THE SOUL OF IT
February 5, 2003
We live in a time of great material wealth. With the integration of third world countries into a world economy through cheap labor; things, objects, are becoming ever more available for less and less money. We are truly awash in stuff. American culture is widely commented on by critics, both here and abroad, as overly materialistic. Materialism, a word with nearly universal negative connotations, may be one of the only points that both religious conservatives and liberal intellectuals can agree on. Indeed, material things, like clothes, cars, buildings, houses, and watches are generally thought of as the polar opposite of the ideas we ascribe to the spiritual, the things that matter, and, certainly to our concept of soul.
In my work as an architect, I commonly refer to objects, buildings, rooms, and houses as having “soul”. My clients across the table generally nod in the affirmative, which means one of three things: that they kind of understand what I mean; they are just trying to get the meeting over, and don’t want to invite yet another digression; or, they are just hoping that even though I am talking nonsense, their building will still turn out alright.
But I think we all know objects are not just objects. People intuitively know which buildings to keep and what to tear down; there seems to be a consensus on what constitutes a tourist destination. A country church is not just a room that seats seventy- five people. The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C., designed by Maya Lin, is not just another commemoration to heroism. The fact that the Volkswagen Beetle is the most popular car model of all time is not an accident, and the translucent, candy- colored, Apple iMac is not to be confused with the plethora of beige computers that marked the personal computer revolution.
In order to better understand man’s relationships to objects, I would like to look at the concept of art. German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in distinguishing art from nature, defines art as that which would not have come into being without human intervention. Kant states the man-made object is produced by man, not in any way, but specifically by his intelligence, by the reason that makes him free.1 Man’s humanity, creativity, his intelligence, is expressed and affirmed in, and by, the objects he makes. Objects made by man, art, as Thomas Aquinas, or his fellow traveler, Karl Marx, would understand it, pre-exist in the mind of the designer, architect, or builder in the form of ideas.2 Objects contain, in their very form, their generating idea.
But what does this have to do with soul?
Let’s look at the definitions of the word “soul”:
According to Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, soul can be defined as the following: (1) “The principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans, regarded as a distinct entity separate from the body, and commonly held to be separable in existence from the body; the spiritual part of the humans as distinct from the physical part.” (2) “The spiritual part of humans regarded in its moral aspect, or as believed to survive death and be subject to happiness or misery in a life to come.” (3) “The disembodied spirit of a deceased person.” (4) “The emotional part of human nature.” (5) “A human being, person.” (6) “High- mindedness: noble warmth of feeling, spirit, or courage, etc…” These ideas are usually discussed in the realm of religion and ethics, and are not relevant to the discussion of objects, although the disembodied spirit of a junked Chrysler K- Car offers some comic possibilities.
Another set of Webster’s definitions for soul has to do with African American culture. This set of definitions includes the following: (12) “Deeply felt emotion, as conveyed or expressed by a performer or artist.” (13) “Soul music.” (14) “of, characteristic of, or for, Black Americans or their culture.”
I’m not going to assert that cars, houses, and chairs have soul, in the same sense as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, or Langston Hughes, but there are aspects of this understanding of soul that will be helpful later in this discussion.
The definition of soul, which can apply to objects, and not make me appear to be a crackpot, is (7) “the animating principle; the essential element or part of something” (8) “the inspirer or moving spirit of some action, movement, etc…” and (9) “the embodiment of some quality.”
So, can an object have an animating principle? Inspire or move? Can it embody a quality? Of course.
Architecture can provide the easiest examples, because you can perceive a structure both as an object within the landscape, and you can also walk inside that object. Chartres Cathedral, a telephone booth, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, the Louisiana Super Dome, a greenhouse, and the viewing platform of the Empire State Building bring up strong and predictable reactions and associations. Physiological responses to light, dark, narrow, enclosed, and open spaces are all very powerful.
But objects speak in many ways, beyond strictly physiological. Our response to material things is complex, beyond just the object’s size, shape, and color.
Many objects actually reference or represent something beyond the object itself. Until the advent of modern abstract art, virtually all paintings and sculpture referred to ideas beyond the medium of canvas or stone. A medieval cathedral contains within, and on its walls and spaces, a text that attempts to explain man’s role in the church and the world to its users, the majority of whom were illiterate. The Lawn at the University of Virginia, designed by Thomas Jefferson, was meant to catalogue the orders of classical architecture that Jefferson believed to be useful for building a new republic. Automobiles built by Detroit in the 1950’s, with large tailfins, allude to the romance of speed, aviation, and space travel, and have little to do with picking up the kids from school. All of these examples are objects in, and of, themselves, but they simultaneously refer to ideas beyond the object. The viewer’s emotional response is triggered by both the object and its intended reference, which is embedded in the object by its creator.
Many craft objects may not represent or refer to something else, but the human response to the object can also be moved by the understanding of its making. Handmade pottery, baskets, and woodcarvings all can be appreciated as objects, but quite often the knowledge and romance of the craft, of the making of the object itself, becomes intertwined with the artifact. You buy the pottery as much for the potter and the wheel as for the vessel or object itself.
Objects may also contain within their making a moral aspect. Environmentally conscious, “green” products and sustainable “green” architecture embody within them an ethos about how, as humans, we should responsibly use the earth’s resources. Renewable raw materials, the energy to manufacture the object, and the act of making the object, are major ideas of the object, beyond its final function, size, shape, or color.
Representational art, architecture, design, and crafted objects clearly do inspire or move the viewer, and contain within the object both its own idea, and ideas and associations beyond itself. But what about objects which are self- referential? By this I mean that the creator is not attempting to associate the object with something else. Utility objects, and modern art and design, offer us examples where the response is more closely correlated to the object, and has fewer references and associations with other things.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, in Oak Park, Illinois, is a relatively small, cast-in-place concrete structure devoid of all customary, ecclesiastical forms. Wright’s “Jewel Box,” as he referred to it, seats approximately four hundred people, all of whom share an intimate relationship to the pulpit. Wright said that, “the reality of the building did not consist in the walls and in the roof, but in this space within to be lived in.” In his documentary film on Frank Lloyd Wright, Ken Burns called Unity Temple, “the biggest space in America.” The three hundred and fifty member congregation hosts over 20,000 visitors annually, half of which come from outside the United States.3
The turquoise and translucent white iMac, by the Apple computer company, introduced in 1998, changed Apple’s flagging brand, and spawned an entire generation of translucent appliances, devices, and consumer products. Jonathan Ive, one of the designers behind the iMac, spoke of the idea behind the design. “We didn’t feel like we had to make this look like a powerful computer. Consumer products are not about terrifying people. The iMac is very human, simple. Somehow you feel comfortable
The new Beetle changed Volkswagen’s image, and led to the company’s revival. The enthusiastic reception even came as a shock even to its German executives. Not surprisingly, the designers looked to the original 1937 Ferdinand Porsche design, commissioned by Adolph Hitler, for inspiration. Freeman Thomas, of the new Beetle’s California design team, explains their idea: “We looked at the original Beetle and broke it down into geometric forms…. That was the starting point, from the side its three arches, two fenders, and the cabin, then the front and rear create a smile with a negative arch.” The playful attitude is completed with a dashboard- mounted bud vase. Volkswagen’s CEO, Ferdinand Piëch, distinguishes the new Beetle as an ’emotional’ model, different from the company’s other ‘rational’ models.5
The stunning Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by American architect Frank Gehry, has been hailed by many architects and critics as the greatest building of our time. The titanium- clad, tangled structure has single- handedly put this gritty, industrial city in the north of Spain on the international map, and has started the “Bilbao Effect”– the phenomena of municipalities commissioning world- renowned architects to lift their city into worldwide consciousness. Shortly after it opened, direct flights were added from New York to Bilbao to handle this new- found tourist destination. On the museum’s opening day, a high school principal from Canada was interviewed on Spanish television about her reaction to the building. She exclaimed, “I’m mad. This is such an exciting building. I had no idea this was possible. Now I wonder why we haven’t had this kind of excitement in all our public buildings, and that makes me angry. That it’s been possible all along.”6
Eva Zeisel, a child of Hungary’s aristocracy, a political prisoner in Stalin’s Russia, a Jew who fled Nazi Austria, and an American teacher and industrial designer, speaks of her playful search for beauty. Speaking of her voluptuously shaped bowls, vases, and other household objects, Zeisel says, “there is some sort of emotional transfer,” which is reflected in her fan mail. “I love the people for whom I made it, and it comes across-they accept my love.”7
I propose that these objects that I’ve talked about– buildings, cars, computers, and tableware, carry in them something that moves people. Objects can trigger a reaction in a viewer through associative qualities, but, more importantly, can move a viewer by their inherent essential qualities, their animating principle, their creative idea– what I refer to as “soul”.
But why use a loaded word like soul, when the concept of beauty is much more easily understood?
Webster defines beauty as: “the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.); …a meaningful design or pattern, or something else.”
On the surface, this sounds like the same idea as ‘soul’. It describes a similar causal relationship between object and viewer, which I have asserted, but it has a few shortcomings.
Beauty’s most obvious difficulty is that it is so subjective. What may bring intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to one person’s mind may give his parents a headache. Beauty could simply be a matter of individual taste. The perception of beauty is also constantly on the move. Suzanne Stephens, in an Architectural Record article titled “The Difficulty of Beauty” says “…There is a long history of buildings initially dismissed on aesthetic grounds, but resuscitated over time… In 1889, artists, architects, and writers, including French Beaux Arts architect Charles Garnier, and prominent French author Guy de Maupassant, called the Eiffel Tower ‘useless and monstrous’. In 1931, Lewis Mumford, a philosopher, writer, architectural critic, and urban planner, charged that New York’s Chrysler Building, by William van Alen, was full of inane romanticism and void symbolism. Sometimes, new art, music, and architecture jolts our expectations, initially appearing strange, shocking, or downright ugly. But, over time, it often becomes acceptable, or even beautiful.8 Impressionist paintings, initially shocking, now not only grace many living rooms, but also even match the couch.
Indeed, this is the function of the avant guarde designer, and the time worn trajectory of the acceptance of new art. Ms. Stephens describes this process of the cultural assimilation of a building…”even though the inventive work of architecture may strike a raw nerve or challenges our perceptions and intellect, once we got used to it, we begin to see its beauty. By this adjustment of the eye, our aesthetic boundaries are expanded. For this reason, typically experimental design…gradually becomes less difficult to love and admire.”9 Impressionism, Cubism, Bebop, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, and Frank Gehry’s tangled, contoured, amorphous buildings are all examples of this shift in the notion of beauty.
If beauty is difficult to identify, or come to agreement on, how do we assess things around us? Immanuel Kant tried to get his arms around judging beauty. Kant did not consider taste or aesthetic judgment purely subjective, nor did he believe that “taste should not be argued about, since “aesthetic judgment could not be scientifically demonstrated.” Kant’s contention was that although taste could not be argued scientifically, it could be discussed.10 I would add that beauty should be discussed and made an important value. Too often, the big banal uglies that take up the landscape, and the cheap, semi-disposable things that fill our houses result from a lack of concern for beauty, a lack of discussion of beauty, and an immunity to beauty.
Beauty may be the most important or desired goal in the creation of objects, but its other significant limitation when evaluating objects is that beauty is simply too narrow, too incomplete. Beauty fails to address a range of characteristics, such as romance, sentiment, attitude, spunk, sensuality, humor, utility, and fortitude. In short, all the other characteristics we commonly ascribe to people, and could use to describe things. Music can provide us an example. Billie Holliday had a very limited vocal range, but is acknowledged to be one of the most expressive jazz singers in history. Eduard Munch’s painting “The Scream” is a very moving piece, full of emotion and important in the history of modern art, but beauty is not its primary attribute. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. is designed to be experienced viscerally. Architect James Freed designed the building to “take you in its grip.” Just as the Holocaust defies understanding, the building is not meant to be intellectually understood. Its design is intended to “allow for horror and sadness, and, ultimately, to disturb.”11
What we need is a concept larger, more inclusive than beauty. What about just going with “good design”? The moniker “good design” is inadequate for these purposes, because it describes an object primarily as a problem, the designer’s response, and the resulting artifact. The term “good design” doesn’t address the interaction between the creator, the object, and the person viewing or experiencing the object– what I term the “soul” of the object.
Objects have within them their idea, their animating presence, or their essence, from their creator, and are perceived by the person experiencing or viewing the object-this is what I term the ‘soul’ of an object. A building such as the Lawn at the University of Virginia can be hailed as beautiful, delightful, and uplifting by people through the generations. On the other hand, a building like the Pruitt- Igoe Housing Complex in Saint Louis, was perceived as being mean, ugly, too big, and dehumanizing by its inhabitants, from its grand opening until its early demolition, less than thirty years later. A VW Bug, described as “optimism on wheels,” smiles at you coming and going. Each of these objects reveals its essence, or soul, in a strong manner. If saying that something is beautiful or not is inadequate, deciding whether an object reveals its animating principle, or essence, may be a better evaluation.
But what of the tidal wave of objects and buildings that evoke nothing, take up space, and waste the earth’s valuable resources? All objects have the potential to have beauty or soul, but all ideas aren’t inspired or coherent. Leon Krier, an architectural theoretician and practicing architect based in France, contends “bad architecture is not due to a lack of means or imagination, but, quite simply, due to intellectual confusion, like building a cottage the size of a palace, or palatial architecture to the dimensions of the cottage, making museums look like factories, or factories like temples.”12
So, do all objects have soul? Is the concept of soul neutral? I believe that the concept of soul is, and can be used, as a measure for critique or judgment.
Now we are at a place that Aretha Franklin can offer some help. The notion of soul, as used by African Americans, is commonly understood to be a deeply felt emotion, awareness, and pride, backed up by authenticity. It is something that you either have, or don’t have. The judgment, or observation, is not whether an object is beautiful, but rather if an object’s “got soul”, that is, it has an identifiable animating principle, an understood essence. It elicits some emotion, backed up by authenticity.
Not only do objects have the potential for soul, but I think people really want their objects and architecture to have soul. Americans have been modifying, customizing, and personalizing their cars since the age of the Model T. Hot rods, low riders, “pocket rockets,” and “rice burners” are all evidence of the desire to make a mass- produced, assembly line object more special and personal.
A quick survey in any bookstore will give you the sense of how big Feng Shui has become. According to the principles of Feng Shui, China’s ancient system of harmonizing form and function, a building must be placed and designed to attract the optimum flow of chi, the energy that animates the earth and all living things.13 Americans are now trying to organize their large homes, filled all of their consumer goods, to achieve good Feng Shui.
In some ways, this use of the term “soul” is as indefinable as beauty, but maybe it’s not so mysterious. When you use an object or walk in a building, is there a glimmer or a wink from its creator present? Webster’s dictionary defines soul, and people want soul, but it’s difficult to put your finger on, and designers certainly have a difficult time creating things with soul. But finding something with soul is a little like the famous, 1964 quote by Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart, regarding pornography: “I know it when I see it.”14 Louis Armstrong expresses it in a different way. When he was asked what jazz was, he said, “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”15
What do we make of this discussion of objects and soul? In an age in which we are overwhelmed by material things (much like we are experiencing in the information explosion), we need to be able to sort out the things that matter, and eliminate the rest. We need to make things, buy things, keep things, and pass on things that speak to us. We do not need to pave our land, surround ourselves with mediocrity, and fill our houses with things that dull our senses. The creating or making of things, objects, art, and architecture is an affirmation of our humanity and our intellect. These things carry in them ideas, stimuli that effect people. This animating principle is the soul of a thing-the soul of it.
1 The Great Books of the Western World, The Great Ideas, A Syntopicon I Angel To Love; Mortimer J. Adler, Editor in Chief; Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.; 1952; p. 68.
2 Ibid, p. 68.
4 Metropolis magazine; Bellerophon Publications, Inc.; New York, New York; Susan S. Szenasy, Editor in Chief; October 1998; p. 72; “Think Translucent” by Amy Goldwasser.
5 Metropolis; April 1998; p. 37; “It’s Baaa-aaack” by Christopher Sheridan.
6 Metropolis; April 1998; pp. 108 – 115; “Bilbao” by Barbara Flanagan.
7 Metropolis; January 2001; pp. 85 – 87; “The Playful Search for Beauty” by Karen Steen.
8 Architectural Record magazine; The McGraw- Hill Companies; New York, New York; Robert Ivy, Editor in Chief; November 2000; pp. 95 – 99; “The Difficulty of Beauty” by Suzanne Stephens.
12 Architectural Record; November 2000; p.124; “Sentimental Beauty” by Beth Dunlop.
13 Architectural Record; February 1999; p. 81; “How Places Affect People” by Winifred Gallagher.
14 Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 17th Edition; John Bartlett; p.797.
15 Ibid; p.757.