Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Gometry of thought;

The geometry of thought 

This is expanded version of  my column, Cubes of Words, that appeared in Design Detail, Vol 2 issue 6 April 2004. 

I wonder why all languages are written horizontally and vertically in the normal course?  No language script runs diagonally or haphazardly. Written matter, more so the printed one, appears like a table.  It is a metaphor of knowledge, which after all is a formalised classification of tacit or explicit experiences and data in communicable form. A table with rows and columns, a common simple device for organising information, is an intersection of vertical and horizontal entities or lines.   Our concepts, about the physical world thus seem to take reference to the horizontal and the vertical. Is it not a reference to our experiences of nature’s primordial force that we experience tacitly as we grow; to stand erect against gravity is vertical and opposed to vertical is horizontal. The pairs of eyes mounted parallel to the ground when we stand perhaps is the basis for this experiential situation! Even on an inclined plane, lines parallel to the eyes are understood horizontal.  

 Graphs, charts and other devices too use this simple format. Memory needs knowledge of the complex world to be simplified; may be as interplay of binary opposites. Do we ignore or shun complexities as they are less comprehensible? Simplification is the name of the game. We even feel this elegant. Don’t we?

A tabular format is an array of rectangles or squares.  Perhaps, this simple geometric connection to thought influenced human architecture to evolve with right- angled geometry format that was idolised over time in most civilisations. There had been many indigenous people everywhere, who used circular or near circular forms to create their shelters. But settled life of villages and towns, farms and roads as well as making buildings has evolved close to the form of grids. Is it the ease of use or of comprehension and memory at the root of this evolution?  Have we deified the rectangle and the straight line? Did not all developments later augment the original bias of vertical, horizontal and the right angle as the sign of order, intellectually and emotionally?

One finds more of curves and near circles in nature; trunk of trees, leaves and plants, animal and human figures, nests, ant hills, burrows. Yet  the rectangle is easier to remember and memorise. Is there a template in the human brain that helps this or is it a cultural adaptation?  Further, in spite of many possible complex orthogonal diagrams, like multiple cell tables, to express realities and concepts, we opt for simple ones. For example, why is that the popular vastu mandala or janm kundlis evolved only with 9 cells, not 16 or more. Is it not the appeal of simplicity of the diagram that masquerade as an evolved concept of an imagined world? A wee bit organised, yet sufficiently simple.  Again, there is a null cell in the middle and others in periphery; a simplified form of a single core and a periphery, opposing binary entities.  

While a circle with a string of points around a centre is fundamental and a triangle is a stable shape; a hexagon consisting of triangles is more natural, more useable and more efficient in material use. Look at beehives.  Circular arrangement is found in animal architecture and in certain native societies. Many architects have also tried these and other forms with some successes. Yet why did popular imagination never accept them? 
Understanding of forces of the world, like gravity, the balance needed to stand up against it leading to the sense of symmetry and axiality, the feel of horizontality as the easy resting position, all have contributed to the love of orthogonal rectilinear geometry and its mathematics. This made fundamental imprints for explaining and creating many things including buildings. The rectangle became a symbol of superior organised thought as much as it framed views in pictures.

Search for new forms of novelty is also a human nature. Yet the limitation of form making was the geometry itself, in design and fabrication.  There are many an attempt these days; some deeper, some on the surface.  Works of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid among others try to transcend the idea of vertical and horizontal. Gehry wraps around; Hadid is more adventurous. Yet they are caught in the web of earlier built physical context like the city grids. Hadid’s recent Heydar Aliyev  Museum in the Azerbaijan’s  time warped city of Baku,  is claimed to be defying the orthogonal in all directions; visual fluidity being its hallmark. Leave alone other criticisms of it as an object out of context, Peter Cook wonders why the  designers have left glass panels on one side with large rectilinear divisions with vertical and horizontal lines; a pattern as old as Roman times, I add. 

Innovation and inertia seem to run together. We want to think 'out of the box' and yet despise many things that are out of the box'! And the box lurks out from within us!


Hydar - Aliyev- Centre at 
Baku By Zaha Hadid.