Friday, March 13, 2009

What Does the University of Victoria and the Mandala have in Common?

My son is considering going to the University of Victoria next fall. He’d looked at some of the universities and colleges in the Lower Mainland (e.g., the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and Burnaby) but he then decided on UVic on Vancouver Island. It had a reputation among students of being “friendly”. It had me pondering old days there, when I used to teach biology courses in the Cunningham and Elliot Buildings. And it made me feel all warm with wonderful memories of an attractive campus. I had great memories of my other university days in Montreal and Sherbrook, Quebec, but there was something about UVic that I couldn’t put my finger on that made that campus particularly enjoyable for me.

When I chatted over red wine and chocolate with friend, Margaret, a UVic grad herself, we both agreed that this university had charisma. Its attractive atmosphere lay partly in its special quality for being accepting, friendly, and not overly stuck up. Margaret related to me how accommodating they were, citing their less restrictive approach to education. Margaret explained how UVic let her play a more active role in determining her particular path. They gave her the freedom to develop a flexible degree program that was more personal and incorporated her areas of interest. UVic accomplished this by providing a less restrictive degree program compared with the other universities in BC. This is partly because UVic is described as a comprehensive university. In fact students have ranked UVic Number One in Canada for two years in a row (Macleans Magazine). Comprehensive universities offer a wide range of programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including professional degrees.

Then Margaret said something that floored me: she wondered if this confident liberal attitude had to do with—or reflected—the campus’s physical configuration. It’s laid out in a circle.

It got me thinking.

…And remembering my many walks through UVic’s beautiful campus. UVic’s Ring Road encircles the major part of the campus and its core buildings. Since my days there, the campus has sprawled like a giant amoeba beyond the Ring Road in all directions. But the circular pattern remains a dominant feature of the campus. Everything about UVic reflects a natural, organic and fluid setting, from the attractive architecture of its buildings to its open green spaces, winding pathways, groves of trees, fountains and other natural features. Most other universities, like the University of British Columbia for instance, are built on a grid and display more angular, colder features. I firmly believe that a campus setting reflects not only the original mindset of its designers but the mindset of those who maintain it and populate it. So, while other universities may reflect a restrictive boxed attitude, UVic flows like the yin-yang spiral in a circle or the flowing sand art of a mandala.

The Yin-Yang symbol of two parts spiraling in a circle is a traditional icon of Confucianism and Taoism. According to Reza Sarhangi of South Western College, Kansas, and Bruce Martin of Central Arizona College “It provides a paradigm of polarity with which to view the dynamics of everyday life. As a symbol, it can be as personal and internal as a heart, which gives and receives blood through each complete cycle. It can also be as general and external as the cycles of day and night.”

Different cultures throughout history have associated the square with the tangible world, and the circle with the perfect, ideal or the divine universe. The circle crowned the head of the ancient Egyptians’ sun god, Ra. The Celtic Druids carved circular and spiral patterns in stone monuments.

Sarhangi and Martin add that, “The circle is an object of nature, an idealization of pure mathematics, and a symbol or framework we use to understand and describe our world. The circle exists independently of human thought, as ripples in a pond, or the appearance of the sun and moon, or the shape of the iris of an eye.”

According to the University of Dartmouth, "the circle is considered a symbol of unity, because all the regular polygons are embraced by the circle. It is also the symbol of infinity, without beginning or end, perfect, the ultimate geometric symbol. It is a symbol of democracy and the preferred shape for an assembly of equals; the council circle, the campfire circle, and King Arthur's round table. The circle is also the easiest geometric figure to draw accurately, with stick and string or forked stick." I discuss the spiral (a form comprised of interlaced "circles") in a previous post as symbolizing God and the Self and, according to Jung, our soul and essence.

The Buddhist circular mandala designs have been used continuously for millennia and are a symbolic diagram of the universe, arranged in circles, used in tantric Buddhism. I wrote about this in a previous post on sacred balance. The word “mandala” loosely means “circle” and comes from the classical Indian language of Sanskrit. It represents wholeness and can be interpreted as a model for the organizational structure of life itself—a cosmic diagram that reminds us of how we are all related to the infinite and an existence that extends both beyond and within our bodies and minds. As a biologist I could see the universality of this shape in everything from our planet Earth to the atom. Wherever a centre is found radiating outward and inward, there is wholeness—a mandala; from the celestial circles we call earth, sun and moon to our conceptual circles of friends, family and community. In fact, the psychologist, Carl Jung, saw the mandala as a “representation of the unconscious self” and called it “a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.” Not a bad mindset for a learning institution.

The circle structure appears in many designs from ancient to current times. This is particularly evident in Gothic architecture and art (e.g., the rose window, the halo, rainbow and ring in art, the ouroboros, the wheel and the vesica) from ancient to current times. Paris, indeed all of France is arranged on the basis of a circle, with all its streets radiating out from a point of origin. Paris is divided into arrondissements, or neighborhoods, which run in a circular spiral starting at the center of the city and winding outwards. Moscow is also arranged in a series of concentric circles.

According to Yi-fu Tuan, author of Topophilia, the mandala pattern appears in the layout of some Chinese and Indian temples as well as in the design of traditional and idealized cities, which tended to have regular geometric outlines oriented to the cardinal directions or to the position of the sun. A Jungian, says Tuan, might suggest that every building, sacred or secular, that has a mandala (or isometric) ground plan "is the projection of an archetypal image from within the human subconscious onto the outer world. The building may become a symbol of psychic wholeness, a microcosmos capable of exercising a beneficial influence on the human being entering it."

Speaking of mindset, while finishing her glass of red Merlot, Margaret leaned back in her chair and ended her reflection with an interesting observation. After graduating from UVic her first employment opportunity was a government job with the environment. She beat out many other university grads with superior specialities. Margaret credited her successful placement on her enriched and diverse education from UVic.

Ah, the mandala…
Recommended Reading:
Tuan, Yi-fu. (1974) re-issued 1990. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes and Values. Columbia University Press. 260pp.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Janet said...

Hmm, including Moscow rather weakened the argument that a circular shape contributed to flexibility or wholeness. And Paris, while beautiful and important and historical, tends to be encased in a rigid past too. My son, who did an internship there, compared it to living in a museum.

Having said that, and coming at this from a somewhat less mystical angle, I would think that the lack of a grid could indeed contribute to more fluid thinking, but only because the culture was already established (are we perhaps confusing cause and effect?). We are influenced by our physical surroundings, but I don't think we can make a good case for it being a determining factor, just one among many.

Interesting stuff. Love it when you come at something from a different angle.

Nina Munteanu said...
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Nina Munteanu said...

LOL! Cool thoughts, Janet... While the "rigid" past of Paris is certainly reflected still in some of its architecture, I found this city far from "museum"-like. Quite the opposite...Its bohemian, artistic, and sensual atmosphere is so active, alive and vibrant in its people, how they relate and move and communicate. But maybe that's just me... :) ... I did so enjoy interacting with them in their markets, their cafes and patisseries... mmm...

Cause and effect... where does one begin and where end? Chicken and egg... that's the whole point with the circle... there is no beginning or end. It is all the same, all one. Both cause and effect.

That we influence and are in turn influenced by our physical surroundings is self evident; it can be seen in the establishment and development of different cultures in different environments. We ARE the environment. Definitely another blog post. Thanks, Janet!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Well thought out, Nina. A college designed in a circle seems very practical and flowing.

Nina Munteanu said...

Yes, I agree, Jean-Luc. So, what about whole cities arranged this way?

I found this interesting forum of planners and interested scholars that discussed the pros and cons of the grid vs circular road network for cities. Fascinating!

The Wandering Oak said...

I was actually pretty impressed with the university campus when I worked there last year. The ring road design is very efficient, though the bunnies just tend to choose their own path.
It's really something in the spring when the cherry blossoms are falling and make it look like pink snow all over the lawns.

Nina Munteanu said...

Ah, yes... the "pink snow" of flower petals all over... I'd forgotten about that. It is a very beautiful campus, indeed... I'll have to go visit my son when he's there! LOL! Maybe even do a session teaching there ... my son would LOVE that! LOL!

Will Gerstmyer said...

Enjoyed your blog on the article Building Around the Mind, as well as the entry about the circular uvic. Geometry, perception, conception and how these contribute to the meaning of architecture has long been a topic of architectural/planning discussion, along with other conundrums about how scientific we architects can be about what works and what doesn't. A wide spectrum of spatial types, with varying ambiance and kinds of appeal seem to work best when the general public is being served in that no one type of space pleases everyone, or even the same person at different times.

Acceptance is another issue. As theorist Joseph Rykwert has written, no matter how ergonomically incorrect, the King wants to sit in the throne. In my own practice, for instance, with a
residence it is ever the case that one spouse wants a cherry bookshelf-lined study a la English gentleman's club "Study" and/or a heavy-beam framed "my home is my [stone] castle," and the other
wants a smooth, polished-surfaced (easy to keep clean) doctor's
office. The former, being dark and heavy of course, doesn't balance
easily or comfortably with the simultaneous request for light
everywhere, and the latter's modern clean lines doesn't balance
with the former's rustication or the simultaneous request to not be
so sterile-looking.

In short, psychology, culture, societies and tradition, nostalgia, yearning for the greener (or as yet untested modern) grass all seem to play huge roles in wants and desires (and non-desires). When I was in school, we were given much to think about and the mildly-spoken conclusion we were given was (since our work is a testament to civilization and a record of the best that we have to offer mankind over the long haul) that we had to be a little like doctors: understand that the patient/client has a pain but is not able to really articulate what might be the best solution for it; ie, that we had to be well-versed enough in what civilization demanded regarding the human condition and blend that with a great deal of reading between the lines as our clients spoke. As one tries to convey what is so special about one's architecture, however, it never hurts to have plenty of strong data to support one's inclinations.

I am very grateful for the intellectual grounding and research you outline in your blog entries. From the aerial photo and plans I don't actually buy that uvic is a round campus but rather that is staunchly cardinal-direction oriented in almost every way and happens to have a ring road (flat) that barely influences the buildings' externals, internals and layout of grounds (hence, how exactly does it's "roundness" get perceived and thereby affect the average user?). Nonetheless, the concepts you write about are very apparent in other works and were employed (conceptually) for similar reasons and it is nice to know that some people recognize such geometries. Writers are a particularly fertile source of architectural inspiration because the left brain product is not bound by right brain artifacts and the "readings" they engender that we readers have to produce. (Borges' House of Asterion and Circular Ruins, Calvino's Invisible Cities, James' House of Fiction, Bachelard's Poetics of Space, Harbison's Eccentric Spaces, Lopez's Arctic Dreams, the list goes on and on).

When you think/write about the spatial construct of things, do you imagine a reader who takes a lot away from that kind of thinking?

If so, are there other sources or inspirations that you'd be willing to share? Thanks, Will

jesse said...

Uvic is a lovely place, but I gather it used to be more lovely.

I am a student at Uvic, and I gather having embraced the 'local food, bioregionalism, non-corporate, potlucks and study parties, gardening, dancing, and general respect for the world' view used to fit quite well with the univeristy itself.

Now the university is getting more money and becoming more corporate. Sometimes in front of the fountain I see students giving away free soup made of ingredients that would would otherwise be wasted, or little markets. But most of the time there are booths set up for grocery stores, banks, and various other corporate entities. The food services there is completely fake. The entire university has the air of pretending what it is not. It is such a beautiful place that at first glance you assume it is environmentally and ethically concerned, but the good stuff going on is all student run and the rare thing that isn't is a half attempt to look good instead of being good.

Apart from that I do agree that it is a lovely campus, full of bunnies, and very welcoming. You aren't treated only as a number, although it is heading that way. And I've never seen someone snubbed, except the drunk guy who disrupts the class and walks out.

jesse said...
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Nina Munteanu said...

Thank you, Liosis. Your comments were insightful. My son sure likes the UVic campus,the food and community. He's a first year student and wouldn't be able to compare with previous years. When I was there 10 years ago, it was indeed a different place than it is now; I certainly noticed the physical changes to the campus (i.e., more buildings, etc.). Growth changes things...

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