Why « Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind», by Sarah Robinson, is a book about (towards) architecture – Vladimir Vinea
Placement in the world. The Rhythm Sarah Robinson’s book is coming from far away. Its way to architecture never reaches its
Placement in the world. The Rhythm
Sarah Robinson’s book is coming from far away. Its way to architecture never reaches its destination. It doesn’t want to and it shouldn’t either. Because gradually, we remember what we have long grasped: the goals worthy to be looked for are the unattainable ones. A little church on the mountain… just by stepping out of the train you realize how far it is. And how much you have to ascend. The shortest way-you have figured it out – curls among households, creeps trough the fences, it almost enters in people’s backyards. Gradually, houses begin to scarce and allow the existence of the forest and sunny hills. You are more and more excited to get there, but also more tired. You are out of breath. You won’t make it so fast. Go slower. Find the right pace: slower, more patient, as you breathe, as you walk.
Just as the long-awaited closeness to the wonderful church at the upper end of the village, Sarah Robinson’s book is the story of our place in the world, the story of the ways we experience the world in. It is a pleading for finding the self, mind, and body altogether. Embodied mind, dispersed in our bodies, constantly resonating with the environment. And, just like the path, the book needs, first of all, to have its rhythm, a good one. The rhythm is clear and convincing: the twelve short chapters each open a theme for reflection, lead us on their way, or bring us back, sometimes on the same path. They are bound together at the beginning and the end of the book. The bird’s nest explains and arranges everything.
The search for a good rhythm is not just a formal thing, dealing with the organisation of the work. In many instances along with the book, but especially in the 10th chapter, Sarah Robinson reminds us how important is to cultivate the attention. Learning to listen, managing to come back with all your senses to your own being placed in space are always the first steps in order to profoundly understand the world. These steps have to find their rhythm: concentrated, but not tensed. Towards the mountains, seeking for architecture, everything starts with the right placement along the way.
In resonance with the world. In the shadow
It is there. In the meanwhile, clouds have darkened the sky and a dense fog has covered the mountains. It has to be it, but you can barely see it. You remember those famous photos, where you could barely grasp its contours, wrapped up in low mountain clouds. You recognize the fragile bell tower, its stair climbed by the bells themselves. Somehow strange…the church seems smaller than if it were sunny and you would see it bathing in light. The thick fog is enveloping you, the air density vibrates to your step. You feel it as if you would almost touch it. The good pace we are approaching our surroundings at allows us to start resonating with the environment. If the frequencies are tight enough, the intensities potentiate each other. The force at which the beauty of the world unveils in front of us is stronger when we know how to adjust our walk and sight. In the third chapter, the book speaks convincingly, precisely and poetically about this need of tune between the environment and the individual. Moreover, Sarah Robinson argues, regarding recent scientific studies, the importance of conceptualization of the environment, not as an exterior reality, but as an extension of the living being.
In this respect, the title chosen by the author is full of significance for this chapter: «Adieu, Descartes». Indeed, the first condition to recognize and accept the position and our real roles in relation to the world is to abandon the Cartesian opposites between the mind and body, conscious and unconscious, self and environment. From this point of view, Sarah Robinson’s pledge is not, of course, an original one. Its force is owed especially to the attentive and relevant use of authoritative sources in the field of cognitive sciences, dismantling some of the presuppositions on which, long before Descartes, the philosophical pedestal of western thinking has been built.
Shadow, darkness, fog wrapping up mountain dwellings… as a paradox, maybe, they are all fertile and are all helping us resonate with the world. Destabilizing the primacy of sight, we are consequently more attentive to the rhythm of our steps. Among the clouds, the sight itself becomes tactile. With a profound curtsey to Juhani Pallasmaa, the author reminds us along the book of the importance of re-evaluating the relative share of human feelings, and, moreover, the falsehood of their conceptualization as instincts. There is something else though… on our way to the mountain architecture, just as on any other path of our life, we often need breaks, a time to prepare and tune, a time to see the goal without it being there, yet. And, as the extreme-oriental thinking often reminds us, penumbra slows down our pace, delicately allowing us not to be in a hurry.
Touching the world. The imperfect game
You have arrived. It is smaller than you have imagined. Dressed in shingles, from down to the bottom, the wall is wavy, vibrates and turns upon itself. Here and there torn by the rain, the shingle is really old. You stop in front of it. A massive block of stone, roughly cut into steps, so you can go up. Between the stone and the doorstep: a narrow slot, which you step over fearlessly. The metal wall, on which you can already feel rust, is delicately ascending, keeping its margins, to later round up when your palm begins to ascend. The door handle, imperceptibly curved, supposedly by mistake, might allow you to enter.
When the moment of touching has come, the human body fully rejoices. Sarah Robinson’s book returns, countless times, to the essential bodily dimension of existence, perception, and our relationships with the world. And it also does it by directly referring to architectural creation. «How will we feel what’s built in contact with our body?» is, therefore, one of the key questions it sets out, conclusively, the end of the book. And, of course, reaffirmation of the importance of this category of questions does not imply the creation of some determinism mechanically applied to the architectural conception process. The human body is too flexible, its vibration too fluid to generate rigid conditions of our imagination.
In the seventh chapter of the book – maybe the most explicit regarding architecture, grace to its themes and references – the author manages to precisely nuance the topic of the materiality of the built environment and the way we actively interact with it. Faithful to her passion for the Far East, and again resorting to the opera of Junichirō Tanizaki, Sarah Robinson guides us on the fascinating territory of the accepted imperfection. Understanding and accepting the effects of time on the environment, on everything surrounding us, are signs of wisdom, which, unfortunately, is often stranger to us. The old shingle covering the little church at the end of the village tells us about the time of its placement, about the hands which skilfully carved it, but also about the place, orientation and meaning of the building. Downer or upper on the wall, to the north or the south: rain, wind, and sun have all hit it differently, each by its own making, in the general order of things. By witnessing and feeling these simple facts, we begin to understand the world. And, as Sarah Robinson well says, if we pay attention we can feel and see how time works on the material, how the patina given by the repeated usage will unveil the intimate nature of the inside of a material. Outside and inside, simultaneously. For a better understanding.
Embraced by the world. The nest
You have entered, you have stepped over the doorstep. A flinch! It took you by surprise. The space has already welcomed you. You belong to it. You sit in the last row, to come to your senses. You have never been in such a strong, such a simple place. To the altar, the wall is curved and it’s turning towards you. The equal rhythm of the thin, long, wooden pillars calms everything down. Up, at the base of the central elevated ceiling: a continuous strip of windows, looking at the sky, only at the sky. The dim, weak light of the mountain clouds dissolves little by little. Down, where you sit, there is a warm penumbra, just as in the interior of a nest. The first awakening in the nest… Model of any protective shelter, the nest is the place a creature is born. By a metaphorical translation of meanings- so dear to Sarah Robinson- the supreme «sensorial event» regarding the emergence of a new life can provide us with the clue to understanding these moments of grace when architecture trains all our feelings and transfigures us. The author does not touch, other than in a glimpse, the multiple correspondences which can occur between building a nest, the life within, the act of nesting and architecture. The beauty of the book lies exactly in this restraint, in the freedom we are provided with by the delicate suggestions of the text, so that we, ourselves, can decisively step towards architecture. Let’s not forget that, in English, nesting refers not only to the nest and the action of nesting but also to the arranged elements, hidden in one another, like the traditional Russian dolls. Sarah Robinson rewrites the story of the world, with scholarly scientific and philosophical references, as a multi-layered protection of life, where the multiple coats help each other and lend properties, potentially even matter to one another. Towards the end, the book describes the wonderful happening of the writer Linda Hogan, discovering in the weave of the nest in the forest, fibres of her dress and hairs belonging to the beloved daughter. What stronger urge could we possibly feel to try, as we build, to make space for the constitutive impurities of existence? Returning to the sky-open ark of the mountains, we can only say, that just as the nest, it is just a passer-by on earth: the easier and more natural it is to leave, the more sheltering and better built it is. At the right time, the call of flight is too strong. By the strip of light, separating the walls from the roof, the sky tells us the limit is far and that we still have a long way to go. Any end is just the beginning. Let’s have the courage to enjoy the breathing space!
By publishing this text, Arhitext design Foundation continues its courageous mission started almost 30 years ago. Sarah Robinson joins her masters, Juhani Pallasmaa and Alberto Pérez-Gómez. For our architectural culture, these are the premises of a necessary rearrangement, by thoroughly and more critically exploring the questions and crisis of an insecure world.