I’ve written before about the play between mythos and logos, particularly the impoverishment of our lives from the elevation of logos—reason, facts—over its partner mythos—meaning, context. Logos alone sends us looking for truth in news items, not in fairy tales. At least until recently. The very crisis of the so-called “fact-free” world we woke up to post-election points to the inadequacy of logos alone to make sense of the world. And we’ve gone so long without mythos; it’s hard to visualize its relevance anymore. Or what it even looks like in the physical world.
In the first century BCE, back when mythos and logos still enjoyed equal billing, a Roman architect and engineer called Vitruvius wrote an architectural treatise called The Ten Books on Architecture. It’s actually an interesting read. The most quoted principles from it are the triumvirate: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, or “firmness, commodity, and delight.” Vitruvius argued that architecture must be structurally sound, functional, and beautiful—all three. It must serve its purpose economically and spiritually. Though human cultures and their architectural styles have taken many different forms over the centuries, these underlying principles have generally held. When logos was promoted over mythos, the unraveling began.
And so we now have the elevation to cult status of rationality over imagination, and the preference for quantity over quality. This is evident in most development in the U.S. since the 1950s, which has favored firmness and commodity—that is, function and cheap construction—over delight and beauty. Architects didn’t help their case by aligning with, even pandering to, the elitism of the moneyed class. In less than one hundred years, we’ve gone from being indispensible to the built environment to mostly catering to the 1%.
Meanwhile, developers found they could build just fine without architects. Now, most buildings are strictly commodity. Junk thrown up with no regard for quality or beauty. The mortgage lending crisis seems to have taught us nothing. Crap continues to go up, all over this country. As if we needed a continual reminder that we live in an era of money and status being valued over anything else of substance.
This is illustrated brilliantly by the very clever and acerbic blog, McMansion Hell. Its 22-year-old curator does an intelligent and bitingly hilarious roast of a house each week. Annotations of these bloated pastiches are written directly on the staged photographs from real estate websites. (Warning: you can easily spend a few hours here.)
Reading her critiques has reminded me once again of the promise of architecture school, the delight that Vitruvius bestowed on us as a sacred duty. One of the best things about experiencing well-designed places is the shimmering presence of timeless principles. We don’t need the complicated phenomenology of Bachelard and Heidegger to appreciate the subconscious psychological effects of the places we inhabit. Our designs echo the caves and trees in which we once lived, the mythic connections to our origins in the natural world.
Good architects care deeply about the expression of center, edge, verticality, and horizontality. We tap into ancient narratives of shelter, light and shadow, orientation to the sun, views, connection between inside and outside, the power of thresholds. We are conscious about creating a hierarchy of spaces for gathering, for privacy, community and individual. Action and contemplation. Prospect and refuge. Procession, ascending and descending.
Proportion deserves particular attention. It appears across all the arts, including music and dance. It’s related not only to the human body, but to all of observable nature. The nautilus shell, the curve of a bird’s wing, the repetition and structure of leaves, the inside of an orange, the rhythm of a heartbeat.
“Music is liquid architecture. Architecture is frozen music.” ~ Goethe
Architecture has always recognized and served the human spirit, until very recently. In Japan, the sublime Katsura Villa has a tea house and moon-viewing platform. By contrast, a McMansion has a media room. St. Peter’s Cathedral has a dome while a McMansion has a three-story entry hall, complete with chandelier.
It’s 1987 and I’m standing in a Roman monument known as the Pantheon. It’s a cylindrical, dome-topped, marble-clad, thoroughly impressive place which marked the axis mundi of Rome. Rome as the center of the universe; this spot as the center of Rome, the connection between heaven and earth. It’s impossible not to be awe-struck upon walking into the cool hush, momentarily blind from the intense sun outside, able only to take in the hum that all great buildings possess. That vibration that seems to be everywhere and nowhere, the echoes of those present blended with all who have come before.
Once my eyes adjust, I look up, transfixed by the open circle in the top of the dome, the deep blue Roman sky outside. My eyes sweep slowly down the immense coffered stone dome to the more refined walls. I notice a cylinder of sunlight shafting down from the oculus, as solid as the building itself. It draws my eye to travel ever downward to where it ends in a bright spot on the patterned marble floor. The intensity is almost too much to bear.
Eyes watering, I move to stand at the circle’s edge, to dive in and be consumed. The sun spot inches across the floor. The edges of the different colored marble stones act as a frame through which I can actually watch the glowing circle move.
I am seized for the first time in my life with the utter, bodily certainty that I stand on a planet, hurtling at inconceivable speed through space around a giant star. The sense of this movement makes me dizzy. This is the miracle of place, this unmasking of the invisible. People have always had the ability to create places that can stir the soul and awaken our sense of belonging. We have the capacity to call down the sacred into our midst, to honor the mystery that enfolds us. Without such places, we are left unconscious and homeless.
Architecture must mean something beyond serving basic functions like shelter, and especially beyond projecting faux luxury. Like any good work of art, architecture is about something. As with a good novel, there’s a theme within the story.
Here’s an example that’s closer to home: the Lawn at the University of Virginia, designed by Thomas Jefferson. Being a well-educated man, he drew from European precedent and principles. He assembled his design to express the unique narrative of a new nation, one of equality and community, westward expansion, reverence for learning and knowledge, as well as the romantic ideal of working the land, growing food, taking care of one another. The Lawn presents a melting pot of influences and ideas, gathered around a central unifying space. There is room for individual and community, for garden and city, for contentment and aspiration, past and future.
The mythic stories are still there, beneath everything we do. They can either aid us in our ventures or belie our ignorance when we try to ignore them. Everything means something whether we see it or intend it, or not.
Which is why McMansion Hell is so darn fun. McMansions can be decoded and read as the ersatz castles they are, the narcissistic bastions of wanna-be’s. The surface sheen of appearances: luxury trends rather than substance and genuine quality.
Like the moving spot of sun in the Pantheon, there is more going on around us than we usually notice. I imagine myself moving always in this thin zone between the known and the numinous. Those moments of noticing are pure grace. This is the dance of mythos and logos. It is a dance we crave and long for, whether we are aware of it or not. It is the dance that we need. And, when we embrace it, it saves us.
As long as we are going to the trouble, using our imaginations and minds, harnessing precious natural resources and time, we might as well make something worthy of us.