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I’m interested in how we as people make sense of things. How we order, catalogue and ultimately understand the things that surround us. The architect – monk, Dom Hans van der Laan wrote lucidly on this subject, focusing in particular on how architecture is one of the fundamental tools through which we understand both our place in the physical world (i.e. building viewed in landscape / landscape viewed through building), and our existence within it (meet, heat, eat, sleep, procreate).

Van der Laan focuses specifically on the rectilinear in this regard, seeing the pure x,y, and z axes simultaneously as a product of the human mind, and as the perfect counterpoint to the natural world’s organic lines.

Monastery, Vaals. image by Jorn Schiemann

I often find myself looking for this orthogonal sensibility in the man made things that surround us. Regardless of scale- from the carefully gridded out butterfly collection, to the dry stone walls of the Yorkshire Dales- it becomes clear that the line (x), the grid (x,y), or the frame (x,y,z), are our fundamental tools for the understanding of things.

The natural counterpoint between the butterfly’s wing, or the field’s gentle undulations and their ordering grid seem to make both the subject, and its categorisation all the more beautiful.

LD428 Made in the Dales.com

Michelangelo had an intimate understanding of this mechanism- and in particular how architecture might serve as the frame for the human figure. Tracing through his sketches, drawings, sculpture, and architecture, one can see how deeply embedded this idea was within his psyche. This is a true renaissance moment. Man, placed at the centre of all things, is conceived of as such by the sculptor’s placement of the figure within his own architectural frame. Or rather, within the frame of his own mind.

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2 thoughts on “Frames of Mind

  1. Some great ideas here Ferg. I wonder though when you say that the orthogonal construct of x,y,z axis is our ‘fundamental tools for understanding things’ – to me it seems these are instead our fundamental tools for measuring things, satisfying a human need to understand through quantification, and very much belongs to science or mathematics – pertaining to the analysis of our environment. Perhaps this is what you meant, but I see a clear distinction between the two – evidencing a clear evolution of the relationship of man and landscape.

    I read a compelling essay (author currently escapes me) that said ancient vernacular shelters were ‘of the proportions of the human body’ in the same way that a bird’s nest is dictated by the bird’s size, it’s shape, and the way it can physically turn it’s head to place twigs with it’s beak. This suggests the body was man’s ‘frame of understanding’ before more abstract concepts of dimensional measurement were borne.

  2. Boom! Good questions Charlie. My personal thinking here is that measurement and understanding are ultimately one in the same- particularly in any physical (i.e. architectural) instances. In fact, I’d probably go so far as to say that all architecture should be a product of understanding its physical context.

    I think you’re right about the body as man’s first frame of understanding (i.e. the foot!), and of course birds do crib nest from other birds…The essay sounds fascinating, in particular vernacular shelter. I’d suggest that primitive buildings do communicate hierarchy and threshold, as form of ordering that is intuitively legible (door, step, wall…) to those with the physical disposition to use them. Hence these shelters carry with them a universally human, albeit primitive, intelligibility. The figurative quality of architecture I’ll leave for another post!

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