The Architecture of Nothingness
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The Architecture of Nothingness

An Explanation of the Objective Basis of Beauty in Architecture and the Arts

Frank Lyons

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eBook - ePub

The Architecture of Nothingness

An Explanation of the Objective Basis of Beauty in Architecture and the Arts

Frank Lyons

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About This Book

***Shortlisted for the Architectural Book Awards 2024***

It is a common enough assumption that good buildings make us feel good just as poor ones can make us feel insecure, depressed or even threatened. We may instantly decide that we 'like' one building more than another, in the same way that without thinking we choose one work of art or music over another. But what is going on when we make these instant decisions? The process is so complex that it remains an area rarely examined, often considered unfathomable, or for some mysterious, bordering even on the spiritual. Frank Lyons seeks to unpick the complex relationships that go to make up great works of architecture, to reveal a set of principles that are found to apply not only to architecture but also to art, music and culture in general. One of the major complications at the heart of culture is that because the arts are generated subjectively, it is assumed that the finished cultural artefact is also subjective. This is a myth that this book seeks to dispel. The arts are indeed created from the personal subjective space of an individual but what that individual has to say will only be shareable if expressed in coherent (objective) form.
In a nutshell, the book reverses two generally accepted positions, that the arts are subjective and that meaning is objective and therefore shared. The reversal of these seemingly common sense, but mistaken positions enables two important issues to be resolved, firstly it explains how the arts communicate through objectivity and secondly how the meaning of an object of art is never shared but always remains private to the individual. The combination of these two positions ultimately helps us to understand that beauty is a subjective appreciation of an objectively arranged form. Furthermore, this understanding enables the author to explain how a sublimely arranged form can open us to the ineffable; to a field of NOTHINGNESS, or to what some might call the spiritual realm of our own being.

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1 Order in nature, science and the arts

Things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to each other.
—Euclid ‘The Elements’1


Nature is perfect: well so it seems. Nature orders countless billions of systems within one total organised whole. Its cosmic dimensions are boundless, its resources abundant and its possibilities infinite. It is the rock on which we stand; it is the womb from which we were born. Nature ticks in us as she ticks in every other living creature, every blade of grass, every stone, cloud or planet. Nature feeds us intravenously with each of our needs. We do not need to balance our metabolism, watch over our breathing or guide our heartbeat. The reality of Nature renews our bodies day on day, week on week, year on year, just as regularly and with equal precision to the cycle of the seasons, or the movement of the galaxies. We could no more separate ourselves from the unity of Nature than deny our own breath or rail against our own birth.
If the perfect order of Natural Law failed in any way for just a microsecond of reality, the cosmic order that holds creation together would collapse. How could we conceive an evening in which the moon failed to appear over the horizon at precisely the moment, and in exactly the position it was expected? Or the sunrise a moment later than it was scheduled? Indeed how could the natural sciences, or any of the other sciences on which our present society prides itself function at all, if it was not accepted that Nature functioned with rigorous and absolutely consistent order?

Nature: the arts and sciences

Both artists and scientists go to Nature for their source material. To establish the context for the main arguments in this book, I would like to use this first chapter to explore the extent to which the arts and sciences overlap, in the way that they organise the material that they have taken from Nature. One of the critical distinctions that I will be making later in the book is that the arts have an objective structure. In this opening chapter, I therefore take the time to explain how a similar objective structure operates within the sciences. Objectivity has been used with remarkable success by the sciences to define our age. Objectivity gives science a clear structure for orderly development and this structure subsequently provides a firm platform for further developments or for the technological innovations that have marked out the breath-taking progress of modern society. I outlined in the preface how this modern society has been happy to create a clear distinction between the arts and sciences. Although I go to great lengths in the book to unravel the similarities between the disciplines, I have no wish to diminish the distinctions between them, nor do I wish to compromise or challenge in any way, the creative stature of the arts. I hope that the reader will understand that this is not a reductive exercise; it does not aim to diminish the arts, but rather seeks to clarify and it is hoped raise its status. At fundamental levels, I will be suggesting that the organisation of these two wings of culture share similar structural characteristics. Moreover, it is the points of similarity between the arts and sciences that enable me later in the book to make the critical distinctions that prove to be so useful in explaining how the arts communicate. I therefore ask the reader to bear with me in these opening pages. In the preface, I outlined how I come to this discussion as someone educated on the divide between the arts and sciences, my understanding of the sciences is therefore necessarily limited. However, by having to decipher this field in relatively simple terms for myself, I hope that I will be able to pass on a clear enough explanation of the similarities between the disciplines, to enable the rest of the narrative to make sense. This first chapter will also establish a context for this story that I will return to at several points in subsequent discussions.

The scientific view

Science today does in fact confirm that we are an absolutely inseparable part of Nature. When we look at ourselves we perceive that our body has distinct limits and its edges are clearly separate from the chair on which we sit or the desk at which we work. In quantum terms however, the distinction between solid and void is less clear. At a quantum level the particles that make up our bodies are no more closely packed than the stars and planets in a galaxy and even those particles are just bundles of energy and information emerging from a kind of vacuum state.2 At this ground state particles of energy and information appear as if out of nowhere, whilst others disappear back into the void. Every part of quantum space is in fact filled with an almost infinite amount of energy, which vibrates as an element of the infinitely extending field of vibrations, which make up the cosmos.3 In a very real sense therefore we realise that our bodies and our environment are inextricably linked. Indeed they are part of a quantum continuum. In this context, seen from the outside, each individual is just a local focussed bundle of attention within the non-local extended field of the cosmos. The oxygen around us in the atmosphere is very little different to the oxygen in our bodies. Some of the atoms in the air that I breathe today will have been taken in by countless millions of people and animals in the past from a fox in the Siberian Forest to Aristotle in ancient Greece. Seen from the inside however this local focussed packet of attention is experienced as personal intelligence, my own, your own personal intelligence. Over the thousands of years of human evolution, this inside view has evolved from the most elemental living organisms, through the instinctual stages of the lower vertebrates, into unselfconscious apes and eventually to the fully self-conscious, egocentric beings that we are today.
Physicists, with some justification, would argue that this evolution has not been entirely orderly, indeed from some perspectives the universe seems completely chaotic: more like a cosmic soup. Parts of this soup are known better than others; quantum physics is very well described and supported by observation, others parts remain elusive. Since the 1930s science has predicted the presence of something they call antimatter as a necessary ingredient of the soup. Without it their mathematical descriptions do not add up. Although some parts of the soup remain intangible, physicists have quite remarkably been able to describe a theoretical picture of events going back to fractions of a second after what they call the ‘Big Bang.’4 They believe, from the evidence they have, that at one picosecond (1 trillionth of a second) after the beginning of this phase of creation the four forces that govern the universe of today had already clearly articulated themselves. Initially gravity separated itself from the electonuclear force, fractions of a second later the ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ nuclear forces separate from the electromagnetic force. Within the first second elementary particles, Quarks, Hadrons, Leptons and the nuclei of Hydrogen were forming and within 20 minutes the Helium nuclei had formed. There then passes something like another 379,000 years before the hydrogen and helium nuclei capture electrons to form stable atoms and 100 million years before the first stars begin to shine. Quite remarkably astrophysicists have recently released a microwave image of the infant universe as it was 13.77 billion years ago5 showing temperature fluctuations expressed as colour differences that grew to become the galaxies.6

The laws of physics

This approximation of the age of the universe is the physicists’ best guess. The theory of the ‘Big Bang’ is just that, a theory to match as coherently as possible the known observations. Other theories suggest that we live in an eternal universe, a vacuum state within which an event occurred that set off the Big Bang. As the observations grow without contradiction a theory becomes more robust, more reliable and acts as a basis for new tests, new observations and perhaps new theories or variations on the theory. When observations are increasingly seen to support a theory, it will become established and will eventually become known as one of the ‘Laws of Physics.’ Newton’s laws of gravitation have become so established. They not only allow us to calculate the forces on an apple before and after it falls from the tree but they have enabled us to accurately describe and predict the movement of the moons around the planets and the planets around the sun. Newton’s laws are even shown to pertain outside the solar system, they have been used to describe the rotation of pairs of stars turning around each other in elliptical orbits at a distance two or three times the dimensions of our solar system. They are also used at even greater distances to describe clusters of galaxies that are 50,000 to 100,000 light years across. In comparison, the earth’s distance from the sun is just eight light minutes7 (93,000,000 miles). At these distances the calculations cannot be made with the same accuracy as within our solar system but physicists remain confident that Newton’s laws of gravity continue to apply in these distant realms.8
When laws such at Newton’s inverse square law are shown to be correct they can become stepping-stones to new laws. In the seventeenth century the Danish astronomer Olaus Roemer noticed that according to Newton’s laws the moons of Jupiter were ahead of schedule when Jupiter was close to the earth and behind schedule when Jupiter was far away. Roemer had confidence in Newton’s law, so the interesting conclusion that he came to was that it perhaps takes some time for light to travel from the moons to earth and that the discrepancy in the schedule of the moons when they were near and far could be accounted for by the time it takes for the light to travel from them to the earth. With this information he was able to calculate the speed of light and was the first to conclude that light was not propagating instantaneously.9 This piece of information, a direct consequence of Newton’s inverse square law, was in itself a huge contribution to all subsequent astronomers. Equally, inconsistencies in a law can lead to new laws. At the beginning of the twentieth century it became apparent that the motion of the planet Mercury was not exactly correct according to Newton’s law. This caused some consternation amongst astronomers and was not resolved until Einstein showed that Newton’s law needed a slight modification. In this instance Einstein did not show Newton to be completely wrong but rather that his new understanding gave a higher level of accuracy in such calculations.10

Higher levels of generality

Within the world of physics there are several sub-disciplines; electricity and magnetism, gravitation, nuclear interactions and so on; they each have their own detailed rules making up a complex web of physical laws. Despite the intricacy of this web there are however, more general principles that all the laws seem to follow. In his Cornell University lectures of the 1960s Richard Feynman identified some of those principles;11 the principles of conservation, certain qualities of symmetry and the general form of quantum mechanical principles. He also pointed out how the Laws of Physics displayed certain other common characteristics; firstly they are mathematical, meaning that mathematical symbols can be used to represent entities that we experience in the world. Mathematics stands beside reality as an abstract model of that reality. Furthermore, the mathematics of a new law sets up relationships with the mathematical expressions of earlier established laws. The Laws of Physics could therefore be said to be described by a network of mathematical equations that link the various laws together; the most recently discovered laws reaching back through an unbroken chain or network of mathematical relationships to the earliest axioms. Secondly, they are not exact. This means that they are not closed; they remain open and accommodate a degree of misinterpretation. Hence Einstein was able to imagine another level of reality beyond that described by Newton and was then able to describe with the help of mathematics and observation, that same reality with greater precision. This ever-increasing level of precision that we are seeing here in mathematics and physics feels very similar to the ever-increasing level of quality that we will be discussing later in the field of the arts. Moreover, here in physics there is a similar feeling of ‘plateau clarification,’ that we also see in the arts and in Nature more generally. Long periods of muddled confusion suddenly reach a plateau of understanding and a new form (in both the arts and sciences) is created, in physics this new form is the new law. The new law will hold until it fails or is superseded at a new ‘plateau clarification.’ Each new articulation opens like a ring of new petals in a water lily, enhancing the petals that had opened earlier without spoiling the coherence of the flower. Finally, physical laws display the universality that we saw with Newton’s law of gravity. The law that governs the apple as it falls from the tree is the same law that governs the movement of the planets and as we saw earlier describes the movement of stars and galaxies to the very edges of the universe. If there turns out to be a planet very similar to earth in the far reaches of the cosmos, then an apple on a tree in that location would fall in just the same way as it does here. This last point is worth a few more moments thought, because it tells us that the way Nature organises in the smallest part of her realm applies across the entire fabric of creation. Nature is not free to be free; the law always applies. Natural law is universal.

Balance and symmetry

One of the principles that Feynman mentioned in his higher levels of generality is the principle of conservation.12 An example of this is the conservation of electric charge; the total electric charge of the world, no matter what happens does not change. Michael Faraday confirmed this by experiment in the nineteenth century and physicists now have a number for what that charge is. If part of the charge disappears at one place in the world an equivalent amount of it will turn up in another. The electric charge in the world remains constant. Another great example of this principle is the conservation of energy; according to the first law of thermodynamics energy can neither be created nor destroyed. This means that within a closed system although the energy may change its form, from chemical energy to heat energy, for instance, the total amount of energy within the system always remains the same. Energy is eternal. Such constants within the natural world have useful consequences. For example because physicists are dealing with phenomena that are whole, they know that when part of that whole changes its form, from say electrical energy or light energy to heat energy, they know that after the change all the different parts of the energy must still add up to the original whole. Hence they are able to express those changes in a term that expresses the equivalence. The original wholeness is equal to part A plus parts B and C and so on. Such an expression is of course a mathematical equation and provided that they include all the different forms of energy contained in a particular interaction because the parts must always add up to the wh...

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