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The Active Eye in Architecture
Sir George Trevelyan

First published in 1977 by The Wrekin Trust
This book is out-of-print, available only on this website
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1  Stone in Movement


This is a book by an amateur for amateurs. It is concerned with the art of looking. It is based on the conviction that many people are missing a clue which awakens imaginative vision of architecture and that this can be quickly taught, bringing with it a notable enhancement of pleasure in architectural explorations. I have myself studied architecture for years, but the discovery of the 'art of active looking' came as something of a revelation.

Let it be clear from the outset that this has little to do with architectural history as such. The reader can get full value from the approach here offered without any knowledge of dates or names of architects or technical jargon, for we are concerned with the vision of how forms come into being, change and evolve. We must see that the static forms are 'frozen' but are in truth in a dynamic relationship to each other. Our task is to release stone into movement as an imaginative experience.

From descriptions by chroniclers it sounds as if the townsmen of the Italian renaissance still had a natural faculty for active looking. There was a vivid response to the unveiling of a piece of sculpture or the raising of a new façade. The last two centuries have shown a marked development in intellectuality and this may well have killed the more immediate and living appreciation of form. This must be consciously recovered if we are to find full enjoyment, for the study of architectural history alone will not give us the gift of dynamic looking.

I offer the following simple thesis to any who are prepared to explore in this way. It is essentially no more than a teaching technique but it may lead us a long way. At first sight it may appear naive and childlike, yet it brings to our seeing a factor often left out from the more intellectual study of history or architectural structure. First Proposition. Our seeing should be an active deed rather than a passive reception of images. You can indeed reach out and with the tip of your eye-beam touch a capital or run up the fluting of a column. You are called on to experience that this is truly a refinement of the sense of touch and that the tip of the eye-beam is a sensitive organ which can bring back knowledge to you. All that is needed is to grasp the idea of the active deed of looking and make conscious the touch.

It is likely that scientists will in time be able to show that actual radiations reach out to a point when looking is directed by conscious thought. We can explore with this sensory organ. The eye-beam moves readily from point or linear looking to the exploration of planes. If we direct it to the centre of a panel we will find that it fans out and fills the whole area, thereby impressing the shape upon our memory. What might be called the 'liquid of our looking' can be directed into a hollow or coved recess so that a vivid experience of the form is given back to us. The powers of the eye-beam are infinite. As a shaft of sensitized thought it can penetrate a solid marble column and appreciate its roundness in one gesture of 'touch'. Furthermore it can spread three dimensionally so that it fills out an enclosed area of space. Thus an entire chamber can be experienced and the 'pressure' of space felt. The difference between this and our normal looking may seem small but it is fundamental, since the mental attitude of recognizing the active deed of directing a finger of looking to touch the building is experienced as a real extension of consciousness far beyond the limits of the physical body.

Now we come to the exciting step. We are concerned with the seeing of forms in architecture and an understanding of how they come to birth and develop. It is all too easy to see pillars or pediments or arches in a static way. By active looking we come to see all forms as in process of coming into being, transforming themselves or fading away. Seen imaginatively they are all in movement just as the forms in nature, be it plant, cloud or human body, are all at some point in development. The principle holds throughout nature and in so far as man's creation reflects natural processes, the apparently static forms in architecture may also be seen in movement. How can we experience this inner movement? There is a very simple technique. Proposition 2. We are called on to learn to look at the images our eye makes and watch how they transform into each other when we consciously place one image upon another. Be it said here that it is a difficult thing to follow these simple processes from the written word alone or from drawings and photographs. This is a simple teaching technique which should be done in front of a building. The reader is invited to make something of an imaginative effort, which he can then try out upon a building. We allow our eye to rest upon a façade. Without any trying on our part it will be caught by some salient feature of interest. Unless we actively check it, it will find a pillar and run up and down it or relish an arch or the shape of a gable. Every building offers an entirely novel eye-experience and must be approached without preconception. Now your task is to stand behind your eye and watch its movement. Transfer your interest from the building to what your eye wants to do when it contacts the building. Recognize that these are totally different processes. You are now standing back to observe a quite objective process, namely your own eye movement and the images it finds and what they then begin to do. With Blake we might say 'I look not with my eye but through it'. He was indeed an active looker!

Now you will find your eye chooses two kindred images, be these arches, windows or pilasters. Their relatedness draws the eye. Consciously place one image on the other. Do that firmly a few times looking from one to another. Suddenly one image appears to leap into the next with a sense of movement and their differences are revealed. It is perfectly simple, naively so. You have carried the after-image of Form No. 1 and placed it over Form No. 2 with the result that 1 runs into 2 and settles there. You have created a sense of movement by this deliberate process and for a magical split second the image seems alive. Your task is to observe this movement. It is our clue. You have begun to discover that the images are in a true sense alive. You have yourself been consciously operative in making two image forms flow into each other. A process has now begun which need not end until the entire building is on the move.

Let us now take some simple examples.
Remember we are concerned with the questions: what are forms doing? In what direction are they changing? Into what are they transforming?

1. Look at the façade in the Court of the Doge's Palace in Venice (Fig. 1A).

What does your eye do? Obviously it is caught by the black round arches. Where then does it leap? To the corresponding pointed arch above it. Move the eye from one shape to the other until the one truly appears to move into the other. Register that sense of movement. Then what about that remarkable circular hole above the round arch? Your eye includes this and it appears as a kind of softening-up in preparation for the metamorphosis into a pointed arch, for inevitably the potentiality of the new form lies in the first. Now you see that the circular form in the spandrel between the tips of the pointed arch is nothing other than the used-up husk of the powerful circular hole, discarded since it has done its work. So the design begins to speak to you.

2. Now consider these dutch gables (Fig. 1B). Here are two kindred shapes. Look strongly from one to the other and you will get a feeling as of breathing. The rather thin and mean shape on the left fills out and becomes much more complete and satisfying, more buxom and full blown.

Heveningham3. Next to the dining room at Heveningham Hall (Fig. 2). These two forms, door and alcove, are at either end of this fine room. Obviously they compare with each other. But take the door and place it as an image over the alcove. Move back and forth till they merge. Then the flat form appears to be sucked in to form the alcove. You actually feel that the alcove is the door frame swept in. When you experience the movement between the forms you are given a rich experience of the making of an alcove and how this recess has been forced in to the flat of the wall. It becomes dynamic. You sense what the architectural form is 'doing'.

We are, I repeat, watching not the building but the reaction of the eye to the building. We are not merely seeing but we are deliberately observing our seeing, which is usually an unconscious process. To take one image and allow it to flow into a kindred image is the fundamental process and gives us the clue to all that is to follow, both in vision and interpretation. We ourselves discover that every form with incredible variety is free to flow into other forms but, we shall find, does so according to definite laws. Here then is the primary experience of movement on which this whole approach to architecture is built. We have discovered that the image instantly takes on a quality of life when related to a developed form of the same image. It is as if the architect has given us the forms in order to do this deed of releasing their hidden power of metamorphosis. Taken by themselves they are but dead stone shapes. Taken thus into our thinking they become vibrant living things, each in a great dance which relates them to all other forms. Imaginative perception has to bring the static forms to life and discover that each has its own dynamic and is in process of growing, expanding, or fading, flowing into other shapes, some dominant, some humbly withdrawing. They are in a perpetual condition of coming to birth and receding, 'death and becoming'. To our new vision, stone is in movement and we ourselves have done the deed. The building is our plaything.


It all began one morning on the great Piazza at Venice drinking that costly cup of coffee which held for me that day a pearl of infinite price. I was idly running my eye up and down the great campanile, with its tapering straight walls. As I ran my eye down with a bold sweeping stroke I 'caught' a bulge, gone the moment the eye movement stopped. It was so subtle as to be invisible to the static eye, but to the active and moving eye it revealed itself. Perhaps it was no more than 1 inches in all the vast height but it sufficed. In the instant of realization, the campanile took on life and then settled back to its stately silence. My companions found it too. We now began to explore together and soon discovered that by placing the arches of San Marco on top of each other we created image movement. Then we found a further experience of movement. This is child-like in its simplicity, but do not be deterred by that. Walk gently across the front of a building or approach stealthily and enter the colonnade. The whole structure swings about you. Walk smoothly and delicately as if you were stalking a shy creature. Allow your eye to rest on one point and yet 'see' the entire surrounding area as it swings like stars around the Pole. It matters not one jot to the thought image whether you move and the building stands still or you stand firm and the building swings around you. Films have familiarized us to this well accepted illusion. What may be novel is the imaginative turnover in your looking. By a deliberate act of willed looking, the building does, to you, begin to move. Then its tons of matter evaporate and you can swing St. Paul's or St. Peter's as a trinket on your wrist. In that moment you have released something in the building (or in yourself, if you prefer). The great bells of the campanile boomed midnight while we were still floating like drunken ghosts in strange dance forms which caused the blocks of architecture to move in huge stately rhythms responsive to our least turn. We learned then the purpose of the inlaid marble in the floor of the huge piazza. The active eye unchecked will rush right across to the farther wall. The great diapers compel a check in pace, so that awareness moves slowly and becomes conscious of the changing relationships.

A critical friend commented that surely all this is merely bringing architecture down into the eye of the beholder. Indeed it does raise the question as to what architectural looking, and architecture itself, really is. Once you have experienced the sense of movement within static forms, you cannot but recognize the enhancement of normal looking. You have won a treasured tool for infinite exploration beyond the frontiers of outward appearances.

Remember that we are learning to do something quite new – to study not the building but the reaction of the eye to that building, the images that it calls up and their transformation into each other. We are founding our whole approach on this very objective study of a subjective sense of movement. Later chapters show where this may lead. Suffice it now to say that when this experience of movement of images is achieved, it is as if the whole building becomes alive and mobile and communicates its secrets. The experience may only be a few moments but in that time you release something bewitched within the building. For this it has been waiting. There it has stood as nobly shaped blocks of dead stone until the active eye has enlivened the image. For those seconds of vision it becomes architecture. 'Architecture', we might dare to say, does not begin until a man looks dynamically and makes it move in his thought. At least the true experience of architecture for you begins here and lasts as long as you can hold the movement. All other study is preparatory to this moment when your consciousness and the entire structure are united. Every form or column for these precious seconds lives and vibrates and has its own being in relation to all other parts. And how many years of enjoying architecture go by without our ever touching even the fringe of this magical experience of the release of the hidden meaning from the standing forms. Imagination may almost feel that we have by this achievement done something to the building itself. Its secret is being released. We may feel that the architect, watching from the Elysian fields, stirs with pleasure at the feeling that the life in his design has been activated.

In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
'These things, these things were here, and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet!
'


Next chapter: 2. The Lively Image

This way! Click me and I'll take you to the next page!
The Active Eye in Architecture
Sir George Trevelyan

First published in 1977 by The Wrekin Trust
This book is out-of-print, available only on this website
Next page
Previous page


Start of the book
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HOME
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© Copyright Sir George Trevelyan and estate, 1977. This book may be downloaded and printed on paper in single copies for personal use and study only, in a spirit of fair play and without financial transaction. .