Buddhist Aesthetics: E.F. Schumacher and Glenn Murcutt

What would a Buddhist aesthetic, or a Buddhist architecture, be? One framework could be E.F. Schumacher’s description of “Buddhist Economics” in his book Small Is Beautiful. Here he describes the efficiency of a Buddhist economics as that which uses “amazingly small means leading to extraordinary results,” and a “maximum of well-being with a minimum of consumption.” A Buddhist architecture would do the same: taking less than it gives back, in tangible as well as intangible ways.

Yes, it would be sustainable. Yes, it would fall under the rubric of “green architecture,” because it would be energy-efficient. But it would aim higher than that. It would also aim at maximizing joy, and ultimately, a form of liberation, for its inhabitants. It could practice a type of minimalism without being “minimalist” per se. And it would not dismiss the world of architecture and design as too “worldly” or superficial. Schumacher says that with regard to clothing and “all other human requirements,” it would be “the height of barbarity to make anything ugly, shabby or mean.” Both clothing and shelter have as a purpose to provide a “certain level of temperature comfort and an attractive appearance,” albeit while doing so with the “smallest possible effort,” “the smallest input of toil.”

Human requirements, to Schumacher, aslo include rewarding, fulfilling and socially useful work. Schumacher’s take on the Buddhist view of work is that of a “creative activity” that does three things: gives one a “chance to utilise and develop his faculties,” enables one to “overcome ego-centeredness by joining others in a common task” and provides the goods and services required for a “becoming existence.”

In researching the Australian architect Glenn Murcutt, I was surprised, but not too surprised, to see him paraphrase a Zen parable in an interview*. Murcutt is well-known among architects but not so much among the general public, as he works only in Australia and he works essentially by himself. Despite the modest scale of his work and his practice, Murcutt was the recipient of the Pritzker Prize, the so-called Nobel Prize for architects, in 2002. His name is out there, it’s just not too far out there. His work is best known for its environmental sensitivity and responsiveness to its site. Like Schumacher, he views work as a creative activity. In the interview I read, he said that after a speech in Maine, an audience member handed him a quote that included this parable:

“The real master in the art of living makes little distinction between his art and his leisure. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.”

In the same interview he was asked what makes a good client. He responded:

“Good clients must: be demanding about excellence, so they must know what excellence is, give the architect room to move, have a budget that’s sufficient but not lavish, understand an architecture of the essential, allow the architect time and allow a sense of evolution”

Murcutt is not denying the world and saying it doesn’t matter. Yet nor does he wish to indulge in a client’s ego-building exercise. The client must “must know what excellence is,” but have “a budget that’s sufficient but not lavish.” This reads much like Schumacher, who wrote that it “is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation, but attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things, but the craving for them.” Murcutt’s ideal client, and Murcutt himself, wishes not to bring into the world “anything ugly, shabby or mean,” in Schumacher’s words. His specific budget parameter guards against that, as well as extravagances disproportionate to the amount of real joy and good any piece of architecture can provide; it guards against the use of his work to fortify an ego. Wealth is not a problem for either Schumacher or Murcutt,; it’s necessary to a certain point. The problem is using it in a way that is disproportionate to the amount of good, in whatever form, it can do. Because really, a house, a building, a place, can do good, but only so much; it can bring a certain amount of happiness, a “maximum of well-being” and no more.

I thought of a short beginning checklist of what a Buddhist aesthetic might mean in terms of architecture. It’s primary responsibility would to be seem “aware” of and responsive to its surroundings and circumstances. To do so, it would be bright when it needs to be bright, dark when it needs to be dark; open and convivial when it needs to be open and convivial, private when it needs to be private; introverted when it needs to be introverted, and extraverted when it needs to be extraverted.

* interview link: http://www.abc.net.au/architecture/arch/ar_mur.htm

photo 1: http://www.residentialarchitect.com/design/glenn-murcutt.aspx?printerfriendly=true

photo 2: http://bp3.blogger.com/_NPeWJ5XsyTI/R1aEjgvNWPI/AAAAAAAAACU/qRFzOZ9BZyQ/s1600-h/Browell-041.jpg

photo 3: http://www.hht.net.au/whats_on/past_exhibitions/mos/glenn_murcutt_architecture_for_place

7 Responses to “Buddhist Aesthetics: E.F. Schumacher and Glenn Murcutt”
  1. This is very interesting. I’m a big fan of Glenn Murcutt but never made a connection of Buddhism and his architecture. But it seems so obvious now.

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. I didn’t really think there was or is a formal connection, but it does make sense given his work. I was just surprised to read that quote in the interview I read with him that specifically mentions Zen. Not that he’s a practitioner (that I know of) but it’s nice to see a recognition of a kindred philosophy.

  2. Buddhist architecture – it’s such an interesting subject and one I hadn’t considered before. Thank you for this post 🙂

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