PureInsight | April 22, 2002
Architecture is humanity’s most spiritual embodiment of culture. Every stage of human civilization has developed its own unique building styles, by either borrowing from past cultures or inventing original forms. Today, architectural relics from many distant ages remain, including little known works in the deep seas and deserts. Some of these appear remarkably modern.
We are left with the following questions. How could these structures remain until today? What implications do their existence have for people of the future? Every civilization in world history had a glorious peak in terms of its science. However, seemingly none of their products of “high technology” survive today. Then, how did their structures survive? I had tried to answer this question before but could not because I based my thinking on present day theories. I didn’t get very far.
Through Falun Dafa cultivation, I have come to understand that if matter contains evil vibrations that oppose the Fa, this matter will degenerate faster. In contrast, long lasting matter consists of vibrations that are harmonious with the Fa. These vibrations are also manifestations of what ancient Chinese people called the “Tao.” They believed that one who has reached perfection could find the “Tao” in everything. For example, this “Tao” regulates the standards of a profession. Attaining the Tao is the ultimate goal of every path. In other words, ancient people believed in the existence of gods. They respected, feared them and upheld human culture as set forth by gods. Ancient structures suggest that they functioned as a place to worship or pay respect to gods. Many researchers have come to this conclusion upon finding such common elements as aesthetic conformity, rich symbolism, grand form with delicate and harmonious detail, relatively simple building materials, artistic incorporation and modest arrangement of internal space. Buildings constructed to honor gods withstood the test of time because they contain an aspect of the Tao. Then, these existing architectural relics must have clues that let us know the Tao of construction. Although they are from an ancient time and a different cosmic climate, their positive elements endure and can inspire architects today. However, changes in technology, building materials and human ideology have dramatically changed the way we build. Architectural changes since the turn of the century have been especially pronounced in the wake of globalization, post-modernism, high-tech obsession, cubism, constructivism, de-constructivism, and fauvism (1). In the following paragraphs I will explore the differences between ancient and contemporary architecture from four different perspectives.
1. The relationship between architecture and the environment
Contemporary architecture is based on the philosophy of individualism. The modern architectural space depends on an artificial urban landscape to harmonize the logic, rationality and individuality of modernism. Over the last two centuries, architecture, like other art forms, has developed in isolation from other disciplines. There is little to no collaboration with other schools of thought and expression.
Ancient architecture was quite different. Usually, it was harmonious with the surrounding geography, climate and landscape. Beyond the physical appearance, it expressed objective laws of the universe. The basic goal of the grandiose pyramids in Egypt, the elegant pavilions and bridges in ancient Chinese gardens and theories of architectural harmony, like Feng Shui was to express the laws of the cosmos and assist man in his spiritual evolution. Lasting architecture always followed such principles. Teaching it was considered sacred. It was passed on by word of mouth from master to apprentice. The theories did not evolve over time, but rather had a true origin, the laws of cosmos.
People at that time saw everything as a manifestation of the power of the gods. From this standpoint, ancient people understood nature as a specific manifestation of the gods, something created for humans by gods. The architect’s charge was considered to be a manifestation of godly power. He not only focused on structural integrity, but also on harmonizing the cycle of material existence with higher levels. Unlike modern architecture, ancient architecture did not separate humans from nature. Neither did it use abstract aesthetic theories to analyze and rationalize its form.
2. Architectural forms
In contemporary architecture, one of the most important values is the creation of completely new architectural forms and ideas. However, the architectural remains from ancient cultures all had standardized forms. Throughout history, there had been few dramatic changes. Some attribute this to limitation in technology and labor. It is actually due to a completely different way of thinking about form. Modern people [in China] tend not to believe in gods, thereby severing the fundamental connection between men and gods. People don’t understand the origin or importance of form. They treat it merely as something created by an individual's free and boundless imagination. Consequently, form is expressed without restraint.
Ancient people viewed things differently. Most of them believed in the existence of gods. As a result of predestined relationships and good inborn quality, gods enlightened them, giving them a vision of the source of architecture from higher levels. The architects focused on understanding the deepest meanings of the original forms and tried their best to recreate the perfected form in the human world. They meticulously maintained the lineage to pass on the purest interpretation of form and the building skills necessary to achieve that. In ancient China the architects were known as craftsmen.
The modern mind may wonder why ancient people tirelessly built so many structures that were so similar in form and with such delicate detail. It is because the perfect image originally came from gods. The attempt to grasp that form was a method of enlightening to and balancing the subtle details which would determine perfection. The end product was the yardstick to measure one’s achievements and failures.
In different historical periods, different cultures communicated with different gods. This is why architectural forms differ over time and space. Ancient architecture truly exemplified the belief that “heaven and man should be harmonious.”
3. Architectural detail
Contemporary architecture has few details of design. Some buildings such as the defining works of the modernist-international school express “less is more” and do not have any detail work at all. Post-modernism followed modernism and reintroduced some detail, but these are often random, incongruous and completely different than ancient architecture’s uniformity. This is partly due to a failure to grasp the importance of details as anything more than a coincidental, subjective sense of aesthetic flare. The meaning is no deeper than an individual’s imagination and, as a result, many contemporary buildings are sparse in detail, often being reduced to plain glass. Some buildings reach the other extreme. The design is so complex that it is difficult understand.
Ancient people believed that no one part in a building should stand alone. Everything is related, in intricate ways, to the harmonious integrity of the building and its surrounding environment. Every aspect has deep meaning. Feng Shui, for instance, dictates specific rules on the relationship of environment, general layout, form, construction material, order of construction, and cosmic timing. More specifically, every component of decoration has an indispensable function, and cannot be casually omitted or altered. For example, in traditional Chinese architecture, there will be a specific order for the roof, roofline paintings, decorative windowsills, murals and calligraphy. These elements have different functions when used in different places. Another example is a Chinese garden. Every footpath and gate had a specific name which described its place in the overall garden scheme. Ancient people put much emphasis on these details not only to achieve superior function and aesthetic quality, but also to express their relation to the will of heaven. A waterspout will not merely convey water, but also express the essence of water. Along a roofline there will be sculptures of deities and sacred animals. This attention to detail is an attempt to conform to a higher level.
4. Architectural materials
Architectural technology is advancing very quickly. New materials and processing methods appear frequently and the proportion of natural material is diminishing. This phenomenon is especially obvious in urban buildings. People base building material decisions on the visual effect, physical properties and economic returns. From the contemporary point of view, these new technologies make architecture far more advanced than traditional architecture in every way. However, what has been preserved from history tells us just the opposite. In fact, few of these “high-tech” materials have a long life. The main reason is the principle of mutual-generation and mutual-inhibition. In the complicated process of changing the property of a material, its overall integrity is compromised. For example, a metal panel is easy to shape but corrodes easily. A layer of paint is added to protect it from the elements. But the wide use of such paint is polluting the environment. Negative consequences over the long term are not often considered. The separation of scientific schools usually adds to this problem.
In fact, ancient people had fairly advanced building technology. Dayan Tower in Xi’an and the Wooden Tower in Ying County have endured many strong earthquakes. Such ancient structures’ amazing durability is beyond the comprehension of modern-day people and current technology. It is obvious that ancient structures consist mostly of natural materials. Few used any synthetic material. The reason for this, besides relatively abundant resources, is belief in the gods. Ancient people thought, by using natural materials, they could better preserve and conform to the order of the macrocosm. They did not focus on meeting the desires of individuals, and thus did not endanger the environment for future generations.
From the above examples, we can conclude that ancient and modern people have fundamentally different views of architecture. Ancient people looked at things taking into account the perspective of gods, while today’s people are solely focused on humans. When ancient people evaluated a building, they compared it to their understanding of heavenly standards. They referred to a beautiful creation as a solution “sent by gods.” The deeper meaning is quite different from what people today refer to as innovation. Gods do exist. Ancient relics prove it. Mankind should consider architecture as a central part of human culture. In fact, in the field of architecture, “following the Tao” is to attain the form and meaning of buildings in higher dimensions. Architecture in the future should be based entirely on this principle. This is a manifestation of the Fa of the universe at a more evolved human level.
The above is some of my understanding from reading Zhuan Falun. I suggest you consider reading it.
1 Fauvism; Fauve: beast (French); artisans, especially painters, who typically used bright, bold colors in a wild, garish fashion.