The Tao of Architecture

The Tao of Architecture


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Frank Lloyd Wright first noted the affinity between modern Western architecture and the philosophy of the ancient Chinese writer Laotzu. In this classic work, Amos Ih Tiao Chang expands on that idea, developing the parallel with the aid of architectural drawings and Chinese paintings. Now with a new foreword by David Wang, this book reveals the vitality of intangible, or negative, elements. Chang writes that these qualities make architectonic forms "come alive, become human, naturally harmonize with one another, and enable us to experience them with human sensibility." The Tao of Architecture continues to be essential reading for understanding the intersection between architecture and philosophy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691175713
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Series: Princeton Classics , #97
Pages: 104
Sales rank: 1,242,846
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Amos Ih Tiao Chang (1916–98) was professor of architecture at Kansas State University. His books include China: Tao in Architecture. David Wang is professor of architecture in the School of Design and Construction at Washington State University. He is the author of A Philosophy of Chinese Architecture: Past, Present, Future.

Read an Excerpt

The Tao of Architecture

By Amos Ih Tiao Chang


Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8508-4



"Nature eliminates surplus and compensates for deficiency."

(CHAP. 77)

Natural phenomena appear meaningful to us not only when we interrelate their momentary existences but also when we synthesize the temporal changes among them from a certain viewpoint. This is a point particularly important to Laotzu who thinks that reality is only what we think it is and what counts in understanding nature is the process of its function by which alone the law of existence supposedly designed by some unseen power could be revealed.

This does not mean that one has to believe in God by name. In Laotzu's simple language, the supernatural being is something unknown. The only thing intelligible about it is its function as manifested in the process of becoming, from the intangible being to the tangible being, of any conceivable aspect of reality such as the obvious rhythm between life and lifelessness.

"Longevity belongs to those who die without losing their lives."

(CHAP. 33)

Making no reference to God or the soul, Laotzu implies directly another intangible aspect of human life. In reading this statement, one would think that life could become encouraging if we regard physical non-existence as an infinite part of life.

Laotzu's philosophy, as climaxed in the above statement, regards nature as an organic whole in which the intangible part is the most vital. The individual is asked not to be blinded by momentary or fragmentary states of being, but to be aware of what is not seen yet destined to come. Putting himself at the core of total natural manifestation, he is looking at "things" divergently through the transparency of time. He thus not only sees the "things" but also the indefinite states of change among "things" and the power of infinite growth inherent in the realm of intangibility. Without mentioning the polarities of change by name, he generalizes the process of change in a simple statement:

"Nature eliminates surplus and compensates for deficiency."

(CHAP. 77)

With the suggestion of this statement in mind, one sees that before we put any architectonic form in space, there are various natural attributes waiting to transform it. The tangible means of composition at man's disposal are limited, the transformations offered by nature are countless.

Man's experience in space includes smell, hearing, touch and the interrelated sense of temperature and humidity. All these will contribute to man's sensation of distance between his position and the sources of sensations. None of these sensations, however, is as important as that of vision. Whatever a normal man senses, specifically or compositely, through other physiological agents, is complementarily associated with and confirmed by visual form. Confronting so many problems of sensation, an architect is particularly responsible for what and how a man will see in relation to the tangible elements which, directly or indirectly, stimulate all other sensations, giving him a feeling of existence in space.

Nevertheless, seeing is not a matter to be accomplished by man alone. Man himself only opens his eyes. It is light, one attribute that man lacks, which raises the curtain of external reality for him. The relation between man's experience and light in nature is an organic change between the tangible and the intangible because, as Laotzu puts it, "Nature is eternal because it does not manifest itself." (Chap. 7) While our eyes are immersed in a sea of millions of color-light-rays, we can experience colors only indirectly through prismatic refraction and reflection from pigments. During the process of seeing, furthermore, man is actively passive in adapting himself to different degrees of light intensity; nature is passively active in diffusing its intense sunlight with vapors and dusts brightening the shaded areas by negative reflection. All these states of adaption or modification, from deficiency to compensation or from surplus to elimination, are parts of the natural life-movement in architectural vision.

"The way to acquire positive is to contain negative."

(CHAP. 28)

The concealment of colors and intense brightness in natural light is meaningful. "Colors can blind," says Laotzu. (Chap. 12) Focussing our eyes on something intense in value or chroma, we will, when time passes, experience a negative halo. When black and white or contrasting hues are in proximity, this experience of negative image will fuse with the actual values or hues, which are already modified by the action of contrast, and destroy the physical form defined by them. Thus clarity is lost. Curiously enough, it is because of the presence of a certain amount of the intangible (greyness) in colors that clarity is naturally preserved. Nature conceals itself not only to preserve the potential of its energy but also to preserve man's capability to receive its energy.

Greyness or colorlessness is, as illustrated respectively in a color wheel and a prism, the eventual and original reality of colors. It is negative in appearance but decidedly positive in potential. It is not seen as color, but it is "colors."

Negativism in color, consequently, means that whenever a color contains greyness, it has its intangible content of its opposite and thus is capable of harmonizing with its opposite at ease. Furthermore, the more greyness a color has, the more it loses its tangible being and the more variety potential it has. While harmony of tangible colors is a complex process beyond rationalization, total or partial greyness in color can always serve as a medium for intelligent linking and fusing of many colors. It is natural that nice colors are called "shades."

Human organism is created to receive the negative side of nature. It receives reflected light better than the light itself, the glare. The portion of this reflected light manifested to man is also limited, particularly when pigmented surface is included in a lighted field of vision.

Because of the presence of light, color can be said to have two obvious aspects, constant color and apparent color. Comparatively, the former does not lose its identity under normal condition and possibly is the result of mental interpretation founded in experience. The latter is our immediate experience of it as modified by abrupt change of light.

Reluctant of superfluous harshness, nature provides another intangible element, shade, to preserve what is expected by mental constancy on one hand and to enable us to see without being intensely stimulated by apparent colors on the other. By elimination and compensation, a strong light will transform a color, but a seemingly useless dim light will protect its constancy with softness. What could be over- stimulating and distracting thus retains integrity in its tender but nevertheless steady exposure.

"Harmonize with its light, Sympathize with its dustiness. This is the way of natural unity."

(CHAP. 56)

Nature as a temporal being never stops its changing from one extreme of being to another. The natural diffusion of sunlight may not exist in clear weather as we expect. Under the pressure of shining light, a polished surface will reflect what it receives and reduce the genuineness of an actual composition. If a shining image is the effect wanted, of course, shining also would be regarded as a means of composition. Unfortunately, the expected quality of a building in the long run should be considered as well. As exemplified in most of the historical buildings it is rusticated materials having the quality of natural weathering which will stay longer, not the finished and artificial one. They outlast the surfaces artificially finished because their rough, weary and perplexing quality has the power of tolerance to cancel the menace of time. The formation of the mellow beauty of old rusticated buildings has its simple but profound justification in the philosophy of non-being.

The immediate function of negativism in surface finish is even more important. Besides its contribution of settling dusty elements in its minute voids, rusticity has the power to pierce the sharp shining of light and reflects it in its partial area, making it fused with the shadows concurrently created and giving the surface a vibrating quality. The harsh light in nature thus is softened by material we usually borrow from nature.

Light, color and texture combined give surface quality. Any surface quality itself, again, has no difinite being unless it is compared with another surface quality. Since in both conception and perception, white is not white without the existence of black, the same kind of greyish surface will appear brighter in contrast with black but darker in contrast with white. What is lacking in one thing is always compensated in another thing. They then will complement each other by natural or artificial light. That which is facing the light source will be reduced in brightness by aerial diffusion. That which is hidden in shadow will receive light from negative reflection and be brightened. None of them, nevertheless, can eventually remain itself and avoid becoming dull greyness within human organism. It is because of the natural rhythm of fatigue and relief that a total harmony of surface quality externally accomplished could be intermittently maintained in man's internal reality.

The partial concealment of light is not provided for acquiring constancy and harmony of surface quality alone. When spatial form is concerned, nature again is for incompletion. To manifest either a rectilinear or a curvilinear form, it is necessary to have light unevenly distributed. Along the dimension to time, nature also is functioning on the basis of incompletion. A basic rectangular form with different recessed surfaces will be enriched only through the organic decomposition created by different shadows at different times. As a whole, the void enclosed by this form will be seen as dark in day time and, negatively, bright at night. All of these life-movements for definition, for enrichment, and for the general rhythm of work and rest are created by deficiency in lighting.

Light, natural or manufactured, floods to every corner of an architectonic form. Darkness, which is preserved, is what makes depth be seen. If light be called the life- blood of an architectonic form, darkness could rightly be called its soul.

As to the experience of spatial extension itself, our eyes are not able to see everything in a visual field all at once. Clarity of an object at one distance is accentuated only at the expense of the blurring of objects at another distance. This deficiency of our visual organism is a natural asset. Without blurring, the buoyancy of intermittent change between clarity and obscurity would not exist.

The efficiency of our visual organism is so low that even objects facing us at similar distances are beyond our power to grasp at once. Except objects made familiar through experience, visual elements perceived by us at one instant are limited to only a few. It is the natural picture frame, the emptiness surrounding an unfinished manifestation of physical reality, which makes a momentary being integrated and induces man's fluid continuity of clear vision in time. It is so because human mentality, as a part of unfinished nature, is provided for the experience of unfinished existence.

At this point, it is necessary to say that visual objects are not as static as we might carelessly think they are. Actually they have life. They have life because their existences are complementarily inter-related to and influenced by each other; because they are subject to transformation due to the transfusion between brightness and darkness, and because they are experienced by life.

It is hard to say how much surface quality contributes to the visibility of an object because size and distance are the more obvious factors of visibility. As a whole, however, it might be acceptable to say that both surface quality and size are playing a part and that complementarily they create a total impression seen from distance. When surface quality is impressive by contrast with the brightness of a neighboring object or objects, apparent size could be small. To keep the same amount of impressiveness when surface quality is less impressive, apparent size must be enlarged. They are cooperating on the function of visual manifestation which requires one of them to be passive. In architectural composition in particular, form usually takes command and surface quality is complementary.

Nature is for minimum means and maximum end. As a natural product, our small eye is constructed for distorted vision of large scope. So primarily what we immediately see is not the actual thing existing in space but the retinal impingement of objects of which the apparent sizes are horizontally and vertically reduced when distance increases. Beyond the power of compensation by binocular superposition, this inherent distortion has its deficiency yet to be overcome.

Our motion in space and past experience helps us to understand that an object of normal size actually is bigger than what appears in our immediate perception from a certain viewpoint. From time to time, by the proportion to the size of the human body and conventional elements such as a door, the objective conception of a rectangular framework is gradually established. Despite the fact that physical space actually is geodetic in construction, we conceive architectural space mainly on the basis of this idea of rectangularity. This conception is so influential that perspective reference given by planar indication experienced from a limited number of viewpoints can give us a realistic, though temporary, sensation of three-dimensional space.

It would be mechanical, however, to interpret perception and conception separately. It would also be incorrect to emphasize one aspect at the expense of the other. Following the line of Laotzu's thinking, they must be organically related. In this case, the positive end expected is the rectangular formation of the reference points of objects existing in physical space. Immediate perception received at a certain distance is something incomplete and has its intangible content.

"Greatness means vanishing; Vanishing means distance; Distance means return of greatness."

(CHAP. 25)

In Laotzu's thinking, gain and loss are always in balance. What is vanishing in space implies the increase of distance. Inversely, what is decreasing in size has the potential of becoming great.

Consequently, if we plot the traces of transformation from the perception to the conception of one section of a form, such as a rectangular plane, the resultant form of the traces would approximately become a "negative perspective," which is intangible. The potential of becoming great of an object, furthermore, is proportional to its distance from us. The farther it is, the greater its potential to grow.

Experience of physical space is a matter neither of perception nor conception, but the interaction between them. This process of growth from deficiency to compensation brings inherent movement to physical form.

This intangible content of size does not manifest itself. When the mind tends to interpret size as diminishing in distance, an object of parallel form with limited perspective influence is experienced as tending to grow outward instead of being diminished in space as it would appear in mechanical projection. This effect is particularly obvious in our experience at intimate distance of a vertical form. In this case, the diminution effect in immediate perception due to short distance in horizontal direction is strongly over-compensated by mental interpretation derived on the basis of long distance in vertical direction. Naturally, the interior of a cathedral or the exterior of a skyscraper will be experienced as vitally opening up toward its height.

Vision from a stationary viewpoint concerns size and distance. Vision in motion concerns speed and time as well. Stationary as the limited number of visual objects are in relation to the earth, their passiveness makes it possible for man to experience the infinitely multiplied visions by change of direction and change of sequence.

Any existence occupies time, but no existence persists in time. When the speed of motion is high, the mind will be occupied by preceding objects and not capable of accepting a new independent image. A simple composition will thus be experienced as a complex one instead. On the other hand, no matter how complex a composition is, its complexity will not always clearly exist in the mind when it is experienced by us at leisure. Seeing slowly, one will naturally free himself from the after-image or even the memory of preceding visions and be ready to receive new images.

When time serves as the container of visual impressions, simplicity is enriched in vision at high speed while complexity is lessened in vision at slow motion. From a humanitarian point of view, complexity in a subway tunnel and simplicity in a prison are both undesirable.

Primarily because of this limitation of our mental capacity, visual objects existing in space are bound eventually to become non-existent to us after we are fatigued by the monotony of the same object. Our change of visual interest superficially is created by the attraction of a new object, but actually is brought about positively by the negative factor, fatigue.

But visual objects with tangible variety are only attractive and not always directive to the fatigued eye because our sequence of seeing them is rather arbitrary. One may be attracted by any of many visual objects, but he will naturally be invited to look through or toward an empty and vanishing field. Our reluctance in seeing a monotonous object will only push our sight aimlessly away from it, while an empty solid can always definitely repulse our sight at a nearly predictable angle. Everything else being equal, it is deliberate provision of emptiness which will secure the expected direction of our seeing process.


Excerpted from The Tao of Architecture by Amos Ih Tiao Chang. Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Foreword to the Princeton Classics Edition v

Foreword xix

Introduction 3

National Life-movement in Architecture Vision 11

Variability and Complement 23

Balance and Equilibrium 41

Individuality and Unity 59

Conclusion 69

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The measure of Dr. Chang's achievement is [in] its broad vision and insight. . . In sum, [this book] wonderfully repays the intense and difficult reading it demands."—Alan Gowans, Art Bulletin

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