Sigfried Giedion

Man in Equipoise




From Ekistics n° 151. Originally presented in a slightly different form in "Mechanization Takes Command."



Never has mankind possessed so many instruments for abolishing slave labour. But the promises of a better life have not been kept. All we have to show so far is a rather disquieting inability not only to organize the world but even to organize ourselves.

Control over our increasingly mechanized environment demands that everything become subordinated to the needs of man - to human needs. Mechanization is an agent - like water, fire, or light. It is blind and without direction of itself. Like natural forces, the value of mechanization to man depends on his capacity to use it to the full, while simultaneously protecting himself against its inherent perils. But, because mechanization sprang entirely from the mind of man, it is more dangerous and less easily controlled than natural forces since it reacts on the senses and the mind of its creator.

From the very first, it was clear that mechanization involved a division of labour. This has proceeded until now it is increasingly difficult for man to be in control of any given situation. When his car goes wrong, the owner seldom knows what part is causing the trouble; an elevator strike can paralyse the whole life of New York.

The individual has become increasingly dependent on large-scale production and the operation of society as a whole, and relationships are far more complex and interdependent than in any earlier period.

One of the reasons why contemporary man is overpowered by means is because his powers of integration gradually atrophied under the pressures of the fragmented and specialist approach of the nineteenth century. It is only recently that we have seen a gradual rebuilding of the use of universal concepts as the basis for scientific research.

In order to function, man's organism requires a specific temperature, a specific quality of climate, air, light, humidity, and food. To preserve his bodily equilibrium, man needs contact with the earth and with things that grow. To this extent man's body is subject to the laws of animal life.

The human organism can be regarded as a constant. On the other hand, the relations between man and environment are subject to constant change. From generation to generation, from year to year, from instant to instant, they are in continual danger of losing their equilibrium. There can be no static equilibrium between man and his environment, between his inner and his outer reality. We cannot lay hold in any tangible way of the processes of action and reaction. We can only experience the forms in which they crystallize. The very different creations of the Romans, of medieval man, and of the Baroque period demonstrate the perpetually changing relations between man's inner nature and his outer world.

No closed circles and no repetitive patterns exist to define the constantly adjusting relations of man and environment. They evolve in curves, never duplicating themselves.

Our period demands a type of man who can recreate an equilibrium between his inner and his outer reality, who can regain control over his own existence by balancing forces that are often regarded as irreconcilable. This equilibrium can never be static but must be involved in continuous change, proceeding - like a tight-rope dancer - by a series of small adjustments that maintain a balance between him and empty space: man in equipoise.

To attain this equipoise, man must establish a balance in four main fields:

1. Between his private life and his community life. He must discriminate between  the domain reserved for private life and the areas of collective life. As our civilization desires neither extreme individualism nor overpowering collectivism, man must establish a balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the community. Today both lack form and content.

2. Between his method of thinking and his method of feeling. The nineteenth century gulf between rational thinking and emotional expression resulted in the rise of a split personality. An equilibrium must be regained between reason and emotion, between tradition and the unknown, between repetition of the past and exploration of the future, between the temporal and the eternal.

3. Between the different fields of knowledge. The specialist approach has now to be integrated with a universal outlook. All new development and discoveries must be related to their social implications.

4. Between the human body and natural forces. The human organism demands a balance between the organic environment and his man-made surroundings. Totally separated from the earth and the natural processes of growth, man can never attain the equilibrium needed for contemporary life.

It is time we became human again and let the human scale rule over all our ventures. The man in equipoise that must arise is new only in contrast to a distorted period. He expresses age-old demands that must be satisfied in terms of our own time if our civilization is not to collapse.

History does not produce repetitive patterns. The life of a culture is limited in time, just as is the life of an individual. Everything depends on what is accomplished within the allotted span.


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