My views on architecture, the environment and society are underpinned by one unifying idea – the vital need for harmony
The Prince of Wales
We live in an age when technological ease has become so much a part of the accustomed way of life that it seems “natural” to some, even their right. But what does our dependence upon such technology do to our connection with Nature? Does our increasing dependence upon technology make us believe that we, too, and the world about us, are merely part of some enormous mechanical process?
These questions have concerned me for many years, because there is now a worrying imbalance in how we are persuaded to see the world. Our perception of Nature, in particular, has become dangerously limited.
When I have spoken of these things I have been shot at from all sides – the natural consequence, I suppose, of having the temerity to challenge the status quo of scientific Modernist rationalism. But undeterred by the barrage of invective, I would like to explain what lies at the heart of my concern.
A question from a newspaper correspondent in the 1930s drew from Mahatma Gandhi one of his pithiest responses. Asked, during his visit to Britain, what he thought of Western civilisation, he replied: “It would be a very good idea.”
Gandhi realised that humanity has a natural tendency to consume and that, if there are no limits on that tendency, we can become obsessed simply with satisfying our desires. The desire grows ever more potent as we consume ever more, even though we achieve very little of the satisfaction we desire. Is this not so in the Western world today? We hear so many people admitting to feeling deeply dissatisfied. It reminds me of that wise observation about gross national product by Robert Kennedy 40 years ago, that it “measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”.
I’m sure that many people know it is wrong to plunder the Earth’s treasures as recklessly as we do, but the comprehensive world view persuades us that such destruction is justified because of the freedom it brings us, not to say the profits. Our tendency to consume is legitimised by a world view that puts humanity at the centre of things, with an absolute right over Nature. And that makes it a very dangerous view.
This approach has been adopted in such a wholesale fashion that I feel many do not even realise we have lost something precious – what I might describe as an intuitive sense of our interconnectedness with Nature.
The movement responsible for the imbalance – it is often called “Modernism” – rose to dominance at the start of the 20th century. Now, this movement must not be confused with the great social, economic and political advances of the earlier “modern” age, the many benefits of which endure to this day.
The “Modernism” to which I refer offered us an unrelenting emphasis upon a material and mechanistic view of the world. To quote from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s foreword to its recent exhibition on Modernism: “Modernists had a Utopian desire to create a better world. They believed in technology as the key means to achieve social improvement and in the machine as a symbol of that aspiration.”
Thus the ground was laid for the arrival of those straight, efficient lines of Modernism with the aim of simplifying and standardising the world, making things as efficient and as convenient as possible. This is why the curved streets of towns became straight matrices and why we have so many buildings grouped into single- use zones, including those for living – most noxious of all, those high- rise blocks of flats that, throughout the 1960s and 70s, became the living quarters for thousands of people in every city across Europe and the US.
Removed from their communities, people were accommodated in brand- new, convenient, concrete cul-de-sacs in the sky, and when their newness faded, those areas all decayed into violent, soul-destroying ghettos with no capacity to nurture community. Guess what is happening now in the new cities springing up in China and India? As they doggedly follow the Western pattern of 40 years ago people are again compelled to leave their farms to live like factory-farmed chickens in mechanical boxes. Thus are millions more condemned to the same toxic future.
The imposition of that simplistic geometry drastically reduces the richness of complexity. Those who drove this 20th-century ideology did not understand (or simply ignored) what biology and microbiology declare loud and clear – that complexity is key to life. The diversity that made up this complexity was bulldozed in the pursuit of simplicity and convenience, creating an appeal that continues to fuel the conspicuous consumption and throwaway societies we see everywhere. Just what Gandhi most feared and predicted…
How has this come to be? I would suggest it is the net result of two seismic shifts in our perception.
Modernism fuelled a fundamental disconnection from Nature – from the organic order of things that Nature discloses; from the structure and cyclical process of Nature and from its laws that impose those natural limits which Gandhi was at such pains for us to recognise.
As a result, our perception of what we are and where we fit within the scheme of things is fractured. This is why I consider our problems today not just to be an environmental crisis, nor just a financial crisis. They all stem from this fundamental crisis in our perception. By positioning ourselves outside Nature, we have abstracted life altogether to the extent that our urbanised mentality is out of tune with the key principles underpinning the health of any economy and of all life on Earth. And those principles make up what is known as “Harmony”.
Biology shows that in all living things there is a natural tendency towards Harmony. Organisms organise themselves into an order that is remarkably similar at every level, from the molecules in your little finger to vast eco-systems such as the rainforests. Life seeks balance. Every organism works together to produce a harmonic whole. When it is in balance, when there is harmony, the organism is healthy.
This is why I have been so outspoken about how industrialised agriculture sees Nature simply as a mechanical process. When you consider that in one pinch of soil there are more microbes than there are people on the planet, you have to ask what irreversible damage do we do to that delicate ecosystem – the six inches of top soil that sustains all life on Earth? The soil’s health is our health. Yet we have eroded it and poisoned it and failed to replace lost nutrients to such a degree that a recent UN survey found that in just 50 years we have lost a third of the world’s farmable soil. That is hardly a sustainable rate of exploitation.
Also implicit in “Modernism” was the notion that we could somehow disconnect ourselves from our inner nature; from the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Thus spiritual practice is denigrated by many: seen to be nothing more than outdated superstition. But “super-stition” means something much more profound if you see it as two words that point to a heightened sense of something within. But what? Could it be that animating source of the harmony inherent in all life? Could it be that intuitive element in our human constitution; that “sixth sense”, perhaps?
Each of the great civilisations back to ancient times depicted what might be called the “grammar of harmony” in their mythology and the symbolism of their art and architecture, from the ancient Hindu temples of India to the great Gothic cathedrals of these islands. In cutting ourselves off from Nature we cut ourselves off from what we are; from our inner selves.
You may believe that I have some reactionary obsession with returning to a kind of mock medieval, forelock- tugging past. All I am saying is that we simply cannot contend with the global environmental crises we face by relying on clever technological “fixes” on their own.
The denial of our real relationship with Nature has engendered a dangerous alienation. In denying the invisible “grammar of harmony” we create cacophony and dissonance. If we hope to restore the balance, we must reintegrate the best parts of this ancient understanding of Harmony with the best modern technology and science, not least by developing innovative and more benign forms of technology that work with the grain of Nature rather than against it.
This is an edited version of a speech to the Foreign Press Association. The full version can be read here