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British India 1893

British India 1893

The power of an idea split the USA from a culture similar to its own. and Pakistan from India. Empire was also an idea of the Enlightenment and Christendom.

Experiments on James Cooks Endeavour voyage of 1769-70 demonstrated the life saving power of hygiene and the science of Enlightenment. At first there was grudging respect for Mughal power, but as British men “went native” to marry Hindu and Muslim girls, Britain fought back and hardened its attitude. Sati and child marriage had been campaigned against by the Hindu reformer Ram Mohan Roy as against true Hinduism.
Science and the Enlightenment also challenged religion and tradition.

Rousseau in The Social Contract contrasted civil society and natural existence: instinctual, amoral justice versus justice and morality; .appetite and natural liberty versus civil liberty and Possession based on personal power with secure proprietorship based on respect for the law; and individual strength versus general will.

Order and law defined civilized society. “The mere impulse to appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law, which we prescribe to ourselves, is liberty “wrote Rousseau whose ideas shaped how Europe viewed indigenous peoples: India’s Adivasi and Australia’s Aboriginee.

The British lost more men to disease in India than anywhere else in the Empire: order and science must defeat Indian Chaos.


But any idea taken to extremes becomes a dinosaur.

Ilya Prigogine demonstrated systems move toward entropy until they either break down or recreate a new system of order[1].

Lutyen’s architectural ambitions intended to surpass Versailles and outlast Rome. Britain’s imperial resolve mirrored a scientific idea that drove a civilisation, but entropy caught up with Britain, and Lutyen’s eternal symbol of empire was handed back to India.

Meanwhile, there was a simultaneous a scientific conquest that created order from chaos.

The first planes were wood, at times flying albatrosses, light and flyable, but wood has its vagaries, Wood was unpredictable and error prone. Wood may hide a treacherous knot, explains Francesa Hughes[2], who contrasts Imperial struggle of order against chaos with science.

Metal could be moulded and was predictable and true. Metal was a pure form and wood its anathema.

The rejection of the organic, remains. We look to predictions as symbols of truth, and not at the natural laws themselves. It is too easy to assume a theoretical cause that does not exist.

“The rejection of organic materials that marked the material tolerance crisis central to modernity didn’t just produce the steel and glass architecture we know so well, but also a generation of newly metalized aircraft that were so heavy they could not fly. These engineered dodos, which resulted directly from architecture’s ideological reconfigurations around predictability and precision, ask of us difficult questions about the role of inference and approximation in instrumental rationalism, and about the exemption from cultural and sociological explanation we reserve for the technological artefact: what if it doesn’t work?”
–          Franscesca Hughes

Until technology caught up, metal aircraft were stuck on the tarmac, uUnable, or when they could fly, so heavy with fuel there was little hope for passengers.

But technology caught up and metal planes now fly. Aircraft became the symbol of metallic rationality and utilitarianism.

Now, technological determinism and instrumentalism, like British need for authoritarian law over “chaotic” India, now controls our lives. We plug the data in the computer ‘black box’ and out comes a decision to guide our moral imperatives.

Like metal plans being better than wood, but cannot fly, being better than wood planes that could, and forced technology o grow.

That is the power of an idea.

roberthookes needle

Lets back track a few centuries

When 17th century Robert Hookes peered at a needle under his microscope he discovered sharp is not sharp at all. The precise edges he expected did not exist.

We now know that precision is not what it seems. The pursuit of the absolute has scientific, as well as artistic and ethical considerations. A small error can evolve into greater crimes say the theologians.

Now nano-science can pursue the microscopic, or Widen our perspective and a spot disappears from our view, but it remains. Return to the microscope and we discover a delirious void and an exaggerated gap between ideal and reality.

Modernity has a heightened fetishing of precision. Out television screens saturate our eyes with slippery resolution; our new metal sculptures are moulded to curves once not possible.

But precision is, as Hookes showed, imprecise.

Two millennia ago Aristotle[3] preached precision is subject to a pure form but matter is subject to error. A concept I find echoed in the archetypal forms taught in mysticism, and the debates of Hindu Vedanta.

Science requires precise specifications lest it slip into sloppiness and ‘bad science’. Its ideology colonised the vacuum of ignorance.

But as we learned more our logical assumptions were found not to be precise. Even scientific institutions like to hold onto models even if discoveries find their exactitude is redundant.

Who drives the need to be so precise? Why the masculine conquest of line, when nature curves in feminine curvaceousness? What we call precise now will be challenged by newly discovered errors.

In the early 20th century the liquid intelligence of concrete allowed us new forms. Before the concrete truck, saw concrete made on site, and without regulations and standards, easily became a hard messy mass.

There was need to control error: regulations and automation followed. The labour force disappeared but the concrete remained. The more we cornered error, the more we feared it.

When once we poured in the slurry and out came concrete forms, we now input data and our computer offers us new design. The linearity of mass production, and the illusion of precision has fear as it’s by product.

Scientific models can be blind. It is people who make cities work, and not mathematic models. Scientific precision need be more intelligent and interactive, democratic, to balance human behaviour versus law, the power of the privileged versus the people.

It requires an artists sensitivity to, as sculpture Barbara Hepworth suggests, hear through the chisel, the shape of stone.

Native Princes Arriving in Camp for the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi, 1877

Native Princes Arriving in Camp for the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi, 1877

Science is shaped by and shapes societies worldview.

Europe had undergone its own shift with nature: Darwin challenged mans aloofness from nature, Charles Lyell, whose book Darwin was reading on the Beagle, aged the rocks eons before Adam was said to walk the earth. On the one hand, Darwin was misused to exploit tribes, on the other people sought to help them.

Historically, how colonists constructed the primitive in reality mirrored their own social problems.

It is appropriate Francesca Hughes examined precision of the micro. Schrödinger’s “What is Life” as an example of life finding order from the error, she said. Schrödinger argued the chromosome was architect and builder of the craft in one: a code that can code itself.

A code unlike a physical form is not subject to matter, and the 2nd law of thermodynamics degeneration of order into chaos[4]. Before Francis Cricks discovery of DNA, the chromosome was a black box of an unexplained mechanism.

Crick went on to claim genetic determinism was the “dogma” of modern biology. We ignored the cytoplasmic evidence to follow a doctrine of causal linearity. We dismissed the ‘white noise’ of genetic error, when even i In the 1960’s the same DNA material could grow a different organ in a Petri dish.

The primacy of the genes shaped science as the primacy of metal shaped fight. We now have flight suits made of polymerised fabrics. We now know genes do change.


“If yes then A. “If no then B” Are we doomed to live life like a flow chart?

Will the allegory of syntactic connections dodging syntactic secretaries leads us up to our Sisyphusian doom down the corridors of anxiety. The question is mapped out by Georges Perec, in his 1968 novel The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise. Written in a breathless, punctuation free monologue, is anendlessly ludicrous IFTTT loop”” its precision is its undoing. It is an wherein the if-this-then-that logic has completely unravelled, as embodied in t[a] flowchart”.

Are we to be caught in a loop of repetition, or is our humanness found in the error of redundancy? Or are we headed to scientific conditioned control of Aldrous Huxley’s Brave New World, conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to like our social place and dislike what the government decides is bad.

“Is counting safe?” Lichtenstein asks, answering “only if the pieces don’t change.” After all, scientific models are ingenious approximations. They are maps, and the map is not the territory.

Data is like money. Money offers you freedom and slavery, It offers the means of personal agenda and the fear it can be lost.

The symbolic DNA of Britain’s ethical claim to authority was the right to rule. A belief held right up to Churchills time, that Christendom was a political expression of the Kingdom of God on Earth. But politics is prone to the entropy of economics and populous opinion. Life – like prophecy – is not linear and Luyten’s eternal city would be handed back to India.

I am reminded of Alain de Botton’s words in The Architecture of Happiness

“A development which spoils ten square miles of countryside will be the work of a few people neither particularly sinful nor malevolent. They may be called Derek or Malcolm, Hubert or Shigeru, they may love golf and animals, and yet, in a few weeks, they can put in motion plans which will substantially ruin a landscape for 300 years or more.

The same kind of banal thinking which in literature produces nothing worse than incoherent books and tedious plays can, when applied to architecture, leave wounds which will be visible from outer space. Bad architecture is a frozen mistake writ large. But it is only a mistake, and, despite the impressive amounts of scaffolding, concrete, noise, money and bluster which tend to accompany its appearance, it is no more deserving of our deference than a blunder in any other area of life. We should be as unintimidated by architectural mediocrity as we are by unjust laws or nonsensical arguments.”

It is also true of Colonial architecture, even when grand and beautiful. Empire, like its architecture, was inspired by an idea. So is modernity. Will it inspiregreatness or mediocrity?

[1] Prigogine, Ilya (1997). The End of Certainty. New York: The Free Press.
[2] Francesca Hughes, The Architecture of Error: Matter, Measure, and the Misadventures of Precision, MIT Press, 2014
[3] Aristotle Metaphysics
[4] I question this assumption. It is behind the idea that mass less information could theoretically tracel faster than light and time- trave. But code requires energy and E=MC2 means energy is a form of matter.