Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sex, Lies and Architecture

On the surface, the movie, The Reader, is about the after-shocks of an affair between a young man and a former Nazi concentration camp guard. The mixture of tender love scenes and brutal courtroom testimony about the holocaust make it easy to miss a powerful question raised by the film, can an individual resist the urge to go along with the tribe? Each of us would like to believe that when push comes to shove we would do the right thing and stand up to mindless brutality. Yet, blazing a trail into a saner, healthier world is not as easy or clear as it might seem.

We live in a society where survival is based on damaging the ecosystem and wounding the soul. Our survival systems for obtaining food, shelter and clothing are enacting a holocaust against the Earth and numbing the vitality of our spirits. In the last 40 years there has been tremendous growth toward more compassionate ways of living. Yet, the same old beliefs glorifying money over life and ego-centered image over interconnected vision still guide much of daily living. 

I face this each day I work as an architect. I want to create dwelling places that nurture the soul and honor links to the greater web of life. Yet, day after day this well-meaning intention is thwarted. Out of touch planning and building codes, the whims of the latest design fashion, the affordable efficiencies of standard building technologies make it almost impossible to create buildings that nurture the planet and the soul. In the hope that someone would see through the societal cloud of wrong-headed design, I wrote two books about the links between spirit, mind, body, nature and architecture. While many people and students have been inspired by these books, few clients have expressed interest creating dwelling places that are genuinely holistic. How can I blame them? Try as I might, living an integrated life of making soulful architecture attuned to nature and making a living is something I haven't been able to pull together.  

Seeing The Reader, reminded me that this struggle between the individual responsiveness required to address the fluid needs of living and surviving in a society that thrives on suppressing that individual responsiveness is an timeless theme. Several times in the movie the opening lines of Homer's Odyssey are read: Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide... Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover, he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do as he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home.

What we face, individually and collectively, is the task of seeing through the illusion of our times. This mistake of the group mind believes that survival is based on conforming to the present systems of dwelling in the world and making tiny shifts. It says, for example, that progress is developing an electric car instead of progress being walkable human scale communities. The question for me is, can I step back from the box of the collective mind far enough to distinguish what actually works from what doesn't? Can I open to and live a vision of an integrated life, or will I be like Odyssey's sailors carrying out the sheer folly of eating the cattle of the sun-god and never reaching home? 

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