Transcendentalism and Broadened Contexts of Architecture1

Thomas Barrie

School of Architecture, NC State University, Raleigh, NC

Thomas Barrie, AIA is a Professor of Architecture at North Carolina State University where he served as School Director from 2002 – 2007. Professor Barrie’s scholarship on the symbolism, ritual use and cultural significance of architecture has brought him to sacred places around the world, and he has published and lectured extensively in his subject area. He is an award-winning architect and the author of The Sacred In-Between: The Mediating Roles of Architecture (Routledge, 2010) and Spiritual Path, Sacred Place: Myth Ritual and Meaning in Architecture (Shambhala, 1996).

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #17 – Spring 2011

If we consider architecture as a significant means for humans to articulate their physical, psychic and spiritual position in the world, then philosophies that aim for more direct and heterogeneous engagements with the world may serve to inform our understandings of the agency that architecture can at times perform. American Transcendentalism, which emerged in 19th century New England, insisted that philosophy required direct experiences in the world. For its most well known formulator and promulgator, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Life was something to be lived, not learned.” With its focus on the profound experience of “being” and its connection to setting or place, Transcendentalism was more concerned with cultivating meaningful internal and external connections than one often finds in post-Renaissance Western philosophical traditions. A remarkable characteristic of these latter traditions is the absence of any philosophical practice coupled with the philosophical system, a clear departure from the formative roots of western philosophy, such as the Pythagorean School and the Hellenistic Epicureans and Stoics, where a separation of philosophy and practice would have been incongruous at best.2

Emerson’s essay Nature described the ability of a transcendent intellect to deeply engage the world. “Nature,” for Emerson, included the entire “material” world but found its most potent images in the abundance of the natural world. The pure and interpersonal intellect, named by Emerson the “Over-soul,” dissolved boundaries of thought and preconception and intimately communed with its surroundings. He wrote “Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and lifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.”3 His essay of 1842 entitled “The Transcendentalist” distinguishes “idealists” from “materialists,” the former incorporating the subjective – the latter only the objective. According to Emerson, the idealist “transfers every object in nature from an independent and anomalous position without there, into the consciousness.”4 Intuition was the means to fully and unselfconsciously engage reality – it was the ultimate mediator between the intellect and the objects it engages through the senses. Emerson insisted that we “respect the intuitions” and give them, “all authority over our experience,” and called for engaged, un-mediated experience as a counter-project to objective materialism and arid intellectualism.

Nature, for Emerson, mediated between humans and a broader, deeper reality, the “Universal Being” of which all are a part.5 Emerson’s contemplative, connecting practice involved solitary sojourns through the nature that surrounded his home in Concord including the property that he owned at Walden Pond. It was his younger friend Henry David Thoreau, however, who came to practice a philosophy that was both Epicurean and phenomenological though the agency of his simple, self-constructed hut on Walden Pond. In Thoreau’s two-and-a-half years at Walden the simple hut where he lived symbolized and materialized his contemplative practices. Walden, the book that resulted from Thoreau’s practice of essential engagement with “nature,” included the exhortation that “creation is here and now.” Being present in the moment is a theme that is central to most contemplative traditions and appears throughout Walden. Thoreau describes an evening walk around the pond. “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.”6 For Thoreau, living in the moment connected one to his or her surroundings and constituted an authentic life.

Fig. 1: Meaning in architecture can be understood as the result of an intimate connection (whether it is individually or collectively) that engages us sensually and intellectually. Saint Benedict’s Abbey, Vaals, Holland, Hans van der Laan, 1956-1968, View of Atrium

Fig. 2: It is through our interactions with, and connections to architecture, that our dislocations may be reconstructed or, in other words, made whole.
Selimiye Mosque, Edirne, Turkey, Mimar Sinan, 1567-1574, Prayer at mihrab.

Meaning in architecture can be understood as the result of an intimate connection (whether it is individually or collectively) that engages us sensually and intellectually. It is through the practice of participation with architecture that its often-nuanced meanings are accessed and its capacity to connect us with a deeper understanding of ourselves, our relationship to others, and to our place in the cosmos is materialized. Emerson promulgated a deeper engagement with the material world he called “nature” as a means to live a more authentic life. He and his fellow Transcendentalists articulated philosophical positions that endeavored to establish direct and meaningful connections with the human experience of embodied consciousness. “Nature,” for Emerson, was the medium through which one viscerally engages the world to reveal its inherent divinity.7

Thoreau effectively utilized the medium of architecture to express and manifest his prescient philosophy regarding an essential and authentic life. It was through the agency of the architecture of his simple dwelling on Walden Pond that he was able to articulate positions that ranged from material costs to social criticism to cosmological perspectives. That the mundane, the sensual and the ideal are integrated in his philosophy is not surprising given its Transcendentalist roots. Thoreau noted that “the shallowest still water is still unfathomable,”8 and in the conclusion of Walden he recalls the Indian parable of the Artist of Kouroo to illustrate the potential of art to effect transformation.9 The reciprocity of architecture, authentic experience and ontological meaning in Walden presents useful perspectives regarding the roles architecture may play. Juhani Pallasmaa argues that the “existentially mediating task” of architecture serves in part to integrate our inner worlds and outer experience. It is through our interactions with, and connections to architecture, that our dislocations may be reconstructed or, in other words, made whole. Analogously, the making, experience and meaning of architecture may occupy a more expansive territory including its power to engage, connect, inform and transform.


1 This article was adapted from a chapter in a recent book by the author entitled The Architecture of the In-between – the Mediating Roles of Architecture, Routledge, 2010.
2 See David Tracy, “Traditions of Spiritual Practice and the Practice of Theology,” Theology Today, July 1998.
3 Brooks Atkinson, The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York: The Modern Library, 1950, p. 6. Henry David Thoreau, known for his precise, observations of nature recorded in his journals, insisted that “the purest science is still biographical.” The championing of the subjective is not surprising given that George Ripley saw himself as a disciple of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the 18th Century theologian credited with founding hermeneutics. Ripley considered Schleiermacher to be foremost of theologians and devoted part of his career to translating his works into English. The hermeneutic principal that one needs to participate in their object of study appears throughout Emerson’s thought. His essay History, with its emphasis on interpreting history from a contemporary perspective is as much a tutorial on how to read history. When he writes that “when a thought of Plato becomes a thought to me, when a truth that fired the soul of St. John, fires mine, time is no more,” he makes the case that true understanding is firmly positioned in the present.
4 Atkinson, op.cit., p. 88.
5 “In the instant you leave far behind all human relation, wife, mother and child,

and live only with the savages – water, air, light, carbon, lime and granite…. I become a moist cold element. Nature grows over me. Frogs pipe; waters far off tinkle; dry leaves hiss; grass bends and rustles; and I have died out of the human world and come to feel a strange, cold, aqueous terraqueous, aerial ethereal sympathy and existence. I sow the sun and moon for seeds. From the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted by Richardson, op. cit., p. 283.
6 Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Roslyn, N.Y.: The Classics Club, 1942, p. 153.
7 The Transcendentalists had little sympathy for objective materialism or intellectualism, but were interested in the means to achieve engaged, direct experience. Thoreau states in Walden, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, as life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” Thoreau, op. cit., p. 270
8 From A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, quoted with commentary in Alan D. Hodder, Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2001, p. 192.
9 The source of this passage is unknown and it has been suggested that it is an amalgam of the Hindu, Confucian and Taoist readings Thoreau was immersed in at this time. See Hodder, op. cit., p. 205.