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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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2  The Lively Image


O for Merlin's touch, to be able to do that most impossible of deeds, to convey a sensory experience in plain words. If you and I, reader, could be standing before St. Paul's or Blenheim or in the Capitol and I could guide your eye, then quickly would you take to the idea which theoretically, is nothing. I must therefore simply describe what my eye does when contacting certain forms. That which is fundamental to us both will lighten up in you. When groups have worked and played at this together each has made his own imaginative contribution, though he is asked to do nothing but a very factual piece of observation of his own eye movement. Interpretation follows, like a gift or reward, when the building begins to give out its secrets. It is a new kind of 'reading' of the forms. We may now set forth on our strange exploration, a dangerous path into a world of active moving forms and images in process always of coming to birth, transforming, dying and being reborn. What we took to be stable buildings will become living organisms in which some forms grow into dominance, others fall back into subservience or fade and are completely metamorphosed. Yet we discover law in metamorphosis, a rightness and inevitability which gives cohesion. And all the time behind this fluid world of imaginative vision is the prosaic process of actual observation of eye movement in a manner essentially scientific. Always we have this anchor for constant reference and return.

We shall start, broadly, with Renaissance architecture, that style which uses cokimn, pilaster and lintel as sovereign motives. That this is not an arbitrary choice but is quite inevitable, will soon become apparent. But what really is a column? It is always the first feature to arrest the eye. Get hold of that column. Reach out to it with the eye beam. Stroke it down and feel the entasis, that subtle swelling that gives it dynamic life. EntasisEntasis is no mere bulge. Set two pliable sticks vertically in earth and draw the tops a little inward towards each other. Then you have the organic swelling called entasis. Anyone can see the entasis by simply looking, but it is essential to experience it in a quite different way by the active feeling of the column in strong sweeping eye movements. Then you experience the dynamics of the column as it under-pins the heavy lintel and furthermore you experience this in the dynamics of your own body, in swell of lifter muscles and power of back and thigh. This is particularly so with Greek Doric whose lines strike straight down to earth's centre without the break of a base. Veritably one discovers this as the athlete's column. Compare it with the column that has no entasis. Does this not look weak about the chest? Do we not feel its inadequacy reflected in our own bodies?

Now look at the drawing on the frontispiece. Behind that column stands a pilaster. By its size and material it has obvious relationship to the column. Therefore take the pilaster, make a strong living image of it and then look at the column – so, back and forth a number of times. Does not the moment come when, in image, the pilaster leaps into the column? It is as if a column is a freed pilaster. An imaginative effort and we see the pilaster emerging from the wall, gathering strength and then stepping forth into freed and rounded pillar. Its roundness is suggestive of life. The Classical pilaster often has no entasis but its sides are parallel. Such a pilaster is still very closely related to sheer wall, but when they have gathered their sides into entasis they show themselves as fledglings nearly ready to transform into columns. In the photograph the pilaster-column relationship is very clear. The low vault however leads over to a comparable grouping at the end wall of the chamber. Remember that our eye seeks kindred images. There is an obvious relationship implied between these two groups. Therefore 'activate' one and then the other. Suddenly that simple end-form begins to speak. Surely it is simply a bit of wall with a small panel carved in it. Yet wait... it has the same moulding which serves as capital and base to the pilaster/pillar. The panel may be seen as a sort of softening up of the central area preparatory to the complete breakthrough into the more advanced form. The two vertical 'styles' of the panel reveal themselves as incipient pilaster and pillar. We have a wall section actually in process of articulating itself to make the great refining step of giving birth to a column. Here is a simple but beautiful example of metamorphosis. Furthermore we have struck an important secret. If the framing of our panel is truly incipient pilaster it means that any panel has the same quality. Wherever we meet the panel we shall recognize the potentiality of the birth of a pilaster in the vertical 'styles'. The above example speaks clearly and reveals much.

In this first exercise we used our fluid looking to bring the pillar out from the wall. Yet here note an interesting point. In imagination one can as easily allow the column, which first arrested our attention, to fall back into the pilaster, and so by stages merge itself in the wall. There will be more to say later on the significance of this thought, but suffice it for this moment to leave speculation and establish, as imaginative experience, the two-way passage of the column, born from the sensitized wall or dying back into it. Wall could thus be felt equally as the matrix from which all columns are born or as plain surface composed originally of dissolved columns, as earth was originally green and growing leaf and shoot. Exercise the looking until the forms become so mobile that they can at will advance or retire, evolve or recede. This is true to the laws of metamorphosis. On this all nature founds her form-producing powers – morphogenesis, – and her ability to let one form flow into another. Is it not therefore likely that creative man will work to the same laws on an imaginative level? In music the forms are in motion and flow into each other in temporal sequence. In architecture they are frozen and static. The whole building is a symphony but the dynamic vision must first release the images and allow them to become mobile and enter the strange sphere of metamorphosis. In this process we have perhaps the real clue to the aphorism that 'architecture is frozen music'. Beethoven and Mozart claimed to have 'seen' entire symphonies in one instant as a complete whole. We can conversely experience the images which make up a building in a time sequence which is essentially musical in its nature. 'Music is thawed architecture'.

In the practice of 'active looking' we recreate a building by starting with the significant parts. We allow the eye to touch the building and watch what features it takes hold of. We allow it to move, observing what it is made to do. We select kindred images and superimpose them by moving back and forth until they leap into animation through a discovery of the differences. Thus piece by piece we account for the whole building, extending from the initial contact point, until the entire façade is analysed. It is indeed a full analysis of everything that happens in the design, as it is possible to analyse a piece of music and account for every part. This is no arid dissection but is the true synthesis. It involves a conscious heightening of awareness until the whole begins to speak, integrated and made significant. Then it reveals its secrets.

Every building and each major style presents us with a different experience. There must be no preconception as we allow the eye to explore. Through the image flows the mood of the architecture and impresses itself on us as a soul experience. How clearly this is shown in the Parthenon. In infinite subtlety its curves are so integrated that wherever we touch it we are drawn into the experience of the harmony of the whole. Inner stillness and integration then floods the soul through the eye. The Greek ideal is built into us through contemplation of that great building.

Though we have spoken of the tip of the eye-beam as a subtle extension of the sense of touch, we shall at times realize that the eye, poised within delicate forms, is somehow listening to them, receiving their meaning as in meditation. It is an extension of the inner sense of hearing. The whole inner sensitivity of our being is reaching outwards to unite with forms in heightened and expanded awareness.

So also when we move before a building. This is not unlike a dance, and the building is the most perfect dancing partner. Seen sculpturally, a short movement or swing on our part will totally alter the relationships of a thousand planes and curves. The building dictates the experience though we are complete master. We must, however, remember that we may be dancing a minuet with royalty. As the columns move around us, the majesty of the building is impressed upon us. The invitation to dance is everywhere, and whenever we dance we are extended beyond ourselves into a wider relationship. The building waits on us:

'I have piped to you and you would not dance.'


The Approach to a Column
ColumnIt is especially important to learn the art of approaching a giant column or pilaster, so that we may experience it as an entity.. This may not be lightly or casually undertaken any more than we should approach royalty without the deferential bow. We advance delicately, having made the imaginative reversal in our looking so that the creature appears to advance on us and place its base at our feet. We may touch it with hands and even forehead to feel the cold stone or marble and let the eye, now close to it, rise the immeasurable length of elongated surface. We may let the eye run over the pavement till it meets the base, moving up its moulding until it can take these two rounded members which come to feel like great rubber washers bearing and cushioning the immense weight above them (Fig. 3). Then moving on to the bottom of the drum, the inward curve takes the eye and throws it upward, not to stop its movement till it finds the corresponding curve at the top. Yet here we may choose deliberately to check and inhibit the movement after a few feet and then an extraordinary experience rises within us. If we can take a spoonful of raspberries and cream, bring it to the lips and hold it there, refuse to open the mouth and return the spoon to the plate, the whole sense of taste shouts to be allowed to fulfil the stimulus and the salivary glands pour in anticipation. Even the thought alone is enough acutely to evoke the recollection of taste! So we may start this surge of movement up the column and check it at eye level. Then thought leaps on up the full withheld length. We experience the whole nature of the column with more power and sensitivity through having withheld from the eye the actual looking. It is a simple trick which may be developed for the heightening of conscious awareness.


The coming into being of a Pediment
PedimentNow we will take a beautiful and simple assemblage of classical forms, from Nevile's Court in Trinity College, Cambridge (Fig. 4A). This will provide a useful exercise. Look at the illustration and see what the eye does. It is first arrested by the strong columns. Having run up and down one of them, we quickly grasp the series – the double beats at either end and the two singletons between. Then the lovely dishing takes the eye. We can fill those hollows with the 'liquid of our looking', a truly sensuous experience. Looking from one to the other we find no metamorphosis but a simple increase in size. Then looking between the coupled columns we recognize that the panels represent an embryo form of the dished arch. Look firmly at the series 1, 2, 3, until this progression of form is quite clear. The two sides can be made to converge on the central cove or we can learn to expand our looking in a single movement from the centre to the two extremities. Now in imagination allow the force which has hollowed the dishes to penetrate right through and we recognize the triumphal arch which is waiting in potentiality in this grouping. That central arch is clearly a thing of power. From its small beginnings in the panels it has expanded itself so strongly that it has encroached upon the lintel above it and wholly eaten away architrave and frieze leaving only the cornice. Clearly the circular form has dominant power over the horizontal member. It has done more. It has forced up a pediment. Clear your mind of preconception and look afresh at this well-known form. What has happened to bring the triangular form into being? The top half of the mouldings of the cornice has been prized up, as if with an enormous penknife. It is as if the force of light and space below is so important that the triangle has risen to acknowledge it. Run the eye along the whole cornice and make it divide to take the complete shape of the pediment. Let the pediment fall back into the cornice, realizing that the mouldings will exactly fit into their original position. Recognize from this that a potential pediment exists at any point in any cornice if the dynamic power below calls for its birth. Note further that a totally new and highly significant piece of space has been created in the triangle. In the temple form, indeed, it is that point where the eye of the god can look forth. No wonder that Apollo is carved here. A holy space has been created and must be filled with sculpture worthy of the gods or heroes. (Here in parenthesis let us compare the classical pediment with the Gothic or Romanesque tympanum. That point in the arch above the doorway in the narthex or porch of a church is also a 'holy' space. All weight is lifted off it by the arch, so that it has no structural function. Therefore it is entirely fitting that the Risen Christ be portrayed within it. As one enters the church it is as if the tympanum represents our lifted thinking.)


This experience with the pediment bears out that there is no architectural form which does not take on a quite fresh and often surprising interest if we can discover its 'coming into being'. The hurdle is crossed as soon as we abandon the usual static viewpoint and allow the imagination to see the form as something mobile and growing. We ask what it is doing.

A particular excitement is experienced when the rising power below is able to break through into the pediment. Figure 4B represents a case in which the strength of the central arch has become such that like a rising sun it can enter the holy space. The round arch is so dominant a form that other members must give way to it. It is obviously always a rising form to be experienced as light. This example is interesting in that the invaded pediment shows a sunburst above the arch and the pillars have receded until they are almost wall. All forms have cycles of development. The Renaissance and Baroque variants of the broken or open pediment seem like a culmination or even a decay. The power has been released upwards or heavenwards and the sides of the triangle have curled back on themselves, their duty done. Perhaps we may feel they have been released in play.


The Rising of the Round Arch
Heveningham, entranceOnce seen dynamically the rising of the round arch becomes an experience of intense excitement. To get the experience allow the arch to drop back in your imagination into the horizontal lintel. Then bring power upon it from below so that it is again lifted. Enter into this lifting process. Always the static architecture settles back into the cube or rectangle or horizontal line. A dynamic process lifts into arch or vault. Since we are concerned with experiencing the birth and growth of forms, we can identify our looking with the movement of the arch. The experience is indeed as if we had ourselves lifted the arch by our intention. We have bent the lintel into a springing curve like a bow and can test this by allowing its tautness to fall back into the horizontal. Once this imaginative turn-about has been achieved the arches become our deed. The round arch especially has a glorious leaping quality (Fig. 6A). Clearly in the rival tension of forms nothing is so powerful as the rising round arch, except the circle itself which can dominate all other forms and force them into deference.

Later, we shall consider domes. Let it suffice now to introduce the experience of the arch and cove, and the lifted lintel. It can be physically experienced, usually as a kind of pressure within the head. Examples are everywhere, in passages, entrance halls and colonnades. Look again at the front cover photograph. What matters is that we bring it alive so that we sense that we have united our looking and the activity of our thought with the invisible power that lifts out of the horizontal. To this degree we may feel that we ourselves are 'doing' the arch or vault. As we walk under them it is as if we walk into a magnetic field and realize its pressure and activity. Loveliest of all English rooms is the hall at Heveningham in Suffolk by James Wyatt (Fig. 5). Look at it and allow the whole thing to fall back into a flat ceiling. The cross bandings become lintels between the pilasters. Lift again and realize the glory of a new world opened up in a coved ceiling.

Now we discover that there are two different ways in which an arch comes to birth. We can enact them in our imagination. Would that there were some miraculous plastic substance malleable to thought so that we could watch the process happening. First there is the arch in which there seems to be such power in the space below that it lifts and bends the entire lintel. Fig. 6B is an example of the lintel or architrave being consumed away by the arch which has then forced up the frieze and cornice. Kindred to this are the forms shown in Fig. 4B. Here the lintel has been simply eaten away and dissolved by the power of light which rises like the sun into the wall space above, needing no moulding. Secondly and on a quite different principle in Fig. 6C, the Gothic arch. Here the ribs are obviously pillar transformed. The drive in the pillar has passed up through the capital; the pillar, freed now from the functional limitation of gravity, can bend and swing. The arch is made by bending the two upper 'pillars' inwards until they meet and lock thus creating the pointed space between. The keystone or boss is then seen to be a metamorphosis of the capital. The dynamic vision can detect which of these two impulses is responsible for the coming into being of a particular arch. We can in imagination enjoy the process of building arches either by throwing the flexible pillar/rib across the capitals, or by creating such pressure of space that we drive our arch up through all obstacles, to stand by its own radiating force.

This way of thinking will seem so much nonsense to those who will only think in a factual and 'masculine' way in terms of physical construction. Of course we must learn how an arch is made and by what pressures it stands. However we can equally validly free our thinking from constructional considerations and enter the imaginative realm where we enjoy the vivid experience of the 'coming into being' of architectural forms. A different and perhaps more poetical and 'feminine' faculty of vision is cultivated. The one view is like studying the structure of a theatre and its stage mechanism, the other like watching the living play. It seems a pity, indeed, to stop short of the real drama.


Next chapter: 3. Birth of a Column

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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© 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. .