A Theoretical issue for Urban and Architectural Design
by Tatjana Capuder Vidmar
“We must now discover how to do more with less, how to successfully design with nature, and how to ecologically design our communities. . .” (1)
This article, with its insight into the history of Western European spatial development, will attempt to demonstrate that the above mentioned skills were already present in history, that it is possible to summarise their essence and purpose without formal solutions, and that on this basis it is feasible to create architectural, urban and landscape spaces with a contemporary design approach for modern society.
Throughout the history of European architecture and urban development such experiments have already been carried out, often after social crises arising through various causes, such as for example with: the plague at the end of the 14th century; the social order transition from feudalism to the middle class in the 17th century (the Netherlands, England); or the oil crisis in the 1970s. After each crisis catharsis brought an insight into ancient times. This has happened in the Renaissance, Classicism, and Postmodernism. Unfortunately the insight mainly depended on formal solutions in architecture and urban development, which turned out to be a notable failure in Postmodernism.
After our most recent contemporary crisis, caused by the collapse of the global financial system, our forthcoming catharsis will once again find it necessary to seek and to observe the existing values of (architectural, urban and landscape) spaces, to respect them, and to design spaces with contemporary architectural language in accordance with the nature of the spaces, and in compliance with Nature itself, which is after all, integrated within spaces in the same way as man is integrated into them.
For a better understanding of space, let us take a look at definitions of space and then at development of human design attitudes towards space throughout history.
Definitions of space
“To come into contact with the tree means to touch it, and a word cannot help you with that” (2)
To come into contact with space means to touch it, to become accustomed to it, to live with it, to observe it, to get to know its character, structure and movement – and words cannot help us with this, “because the process of thinking breaks everything into fragments.” (3)
Is it then possible to consider what space is?
If we try to develop a definition of space, then we must first take a look at what space is not. Space is different from time, matter and energy, even though all the listed elements together with space form an entity into which society, with its own culture and nature, is integrated – and thus all beings with all of their potentials and standards of living. The integration of the elements and beings is mutual in multiple and multidimensional relations. They have a continuous but not necessarily linear influence on each other.
According to the definition of some dictionaries (e.g. Oxford Dictionary, etc.) space is something that has no substance and is unlimited, and in which bodies are present and are able to move.
According to the definition of chaos theory “space is not an Euclidean system, but belongs to the (natural), seemingly chaotic systems in which one characteristic is maintained, while everything else changes. This feature, which is called self-similarity and in morphogenesis means a fractal similarity through different criteria, where minimum criteria is decisive, is universal and applies to any space.” (4)
According to certain mathematical theories, space is four-dimensional. “For P. D. Ouspensky, the four dimensions were not only a spatial concept, but a type of consciousness, an awareness of greater complexities and higher unities.” (5)
Einstein established in 1915 that “we must not think of space as made up of particles,” and that “mass affects space and space affects mass”.
Rudy Rucker asserts, “empty space is not a pure nothingness” (6), and “under the geo-metro dynamic viewpoint, space is not really empty and matter is not really solid. Space is an ether, a continuous substance that is curved in higher dimensions. And matter is a sort of patterning in the ether.” (7)
So space is not an empty void, but has its own characteristics. These are prior characteristics, given in advance and existing even without matter, but matter has an influence on them in the same way as the characteristics of space exert an influence on matter.
These statements are consistent with the definition of architecture, which states that architecture is an art of spatial design. However, the history of urban development shows that spatial characteristics and the space itself were not always a prior consideration. The space was defeated under the influence of matter, which a man has placed within the space, when a form of the matter ignored it. In such cases the epic of the space was not heard. Therefore architectural and urban design solutions were alienated from the space. Contemporary spatial crises are also a result of this alienation.
Let us see where in history we can note any causes of alienation from space.
An insight into the history of spatial design
A man tries to cope with space each time he enters into it, in order to settle and survive within it. His survival aim is to control the space completely. How this is done depends on his attitude towards the cosmogony of the world. Looking at history, we recognise several levels of this attitude: from the complete subordination to the cosmogony of the world up to the attempt of an entirely rational mastery of the entire universe.
The space of the ancient Egypt was subordinated to the understanding of the cosmogony of the world: the Nile, which flows from south to north, divided the world into the world of the living, which was where the sun rose, and the world of the dead, where the sun set. The whole world / space was held captive within a constantly repeating circular rhythm. The hieroglyph for Egyptian space (city) is a circle divided by two rectangular axes, denoting the axis of the Nile and the axis of the sun. This was an image of understanding Egyptian space, and the design of this space was subordinate to this understanding.
Personified gods have defined the archaic and classical ancient Greek space. They took care of those spaces, which were similar to their character, where divine features merged the spatial character, and thus imbued spaces with divine powers. (8)