John Lobell addresses how new technology changes our consciousness, which in turn leads to cultural paradigm shifts. He received his degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and is a professor of architecture at Pratt Institute. His interests include creativity, architecture, cultural theory, consciousness, mythology, and movies. He has lectured throughout the world and is the author of numerous articles and several books.
Our world is no longer what we have thought it to be, and a new world is struggling to be born.
Visionary Creatives are driven to bring this new world to all of us.

Architecture and Structures of Consciousness

Note:  This article is based on my MArch thesis from 1967.  Posting my thesis is on my to-do list.

Architecture and Structures of Consciousness

By John Lobell

Pratt Journal of Architecture
Form; Being; Absence
Volume 2, 1988

The means whereby to identify dead forms is Mathematical Law.
The means whereby to understand living forms is Metaphor.

~ Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West

Seven Pillars

The primitive hunter-gatherer lived in the body of Gaia, the Earth’s biosphere named after the Greek mother-goddess and now perceived by contemporary biologists as a living organism. Individual consciousness was not differentiated from the flow of the earth ‘s consciousness. Thus the Amazon Indian moved in the shadow of a perpetual green canopy, deriving food, shelter, and psychoactive drugs from an unbounded organic home. The Australian Aborigine lived under a dome of stars that encoded ancestral stories. There was no monumental architecture, as frozen stone would have blocked the flow of consciousness and disrupted an umbilical union.1

Once separated from Gaia, the early monument builders used their stones to direct the flow of energies. Stonehenge is but one of thousands of megalithic structures built to serve as great acupuncture needles, marking first the earth’s energies, then the moon’s cycles, and finally the sun’s movement through the seasons. No longer a part of the earth, human consciousness now gained a power over it. The umbilical cord was cut and innocence ended. Differentiated consciousness set out on its wanderings of the earth and, most recently, of the heavens.

The Egyptian moved through a narrow corridor of time, with smooth stone walls defining the Path of a linear progression through life and into death. Orderly social customs prescribed activities in life, and the Book of the Dead prescribed the precise manner in which one was to advance through successive tests in death. There was no field of action for the Egyptian, no openness of space. Nothing existed outside the one dimension of the Path. He polished faces of the Pyramid in the sun defined the Path across the desert. Likewise, at Luxor (figure 1), the avenue of sphinxes from the river led directly to the pylon of the Temple, beyond which the court, hypostyle hall, and sanctuary also marked a clear progression. The columns of the Egyptian temple were on the inside to screen the walls. A bare wall led the eye to focus on a space on the other side of the temple. The screen of columns denies the existence of anything beyond the wall. Outside the temple, architecture, with the exception of the pylon, had no existence.2

Egyptian directional movement can be contrasted with the flowing Chinese Way of the Tao. Lao Tzu wrote:
The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.3

The Chinese followed this flow, achieving a harmony that comes from a focus on non-desire. The Chinese temple and palace complex is not a self-contained building, but rather an open complex that includes hills, water, trees, flowers, and rocks, as well as the building. The openness of the Kuan Yin hall of the Tu Lo Temple (figure 2), erected in wood in

Ch’i-hsien in 984 A.D., is expressed through the layers of the roof and the spaces between the bracketed supports over the columns. They let space flow through the building like a breeze.

The Greeks experienced the beginnings of an emergence of the individual from society and nature. In his study of Greek tragedy, Nietzsche wrote:

At the very climax of joy there sounds a cry of horror or a yearning lamentation for an irretrievable loss; to these Greek festivals, nature seems to reveal a sentimental trait; it is as if she were heaving a sigh at her dismemberment into individuals.4

The Greek temples at Paestum (figure 3) stood apart from nature, the geometric form of the buildings contrasted with the landscape, and the freestanding columns outside the temple represented the complete emergence of the individual. From the outside, columns screened the walls from view. Focus was not on the partially hidden walls, which brought awareness to the interior space they contained. The experience of the Greek temple was as a piece of sculpture. The Greeks were only concerned with the bodily whole, as may be noticed in their sculpture, abhorring the voids of space and time. In the Greek tragedy there was no development of character as seen in the Western novel. Character exists at birth, waiting to be revealed. In the Greek vase there is no depth, and Greek arithmetic sees only one number between two and three, as opposed to our mathematics of fractions, irrational numbers, and functions. Greek mathematical thought did not extend in abstraction beyond X2, and thus Euclidian geometry could neither square the circle nor trisect the angle2.

The Gothic world was defined by a total presence of a God who cast souls into the material world to be tested by bodily temptations. The response to this test was an asceticism, a “starving away of the flesh.” The Gothic cathedral at Chartres was similarly stripped of all unnecessary material, leaving the thin ribs of the vaults and flying buttresses. Openings in the walls allowed the luminous presence of God to flood through stained glass windows filling the interior space. This was analogous to the experience of God’s presence flooding through the body of a person, thus illuminating the soul (figure 4).

The Renaissance replaced the centrality of God with the centrality of the human being: “Man is the measure of all things.” Newton’s uniform space and time defined a crystal clockwork in which people moved. Their senses connected them to nature, and mathematics connected them to nature’s laws. Perspective painting measured the lattice of space and time, and the rational symmetry of renaissance architecture established a setting in which the human being, positioned under the dome, could look out: front, back; right, left. Palladio’s Villa Rotonda (figure 5) laid Cartesian coordinates onto the landscape.

The early 20th century witnessed the fall of the central point of reference with an emergence of an existential, relativistic cosmology. Einstein’s equations shattered Newton’s assumptions about absolute space, leaving the human observer in referenceless motion. The novels of Proust and Joyce were organized by the flux of the consciousness of the protagonist rather than by the tick of a universal clock, and mathematics became topological, concerned with patterns rather of relationship than of measure. In Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House the chimney core displaced the human being from the center, putting it into motion, once again a part of nature.

Currently it may be suggested that Eastern influences on the West have enhanced a merger between Buddhism and existentialism, facilitating the development of a world in which the dichotomy between the existing Western notion of a self and an exterior world are diffusing into one.

Consciousness and Cultural Forms

Consciousness, in continual flux, generates a changing world. Architecture and other forms of culture record that change. All cultural forms of a given society and period, including cosmology, theoretical physics, mathematics, philosophy, painting, literature, music, architecture, etc., derive from the structures of consciousness of those who constitute that culture. Consciousness is an active force which, through intentionality, unifies the world. For example, the Renaissance concept of uniform space, time, and causality can be found in Galileo’s and Newton’s physics, Newton’s and Leibniz’s calculus, the rational symmetry of the Renaissance plaza, the rational orders of Renaissance architecture, perspective painting, and the chronological novel. Similarly, the existential flux of space, time, and “becoming” of the turn of our century are manifested in Einstein’s physics, non-Euclidian geometry, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, Postimpressionist and Cubist painting, and Proust’s and Joyce’s novels.


We can conceive of a wall of a building as facing two ways: inward as a boundary for the room, and outward as a boundary for the street. In this sense, architecture is the intermediary between the person and the city. Thus architecture is like the shell of a sea animal: the inside of the shell suggests the form of the organism; the outside describes the world the animal inhabits.

Architecture is the shell in a metaphoric as well as a physical sense. It is the intermediary between the person and the cosmos, defining and securing a human place in a larger order of things. The shell of an animal is isomorphic with the animal. In mathematics, isomorphism is a one-to-one correspondence of one set with another. Similarly, in each instance the animal and the shell correspond, one taking a positive and the other a negative shape. The shell is as a form in which the animal is cast. In a similar sense, architecture is the cultural form in which our consciousness is cast.

An isomorphic relationship between cultural forms and structures of consciousness is similar to Schopenhauer’s concept of the relationship between music and the will. For Schopenhauer, the will is a generating force behind all experience. The phenomenal world of “representation” is merely this same quality of will objectified. For Schopenhauer, music most directly and immediately expresses the will and therefore speaks “the universal imageless language of the heart.” The formal structures in music are not alone in reflecting what he calls the will; all cultural forms—painting, sculpture, architecture, cosmology, physics, mathematics, etc.—reflect this will, indeed, reflect structures of consciousness.5

Formal Structures

The active role that consciousness plays generates the phenomenal reality we experience. Consciousness is the mold in which the phenomenal world is cast. All of the particulars of our experience are due to the particulars in this mold—interstices and crevices, extensions and voids. Furthermore, this mold is living. It is a pulsating, evolving organism, in a state of continuous change, a world made up of a myriad of changing detail. Behind this flux there are underlying organizing principles.

For example, much experience takes place in space and time which Kant sees as generated by consciousness:

It is not something objective and real, neither substance, nor accident, nor relation, but…subjective and ideal; it is, as it were, a schema, issuing by a constant law from the nature of the mind, for the coordinating of all outer senses whatever.

We do not mean to establish a Kantian position, but rather to raise the questions what are space and time, for Kant they were fixed in a Newtonian sense. Another consideration would be that space and time are mutable, different for different cultures.

The Newtonian physicist attempts to define space as uniform and continuous, having properties of extension, a potential which can be occupied. Einstein’s space is generated by objects rather than containing them, is linked space with time, and is curved. Quantum mechanics describes space as discontinuous. So what can we say about space?

The solution comes in realizing that we can mean two different kinds of things when we use the term “space.” One is the specific spaces of Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, the quantum theorist; the second concept involves Kant’s definition. To present Kant’s definition in more graphic terms, we might say that space (and time and matter and causality) is the graph paper that the mind lays over the world to organize it. We should remember that graph paper comes in a variety of patterns, not just uniform squares. Our notion here is that the graph paper is constantly changing as our consciousness changes.

These major patterns, such as space, time, matter, and causality, are the consequences of laying different graph papers on the world, and are expressed as formal structures in the arts and sciences. Thus we see a continuous space and time capable of instantaneous juxtaposition in Renaissance perspective painting, Newtonian physics, and renaissance architecture. Similarly, we see relative space and time in Cubist painting, Einstein’s physics, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. The structures of consciousness create formal structures within which our experience is developed. They define the limits within which we move, the patterns we follow. Formal structures define culture; their changes define history.


The reality that we know is generated in dialogue by our consciousness. An art experience is when we momentarily penetrate that dialogue. Art serves to remind us of the flux of reality and to reeducate or reform our structures of consciousness.7 Because of these functions, art reveals the structures of consciousness or general patterns of awareness during a given period. Artists are, in McLuhan’s term, “early warning systems” for their cultures.8

The artist’s prime subject is himself or herself. He or she is constantly asking, “What am I experiencing?” Each is not content merely to have experiences, but wishes also to be aware of the processes that generate those experiences. When this attempt becomes overly self-conscious, the artist can be described as a Romantic. The attempt to penetrate self is there even if the artist describes it in other terms.

On developing a technique for perspective, Alberti exclaimed: “At last, I can see the world as God sees it!” Today we would hold that God probably does not see in perspective. What Alberti succeeded in doing was to see the world as he saw it. As structures of consciousness change, the world changes; to grasp what is happening, we must penetrate into phenomena, into the dialogue itself. On the edge of our experience we can map our ever-changing limits.

The limits Alberti was exploring were further mapped by Descartes’ coordinate algebra and Galilean and Newtonian inertial systems. Newton was involved in an inner search similar to an artist’s. In mathematical terms science delineates the principles of the dialogue. The artist renders irrationally the structures or maps of consciousness, the scientists describes them precisely. But the maps are to found inside us. Einstein did not use laboratories; he seldom used any technological devices more complicated than pencil and paper.

Cezanne said of his paintings that he was trying to portray the “solid world” of the paintings in the museums. If this was his aim, why didn’t he copy the techniques of the masters? In fact he did. The masters looked at the world with an intensity revealing formal structures ordered by their consciousness. Cezanne looked with a similar intensity, but his perception of the world changed because the generating structure of consciousness had changed. He showed us his world rather than an imitation of that of the masters. He wanted to go back to the confused sensations with which we are born. He was able to follow the process of experience and penetrate into its origins.

The purpose of the artist, scientist and mathematician, is to uncover the dialogue, the limits of experience. The artist usually performs this task earlier than the scientists or mathematician, and alters structures of consciousness. The scientist or mathematician performs the task later and gives precise mathematical definition to the structures.

Architecture As Art

Architecture has been described as the art of space or the art of the interior space. This description is inadequate. Instead, we may see architecture as the art of institutions, and, more generally, as the art of existence. Architecture addresses human institutions. The house addresses the institution of residence, the cathedral, the institution of religion, the office building, the institution of work.

Architecture addresses existence through its formal structures. Through the space, material, structure, organization, and ornament of a building, the architect creates an encounter with the limits of existence for his or her culture, and reveals the relationship between the individual and the larger order of things. The manifestation of human being is historical, individuals come in touch with their being through an encounter with the materials and techniques of their time. In Mies’s words:
Technology is rooted in the past. It dominates the present and tends into the future. It is a real historical movement – one of the great movements which shape and represent their epoch. It can be compared only with the Classic discovery of man as a person, the Roman will to power, and the religious movement of the middle ages.… Architecture is the real battleground of the spirit. Architecture wrote the history of the epochs and gave them their names. Architecture depends on its time. It is the crystallization of its inner structure, the slow unfolding of its form.9

As an art, architecture restructures consciousness. Consequently, the arrangement of buildings and urban complexes reveals how people saw themselves and how they related to each other. Architecture is an unwritten language which can tell us as much about its users as can painting or literature.


Much of current historical analysis views history not as dynamic, but as static and given. In architecture, the tendency is to rummage about and draw on past styles for contemporary buildings. The resulting eclecticism leaves no sense of what previous buildings meant in context and manifests a meaninglessness in the present. There is no sense of “our place in history.”

The static attitude toward history has roots in the work of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who attempted to extend mathematical methods to all fields of human knowledge, thereby rationalizing experience and trivializing history and culture. Descartes’ influence spread throughout the sciences, and into all areas of human affairs, including education, psychology, and government. This static sense has influenced discussions in art and literature and the French intellectual traditions, including semiology, structuralism, post-structuralism, and Western Marxism. These traditions have become dissatisfying as they play across the surface without penetrating the depths fro which meaning is generated.

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) rejected Cartesian rationalism and the notion of a rational human nature. For Vico, history was central, with each period having its own patterns of meaning, discernible through the study of language and myth.10

The views of these two generators of Western thought, Descartes and Vico, are still in conflict. Vico’s views are emerging as people sense the sterility of Cartesian-based aesthetics and social sciences and their inability to yield the meanings underlying our individual and collective lives. In the Victorian tradition, Oswald Spengler addresses meaning in history, Carl Jung illuminates the psyche, and Joseph Campbell explores mythology.

Human beings are symbolic creatures, and language (spoken, written, mathematical, and artistic) is our defining quality. We are also metaphysical creatures, standing between the phenomenal world and something transcendent. The shape of the intersection between these two realms is molded in cultural forms and changes dynamically with history. Thus, history is full of meaning, revealing to us the differences between cultures and the unities within them11-17.


Note:  The footnote numbers are no longer there. Fixing them is on my to-do list.

  • Mimi Lobell, Spatial Archetypes, unpublished book,
  • Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West, (New York: Knoff, 1939),
  • Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (New York: Vintage, 1972),
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967, p. 40.
  • Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. Payne (New York: Dover, 1969).
  • Immanuel Kant, “On Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible Worlds, “ trans. Kemp Smith, London, 1929, sec 150. Quote used here is quoted in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1967) vol. 4, p. 308.
  • Morse Peckham, Man’s Rage for Chaos (New York: Chilton, 1965).
  • Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York: McGraw Hill, 1965).
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “Technology and Architecture,” from Ulrich Conrads, Programs and Manifestos on 20th Century Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971, p 154.
  • Giambattista Vico, The New Science, trans. Thomas Bergin and Max Fisch (New York: Anchor, 1961).
  • Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space (New York: van der mark, 1986).
  • Milic Capek, The Philosophical Impact of Modern Physics (New York: D. van Norstrand, 1961).
  • Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965).
  • Anton Ehrenzweig, The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing (New York: Braziller, 1961).
  • Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Second edition, Enlarged (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1970)
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (Humanities Press 1962).
  • Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Boston: Shambhala, 1973).



This paper was written under a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and is part of a forthcoming book, Architecture and Structures of Consciousness that is also being written under a grant from the Graham Foundation.


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