Imagination's Shadow: Unknown in Architecture

Previously Published in Lantern Journal Vol 1 Issue 4

For complete article, including citatons, see Matthew Teismann, 'Imagination's Shadow: perception, conception, and (un)known in architecture' Lantern Journal_Volume I, Issue4 - online journal, ISSN 2166-3793 (2012)


Perception & Conception...

Throughout the history of man, philosophical thought and artistic creation have considered the relationship between reality and imagination. The world, a conveyance of reality, sends us information to describe our place in it, or rather, our sensory organs perceive signals that we interpret as truth. Similar to philosophy, art and architecture are a means of revealing this world, and triggering our perception of it. Humans perceive and discover the world through the mutualism of life and object: experience, memory, and imagination. But what is the true nature of the cosmos; is our image of it conceived solely through perceptual experience, or in the mind? 

Comparison of ancient philosophy and contemporary architectural thought may shed light on not only the way we as mankind experience the world, or a piece of art, but also the process through which artists and architects create such pieces. There are parallels between the perception of reality, and the imaginative process that forms it. How do art and architecture shape our thoughts, and how do our thoughts shape art and architecture? 

Looking as far back as Plato, we see, present in philosophical thought, that the world we perceive is not real - it is an unfolding of a perceptual world that is separate from the true world of Universal Form. Made famous in the seventh book of Politeia (The Republic), Plato tells an allegorical story to emphasize that our perceptions are misinterpreted, insofar as they make up the world that we think to be real. By showing us a world that is contrived, Plato implies how we interpret reality of the world merely through our senses. The result is that our perceptions are not real, and there is one truth that we cannot fathom. Our imaginative world, thus, is no less real than one perceived by our senses. 

The story is set in a subterranean cave far from the reaches of light. Human subjects are chained up in way as to not see each other, only a blank wall illuminated by firelight. Over the course of the lives of the captives, played out on the wall, are shadows cast by marionettes and statues, as if to portray reality. Held captive since the early days of their infancy, these characters have no possible knowledge of an outside world. Without sight of the fire, nor the objects that create the moving shadows, this world of shadows is the only world its inhabitants know; they take it as reality. 

Plato’s philosophical experiment is used to provide an example of our minds’ ability to transfix a realism upon the world that we interpret through our senses. Regardless of objectivity, humans transpose ourselves onto reality. As Socrates suggests, however, what would happen if one of the captives was permitted to venture to the surface and see the ‘real’ world in all its magnificent color and dimensions?3 In this example it is the lived experience of being in a cave where the only reality is played out in the form of shadows on the wall. For a moment conceive the imagination of the captives. Is it even remotely possible that they dreamt the same dreams as you or I, or that more likely their dreams and imagination were based in some sort of ‘shadow world’? 

Plato’s story questions the validity of perception. Ultimately the world is man-made in a mental process I call conception. Initially triggered by our senses, conception does not mean in this sense a concept or idea, rather a subconscious response that is beyond that conventionally perceived. Through perception we know characteristics of objects - not qualities inherent to the objects themselves (color, taste, odor, etc). It is a world based entirely on perceptions and interpolation of these perceptions - one that is entirely fake, fictitious, and imitated. It could be argued, therefore, that the real world exists solely in our mind. 

Challenging our presupposed understanding of the world, conception is the function, or process of forming an understanding of ideas or abstractions and their symbols. Conception is the sum of a person’s ideas and beliefs. People of different ages, cultures and knowledge feel different things in similar objects, and transpose this conception into the built world. We may extrapolate concepts from our perceptual experience of physical objects, however, we would be mistaken if we were to think that our imaginative conceptions are any less real than things we perceive.

To further explain how our perceptions are transformed to better fit our mental outlook, let’s examine Darren Aronofski’s first film, ‘Pi’. The protagonist of ‘Pi’ is a genius mathematician who is searching for a code to unravel the order of the universe: a magical number similar to pi or the golden section. His computer crashes and spits out a 216 digit number. Over discussions with his mentor, the mathematician begins to believe that this number may hold the ultimate truth to the universe. His mentor, having found this same number in his experiments in the past, knows first hand the ability of ours minds to twist reality into our its favor: “It’s just coincidence... this is insanity. You have to slow down, you have to take a breath... You want to find the number 216 in the world? You will be able to find the number everywhere; 216 steps from your street corner to your front door, 216 seconds you find yourself riding on the elevator. When your mind becomes obsessed with anything, you will filter everything else out and find that thing everywhere. 320, 450, 22, whatever, you have chosen 216 and you will find it everywhere in nature.” 

The first example given from Plato’s Politeia, shows that our mental imagery and imagination is dictated and in response to what is directly perceived by our senses; the entirety of our mental process owes itself to what we have perceived. The second example from the film ‘Pi’ takes this a step further, illustrating that our mind not only takes what it perceives and dictates it as the reality of the universe, but that our mental processes subconsciously effect what is perceived by our senses. Humans have no ability to ever know if what passes through our senses is real. This is an incredibly frightening thought: that what we believe are objective sensory perceptions actually lose their reality by our fog of conception. Thus everything we know about the world is our mental construction and representation of it. Unfortunately it all occurs subconsciously, therefore, we can never truly know to what degree our mind warps our perceptions. To humans the true world does not exist. 

If this is true, and it is a scary thought, nothing definite can ever be known about the true external world. It leads both to the confirmation and denial of the statement ‘reality is what you make of it.’ 

How does this ambiguity effect the experience of art and architecture - or rather, how do art and architecture effect the psyche of humans if what we are perceiving is not real? One answer to this perceived contradiction may be found in the work of Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa. Pallasmaa stresses, in his theoretical and built work, that an architecture is just when it stimulates the senses through the experience of tangible reality. We have shown, however, that the reality of the perceived object only triggers a conceptual response. How is this so; how can an architecture of ‘real’ objects lose its reality through perception? What is the role of the object (mere building) in architecture (artistic experience)?

Perhaps the beginning of an answer to this conundrum may be found in Pallasmaa’s writings, which I quote in full: “Experience, memory, and imagination are qualitatively equal in our consciousness; we may be equally moved by something evoked by our memory or imagination as by an actual experience... Fundamentally, in a work of art we encounter ourselves, our own emotions, and our own being-in-the-world in an intensified manner. A genuine artistic and architectural experience is primarily a strengthened awareness of self. ”

There are two fundamental ideas in this statement: the first is, our memory and imagination have the power and ability to convince us that what we are imagining is ‘real’; the second is, humans enter an experience of the existential in art - what it means to be man. Pallasmaa goes on to state that, “All artistic effect or impact if based on the identification of self with the experienced object, or the projection of the self on the object.”  If art is a combination of a physical object and man’s interaction with that object, how does the architect create such pieces of art that trigger a conceptual response? 

Experience is a culmination of sensory perception over time, transcended into the realm of conception. Actual experience leads to memories, and it is through our memories of these experiences, whether conscious or not, which lead to conception, and subsequently, imagination. Our imagination is connected with the intuitive human condition of art, regardless of the fact that imagination itself is built upon past memories and experience. Richard Padavon, a theorist who has written extensively about perception of the world, explains that “No intellectual knowledge is possible, unless it has first passed through the senses.”  I will take this a step further and say that no knowledge, intellectual, creative, or emotional, in fact nothing of the mind is possible unless it has first been experienced by the senses.

Although this may be unsettling to creative artists, it can be argued that all imaginative thought, no matter how original or obscure, is based on a previous experience through perception. The circle, thus, is complete. If our imagination is based on sensory perception, and through perception we know nothing true about the real world, then everything about our lives, our imagination, and the objects we create, are man-made in the mind. The question then becomes: is everything we imagine real, or is everything real simply a figment of our imagination?

To better describe this process of a mental-world creation, let us examine human experience of a piece of art. The above diagram is used to illustrate that art is only created as a result of a physical object and (hu)man’s experience of it. The word ‘object’ on the left is the physical object that can be seen, touched, and perceived; the ‘human’ on the right is the person who is viewing and touching the object. Thus the ‘art’ in the middle is the representation of the artistic experience through conception. I use the phrase ‘art’ rather than ‘artistic experience’ to avoid redundancy, only through conceptual experience can the object transcend mere object to art. 

In the second diagram, the difference between human1 and human2 can merely be the difference between two different people, at identical times and identical locations. It can also, however, be the same man at a different time in his life with an altered conception based upon additional experiences. Another possibility is simply the same man in a different environment, such as a museum or a damp cave. Each alternative location, time, and individual create a different piece of art. The possibilities are endless and infinite. 

Is there a parallel between experience and creation, is architecture one bridge that can connect the two? If the artistic object itself is just a means to the end, not the end in itself, and each artistic experience is different based on the individual; how can architects induce an artistic experience when all experiences are unique and disparate depending upon the conception of each person?

If artistic experience, conception, is the interaction with a piece of art triggering the imagination of the possible, then the creative process of architecture should be the same. Delivered in the imaginative and creative form, creative intuition comes from the intuitive connection between the mind and the hand. Pallasmaa further describes this connection as the “pencil in the architect’s hand is a bridge between the imagining mind, and the image that appears on the sheet of paper; in the ecstasy of work, the draughtsman forgets both his hand and the pencil, and the image emerges as if it were an automatic projection of the imagining mind.” This is the act of creation. Similar to experiencing art, both processes harness and trigger the power of imagination. The act of creation is detached from the tangible realities of experience and brought henceforth through an autonomy of imagination and dreams. It is like entering a dream, or rather releasing the dreams contents. Imagination is creative intuition once it is filtered from the palpability of object. Like Plato’s allegorical cave people, artists must leave the cave to see the light. 

Our imagination, and creative architectural ideas, find their origins in some type of previous perceptual experience. There is no such thing as an entirely new idea not founded on something that has come before. Creation begets creation. Architecture is a subconscious form of mimicry based on our conceptions of reality. A reality that, perceived, simply isn’t real.