Habit, Spirituality, and Architecture

Paul Tesar

North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC (USA)

Paul Tesar is Professor of Architecture at North Carolina State University. He received his architectural education (Dipl.Ing. 1968) at the T.U. Wien in Austria and at the University of Washington in Seattle (M.Arch. 1971). His teaching and research interest revolve around the significance of human experience in architecture and culture (Aesthetics, Typological Theory, Vernacular Architecture). His dissertation (Vienna 1992) attempts to articulate the possibilities of intersubjectivity in architectural expression, based on an interpretation the work of Alfred Schütz.

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #12 – Autumn 2009

“Familiarity breeds contentment.”
George Ade (1866-1944)

When I visited India for the first time about two years ago, I expected to encounter the rich spirituality of its culture in the many temples, mosques, monuments, and archeological sites–and I did. To mention just one example of many: if one ever wants to understand the spiritual power of water, I know of no more profound and memorable way than to enter one of the so-called stepwells (I visited the Rudabai Stepwell, completed in 1499, at Adalaj, Gujarat) that descend many levels deeply into the increasing darkness, coolness, and humidity of the earth (Fig. 1). When one finally arrives at the source, mysteriously lit from above and accessible to only one person at a time (Fig. 2), the very nature and preciousness of this element is finally revealed, further heightened by the arduous climb back to the light, the heat, and the ordinary world we left behind at the beginning of this journey. Nobody who experienced water this way could ever be mindless and careless about it again. No explanations, no data, no theories, are necessary: we understand the essence and meaning of water on a universal human level and with the depth of our whole being!

What came as a surprise was the experience of a different kind of spirituality. It was the murmur and putter of ordinary streets in Indian cities, the shared rhythms of everyday activities, places humming and clicking along like a well-oiled sowing machine: the same patterns, the same humans and animals, doing the same things, day in and day out, familiar and repetitive though never exactly the same. As I stood there one night in the old city of Delhi (Fig. 3), another day in broad daylight in a street in old Ahmedabad (Fig. 4)– moved by the hopeful smiles of street urchins (Fig. 5) and mesmerized by the unexpected encounter with the eye of an ordinary cow (Fig. 6)–or as I listened to young women and their children doing their communal laundry chores next to the Rudabai Stepwell (Fig. 7), or walked one late afternoon in the haze of a semi-slum in Mumbai (Fig. 8), a feeling washed over me that what surrounded me was the true, the “real” dance of life, the quotidian doing and undergoing that somehow condenses itself into a more subtle form of spirituality. Distinct from what we might call “spirituality from above”–heavenly, transcendent, rarefied, mystical, esoteric, intense, obscure–I would like to call this “spirituality from below,” a kind of spirituality of the familiar and the ordinary, not one that hovers above the earth but one that grows from it. Similar to the mythical “music of the spheres” it tends to escape our notice because it is all too obvious, ever-present and taken for granted, and it reveals itself only reluctantly in rare moments of simultaneous immersion and distancing that can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
The dimension of familiarity in our world–and, if George Ade has it right, our concomitant sense of contentment–is to a large extent a consequence of our ability to exercise our life habits over time, and as such an important source of human happiness. More importantly, it seems to be the very development and cultivation of habits that engenders our ability to rise above them. Thus it should not be surprising that many human endeavors that put a high value on the achievement of spirituality are characterized by an equal emphasis on the importance of habitual actions. To take an obvious example: virtually all monastic orders pervasively regulate the daily life of the members of their community. From the sequence of daily activities from dusk to dawn to the ritual enactment of special events throughout the year, from the kind of food to be produced to the manner in which it is prepared and consumed, from the work to be done to the clothes to wear–characteristically called “habits”–monks do not have to think much about what to do how and when. It is fair to assume that these habitual practices evolved because they were deemed to be a successful framework to achieve higher states of awareness and consciousness.

It also stands to reason that the limitations of our central nervous system, in its capacity to process and to retain information, would make us seek to develop habitual patterns of behavior to deal with the repetitive situations in our life (that vastly outnumber the singular and unique ones). By their economy of means these patterns not only leave enough capacity for us to attend to genuinely new situations, but also liberate us for the development of various cultural pursuits that define us as humans. Habit is, as Pascal has observed, indeed man’s second nature. The execution of repetitive and uniform acts enables us to broaden and to deepen our spiritual life by unburdening our mind from paying undue attention to everyday routines.
But habit is not only of practical survival value; it is equally the source of aesthetic attraction and delight. Probably based on our primordial experiences of the “habits of nature”–the multifarious variety of related forms of life as well as the repetitive diurnal and seasonal patterns–we tend to find similar pleasure in experiencing the repetitions and variations of cultural artifacts, the daily life-habits of cultures, and ultimately the ensuing typicality of their physical environments. The perceived identities of things, animals, persons, places, and cultures–how we think about them, remember them, and ultimately why we love them–have more to do with their repetitive characteristics than with singular and unique ones. Personal habits–habits of the body, of the mind, of the heart–condense themselves into individual identities. Successful collective habits become customs and traditions, significant habits are formalized and elevated to the status of rituals, and our communal habitual actions sediment themselves over time as the physical patterns of our places of habitation: as our built environment.
Perhaps in a more differentiated way than in the English language, where the term “to inhabit” points to this connection, one can demonstrate the phenomenological link between place, habit, and habitation by examining the etymology of the German term Stelle, one of three German words for “place” (the other two are Platz and Ort). The word Stelle comes from the verb stellen, which means to put or place something somewhere. It also is related to the word stehen, which means to stop and to stand (still), and further to Stab (stave, stick), Steher (post, pole), but also to such notions as Stall (stall, stable), Stätte (stead, as in homestead), and even Stadt (town, city).

A place is
where we have stopped on our path, where we have put our things down, where we are going to stay for a while, where we can erect things, things that become our possessions (literally what we sit on), where circumstances are steady and our life habits have time and space to unfold. The semantic halo surrounding these notions of place points to the fact that settlement, construction, and habitation seem existentially connected to such notions as familiarity, stability, and continuity, all related to the repetitive, the habitual, the ordinary. In this context it is difficult not to point to another connection, that between Wohnung (dwelling), Gewohnheit (habit), and Gewöhnlichkeit (ordinariness), all containing wohnen (to dwell) in their core. Home is where our ordinary habits are at home: it is the epicenter of familiarity.
If we understand the human impulse to build as our desire to make a home for humans on earth, and as a way to domesticate the habitual patterns of our communal life in material form, then the anthropological function and identity of architecture emerges not as one that should reflect, stimulate, or even amplify the uncertain and changing world in which we live, as some would have it, but rather as one of the culturally most important counterpoints to it. It is the realm that protects our already destabilized human sensibilities from further assaults, resists the fickle winds of fashion through its sheer physical inertia, and reassures and comforts us through its stability and continuity: it provides a shelter for the dreamer, the poet, the sage, and the saint. Familiarity is the condition for its own transcendence.
We are all aware of the other side of habit, the way we conventionally think about it today: mindless repetition, resistance to change, numb routine, stale convention. But this pejorative view of habit, more than likely a direct result of our somewhat exaggerated faith in the powers of innovation and progress, is unbalanced and in need of correction. Our phenomenological life-world, dominated by all that we take for granted, cannot function properly if architecture refuses to participate in it, if it sees itself mainly as the exception to our ordinary daily existence rather than as its grounding and stage. If this were the case, as it essentially has been for thousands of years, I believe that architecture again would become an important part of the fertile ground from which our spirituality, architectural or otherwise, would naturally bloom like a flower in sunshine.