It is inevitable that we must review architecture to pursue a deep-dive into “Zero,” even if the connection may not look so obvious. Therefore we will start “Zero and Technology” from the point of view of architecture.
By definition, “architecture” means 1) the art or practice of designing and constructing buildings, and 2) the complex or carefully designed structure of something.
But I am not just talking about green buildings, sustainable development, or comparing structural designs of skyscrapers in NYC and traditional Japanese tea ceremony houses. Implications of “architecture” are much more profound; they reveal something fundamental and principal about humans.
Architecture is the manifestation of the nature-human relationship, from a humans’ perspective. It is our manifesto, or answer from humans to nature on how the interaction between the two can be, and should be. It is not a coincidence that the most familiar architecture of all, a house, covers every aspect of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – from physiological, safety, love/belonging, self-esteem to self-actualization. Architecture is the backbone of our civilization.
Up until the Middle Ages, humans had very few options to alter the power balance against nature; humans’ physical capacities were far from overcoming various threats posed by nature. Humans would take advantage of natural caves, make simple tents or huts as shelters, but those shelters weren’t very protective. Knowing physical shields were vulnerable and ineffective, humans in those days might have relied heavily on intangible architecture such as myths, animisms, magic and/or superstitions to face the overwhelming power of nature. Those systems are intangible, but still meet the definition of architecture because they are a “complex or carefully designed structure.”
Conceptual nature-human relationship pre-Middle Age: humans’ architecture is vulnerable.
Over time, humans accumulated knowledge and improved intangible architecture, which also made them capable of developing stable and complex physical architecture. More structured religions would take over animism or myths, as intangible architecture such as logic or language would advance. They would be accompanied by magnificent churches that would physically represent humans’ desperate hope to fill the mystical gap, or imbalance of power, between nature and humans.
If churches are one of the most symbolic outputs of architecture in human history that represent our cognitive efforts, then agricultural methods can be considered another symbolic “architecture” (they involve carefully altering how the land is structured and used) humans developed to increase productivity, leveraging natural resources.
Post Middle Age is the era we know very well. If you remember major landmarks such as the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the two world wars and the IT revolution, it’s obvious that it’s been the era of science and technology. The ever-accelerating technology brought us a mesmerizing pace and scale of globalization, economic development and population growth over the last few hundred years. Various data shows slow growth for thousands and thousands of years, and then an abrupt exponential growth after the Middle Ages. Intellectual architecture, called science and technology, literally altered the properties, characteristics and interactions of Earth and humans, both physically and conceptually.
“World human population (est.) 10,000 BC–2000 AD” By El T [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
What triggered the abrupt exponential growth after the Middle Ages?
In Pre-Middle Age, all architecture had to conform to the limit of humans’ physical/cognitive capabilities. Humans WERE the actual vehicles/components for all the architecture. Improvements could only be incremental because we couldn’t become a cyborg or a robot. Our eyes were telescopes to observe the vast universe. Our sense of direction was a compass to sail across the oceans and, of course, our bodies were the motor engines for boats.
In Post-Middle Age, humans succeeded in creating architecture completely EXTERNAL to humans’ physical/cognitive capabilities. Most architecture we use today, such as buildings, traffic systems, manufacturing processes or internet works on its own, regardless of the powerless nature of our bodies. In the post-Middle Age era, an increasing number of tasks are carried out by things that are detached from our body – whether it’s burning coal to extract energy, changing the chemical property of metal to create something super hard, or manipulating molecules to alter a species’ fate. You don’t have to have 20/20 eyesight and a lot of patience to keep observing the sky to become an astrologist. You don’t have to absorb the theory of hydrodynamics by making and sailing hand-made canoes time and time again to travel to Hawaii. Those painstaking tasks have been detached from our abilities and outsourced to external elements, and often times we don’t even recognize or acknowledge what they are.
Conceptual nature-human relationship after the Middle Ages: Human created architecture substantially stronger than humans.
It is important to remember this crucial moment of decoupling – decoupling of architecture from humans’ capabilities. Although it hasn’t drawn much attention, this drastic change must have altered how humans think and behave; and most importantly in this project, how humans would recognize satisfaction and happiness.
Yoshihiko Amino, an accomplished Japanese historian who shed light on many aspects of peoples’ lives in the Middle Ages wrote:
To certain extent, we can guesstimate how peoples’ lives were in and after the 15th century based on our own experiences and knowledge. In a bigger picture, we are on the same trajectory. However, that trajectory does not work for people in and before the13th century. Those people lived outside our norm. We will easily misunderstand them if we carelessly apply our way of interpreting things. Clearly, humans have experienced fundamental transformation in the 14th century. (Translation by the author. 「日本の歴史を読み直す」 網野義彦 筑摩書房 2000）
Amino’s statement supports the assumption that life before and after this decisive moment of decoupling is completely different.
The Middle Age is a critical landmark for this project primarily because that’s when many Zen-inspired Zero cultures were established. But it wasn’t a coincidence that they emerged in the Middle Ages: it had to happen at this critical juncture, where man-powered architecture saw its culmination and started to be replaced by non man-powered technology-driven architecture.
We will start this Volume, Zero and Technology, by looking at the forefront of architecture. How far have we come in leveraging technology-driven architecture? How has it changed the way we live and feel happiness?