'Form is emptiness' – in Buddhism, garden design and landscape architecture

The enclosure on Vulture Peak Rajgir, India is believed to the be the place where the Buddha delivered the teaching recorded in the Heart Sutra. It contains the famous lines:
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form
Emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness
Whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form

The phrasaeology is meant to induce meditation. ‘Emptiness’ (Śūnyatā) may be interpreted in relation to the Buddhist concept of non-self (Anatta). Nothing we see has a separate ‘self’. Everything is inter-connected. The lines embody a paradox and this may be deliberate – because there is so much about the nature of the universe which cannot be understood. My own understanding of the lines is as follows:
– objects appear to have form but, because they are connected to everything else, this is an illusion
– the ‘everything else’ to which objects are connected can only be perceived through forms
This gives the lines from the Heart Sutra a relationship with Plato’s Theory of Forms and with the modern distinction between particulars and universals. We might say that universials are known only from particulars and that particulars are understood only when they can belong to universal categories. The favourte example is cats (see Fig 1). We only know the universal ‘cattiness’ through particular examples and we only know that particular cats ARE cats because of our acquiaintance with the universal form of cats.
Assuming I have interpreted the Buddha and Plato correctly, I am more attracted to the Buddhist version. Plato conceived the forms as eternal and unchanging. For a landscape architect or garden designer this is unappealing. It implies that all possible forms and designs already exist. The Buddhist version gives important positions both to the form which a designer ‘assembles’ and to the inter-connected cosmos (I almost wrote ‘compost’) from which the elements are drawn – and to which they will return. Forms have no ‘self’; they change every instant; they are impermanent (annica). Modern science confirms that everything is in flux. We notice it more in outdoor than indoor environments. With time the fourth dimension, landscape design appears to be a four-dimensional art.
The photo is from Wikipedia, with thanks. The design uses one of the primary Platonic forms: the square. Compare it with the photo of St Francis, below. Monasticism was a Buddhist idea and the monks seem to belong to the Axial Age, of the Buddha, Plato, Confucius and the author(s) of the Old Testament. Or do they belong to an even earlier age when India rishis meditated in forests, caves and mountain retreats? And why was it such a great period in the history of philosophy and religion? Should philosophers and religious leaders – and landscape designers – work in the great outdoors, instead of in fusty musty offices? Yes. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

15 thoughts on “'Form is emptiness' – in Buddhism, garden design and landscape architecture

  1. Christine

    Of course philosophers and religious leaders shouldn’t work in fusty musty offices, but in beautiful extraordinary buildings with georgeous inspiring spaces designed by architects, interior designers and landscape designers which respect the climate and link to the outdoors either directly when the weather is welcoming or indirectly when it is a little more hostile!

    Outdoor rooms, rooms with moveable walls and roofs and other forms of transparency and im/materiality can all be appropriate responses to the desire be connected and within nature. Yes, the Buddhist monks have a wonderful classroom! (I am not sure that it would be possible for me to be quite as stoic re: no shoes, thin robes and a tiny mat to sit on as it does look rather cold there to my way of thinking!)

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I wish your dream could become a reality!
      Extraordinary places, indoor and outdoor, are extraordinary – but how many places can be ‘extra-ordinary’ without changing the meaning of the word ‘extraordinary’?
      I favour the idea of place-designers doing their most creative work in the places they are designing, rather than in any kind of office. Trains and planes are also good places for thinking. Cars and bikes are OK but it is less easy to make good records of the ideas. My dad used a dictaphone when driving but I have not, as yet, tried this method.
      The monks in the Vulture Peak photograph are, presumably, meditating rather than doing creative work and I wonder if the state of being ‘in transit’ provides us with more opportunity for thinking than sitting at a desk trying to be ‘productive’. If I get stuck with something at my desk I often find that the best thing is to get away from it – and preferably out of doors. Did the creators of Europe’s best buildings (ie the cathedrals) have offices? I know they used to draw on floors but guess the thinking was not done sitting at desks any more than the drawing was. Could it be that desks were invented for scribes, as places to record and copy the creative work of others? Large tablets with good stylus-drawing systems offer new opportunities for getting rid of desks.

  2. Christine

    The sketch book is and has long been the designers best friend. It is extremely portable, can be many different sizes and is good for that spur of the moment flourish of an idea as much as for the observational sketch or inspired artwork. Happily the sketchbook is equally at home in many and most environments given a little shelter from rain etc, so yes to trains and planes (which are hands free).

    Quite right, cars and bikes, are better places for meditating on ideas and creative solutions to problems rather than recording, playing with and developing those ideas. Cars can give you a level of independent mobility that planes and trains don’t have, and bikes can increase the degree of accessibility – both which are great for getting to those amazing outdoor places where you can take out the sketchbook and begin…

    The Office of Works was the first place that English architects worked on their ideas for palaces etc [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_of_Works ]. It was the beginning of the profession in the UK, the model for which was subsequently adopted in Australia.

    Leonardi Da Vinci was a fan of the sketchbook too. [ http://myrnayamminearch1392-2008.blogspot.com.au/2008/03/leonardo-da-vincis-dome-architecture.html ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The great thing about sketch books, compared to computers, is the naturalness of combining words with images. But I also think there is a NEED for pure thought, well away from paper and even further from screens. The risk with this is that the ideas are forgotten before one gets to a place where a record of the idea can be made. But one has to live dangerously, sometimes.
      You are right about the Office of Works and palaces – but this was not how the cathedrals were made and since they are architecturally superior buildings I think the design method employed needs particular attention.

  3. Christine

    Modern workplace health and safety not to mention criminal law wouldn’t allow it. Much of the practice of cathedral building was largely experimental, ie in increasing dome sizes, buttressing and other structural innovations. The designer would try out their ideas and if they didn’t come crashing to the ground they were a success and if they did, well you can imagine the consequences!

    Yes, to technical and artistic innovation, but yes also to learned professions working within margins of safety. Gaudi was a true innovator who also modelled his works structurally before implementing them on site – the computer age is struggling to keep up with his genius! (Note also the change in the decorative treatment of the facade from Gaudi to now.)
    [ http://www.sacredarchitecture.org/articles/barcelona_catechism/ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      But if modern workplace health and safety is getting in the way of the best results, shouldn’t it be re-considered? Frei Otto’s approach to tented structures was developed my making tents, in a POW camp and then in a laboratory-experimental research institute. It is a pity that it seems to have been forgotten. I think his planning of the Munich Olympics, and its integration with landscape design, was of a far higher standard than anything else ever done for an Olympic event. I am still, slightly, reserving judgment on the 2012 London Olympic Park but my initial conclusion is that it looks like a collision between a Garden Festival and an airport.
      Is the painting on http://www.sacredarchitecture.org/articles/barcelona_catechism/ definitely by Gaudi? Not too much can be concluded from his working methods because of the advantage he had over other designers, which you mention: he was a genius. But he also had an ability to reach out the constraints of professionalised architecture AND one could see this as an exploration of the principle that form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

  4. Christine

    Yes, you are right that experimental design should be encouraged and that there are ways of doing this by making rather than drawing,or making and drawing in non-traditional ways.

    The architectural model is one way of doing this – but like all methods it is not a guarantee of great architecture. [ http://www.0lll.com/architecture-exhibitions/gallery16/001.jpg ]

    Inter-cultural design is an interesting area of practice.

    Indigenous client participation by drawing and models is another way of designing, using a differing client/designer relationship. [ http://www.crc-rep.com/research/enterprise-development/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-art-economies ] It can be more interactive and participatory than the traditional client/architect relationship.

    Aboriginal Australia had/has an cultural environment designed in such a way that it is almost invisible to most.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      There could be substantial improvements to architectural, and landscape, education if the process was de-regulated. If the academic staff do not know how to run an educational programme then they should be put out to grass. But I think they DO know what to do. So we should educate the regulators – if they can’t be sacked. Some of them should become artists (not draughtsmen, which I expect they already are), some should study philosophy, some should go on retreat (eg to Vulture Peak) and many of them should become craft workers.

  5. Christine

    Huh? What are you envisaging in the deregulation of architectural and landscape education? From experience of different universities – the approach to education of design professionals is remarkably different across all of them.

    One friend didn’t do well at a technical university because she made a model with buttons in the river, but she did very well at art college, St Martins in the Feild. She was a loss to the profession because the academics there didn’t understand art.

    Which regulators are you proposing to educate – educational theorists or education regulators?
    [ http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204602000646 ] or
    [ http://monash.edu/legal/legislation/ ] Or are you proposing to send them to re-education camps – to draw, draught, study philosophy, meditate and produce crafted works – where they experience the life of the landscape architecture student for themselves and so have a better idea of the process of learning?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      My enthusiasm is for diversification and my concern is that regulation militates against diversity. Perhaps this belief comes from my hippy past but it was given focus by Donald Schon’s 1970 Reith Lectures. See http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/rmhttp/radio4/transcripts/1970_reith2.pdf for his analysis of the development of the continuous-aim naval gun and also his analysis of the American building industry. When a government official discovered that he was doing useful research on the industry he came to shut down the programme. ‘We interpreted this as amusing bravado until he proceeded to do exactly that. In doing so, however, he revealed a great deal about the dynamics and structure of that organism which is the American building industry. The industry includes contractors and building suppliers, people who make iron, steel , bricks and lumber. It includes architects and engineers and their associations. It includes craft labour unions, at the national level and particularly at the local level. It includes speculative developers, building-code inspectors, government purchasing age nts; it includes bankers and financiers, active and diversified building journal s, and a few crosscutting bodies such as the Building Research Advisory Board. …….These are all strategies of dynamic conservatism. They’re not, I think, to be put down as venal or stupid: they are central to the life and survival of organisations.’

  6. Christine

    Yes. Diversification is a great strategy. It gives the greatest possible talent the greatest possible opportunity to thrive and contribute to building the intellectual and economic wealth of nations and the global society.

    The problem in diversification would be to ensure or assist the right peg into the right hole – so as not to have the classic square peg in the round hole syndrome – which happened to my artistic friend.

    Also as people become more aware of other aspects of industries and professions it is quite likely that they may want to grow in different directions in their careers and this is good also in my view. For example, a builder who becomes an architect brings a very informed mind to the process of making and the full potential of craft participation etc.

    True none of the participants are venal or stupid, they all have a different aspect of the industry task as their focus of attention and the better they are able to communicate with and understand each other the richer we all are.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I recently heard the comment (and do not know if it is true) that a surprisingly low proportion of graduates from from the Architectural Association AA course become architects. I think this is very healthy for the other careers they go to, because an architect’s education is much more useful than many of the vacuous subjects they persuade young people to go into debt to learn (sociology seems especially useless to me, even if it is interesting). Architects learn a great many ‘transferrable skills’, including the analysis of problems, drawing, software, problem-solving and budgeting to name but a few. Also, the AA is in wonderful example of the benefits of diversity in architectural education. I just wish they learned a bit more about the relationship between emptiness and form!

  7. Christine

    The Architectural Association website says:

    ‘Most famous architects have been here (sooner or later)’
    And they have. AA alumni have been a powerful presence among the leading architects of their generation since the school was set up. Even a brief trawl through the last century brings up the likes of Charles Jencks, Elia Zenghelis, Peter Cook, Dalibor Vesely, Joseph Rykwert, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, Nigel Coates, Cedric Price, Nicholas Grimshaw … and many more.

    So it may be that the ones who do go into practice do spectacularly well and many more contribute significantly to architectural education worldwide.

    I am wondering what other careers they have gone to? Are you aware of some famous AA graduates in other professions?

  8. Christine

    It seems Janet Street-Porter didn’t graduate from the AA and although Ron styles himself primarily as an industrial designer he does seem to have graduated from the AA and started an architectural practice.

    Musicality seems to go hand-in-hand with architectural creativity as many aspiring classmates were often in conflict over whether to pursue highly successful popular music careers or dedicate themselves to their design studies.

    It seems the AA offers an alternative pathway to registration and practice to the RIBA Part 3:

    “The AA Examination is recognised by the Architects Registration Board (ARB) for
    exemption from Part 3 and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) as the final
    qualifying examination for obtaining registered status in the UK and professional
    membership respectively.”


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