It was on Saturday evening I was on my way to see my friend Hendrik, and I was at the station waiting for the train. It was a little before sunset, to my right there was the last of the sun. A series of bright orange streaks on the misty horizon. Looking the other way, I could see the silver skeins of the tracks disappear into the distance, along with the never ending progression of the catenary masts.
Now, in mediaeval times such a sight was simply unimaginable. Visit any mediaeval city centre and look around you: everything is crowded, jumbled and chaotic. The roads are narrow uneven and twisted. It was how the town or city developed, and it just grew as such things did: new houses were built. Built according to the traditions of the time and locality without any more forethought. At that time, none was needed.
A man skilled in this work would be able to recognize good work simply because they could do it themselves. New ideas would be few and far between; new ideas simply weren’t needed.
Tradition was tradition, and would change only slowly.
In those times, everything was immediate. Build a house, you build it piece by piece and make sure that every single piece is fit for purpose. This kind of rigorousness from the craftsman implies that the house will stand. There is no need for reflection: it it is good, the master craftsman knows it will stand the test of time. There is no need to question the future for if it is good for the present, it will be good in the foreseeable future. No need to reflect on it, then. No need for a perspective on one’s activities.
The mediaeval age was a time when life was lived and there was no escaping it. But then, there was no need to and thus no thought of. Work, whilst menial at times, was still satisfying in itself, if for the only reason that you had achieved something that you could see at the end of the day. Today, the lack of such satisfying work is the cause of many psychological illnesses.
The time up to the end of the early mediaeval times in 1500 or so, was a self-enclosing age, as it were. People could only do so much in a day, and in this having been the case for their life until early adulthood, that was what could be imagined. The age formed the man as much as the man the age: and man cannot create unless he can conceive of, imagine the idea. If the idea is not there, it cannot happen. That does not mean that its effects cannot be seen; that is what I wish to explore in this post. Of course there are exceptions, but exceptions prove the more general rules.
Okay, so I am properly English and my teddybear came from Harrods. (1) Even so, Steiff are one of the best known manufacturers of cuddly toys in Europe. Only, this is manufacture, not building. With Steiff products we have something quite different from the kind of thing than a mediaeval house: we have a product. Consistent, uniform and identifiable.
Steiff’s new factory was one of the first truly modern buildings, it was a look to the future. This in contrast to the current architectural trends of the time with the ornateness of neo-Gothic styles that found inspiration in times past. In a world where elaboration and decoration were the word of the day: protuberances of any and every kind poked from their cornices and architraves. Forward thinking architects wanted something genuinely new.
Well, in 1903 it most certainly was new.
Because this sixties building was built sixty years before the sixties!
And it was actually built in 1903, not 1963.
Today we are surrounded by square office blocks that have wall to wall glazing. Such regularity is now a part of our past. Which is the point, really. Because this building wasn’t really looking to the future: his building was a product of the architect’s ability to think. The things he produced showed the precise point at which his imagination stopped.
Take a look at the glass: it is all square and it will all be the same size. That is to say, the cladding of these buildings will be repetitive. There is no life in fixed repetitiveness of this kind. Nothing in nature ever happens twice: only the forces of death and destruction bring everything to this level of equality. Everything to do with this building was repetitive. The steel columns, the floors, doors and ceiling panels would all be made to one form and repeated.
You don’t need much thinking to “rinse and repeat,” do you? Such cyclical thinking is, well, repetitive. It is the mark of “inside the box” thinking which is self-limiting. Speak with practically anyone for long enough and they will change the subject in order to direct the conversation back to their own comfort zone. That is to say, their own habitual thinking that they are comfortable with. (2)
The speed with which they do this will tell you how large – or small – their comfort zone is.
Perspective As A Result Of The Comfort Zone.
So how is it that when we see a structure in perspective, that this is a signature of our times? It is this self-limiting ‘rinse and repeat’ thinking that leads to the repetitive use of items such as railway track and the iron girders that support the catenaries. It is what modern industry is formed upon: the ability to produce more cheaply by the dozen or gross. Only the thinking that this requires is rarely original, and is repetitive in that it can only think in certain fixed patterns.
Technology grows in the way traditions changed in the early middle ages: slowly. There will be the imaginative lightning strikes of imagination that led to the transistor, was genuinely inspired. That lightning strike has the force that is needed to penetrate the tightly formed comfort zone of the scientist. Get used to such things and they are a little less spectacular than lighting, they are still quite as fresh and enlivening. They just aren’t as alarming.
As an aside, I want to add a note here that the tighter the comfort-zone, the harder it will be to get through to these people. Lightning bolts can be life-threatening, and that is usually how new ideas are seen from inside the walls. When a person is protective in this way, it will take a blinding flash to wake them. Their problem is that it often leads to a nervous breakdown.
Once established, the transistor became as ingrained in people’s thinking as the steel girder. The initial spark lasted but a few years, now transistor technology evolves slowly. The thinking that was once a spark of originality is now a petrified fossil in technologist’s minds. Every further development of the transistor follows the same pattern, which means that all that can be achieved is that such developments lead to it’s being faster or smaller. It may grow an extra leg, find itself a different form as with the FET. The thinking relies on the same petrified concepts, the same plodding habits.
Newness is very much the order of our modern world. But it is not the newness of technology that we need, for this hardens very quickly into fixed patterns. Modern architecture is just a repetitive construction out of standardized bits and pieces. There are rare breakthroughs like the Gherkin in London, or the new Cheesgrater building. But here, the inspiration is far from original. Cheesegraters belong in the kitchen, not as a snide architectural joke.
Thus perspective in our world is largely due to a process of thinking that is suited better to past ages rather than today’s. In that the conditions of the middle ages were such that no reflection on one’s actions was needed, the thinking lacks this. Only those with real perception made any attempt to fathom this; Socrates is one example.
Repetitive thinking is the result and in being repetitive requires no reflection on it. After all, it has happened before, hasn’t it? Thus, in and of itself, a lack of self-reflection results in a lack of perspective. In mediaeval times, that repetitiveness was fostered from outside; today it has become internalized. The problem here is that this repetitiveness is a manifestation of the comfort zone: yet everything comfort-zone thinking brings us will of necessity be repetitive.
Like the gantries carrying the catenary wires of the railway that fade into the distance.
The perspective that should live within us, that which brings us the very stimulus to look beyond our own comfort-zone, is found outside in our world. Perspectives are built by those who lack it.
(1) A little research has led to the discovery that my teddybear is actually a Steiff.
(3) As a final thought, I had a conversation with a Dutch tradesman just now. His response was immediate, and to the effect of stopping anything that might injure his comfort zone. That immediacy shows firstly how tough its exterior is, and secondly how small it is. For the two run hand in hand. The tougher the comfort zone, the smaller it is. In the case of this tradesman, the pressures put on him in the course of his work will have inured him to the thoughts of other human beings.