Saturday, 28 August 2010


The following undated text by Geoffrey Bocking was typed and handwritten on torn-up architectural drawings, some of which are marked 'Tregothnan North-West Wing - Kitchen for Viscount Falmouth'. The word 'Tane' appears as a title on several pages. I have attempted the best I can to piece together the intended narrative of evidently an unfinished work.


As anyone knows who has done any market research, the kind of answers to be got from even the most skilfully phrased questions depends very much how they are asked and in what circumstances. If the purpose of the research decides what questions are asked, and how, when, and where they are asked; who asks them and who replies must all be taken into account in considering the answers. Especially this is true in dealing with people in an attempt to predict how they will behave in a future situation. But many of the pitfalls which are encountered in direct questioning are still to be met with at second-hand in any enquiry about human behaviour because subjective experience in necessarily one of the principal sources of information.

Our purpose in this enquiry is to try to throw some light on how our surroundings are created. In the broadest sense, they are the material result of man’s struggle with his environment and the questions we shall have to ask will, therefore, be about the nature of man about the forces with which he struggles. But obviously if we are to thread our way through so immensely general a subject towards a useful and informative result with any pretence to accuracy we have to take care to ask the right questions in the right places. We need to adapt the techniques of our enquiry not only to the particular subject matter as it exists in the concrete reality of time and place but also to the type of concept we are looking for and to its place in the field of conceptual reality.

Thus the kind of objective truth that scientific research seeks is manifestly in a different category from that revealed, for instance, in spiritual ecstasy or, more mundanely, from that perceived in musical harmony or mathematical logic. Yet as a motive for human action each may as powerful as the other and result in equally great changes in our material surroundings. Since we are trying to find out what causes these changes we cannot afford to neglect one kind of truth for another and must adopt any line of enquiry which promise to throw any light on them. But in deserting the authentic techniques of scientific research we also leave behind the traditional safeguards which science has built up to test the validity of its findings, and must perforce seek new ones. Further, if we are to interpret our results as a useful guide to the shape of things to come, we are faced at some point with the necessity of making value judgements of them. Fortunately, since what we are principally concerned with are the processes by which man creates his environment and not with their reform, much of our basis can be pragmatic and the technique of our enquiry directed to what happens in fact rather than to what might happen under different circumstances.

A convenient way of studying man in his material environment is from the point of view of the ecologist. Ecology (oikos, abode, habitat) is the study of animals and plants as they actually live in their surroundings and it takes into account everything which affects this living process. Thus, not only is the plant or animal; organism itself studied and its properties, construction, growth and reproduction described and analysed, - but equally the environment and climate in which it lives are subjected to a like scrutiny and enquiry. More important still the ways in which the organism and its habitat interact so as to produce whatever situation is found to exist at the time of observation are given special attention. It is essentially a field science rather than a laboratory one – concerned more with things as they are naturally than with how they may be under special conditions.

For our purpose, its particular virtue lien not so much in its technique but in the way in which it focuses attention – emphatically and continually – on what happens in reality as the starting point of enquiry and the criterion by which to judge the truth of its findings. Ultimately, however intrinsically interesting the facts we find out on the way, this is what we want to know if we are to predict the next stage of development.

Man is, of course, in a special category. All animals modify their environment to a greater or lesser extent but man is unique in doing so consciously and in response to motives of which, too, he is more or less conscious. Furthermore – and this is what especially concerns us here – man is now entering a stage of development where the material environment is not just the natural one modified but one which he has built-up from scratch. In terms of human ecology, therefore, the three basic subjects of study: the organism, its habitat and the interaction between them – must be enlarged to take account of man: the ‘builder and constructor’ and environment: ‘man-made’.

And as a builder and constructor, creative man is subject not only to his material environment but, because of his consciousness, to the cultural environment of his time. What he builds depends in part on material considerations and factual motives which can be studied and analysed in the same way and using the same terminology as we would use in a purely animal ecology but the mental concepts and formal images which play such a large part in human activity require a different technique. Like instincts and other motivating devices they can only be studied in the actions which they stimulate and the material effects they cause but are quite distinct from them in the sense that they have a conceptual reality - an immaterial form and substance - which can be visualised, delineated and to some extent communicated. Thus for instance we may study the nest-building activity of birds by looking at the different forms of their nests and speculate usefully about the instincts by which they are motivated without having to consider the effects of any mental picture of a nest which a bird might have, since for most purposes we need not endow birds with this form of consciousness. But the case is quite different for man.

The formal images and verbal concepts which form a large part of man’s consciousness of reality play a major role in determining the form and organisation of the things he builds. In the same way as we can associate such and such a form of nest with such and such an instinctual drive operating under such and such conditions, so too with man, we can identify particular building forms with particular mental concepts (as well as with other motives which man shares with animals). But these mental concepts are not constants to be found substantially unchanged from generation to generation. They depend among other things on the particular cultural environment of the time. So too there may be said to be an ecology of man on his cultural environment which parallels that of man in his material environment. Its viewpoint remains the same; only its technique and terminology need adaptation.

So much for man. Similarly, our surroundings and the changes they undergo as a result of natural forces may be studied as an ecological problem. From this viewpoint, man himself is bit one of the many natural forces which cause these changes – of little effect in virgin jungle by no means the sole or even the principal force operating in a man-made environment. Whether we look at the topography of an entire region, the layout of a village, or the weathering of a cornice, we see a continual process of change, of growth and decay, which is the proper course of ecology to study. And in this application we are not faced with the necessity of taking man’s consciousness into account. Since we are concerned with the forces which cause change, it is changes and the forces that cause them, it is not necessary to make any distinction in kind between those which have a human origin and those which do not, nor to enquire into human – or to that matter any other – motives. To take an extreme example, it is sufficient to regard the House of Commons as the result of, inter-alia, ‘force’ of Gothic Revival in the same way we regard an outcrop of rock as the result of the forces of the wind and weather. The fact that the former is the result of a human agent building for human motives and with a picture of ideal Gothic form in mind is irrelevant here. Needless to say, what we neglect in this application of ecology has to be studied in its application to man but this is only one illustration of the importance of asking the right questions in the right places. The Gothic revival as a concept belongs under the heading of man; the visible form of the House of Commons, like the shape of trees or the course of a river, belongs under the heading of material environment. From the viewpoint of ecology, each particular instance is best studied in its own appropriate environment: the Gothic Revival in that of man’s culture; the House of Commons in that of buildings generally.

The necessity of studying any topic in its proper context is of course sufficiently obvious without dragging in ecology to justify it, but in practise we find again and again that where a topic has several contexts – abstract and concrete, conceptual or realistic – the attempt to take a synoptic view leads to a confusion of different kinds of meaning. Or where one context only is scrupulously attended to, the findings are in such splendid isolation from those obtained in different contexts as to frustrate any attempt to relate them into a coherent whole. The semantic problem this raises and the difficulties of effective communication between different intellectual disciplines with which it is associated are immense, and cannot be solved by any simple choice of approach or viewpoint. The most that can be expected of the ecological point of view selected is that it should, firstly guide us to asking the right questions in the right places and secondly provide a unifying form of presentation well adapted to the kind of information we are seeking. What we want to know – how our surroundings are created – is a process. A descriptive system capable of integrating many different kinds of action and interaction on a restricted but varied range of materials is to be preferred to an analytic system attentive only to specific kinds of action and pre-determined methods. For any process to be comprehensive we need to know something about how processes in general operate and, more specifically what we are dealing with, we need to know the context. In fact, if we are to speculate usefully about the new environment now being created at the present, we need to know how the process operates. For any process to be comprehensive, we need not only a description in words but some form of pictorial representation with which to supplement it. Verbal imagery, the conjunction of sign and symbol in a diagram and frequent reference to the scale of things are all essential aids. Furthermore we need context; an understanding of how processes in general operate and more specifically what kind we are dealing with here. And finally, we need to define it carefully because we are dealing with a process which although in itself provides the background to everything we do; in itself it is a small part of human activity.

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