Interviewsand Articles


The Meaning of Proportion: Terrance Galvin

by Richard Whittaker, Sep 18, 2004



Photo: R. Whittaker

I met Terrance Galvin at Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown’s symposium, The Oakland Table, in September 2000. The topic of the first symposium was "space versus place" and addressed questions about the distinction between a sense of place and the merely abstract idea of space. Specifically, how did this distinction play out in urban planning? The two result in very different urbanscapes.
     During 1988, Galvin lived and worked in Villa El Salvador, a low-income residential district on the southern outskirts of Lima, a shantytown populated by immigrant families who had left the Peruvian highlands during intense activity by the Sendero Luminoso. This was the first of Galvin’s many formative experiences in architecture from the ground up, and led to further experiences with community groups in India, Thailand, and the Middle East.
     Further study and experience led to his interest in proportionality—particularly in terms of its relationship with harmony and sensation as understood in earlier periods, and mostly lost in the wake of the advance of modernism.
      Galvin is an architect living in Montreal. At the time of this interview, he was teaching at McGill University and Dalhousie University. We got together at my home in Oakland to talk.

Richard Whittaker:  First, would you tell us a little bit about your work?

Terrance Galvin:  I was trained as an architect at three schools in Canada. In 1987 I had a chance to go with a group that was invited to Villa El Salvador—John Turner had been there in the 1950s—and I realized that very few of the things and assumptions I’d made in design school were really going to be of any help in that situation.

RW:  Where was this again?

TG:  Outside of Lima, in the largest squatter town in Peru. They were extremely organized, having broken themselves down into groups, neighborhoods and smaller clusters even though there were 350,000 people living in this squatter town at that time. They had taken over land in the desert that was not part of the municipality of Lima, and so they had no formal access to services like electricity and water.
     That whole "informal sector," as it’s called, tends not to be recognized by governments and tends not to be taught about in schools of architecture. Rather it tends to be seen as a problem at municipal or university levels. But in these unrecognized settlements, where people have been marginalized, pushed out, or impoverished in some way, people do take action. The will of the people to get organized is really something which made sense to me and was something I wanted to look into more and more.

RW:  This was something you first saw in Villa El Salvador?

TG:  Yes. And it was my first experience of being invited not knowing exactly what we would do. Yet the people who invited us were very open to discussing how such a settlement could be worked on together.
     In Lima the people just had these small sheets of straw called estera that would become their first shelter when bent over. If they had two, they would bend them across each other and reinforce them with pieces of wood or reinforcement bar. It was the most basic element of shelter, like the kinds of things children build when they are playing in backyards. But when people are building them in impoverished areas where’s there’s no sewage, no electricity, no services, it’s incredibly critical.
     They asked us to help build a place that could be a community gathering hall. We had the funding for something we could build together, and needed a meeting place. That same meeting place could also be a school since they mixed the children from different age groups together in their neighborhood.
     As I spent time there, I came to realize that even though they had been marginalized, still, they knew a lot about what they wanted to build. The problem was that they had few resources. On the other hand, they had all these presumptions that had come from global modern influences. So the first six months we met, our discussions centered around, "what kind of houses and what kind of buildings do you think would work with the way you’ve understood tradition?" Inevitably they would say, we want brick, we want concrete, because that’s what you’ve got where you live.
     Eventually we chose to look at a material I’d heard about called quincha. It’s made from cut bamboo which is then covered very lightly with mud, with less than one half inch. It uses very little water, unlike adobe, which needs a lot of water to create. So with this material, quincha, they’ve been able to build beautiful, appropriate, well-fitting buildings all over Peru including Lima cathedral.
     One of the paradoxes is that while development often still treats people as primitive, the squatters wanted modern progress including things like cars and television…

RW:  They all had television? Or they wanted to have them?

TG:  Most people we saw, even though a family of four or five might live in a house eight by eight feet, the majority of people had televisions already, and also, the majority had cars. That’s another negative spin-off of urban migration where people come toward the city but are pushed to the edges in squatter towns. People generally couldn’t afford to move into Lima and live there, but that is where they worked. So most times they faced a two to three hour commute each way. You can see they would need a car, or they would take a series of buses.
     In India the settlement pattern is very different. For complex reasons Indian people who are forced into squalor situations don’t commute that same length of time. They just refuse to, and so they squat much closer to where they work. But in Peru these huge commutes were an established thing. So people would work twelve hours a day and commute an additional two to three hours each way. The entire premise that moving to the city will be an improvement, that It will embody progress, is really wrong. Those who go to the city want to be able to send money home and eventually be able to return home. That’s the dream.
     This is also where it ties into the concept of place, of moving back to the village they came from. It’s really the constant theme of people who are displaced through migration. It’s somewhat connected to the paradigm of the garden of Eden, this desire to go home, to return to Eden. They all thought they would eventually save enough money to move back home, but in many cases people had already been there twenty to twenty-five years.

RW:  Tell me again how it was you got there?

TG:  I have a friend and professor, Essy Baniassad, in Halifax, Nova Scotia who had met an engineer doing seismic testing in Lima. The engineer had been asked many times by these people to help them get more established on the land. He knew a lot about seismic matters but understood he didn’t know much about these other questions, and so he talked with this professor who then invited me and three or four others to spend three years in Villa El Salvador. I spent the first year studying the question of what is appropriate. What is good fit? What makes sense? But the people in this community had absorbed all the myths and images about progress and technology. We were saying that maybe there were technologies they had already used before and might want to look at again. There was great resistance to that, at least for the first six months.

RW:  Of course television would be a conduit piping in all the "Western Good," as advertised.

TG:  Yes. This would be Ivan Illich’s point—that by then consumerism was fully supporting a set of ideas that draw people away from place. And so they had an image that because we were from Canada, in this case, that we all had two cars and two televisions and all the rest of it.

RW:  So when you went there you already had come to some of the ideas, say, the ideas of Ivan Illich, which would guide your approach in a particular direction?

TG:  It was a combination of influences, including Illich’s critique of development and John Turner’s work, Housing By People. The way architecture schools in North America are still run, largely, there’s the teaching of western history, but not much about other cultures. Courses are also structured in a top-down way including the way people study classical tradition, or think they do. There’s not much in the way of connecting any of that with experience.
     We certainly never had a course, for instance, about the Indian sense of space in a Hindu temple, let alone any courses about the dwellings of indigenous peoples as, for instance, the long houses of the Mohawk in Canada. But as part of my own education, I'd read books such as Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich.
     In going to Peru, I encountered these issues head-on with a community of people who were extremely well organized, extremely politicized, and who wanted a better life for their families. The means by which they thought they would get to that sense of place and dwelling however, were still very much under the influence of the modern western paradigm. Our group was thinking in another direction.
     And here we are now, fifteen years later at this symposium, "The Oakland Table," where we’re discussing many of these same issues: what does it mean to speak of appropriate technology? What is good fit? In a community, how do you work together and enable yourselves to do things? Because, in the end, the common theme everywhere I’ve traveled and lived is that the sense of dwelling has so much more to do with well-being and harmony than it does with just providing a shelter. In French the term bien-être expresses well being. But all the planning and development programs I’d ever encountered treated housing simply as a commodity.
     John Turner turned that around in saying, "housing is a verb"—implying that to dwell involves a process that goes far beyond just physical shelter. That made a lot of sense to me, especially because I’d seen many, many miserable projects where government after government, or agencies like the world bank, would intervene by financing and building shelter for people, while making something more akin to a military or refugee camp. We see that now with Kosovo. The tent city is there only in emergency situations, but often they end up becoming permanent, such as those refugee camps in Palestine.

RW:  And you were in Villa El Salvador for three years?

TG:  The project had funding for three years. I was there for one year. It was an extreme political time because during that year the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path terrorists, were also extremely active and destructive. Almost everyone I’d met had fled from a village because the Sendero Luminoso was going into small villages and massacring people and destroying women and children’s lives.

RW:  You’ve said the people in this squatter town were very well organized. That surprises me. I’ve never thought about it, but I see I’ve got an unexamined assumption there, since I’m surprised. What about this organization?

TG:  Last night I was just speaking with John Turner [a participant in the symposium] about this issue. In a way, Turner had freed himself to see. Le Corbusier had a phrase, "des yeux qui ne voient pas" (the eyes which do not see) —we all make assumptions that we see, or know, or understand something. Turner got beyond that.
     I think what I share with Turner and Illich and many others, is that one has to question certainties as well as oneself. What does it mean to be really engaged and to understand something, rather than to think you’ve seen it? Lee [ Hoinacki ] brought up the example of television the other night. He said, you think you’ve seen something, but you’ve only seen an image, you haven’t really seen anyone, nor have you experienced anything in any concrete way.
     So, at first glance, people think a squatter town or a shanty place is just a kind of disorganized, chaotic mess. That assumption then leads to methods of planning and development. Individuals and communities are then put into shape and organized in terms which have nothing to do with the way people actually dwell and organize themselves. I would say the two approaches are really fundamentally opposite.
     In every place I’ve been there is a sense of order because—and coming back to this question of proportionality—order and proportionality are really very related. The principle of ordering something is about proportion. This is a classical understanding of the term, proportio. Every act of dwelling I’ve experienced has to do with some profound underlying principle of order. We used to speak of "cosmic order." In extreme conditions like those in shanty towns it’s an order of necessity.
     But the way people treat what they need, and the way they see that developing, as I say, is fundamentally different from the way developers and planners see that same process. They don’t really understand it as a process. Well, John Turner came along—and there are many others—and he was sensitive in that particular place in Lima and saw the way people had been arranging themselves and their belongings.
     Here’s a concrete example: first someone would mark off a territory by making a wall around it. That would be the first gesture if the resources were available. Then they might build a piece of a house with the materials available. Then the next person would come along and mark out an area by making a wall next to it. But there would be a relationship in how this was done, and eventually more people mark out places and there is the beginning of a street. Even in a shanty town there is a sense of inside dwelling space and outside shared space, public space. This had more to do with communal space than just creating a property line. If they eventually had thirty or forty houses, and that little space of the street became too long, then they would leave an area open where the children could play, and where they could meet. There’s a sense of dwelling that runs at this deep level which I think exists in all acts of place making. It reflects an essential aspect of human nature.

RW:  What one sees then, if one can see it, is that order appears naturally from something present at a deep level, or out of necessity. Is that what you’re saying?

TG:  Yes. But "necessity" in the sense of well-being rather than just putting a roof over your head. In most cosmogonies and creation myths, the world is first empty, chaos, and out of that the divine source produces some world and divides it. What was chaos and formless is brought into form and order. In Plato’s Timaeus, for instance, the world soul appears in the symbolic form of a circle. As the world soul is divided, according to proportion, the sky is separated from the earth, the waters created, and the world divided in terms of the principle of order which would extend from the macro scale through the micro scale.
     To say that something like that same principle is at work in a squatter town at first seems odd. Bureaucrats can not see the order which does exist there. They only see "disorder," and they want to get rid of it. The squatters are on illegal land anyway, they don’t have land tenure. We could speak about the homeless in many countries, including North America, and how when we depart from a deep understanding of what order is as a principle of well-being, we end up with the problems you and I see every day.

RW:  And so you saw evidence of what you’re describing in the squatter town outside of Lima.

TG:  Yes. Because there would be invasions of up to five hundred people coming in overnight. And at first, those little bent over straw shelters would look like they just came out of the blue. First people establish territory, but after a year, or after three or five years, there is a sense of community taking shape and one can see this underlying principle as a desire for order.
     We all dwell in such a manner. For instance, you move into a place, you hang art, put a table at the window and sit around the table together as we are doing here. I think these kinds of things are really the original principles of dwelling as they relate to architecture.

RW:  You’ve found a central interest in the idea of proportion. The first definition I found in my Webster’s for the word proportion is simply the relationship of the part to the whole. As such, it’s a neutral term. You could have something a million feet long, and between one inch of it there would be a proportion. But am I right in thinking that this would be an inadequate definition in the sense you want to consider proportion?

TG:  Absolutely. When I refer to loss of proportionality in architecture it’s not to be cynical. If you look up the dictionary definition it doesn’t have the same meaning as it would have had two hundred years ago, five hundred years ago, or one thousand years ago. That very place of beginning is the very same as questioning the assumptions of what I was going to do in Peru. It is similar to looking up a word now and seeing its modern use.
     So if we say that proportion is simply the relationship of the part to the whole, and then we look at the picturesque English garden, for instance, it has little to do with the tradition of proportion. A concept of proportion, unity within multiplicity they would say, was the underlying theme right through the Enlightenment, a sort of motto for the Enlightenment about the relationship of the part to the whole.
     The modern definition doesn’t really help us understand what is good because, as you say, a part in relation to another doesn’t yet really speak about what the proportional relationship is. If I look deeper into the meaning of the word, proportio, it has to do with two things in relation to each other, being compared to two other things also in relation to each other. Those two sets of things can be spoken about commensurably. And in the way I would like to speak about proportion with this group in Oakland, there was always a relationship between the human measure and the measure of the cosmos.

RW:  So you’re speaking not just about an abstract principle of the relationship of the part to the whole which could be anything, but rather to specific kinds of relationships of the parts to the whole which in fact are beneficial, harmonious, or in some way, good for us as humans.

TG:  Yes. Across time there has been a very deep relationship between the human measure derived from the human body and the measure of place. In many cultures divine proportion is still present. An Indian temple is not just a geometrical figure, it’s an emanation of the cosmos, an axis mundi. It has to do with the world axis because the temple is still a reflection of the order of the cosmos. Now to talk about that in contemporary terms, if we were to look at a squatter town in Peru or a community in Oakland—how could we understand this in contemporary terms?—There is no simple answer for that, but the question needs to be examined.
     That’s why we’re meeting with a group like this, and talking about the recovery of place and the necessity of commons. Loss of place is one aspect of the loss of a sense of proportionality, of which we could cite many examples…

RW:  Could you cite a few examples then?

TG:  We find Luca Pacioli writing Divina Proportione in 1509 and having his friend, Leonardo da Vinci, do the sketches for that treatise—an example of proportion as a commensurate relationship between two sets of things which could be compared. If I look to Alberti who wrote the treatise De Re Aedificatoria in the mid-fifteenth century, one sees the sense of analogy was already there since, in his title the word "edification" not only meant building an edifice, but also edification for the soul. So the relation between the act of building, and what Joseph Rykwert would call the art of building, has always had within it these underlying principles of order.
     In Alberti, the way a wall is composed, the distribution of the elements of a wall are not just component parts that can be taken out and removed, they’re part of a set of relationships in proportion. This applies to the whole building, and also to the entire town. Alberti would use the Latin, concinnitas, meaning "good adjustment." Vitruvius would have spoken about the same idea using the term, eurythmy, a rhythm in the relationship between the parts and the whole in terms of good fit. The underlying principle in both concepts is still good fit.
     By the nineteenth century you can hardly cite any examples of the word, "proportion" in architectural treatises. The word gets lost as a break in tradition occurs.

RW:  So then we have the loss of the language, but can you tell me from your own experience, how does that play out in a concrete way in the world? Would you be prepared to argue, for instance, that when the language was in place, that the buildings in a very real way somehow reflected something connected to that language? That the buildings, in fact, were good for the soul, if you will.

TG:  A difficulty with the notion of a concept is that language is a repository of the memory of what things mean. So to look across time to see the way various individuals used a word like proportion helps me then understand textually that the word has very different meanings across time. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the word proportion gets very much mixed up, as a word, with ratio. Often it gets reduced to ratio. So the definition you read in the dictionary also easily satisfies the word, ratio. Someone may then say ratio has to do with rational thinking. Viollet le Duc looked upon the gothic cathedral as a paradigm for a time when architecture was at its peak. And in a rational nineteenth century way, he breaks all the components of the gothic church down into a system that he can then articulate and copy. At that level his structural rationalism has little to do with the gothic cathedral. He’s rationalized out of it a system of thought which isn’t in the same spirit of how the medieval builders would have understood proportion through ad triangulum or ad quadratum—using the geometry of triangles or squares—in order to build the cathedrals according to "the measure of man."

RW:  I don’t think I follow that last part.

TG:  Just last week a Jewish friend of mine told me about walking into Chartres and having a terribly transcendental moment, and he asked me, "Why?" No easy answer. Using a triangle as a geometric form in order to assist in building a wall, implied something so much more than just measuring in a modern sense. A gothic medieval mason would have been imbued with, or known tradition in such a way that the use of geometry and number would have been at the service of creating an entire work which was in proportion and had to do with the good. We have great difficulty understanding this today.
     The idea of using the triangle by itself leads us in a strange direction. In the twentieth century people tried to recover what proportion was and went back and measured many buildings and tried to see if they could find some magic in the number. Then they turned around and tried to repeat it in contemporary buildings. We can see this in neo-classical architecture. If I go back in time and am moved by the proportions of a Greek temple, but I take them and make the columns out of tin and stick them on the front of a downtown building in New York, am I really recovering the idea of proportion? Obviously not, because the idea of proportion is much deeper and has to do with a relationship which can’t just be taken out of context and applied.

RW:  If man is the measure, then that is quite a different thing than having number be the measure. Man is so much more than number. The example of copying the columns may be mathematically correct, but if you just make a tin column, in that case, there’s a lack of sensitivity to materials, among other things. Maybe one could say that in a gothic cathedral there’s an element of feeling which has informed something about the way they were built. One could say that the reliance upon this part of man, the part that uses numbers, may be there but the rest of what would comprise a person is missing. Does this way of putting it make sense to you?

TG:  Absolutely. One word leads to another word which leads us back to the same question. Man being the measure of all things —today extracted as a slogan—was much interpreted in architectural theory without reducing man to number.
     Alberti, or Vitruvius, or Luca Pacioli would have understood that the analogy between the human body and the world body was a profound analogy. As a model, that would mean that the joint of my thumb in relation to my whole thumb couldn’t be seen simply as that. The thumb would have to be seen in relation to the hand, the hand in relation to the arm and then the arm in relation to the rest of the torso; correspondingly, in number, there was something divine which was continually reflected between the human body and the cosmos. As you might go from town to town you would find that the foot, or the yard, or the other dimensions of the town were based upon the height of the person they took the measurements from. In Quedlingburgh they have a yardstick in the city hall which records the Quedlingburgh foot. Throughout Italy there was the Roman foot, the Florentine foot, the Sienna foot. These were based on the dimensions of the person who "ruled" the town. One still has a sense of the body of the person from which these measurements were derived since it was reflected in the structure of the town. As you walk in these places, your body feels these things.
     In the time of the French Revolution, for the first time, the meter was invented as a generic measure. Here a number came to be a standard. That very act departs so much from the analogous relationship with the human body. We may say that the meter destroys the somatics of place.
     Originally geometry, which had to do with measuring the earth, (geo + metry), was understood as a measure of the earth, but by relationship to, or in terms of, the human body. One can still see this in the way many Indian tribes walk or pace off space. That idea is still there in many cultures. By the time we regard measurements as standardized, a person can carry a tape measure and measure a gothic cathedral and then claim "to know" something about it. I can’t accept that.

RW:  I didn’t know about these local standards in towns. Fascinating. Another thing about "man being the measure of all things"—which I suppose is a quaint notion nowadays—like so many things that seem simple on the surface—is that if you look at it a little more, one is going to see it’s a much deeper and subtler thing. Man, a human being, is really quite mysterious, and not at all simple.
     One thing that strikes me is how I tend to take for granted that my ordinary state and my everyday mental capacities are adequate for understanding deep things. That we just automatically have a level field here in which we can all participate more or less equally. These are unexamined assumptions—certainties, even. Maybe you could say this reflects the enshrinement of rational abstraction as the underlying standard.
     But, in fact, there are many different states possible for man, and what is possible in one state is not possible in another. Or what can be understood in one state, is not the same as what can be understood in another state. Even in looking at my own life, and this will be true for anybody who really looks at it, it’s very clear that at one time I seem to be so connected, alert, vital and open to what’s around me while at other times, I’m closed-down, dull, cut-off, sluggish, depressed etc.
     So, man as the measure of all things is not a simple concept. Looking at man in his subjectivity, the range is vast. And looking at man as an objective thing, an organism, that too is incredibly complex. On both levels there’s a great complexity and possible depth.

TG:  That’s a key thought, Richard. On both levels, exactly. In the history of thought on proportion both of these levels have a profound relationship, as I keep coming back to simply because it’s not an easy idea to grasp.
     The relationship of the body, and the measurement that begins with understanding place, has to do with this walk—when someone walks the town, walks in one direction and then in another. That then becomes the template of the limits of what that town would be. The scale, we often call it "a human scale," but that phrase gets thrown around like all the other terms we’re using—the human scale is so profoundly linked to place, and the analogy of the human scale to the macrocosm, to the divine, is something that I have felt embodied in all cultures.
     In the west there is a loss of that relationship undermining the somatics of place—somatics being the understanding of the body moving through place as distinguished from space—which is more abstract and not yet grounded. We could say space is not grounded by the body, by the collective bodies that inhabit a place. For example, in village life one walks to the well to get water, and that relationship between the well and individual houses starts to determine the limits to that place. When we come to modern urban centers like Bangkok, a city I just returned from, I’m overwhelmed, because in such urban sprawl how does one understand there’s still a relationship between a human being and their stride?

RW:  Excuse me, but could you say a little about that?

TG:  Illich clarifies that character has also to do with accustomed place and is related to stride, or gait. We recognize people’s habits and character from place to place, and when we say groups are "ethnic" —derived from the Greek ethnos— we refer to a group of people who share customs and habits, the tribe. This can be a source of conflict because the stride of one person differs according to his or her ethnos, a set of habits and traits which are lodged in the body so that no matter what a person does, they won’t ever be able to get away from where they came from. The traits ingrained in me I carry from place to place. Illich gave an example of how his German mother had been working in a kitchen with a group of women who had a different way of moving. The other women noticed very soon that she was not from their group because of the way she moved.
     In Illich’s thinking, the question of difference is very important to guard in the contemporary world. In our modern world individual habits and place are in jeopardy due to the homogenization of culture.

RW:  Yes. Getting back to this thing about a person walking off a piece of land, pacing it off. It’s one thing to pace off something feeling that I am here, walking on the ground, aware of hearing the birds, feeling the air around me, of actually being in touch with the place I am in. But that’s quite different from walking, say with a cell phone stuck in my ear, or with my head full of inner talking. Maybe you could say the two examples represent the pre-modern compared to the postmodern or something like that.

TG:  Perhaps. We could take this thought in two different directions. The way people walked off and understood limits to their place and the relation between the measure of their bodies and the measure of their places is one thing. Paracelsus, the great 15th century alchemist, would have understood and spoken about this relationship as one of "correspondences." All of Paracelcus’s work dealt with the corresponding relationship between the macrocosm and the human microcosm. For Paracelsus the stars and the zodiac have a reflection within the elements of the human body. We still carry a vestige of that when I say, "my sign is Taurus" which rules the neck.
     Now that sounds curiously close to the first definition of proportion you read, that it’s a relationship between the part and the whole, but it’s not just any relationship of the part to the whole as happens after the Enlightenment. It’s the deep relationship, the ingrained ethos marked by the stars at the time you’re born.
We can still find that understanding in many cultures, but we’ve lost that sort of practice now. Today, we move into a house when the developer is finished and says we have access, or when the realtor says we have possession. We no longer move in on an auspicious day.
     In modern times we "get possession" of things, but in older understandings, you don’t "get possession," it’s born with you. That can’t be standardized. One of the recurring themes is the question of what is a meaningful way to show the relationship of these kinds of correspondences. In architecture, the golden section has been one of the recurring patterns people have sought. Le Corbusier developed "Le Modulor" which is one of the most recent efforts of trying to understand those relationships. All of those people would agree that if you look at how the spiral of a shell forms, or the way the petals of a rose grow, there is some harmonic correspondence between that and the human being. That’s part one regarding proportion.
     Secondly, the loss of proportionality begins in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Rather than understand that embodied sense of place, theories of perception get spoken about objectively for the first time. And with these theories of perception, there is a movement toward increasing subjectivity. The most extreme example I know of plays out through the English garden. Its layout is unlike a Renaissance garden in its formality. It’s not like an herb garden which would have been essential to the workings of St. Gaul. The English garden, as a composition, follows an idea of "unity with multiplicity." You’re led around a serpentine lake. One view follows the next. In the perception theory of landscape architecture at that time, there is the idea that you would add up the different experiences which emerge of all these various parts and these would combine to make a whole "picture." There are the follies—William Chambers brings in a Chinese pagoda—the lake becomes more and more irregular, the ha-ha develops and the fence disappears so you get a sense of extension. All those things introduce a break in the sense of understanding the human body in relation to its surroundings. Remember that the Garden of Eden was walled. It had limits that were based on a relationship to the people who dwelled in the garden.
     From Joseph Addison onwards, the idea emerges more and more that sensation is independent, subjective, and based upon the observer. Once we have the subjective observer, then we need to create the thing which is observed. That break in Western thought has severe implications on the loss of proportionality. Does that make sense?

RW:  The point where sensation was thought to become subjective? There was a break there, you say. I wonder if you could restate that. Somehow I think there is something very significant here.

TG:  Oh, there is. I’ll say a bit more. In architectural treatises during the 17th century you start finding the word "proportion" used less and less. That’s curious. Sensation and perception, with the emphasis on perception being subjective, increases. In landscape architecture, in literature, and in painting the term "picturesque" appears. The word is important as a clue in the discussion that the landscape should be seen as a picture. It moves from painting and literature when Alexander Pope coins the term, "picturesque"—like a picture, moving from painting toward garden design. We then begin to see the world as a framed image. Not yet a television. This coincides with other separations between scene and observer as you can see in the history of optical devices, for instance.
     By the late nineteenth century we have created scopic regimes. The idea of the spectacle appears. The modern viewer goes to watch a spectacle. In a village you don’t go "to watch" a spectacle, you’re a participant in the thing. You don’t just watch the festival of the Dia del Muertes, you participate in that. The dead aren’t just objects to look at, they are part of your place, part of the ancestry of it. In this case there hasn’t been the loss of the sense of the relationship between body, place and time. I don’t mean to reduce this notion. T.S. Eliot would say it beautifully, "I know that time is always time and place is always, and only place." Place is never abstract.

RW:  That’s striking, this example of how the idea appeared of looking at landscapes as pictures, as framed things to be looked at. Putting it as you did, one can’t help thinking of the technological evolution of this "picture" arriving today in the form of television. That development from "the picture" to television—is almost a trajectory of increasing distance from the body. Now we’re at the point where one can speak with some people in ways where the body, as an actual entity, begins to evaporate entirely. I had a conversation with a type recently and finally I had to ask him, "What about our bodies? Would I still be able to feel my feet?" Without missing a beat he said, "Oh, you could have any kind of feet you wanted, flippers, web feet, anything."

TG:  It leads very much to the twentieth century obsessions with detachment and fragmentation. Those things which postmodern literary people would refer to. I have to say I can’t give serious meaning to terms like "new age" and "postmodern." I don’t know what they mean. But I do know that somehow, this idea of perception and sensation becoming increasingly subjective is a significant step to "seeing" the world rather than participating in it. More importantly, the way "you" perceive things—the seeds of this are already there in the late 1700’s—the way you see that landscape, is different than the way I do. The primacy shifts from the collective body to the subject, and to the idea that your perception and my perception are the things that matter most. This comes out of the English Enlightenment. I can state many examples of it in both architecture and landscape theory. Eventually, modern "planning" comes out of that shift in paradigm and it becomes easy to see that we continue to draw something we don’t experience.
     Now we’re back to that problem when I was first invited to go to Peru. I realized I wasn’t just going "to plan" for people who knew much more about their place than I did. So instead, I became a listener and a visitor.

RW:  The whole idea that you’re broaching as I hear it, may open something in the direction away from contemporary ideas of radical relativity in which the subject is all there is. All over the earth, the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere is pretty much the same, I’d think. The force of gravity in Burundi is the same as it is here, et cetera. The body, as an organism, is grounded in a profound commonalty compared to which the degrees of difference are only slight. I don’t deny profound cultural differences, but on a deeper level, the level of the organism, there are fundamental commonalties. Does that make sense to you?

TG:  Yes. But I want to dwell for a few more moments on this significant split I’m pointing towards that happens in the eighteenth century. In the measure of understanding the body as universal and as particular. This is what I feel when I said that analogy dealt with that relationship between the universal and the particular in a very profound, proportionate, appropriate and harmonious way.
     As soon as we create a landscape which is a picture, and start talking about sensation as an inner subjective process, not as an outwardly embodied one, there are vast implications. The idea surfaces that you move through a garden, for instance, and are receiving images in succession as you move through the garden, with the eye treated mechanically as a camera lens—"the eye as a receptor." Then, if you have good character and good judgment—and this is where the word "good" begins shifting to refer to things like taste and literacy—you’ll be able to put together a composite image of all these smaller images as you move through the garden. A narrative unfolds through time. This is an important break with the concept of proportion in the history of Western thought. It opens up the problem of really seeing the world as a vast unbridgable gap between the subject and object.
     It’s not explicitly stated by anyone like Alexander Pope at all. Pope is an exception because he really worked in his grotto and garden as a spatial practice. The way he collected and put things in the garden was connected with working at understanding his literature as local rather than as universal translations of the classics. Pope wrote in a letter at one point to Jonathan Swift, I read about your travels, but I’m working in my own place, locus. He believed that somehow there was a connection between working on his own literature for his time and place and working in his own garden, on his own soil. He was conscious of the connection to time and place.
     At the same time, the picturesque garden opens up the idea of the garden being seen as a detached composition. And it’s exactly at this time that aesthetics, regarding the science of beauty, begins as a discipline. So we have a shift in paradigm from the good fit and the appropriate, to the beautiful.
     Now in classical ancient texts, the beautiful and the good were synonymous. During the rise of aesthetics, we start to talk about beauty and the attributes of beauty, as a science, where those who have good character and good judgment will somehow create beautiful things.
     In France, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, they pick this up in architecture. Treatises from the time speak of distribution or composition, as if on a piece of canvas I can compose a place. That is quite the opposite to what we have been talking about where you walk out physically into a place, are embodied in a place. I would say that all this leads toward this loss of the concept of proportion.
     In the twentieth century many people in different disciplines start using the word "proportion" once again; we begin to look for a sense of what systems of proportions might mean.
RW:  This is about how to live isn’t it?

TG:  The practice of living. That’s right. The art of living. Recovery of proportionality is one way that one can begin to speak about practicing the art of living. One may have to do all that research through the history of ideas in order to come to this profound somatic realization in order to say, when I am face to face across from you, that this moment matters, and is not just something I read in a book.

RW:  I think of Laurens Van der Post. Do you know of him?

TG:  No. I’m not aware of him.

RW:  One of the remarkable men of the last century, I think. One of the things he’s known for were his efforts to bring the Bushman and their values to the attention of the world.
     He spoke of the Bushman as the last people on earth who, in their living, not only had a deep organic connection with their place, but who felt known by their place. As Van der Post would say, they lived in a world in which they felt known by the stars, by the soil, by the plants, by the animals, by the wind and the sun. They were the last living people capable of feeling this particular sense of relationship, this being known, he said.

TG: You’ve mentioned the word organic and I haven’t responded because "organic" is another one of those terms which is so difficult to speak about in modern terms, or to have any sense of what the people there would mean by organic.

RW:  Right. It raises the problem of language. One of the things that bothers me is what I believe to be the destruction of meaningful language through its appropriation by the forces of marketing. Advertisers search out the language markers for our deeper experiences and values and then associate these words with their products. These commodified associations are created and become lodged in the popular mind, in my mind, which are not commensurate, not proportional, with the deeper and older meanings of the words. Eventually this means I can’t use these words to convey what I wanted to convey.

TG:  We’ve been discussing this the past couple of weeks amongst ourselves at mayor Jerry Brown’s’s house. If I say a system of thought is somehow "organic," or borrowing from the model of what an organism is, it may sound correct in language, but it may not really be an analogy in the sense I spoke of at the beginning.
     In Greek, the word analogia meant that a relation between two sets of things could be spoken about, and not falsely. We all know from nature that something which is ensouled has an essence. A thing which is alive has an organic wholeness about it that one can’t take away from without killing the thing. We know that. Everywhere I’ve been and traveled where people live in harmony with place, they don’t just know it, they live it in some profound way. And yet the world is in the state it is, just think of the environment.
     We know it, and speak about it all the time, have summits about it, and yet overall, we don’t practice living in harmony with nature. That’s linguistic, but also, as I say in tracing the history of thought about perception, one discovers this separation of the senses from each other— emphasizing that vision is simply optical, for instance.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues—it’s a major contribution— that in terms of phenomenology, the world and being are one, and that the senses function together. We may separate them to describe a model, but to really believe that we live in a visual world and that a landscape is a picture, I feel it would be foolish to say this to someone who has a classical understanding of what proportion is. Nineteenth century planners used this type of "analogy" all the time: central park is like the lungs of the city. The city is like a biological organism. These were all part of the nineteenth century rhetoric of what the city was, but they were similes. They weren’t really analogies because, by that time, we had lost any sense of macrocosm in relation to microcosm—whether we want to speak of city-to-person, human dimensions-to-architecture, or cosmos-to-city.
     By that time, there was a fractured understanding of what was meant by "proportion." On the other hand, I feel, some people were trying to retrieve the sense that wholeness mattered. But they were treating it only as the relationship of the part to the whole without the sense of it as a living, embodied principle.
     In the twentieth century then, it comes as little surprise that the world is treated mechanically. In architecture, from the industrial revolution on, things are no longer particularized. They become standardized. If a component in a building breaks today you can often take it off and replace it with another component. Yet architects may say they have conceived of this building as an organism, or that the building will evolve over time. That’s why I resist that word, because I don’t have a sense that it’s an "organism" in any way that I would understand the term as having to do with something alive.

RW:  One grapples with how to talk about things.

TG:  You do point out a very apparent thing that is important in this discussion. In this age of the image—and Walter Benjamin pointed this out in his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"—in this world the problem opens up that things can be used for completely other meanings. I might see an advertisement for a new computer notebook which has a picture of Leonardo’s drawing of the human body standing in a circle within a square. The caption reads, "the new notebook" suggesting the computer is like Da Vinci’s notebook. Absurd. But in the age of the image, the use of mechanically reproduced images doesn’t have any grounding. Without sounding like a moralist, in that sense, it can lead to the opposite of good. There’s no way I can discuss that advertisement for the notebook in terms of proportio. It just isn’t commensurate.

RW:  Advertising, in a way, is almost the epitome of the loss of proportion in that sense. The subject upsets me and maybe should be its own topic. I want to ask another question, what brought you to this concern about proportion and about the loss of proportion?

TG:  It’s a human concern. I would suppose the rigor ​and education that I went through as a child, the thinking about one’s vocation instead of just the professional title, or the skill—all those things go back a long way. But clearly in terms of feeling something about this relationship between the body and place and traveling extensively in different places from a young age, one experiences disjunctures in the modern world and such questions arise. People like Joseph Rykwert at the University of Pennsylvania, have argued for decades now that there was a profound analogy between the body and architecture. Both Illich and Rykwert have studied the history of the body in order to inform their respective positions.
     So I’ve come to feel some responsibility to talk about the ideas underlying the questions, what is good? what makes common sense? and what is appropriate? I can’t accept terms like “globalization” or “homogeneity.” I hear them, but in the sense we’ve been speaking about, the words themselves have so little meaning, if not the opposite meaning. One looks deeply into this and asks, what is place? What does it mean to go to a place and not just be numbed culturally so that you think that, seeing poverty in Calcutta is like watching a film? That remains deeply disturbing to me.
     Having known people like Ivan over the years, and with this particular group gathered here in Oakland, I can say that the ideas of practicing friendship and cultivating the art of living have a real analogy with what the art of building embodied across time in Western history. The loss we speak of is very recent. Two hundred years is recent if one studies the history of the idea, but now people think going back twenty or thirty years is far away in time.
     Tracing the history of the idea of proportion is essential in order to begin to find a place to talk about recovery. The loss is easier to lament and the recovery of what it means is more difficult, but that is the task of my own work, to speak about it in particular instances. I will not accept the loss of what is good.
RW:  What are your thoughts in the direction of the recovery of this good?
TG:  Consciousness is a beginning. This Oakland Round Table discussion we’re having with people from the community is an important beginning. And different people in the community have come forward who do have this kind of practice in their own way. In every community one can meet people who haven’t lost touch with what is grounded and what is common, whether it’s running a bakery, working in a garden, or some other way of acting in life.
     It requires a huge amount of collective and individual will. For me this is a very important point. The individual is still paramount in this measure of all things, but it must be remembered that the individual is always responsible, in some sense, for the other. This, ultimately, is rooted in the meaning of proportion.

Additional information about Terrance Galvin can be found at
Here is a link to a TEDx talk by Galvin.



About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine      


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