Friday, May 17, 2013

Hard and soft

When I take my landscape architecture students from the Boston Architectural College for a walk in the city I ask them what the plants are "doing." Inevitably they tell me that plants growing along the building, shrubs in front, vines growing up the wall, or green or flowering things are "softening" the architecture. I see their point. The curvaceous volume of the plants contrasting with the flat, angular spaces of the building are providing a kind of visual softness.

But if we look at soft and hard and hard and soft in another way, maybe we can come to understand things a little differently. This concept started to clarify itself for me when I visited Sri Lanka. There at the top of a mountain at the magnificent Kudimbigala Forest Monastery stood an ancient stupa made of bricks pummeled by the wind. The stupa looked solid against the sky and high clouds. All around it grass bent deep in the strong wind. In the distance the Indian Ocean, flat, impassive, and ethereal laid itself out toward the horizon. A vision of nature as soft and gossamer as could be against the strength and architectural determination the solid brick stupa.

The grass nothing, the stupa "something." But the stupa had areas where the bricks had loosened or fallen out. Countless pilgrims had walked up the hewn steps of the mountain with bricks for the stupa. All around the large structure they had built small cairns of brick and rock, insignificant piles that represented quantities of devotion. The cairns were small but they were numerous. It occurred to me that they represented the spiritual life of the people who assembled them. A life ongoing, flowing, growing. The grass and sky and ocean and wind all around the stupa also were eternal. It was structure itself that was constrained by materiality, by bricks and mortar, by its temporality, and by its hardness. It was there at Kudimbigala that I began to question the juxtaposition of monument versus moment.

Back here in the highly developed built environment of north America the same questions emerge. Azaleas flutter like clouds against a hard brick wall. In front of them the heavy metal of gigantic vehicles, a hot paved roadway. All of these built things will rot and rust over time. The soft flowers of the shrub will turn to seed and continue onward with species for longer than the wall will stand.

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