Finding the Human Form

I finished an excellent book this weekend, The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. There is so much I want to say about it because it made me think deeply and differently about architecture. What I appreciated is that the author actually attempts to explain the psychology behind why we find certain buildings beautiful and how beauty is linked to goodness and, ultimately, happiness. More on that another week.

One of the chapters entitled “Talking Buildings” discusses how abstract sculptures convey meaning. Understanding how simple steel, concrete, or wood objects speak can help us understand how larger-scale objects (like houses and buildings) convey meaning through the arrangement of 3-D materials into form.

de Botton argues that everyday objects speak to us—whether it be a chair, a window, an arch, a lamp—because even though inanimate, these objects tell us something about being human. These objects have human forms hidden in their wood, concrete, glass, metal, etc.

To feel that a building is unappealing may simply be to dislike the temperament of a creature of human we dimly recognise in its elevation—just as to call another edifice beautiful is to sense the presence of a character we would like if it took on living form. What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend. The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love.

We recognize the human form in the slightest hint of an abstract object. We take slender legs of an antique table for a feminine, elegant character, and a wide, solid armchair as a stout, stubbornly old man.

an elegant, refined soul with a propensity for heels

old and set in his ways

Since reading the book, I’m having fun analyzing the objects in my apartment. What does my couch/reading chair/coffee table/lamp/bookcase say about what/whom I find attractive? Which of my friends would represent these objects?

So when walking around VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver today, I had my eye out for the human forms portrayed in the abstract art exhibit Touch Wood scattered throughout the 50 acres of gardens. The 20+ pieces were built by BC artists and made of salvaged, recycled, or scavenged wood to reflect the garden’s environmental mandate (you can read all about the award-winning architecture of the new petal-shaped visitor centre here.)

VanDusen Botanical Gardens’ Visitor Centre

It wasn’t difficult to find the human form in these sculptures, since many are explicitly made to look like humans.

I initially read “Confidence” to mean “someone who’s confident” but I couldn’t really find signs of this attribute in the figures. Then when I looked at it again when going over my photos, I interpreted it more as meaning “In confidence.” The two forms leaning in towards one another slightly—woman on the left with a curvy profile; taller man on the right with a rectangular profile.

The man and woman are given the same weight though. When I say weight, I mean mass or presence. Both hold their own, sharing a secret tryst in the woods as equals. In this way, maybe they also embody “confidence” whilst sharing something in confidence.

“Nine Sentinels” was one of my favourites. Sentinel: “a soldier or guard whose job is to stand and keep watch.”

I couldn’t help but recall the Council of Elrond in Lord of the Rings, a circular gathering to decide the fate of the ring where tall and slender, distinguished characters like Elrond collide with bulbous balls of stocky energy like Gimli.

Elrond in the foreground; Gimli behind

Elrond

Gimli

Gimli

Speaking of councils, this next one displayed on the Great Lawn is called “Council of Elders,” although I still think the LOTR connection is more pronounced in “Nine Sentinels.” These elders look older, wiser, more distinguished, more uniform, like they’d have less disagreements. I picture some of them with capes.

“Archetype” reminds me of the mannequins you see in clothing stores, waiting to be dressed; a blank slate from which to start the creative process. Archetype: “a very typical example of a certain person or thing” or to go Jungian on you because I think it might apply here: “a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.” Even the gender isn’t as apparent in this work. We look at this piece and we immediately recognize the human form, even without the head. It shows we don’t need all the parts to make a comprehensive whole. We read symbols all the time and draw conclusions.

IMG_6115 IMG_6116

There were many more sculptures but unfortunately my camera battery died on me halfway through my walk, but I think the examples above give you an idea of how the human form exists in “non-human” materials like wood. de Botton paraphrases from psychoanalytic critic Adrian Stokes who offered an interpretation of Barbara Hepworth’s Two Segments and a Sphere. Stokes’ conclusion, de Botton writes, is that

if a sculpture touches us . . . it may be because we unconsciously understand it as a family portrait. The mobility and chubby fullness of the sphere subtly suggest to us a wriggling fat-cheeked baby, while the rocking ample forms of the segment have echoes of a calm, indulgent, broad-hipped mother. We dimply appreciate in the whole a central theme of our lives. We sense a parable in stone about motherly love.

Two Segments and a Sphere by Barbara Hepworth. 1936.

What parables do the objects around you speak about?

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2 thoughts on “Finding the Human Form

  1. a very interesting article. The book wants to be added to my already long list of books, but I’ve always liked architecture. Have seen a lot of art nouveau works lately and they are so feminine maybe that’s why they are so appealing to so many of us. Like your LOTR comparison, especially Gimli. To carry it further the Council of Elders sort of makes me think of the Ents. But I can see capes as well. I’m looking at my new chairs and thinking why I like them so much better than the old ones I had. The new ones are armless and I think that makes them look more open and friendly and relaxed than the old wing back ones that you had to approach a certain way to sit in and they also tended to cut you off from the person beside you. So even though the new ones are black leather they are a friendlier chair altogether than the old green velvet ones. Which seems a bit contradictory, but the leather is modern so that makes me feel modern too.

  2. ah yes, the Ents – I can definitely see that connection! Enjoy your new armless chairs. It’s fun getting new furniture and seeing how the “personality” they bring changes the look & feel of a room.

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