A few years ago I was looking at Aztec sculpture and architecture in Mexico City when it struck me. I was looking at a world of curves, angles, and dimensions that was totally new to me. And unexpected.
I went on to develop some further thoughts on this. In particular I began to wonder, how do we learn from experiencing the new? How do we assimilate physical space, sound, and movement we've never encountered before? How do we develop a narrative based on these intangibles? Is it desirable that we build such a narrative?
Using some of these questions I constructed a series of exercises for my undergraduates at Boston University and for my graduate students at the Boston Architectural College. I guess I could summarize my teaching goals this way: there have been lots of great thinkers, Darwin for example. But I don't want to teach my students what Darwin discovered. I want to set them on a path of discovery themselves. That path is lain on stepping stones of intangible, unexpected perceptions.
Fast forward to my current encounter with the Sri Lankan landscape. It holds in store a world of new sensations, new shapes and lines, new dimensions, new sounds, and new movements. Most striking to me on this recent trip was a lotus leaf on an ancient irrigation tank, the morning after a rainfall. The random, scarcely controlled movement of water on the leaf as it blew in the wind, perhaps a mundane sight in rural Sri Lanka, possessed an electrifying novelty for me.
Can we learn anything from these mundane novelties? I propose that on many levels, we can. For one, they open our brains in new ways. They present novel conditions that require some re-wiring in order to be understood. The more we undertake re-wiring the more we are prepared to keep on learning.
At another level, we may apply known scientific narratives, for example an understanding of the properties of water, to phenomena like this. The movement of water in the leaf is attributable to cohesion, adhesion, and mass flow. From another angle we may illuminate known cultural or religious concepts like "the lotus leaf and the lotus flower hold nothing in possession."
From yet another perspective we may come to value impressions of the novel as a compendium of unknowns--phenomena that may, in some future moment prove useful in some material or immaterial way. What is valueless today may hold the key to unknown, uncounted treasures tomorrow. Or am I just shooting the breeze with this kind of conjecture?
Is it worth traveling halfway around the world to accumulate a series of intangible perceptions? I am here to find out.