A Zen View Upon the World (Less is More)

by Øyvind Holmstad

This article is inspired by the Alexandrine pattern 134, Zen View. The pattern states: “The archetypal zen view occurs in a famous Japanese house, which gives this pattern its name.”

Let’s start with listening to the wisdom of A Pattern Language (Please note that the illustrations of the original text are missing):

A Buddhist monk lived high in the mountains, in a small stone house. Far, far in the distance was the ocean, visible and beautiful from the mountains. But it was not visible from the monk’s house itself, nor from the approach road to the house. However, in front of the house there stood a courtyard surrounded by a thick stone wall. As one came to the house, one passed through a gate into this court, and then diagonally across the court to the front door of the house. On the far side of the courtyard there was a slit in the wall, narrow and diagonal, cut through the thickness of the wall. As a person walked across the court, at one spot, where his position lined up with the slit in the wall, for an instant, he could see the ocean. And then he was past it once again, and went into the house. 

What is it that happens in this courtyard? The view of the distant sea is so restrained that it stays alive forever. Who, that has ever seen that view, can ever forget it? Its power will never fade. Even for the man who lives there, coming past that view day after day for fifty years, it will still be alive. 

This is the essence of the problem with any view. It is a beautiful thing. One wants to enjoy it and dink it in every day. But the more open it is, the more obvious, the more it shouts, the sooner it will fade. Gradually it will come part of the building, like the wallpaper; and the intensity of its beauty will no longer be accessible for the people who live there. – A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et.al., page 642 – 643

Today, at least in Norway, we have too much of everything, and hence we value nothing. My father said that when he was a child they got an orange for Christmas. This was the only orange they got throughout the year. I can just imagine the intensity they felt of the flavor of this one orange, and how they wanted every bite to last forever. I can imagine how images of distant tropical paradises awoke in their minds. In this way this one orange for the year, enjoyed on Christmas Eve, became a “zen view” of flavors and distant worlds.

Now at the supermarket, oranges are amongst the cheapest of fruits — you can eat as many as you like whenever you want, and you grab and chew an orange without thinking. This once exotic fruit has become as ordinary as snow in wintertime. You don’t notice it. It can be the same with a spoiled view.

Definitely, less is more! Too much of something dulls our senses and reduces quality of life. Over-consumption and consumerism destroy our awareness and appreciation for the ecosystems that surround us. We all become like spoiled children on the Earth.

Per capita consumption in the United States as measured by gross national product (GNP) has more than doubled since 1969, with little detectable change in people’s self-expressed levels of happiness and satisfaction with life as a whole. Joshua Farley

Big window panes have become an industrial-modernistic dogma, although Alexander has counter-proved it in pattern 134 and other patterns. Still, they just don’t destroy the view, they also destroy the building.

Large, plain objects or surfaces disturb the observer by presenting no information — the most disturbing being surfaces of glass or mirrors that prevent the eye from even focusing on them. We instantly look for reference points, either in a form’s interior, or at its edge. We need to comprehend a structure as quickly as possible, to make sure that it poses no threat to us. Large uniform regions with abrupt, ill-defined boundaries generate physiological distress as the instrument (namely, the eye/brain system) seeks visual information that isn’t there, thus frustrating our cognitive process. – The Sensory Necessity for Ornament, by Nikos A. Salingaros

Like it or not, here we are touching one of the major problems with earthships, they often have a front consisting of large surfaces of big window panes, and this way they become alien looking. This is something that should be taken very seriously by the earthship people, as I’m sure that with more focus on our sensory necessities this problem can be solved.

I like to close this article with the conclusion of pattern 134, Zen View:

If there is a beautiful view, don’t spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it. Instead, put the windows which look onto the view at places of transition – along paths, in hallways, in entry ways, on stairs, between rooms. 

If the view window is correctly placed, people will see a glimpse of the distant view as they come up to the window or pass it: but the view is never visible from the places where people stay. – Christopher Alexander

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7 thoughts on “A Zen View Upon the World (Less is More)

  1. Michael Pollan discusses window design and placement in some detail in his book, A Place Of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder (Random House, 1997)

  2. My father now on Christmas Eve told they even had a lot of fun from this orange they got, making scary teeth from the peeling of the orange which they put in their mouths. What a gift a “simple” orange was that time!

  3. I have often counseled, to little avail, my clientele regarding this very philosophy of views. One particular project, I remember saying that we needed some walls to hold up the windows of the house… their response was to ask the builder for more steel in the frame. I am sure that the windows are beautiful, but wonder what framed views might have done for the experience of going “up North, to the lake.” When we remark about the cost of living, the cost of housing, the costs of many things, we forget that we now gulp down consumer goods like they were water. The cost of glass hasn’t changed much over the past fifty years… its use has multiplied exponentially. One wonders what a house that matches the materiality and specs of a postwar boom-time dwelling might cost today; without a dishwasher, or a trip-proofing outlet every six feet around each room, or even without the ubiquitous air conditioner; and with only a few square feet of glass judiciously placed…

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