Architectural Space

Perhaps it’s simply because my grandfather was an architect, but for whatever reason the design of buildings and houses intrigues me, particularly how building design affects the way people relate to each other.

Tuan suggests that even in its most basic form human shelter helps to determine public and private space:

Constructed form has the power to heighten the awareness and accentuate, as it were, the difference in emotional temperature between “inside” and “outside.” In Neolithic times the basic shelter was a round semi-subterranean hut, a womblike enclosure that contrasted vividly with the space beyond. Later the hut emerged above ground, moving away from the earth matrix but retaining and even accentuating the contrast between interior and outside by the aggressive rectilinearity of its walls. At a still later stage, corresponding to the beginning of urban life, the rectangular courtyard domicile appeared. It is noteworthy that these steps in the evolution of the house were followed in all the areas where Neolithic culture made the transition to urban life.

It seems clear that concepts of family and tribe would be influenced by the structure of homes. It would be fascinating to compare and contrast the social life of the Plains Indians, with their small tepees, and the Northwest Indians, where extended families lived in wooden longhouses.

Tuan points out that though the courtyard house evolved in China it has gained a permanent place in society:

The courtyard house is, of course, still with us – it has not become obsolete. Its basic feature is that the rooms open out to the privacy of interior space and present their blank backs to the outside world. Within and without are clearly defined; people can be certain of where they are. Inside the enclosure, undisturbed by distractions from the outside, human relations and feelings can rise to a high and even uncomfortable level of warmth. The notion of inside and outside is familiar to all, but imagine how sensibly real these categories become when a guest-after a convivial party-leaves the lantern-lit courtyard and steps through the moon gate to the dark wind-swept lane outside. Experiences of this kind were commonplace in traditional Chinese society, but they are surely known to all people who use architectural means to demarcate and intensify forms of social life.

I haven’t been in too many houses that have a formal courtyard as described by Tuan, but it’s certainly common to have a backyard that’s sealed off from the neighbors with high fences and lots of trees with the front of the house dominated by a garage.

Despite my own preference for no fences or for cyclone fences, Leslie and I have been creating a very small, private garden in our backyard, one where ighbors aren’t allowed to intrude unless they’re invited over. Leslie wants to create even more privacy by planting large shrubs or trees around the perimeter of the yard.

In the next chapter, though, Tuan points out a significant difference between some American homes and Chinese homes :

Open space itself is an image of hopeful time. Open space is cone-shaped: it opens up from the point where one stands, to the broad horizon that separates earth from sky. Many American homes have large picture windows. A guest, upon entering his host’s home, may go straight to the picture window and admire what lies far beyond the house. The host is not displeased. After all, the guest is admiring his prospect, and prospect means both a broad view and future promise. A traditional Oriental home, in contrast, has no picture windows; the rooms look inward to the interior courtyard, and the only expanse of nature visible to the inhabitants is the overarching sky. The vertical axis, rather than the open horizontal space, is the symbol of hope.

As noted before, many of my neighbors further up the hill have paid millions of dollars for houses that have great views of the sound and Mt. Rainier and/or The Olympics. I’d never quite thought of it the way Yuan suggests here, but it does make perfect sense, except for those houses owned by retired people who have great wealth but not much future. Still, majestic views are definitely a status symbol in Western society, though I’d generally thought of it as a way of “looking down? at other people before reading Yuan’s suggestion.

They Called Me Mythter Webster

As an INTP, I hate it when an idea seems important but I can’t fit it into my worldview, into my personal philosophy. Of course, that discomfort is often balanced by an equal fascination because the best part of any puzzle is trying to figure out where the pieces go.

Tuan’s “mythical space“ is such an concept. The chapter entitled “Mythical Space and Place? suggests we can only directly know our own immediate neighborhood, that our understanding of the larger world is largely mythic:

Myth is often contrasted with reality. Myths flourish in the absence of precise knowledge. Thus in the past Western man believed in the existence of the Isles of the Blest, Paradise, the Northwest Passage, and Terra Australis. Now he no longer does. Myths are not, however, a thing of the past for human understanding remains limited. Political myths today are as common as weeds. Geographical myths, it is true, are less in evidence; we do know much more about the physical characteristics of the earth now than we did before A.D. deal But that knowledge is collective: it lies embedded in the great encyclopedias and in works of geography. The knowledge we have as individuals and as members of a particular society remains very limited, selective, and biased by the passions of living.

My army tour, particularly my experience in Vietnam, would seem to support this idea. Despite a good liberal art education, I was appalled by how inaccurate my view of my own country was and devastated by what I learned about America while fighting in Vietnam. If many of my beliefs were naive, the same is probably true of most people.

Much of what we know about our own neighborhood is an emotional construct, build by the heart, whereas:

Mythical space is an intellectual construct. It can be very elaborate. Mythical space is also a response of feeling and imagination to fundamental human needs. It differs from pragmatic and scientifically conceived spaces in that it ignores the logic of exclusion and contradiction. Logically a cosmos can have only one center; in mythical thought it can have many centers, although one center may dominate all the others. Logically the whole is made up of parts, each with its characteristic location, structure, and function. The part may be essential to the functioning of the whole, but the part is not the whole in miniature and in essence. In mythical thought the part can symbolize the whole and have its full potency.

Because it is an “intellectual construct,? mythical space begins as the domain of education. As a teacher I was all too often aware of just how that mythical space was shaped by teachers who seemed more interested in teaching patriotism than providing an accurate portrayal of history, a tendency more often than not reinforced by our media.

Our perception of who we are and how we lead our daily lives is influenced by this mythic space:

… people in one neighborhood know their own area well but are likely to be ignorant of the area occupied by a neighboring group. Both groups, however, probably share a common store of hazy knowledge (myths) concerning a far larger field the region or nation in which their own local areas are embedded. Knowledge of this hazy field is not redundant. Though inaccurate and dyed in phantasms, it is necessary to the sense of reality of one’s empirical world. Facts require contexts in order to have meaning, and contexts invariably grow fuzzy and mythical around the edges.

In other words, one’s “sense of reality? may well be undermined if this mythic space is shattered by unexpected revelations. I would argue that it is precisely this that happened to many Vietnam veterans. Faced with facts that could not be reconciled with their mythic view, they struggled to make sense of a world turned upside down even after returning to old neighborhoods. Of course, it doesn’t take events nearly as dramatic as fighting in a war to shatter this mythic view. Economic changes can dramatically alter our view of the world.

Don’t Play with Your Food

Inspired by Shelley’s recent posts on mean humans and zoos, I thought I’d post another entry about my recent visit to the Denver zoo and an incident that happened while I was there.

It happened so fast that I couldn’t capture the whole series of events with my camera. Apparently a wild duck, accustomed to the mellow company of captive flamingos, swans and ducks, flew into the tiger cage. At first everything seemed fine as he strutted around the cage eating bits of food here and there.

Suddenly, though, the tiger swatted the duck and batted it around in the air. The silly duck was quickly mashed to an unrecognizable mush of feathers and flesh.

The reaction of viewers was varied. Some parents rushed their children out of view horrified at seeing the true nature of a tiger when they were expecting a zoo tiger. Other parents, apparently less observant, urged their children to watch the tiger playing with its “toy,? while the children, at least those who had watched the whole scene, sat watching in open-mouthed amazement. I suspect that “don’t play with your food? would take on a whole new meaning for them.

Me, I was reminded of Blake’s

The Tiger

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

I’m not sure I could really summarize my feelings as I walked away from the tiger’s cage, but there was a strange satisfaction in knowing that for once I’d really seen the true nature of a tiger while at the zoo, a feeling I seldom experience here where people come to see the “real? thing.

Space and Place

I’m about to embark on a rather lengthy exploration of space and place, beginning with a look at Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place, Gaston Bechelard’s The Poetics of Space, a photobook entitled Nisqually Watershed, and a look at several local poets who focus on the local environment.

First, a disclaimer. One of the advantages of self-learning is you can focus on exactly what you want to look at without feeling obliged to cover a book with the depth or breadth it probably deserves and would certainly demand in an academic setting. In other words, don’t consider what I write a thorough analysis of any of these works (of course, you probably already know that if you visit here regularly). I’ve simply chosen parts that seem particularly relevant to my own personal quest.

And there’s no doubt that my recent move back to the Puget Sound area combined with the struggle of trying to remake a home into the kind of space I want to live in while dealing with aging issues has made me more aware than ever of how I am affected by my immediate environment.

In a broad sense, I certainly feel like I’ve come “home,? but in other, more personal ways, I miss the house I just left, the one I spent over fifteen years transforming into “my home.?

I was born in Seattle, and though I spent three years in Walnut Creek, California, I always considered Seattle home throughout my youth. After graduating from the U of W, though, I relocated to Vancouver, Washington, and spent the next thirty-five years there. Though that Vancouver house was the most intimate space I’ve ever occupied and I hated to leave it, I have long felt that Seattle was home.

This passage from Tuan

Place can acquire deep meaning for the adult through the steady accretion of sentiment over the years. Every piece of heirloom furniture, or even a stain on the wall, tells a story. The child not only has a short past, but his eyes more than the adult’s are on the present and the immediate future. His vitality for doing things and exploring space is not suited to the reflective pause and backward glance that make places seem saturated with significance. The child’s imagination is of a special kind. It is tied to activity.

seems to address the split I often feel lately. Spending long hours on Puget Sound fishing with Mt Rainier standing guard in the distance as a child had an indelible impression on me. I’ve never felt entirely comfortable living in a place that lacked both water and mountains, and I’ve never felt more at home than when I’m walking Ruston Way and can see Mt. Rainier in the distance.

On the other hand, “the steady accretion of sentiment over the years“ would certainly explain my attachment to the Vancouver home I recently left because I spent long hours remodeling the home and building 90 per cent of the furniture, not to mention the extensive yard work, the large raised-beds filled with home-made compost, the rock fountain, the shade garden, and the fruit trees and plants I started. Unfortunately, I lack both the desire and the strength to duplicate those efforts here in Tacoma, though I am finally enjoying homegrown corn and tomatoes for the first time in three years. More importantly, I have all the memories of time spent with children and friends, memories impossible to recreate not matter how hard I tried.

Strangely, though, my thirty-five year absence from the Puget Sound, has made its rediscovery, both through long walks and through photography, all the more poignant, as hopefully revealed through the photographs and stories I’ve shared here. I don’t think I realized this or understood the reason for it I until I read:

An object or place achieves concrete reality when our experience of it is total, that is through all the senses as well as with the active and reflective mind. Long residence enables us to know a place intimately, yet its image may lack sharpness unless we can also see it from the outside and reflect upon our experience. Another place may lack the weight of reality because we know it only from the outside-through the eyes as tourists, and from reading about ii in a guidebook.

After being stationed in several areas of the nation during my Army tour of duty, I knew I would spend the rest of my life in the Pacific Northwest, and after being stationed in the Mojave Desert, I had a very different attitude towards our rainy weather.

I’ve also come to appreciate subtle differences between the Puget Sound and other areas of Western Washington since moving here from Vancouver, only 160 miles to the south. Though subtle they are quiet real even if masked by the larger population found here.

In other words, having returned I know and appreciate this place much better than I ever did before I left. In fact, I suspect I know it in ways that I would never have known it even if I’d spent the thirty-five years here.