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The Big Rethink Part 3: Integral Theory

In the third installment of the AR’s campaign, Peter Buchanan introduces Integral theory, which establishes a new framework for the design of 21st-century buildings and cities

The first two essays in this series merely set the scene, making the case for, rather than initiating The Big Rethink: Towards a Complete Architecture. This now begins in earnest. The second essay discussed some ways in which modernism, including modern architecture, is endemically unsustainable, and some of the most potent forces bringing epochal change. It listed particularly those that might bring enticing benefits as opposed to those, in the first essay, that threaten to bring calamities. It concluded by speculating that several epochs, coexisting simultaneously over different time spans, are now ending, so highlighting just how pivotal are our times.

Here we concentrate on understanding the modern era, its origins some four to five centuries ago, and why it is now waning; the implications of that alone are vast enough. We also look at the transitions from pre-modern to modern and then to postmodern and what they meant for architecture. From these foundations we can start considering the architecture of the future, that of the epoch succeeding the transitional phase of current postmodernism − what, in the table closing last month’s essay, Charlene Spretnak calls Deconstructionist Postmodernism as opposed to the Ecological Postmodernism of the emergent era.

The need to rethink recalls the situation a century or so ago when architects confronted a very different pluralism to now − a riot of historic motifs and styles, sometimes within the same building. The response was to break with history and reduce to basics, tossing out historic motifs and ornament, and embracing an abstract language shaped around function and construction − and, where possible, new types of both.

‘Integral theory is concerned with integrating, or bringing into relationship, knowledge fragmented between specialisms’

Now we realise this approach was too reductive and we must seek a more complete architecture informed by a more complete view of what it is to be fully human, as well as to reground both architecture and humankind in history and culture. Thus besides a new architecture we need a very different way of thinking. As the Einstein quote that is deservedly a clichéd mantra for our time asserts: ‘A problem cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created it.’ Nor can the opportunities for innovation latent in the challenges we face be grasped.

This third essay introduces a new mode and level of thinking to that of modernity and postmodernity that will guide much of the argument of the future essays. Known as Integral theory, it has developed over some decades and has antecedents stretching even further back. It is particularly suited to architecture: it too brings into useful relationship many disciplines and kinds of knowledge; and because many key ideas are explained in diagrams, it should be readily accessible to architects.

The core diagram, for instance, includes and brings into relationship: individual subjective experience, including aesthetic pleasure; the communal and cultural dimensions of subjective experience, such as meaning, symbolism and shared values; the objective realms of observed behaviour (function); the physical characteristics of biological form and functioning (and, for architecture, form, material, construction and so on); and the many systems in which these objective functions and forms (including those of buildings) operate − ecological, economic, technical, sociological and so on.

Moreover, Integral theory is genuinely post-postmodern or trans-modern, vastly inclusive yet disciplined, so combining richness with rigour, breadth with depth, and giving equal value to the subjective and objective while also grounded in empirical evidence. It guides studies in various fields, providing a conceptual framework that stimulates new insights by highlighting neglected areas of investigation and unexplored relationships.

Different sorts of Integral

That Integral theory has hardly impacted architecture to date is damning testimony to the damage wrought by the distractions of theory courses and academic publications still recycling the same irrelevant philosophical and literary theories. Because the thinking presented here moves beyond the limits of modern and postmodern thought, transgressing key taboos of the latter (particularly those of political correctness), it is only slowly entering some academic departments.

Exceptions, where it has been more readily adopted, are MBA courses, which hunger for new ideas conferring competitive advantage; some psychology departments, which are home to co-developers of areas of Integral theory; and some of urbanism and ecology, which, like architecture, must integrate several fields of study. Both confines of space − 12 essays may seem ample to rethink architecture, but there is so much to reconsider − and architecture’s current detachment from leading-edge thought, limit how much and at what depth we can explore Integral theory.

Parts of Integral theory require what at first brush are challenging conceptual leaps and so are not even touched upon. Let’s trust our discussion is not seen as excessively trivialising by the Integral community; but then Integral theory is just too useful not to exploit, even if only in such a superficial manner. Before introducing Integral theory let’s look at some diagrams from historian Richard Tarnas. He teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies, which was founded with similar ambitions to Integral theory, yet they are independent and somewhat different. (Integral is a current buzz word, used in various contexts, yet with not quite the same meaning.)

Diagrams by Richard Tarnas with his captions: In the primal worldview, intelligence and soul (the shaded area) pervade all of nature and the cosmos, and the permeable human self directly participates in that larger matrix of meaning and purpose within whi

Diagrams by Richard Tarnas with his captions: In the primal worldview, intelligence and soul (the shaded area) pervade all of nature and the cosmos, and the permeable human self directly participates in that larger matrix of meaning and purpose within which it is fully embedded. In the modern worldview, all qualities associated with purposeful intelligence and soul are exclusively characteristic of the human subject, which is radicallydistinct from the objective nonhuman world. In the late modern cosmos, the human self exists as an infinitesimal island of meaning and spiritual aspiration in a vast purposeless universe

Tarnas’ diagrams summarise something of the modern predicament in a poignantly potent manner that is immediately graspable intellectually, and maybe emotionally too. They contrast the worldviews of primal, modern and late modern mankind. Although Tarnas does not define these eras exactly in the source the diagrams are taken from, primal refers to the vast majority of human history, those many millennia prior to civilisation, while here modern starts with monotheism and Greek philosophy, and late modern clearly is the post-Copernican, post-Nietzschean era. The diagrams are so eloquently evocative they need no more explanation than Tarnas’ brief captions.

The Integral theory we will explore a tiny corner of, in a rather simplified way, is that developed by philosopher, transpersonal psychologist and prolific author, Ken Wilber. Besides Wilber’s own, original contributions, he draws on and integrates the works of many other thinkers and disciplines. These range from GWF Hegel to Jürgen Habermas and include figures such as Henri Bergson, AN Whitehead and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Now a number of other scholars also contribute to Integral theory’s ongoing evolution, not least as researchers providing a growing body of empirical evidence to expand that already subsumed in Wilber’s thinking.

As implied by the name Integral, adopted from German philosopher Jean Gebser (1905-73) and Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) (both among those who have most influenced Wilber), it is concerned with integrating, or at least bringing into relationship, all the rapidly expanding knowledge now available yet fragmented between specialisms. It thus helps us regain a grip on, and a sense of wholeness to, what Wilber refers to as the Kosmos, resurrecting the Greek term that refers to both the physical manifestation of the cosmos and all the forms of consciousness and culture it hosts.

Table of differing phases of cultural development according to, from left to right, Marshall McLuhan, Jean Gebser and William Irwin Thompson. The stages in one column are not coincident with those in the other two

Table of differing phases of cultural development according to, from left to right, Marshall McLuhan, Jean Gebser and William Irwin Thompson. The stages in one column are not coincident with those in the other two

Significantly, then, Integral theory transcends the more limited perspective of holism (or systems holism) in attending not only to objective matters but giving equal weight to the subjective realms. Also, in developing Integral theory, Wilber sought to bring together the teachings of West and East, and so science and spirituality. Besides being an intellectual system, Wilber intends Integral theory to guide personal and spiritual development, another cause of academic resistance.

In common with some other currents in 21st-century thinking, the Integral approach is developmental in nature: beyond integrating diverse disciplines, it is concerned with how organisms, consciousness, cultures and so on evolve and develop through distinct stages. Few have problems with the notion of development in the non-human world (through insect life stages, for instance, or the branching tree of biological evolution) or even that of childhood development from infancy upwards to adolescence.

But that cultures and consciousness develop through clearly demarcated phases offends many in the humanities as it transgresses postmodern taboos on ranking and hierarchy. This is despite such ideas having ancient lineage, now backed by increasing empirical evidence, as well as Integral theory’s insistence that none of these phases is better or less healthy than any other. This too has caused resistance to Integral theory. But any worthwhile rethink must rattle intellectual cages, and perhaps even offend a few.

‘An assumption informing, and insight arising from, the AQAL diagram is that increases in level in one quadrant are matched by rises in the others’

Developmental theories in psychology, such as Jean Piaget’s theory of child development and Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ (and those of other more recent, but lesser known, figures such as Robert Kegan and Susanne Cook-Greuter) have shaped Integral theory. But so have theories of the development of culture and consciousness, such of those of Gebser and Aurobindo, and Spiral Dynamics, developed by Clare W Graves (1914-86) and now advanced by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. Spiral Dynamics, a model of how cultures develop through defined phases and now intrinsic to Integral theory, is richly illuminating, particularly in understanding multicultural contexts, as is often necessary in larger urban interventions.

Many other thinkers have simpler yet complementary schema of historical development. Thus philosopher Marshall McLuhan saw us as evolving through and being conditioned by our communications media, and mathematician Ralph Abraham by the new form of mathematics that characterised an era. William Irwin Thompson (another thinker influenced by Gebser) prefers geo-political phases whereas Jeremy Rifkin, discussed in last month’s AR, offers his own schema. For Integral theory, Gebser’s schema was seminal and its stages now co-exist in it with Spiral Dynamics’ more numerous ones.

Central to Integral theory, as an integrative matrix clearly communicating some core themes, is the All Quadrant, All Level (AQAL − pronounced Ahqwal) diagram. Its bare bones are deceptively simple, giving little indication of how immensely useful it is; but fully annotated with its unfamiliar terms it might seem offputtingly arcane. Wilber arrived at the diagram when working on the most important of his many major works to date, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, and was seeking a framework with which to integrate all the diverse developmental theories.

Simplified AQAL diagram defining the quadrants

Simplified AQAL diagram defining the quadrants

His operating assumption was that every one of them must have some value − if only a framework could be devised to show how they relate to each other, so also highlighting relative strengths and weaknesses. He tried placing his folders of notes about each theory into piles together with others of a similar character, hoping this would reveal further commonalities as the basis for an integrative framework. But always the folders formed four independent piles with little to link them − until he recognised these as the quadrants of what became the AQAL diagram.

The AQAL quadrants are defined by two cross axes. The upper part of the vertical axis marks the realm of the individual and the lower part that of the collective. The left part of the horizontal axis marks the realm of interiors or the subjective and the right part that of exteriors or the objective. The Upper Left quadrant (UL) is thus interior-individual, the realm of the subjective, of psychology and intentionality, of experience and unmediated aesthetic response. The Lower Left quadrant (LL) is interior-collective, the inter-subjective realm of culture and symbolism, meaning and morals.

The Upper Right quadrant (UR) is exterior-individual, the objective realm of observed behaviour and of objecthood, whether of biological characteristics or of form, matter, construction and so on. The Lower Right quadrant (LR) is exterior-collective, the inter-objective realm of systems, be they ecological, economic, technical, social or whatever. The quadrants thus also correspond to the pronouns: I (UL), We (LL), It (UR) and Its (indicating plural, LR).

The left quadrants cannot be understood by observation alone but require an interrogation of the subject to gain insight, directly or through interpretative hermeneutics, and so are dialogical. The right quadrants are studied through detached observation alone, by empirical and positivist methods, and are referred to as monological. Each quadrant has specific criteria for assessing validity and its own intellectual disciplines and associated thinkers − very few of whom develop all four quadrants.

Each quadrant has its own specific criteria of validity

Each quadrant has its own specific criteria of validity

This applies to architecture too. In the UL is aesthetics and phenomenology, currently written about by Juhani Pallasmaa. LL is semiotics (Charles Jencks) and the cultural realm, including anthropology, associated with Joseph Rykwert. UR is function and ergonomics, Neufert Architects’ Data and the Metric Handbook, form and construction. Kenneth Frampton’s studies of tectonics is concerned with the aesthetic qualities (UL) invested by attention to this UR quadrant.

The LR quadrant of systems is the realm of contracting, industrialised systems, returns on investment and so on. Obviously any truly complete form of thinking would give attention to all quadrants, to the subjective left as well as the objective right. Systems holism, which many see as the paradigm succeeding modernity, deals with right quadrants only − and so, as we shall see, is a limited modern mode of thought.

Each AQAL quadrant is bisected by a diagonal line marked at regular intervals. These denote the levels that rise with distance from the crossing of the axes, so introducing the developmental dimension. The levels are too complex to detail in a single essay, but crucially are organised ‘holarchically’. Holarchy derives from ‘holon’, coined by Arthur Koestler to denote something that is a whole in itself but also part of a larger whole. Thus, to progress up the levels with an example from the UR quadrant, an electron is a whole that is also part of an atom, and an atom is a whole that is also part of a molecule, and a molecule is a whole that is also part of a cell, that is a whole and also part of an organism and so on.

Some thinkers representative of each quadrant

Some thinkers representative of each quadrant

The Integral term for holarchical organisation is ‘transcend and include’ in that each level both transcends that below and includes it. An anomaly in some depictions of the AQAL diagram, and in our use of it to discuss architecture, is that some things depicted in the right quadrants, particularly the LR, are artefacts (human-created) rather than holons (the products of evolution). But this in no way impairs the usefulness for those seeking insights into creating better architecture through greater inclusiveness (checking all quadrants are considered) and increased rigour, even if not quite the ultimate in methodological rigour.

Among the key assumptions informing, and insights arising from, the AQAL diagram is that a progressive increase in level in one quadrant is matched by a similar rise in each of the others. Hence an increase in complexity of brain physiology (UR) is matched by an increase in consciousness (UL), as well as in cultural sophistication (LL) and social organisation (LR) and these all come about simultaneously. Such understandings are crucial if we are to progress to sustainability. At the moment this tends to be treated as largely an ecological issue (LR) to be tackled with attention to behavioural and technical matters (UR).

Neglected are the left quadrants, although effective action in the right quadrants depends on left-quadrant empathic understandings and motivation as well as cultural transformation. Although we lack space to recap Integral theory’s sophisticated models of psycho-spiritual and cultural development, these can be broadly distilled into
four key stages: ego-centric (concern with the self); ethno-centric (that progresses from concern with the tribe to the nation-state or race); to world-centric (when sustainability becomes a live issue); to biosphere-centric (that brings the vision to inspire effective remedial action).

The four quadrants as applied to humans

The four quadrants as applied to humans

Thus for Integral thinkers, right-quadrant measures to achieve sustainability, no matter how useful, must be accompanied by left-quadrant development. When radical reorientation is urgently required, as now, this insight should inform the revision of education and also the work of artists and architects whose proper role is not spurious self-expression but contributing to the development of consciousness and culture. The levels in the AQAL diagram highlight an error in thinking common in contemporary culture, what Integral theory labels the Pre-Trans Fallacy.

In this, lower states of experience or cultural development (whether infantile or pre-modern and earlier) are mistaken for higher (Transcendent) ones evolved beyond current norms. Thus Freud dismissed higher levels of spiritual development (Trans) as regression to infantile states of still undifferentiated union with the world (Pre), while Jung often mistook the latter (Pre) for higher mystical levels (Trans).

For Wilber, many ‘deep ecologists’ who advocate empathic union with the Earth and its creatures, are guilty of the Pre-Trans Fallacy by advocating regression to an earlier state of undifferentiated union rather than forward progression to where this union is re-achieved at higher levels of consciousness, culture and cognition. This is a trap that some architects advocating a ‘biophilic’ architecture, or more extreme back to nature approaches, need to be alert to and avoid.

From pre-modernity to modernity

Even from this brief and very partial description of the AQAL diagram it should be clear how potently useful it is in ensuring a more complete approach to architecture than that characterising modernity, which focused primarily on the right quadrants at the expense of those on the left, ignoring the LL in particular. But Wilber also uses the AQAL and related diagrams to quickly illuminate historic transitions, particularly those from pre-modernity to modernity, and then from modernity to postmodernity. This deepens our understanding of these eras and gives telling insights into their architecture.

All pre-modern cultures subscribed to a worldview often called the ‘Great Chain of Being’. This can be represented diagrammatically as a series of concentric, or nested, circles. In its simplest form the central circle denotes matter; the one around it, organic life or the body; the next, mental activity and the mind; and the outer circle or circles, the soul and spirit. The terminology differs between cultures and religions, but the schema is identical. Such a worldview conferred a sense of organic unity to these pre-modern cultures that many now look back to with nostalgic envy.

University departments arranged by quadrant. Diagram derived from Integral Ecology by Esbjörn-Hargens and Zimmerman

University departments arranged by quadrant. Diagram derived from Integral Ecology by Esbjörn-Hargens and Zimmerman

But from the modern perspective this worldview and the tight entanglement of its layers is also very constrictive, as Galileo found when his investigation of the stars (the inner circle of matter) was deemed to transgress religious edict (the outer circle of spirit). In such a context it is difficult to develop ideas in isolation and depth; and the only notion of evolution conceptually possible is up through the circles or levels, rather than within, say, the second circle of life, as with Darwinian evolution. In-depth investigation of a single layer only became possible with modernity.

The Great Chain of Being was the worldview up to and through the Middle Ages until the beginning of the Renaissance when faith as the underpinning of culture gave way progressively to reason. Various thinkers have chosen different events as marking the earliest stirrings of modernity. Examples that readers might be familiar with are Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux in 1336, simply to get a better view (perspective on) the surrounding countryside, which some see as presaging Filippo Brunelleschi’s demonstration of perspective in 1413, after which, it is argued, objects became progressively more distinct from their background.

The nested circles of the Great Chain of Being that represents the worldview of all pre-modern cultures

The nested circles of the Great Chain of Being that represents the worldview of all pre-modern cultures

Possibly most important of all were Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439, which made books relatively affordable; and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, which led to fleeing scholars bringing by-then forgotten Greek texts to Italy, so leading a rediscovery of its philosophy with its emphasis on reason.6 Remarkably prophetic about the nature of modernity was the 23-year-old Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s extraordinary Oration on the Dignity of Man of 1486, envisioning a new sort of human, capable of understanding God’s works and free from the limits constraining all other creatures.

Also seminal was Nicolaus Copernicus’ publication announcing the heliocentric nature of the universe in 1543. Today we see this as displacing us from the centre of the universe and so as somewhat marginalising mankind. But its immediate impact was the contrary: elation that in discovering and formulating the laws of God’s universe mankind was itself, though to a lesser degree, demonstrating God-like powers. None of the above alone initiated modernity; yet all contributed and helped shape its essential character. But to return to Wilber: for him a key step to modernity is what he refers to as ‘the differentiation of the Big Three’ − the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

The Big Three

The Big Three

These were differentiated already by Plato. But with modernity the differentiation was eventually to become more extreme and led to dissociation between the Big Three and all the forms of fragmentation that characterise modernity. The Big Three correspond to the quadrants: the True, which includes nature and science, being UR and LR; the Good, which includes culture and morals, being LL; and the Beautiful, which includes art and aesthetics, being UL.

From this differentiation came the power of modern thought and its incredible mastery of the material world, particularly as the True in the form of science was now set free to develop unhindered. The re-ascendance of reason led initially to a flowering of both the left-hand quadrants in Humanism and the beginning of the long ascendance of the right-hand quadrants of science and technology. As the latter increased in its very demonstrable powers, this led to a slow but steady devaluing of the left-hand quadrants as Humanism withered into the humanities, the last refuge of the subjective.

It also resulted in CP Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’, of science and the arts, that neither talked to nor understood each other. Eventually, what had been a potently useful and healthy differentiation became too extreme, a pathological dissociation in which links among the Big Three were severed, so leading to the fragmentation and intensifying the disenchantment of the world so eloquently summed up in Tarnas’ diagrams. The core determinant of the character of an era is its underlying notion of reality − and the mostly unquestioned assumptions it results in that condition people’s understanding of and experience of the world. For modernity this notion is that there is an objective reality, external to and independent of us.

Baldly stated, this might seem relatively banal and inconsequential. But the consequences of adopting this historically unprecedented sense of reality were vast and still continue, explaining much about both modernity and modern architecture. Prior to modernity, the notion of an objective, independent reality was inconceivable: you were an engaged participant in reality to which you were responsible because it was, in small part at least, shaped by your actions and thoughts. Rituals were needed to ensure rains and harvest, even in some cultures to ensure the sun rose.

‘The core determinant of the character of an era is its underlying notion of reality. For modernity this notion is that there is an objective reality, external to and independent of us’

You were immersed in and intrinsic to reality and the world − even if your powers over them were very limited and had to be reinforced by constant ritualistic entreaty. Increasing numbers now profess New Age beliefs such as that we create our own reality as a mirror of our thoughts. They and others claim science, by discovering the participative role of the observer in quantum mechanics and phenomena such as quantum entanglement, has disproved the notion of objective reality.

There is truth in these views, but the problem is less with the idea of an objective reality − which despite what scientistic fundamentalists claim will always remain to some degree unknowable because inevitably conditioned by the limits of the subjective observer − but rather that this reductive right-quadrant view became modernity’s dominant and often exclusive view of reality. (Postmodernity was in part provoked as the antithesis of this view.)

Immeasurably compounding this problem is the idea that the reality of things can be fully understood by reductive analysis of them abstracted from context. Here it is the newer sciences of ecology and New Biology, of systems and chaos theory, and complex adaptive systems that challenge this view by insisting that things can only be fully known in their wider webs of relationships. Even more challenging in the New Sciences is the increasingly subscribed-to view of a living universe and some heretics arguing consciousness as fundamental to the universe.

Modern science and scientific materialism, the concomitant mode of thought virtually synonymous with modernity, study this objective reality through detached observation, measurement and reductive analysis − as has proved hugely effective. But detached observation also supresses our emotional and empathic connections with the object observed and the world at large, so deadening us to tolerate experiments on other species and the exploitation of nature.

These have become mere resources or commodities, and desperately undervalued ones. Science and the right quadrants, the only reality knowable with any certainty to the modern mindset, also came to progressively dominate, even suppress, the left quadrants of consciousness and culture; as for soul and spirit, along with religion, they were dismissed as mere superstition. Behaviourist psychology even rejected the notion of consciousness, which many others correlated as mere brain function, observable electric activity and an almost accidently emergent epi-phenomenon, so collapsing the rich worlds of the left quadrants to the bio-mechanics of the right.

The Four Quadrants

The Four Quadrants

Such reductionism is characteristic of modernity.In Integral terms, the result is Flatland, a narrow and desiccated reality that excludes the sensual joys of embodied experience, along with psychological depths and spiritual heights. Also excluded are all the dimensions of meaning invested by the left quadrants, so intensifying the loss of meaning arising from living in Newton’s dead, mechanical universe where even evolution is the blind product of chance mutations and natural selection.

Objective reality explored by reductive analysis dissolved the sense of intellectual and experiential connections and relationships between things, and even between people. This led inevitably to the fragmentation of the world into isolated objects, as evidenced by the buildings in the modern city, to social atomisation, the rise of individualism and erosion of community − and again to the reduction of the natural world and other people to resources to be exploited. Compounding this, detached observation privileges the distancing sense of sight, further eroding emotional and empathic engagement.

Moreover, sight tends to emphasise surfaces at the expense of seeing into things, also eroding meaning, and is well exemplified in the emphasis on the facticity
of the medium in modern art, in painting, for instance, on the picture plane and the materiality and visible working of the pigment.Hugely pernicious is that in living with only an objective reality, we are excluded from this reality, reducing us to observers and consumers, alienating us and shutting us out of the world, giving rise to a widespread sense of not being at home in the world, of merely camping or picnicking on it.

Such feelings are compounded by the notion that this is a meaningless and dead clockwork universe. Little wonder people care so little about the environment and wall themselves off from reality and the world with addictive behaviours, such as shopping and the accumulation of goodies, as well as with television, muzak, air-conditioning and tinted glass.

Modernity’s unsustainability

Many cultures prior to modernity employed unsustainable practices. But they lacked the technological power to do much damage or it was only a single culture and its natural habitat that were destroyed, the latter often to recover in time. But with modernity it is all cultures that are threatened, even those most remote from civilisation, and the whole planet, although it too may recover eventually. The many ways in which modernity is utterly unsustainable should now be obvious, so here we only recap a few of them. The power of its left-quadrant science and technology led to the suppression of right-quadrant felt connections (empathy) with the planet and nature and exacerbated a hubristic denial of any dependencies on them.

These became a mere dumping ground for externalities (such as pollution and waste) rather than treated with measured respect − for its regenerative cycles, for instance − let alone being treated with left-quadrant reverence. Modernity simply exploits and seeks power over nature rather than seeking any symbiosis with it, or ‘transcending and including’ it as part of an Integral culture that recognises it evolved, rather than is separate, from nature − and thrives and is healthy only to the degree nature does too.

Probably the most deleteriously unsustainable aspect of modernity is in the psychic costs of devaluing the left quadrants of psychic depths and spiritual highs, of empathic connections to others and nature, and of a richly supportive culture that gives meaning and dignified purpose to our lives while guiding our flowering into full humanity. Denying and detaching, and often causing us to betray our deep personal values, we cannot find peace of mind, fulfilment or profound contentment.

Robbed of these deep and grounding satisfactions, including the sense of being at home in the world, we are left lonely and isolated, rootless and restless, and prey to the addictive and destructive behaviour that is much in evidence all around us. Once again this reasserts that sustainability cannot be achieved without confronting the exciting, collective challenge of applying visionary imagination to cultural transformation. Among other things this must urgently raise much of the population from ego- and ethno-centricity to world- and biosphere-centricity − a challenge when in even in the developed world a decent quality of life is not available to a sizeable minority.

The Great Nest of Being as correlated with levels and their terms in the different religious traditions. Diagram derived from one by Brad Reynolds

The Great Nest of Being as correlated with levels and their terms in the different religious traditions. Diagram derived from one by Brad Reynolds

Of course, besides the downsides we are increasingly aware of, modernity also brought huge gifts, including almost everything that surrounds the modern citizen and makes for a healthy, long and comfortable life, secure in all the slowly-won rights we now take for granted. Instead of only castigating modernity, as so many environmentalists do, we should acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe it, not least because, as psychotherapists have shown, it is gratitude not blame that releases us and allows us to move on. But the better we understand modernity, the more inevitable seems the eventual emergence of postmodernity.

Yet its current form (Spretnak’s Deconstructionist Postmodernism) is only be a transitional phase, useful in eroding the hegemony of the modern worldview and opening us up to new perspectives, yet unable to usher in the next major epoch.As with modernity, postmodernism’s beginning is impossible to pinpoint. It was presaged by the emergence of perspectives repressed by the hegemonic, masculinist, instrumental views of rational scientific materialism.

Two were particularly important, the voices of the colonised and those of women. Both announced ways the left-quadrant, interior realms were repressed by right-quadrant rationality. Initially the response was ‘to just be reasonable, or rational’ so denying feelings of resentment, anger, injustice − accumulated from collective history and personal experience. Patronising rationality is a pervasive modern form of violence, the velvet glove hiding modern forms of barbarity, whether the victims were the colonised, women, nature or manmade heritage. (Women writers had also first alerted us to two other major forms of destruction wrought by right-quadrant rationality: Rachel Carson to nature in Silent Spring and Jane Jacobs to the city in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.)

Also asserting the left-hand interior quadrants was increasing interest in philosophies attending to private experience: Existentialism, which expressed the alienation wrought
by modernity; and, of greater long-term consequence, the phenomenology of thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gaston Bachelard.
Besides, culturally, modernity was doomed to failure, for reasons other than the devaluing of culture and the inner subjective worlds it speaks to and develops.

‘Modern architecture and urbanism created the city of doing as opposed to the city of being, where different roles are played out in different places’

As the concept of the Great Chain of Being makes clear, all pre-modern cultures are rooted − or perhaps, as more consistent with the diagram, wrapped − in a religious
or spiritual worldview. Once reason had brought about Nietzsche’s ‘Death of God’, modernity was robbed of this deep wellspring, and art had to step into its place. This
led to great flowerings of art right up to the early modern artists and writers of the first half of the 20th century.

But art alone cannot underpin culture, especially when cut off from the history of culture, and so became progressively trivial. A clear, simple and useful understanding of postmodernism is as the re-emergence of the repressed flipside of modernity, the pendulum having swung too far in the opposite extreme from modernity’s objective reality (right quadrants only) to posit all realities as arbitrary (left quadrants only), at best consensual constructs we can momentarily agree on. Hence postmodernity’s ultra-relativist stances: all ideas and opinions are equally valuable − and challenging anybody’s provokes aggressive narcissistic regression. Its great weakness is less in stressing the left quadrants than its lack of any grounding.

It rejects the right quadrants (even science is just another narrative) and the deep subjective with its archetypal layers of the left quadrants, as revealed in depth psychology − as well as, Wilber would say, the universals found in higher levels of spiritual development. Historically, postmodernism is an important corrective to modernity. Sensitive to the values of the LL quadrant, it lacks the latter’s destructive drive and is more conservationist towards the built and natural environment.

It also highlights, for instance, the importance of context in determining validity and value, and gives space to multiple voices and viewpoints so eroding the simplistic certainties of modernity and facilitating the transition to the next epoch. But it is a transitional phase and not the next long-term paradigm. Moreover, postmodern thinking is now a serious liability. Rejecting hierarchies, it cannot prioritise; rejecting grand narratives and big picture thinking, it lacks much-needed perspective, so blocking consideration
of and action on critically urgent issues.

Renaissance Humanism expressed in architecture. The Pazzi Chapel, Florence, by Filippo Brunelleschi

Renaissance Humanism expressed in architecture. The Pazzi Chapel, Florence, by Filippo Brunelleschi

After all, evolution and ecology, sustainability and the new visions emerging from science, such as that of the cosmic unfolding, are all very grand narratives. Even the tolerant relativism that is part of its ‘caring and sharing’ ethos is problematic, leading to endless discussions and further frustrating any effective action. So while academe and the civil service are full of postmodernists, some businesses use psychometric testing to screen them out from applicants.

The lingering tenacity of postmodern thought, particularly in academe, is exactly analogous to Scholasticism at the close of the Middle Ages, arguing angels dancing on pinheads and oblivious to the burgeoning Renaissance. Even the urgency of global warming has failed to break postmodernism’s dalliance with frivolous theory. Nor, curiously has the financial crisis: as slippery constructs ungrounded in larger realities there is little to choose between bankers’ derivatives and the writings of Jacques Derrida.

Architectural consequences

So how are the differing notions of reality that underpin modernity and postmodernity reflected in the architecture of each era? The settlements and cities of the pre-modern world clearly convey the Great Chain of Being’s sense of organic wholeness. Architecture being, rightly, a relatively conservative pursuit, it would take centuries before the built environment fragmented in the extreme manner associated with the 20th century, as is entirely consistent with modernity’s notion of an objective reality and the prioritising of reason.

The progression of styles from the Renaissance onwards can be seen as series of attempts to reassert some notion of the rational, with less rational interludes. Thus with Renaissance Humanism, mankind whose reason had unravelled the mechanics of God’s universe, was elevated to the status of ‘Man the Measure’ at the centre of an architecture of controlled composition and harmonious rationalised proportion. Later, Neo-classicism, reacting against the ‘illusionism’ of Baroque with classical reverence for ‘truth and reason’, reasserted a more mechanically rational order, particularly in JNL Durand’s modularised classical components disciplined by mechanical grids.

Neo-classical reworking of Rome’s Pantheon by Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia

Neo-classical reworking of Rome’s Pantheon by Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia

Retrospectively, this architecture came to be known as Structural-Rationalism and its ideals were to influence proto-modernists such as Auguste Perret. And although Neo-Gothic was a Romantic reaction against the rationality of Neo-classicism, it too asserted its own form of structural-rationalism in truth to materials and honestly expressed structure.It was only in the Heroic Period and the International Style that modern architecture exactly exemplified the modern paradigm.

The erosion of intellectual and experiential connections accompanying the notion of an objective reality led to buildings as freestanding objects shaped around their internal workings and constructional assembly. Such buildings do not respond to context, local culture or even climate. They also neither contain nor positively shape urban space so that cities fragment into a collection of isolated object buildings. Privileging the right quadrants reduced the complexities of dwelling − a word resonant with left-quadrant psychic experience and meaning − to mere function, behaviour understood by detached observation.

Attention went on what could be measured − ergonomics, furniture placement, space to circulate − at the expense of what is more difficult to measure, such as how the spaces between buildings are used − hence the many housing schemes with good dwelling units and dangerously undefined public space that soon became no-go areas.
Suppressed were elements that conveyed meaning and connection to the long narratives of culture and history, such as familiar rhetorical devices (pilasters, ornament and so on), and those that suggested the human body (like columns and vertical windows), and which helped people relate to the buildings.

JNL Durand’s mechanically modular Neo-classicism, showing variations on themes with modular components disciplined by grids

JNL Durand’s mechanically modular Neo-classicism, showing variations on themes with modular components disciplined by grids

Privileging sight over the other senses further deprived the buildings of any experiential richness, leading to the insubstantial thinness and featureless flatness of modern construction, its lack of hapticity, sensual materiality and detail that might engage the body and hand. Maybe worst, the rhetoric of utilitarian economy and efficiency was lapped up by speculators and government agencies who used it justify the most squalidly mean-spirited, lowest-common-denominator construction imaginable, much of which quickly turned into dirty and dangerous slums. All this is profoundly dehumanising, yet initially mistaken for the opposite.

There are psychic costs to such buildings and the faceless, placeless cities they create. People find them alienating and do not feel fully at home in them, although this was dismissed as irrational nostalgia. But it was rationality taken to an extreme that became irrational, just as efficiency taken to a narrow extreme became very inefficient in other ways. The fragmented city also fragmented communities and psychic lives. Modern architecture and urbanism created the ‘city of doing’ as opposed to the ‘city of being’, a city where different roles are played out in different places, such as employee at work, parent at home, fan at the stadium, and commuter who traverses the spatial and experiential void in between.

But we only know ourselves to the degree that we are fully known by others, and with the dispersal of the city of doing few are known intimately for who they really are in all their roles and facets. Without this and the inevitable exposure of self-delusion we stay stuck in a series of fantasy selves and miss out on the benefits to self-knowledge and psychological maturation. How different this is to the traditional city of being with its continuous and enveloping urban and social fabric in which you feel at home, and are continuously drawn into relation with your setting and its occupants, making it more difficult to live as fantasy selves.

Modernity and anti-modernity

Alert readers will protest that this characterisation of modern architecture is a caricature − although the characterisation of the resulting urban fabric, or rather lack of it, is generally all too true. Sadly, it is too, in some degree, of most modern buildings. But it is impossible for architects to entirely suppress their humanity and left-quadrant concerns (particularly UL aesthetic ones) inevitably crept in; the work of the best of today’s mature architects, who remain true to many modern ideals while also fully aware of and addressing most of its failings, is quite different.

But so too was the architecture of those few masters of early Modernism, particularly figures such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier (both, admittedly, disastrous urbanists). It is pertinent that we understand why. An obvious reason is that these figures belonged to that last generation thoroughly educated in western classical culture. They knew their history − including of literature, art and architecture − the Bible, the Greek and other myths. A problem in writing about them today is that so much of this must be explained to better understand the works.

The masters of Modernism did not conform to reductive notions of modern architecture. Le Corbusier’s plan of Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, has deliberate echoes of the astrological glyph of Cancer

The masters of Modernism did not conform to reductive notions of modern architecture. Le Corbusier’s plan of Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, has deliberate echoes of the astrological glyph of Cancer

With a figure like Le Corbusier, this requires explaining the occult: his later works are steeped in alchemical and astrological symbolism − although in this he was extreme rather than unique. Even his self-invented name, Le Corbusier has deliberate echoes with le corbeau (the crow) and so of the raven that is the avis hermetis of alchemy, transforming matter into spirit (a wonderful metaphor for the architect) and Corvus, the nearest celestial constellation to Libra, his birth sign. But then, remember the architect’s training, the Masonic tradition had been largely about initiation into occult traditions.

For figures like Le Corbusier, the occult was a distillate of ancient and historic wisdom and culture. Besides, the occult is about reading meaning into form and pattern − another marvellous metaphor for an architect. So when Le Corbusier said the roof of Ronchamp was inspired by a crab shell, he was actually alluding to the symbolism of Cancer (the Crab), the astrological sign of the mother principle. (The church is dedicated to Mary, Catholicism’s mother archetype, and, for Le Corbusier, to his mother.)

The glyph of Cancer (69 laid on its side), recurs in the plan as a tiny portion of the many levels of esoteric symbolism pervading this and other late Le Corbusier works. It was grappling with and synthesising such high and diverse ambitions, of all sorts not mentioned here, that gave these works a depth and intensity that you respond to even without knowing about such things. For Wilber, today’s postmodernism is the third wave of anti- or postmodernity. The first two were Romanticism and Idealism.

Unlike the typical International Style building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water is embedded in nature and specifics of its site

Unlike the typical International Style building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water is embedded in nature and specifics of its site

Appalled by industrial modernity’s destruction of the landscape and the dehumanising degradation of its labour force (William Blake’s ‘satanic mills’), as well as the right-quadrant crushing of the human spirit, Romanticism sought an alternative in the glorification of nature. In simplistic terms, Wilber’s critique is that the Romantics mistook left-quadrant culture to be separate from and the antithesis of right- quadrant nature, although it had evolved from, and so is an intrinsic part of, a less reductionist vision of nature.

Hence the Romantic worldview was fundamentally the same as that of scientific materialism. Instead of such dualism (another characteristic feature of modernity), they should have sought a unifying, left- and right-quadrant, vision of a culture that ‘transcends and includes’ nature. His critique of many current environmentalists is the same. He is more sympathetic of the Idealists, but the argument is not germane to our purposes here. Although Wilber does not argue this, the greatest of the early modernist artists and architects can also be usefully seen as the third wave of anti- or postmodernity, as can, to a lesser extent, other figures. James Joyce, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky clearly do not conform to any reductive modern paradigm.

The concerns of giants like Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier clearly fall into all four quadrants and in some ways they are as much anti-modern as moderns − most obviously post-Second World War Le Corbusier with his evocations of ancient architectures, including the Neolithic, and rough physicality that was for the whole body to identify with and not only the eye to glide over. Both architects revered nature and Wright was very much concerned with intensifying a sense of place while fitting into nature. But then both have deep roots in Romanticism, particularly John Ruskin; Frank Lloyd Wright was also influenced by American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Le Corbusier by various anthroposophical writers.

Like many of Le Corbusier’s late works, the Ronchamp chapel has deliberate echoes of Neolithic sacred constructions, including dolmen

Like many of Le Corbusier’s late works, the Ronchamp chapel has deliberate echoes of Neolithic sacred constructions, including dolmen

So both were concerned with spiritual matters, as was Mies van der Rohe, as evidenced in a brilliant study by Thomas Beeby in the magazine Threshold,10 who was rooted in German Romanticism, in the architecture of Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the painting of Caspar David Friedrich. In the latter’s sacramental vision, every element is given equal weight and is equally pregnant with immanent spiritual significance; something similar applies with Mies’ architecture in which components do not fall into classical hierarchies. (His comment ‘God is in the details’ was meant much more literally than is recognised.)

Again, it is from such deep grounding in the left as well as right quadrants (all these architects were passionately interested in technology, materials, construction and so on) that comes the depth of their architecture that none can match today. Current postmodernism in architecture was preceded by the call to loosen and expand modernism’s reductive and abstract vocabulary in Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, as well as by Pop Art’s celebration of commercial vulgarity that inspired Learning from Las Vegas.

Generally forgotten now was the return of the subject to architecture in the writings of Aldo van Eyck, evoking homecoming and the experiential dimensions of the threshold, as well as others. Important too was an enthusiasm for the phenomenological writings of Gaston Bachelard, and only later did a few turn to some of the postmodern philosophers. Louis Kahn’s example was also important both in talking about the initiating spirit of a design and in an architecture that evoked archaic roots.

Plocek House by Michael Graves is typical of much postmodern architecture, historicist or not, in elevating idea or image over reality and so being cruddy in materiality

Plocek House by Michael Graves is typical of much postmodern architecture, historicist or not, in elevating idea or image over reality and so being cruddy in materiality

But somehow the promise latent in these sources never flowered. As with postmodernity in general, postmodern architecture is best understood in terms of the pendulum having swung too far to rest in the left quadrants exclusively, into an arbitrary reality − all is artifice − and ungrounded subjectivity. It expects to create its own reality in theories and concepts, scenarios and narratives − the attitude often seeming to be that the more spurious or obfuscatory these are, the better − which buildings then illustrate, or ‘represent’.

Thus what many think of as postmodernism, the collaging of historic motifs, or ‘quotes’, on what are otherwise banal modern buildings, so, (the theory goes) rendering them populist, is only one sort of postmodernism. The arch postmodernists are really figures like Eisenman and Tschumi, constantly elaborating and illustrating some theoretical position. Idea generally trumps reality, which is why many postmodern buildings seem built of crud (remember the plasterboard early works of Eisenman and Graves) and they are generally crude and unconvincing as construction.

Even when well made, materiality and detail does not advance and help you engage with the design, although it might make for interesting episodes − as in some Koolhaas/OMA works, where these tend to erode rather than advance the originating concept. Much postmodern architecture has strong parallels with Conceptual Art, once you have got the idea there is nothing more to engage you.

A painting by Caspar David Friedrich in which each twig is given equal sacramental emphasis. Something similar is found in Mies van der Rohe’s work, and is clear in some of his perspective drawings

A painting by Caspar David Friedrich in which each twig is given equal sacramental emphasis. Something similar is found in Mies van der Rohe’s work, and is clear in some of his perspective drawings

Postmodern architecture seems too silly an enterprise, some of its characteristic buildings too ineptly preposterous, to go on much longer. That is still persists reflects the pernicious influence of theorists incapable of architectural judgement as well as the confused state of architecture that prompted The Big Rethink. Even this mere introduction to Integral theory sheds significant insights into modernity, postmodernity and their respective architectures.

Implicit is that the Integral approach is among the most promising routes to resolving the impasses that currently stymie us; not least it could inform a left-quadrant, cultural vision properly grounded in right-quadrant empirical realities inspiring enough to motivate effective collective action. This culture will not be the antithesis of nature, as assumed by the Romantics, but rather will transcend and include nature from which it emerged as part of evolution.

Admittedly the notion that the noosphere, the realm of mind and culture, transcends and includes the biosphere, the realm of nature, is mind boggling on first acquaintance, and inflammatory to ‘deep ecologists’. But gaining such insights is the benefit of pursuing Integral theory further than here. The AQAL diagram also helps gain critical leverage to assess the proliferation of pluralist approaches in current architecture. The best current work, as suggested in the first of these essays, is the mature modernism of mature professionals.

Still inspired by the early Modernist greats and acknowledging the criticisms of postmodernity, it matches right-quadrant expertise with left-quadrant concerns and sensitivity. The architecture selectively exploits available technology, is sensitive to history and context, refined in form and detail, and embraces the green agenda. The Modernist masters who would drool with envy at the technical expertise, the range of materials and new technologies now available, and the formal and constructional refinement achieved.

Altes Museum, Berlin, by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a Romantic Neo-classical architect who inspired Mies

Altes Museum, Berlin, by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a Romantic Neo-classical architect who inspired Mies

But however fine they are, these buildings also lack the depth of the technically cruder buildings of the earlier masters, for reasons already explained. None can sustain the criticalexegesis scholars apply to works of Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies and Kahn. Yet if less compelling as artworks, they are much better buildings.In contrast to these architects, most others draw in a too exclusive and unbalanced a manner from either the right or left quadrants.

Many still churn out squalidly mean-spirited, utilitarian buildings that exactly conform to the reductive modern paradigm. Others, who also limit themselves to the right quadrants, exaggerate a single aspect of modern architecture, sometimes intensifying what was pathological. They thus exemplify MacLuhan’s notion of the sunset effects, last fling flare-ups of a passing phase. Minimalists, for instance, take abstract form yet further in pursuit of an evanescent immateriality or assertive materiality.

The creepy deadness (and often the stilted interior arrangements) unconsciously reflects Newton’s now waning, dead and meaningless, clockwork universe − exemplifying another MacLuhan idea: that art makes visible the environment (or paradigm) of the previous era. Other obvious caricatures of right-quadrant modernism are High-Tech, the fetishisation of industrial technology (the previous era, again) icons and Parametricism.

The latter two take the sculptural excess that was an occasional feature of modernism to new levels of meaningless autism, as facilitated by the computer. As stand-alone objects the buildings resulting from all these approaches are fundamentally anti-urban, neither defining nor articulating urban space, unable to relate to other buildings, and defying any relationship with humankind. They are not merely sunset effects, but utterly irrelevant to the future, not least for being exclusively right quadrant.

As modernity draws to a close, the differentiation of the Big Three has become extreme dissociation into exclusivist, near fundamentalist positions, including the quadrant absolutisms shown here. Postmodern theory and architecture are confined to the LL q

As modernity draws to a close, the differentiation of the Big Three has become extreme dissociation into exclusivist, near fundamentalist positions, including the quadrant absolutisms shown here. Postmodern theory and architecture are confined to the LL quadrant, much rhetoric and writing about ecology to the LR, reductionist Scientism of the sort associated with Richard Dawkins in the UR and New Age thinking to the UL

Similarly irrelevant are the left quadrant extremists, the postmodernists whose works illustrate spurious and ungrounded theories, scenarios, concepts, datascapes or whatever. How these have got away with it for so long is a tribute to the power of celebrity culture and uncritical gullibility and mind-warping theory. But current financial stringency might put paid to such foolishness.Next month we will start to use the AQAL diagram as a framework to ensure comprehensiveness in our deliberations.

In these we will redefine the purposes of creativity, design and architecture and explore what an architecture of the emergent era shaped by due consideration to all four quadrants might be. This will be founded in a more complete notion of reality than underpinned both modernity and postmodernity, while transcending and including lessons from both, so as to be relevant to a very different future and a much enhanced view of what constitutes the good life and full humanity.

Click here to read Part 4.

The Big Rethink

We invite readers to join the debate. Send your comments and observations on the AR’s Big Rethink to

Readers' comments (4)

  • ..i am so pleased to see the entry of the "integral" theory into the world of architecture. it needs courage to do so and admit and here you have shown this: congratulations.

    i cannot but stop myself to mention here the essay on Indian Architecture, written by Sri Aurobindo, the great Indian philosopher and whose writings are now widely read. His essay published probably in early 20th century, sets the stage for the world to understand the depth of architecture, as a reply to Dr. Archer, the renowned art critic of his time. I would be glad if Architectural Review can finally have also the courage to publish this essay so that the world of architecture takes the traditional indian principles of design more seriously. I also do not understand why this text of Sri Aurobindo on Architecture has still not entered the syllabus of Architectural education; here it is for you:

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  • The reason it is not included in architectural education is because we live in a so called liberal society, and to hold a view as sacred for all is politically incorrect which is part of the reason we have this dilemma. There are many vested interests arguing which part each may own. Now at last there are invidividuals and groups, breaking away to lucidly discuss. The Big ReThink Project here is just such one.

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  • Just following on from the above two comments, Integral Theory does indeed seem an impressive and useful organisational system, but in attributing rationality to the West and Sprituality to the East, Buchanan is guilty of the same reductivism that he is railling against.

    In fact it should be common knowledge nowadays that 'zero' was invented in India and that European Rational Philosophical tradition owes a great deal to Eastern thinkers such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes) who was not only active quite a long time before Petrarch stood on a hill, but who managed to develop both hemispheres of his brain; the spiritual and rational aspects of his being, a very long time before Integral Theory. The Dominican priest, St Thomas Aquinas is but one example of a Western thinker who achieved exactly the same feat at around the same time.

    If there is one thing that the 'Big Rethink' should avoid it is the poltically motivated / influenced inaccurate hindsight that has caused so much suffering in modern society.

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  • It always puzzles me why, in a totally media-saturated age, architects and designers seem to know virtually nothing of McLuhan, Maslow or Wilber. As our current tools emphasize parametric thinking, I suspect we may have to wait until design computation adopts an Integral view . Until then, architecture will remain increasingly specialized and fragmented.

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