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Of Blocks and Knots: Architecture as weaving

Tim Ingold considers what it means to make things and how weaving and knotting are the more authentic origins of all making

We are continually being told these days, by scientists of repute, that the world is built from blocks: not just the world that we ourselves have made − of artefacts or the built environment − but the worlds of nature, the mind, the universe and everything. Biologists speak of the building blocks of life, psychologists of the building blocks of thought, physicists of the building blocks of the universe itself.

So pervasive has this metaphor become that we are inclined to forget how recent it is. I had not even realised this myself until a couple of years ago, when I chanced to read a little book, entitled The Most Beautiful House in the World, by the architectural historian Witold Rybczynski.

It was not until the middle of the 19th century, Rybczynski tells us, that the metaphor of ‘building blocks’ came into common use, along with a domestic architecture − of prosperous homes equipped with dedicated nurseries − in which building with blocks could literally become child’s play. Before that time, most play was out of doors, and even when it took place indoors, floors were too uneven, and too busy and cluttered, for any construction to stand up.

From the 1850s onwards, however, the architectural profession actively promoted the development and marketing of sets of building blocks for children. Inculcated from our earliest years, the assumption that the world is built from blocks has since become part of the stock in trade of modern thought. For the most part, it is invoked uncritically, and without a moment’s hesitation or reflection.

But writing in the middle of the 19th century, just as the idea of building blocks was on the rise, Gottfried Semper argued in just the opposite direction. In his pioneering treatise on The Four Elements of Architecture, Semper insisted that the threading, twisting and knotting of linear fibres were among the most ancient of human arts, from which all else was derived, including both building and textiles.

‘The beginning of building’, he declared, ‘coincides with the beginning of textiles.’ And the most fundamental element of both building and textiles, he thought, was the knot.

knots1

Fascinated by etymology, Semper found support for his idea of the evolutionary priority of the textilic arts in the affinity of the Germanic words for joint (Naht) and knot (Knoten), both of which share the Indo-European root noc (whence nexus and necessity). The affiliation of knots and joints is not just a relation in the genealogy of techniques. At stake here, as Semper realised, is the much more fundamental question of what it means to make things.

Does making proceed through the hierarchical assembly of preformed parts into larger wholes, and these latter into still larger ones, until everything is joined up and complete? Or is it more like weaving a pattern from ever unspooling threads that twist and loop around one another, growing all the while without ever reaching completion? Is making a matter of building up or of carrying on?

In the first case, the parts may be regarded as components of a totality that already exists, albeit in the virtual form of an image, plan or blueprint, in advance of the construction. But in the second, there are initially no parts and no wholes. Rather the form of a thing emerges from the process itself, within a field of forces (both tensile and frictional) established through the engagement of the practitioner with materials that have their own inclinations and vitality.

Most of us today tend to think of the joint in terms of a part-whole model, as an articulation of rigid elements. However, a world assembled like a jigsaw puzzle, from perfectly fitting, externally bounded pieces, could harbour no life. Nothing could move or grow. It was Semper’s insight to recognise that in a world of things that are continually coming into being through processes of growth and movement − that is, in a world of life − knotting is the fundamental principle of coherence. It is the way forms are held together and conserved within what would otherwise be an inchoate flux.

This applies as much to forms that grow, like organisms, as it does to forms that are made, like artefacts. Indeed, once we abandon the conceit that form is simply imposed upon the stuff of the material world − either from within, by a genetic template, or from without, by an architectural one − the conventional division between growing and making no longer seems so hard and fast as we are inclined to think.

Red, Yello, Blue: Public Installation by Orly Genger in Madison Square Park using knotted climbing rope

Red, Yellow, Blue: Public Installation by Orly Genger in Madison Square Park using knotted climbing rope

Consider the trade of the carpenter. Colloquially, he is known as a joiner. He joins pieces of wood in making boats, buildings, furniture and diverse utensils. Yet in joining every piece, he cuts, shaves and drills to make it fit, fast and snug, beside its predecessor. These pieces are not parts to begin with − they are not, in that sense, the building blocks from which things are made. They only become parts as the work proceeds, and as they gradually acquire a feel for each other, holding each other ever more tightly in place as the work advances asymptotically towards completion without ever finally reaching it.

It is here that the affinity lies between joinery and knotting. The carpenter, no differently from the basket-maker, weaves with his woody materials, and the form of the structure emerges from the weave. It is no accident that the Latin texere, ‘to weave’ (whence text and textile) comes from the Sanskrit words for axe, tasha, and carpenter, tashan.

The joiners of old, then, were world-weavers, not block-builders. But in their weaving, they only continued where nature had herself left off. Boats, buildings and furniture, we say, are artificial structures. They are made. But trees grow. Yet trees, like the things crafted from their wood, are also knotted structures.

The tree-knot is a whorl in the grain formed as the material of a growing trunk enwraps an emerging branch. Since the branch is simultaneously growing, the material of the knot is compressed into a hard core or nodule. If the branch subsequently dies, or when the wood is sawn into planks, the core can drop out, leaving a hole.

Though knots are what hold the tree together, they also present the greatest challenge to the carpenter. Perhaps the difference between the tree-knot and the carpenter’s joint is the key to the contrast between things that grow and things that are made. But it is a difference within the nexus of the textilic.

In short, the block and the knot represent mutually exclusive master-tropes for describing the constitution of the world, predicated on philosophies, respectively, of being and becoming.

What, then, would a world be like that is knotted rather than block-built? Is there a connection between thinking through knotting and an understanding of the world ‘in the round’, as a manifold of earth below and sky above, rather than as a solid globe on the outer surface of which all human life is lived? What if we were to think of the ground not as a level platform − like the nursery floor − upon which to raise an edifice, but as a permeable zone in which substances welling up from the earth bind with the air and moisture of the atmosphere in the ongoing production of life?

Is not everything that lives and grows a place where this binding − this knotting − is going on? If so, then the same, perhaps, could be said of buildings.

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