I realised the other day why I find suburbs to be so dead—it’s a problem with almost all architecture, it’s not just Brutalism or the uniform 1960s suburb I live in. A conservative would show me a picture of a Georgian townhouse and say, “There…beauty.” Yet I get the same “dead” sensation from that too—and the same from a Victorian terrace. Yes, there’s more beauty there than in the suburb or the 1960s concrete tower block, but it still feels “dead”. So I start to sound like a PKD character, obsessed by the “deadness” around me—are they all robots out there? Probably.
Yet, as I say, I finally realised what the problem is—it’s the “geometric approach”, it’s the room with four corners. This shape doesn’t occur in nature—there are no squares or rectangles in nature; and yet human architecture, for centuries, has used the square and the box; and that is why cities and suburbs feel so oppressive and dead—little boxes, little boxes all filled with ticky-tack...
Look at the treehouse above—beautiful. It’s beautiful because the sphere is a shape that occurs in nature (nuts, berries, raindrops). It feels alive. The same can be said for the dome—it also struck me that the reason people like the “domed city on Mars” seen in many Futu-a-rama sci-fi shows is not that they particularly want to live under a domed glass oxygen tent but rather find the dome to be a beautiful shape. It’s like an eye in cross-section, it’s like the way the sea bends if you get up high enough, it’s like a raindrop on a leaf. That’s why we like it—and we can draw an analogy to the opposite, to the Hobbit-hole (from sci-fi to fantasy); after all, the Hobbit-hole is not a glass dome but a grass dome. It appeals to us for the same reasons—plus there is the cosy earthy organic womb with the Hobbit-hole (and isn’t the space-dome cosy too, somehow?).
Personally, I have always wanted to live in a tower—and I know a girl who wants to live in a lighthouse. Again, why? Because the tower and the lighthouse are like trees—shapes found in nature, unlike a skyscraper. And, further, the tower has a smooth aspect to it—the way the staircase spirals up is like the seashell’s interior.
Even the humble hut—mud hut or reed hut—achieves the same effect; it’s soft, it’s organic—if it’s made from reeds it is truly an organism, per Kant, in that “its end is its beginning” (when the reed dies, the hut is born). What we dearly miss in modernity—beyond modernity—is organicism, both in architecture and in other aspects of human life. The Goetheanum depicted below, built by Rudolf Steiner, gives some indication as to an alternative path. What we require in order to build beautiful cities is not a return to Georgian architecture or even to Classical architecture (the Pantheon is better than the Parthenon because it has a domed roof) but rather a move to organicism in architecture—a true reconnection with nature in which only shapes found in nature are used.
At the moment, architects are infatuated with “non-Euclidean” architecture based on the possibilities in mathematics developed in the 19th century and then augmented by 20th-century computer power. While the shapes produced, notably by Zaha Hadid, are “organistic” in the sense they have a liquidity that would have been impossible before non-Euclidean mathematics and computers and certain ultra-light materials, they are not “organic”—they do not relate to any shape found in nature, except perhaps cancer in its custard-like spread (don’t you imagine cancer yellow, the yellow amorphous lump?). What we need to create beautiful places to live in is a return to the straight organic—to shapes only found in nature.