Space & Originality

April 23, 2020

So lacking am I in originality that I set out to write against it today, and in the process found out that I had already done so, and forgotten. Never one to pass up a good rant, I will argue against it again today, in favour of imitation, and in a much more roundabout way. Hear me out.

The desire for originality does not itself seem to be particularly original, at least not, Wikipedia argues, since the Romantics. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, thought that he was the first to “discover” the idea that the interior space was the most important aspect of a building:

Chesty with all this, I was in danger of thinking of myself as, more or less, a prophet. When building Unity Temple at Oak Park and the Larkin Building in Buffalo, I was making the first great protest I knew anything about against the building coming up on you from the outside as enclosure. I reversed that old idiom in idea and in fact.

When pretty well puffed up by this I received a little book by Okakura Kakuzo, entitled The Book of Tea, sent to me by the ambassador from Japan to the United States. Reading it, I came across this sentence: “The reality of a room was to be found in the space enclosed by the roof and walls, not in the roof and walls themselves.”

Well there was I. Instead of being the cake I was not even dough. Closing the little book I went out to break stone on the road, trying to get my interior self together. I was like a sail coming down; I had thought of myself as an original, but I was not.1

I love this idea of “not even being the dough,” and as far as I can tell is an original saying. And I love, too, that one response to perceived unoriginality, appropriate at least for a diminutive architect circa 1908, was to go out and break stone on the road, whereas my only outlet, evidently, is to blog about it.

The reference, as A. C. Graham notes,2 is to chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching. As I’ve said before, the Taoists are often better read in multiple translations, so here are a few worth reading (the passage is just a few lines):

But Graham does rather better than any of the above, in an otherwise unpublished original translation:

Thirty spokes share one hub: just where it does not exist is the wheel’s use.
Knead clay to make a vessel: just where it does not exist is the vessel’s use.
Cut out doors and windows to make a room: just where it does not exist is the room’s use.

Therefore we find it beneficial that they exist, and find them useful where they do not exist.

I find this rendering, especially the last line, to be as beautiful as it is profound. The tension between benefit and use, and that and where is brilliant.

Graham, himself, is quite the writer. Earlier in the same essay, this is how he describes the Tao Te Ching:

It is very short, by Chinese standards as well as our own, a loosely strung series of aphorisms grouped in stanzas which are always highly rhythmic and often rhymed. The text which tradition has preferred is pruned to a degree of terseness unusual even in Chinese writing, sometimes at the cost of syntactic ambiguity.


Graham argues that the title of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 Straw Dogs no more misunderstands what “straw dogs” means in the Tao than Wright misunderstands the point about space: “Lao Tzu does not qualify it, he leaves you to go in your own direction when you notice its collisions and interactions with other parts of the book.”

But Graham stops there, whereas Wright continues to write:

But I began to swell up again when I thought, “After all, who built it? Who put that thought into buildings? Laotse nor anyone else had consciously built it.” When I thought of that, naturally enough I thought, “Well then, everything is all right, we can still go along with the head up.” I have been going along—head up—ever since.

In quoting Wright, Graham neglects to include this. And it seems to me to get at the heart of originality. It is by doing that we become originals, even if that action is intentionally imitative, or turns out to have been so unintentionally.

Just think of Rimbaud memorising Latin verse, and then going on to write it. Or look at the early paintings of Malevich or Schiele. I’m serious. Click those links and look at the progression in their painting.

Do their early paintings remind you of anything?

Could you have predicted where they would end up?

They imitated before setting out on their own path. There is no shame in imitation, in unoriginality. You can’t know in advance where an act, even an act of imitation, will lead.

And in the end, it may be for you as it was for Wright: Finding out that you’re on a path at all might be a sign that you’re on the right path.

  1. Frank Lloyd Wright, The Essential Frank Lloyd Wright: Critical Writings on Architecture (Princeton University Press, 2010), 363.
  2. A. C. Graham. “Two Notes on the Translation of the Taoist Classics” in Harold David Roth and Angus Charles Graham, A Companion to Angus C. Graham’s Chaung-tzu: The Inner Chapters (University of Hawaii Press, 2003), 130-134.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.