar with the history of philosophy will know what I’m talking about, because the English speaking tradition is characterised by analytical philosophy concerned with breaking things down and putting them back together again, but it’s rather a continuation of the Cartesian project. Whereas continental philosophy is thought of as being much more radical, it’s associated with often overt political conceptions of philosophy, whether it be gender politics, sexual politics, breaking down categories. Neil you talked about Foucault for example, Foucault launches an attack on the concept of sanity and so on. I think that’s essentially a political division. To elaborate in detail would take too long, but basically it’s one of the features of British intellectual thought which exported to north America, it’s what you might call meta-stability, you have to remember that the history of stable political institutions in Britain has no parallel on the continent of Europe. You have to remember that people alive today, across continental Europe, have watched troops of foreign nations march across their land, destroy their countries and so on. France, Germany and Italy experienced that, Spain with fascism and civil war experienced that, Portugal again with civil war, Flanders, the low countries and Holland, all have witnessed and experienced war, and indeed not only are there people alive today who remember that, but their parents and grandparents have a memory of that. The history of continental Europe over the past one hundred and fifty years is pretty much one of unbroken warfare. Nobody in Britain experienced that, I mean apart from going over and fighting and so on. British political institutions are meta-stable, British education institutions are meta-stable, or have been until quite recently, and the other thing to remember is that Germany as a country didn’t exist until 150 years ago. France is a modern country. Italy was brought into being in the 19th century. Spain as it is today is a modern country. Belgium was part of the Spanish empire at one point. The countries of Europe are modern countries, very modern countries, they’re still countries in the making, and they’re still unresolved about what their identities are, and that uncertainty is playing out in front of us even today, in the impossibility of France and Germany agreeing on a basis on which to rescue the Eurozone. I think we are entering a period whose closest historical parallel is the early period of the 1920s in which Germany felt the punitive reparations after the First World War, and people in Germany again today are reacting to punitive demands as they see it, to bail out Italy and Greece. I think the situation in Europe today is very, very serious. It seems to me not inconceivable that people in this room will live to see another European war. It’s that serious. But what I was going to say is that the ferment that exists within continental philosophy is related to this political ferment. Whereas I think that the kind of philosophy that I’m representing is related to another different political tradition, one of stable political institutions. So now we have something to talk about!
I’m lost in what John’s talking about, but I think you’re right, I think I was caricaturing modernism and the kind of modernism I was reared on. I suppose what I was trying to get at was if it’s enough? If you look at the path of modernism and where that sparkling water was leading us to, if you like, is a kind of self-indulgent mannerist sense of itself. And if we go the other way we’ll become depressed. I suppose the polarity of those positions is unhelpful. What I’m suggesting is a ground that shifts and enjoys shifting. I was really interested in the three parts of John’s talk, darkness, disturbance and resolution. Was modernism trying to ignore or negate them, to say that they don’t exist, the white architecture, is that what that was about, is that denying that those passions exist? Do we not enjoy these passions, as human beings do we not want to engage in those? And to do that I think we need to doubt that visionary position that modernism once held.
Dimness perhaps. I’m reminded of a talk by Benedetta Tagliabue, Enric Miralles’ partner and wife. There was a teacher of architecture in the audience and he said: “How can I teach students this kind of architecture, surely it’s intuitive?” And her reply, which I thought was quite cutting and succinct, was that: “Enric’s intuition took him forty years to acquire.” I was at a lecture last night where two young architects explained their process through around thirty models, and the first model and the last model were identical, intuitively they knew the right answer, but they had to go through this process of doubt, of testing, to come back to the decision they made in the first place, and they did that virtually for every project. I’m not sure what instinct and intuition have to do with it, but I think all of it has to do with acquiring knowledge and experience. In terms of precision and exactitude, a poet, in three or four words, can take you somewhere else, and the precision of these three or four words is critical. If you’re as interested as I am in creating an architecture that has silence or space, the ability to create that relies on enormous skill and detailing and precision, So the technique is precise, but the goal is to have something that is bigger than you’ve just made. A lot of architecture that I don’t like today is constantly aware of itself. It doesn’t allow you as a human being to exist outside of it. But precision has to be there. It’s not about being vague in terms of how you operate; in fact it’s quite the opposite.
So what is the vague component then?