A Way of Building

Grace Riggan ([email protected])

In my work as an architect I make designs, which I fondly think of as maps. A map delimits a field of conditions. It interprets a given context, and thereby facilitates an intentional path. The face-to-face encounter in shaping material is not separable from the apperception of context. Even if the design process is intentionally curtailed or ignored altogether, a map arises at the instant of a shaping action.

Design, as an engagement in critically shaping a map, is an exercise of awareness, and it is a key to skillful action. For me, this convergence of awareness and action is the mysterious creative force of the co-arising universe.

Apperception of context

The action of design

Emerging context — new form

To understand the “mapping faculty”, it may be useful to begin with an evolutionary perspective. Understanding the elementary behavior pattern leads toward speculation about the higher potential of this faculty.

Responding to a perceived stimulus is perhaps the most basic conscious behavior that an organism can demonstrate. The force of life proliferates through

stimulus perception response, manifesting through evolution in myriad organisms and their structures.

Leaves reaching for sunlight;

Wiggling larvae in waxen hexagonal chambers;

Still egg under downy breast inside bowl of twigs;

Child’s hand blocking sleepy eyes from sunshine;

Scholar passing beneath carved acanthus of stone archway into lofty archives of air conditioned library.
From the rudimentary stimulus-response sequence, behavioral scientists1 believe that a progressive process of mapping facilitates the evolution of life forms. The reflex of holding the hand up to block the sun from the eyes implies a neural “map” that can guide a motor response in the hand to serve the discomfort of the eyeballs in a remote region of the body. This is a compulsive reaction, a cause and effect routine performed before cognition, at a cellular level. The creature that performs such a routine must have an internally mapped sequence, a chain of response following a given pathway inside the organism. Compulsive responses to stimuli can be observed in the simplest microorganisms.

In the animal kingdom the ability to map extends to territory external to the perceiving creature. By comparing behavior patterns of creatures from single cell organisms to large mammals, scientists have identified incremental steps in the progression of mapping abilities: compulsive reactions, goal oriented actions involving simple recognition, and a spectrum of cognitive planning abilities. In each case, a map — an understanding of sequential and/or spatial relationships — facilitates a responsive routine, such as pushing an egg back into a ground nest, or finding food and bringing it to larval nurseries, or moving and arranging logs to form a dam. The routine may create more propitious physical conditions, and thus greater potential for survival and evolution.

The process begins thus:
stimulus — sensory perception — response

successful response creates survival niche

survival niche allows creature to live and procreate

procreation creates possibility for more complex structures to develop,

with more complex sensory perceptions and internal

mapped responses become behavioral routines

Creating bigger survival niches and potential

Then, there is a leap to

perception of conditions neither internal to the creature, nor in direct sensory contact

the external map creates capacity for still more complex routines

successful responses increase survival niche and evolutionary potential

and the positive feedback loop continues. . . .
The most basic, internal mapping of the cellular creature remains an integral foundation in more complex creatures, supporting the higher capacity of external, cognitive mapping. The resulting survival niches typically relate to nutrition, safety, and procreation. In humans it seems that the cognitive, external map has become integrated into a still higher capacity: what I will call imaginary mapping. Whereas cognition perceives conditions in the sensible, external environment, imagination perceives conditions that may not exist in the sensible environment, internally or externally.

If we define the expression of a creature as its fullest manifestation of its potential for life, then we could posit that the ability to map presupposes, or is somehow integral to the expression of the creature. In certain simple creatures, the fully manifested life principle demonstrates a quality not unlike art, as we may observe with the silkworm’s thread or the paper structures of wasps. Many creatures seem to have reached creative fulfillment in their behavioral expression. For example, wasps have been making amazing paper mansions for quite some time, and they do not appear to be inventing categorically different routines.

Retire when the work is done. This is the way of heaven.2

How does the human express its fullest manifestation? What kind of fulfillment could arise from maps of the imagination? With imagination, the map itself may become a sensible manifestation, in the form of language, drawing, and other representational arts. It seems our creative process, our art, maps territory beyond a biological survival niche; a play of consciousness in silk, paper, bricks. The sages say the map is not the territory. The scientists say the mapping capacity opens the way to greater life potential.

We cannot manufacture a strand stronger or finer than the product of a simple worm. The worm seems to be perfected. Perhaps our perfection lies in the capacity to imagine.

You are perfect, therefore you could evolve.3
1-The concepts described are generally taken from James L. Gould and Carol G. Gould, Animal Architects, New York, 2007.
2-Lao-tzu, Tao te ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, New York, 1997. Number 9.
3-Modification to aphorism attributed to Suzuki Roshi – You are perfect; and you could use a little improvement.

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