It’s time for another installment from the late Bill Kleinsasser’s self-published textbook SYNTHESIS. In the selection below he tackles the challenge of defining what constitutes poetry in architecture, that which elevates mere building to art by heightening the awareness of, and laying open and vulnerable the mind of the observer. For Bill, the realization of poetic impact in architecture must arise naturally, if it comes at all, as it cannot be imposed.
Architects risk living in an aesthetic bubble of irrelevancy. Poetic impact is not a matter of taste, nor should it be the sole province of an initiated elite. Bill believed the poetic potential of architecture derives from a process of studying, developing, and responding to a broad range of very real concerns, only revealing itself after great effort as a synthesis of many factors.
Bill seldom shied from invoking the words of others to reinforce his own points, in this instance quoting Le Corbusier and Harold Taylor directly. Bill’s eclectic and broad list of those who inspired and influenced him comprised a highbrow who’s who. The words of intellects as disparate as Jacob Bronowski, Jerome Bruner, Jean Cocteau, Carl Jung, William Faulkner, John Keats, Jackson Pollock, Wallace Stevens, Aldo Van Eyck, Eudora Welty, and William Strunk and E.B. White served as frequent touchstones. I may write a post someday that compiles many of the quotes Bill drew upon to illustrate the principles he espoused.
The ultimate goal of all forms of art is poetic impact, that sudden realization of the extraordinary and the transcendent—the awareness of a profound and noble achievement. Le Corbusier expressed this well when he wrote:
“You employ stone, wood, and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces; that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: This is beautiful. That is architecture. Art enters in. My house is practical. I thank you, as I might thank railway engineers or the telephone service. You have not touched my heart. But suppose the walls rise toward heaven in such a way that I am moved. I perceived your intentions. Your mood has been gentle, brutal, charming or noble. The stones you have erected tell me so. You fix me to the place and my eyes regard it. They behold something that expresses a thought. A thought which reveals itself without word or sound, but solely by means of shapes which stand in a certain relation to one another. These shapes are such that they are clearly revealed in light. The relationships between them are not necessarily any reference to what is practical or descriptive. They are a mathematical creation of your mind. They are the language of architecture. By the use of inert materials and starting from conditions more or less utilitarian, you have established certain relationships which have aroused my emotions. This is architecture.”
Poetic impact, however, is a perplexing subject. Experience in today’s world tells us that it has many more definitions that the one stated above—so many, in fact, that it seems often to lose all meaning. It seems to exist sometimes when we don’t expect it. It seems not to exist for others sometimes when it does for ourselves. Some people seem to be greatly affected by it while others are not. We sometimes hear people say, “this is beautiful,” but when we inspect the object of their enthusiasm we feel that they must have been referring to something else, or to something other than the intrinsic qualities of the object.
Indeed, people seem to have an easy time liking something—a place for example—for reasons that come not from its inner strengths but from causes that are external, even superficial. The place may conform to tenets of their preferred lifestyle. It may fit a momentary mood. It may be comfortably conventional (or fashionable). It may appeal because of the fact they made it (or part of it) themselves. Any or all of these causes seem able to induce the label “poetic,” and this is perplexing because it suggests poetic impact is ephemeral and just a personal matter, that it is achievable by accident as by great effort and serious intent.
The definition of poetic impact stated earlier, however, instructs and ordains that this is not so. If poetic impact is truly about the realization of the extraordinary, the transcendent, the noble, the profound, then it involves experiences that are more than merely momentary and personal. It involves experience that is both real and allegorical, concrete and spiritual.
Dr. Harold Taylor (in Art and the Intellect): “ . . . the experience of art is one that quickens the human consciousness to a greater sensitivity of feeling and a higher level of discrimination among ideas and emotions. The experience of art is a way of enriching the quality of the human experience and reaching a precision in the choice of values. It is not an experience that takes an artist out of the context of his society, but an experience which moves through contemporary reality into new levels of awareness of what human society is. It draws attention to other values in the world than those of material, social, and political power. The experience of art leads each of us into discussions of ultimates, into questions of truth, into serious philosophy, since the responses evoked in each of us becomes part of our way of looking at the world and part of our stated and unstated vocabulary of response.”
And with specific insight regarding the elusiveness of poetic impact, Dr. Taylor goes on to say:
“. . . the experience of art is a particular kind of experience which requires for its fulfillment a discipline freely undertaken, a knowledge firmly grasped, a heightened consciousness and an intensity of interest in the creative and imaginative aspects of human life.”
In other words, the transcending experience of art, the “touching of the heart” as Le Corbusier put it, is dependent upon an awareness in the observer that is established by experience, curiosity, sensitivity, preparation. Poetic impact is then, at least by the definition set forth here, much more than simply a personal matter, and it requires for its full realization that the observer be able to come part way.