Silence in Architecture

This article springs from a conversation which began in the alt.architecture.alternative newsgroup between Robin Benson, at the time an Australian graduate student in Architecture, and Bill Christensen, webmaster of Sustainable Sources, in 1994

There is a field of study which arises from the ancient Vedic texts of India called Sthapatya Veda, which is generally seen as the study of architecture; sculpture; placement; and art. The word Sthapatya comes from the root “to establish.” The texts themselves tend to be rather on the obscure side.

There is a lot of attention given to the value of silence, however. In the Vedic view, the wholeness of life, the unbounded field of pure creative intelligence, is the basis of all structure in the universe. This unbounded, silent center is represented in all architecture.

Sthapatya establishes consciousness, or creative intelligence in the environment. Consciousness preceeds matter in both the design process and in the actual manifestation. Sthapatya establishes the connection of separate parts to each other and of each part to the whole. Simultaneously, it establishes the connection between the individual and the universal, the individual and the Absolute.

The three principle properties in Sthapatya Ved are:

right direction (both in space and in time)
right proportion
right placement

These three collectively form what is called a Vastupurusha Mandala (form-being-diagram), used as a guide for which activities are best suited for each area of a building.

A common feature of each Vastupurusha Mandala is that the center, known as the Brahmastan, is representative of the silent center of all life. It is the connecting point of all the other parts of the building, the unmanifest center of all of the manifest activities. Says the resident of one recent Sthapatya-Vedically designed building, “the house kind of breathes from there.”

One aspect of right direction involves attention to the sun’s relation to the progression of activity in the house through the day. For instance, generally the entrance is in the center of the east wall of the house, the kitchen is in the south east, the dining is in the south. So the sun’s life-giving energy enters the house first thing in the morning, proceeds to the kitchen and gives life to the food preparations, and follows to the dining room for the noon meal, which is generally the larger meal of the day for many cultures. (The body’s natural rhythms give us highest metabolism at this time as well, promoting best digestion.) And so on, through the house.

Right proportion relates to the overall and relative sizes of building elements. Certain relations resonate with people better than others. Certainly you have been in a large room with a low ceiling that feels opressive, or a small but high ceilinged room that makes you feel closed in. Take a 3m x 4m room and put an 8m high ceiling, and it feels very different than a room of the same proportions with a 3.5m ceiling.

Then there is placement. This has to do with everything from the placement of the house on the lot, to placement of the rooms, to placement of the furniture, to placement of the trees outside, to placement of the lot in the town, etc…

Sthapatya Ved architects, or “sthapatis” as they are called, design the building based on the individual’s (or family’s, or corporation’s) relation to the cosmos (Jyotish, loosely interpreted as astrology), and upon the relation of that to the particular site.

Obviously all of these work together, and each element has to be designed with each other element in mind. The layering and relationships of all of the elements come together to create a building that is essentially an extension of the inhabitants, as it was built to complement their unique relations to the each other and to the world and cosmos around them. It is in essence a living organism, responding to the daily and seasonal cycles in the environment.

I have been asked by several people for sources of more information on Sthapatya Ved. The best place I know of to find a good collection of original source material is at Motilal Banarsidas, for instance, the Mayamata. I have also read a number of other texts; some that I would recommend are “The Temple in the House: Finding the Sacred in Everyday Architecture” by Anthony Lawlor, and “Mayamata” translated by Bruno Dagens, (can be hard to find).

-Bill Christensen

Posted in Sacred Geometry, Sthapatya.