The Spiritual in Models of Thought and Models of Architecture: A Design-led Approach to Researching the Spiritual
Dr Bradley Starkey
Dr Bradley Starkey is a lecturer at the University of Nottingham, UK, where amongst other roles, he runs a Design Research Studio entitled Architecture and the Spiritual. Bradley received his PhD from The Bartlett (UCL) in 2009 for his innovative design-led research into the spiritual, which comprised the design and construction of a series of levitating architectural models. He is a qualified architect with experience of practice in the UK and South East Asia.
The idea that architects are practitioners of intellectual labor has been accepted since the Italian Renaissance. The idea that architects might also design, theorize and research through processes that involve and value manual labor is also recognized but less so. However, the idea that architects might also value and practise spiritual labor is more unfamiliar territory. The spiritual is a contentious subject in academia because it tends to be conflated with the religious and consequently it lies outside or beyond the scope of investigative academic research. Interest in the spiritual is sometimes academically validated if it is approached through an anthropologic or historic framework, but ultimately it is considered to be an affront to contemporary academic research.
This contribution discusses design-led research in which the process and product of architectural model-making is implemented as a tool to investigate the spiritual. Specifically it explores the following research questions. First, how can designing and researching through speculative architectural model-making question the assumed division between manual and intellectual labor in architecture? Second, how can designing and researching through speculative architectural model-making also include the spiritual?
Since the Italian Renaissance, when architects first elevated the status of
their profession by distancing themselves from the craft-based practices of the medieval master mason, architects have tended to elevate the intellectual over the manual. This has been articulated by architectural historians in terms of a division between manual and intellectual labor. This division influences architects’ conceptions of matter and it encourages architects to hold unbalanced attitudes towards the various tools of architectural production, such as drawing, model-making, writing and building. Since the processes of architectural drawing and architectural writing have tended to involve less manual labor than the processes of architectural model-making or building, drawing and writing have been more unhesitatingly associated with the intellect. The legacy of this tradition is that designing, theorizing and researching are often separated from processes of model-making and/or building.
Despite the widespread use of the architectural model in post-medieval design practices, model making has not played as significant a role as drawing and/or writing in the conceptualization or theorization of architecture and, as a consequence, the role and status of the architectural model has been rather indeterminate. Since model making is generally assumed to be less intellectual than drawing or writing, architectural model-making is generally thought to be incompatible with architectural theory-making. Consequently, architectural theorists commonly articulate ideas and develop research through drawing and writing and rarely through model-making.
However, the division between manual and intellectual labor can also be related to a corresponding rejection of the spiritual, since the models of thought upon which the principle of divided labor was based were increasingly secular in outlook. In many pre-Newtonian models of thought spirits were believed to exist as an integral component of the material world but in the seventeenth century these models of thought underwent a radical transformation. Through the work of early scientific thinkers, such as William Harvey, Jan Baptist van Helmont, René Descartes and Isaac Newton, the spiritual component of matter was first questioned and then rejected altogether. The spirits that existed in a pre-Newtonian world could not be verified through the emerging model of science because they could not be identified through empirical observation. As a consequence but also because of the related introduction of a deist conception of God, pre-Newtonian models of thought were increasingly secularized. By the end of the eighteenth century matter was assumed to be essentially passive, inert, soulless and static, containing no spirit at all. Similarly, the intellect was assumed to be essentially rational and philosophical rather than spiritual and theological. Thus secular approaches towards both matter and intellect tend to prevail in contemporary architectural discourse.
To date, this research has comprised the design and construction of two architectural models. One, entitled Design Investigation No. 2, is constructed out of familiar modeling materials such as Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF), Perspex sheet and paint but additionally it also incorporates magnets. The force fields generated by the magnets enable various parts of the model to levitate, resulting in the suspension of distinct planes and volumes without any observable means of structural support.
(Figure 1) & (Figure 2)
Contemporary skepticism towards the spiritual is often founded upon and supported by a materialist metaphysics, which can be defined as the idea that the world is fully explainable by its material properties. Questioning the limitations of this view the theologian Phillip Blond articulates an argument for a perceptual rediscernment of the spiritual. Integrating aspects of twentieth century phenomenology Blond maintains that an invisible dimension
exists within the heart of matter that prohibits it (matter) from being ultimately reducible to its material properties. Instead, he locates the origins of matter, and of the material world, in the spiritual. “Things themselves” he writes, “are utterly donated givens, gifts whose phenomenology is saturated with their origin in God”. 1
In this research the theme of levitation and the role of magnetic fields in the architectural model are connected with the spiritual in multiple ways, however, in this short contribution one such connection is discussed. Metaphorically, the perception of Design Investigation No. 2 can be associated with the perceptual rediscernment of the spiritual that Blond articulates, since both involve the perception of the invisible within the heart of the material. Moreover, an architectural model in which invisible force fields are the principle means of structural support is likely to be one that intrigues, mystifies and stimulates the imagination of those who perceive it.
In questioning the tradition of divided labour that has existed in architecture since the Italian Renaissance, this research explores what a new type of model for architecture might be; and this implies not only a new type of architectural model in the sense of the architectural model as a material artefact but also as a model of thought. Specifically, it investigates how the material, the intellectual and the spiritual might be combined through design-led research. Like the models of Vitruvius in antiquity and of the models of Alberti and Filarete in the Renaissance, which provided architects with a model for how they might think and write about their work, this design-led research proposes a new type of model. It is hoped that this model might encourage architects to think, design, research, write, make and build, in ways that recognize, cultivate, employ and enjoy the material, the intellectual and the spiritual.
1. Phillip Blond, “Introduction: Theology before philosophy,” in Post-Secular Philosophy: Between philosophy and theology, ed. Phillip Blond (London: Routledge, 1998), 7.