What the Labyrinth of Knossos Taught Me About What Is Needed to Design Well
My son grew up this year and went off to college to be trained as an architect. “How will he keep up with the math and the physics, the drafting and computer skills that is required?” is the concerned question I hear a lot. What could I say? My own 40 year journey as a designer has taught me that there is more to architecture than technical know-how, nuts and bolts, beams and columns on the one hand, or aesthetic taste on the other. But what, I asked myself, is his ability that has convinced me that he will succeed?
Earlier this year I visited Knossos, the remains of the ancient civilization of King Minos on the island of Crete. Minoan culture forms a bridge between the primitive hunters and gathers that had settled on this rocky out-cropping between Egypt and Europe and the classical Greeks whose architecture formed the foundation on which all of European culture, architecture in particular, would stand for millennia to come. Surely this would draw me as close to the essence of architecture as the modern imagination can.
Crete is a green gem in an azure sea at the southern rim of the Aegean. There I found tread-marks of our creative journey buried in Bronze Age ruins. Referred to as the Palace of Knossos, the ruins were the heart of one of the first planned cities in Europe built around 4,000 years ago when the great pyramids in Egypt were under construction. It is an impressive site set into craggy hills covered by olive groves and vineyards; it lies just beyond the suburban skirt of Crete’s modern day capital, Heraklion. The ancient Cretans took advantage of their place in the middle of the sea that the ancient Greeks deemed to be in the middle of the world. They sailed the Mediterranean in all directions – to Egypt, Asia and Europe, to become wealthy and powerful trading the cutting edge products in bronze and ceramic, elegantly designed and finely crafted in artisanal workshops that were the factories of their day. They were building civilization anew, inventing ways of living that were as novel then as texting and talking to intelligent machines are to us know. Rather than simply piling one brick on top of another, they designed Knossos to fit a life in community, convenient and safe, comfortable and coherent.
Very little was known about the people that built Knossos until British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans excavated it in the 1900s. Its labyrinthine nature led Evans to believe that this was the palace of the great king of Greek myth, Minos son of Zeus and Europa, the first King of Crete. On this hunch Evans named the people of Crete Minoans and thought of his discovery as a palace rather than the great city that it was. The more he dug the more he revealed of this maze built around a courtyard that at its peak housed a population of 100,000 people. The site it occupies had been lived on for thousands of years as the neolithic tribes of Crete gathered in settlements, then villages, towns and finally the city in ruins that was built and rebuilt 3 separate times.
Knossos is an elaborate structure, with multi-storied richly colored colonnades, a pure geometry that is elegantly modern in form. In places it rises five stories out of the ground, corridors radiating north, south, west and east to bring you into chambers beyond chambers; some ceremonial for royalty and priests, some for living in and at its very heart, the workshops where the wares needed for civility were imagined and made. There are winding stair-cases descending to beautiful quarters recessed beneath the public square and others ascending to balconies with views of the surrounding hills. Huge frescoes deck the walls showing the powerful bulls that were the passion of the Minoan people.
King Minos, legend tells, asked Daedalus the carpenter and architect to the gods, to build a prison for the Minotaur in which it would live forever. The Minotaur, legend goes on, was a horrendous monster, part man and part beast that was born of Minos’s wife Parsiphae. The bull was intended for sacrifice to the gods of Olympus, but Minos could not bring himself to harm this magnificent white bull given to Minos by the sea-god Poseidon. As punishment, Poseiden put lust in Parsiphae’s heart. Out of her unnatural union with the bull she bore the Minotaur, the product of beast and cultured beauty. True to its monstrous form, the Minotaur devoured the subjects of Minos to sate its appetite. The oracle at Delphi had the idea of caging this terrible monster in a labyrinth which it couldn’t escape and where it would be fed seven maidens and seven youths that were brought from Athens each year. This unbearable sacrifice ended when Theseus, son of Aegus, found his way through the to slay the Minotaur by his courage and wit, and a little help from the beautiful Ariadne,
There are many ways to understand this tale. Joseph Campbell, the great reader of myth saw it as a hero’s journey. The monster represents spiritual death brought on by material attachment. By slaying it Theseus is transformed by his heroic deed and returns home in triumph to become King of Athens.
But as I wandered through the ruins of Knossos with the chatter of tour guides offering hordes of tourists their own take on events, it occurred to me that there is another way of understanding this story – through the eyes of the Minoans who built Knossos, rather than their Greek usurpers. Surely all that surrounded me as I wandered across the great central courtyard, was a Labyrinth in both the literal sense that Evans suspected, and a metaphorical one too. The vast, intricate structure of Knossos must have felt like a trap for wild spirited people who within a generation or two had been free to roam these craggy hills and the forests that grew there; surely they were yet unaccustomed to the restrictions of city life, to being civilized. Through this lens, the labyrinth is not a creation of the gods intended to entrap a monster, but a description of what it felt like when not built with care for a hero on a journey of a very different kind – from the cave to the city.
A tale about a half man half beast wandering the corridors, rooms and staircases, I would imagine, felt very real to story-tellers that had just made this journey themselves, lured into the halls of luxury from their place in the hills. Repeating it to each generation that came to live there helped reconcile a monumental paradox, that the civilizing comfort of the city came at the cost of caging our wild nature. Bold columns of red offered reassurance that the heavy structures would not fall and crush them. Balconies on every side assured that the hills and forest were always just a glance away. Broad windows in massive walls allow shafts of light to penetrate into the darkest interiors. The Minotaur and the labyrinth were a reminder to never sever ourselves altogether from our wildness, to not leave ourselves in the dark, confused by complexity, cut off from the places we used to run free. When King Minos called on Daedalus to build him a city, he would not have asked for a prison. He did not make it beautiful, coherent and suffused with light with on a whim, but as a balm for the anguish of a wild soul.
Today we are creating a world that King Minos would not comprehend; he would be confronted by technologies that would appear as the gifts of gods that he dare not transgress. If he were to show up here in Silicon Valley, he would surely call on architects skilled in giving structure and form to the worlds we are building today, with technologies that surpass carpentry, bronze-casting and pottery to define the time we live in. He would seek out designers with wise hearts dedicated to soothing the soul of a beast, fearful of being confined by its own inventions, overwhelmed by objects of our own creation.
Besides their wise hearts, each architect, every designer, would certainly need knowledge of their craft, just as Daedalus mastered carpentry. Organizational designers will need knowledge of the function and structure of organizations. Business designers should be expert in the models of business. Computer scientist need to know about the workings of digital machines. Genetic engineers, doctors, lawyers and business leaders all need to know something of the technologies they encounter, and the craft with which they apply them. But as one they all need to learn from Daedalus to shape what they are building with a compassionate heart.
Why design? Why not just build without compassion or care? In Knossos I walked through a lost city, one of the first, made vivid by ruins that have been lovingly restored. I could feel the challenge that its architects faced, brought alive in a story about a monster and a labyrinth that has outlived blueprints that may have been drawn or calculus that may have been solved. It revealed to me an essence that I have been looking for, reassurance that my sons journey into architecture will be informed by the wisdom of the human spirit. To prepare for this his kind and compassionate heart will stand him in good stead – certainly as much as any math or physics that he will learn along the way.