architecture’s geometric imagination: mathematics and embodiment

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri

The world imagined as a three-dimensional Cartesian grid maps an alien and alienating landscape under one condition: that we take it and the accompanying removal of the knowing subject literally. Literalizing, we cover over our person-al investment in it. We forget that this landscape lives as an engaging image. We forget that accepting its invitation to imagine births a world. Remembered as image and invitation, we reclaim it as a soul work; a creative act that situates us as figures in its landscape.

Hearing its invitation to imagine ourselves as removed subjects, we are liberated in some measure from its grip. We gain the freedom to decline the invitation and reimagine our place. To live as removed, knowing subjects we had to forget imagination and our bodily experience. We begin reimagining by remembering. Attending our experience of space and place, we find that our bodily engagement is imaginal.

Lived space is not homogenous. Constructed spaces draw us in and through to places that give us pause. As we move through they reveal something more of themselves, enticing us to move again. Spaces and the places within them have value: they invite, they repel, they overwhelm, they comfort, they inspire and they enliven or dull our sensibilities. They figure us as workers, dreamers, lovers, artists, audience, performers, family or citizens. They are saturated with memory, imagination and possibility. A porch is an arms-wide welcome, a doorknob is a handshake and a threshold is a ritual passage into a communal interior. Take off your shoes. Compared to the richness of embodied experiences of spaces, a mathematical landscape seems an uninhabitable wasteland.

Though they may seem impossibly estranged, mathematical imagination and embodied experience are reconciled in architecture. As with all created things, constructed spaces are imagination incarnate. Buildings born of mathematical imagination incarnate it, making it available as a bodily experience. Incarnate, math has visceral impact. The love of architecture begins with moving experiences of constructed spaces. Love takes root as wonder and fascination. In love, the architect’s fascination with the bodily experience of spaces is woven into their geometric imagination. Architectural theory offers one profound yet simple move that does the weaving: it takes up geometry as a way to imagine our embodied experience of constructed spaces.

The classic introductory text Architecture: Form, Space and Order1 is a rite of passage into architecture’s mysteries. It begins its tale: a point indicates a position in space. When a point moves through space it forms a line. When a line moves through space it forms a plane. A plane extended forms a volume. The body is an imaginal sense organ that knows the world kinesthetically. By weaving movement into its imagining, architectural geometry opens to bodily experience.

A point “make[s] it presence felt when placed within a visual field” (p.4). Its position determines the character of its relations with its surroundings; static when at the center, dynamic closer to the boundaries of the space. Lines form a boundary that demarcates a space and the location of a point in that space generates the energies of their relations. As an abstraction a point consists of nothing but here it has value beyond marking a location: it has presence, impact and energy in relation to the space it inhabits. Like that point, we too live in bound, charged relational spaces where place has value and energy. And as a point moves to form a line, spaces oriented along a central axis exert a force that draws us through them. Architectural geometry weaves the value and kinetic energy of position in a bounded, oriented, directional space into its imagining.

A point must have vertical projection to make its presence known and effective (p.5). There are echoes here of the valuation of upright posture. Vertical projection has gestural value. Standing tall we make our presence known. (A disproportionate number of civic and business leaders are taller than average.) Standing taller asserts a centralized point around which social spaces are oriented.

A point projected up from a horizontal plane forms a line whose kinetic energy are relative to that plane. Perpendicular it is in equilibrium with gravity. Horizontal it is at rest. Leaning it is either falling or rising, either way “it is dynamic and active in its unbalanced state” (p9). For the architect, geometry is never divorced from material realities like gravity. More, those realities are always permeated with bodily value. When a building leans we feel in our sinews and bones the forces at play. Leaning must be answered with reciprocal force or geared into to propel us forward. Our leanings define who we are, require energy to sustain and propel us forward. When we witness a building that sits solid, vertical and grounded, we know what it’s like to have resolve, to be upstanding, stable or unmovable. Architectural geometry weaves the dynamic meaningful relations of body and gravity into its imagining.

Vertical linear elements like columns arranged side by side form an implied plane and a perpendicular passage through (p.11)– a boundary and an invitation that we feel. We know what it is to draw a line and to cross it. We know what it is to demarcate a territory and the cost and transformative effects of passing into or out of it. In war we impose our resolve by lining up in rows and columns, filling the space between with our unwavering intent. All this social geometry is body knowledge. Passing through an architectural plane we register viscerally the passage into an incarnate imaginal space distinct from where we were.

Architects take up geometry simultaneously as an conceptual expression of the material specificities of space and as a symbolic language for bodily experience of constructed spaces. Thus their incarnations of geometric imagination are from their inception invitations to bodily engagement. These dwellings figure us as knowing, living, imagining, engaged, kinesthetic, embodied subjects who live those spaces as charged with value, movement and purpose. Embodied, we empathically understand what they embody. Our physiology opens us to the physiognomy of buildings. Far from a Cartesian landscape bereft of a knowing subject, constructed spaces from their very inception imagine the people who dwell there. That imagining lives in the very walls as a visceral invitation.

1Ching, Francis D.K., Architecture: Form, Space and Order fourth edition, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken N.J.2015

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