Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi, HyperArchitecture: Spaces in the Electronic Age (The Information Technology Revolution in Architecture), Birkhäuser; 1 edition (August 1, 1999)
My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.
Charles F. Kettering
1. Architecture in the age of electronics
1.1 An antecedent: the Pompidou Centre
1971. Three years after the uprisings of 1968 and two after man first landed on the moon, the designs for a new centre of art and culture commissioned by the Gaullist president, Georges Pompidou, were being examined in Paris. A total of 681 projects had been entered by architects from all over the world.
A jury had been called to examine the designs whose members included: the Dutchman Willi Sandemberg, a renowned museum expert, the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer, who had inspired the plan for Brasilia; the American Philip Johnson, who guided architectural fashion and trends in the United States from the MoMA. The jury was chaired by the Frenchman, Jean Prouvé, an engineer, inventor and experimenter with new materials and technologies.
The competition was won, to everyone’s surprise, by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini.
The jury acted with fortunate irresponsibility. It entrusted a project with a budget equivalent to 170 billion lire, which would absorb 10% each year of the entire budget allocated to French culture, to two designers in their thirties (Rogers was 38, Piano 34) who had not yet built a major work. Above all, it was irresponsible in its architectural choice: the winning design was a transparent machine structured on slabs that could be raised and lowered to offer maximum flexibility; supported by long girders that minimised the need for pillars; all the systems were projected outwards and realized in full view so that they could be easily maintained and replaced when needed.
Lastly, the main facade included a giant screen displaying electronic messages about events in the center or cultural and political news.
The antecedents for the design for Plateau Beaubourg Centre Paris (the formal title given by the competition) include the research by Buckminster Fuller, Superstudio, and the metabolists. But above all, the English group Archigram, the source of references to macrostructures in movement and the interest in new technologies.
Six years passed between the competition and the inauguration, by which time the energetic figure of Pompidou had disappeared from the scene. Plans for the mobile floors were set aside, as they would have doubled the costs, and even the large screen on the facade was soon abandoned. In an interview given in 1993, Piano commented: the Pompidou Centre “would have been the largest TV screen in France, without having a production structure behind it.”
Pompidou’s successor, Giscard D’Estaing, tried to play down the avantgarde features of the structure, making it more traditional. This culminated in the intervention of Gae Aulenti who divided the floor destined for use as the Modern Art gallery into cubicles, eliminating the lightweight partitions running along tracks in the ceiling.
Renzo Piano protested placidly: “It’s as if they were putting a plaster cast on a leg.” Now securely launched on the international scene with several projects that were much less blatantly avantgarde, he enjoyed the success of a structure that, in spite of all the betrayals, had become the symbol of a new way of housing, producing and exhibiting culture.
The Pompidou Centre did not win the full-hearted support of the critics. For example, Kenneth Frampton attacked it by describing it as “an example of lack of wall surfaces and excessive flexibility.” Alan Colquohoun accused it of populism and gigantism. Leonardo Benevolo only mentioned it briefly in his History of Modern Architecture. Manfredo Tafuri condemned it by talking about the technological emphasis of some young architects who “translated images that have become canons of the new natural environment into superfluous metaphors.”
Reyner Banham protests: the Pompidou Centre is “the only public monument of international quality produced during the Seventies.” Designed for no more than ten thousand visitors a day, it has twenty-five thousand on average, with a total of over one hundred million visitors in over twenty years. What is more, in the space of a few years, the building has become one of the most famous sights in Paris: the square in front of the Centre is a lively meeting place and the route linking Les Halles to the Pompidou Centre is the busiest pedestrian area in the city.
Richard Rogers tries to account for the success of the structure. He attributes it to the historical moment, the curiosity of a mass society with a growing interest in cultural activities, the fact that the Pompidou Centre was the first open structure dedicated to the new media. But also the spot-on artistic intuition: “The facade, he says, is like jazz, perfect in all its individual parts, but at the same time flexible and open.”
The comparison deserves to be taken further. Jazz marks the break from the mechanical in favor of discontinuity, participation, spontaneity and improvisation. But also the search for fresh inspiration: for jazz players, recorded jazz is as stale as yesterday’s newspaper. Furthermore, in jazz, the performance generally coincides with the composition: this means that it is alive, like conversation, and like the latter it depends on having a repertoire of available themes; breaking traditional harmony through composition by fragments, it is organized using a mosaic-type structure.
Many critics have been impressed by the Centre’s imposing utility systems, by its pipes, iron, glass and the various mechanical systems. This has resulted in the preconception that it is yet another neofuturist-based eulogy to the beauty and power of the machine.
Beaubourg, however, marks the start of something new. Firmitas, namely attention to the values of weight and structure, is replaced by lightness, indeterminateness, transformability, the involvement of the user. We have come a long way from the logic of the “machine for living” underpinning the car, steamship or aeroplane, whose polished perfection was characteristic of industrial society products in the first half of the 20th century. Here we enter a new age, marked by electronics and characterized by three phenomena: immateriality, sensoriality, multimediality.
Immateriality is primarily expressed by transparency. Zevi – who was one of the first to realize the value of the work in Italy and made it the subject of a monograph in “Universale di architettura,” the series of which he is editor – compares Beaubourg to the description of one of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities: “It has no walls or ceilings and no floors: it has nothing which makes it look like a city, except for the pipes…” It is well known that the decision to display the pipes, namely the operating parts of the machine, is said to have infuriated the greatest poet of industrial technology, Mies, who sustained that this was not architecture if they were visible. The idea of visible systems in fact belongs to Archigram and the “metabolists” for whom, from the Sixties onwards, it was necessary to devaluate the traditional problems of architectural composition: they denied that the design of the facade, the rooms, the components or the details might, in themselves, in any way be central; instead, they underlined the links and relations between spaces, functions and activities in a society based on flows, many of which are immaterial.
Sensoriality is the capacity of a structure to interact with the outside world. As Rogers observes, it implies the installation of “sensitive systems which flex like the muscles in the body, minimizing the mass, shifting the forces with the help of a nervous system based on electronic impulses, sensing environmental change and recording individual requirements.”
This explains the organization of the Pompidou Centre as a complex system of coordinated activities and, in overall terms, as a machine that manages information on more than one level, relating to multiple activities and using several techniques. Lastly, multimediality represents the choice to transform the building into an organism capable of conveying messages using various media, integrating them into the building fabric. The building becomes a screen that irradiates lights, colors and sounds and, at the same time, communicates information.
The Pompidou Centre – at least in its original design – anticipates, but without being subject to the same strong commercial pressures, Times Square and the experimental forms of electronic communication introduced above all in Japan and the United States.
1.2 Electronic Bauhaus
1985. Eight years after the inauguration of the Pompidou Centre, Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect sensitive to the chaotic fascination of the contemporary metropolis, wrote an essay entitled: The terrible beauty of the twentieth century. It starts with these words: “Has any area in history – except perhaps the Forum in Rome – ever been richer in architectural history than the Forum des Halles and its immediate vicinity, including Beaubourg?”
The question is rhetorical and leads to a single answer: no. Because the beauty of this century lies in the mixture of activities, the intermingling of means of transport and intercommunication, the overlapping of oral, visual and audiovisual media.
In the design submitted for the Paris Library competition in 1989, Koolhaas proposed a building that played on the relationship between the solid areas of information – namely, the books – and the vacuum of the spaces for reading, meeting and interlinking, structured using the vast vierendeel girders explicitly taken from the Pompidou Centre. Although the project aroused considerable interest, the outcome was negative. The competition was won by the mediocre, rhetorical and antifunctional project submitted by Dominique Perrault. That same year, Rem Koolhaas won the competition for the Zentrum für Kunst und Medietechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe.
OMA, the design office set up and directed by him, worked with exceptional commitment to develop the project and draw up the detailed layout.
The compulsory reference point was still the Pompidou Center, with its overlaid and integrated activities. The password is amalgamation: putting together a media museum, one of contemporary art, a theater, a conference room, a library, research activities and facilities for the production of music, video and virtual reality. But also the realization of an open laboratory where, like a Darwinian arena, classical art would clash with the electronic media influencing one another.
“To generate density, exploit proximity, provoke tension, maximize friction, organize in-betweens, promote filtering, sponsor identity and stimulate blurring,” the entire program is enclosed in a single prism measuring 43 x 43 x 58 meters. Each floor contains a different activity, but they are all linked by technological spaces and distribution areas resembling large Piranesian cavities. There is a technological area in the southern part, known as the robot area, housing scenes from the theater, electronic equipment, projectors and other instruments that run from one floor to another as required. Filtered through a facade clad in polyester, the robot’s components can be seen from the motorway running alongside the building.
The eastern facade, which faces onto the entrance to the railway station next door, is a large screen on which films can be projected. The northern facade, which contains the vertical itineraries of the center, overlooks the railway station and, in particular, the railway tracks, creating an effect of overlying movement reminiscent of futurist aesthetics.
The media museum on the ground floor penetrates the railway station and can also be seen, through glass walls, by travelers.
With all its spatial and technical devices, the building is the prototype of a new type of multimedia center. An electronic Bauhaus, as Koolhaas affirms in his book S, M, L, XL.
It is worth taking this comparison a little further. Gropius’ Bauhaus expresses the design method of industrial civilization: it is a factory, albeit one of ideas, a machine structured using functional standards, made to achieve set targets. Principles that acquire concrete form in a rational, lightweight, simple, dynamic construction with clear-cut geometrical foundations.
ZKM – which is a product of the electronic age – is a complex organism, based on the interaction between the various internal activities, and between these and the outside world. Its objective is to manage information, sometimes producing unexpected results. It is the flows rather than the gears that are the driving force of the 21st century. The immaterial is consequently predominant in architecture: walls lose their consistency, objects are dematerialized, the content takes over the container. Moreover, ZKM is polymorphous, both because it is in constant transformation and because every part responds to different forms of logic: the southern facade of the Centre shows its own metabolic activity, the eastern facade is transformed into a projection screen made up of rapidly moving images, the northern facade is a glass filter between two different generators of movement: one internal and vertical, the other external and horizontal.
Electronics enables any reduction to a single formal principle or compulsory standardization of the sensitive to be overcome. It manages diversity using appropriate computer programs. Unfortunately, the city council that undertook to build the center was forced to resign owing to a political scandal. The new, more conservative council preferred to abandon the ZKM project and invest in more traditional, but less controversial activities.
1.3 A library like a microchip
1992. A competition was announced in Paris for the University Library. The most interesting projects were by Rem Koolhaas and Toyo Ito. Koolhaas presented a 64-meter high parallelepiped structure using a regular grid of pillars, whose floor slabs curved like sheets of paper until they joined together, creating a spatial continuum running, without a break, from the ground floor to the roof.
It is impossible to deny the references to the great projects of the history of architecture structured on the principle of rising progression. For example, the spiral in Wright’s Guggenheim. But, for Koolhaas, the reference served to highlight the differences rather than to propose likenesses.
The matrix of the Guggenheim is the spiral, namely a curved three-dimensional surface, rather than prismatic volume, which for Wright was only a negative – the skyscraper or intensive luxury of Park Avenue – which he could oppose.
In the Paris Library, on the other hand, the continuum is created by folding the horizontal partitions that still remain within the logic of the box. The ascendant tension is created by the transformation of this flat geometry into a curve: it is the result of the partial process of mutation, whose outcome, like all incomplete mutation processes, is a hybrid. It is an object, whose intermediate form – the fact of being neither box nor spiral, but at the same time being to a certain extent both – may finally emerge, thanks to the complex calculations mastered by the computer. This proves very interesting: for example, it can be used to reason on the genesis of form or to play, inside the same manufact, on apparently irreconcilable contrasts like linear-undulating, static-dynamic, open-closed (we will come back to this point in the chapter on mutation).
Toyo Ito counters the overwhelming complexity of the space organized by Rem Koolhaas with a minimalist box: a plate formed by the juxtaposition of longitudinal bodies on two levels that face onto other longitudinal bodies of double the height; the scheme is broken in two points by elliptical bodies acting as meeting points; the outer surfaces are clad in transparent materials that allow the onlooker to glimpse the shelves and furnishings inside.
Ito rejects any expressive concession: there are no references or nods to history, allusions to consolidated language, plays on chiaroscuro or chromatic effects, outlines or harmonious modulations. As Abalos and Herreros comment in the issue of El Croquis dedicated to him, Ito continues his search for an absolute form of simplicity, “a new simplicity that believes that complexity cannot be expressed in geometric terms, or to be more precise, that geometric complexity and its deformations have ceased to be pertinent responses to architectural expression.” The architectural ideal is therefore to search for a neutral, homogeneous, aperspective space, so transparent that it is ephemeral.
“My project,” states Ito, “is the antithesis of monumental architecture, buildings that want to live for eternity.”
The precarious and inexpressive nature of the shell shifts the onlooker’s attention from the container to the content. With the result that the library resembles the chip in a computer: both are aseptic spaces which give preference to the interconnections that enable the transmission of information and both are structured round a grid of itineraries, preferably straight and, at all events, based on the logic of the shortest journey.
Moreover, the two elliptical bodies included in the design, although they have no immediate counterpart in real computer architecture, namely, that of the microchip, suggest the movement of energy flows: “The oval,” Ito observes, “gives fluidity to the structure, fosters its openness to the outside and its interaction with its surroundings, exactly like an eddy in the water interacts with neighboring currents.”
1.4 Waves in the sea of communication
1991. A year before the competition for the University Library in Paris, Toyo Ito had taken part in the London exhibition entitled Visions of Japan, setting up a room which he entitled Simulation, but which, on Arata Isozaki’s advice, he then called by a more popular name: Dreams.
The room measured 10 x 28 meters. It was fitted with a floating floor coated in matte acrylic panels onto which twenty-six projectors hanging from the ceiling were projecting images of Tokyo. A liquid crystal screen was mounted on the short wall; the longer one consisted of a slightly undulating wall clad in aluminium panels hidden by a curtain, onto which forty-four projectors threw other images of the Japanese capital. Lastly, a battery of amplifiers diffused music through the building, processed by a tuner, taken from the sounds of the city.
Toyo Ito commented, with amusement, that at the inauguration the Prince of Japan had to drink a cup of sakè before entering a space that was both so chaotic and so evanescent, and that Prince Charles – a sworn enemy of the metropolis – asked what messages were hidden behind the images. When Ito replied that perhaps there was nothing behind the images, he asked him whether he was an incurable optimist.
In his works, Ito often works on an image drained of all meaning, almost left in an impressionist state, a stage that has reached the senses but has not yet made a formal impression on the intellect. Like Egg of Wind, a sculpture-kaleidoscope clad in drilled aluminium panels that reflects the images of the city projected onto it and, at the same time, reveals others from the TVs placed inside it. Exactly like those of a television when the sound is turned off, the images lose all meaning, becoming purely sensorial phenomena: colours and shapes that vibrate and fluctuate in space. Seen from this perspective, space no longer appears to be a vacuum in which solid bodies live, but rather a medium through which information is diffused.
Let us go back to Ito’s comment in which he told Prince Charles that the images could not hide anything. This might well have been said by Andy Warhol, with whom Ito certainly shared a fascination for reality as manifested through happenings, leaving aside any contextualization or conceptual mediation.
But whereas Warhol freezes the image into figures with clearly defined outlines (whether they are the can of Campbell’s soup or the portraits of Marilyn, Jackie or Mao Tse-tung), Ito captures it when it is still a flow of energy. Electronics, he later wrote in an essay in 1997, is like a sea, like the waves, like a breath of life. We live in an age that has overcome mechanism, but has not yet changed the functional – and therefore, in a sense, mechanistic – organization of homes: “We have not yet found,” Ito affirms, “a space that reflects the idea of living in the age of electronics”.
Yet electronics has overturned the formal coordinates of the environment in which we live. You need only think of car design, Ito points out. The Citröen Deux Chevaux and the Volkswagen Beetle have given way to the modern Japanese models of Toyota and Nissan, whose forms no longer reflect their inner mechanisms but more abstract processes: easy, comfortable driving, the recognition and management of controls, automatic position control, radio and telephone contacts, climate control, ergonomics, energy saving, automated safety mechanisms. The changes in other sectors are even more far-reaching: one need only think of fields like bioengineering that require the collaboration of biology and microelectronics.
What will the electronic house look like? It will certainly be different from early 20th century homes, namely, the small villa with a sloping roof, garden, a kitchen laid out according to the principles of Existenzminimum, a dining room with chrome furniture. And also from the most modern electric house, designed to optimize the use of electrical household appliances in order to minimize the burden of housework for working women.
In 1989, following the PAO 2 installation: “Dwelling for Tokyo Nomad Woman,” Toyo Ito attempted to give a form to the electronic house. He made an egg-shaped tent, surrounded by transparent veils. Inside are three almost evanescent pieces of furniture: one for make-up, one for eating, one for intellectual activities. It is very different from the traditional house: the latter is rooted in the ground and filled with objects with symbolic or functional value, it represents a world apart, almost a microcosm; it is exactly the opposite of the electronic house which is, by definition, unstable and not self-sufficient.
Electronics stimulates nomadism, namely, the willingness to be uprooted from places, to live traveling, both in a physical sense (in a car, train, plane) and using communications instruments (radio, television, Internet, telephone, teleconference). Moreover, it is not autarchic by nature and presupposes the management of complexity through joint effort, the union of many resources and forms of intelligence. Lastly, by accelerating the exchange of goods and making them available everywhere, electronics eliminates the need for their domestic storage.
Toyo Ito bases his remarks on the central role played in an electronic society by the sense of feeling and the importance of skin on the arguments put forward by Marshall McLuhan, the brilliant Canadian media expert. By skin, he means a sensitive epidermis that covers buildings and enables the domestic environment to interact with the urban space, absorbing lights, sounds, flows and returning images and vital tensions to the outside.
But if, Toyo Ito adds, the house must be soft and flexible and not rigid and dense, it will be conceived as an electronic garment that allows people to live the virtual nature of the metropolis, becoming “Tarzans in the media forest.” Fascinated by nature, Ito thinks of electronics as energy able to reintegrate man in the environment, in the flow of life.
Already in 1986, in Yokohama, he designed an organism that was both natural and artificial: the Wind Tower is a structure that filters the air, sounds and noises of the city, transforming them into light. The result is an architectonic object rooted on the spot, absolutely contextual but subject to change, because the air, light and sounds around it are never the same.
In 1997 Ito completed his masterpiece: the media library in Sendai. He designed a 7-story building measuring 50 x 50 x 30 meters, each of whose floors would be dedicated to a different activity. The floors are connected using pylons as light as bamboo canes. In the center of each pylon is a hole which – crossing through the building from sky to earth – captures the rays of the sun above, the dampness from below and serves to duct the vertical connection elements and electronic cabling.
The media library appears to be immersed in fluid: water, light, information and the floors supported by lightweight pylon supports make it vibrate. When illustrating the project, Ito mentions the primordial elements, the philosophers Lao-tzu (4th century B.C.) and Kumazawa (12th century A.D.). The conclusion, which may not be approved of by the more rigorous cybernetic experts, certainly has an outstanding poetic value: the essence of the media forest lies in the very old principle of becoming.
1.5 Mies + futurism
If Beaubourg is the building that prefigures the age of electronics, the acknowledged master of the new designers is Mies.
Koolhaas admires him to the point of plagiarising him in his design for the Morgan Bank in Amsterdam and the patio houses in Rotterdam. He is attracted by Mies’ use of transparency and the reduction of architecture to a virtual nothingness.
Toyo Ito also dedicated a number of written works to Mies and, in particular, the first part of the essay entitled Tarzans in the media forest in which he affirms that the antecedent for the media library in Sendai and the Tower of the Winds is the Barcelona Pavilion, a fluid architecture whose vibrating and mobile storys are reflected in the two swimming pools: “The transparency of the Barcelona Pavilion is not like that of clear air. It feels as if we are deep in water looking at things, and it may well be described as translucent. The infinite fluidity felt in the pavilion must arise from this translucent liquid-like space.”
Mies also provides the inspiration for another protagonist of the age of electronics: Zaha Hadid. The fire station on the Vitra campus in Weil Am Rhein, focused on the deconstruction of volumes into dividing plates, is reminiscent of the Barcelona pavilion. With the difference that here the dynamism of the forms directed into space takes the place of the albeit unstable neoplastic equilibrium; as has been observed, the building gives formal expression to the vibrating alarm signal calling the firemen on duty.
Hadid’s drawings of the Vitra fire station show the close relationship between them and the architecture. And not only because computer-assisted design allows the complexity of the moving forms to be accurately represented, but also because the static and formally defined plans, elevations and traditional perspective views are replaced by elaborate drawings of quivering forms and overlaid planes seen from unusual and antinaturalistic viewpoints – almost autonomous works that resemble the avantgarde paintings of the early 20th century.
Hadid’s projects expressly reflect Suprematism and Malevich’s works, but also the early period of Duchamp. Less evident but equally undeniable is the debt of the American architect Eisenman to Futurism, both in the Guardiola house in Cadiz, a residence built on the alternating movement of the sea along the beach, and the Architecture Faculty of the University of Cincinnati, stemming from a dual undulating movement: the geometric shape of the old building and the vibrating new curvilinear building.
“The origin can be traced back to the Italian futurist, Giacomo Balla (Dinamismo di un cane al guinzaglio, 1911), but the universally well known image is Marcel Duchamp’s Nude descending the stairs (1912-16). You will remember the image: a series of superimposed images of the figure, like a photo taken using too long an exposure, in which the individual movements overlap one another […] It is an extraordinarily interesting technique that has remained unchanged for eighty years in architecture […].”
If Eisenman follows the example of Balla and Duchamp, Gehry is indebted to Boccioni. The volumes of the Disney auditorium in Los Angeles or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao visualize the movement of the notes in a symphony, but also the plastic dynamism of The City Rises. There is also something vaguely Boccionesque about Daniel Libeskind’s recent masterpiece, the design for the new extension of the Victoria & Albert Museum, where the rotation of a wall around a spiral creates a whirling and vertiginous volume that would have delighted the author of Stati d’animo, but which would be almost impossible to control in architecture without the aid of the computer.
We need go no further. These formal similarities with Futurism may be useful to help us understand that, through electronics, architecture has also rediscovered ancient expressive desires – whose properties have not yet been fully explored – suppressed by the advent of the rigid and trivializing koinè of International Style. But these may also deviate us from the historic specificity of events; in particular, they distract us from the fact that, whereas Futurism is the art of the electric age, namely, the car and household electrical appliances, the new architecture is the art of the electronic age, namely, the computer and information sciences. And electronics is characterized by three keywords: projection, mutation, simulation.
2.1 An antecedent: Duchamp
The dictionary gives the following definition of the term project: “1. Jut out or protrude, cast; 2. Cause to fall on a screen.” For architects, the term project is linked to descriptive geometry: orthogonal projections, axonometry, perspective. For the philosopher, it means reflection: to project our thoughts onto an ideal mirror in order to observe their structure and inner consistency with sufficient detachment. For the psychoanalyst, it means transference, namely the need to project oneself into another person, in order to acquire a better understanding of an aspect of ourselves that would otherwise elude us. For the scientist, projection means the construction of models. A model reflects reality and its accuracy depends on the accuracy with which each property of the model reproduces the object studied. Lastly, for the artist, projection is the foundation of representation, whether figurative or abstract. If art and reality are in any way related, this relationship can only be achieved using projections.
Marcel Duchamp realized this when, on 8 August 1913, he moved into his new studio in Rue Saint-Hippolyte in Paris and started to outline the general framework of La mariée mise a nu par ses célibataires, même (which could be translated as The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, except that by doing so we lose the countless double meanings and plays on words that for years have been the subject of the critics’ increasingly deconstructed exegesis). He continued to elaborate this work, which is also known as The Large Glass, for the rest of his life and it contains most of his research.
The Large Glass is somewhat similar to Joyce’s Ulysses: a fascinating work with a plurality of meanings, but at the same time abstruse, hermetic and often indecipherable.
The first and most obvious meanings of the work are surrealistic: The Large Glass symbolizes the ascension of a bride to heaven (the Virgin of the Christian tradition? the female concept?), while on the earth, below the line of the horizon, she is the object of her suitors’ desire, namely nine human types represented by the same number of alchemistic molds (malic molds) who have undressed her (in short, the horizon represents the bride’s dress).
Alongside the nine malic moulds, a sledge and a chocolate grinder, which represent the principle of energy production, provide the ideal motor for the composition.
Proceeding with his usual exasperating and vague slowness, Duchamp decides to link the nine malic molds to each other using wires that are one meter long and which, in turn, represent the pipes used to transmit the life-giving principle (pure energy? light? gas? libido? – the critics also disagree on this point).
For this purpose, having exhausted Puteaux’s discussions on mathematics, measurements and the fourth dimension, he uses a rigorous geometric procedure, albeit in its surrealistic paradoxical nature: he links the nine malic molds with meter-long wires, but whose rounded form is obtained by creating a deformation of the straight unit of measurement.
Duchamp writes, “If a straight, horizontal wire, one meter in length, falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane deforming itself at will, it will produce a new figure of unit of length.” Duchamp performs the operation three times. He obtains three different forms of unit of measurement, no longer straight but curvilinear: three of the infinite forms determined by chance; he calls them 3 stoppages étalon.
Using each of the 3 stoppages étalon three times, he draws nine itineraries on the canvas, each of which is one metre long, but each is laid out using its own individual geometry.
It is evident that there is something more than a simple symbolic construction (a banal allegory of the relationship between the rule and the case or the unity that links human types…). But in order to understand the meaning, we must look for an interpretative key outside The Large Glass. For example, in two works also by Duchamp.
The first is entitled 3 stoppages étalon and consists of a box containing three glass rulers, onto which three curved wires are stuck, and the same number of wooden rulers, whose curvilinear shape matches those of the wires glued onto the glass rulers.
The second is entitled Réseaux des stoppages étalon, a canvas with nine itineraries created by using each of the three curved meters three times.
The two works – 3 stoppages étalon and Réseaux des stoppages étalon – are closely interconnected. Four distinct transformations of the same object can clearly be seen in both.
The first transformation – from the straight wire to the curved wire – is anamorphosis. In scientific terms, it could be described as the projection, within defined spatial conditions and using pre-established operations, of a rectilinear series of points in an homologous curve.
The second transformation – from the curved wire to the curved wooden meter – entails the transition from the single-dimensional reality of the wire to the three-dimensional reality of the support. This is achieved using a projection, even if it is simpler than the previous one, because it involves a straightforward translation and superimposition.
The third transformation – from the curved wooden meter to the image of the curve on the canvas – again involves a translation and superimposition, but also entails a reduction in the size of the object represented: from three to two dimensions.
The fourth transformation – from an image showing exclusively its own contents to an image that is enriched by the contents of other works – occurs through the comparison and projection of meanings.
By projecting the meanings of one work onto another, it is right to think that the stoppages étalon symbolize an energy transmission network, just like The Large Glass. But, vice versa, we could also project the meanings of the stoppages étalon onto The Large Glass, hypothesizing that the latter is a conceptual study focused on the concept of transformation through projective permutations.
Let us stop here.
2.2 Projection and conceptual art
What does Duchamp show us? At least four things.
First: we can realize works of art that explore the mechanisms of conceptualization and representation in which the aesthetic value of what is represented is secondary. The stoppages étalon reject any appreciation relating to their form, composition, color, or beauty, because they are not pertinent.
Second: the objects themselves, emptied of all aesthetic value, become transparent: they are only valuable as markers of the operations carried out on them. Our attention is shifted from the object to the relationships between objects.
Third: in order to make the onlooker understand that the discussion is focused on a metadiscussion and not on representation, contrary to traditional art which embraces by involving the senses, the work of art must produce a feeling of estrangement. This results in the expedient of presenting works that question the boundary between what is representation and what is reality (what is the real unit of measurement? The abstract concept of measurement, the wire of a meter, the curvilinear rigid meter or its representation on canvas?), playing on the double meanings that produce a short-circuit in meaning (is a curved meter a meter?) and, lastly, using commonplace objects of limited denotative and connotative value (before Duchamp, did anyone ever think of using such a banal object as a meter in a work of art?).
Fourth: to pass from one medium of representation to another – for example, from a 2D to a 3D reality or from the latter to the conceptual reality – it is essential to use projections, whether these are anamorphoses, translations or even metaphors.
Duchamp was regarded by many critics as the precursor of conceptual art, which developed in the second half of the Sixties. There are numerous affinities between Duchamp’s ready-mades and the tautologies of Atkinson, Baldwin, Bochner, Burn, Darboven, Graham, Ramsden, and Venet. One work in particular recalls the projections of the 3 stoppages étalon. It is One and three chairs by Joseph Kosuth: a composition consisting of a real chair, a life-size photographic reproduction and the definition of a chair taken from a dictionary.
By choosing a commonplace object and multiplying it by three, Kosuth removes any iconic value, with the result that its meaning no longer lies in the object itself as it is immediately perceived but in the correlation of signs, the series of linguistic and extralinguistic associations to which the work alludes. The chair is therefore an object because it is also an image and concept for us. Moreover, it is an image because it is both concept and object.
Conclusion: art, like reality, is based on a series of projective relations, in a game of reflections, each of which permits the representation of the object, but alone can never succeed in exhausting its content.
But if knowledge and art take part in an unending game of projections, there can be no difference in principle between conceptualization and metaphorization. In fact, metaphor, like concept, lives in the projective space, given that it is a figure based on homology, similarity, the interchange between one reality and another analogous or assimilable reality. The photographed chair, the chair-object and the chair-word are, in other words, metaphors of each other.
Marshall McLuhan reached a similar conclusion when, in the Sixties, he tackled the study of the media, namely the instruments used to convey messages. The latter enable reality to be articulated and structured in a metaphoric continuum. The same object, translated from one medium to another, is clarified, but also assumes new connotations and interpretative openings.
Exactly like the wire in 3 stoppages étalon, as it passes from one medium to another, it becomes a unit of measurement, then a spatial grid and lastly a conductor of magical energy. Or, like One and three chairs in the dimensions of space, image and writing.
2.3 Verdussen of Utrecht
Of course, not all metaphors are equally significant. Borges and Casares, the authors of Chronicles of Bustos Domenq, make fun of artists who lose themselves in a world where they cannot recognise the boundaries between reality and fiction, distracted by the play of mirrors in what has become oversubtle conceptualisation.
They resemble the poet Urbas who takes part in a competition on the theme of the rose and overcomes his adversaries, winning a prize of five hundred thousand pesos, because he presents a rose (what is more poetic than the truth? And truer than the truth?).
The poet Urbas, who annihilates poetry, being unable to find a more perfect projection than that of the object on itself, is flanked by the architect Verdussen of Utrecht. The latter adopts an even more radical position, because – since he uses non-figurative art – unlike Urbas, he cannot use the object instead of its own representation, and namely, cannot escape the confines of art by presenting the real object.
Verdussen must therefore affirm that architecture is the projection of itself because architecture is allergic to any heteronomous commingling based exclusively on the logic of the composition of its own constituent parts: wall, windows, doors, floors and roof. This results in the need to plan a composition whose motivations lie within the play itself.
This is how Borges and Casares describe the uninhabitable masterpiece realised by the extremely learned Dutch architect:
The building […] occupies a rectangular site, measuring six metres by barely eighteen. Each of the six doors on the ground floor façade communicates, with a gap of ninety centimetres, with another identical single opening door, and so on until there are a total of sixteen doors. From the balconies of the house opposite, the academic can see that the first floor is full of six-step stairs which lead up and down in zig-zags; the second consists of just windows; the third, thresholds; the fourth and top floor, of floors and ceilings. The building is made from glass, a detail that makes it particularly easy to examine from the neighbouring houses. This gem is so perfect that no one has dared to imitate it.
The target of Borges and Casares’ irony is almost certainly Le Corbusier, to whom the book is co-dedicated (“To these three great forgotten figures: Picasso, Joyce, Le Corbusier”), but a modern-day reader can hardly avoid associating the description with the Five Architects and, in particular, Eisenman’s House VI.
2.4 Eisenman Verdussen
Designed and built in 1972-75, the house aroused considerable interest. Even now, at a distance of twenty-five years, it continues to be controversial (Bill Hubbard Jr., Harvard Design Magazine, no. 2, 1997: “The house that sends you into ecstasies or drives you up the wall.”)
House VI is a weekend house of modest dimensions: a living room and kitchen-dining room on the ground floor, and a bathroom and bedroom on the first floor.
From a composition point of view, it complies with stringent geometrical laws. However, as Eisenman himself affirms: “It is not rationality that has shaped these spaces; they are determined by a formal system that has been chosen and manipulated arbitrarily.”
Some of Eisenman’s drawings show, albeit without any clear demonstration, that the whole house, inserted into a cube, is structured using cube-shaped submodules. The dominant formal motif is therefore the manipulation of the squares that generate the ground plans and walls of the living room, bedroom and adjoining spaces. There is also a game of slipping and forward movement: for example, the living room compared to the bedroom overhead and the bathroom compared to the kitchen below. Then there are the large transverse planes: cutting the house into four, helping to define spaces that would otherwise be lost in the fragmentation of cuts and slipping.
Then there are the harmonies between solid and empty spaces, between void and void, full and full, between the stair and the pseudo-stair (namely a stair that only works if the house is turned upside down). Lastly, there are the colors used to highlight the individual floors.
This evokes a certain similarity with the neoplastic compositions. However, the latter, in particular the Schröder residence in Rietveld, use floors and colors that explode the box and give dynamism to the space along strength-axes. In House VI, on the other hand, the masonry fragments appear to dialogue with each other in an attempt to recompose the volumes recently called into question.
This sensation is confirmed by the internal spaces. The solids and the voids of the walls are joined to those of the walls opposite using visual harmonies, emphasized by lines running along the ceiling or floor, or by strategically positioned structural elements.
Born from an abstract play on planes and volumes, the house is barely habitable. Eisenman, for example, compelled the owners to divide the double bed in half to accommodate a cut in the floor, the projection of an equivalent line in the ceiling. He ignored the need for a dining area, with a pillar standing in the center (“The column as uninvited guest at the dining room table,” observed a commentator.) The estimate of $ 35,000 tripled to a final bill of $ 100,000. He opposed the idea of adding a comfortable second floor until Arthur Drexler and Colin Rowe intervened to petition for one. He obliged the owners to send their young daughter away on the occasion of Philip Johnson’s visit. He also compelled them to have the house redecorated by Massimo Vignelli before photographs were taken.
Eisenman theorises about the misanthropic nature of the house using paradoxical reasoning: habitability is to space as representation is to a picture. Habitability prompts the observer to take immediate possession, to enjoy its perceptive and symbolic values, but not to make enquiries regarding the structure of the work. This gives rise to the need for coldness, indifference to the functions, distance: architecture, just like a conceptual work of art must produce estrangement.
William Gass sustains: The most comfortable objects are the most tyrannical, because we need them to be obedient and they distract us from thinking. House VI, constructed to obey a single formal manipulation, allows an intricate intertwining of surfaces, spaces and lines and “provides a playground for the absolute mind.”
Lay religion and aesthetic asceticism: Eisenman is a formal terrorist, a priest of limits and excess. Let us return to the concept of projection. Eisenman calls his first works cardboard houses. He wishes to underline their virtual character, but also the uninfluential role of their effective realization. In principle, they could be drawn on paper without losing any of their conceptual interest, which is reduced to a game of projections that could be managed perfectly well by descriptive geometry.
Compared to real construction, paper allows an absolute dematerialization of the object. And, having been rendered transparent, the building would resemble the works designed by conceptual artists at the same period (Kosuth, Sol Lewitt, etc.), not to be built but merely represented using diagrams and drawings, or described in formal reports.
But what happens if the projection on which the representation is based is, in turn, projected on itself?
Eisenman tries to answer this question in House X. He built an axonometric model of the house and applied to a 3D medium rules such as axonometric projections that were only valid for a 2D medium.
Result: the model looks deformed. To be seen without distortions, it can only be looked at from a squint point of view, the only one that makes the slanting walls look straight. This produces the paradox that the axonometry, which would not normally require a special point of view, when applied to an unusual medium becomes a sort of perspective which, instead, presupposes one.
The projection is therefore no longer a faithful (or, better: taken for granted, unproblematic) representation of the object and becomes anamorphosis. Anamorphosis opens the horizons of a non-Euclidean topological space based on homeomorphism, namely, on the properties that remain unchanged when an object is deformed.
Then, if – as occurs in the topological universe – a lozenge becomes a rectangle and a triangle can change into a circle, similarity becomes a problem. In the same way as the flow of similarities was a problem during the projections of Duchamp’s 3 stoppages étalon.
2.5 Architecture of silence
Let us now hypothesize that there is a correspondence between architectural language and verbal language. If architectonic elements correspond to words and composition rules to syntax, Eisenman constructs a language without words; an architecture of silence and transparency; language reduced to pure form where, as Gandelsonas already noted, the semantic dimension is paralyzed and syntax assumes unlimited importance.
The architecture of silence undoubtedly finds a precedent in Loos, whom Eisenman cites on numerous occasions. He is attracted, among other things, by Loos’ reduction of architecture to a quality-less object (or better: pretends to reduce architecture to a quality-less object).
But a more interesting precedent may be found in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s architecture, the philosopher of language whose Tractatus logico-philosophicus classified symbolic logic, namely, the technique of calculation that forms the basis of computer logic.
We are in 1926. Wittgenstein’s sister, Margaret Stonborough – who had just commissioned Paul Engelmann to build her a house – decided to involve her brother in the building process.
Ludwig had an innate propensity for architecture: in 1914 he had helped his friend Eccles to furnish his house; he designed nearly all the furniture for his flat in Cambridge and, lastly, he designed the mountain farm to which he withdrew in Norway.
Having just got over a nervous breakdown, Ludwig enjoyed his work with Engelmann. His old acquaintance and their shared passion for Loos’ architecture, of whom one was a disciple and the other an admirer, guaranteed a formal ground for agreement. However, Ludwig soon set Engelmann aside, becoming in practice the sole person responsible for his sister’s house.
He made very few alterations to Engelmann’s original project: the volumetric layout was left unchanged, if we exclude the small entrance block; he made a few minor modifications to the size of the windows and their reciprocal positions; he accepted the internal layout, except for one or two minimal changes to the partitions.
However, these imperceptible modifications represented an enormous drain on Ludwig’s energies, as well as calling for an enormous intellectual effort. In fact, after a day on the site, he confessed that he felt exhausted. Every question, even the most banal, prompted painstaking analysis. When a blacksmith asked him whether a millimeter was important, he replied, in his frighteningly loud voice, that even half a millimeter was essential.
Wittgenstein’s exasperated attention to the smallest details can only be explained by his absolute need for rigor: every deviation, imperfection or shift away from the exact form ran the risk of classifying the object at the extreme limit of poor construction or in the abyss of ornamentation, or fatuousness.
This leads to a sort of contradiction that has trapped many critics: on the one hand, Wittgenstein dedicated the utmost attention to shape, dimensions and proportions and, on the other, he obstinately refused any rules established a priori.
Although the esegetists have endeavoured to discover the proportions of this building, nothing has been found.
Those that have been found show approximations of five or more per cent; they are therefore too imprecise to have been used by an eternally dissatisfied character who did not think twice before demolishing, once the work had been finished, the living room ceiling in order to raise it three centimeters and who, the day the windows were fitted, compelled poor Margaret Respinger – who was more interested in the architect than in the architecture – to spend hours opening and shutting them to check that they were perfectly perpendicular. Moreover, Wittgenstein spent much of his energy on breaking symmetries (e.g., eliminating one of the two niches in the library), breaking up alignments (e.g., positioning the entrance door out of line compared to the windows above), differentiating and disarticulating the parts (e.g., designing different windows for each facade).
Such a total rejection of pre-established formal systems can only be explained by the fact that, for a philosopher like Wittgenstein, who was radically linked to the pure essentiality of facts, every aprioristic conception is too imbued with connotative values, metaphysical references, to be satisfactory.
In fact, although Wittgenstein appreciated the reductive work accomplished by Loos, he criticized Loos for filling his architecture with eternal values, a fact that he denied in words. He guessed that the simplicity and bare proportions of modern architecture hid an even more serious crime than that identified by Loos in the form of ornamentation. These houses – he argued on the occasion of the Wiener Werkbund exhibition of 1932 – look at you as if to say “look how pretty I am.”
Wittgenstein affirms: “My ideal is a certain degree of coldness. A temple to house passions, without interfering with them.”
We can translate this as a house that contains life, but has nothing to do with it (incidentally, it is worth noting the parallel with Eisenman’s House VI).
If we replace the term “architectonic object” with the word “fact,” and the term “space” with the word “logic,” we arrive at the philosophy of Tractatus: facts, like architectonic objects, must be purified of all subjective connotation and reduced to their simple denotative value; whereas logic, like architectonic space, must become a transparent building that contains facts, composing them but not altering or modifying them. Logic is in fact pure tautology, which can be organized according to mathematical procedures – projections, we might be tempted to say – that are the best instrument available to scientific activity precisely because they add nothing and remove nothing from reality, but simply translate it. This rigorously analytical construction is in fact the end point of Wittgenstein’s ascetic and mystical vision, one which is very close to that of Eisenman: transparency not only represents the maximum effort made to conceptualize the sayable, but also the only window through which we are allowed to glimpse the unsayable: “I am not interested – Wittgenstein would later affirm – in erecting a building, rather than seeing, before me, the transparent foundations of possible buildings”; in other words, in short, the structure of the world (my world).
Let us go back to the 17th century, and more precisely to Bacon. He tells us that “it is an excellent invention according to which Pan, namely the world, chose Echo as his wife (in preference to all other voices) because true philosophy faithfully reproduces the world’s own words.” We can translate this as follows: knowledge has always been a process of constant clarification that occurs through reflections, refractions, translations that let us glimpse the world through their transparency. But while the game of projections has always fascinated philosophers and scientists, research into language has become a central, at times obsessive, theme since the early 20th century. Formal logic, structuralism, set theory, hermeneutics: the study of contents is replaced by the analysis of relations.
The language of information science is also rigorously based on a relational basis. Derrick de Kerckhove observes:
It does not matter what values you attribute to the symbols of a computer language, as if the program follows the rigid rules of its logic, it will work. This is the fundamental paradox of the alphabet and the computer. They are both completely independent of the meanings attributed to them and at the same time they only exist to reproduce and manipulate sequences of values and meanings.
In other words, the computer is a machine that can make enormously complicated transformations extremely rapidly. To understand this, we can apply the same method of enquiry to the computer as was used to examine the 3 stoppages étalon. We can distinguish four transformations.
The first is translation. Information is translated from one language into another: from the language used as a user interface, to the programming language, to the machine language, as far as the open/closed code that enables the flow of electrons.
The second transformation is atomization. Objects are dissected and fragmented until their materiality dissolves, to the point that they become pure energy and movement. Atomization enables their complexity to be reduced to a few basic elements, facilitating the matching game and making it possible to structure projections from one language to another, from one medium to another.
The third transformation is logicization. Arguments are reduced to pre-defined standard logic. The rules are so generalized and abstract that, at the level of machine language, all the relations between the phrases can be translated into basic logical formulas (that, in the last resort, form part of truth tables). As a result, every application can be used indifferently for apparently antithetical purposes (using a data base program, for example, it is possible to file books, manage customers, organize the shopping, estimate apartments).
The fourth transformation is metaphorization. The computer requires a constant effort to be made in terms of formal transpositions. In this way, we see a series of relations through another series, enabling us to store and amplify experiences that would otherwise elude us because we would be unable to express them adequately. This establishes relations not only between contents (sounds that are transformed into images, for example), but also man and machine: a prime example is the use of the metaphor of the desk or window in the structure of the computer interface or the organization of hypertexts.
Owing to these four transformations (translation, atomization, logicization, metaphorization), objects are reduced to pure formal relations. They lose their materiality and become information. Deprived of weight, information can travel inside electric fields; it can be exchanged, processed and stored.
We can dictate words to a computer, translate them into writing, reconvert them into impulses, send them by telephone and transform them into music or a drawing. In other words, we can trigger off an almost infinite series of mutations through a constant play of projections: whether these are translations, permutations, anamorphoses or even metaphors.
Seen from this historical perspective, in which language can only be regenerated on the condition that it becomes volatile, Wittgenstein, the architect, and Duchamp, the artist, were undoubtedly two sensors, two antennae that captured an epoch-making upheaval.
On the other hand, Wittgenstein, the figure who inspired the Vienna Circle and logical neopositivism, was the inventor of the truth tables and modern symbolic logic. And Duchamp was profoundly influenced by the discoveries in mathematics, geometry and physics made in the early 20th century. We need only remember his assiduous association with Poincaré’s thought and his syntactic-relational approach to knowledge: “What can be affirmed by science – affirmed the French scientist, the founder of non-Euclidean geometry – are not objects themselves […], but only relations between them. Outside these relations, there is no knowable reality.”
Eisenman and Kosuth, with their obsessions for linguistics, structuralism, Chomsky’s generative grammar and formal logic, resume, update and expand the experimentation of a language that has entered a new age, that of information technology.
To sum up: the means used by the computer is projection, and its purpose is mutation.
Marshall McLuhan also had the same intuition, although he approached it from a different direction. As early as 1964, he affirmed that the computer would produce changes in the proportion, rhythm or schemes of human relations. In other words, it could change the way in which we think, in which we articulate language, in which we live. A well-known precedent was the invention of alphabetical writing: this not only led to the production of books, but obliged us to structure thought by organizing it into words, phrases, chapters; it broke down the barriers of local reality by encouraging the exchange of information; it facilitated the onset of individualism and free will; it established the predominance of sight over the other senses and lessened the role of hearing and the spoken word; it fostered the birth of the scientific spirit and experimental observation.
With the advent of electronics, McLuhan affirms, all man’s extensions, including cities, will be translated into information systems. Thus, in the same way as the industrial society was transformed into a gigantic machine, the information society will resemble a complex nervous system, ready to capture data from the outside and transmit them for reprocessing. This reprocessing will imply a continuous metamorphosis. To the point that we lose sight of the original information, or doubt that it ever existed.
3.3 Dematerialized architecture
Let us return to architecture and to 1996, the year that Kenneth Frampton’s book, Studies in Tectonic Culture, was published. In his last chapter, Frampton warns his reader: in contemporary architecture, form is dematerialized, the construction is losing solidity. He gives a few figures: in new buildings, the cost of the structure has fallen from 80% to 20%. Mobile partitions have increased from 3% to 20%. Only 12.5% is now spent on the facade. But, above all, installations now account for 35%. This means that, in a new building, the shell is becoming increasingly secondary, whereas growing importance is attributed to performance, monitoring systems, bioclimatic controls, technical devices.
To use McLuhan’s metaphor: in building, the nervous system is dominating the skeleton and muscle structure.
The objects of Frampton’s aversion are the new architectural experiments and deconstructivism. To his way of thinking, these have pushed the aesthetics of transparency beyond all limits, reducing facades to mere screens, having swallowed technology, cybernetics, multimedia. This calls for a new rigour, a syntax of construction (namely tectonics), a return to the materiality of the object. And also the need to rediscover the language of Semper, the mid-American Wright, Perret, Mies, Kahn, Utzon and Scarpa, to each of whom he dedicates a chapter. He never even mentions the work of Libeskind, Koolhaas, Hadid, Gehry or Eisenman, although he does dedicate the final chapter to Renzo Piano, who continues to work with the new technologies – now far from the excesses of the Pompidou Centre – returning them to a classical form.
Frampton’s silence regarding the protagonists of contemporary architecture and, in particular, Eisenman is emblematic, on historic grounds if none other. It was Frampton who launched the group of Five Architects (Eisenman, Graves, Hejduk, Gwathmey, Meier) in 1969 at a meeting organized at the Museum of Modern Art by the Conference of Architects for the Study of Environment, and three years later he contributed a challenging critical essay to the volume Five Architects. Moreover, Frampton had worked with Eisenman at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, as well as on the magazine Oppositions. From this reason Frampton might have been expected to show an interest in Eisenman’s latest works after the latter had resumed professional practice in 1982 and developed his earlier projective work on cardboard houses, orientating it towards mutation, namely, the computer-inspired transformation of elementary geometric shapes into non-conventional shapes, often taken from the non-linear sciences, with works like the Guardiola House in Cadiz and the Architecture Faculty at the University of Cincinnati.
3.4 The Architecture of the Jumping Universe
Having been ignored by Frampton, Eisenman is praised in the book by the multifaceted, inexhaustible (but sometimes superficial) precursor, Charles Jencks: The Architecture of the Jumping Universe. In this work the English critic abjures post-modern architecture, which he had helped launch, in favor of a new architecture in which, thanks to the progress of information technology, science and nature can work together to overcome the rigid and cold mechanism on which the International Style was based.
What were the foundations for this ecological-cybernetic approach? Jencks finds them in Ilya Prigogine’s philosophy of nature and the Santa Fe school, but also in Thom’s catastrophe theory. According to these models, the universe is a complex system that evolves in jumps (hence the book’s title: The Architecture of the Jumping Universe), the last of which has led to the present situation, characterized by overwhelming danger – for example, the imminent ecological and demographic catastrophe – but also enormous opportunities. Thanks to electronics, the objects of our age have been humanized and, at the same time, men have been transformed into objects, in a process that is certainly positive. The intelligence of a computer that can beat Kasparov at chess does not detract from, but rather enhances the latter’s skills, in the same way that a false electronic eye does not turn the wearer into an alien.
The sophistication of these machines, in which technology and nature are blended, is still countered, in the English critic’s opinion, by the coarseness of an architecture based on formative concepts of a pseudorationalist age, that refuses to take into account the fact that the new technology has developed because, having reached a post-modernist stage, science has overcome the four myths of determinism, mechanicism reductionism and materialism; namely, it has started to see the world as a system in possession of life and a self-regulating capacity, like an organism that improves its equilibrium by continuous jumps in status.
This explains the image of the butterfly, opposed to that of the trap. The trap, which symbolizes the mechanical conception of the universe, Existenzminimum architecture, the machine for living, is only set off when, provoked by a cause, it swallows its prey and returns less than existed prior to being set off. The butterfly, which represents the universe in its organic movement, is the product of a series of creative outbursts: an organism that develops from a caterpillar to a chrysalis to a flying insect.
How can architecture make this process visible? By acquiring a spiritual dimension and borrowing the forms of its development process from nature. This explains Jencks’ interest in organic forms, fractals, curving structures that move like the waves of an atom, and in everything that represents man’s spiritual movement. But above all, his interest in the computer, which makes it possible for man to play an active role in this process of continuous transformation, guiding and directing it.
For Jencks, Eisenman’s latest architectural works are the perfect reflection of this cosmogenic ideal of a highly technologicized nature, always on the boundary between natural and artificial. In short, the second Eisenman deserves greater attention than the first Eisenman, with his cardboard houses.
This attention was returned by Eisenman himself who, on the back cover of The Architecture of the Jumping Universe, writes: “Charles Jencks has the uncanny capacity to announce a new movement in architecture before it has begun. With Post-Modernism, he was looking to the past. Now, for the first time, with his new book on morphogenesis he is taking a look at the future.”
3.5 Architecture in the age of ecology
Jenck’s theses raise uncertainties, above all owing to the conviction with which the critic links ecology and cybernetics.
In the same way, Eisenman’s experiments are partial and certainly do not exhaust the complexity of the problem of architectural writing in the computer age.
However, both Jencks and Eisenman appear to grasp three key aspects that elude Frampton.
First: in the same way that we have seen the birth of a civilization based on information technology, utterly different to the previous mechanical civilisation, a new architecture has also evolved that is profoundly influenced by electronic writing, an architecture with more nerves than body, to use McLuhan’s imagery. Second: the new architecture has established relations with nature that are no longer characterized by diversity, but integration. This can be seen in the work of Toyo Ito: if the new Tarzan works in the media forest, there is no more antagonism or confrontation or mimesis between a static reality (architecture) and a dynamic one (nature), but both live in the general process of mutations triggered by the new computer society. Third: some protagonists have already captured the spirit of the time and are producing a new season of masterpieces. The architecture of our contemporary age has already started and we have not yet realized it.
James Wines, the brain of SITE Environmental Design, has been working for years on a book now being published on the relations between architecture-ecology and computer technology. Inevitably, he is compared with Jencks. In an interview, Wines affirms: “We could agree on the presuppositions” put forward by Jencks, namely, that we live in an universe where nature and technology interact, but new ideas “are always interpreted [by Jencks] according to the precepts of traditional architecture.”
Hence the danger of lapsing into a superficial ecologism, namely consisting of substantially traditional architecture covered with organic forms or ecological materials.
On the contrary, the new electronic age compels us to stop thinking of construction as an abstract art and, in particular, of walls as part of a formal composition based on geometric rules. The wall must become “a filter that receives and transmits a wealth of information […] just like a television” and space must become a medium which you pass through picking up the information with which it is organized.
Wines concludes: “Architecture merely becomes a condition: everything disappears, everything passes through and you are not involved by the form so much as by the idea.” The phrase is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s observation regarding his sister’s house, but whereas for the Austrian philosopher transparency was the condition through which you could glimpse the logical structure of the world, for Wines the transparency of matter enables us to grasp the link between nature and architecture: information.
The discovery of this linking factor enables us to reinterpret construction and landscape together; interior and exterior become the same thing because both form part of a single information structure: for the next century our interlocutor will be “the earth, the terrestrial globe, the most modern machine.”
Wines’ comments are enlightening. But probably difficult to put into practice. They call for an approach to architectonic design that is oriented towards the formalization and management of information, different from that taught in schools of architecture which tend to focus on composition and the organization of volumes according to formal, geometric, rhythmic, proportional or even discordant principles.
3.6 A new architecture
To a certain extent, however, things themselves help us to change our attitude to architecture. It is building that is becoming more computerized, prompted once again by the overpowering force of the engineers.
Let us go back to Frampton’s findings: installations now account for over a third of the cost of the entire building. In the future, this figure will change, rising even higher. This can be explained by two factors: the development of the so-called intelligent systems and the introduction of new sustainable technologies which will gradually integrate or replace those used now, which will be proved inadequate in ecological terms.
There is an enormous difference between these systems and traditional methods. Just think, for example, of the massive nineteenth-century walls and a technologically innovative wall.
By its inertia, the masonry mass must submit to changes in the external environmental situation. It is characterised by heaviness, opacity, permanence. In contrast, an innovative wall can activate sensors and thereby react to changes in the external situation by producing mutations. It is light, flexible and fragile.
The masonry mass acts like a barrier to information: it blocks out everything that tries to pass through it. On the other hand, the sensitive wall resembles a transmitter: it communicates in order to activate appropriate strategies.
Let’s now consider a traditional building and a technologically advanced one. The equilibrium of the first consists in interacting as little as possible with the environment. The second – to return to McLuhan’s image used by Toyo Ito – lives through contact with the outside, it acts like skin, like a nervous system. Like a membrane, if we do not want to push the parallel with human physiology too far.
Let us try to draw a historical parallel. In the late nineteenth century, engineers introduced reinforced concrete into construction, compelling the reluctant architects to change their formal vocabulary, making them realize that we live in an industrial society that could be clearly recognized in the thin skeletal frame of the pilotis.
At the start of the new millennium, it will again probably be the engineers who will introduce change and information through the intelligent and ecological building, obliging architects to give them form. At the moment, there may be no more Wrights, Mies or Le Corbusiers, but the Perrets, Eiffels and Behrens of the new age certainly exist already.
We cite only a possible parallel (maybe enlightening, or maybe misleading) between Perret’s work in Rue Franklin and Nouvel’s designs for the Arab World Institute.
A wall, fully sensitive to the light but overburdened by formal references already over-used by the Arab culture, recalls the concrete walls of Rue Franklin, not completely freed from the network of nineteenth-century classicism.
3.7 A new language
A new way of expressing language is being born, independent of any explicit conceptual, formal or technical reflection on electronics. Primarily because the introduction of computers and drawing programmes probably represents the most outstandingly innovative element in the organization and structure of architectural studies. And every new technology, even if used in the most traditional and least uncertain way, leads to the discovery of new features.
In order to understand which, it may be interesting to examine an essay by Sergio Lepri on word processing. According to Lepri, three innovations are introduced by this technique:
– oral elements are introduced into the drafting of the text: you think as you write using the computer; the text can be corrected as many times as you want, without having to worry about making mistakes, changing idea, carelessness;
– the language is more alive, more simple, less difficult, parataxis predominates over hypotaxis, i.e., there are more coordinated propositions than subordinate ones; the sentence is broken up and becomes shorter;
– there are more rhetorical figures of the metaphor-simile-oxymoron type, and therefore a greater level of creativeness and semantic variety.
Lepri concludes: using word-processing we have “rejected sophisticated and learned forms of speech in favour of simpler language which is easier to understand, closer to people; in many cases, however, especially where the composition is performed in haste, stereotypes and idioms are used which, although reducing the quality of the text, do not detract from its intelligibility.” The new aspects introduced by word-processing can also be found in CAD drawings:
– simplification of the language and inclusion of oral elements: this is made possible by verifying functional standards using simple applicative routines; the machine is set up for basic, simple, effective, precise writing, far removed from the incredible delicacy of traditional drawing; the greater possibility of control and multimedia reproduction of the surrounding reality, in particular, the urban landscape, even when degraded and peripheral;
– prevalence of parataxis over hypotaxis: this derives from the greater simplicity of working by matching and the possibility of clarifying and bringing out hierarchies that would otherwise be obscure and complex; the preparation of ready-made libraries of objects; the additive logic of formal and functional layers;
– the predilection for rhetorical figures: this is stimulated by the simplicity of organizing metaphors and anamorphoses, above all of an organic nature, using simple transformation commands; the possibility of introducing external sounds, images and colours and working on them; the possibility of realising complex 3D forms that are difficult to control using traditional drawing instruments.
The parallels with word-processing also include the limitations: the indiscriminate use of libraries and ready-made elements coupled with the ease of making duplications makes many CAD drawings anonymous, flat and repetitive.
4.1 The art of memory
To recapitulate: the instrument used by computers is projection, its purpose is mutation. But its product is simulation. This is the last word in the triad to be examined.
But first we must go back in time. Simulation did not originate with computer science. In the book The Art of Memory, Frances A. Yates tells us that a very effective way of remembering complex events was used in ancient times: the trick was to imagine a house with many rooms and to locate a key phrase in each room. By mentally passing through every room (one phrase was in the hall, another in the living room, another in the dining room), the entire event, which might otherwise have been forgotten, could be easily reconstructed.
They also used another expedient: in order to remember each phrase precisely, they turned it into a person whose image represented the phrase. For example, according to Cicero, the image of an old man lying on a bed in a room, with a cup of poison beside him, a writing-tablet on the left and holding a goat’s testicles in his hand represented a man killed by poison, with the hope of an inheritance in a crime with several witnesses and accomplices. Seneca the Elder, a master of rhetoric, could repeat two thousand names in the same order that they had been spoken by assigning each to a room.
By giving the event physical status, the Romans could relive their memories in every form: even backwards. Instead of going from the dining room to the bedrooms, all they had to do was invert the order. Moreover, just like a chest of drawers, they could open a drawer (namely a room) with their imagination and see the contents. The practical results of the method were prodigious and they acquired added importance because of the rarity of using written forms of memorization owing to the high cost of parchment. In a class of over two hundred students, each of whom recited a verse, Seneca could repeat them all in reverse order, starting with the last and working backwards right to the beginning.
From time immemorial there has been a close relationship between the virtuality of the mind and the reality of facts, between the way in which we organize thought and architectonic forms. And vice versa. As was seen earlier, Wittgenstein tried to translate his own philosophy into buildings. Expressions like “focus one’s thoughts,” “reflect,” “give structure to one’s thoughts,” all refer to space and construction.
Gaston Bachelard, a critic and epistemologist, has written numerous works on space as a mental structure. The psychoanalyst Jung also attempted to petrify his own unconscious mind as a form of construction.
4.2 Jung’s interior telescope
The history of this building is told in the book by C.G. Jung, entitled Memories, Dreams, Reflections. In 1922 Jung bought a plot of land in Bollingen, near Zürich, on which to build a house overlooking the lake. He first intended to construct a circular hut, almost like a primitive dwelling with a hearth in the center and bunks round the walls. Then, he decided to build a two-story circular house, a tower. “To me it represented the maternal hearth. But I soon realized that I had not fully expressed everything I wanted to say.” After four years, he added on an extension. Four years later, still unsatisfied, he transformed the extension into another tower with a room in which he could live alone. He decorated it with paintings to illustrate his wanderings “from the world to solitude, from the present to eternity.”
In 1935, he added a courtyard with a loggia thereby satisfying his desire for a small enclosed area: “I needed a wider space, open to the sky and to nature.” The addition of this last part created a set of four: a symbolic element that represented the perfection of three (trinity) at the moment of its humanization (four). Of the four elements, the part that represented his ego was the central building squeezed between the two towers, symbolizing the tension of opposing forces. In 1955, he added another floor to the architectural counterpart of his ego. “I could not have done so earlier; I would have regarded it as a presumptuous and emphatic affirmation of myself; instead, now it represents the superiority of conscience attained in old age.”
This external symbolism corresponds to a more profound level. The building was first started in 1923, the year his mother died, and completed in 1955, a year before his wife’s death. “These two dates,” states Jung, “convey a meaning, because the Tower is linked to the dead.” While excavating, they found the corpse of a drowned French soldier and this convinces Jung even more that his theory is correct. Like the huts used by many primitive people, the tower is positioned in relation to the earth through the body of a dead man: the construction therefore symbolically links the underworld to the heavens. The tower therefore not only becomes a space in which Jung can be alone with himself, it represents the concrete expression of the unconscious, conceived, precisely like the building he has erected, as a bridge linking man, through archetypes and myths, with death and the eternal world of the past. I am, he adds, “the age-old son of the mother”: of the mother, the earth, who is the unconscious.
Jung’s approach is reflected in the work of many earlier and contemporary philosophers. Among his precursors is Goethe, who retraces the ritual foundations of the home in the intense episode of Elective Affinities. Among his contemporaries is Heidegger, whose conception of the home is highly symbolic. Jung designed a machine against time to counter the process of becoming. Using the words of Horace, he later described the tower as aere perennis, lasting longer than bronze. Not only because it was built in solid stone, but because the three spatial dimensions annul the past and future, turning them into a sort of eternal present.
4.3 A city where no one dies
Let us come back to 1997. There is an exhibition of Arakawa at the Guggenheim Museum in Soho.
Arakawa is a Japanese artist who moved to New York in 1961. With a conceptual formation, like Kosuth, Atkinson, Baldwin, he is interested in the relations between language and the tangible world. For Arakawa, language is the space of representation and is therefore structured like architecture. And vice versa: architecture expresses the structure of our language. There is a close formal analogy between the way in which the scientific conceptions of the Western world are organized and the structure of our cities: classification, distinction, order, hierarchy. This gives rise to a hypothesis: if architectural forms change, our brains will be prompted to think differently, to be structured using more flexible, less oppressive forms, to explore new dimensions of thought. Culminating in an ability to overturn our destinies, seeing life not as a temporal linear sequence with a beginning and an end, as suggested by the linear and homogeneous space-time of our constructed environment.
Our aim, Arakawa suggests, is to “to learn how not to die,” and the only way of achieving this is to overcome our mental structure, which now projects us towards the idea of finitude.
Arakawa, in collaboration with Gins, then dedicated himself to architectonic design, with the aid of computers. He produces projects in which our conception of space is radically overturned: labyrinths in which we are lost, anamorphic structures that deform the Euclidean space to which we are accustomed, spaces in which to dissolve the corporal dimension, curved surfaces that deny our spatial categories based on opposites like inside-outside, above-below, right-left.
Breaking down meaning, creating new chains of events, neutralizing subjectivity: these are just some of the aims of these new projects, a few of which are realized in Japan: Ubiquitous Site *Nagi’s Ryoanji* Architectural Body at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Nagi and Site of Reversible Destiny at Yoro. The exhibition of Arakawa’s works attracts a reasonable number of visitors, like his architectural projects in Japan which are visited by followers and those who are curious to find out more. The public are attracted not so much by the Nietzschean perspective of overcoming death, through the introduction and elaboration of a new concept of time and space (there are numerous affinities between Arakawa’s reversible destiny and Nietzsche’s eternal return), but by the curiosity of trying out these architectural forms, which differ so radically from those to which we are accustomed.
But also by the surprise of seeing spaces and cities created using the computer that, behind their apparent extraneousness, point to new directions for research.
4.4 The labyrinth
For the moment let us leave Arakawa, whose goals certainly seem utopian to us Europeans, materialists and without hope. And let us come back to a semiologist who undoubtedly forms part of our scientific culture: Umberto Eco.
In an recent meeting on the subject of the third millennium, Umberto Eco reiterated his idea of history: less Eurocentric, more open to the understanding of non-Western civilisations. In addition, he proposed setting up a museum in the form of a labyrinth, consisting of paths, each of which is dedicated to a special story. For example, in this museum, the history of Europe would run parallel to the history of America until 1492, when the two paths lead into a single room, from which point they move forward together. The user can chose his or her own path. With the possibility (ensured perhaps by the see-through walls) of watching parallel historical paths.
Umberto Eco has always been attentive to architecture: his early essays (The Open Work and La struttura assente) are important for the construction of a modern interpretation of architectonic language. His novels always include an accurate description of buildings and spaces, even verging on pedantry. One need only think of the abbey described in The Name of the Rose and the library it contained.
Eco’s ability to make conceptual structures real in architectural terms reminds us of Cicero and the art of memory: each event corresponds to a space and the events are linked together by paths. With the sole and by no means secondary difference that while Cicero’s conceptual structure refers to a traditional house made up of rooms connected by a corridor, Umberto Eco’s museum resembles a labyrinth or perhaps a hypertext, namely an electronic book in which the linear structure of the printed page has been totally overturned. As George P. Landow suggests, “the reader can choose from a number of different itineraries to follow, think or read in a non-sequential manner”.
Wittgenstein, Eco, Arakawa, Cicero and Jung all show that the mind uses spatial metaphors to visualize its own conceptual structures. And that the virtual space of the mind is enriched by continuous comparison with the real architectural use of space.
Let us go back to computer technology.
William J. Mitchell notes: electronic spaces apparently deny any form of geometry. They are logical, mental spaces. Take the Internet, for example: “The Net is fundamentally and profoundly antispatial. It has nothing to do with Piazza Navona or Copley Square. You never know where it is and you cannot describe its forms or proportions, or tell a tourist how to get there. The Net is an environment – located nowhere in particular, but at the same time everywhere. You do not go there, but you can gain access using a command (log in) from wherever you are. By doing so, you do not visit it in the traditional sense; you are only uttering a word which will guarantee your entry, in the same way that you might say: Open sesame.” Yet the net uses spatial metaphors: you have an address, you search for a site, you navigate in cyberspace.
Without using these metaphors you would get lost: the overwhelming success of Macintosh – which forced IBM to abandon the more abstract Dos for the more spatial Windows – can be summed up as the user-friendly use of an interface which is the perfect metaphor of a desk.
There are a surprising number of affinities between this electronic desk and the strategies adopted by Cicero and Seneca. It is made up of folders, each of which contains other folders, in precisely the same way as the rooms of memory contrived by our ancestors to organise their own memories.
Seen from this point of view, the term virtual is none other than the formalization of thought, the transformation of thought into architectonic space. Spatialization can be very simple. The folders used by Macintosh are particularly simple and are therefore immediately perceptible by all since they use systems of spatial formalization that have been consolidated for thousands of years. Arakawa’s formalizations, on the other hand, follow new forms of thought and therefore generate consternation and discomfiture.
4.6 Where we are going
Let us go back to our initial definition.
The dictionary gives the following definition for the term project: “1. Jut out or protrude, cast; 2. Cause to fall on a screen.” Projection implies a throwing forward, projecting in order to place the concept outside ourselves where it can be elaborated.
Because of our idealist mentality, we tend to underestimate this process and focus all our attention on the end result: the fully formed thought. We are often led to consider the means on which we have projected thought as being irrelevant: if we have written it on a sheet of paper, if we have input it using a keyboard, if we have created it using a 3D model or mathematical formula.
The means, as linguistic experts never tire of repeating, are a key aspect. Not only because without them we could not perform complex logical operations. For example, try solving the multiplication 3,489,765 x 3465 without using a piece of paper. Or formulating a very long argument without fixing the points somehow or somewhere (this explains why, without being able to use paper, Cicero and Seneca used the metaphor of the house, namely another medium, that of spatialization).
But above all, because every medium – paper, drawings, computers – imposes its own laws in the long run. By using one instrument instead of another, thought sounds out its own possibilities, but is always guided in one direction, along the itineraries used by that particular medium. What are the paths used by the computer? We will only know when we have tried them out. However, we can already formulate a hypothesis: research imposed on architecture by electronic language concerns mutation; we have seen this through the very different works of Koolhaas, Ito, Eisenman, Libeskind, Hadid and Arakawa.
In the future, the computer will allow and guarantee new experiences in the field of virtualization, which – as we have seen – is the destiny of mutation. If architecture wishes to play an important role in this process, as it is trying to do, it may become the spatialization and concretization for the development of thought. This will open up new horizons for language.
And it does not matter if much of the old architectural language which we have grown accustomed to disappears or alters its meaning to the point that it seems remote. After all, the linguist John Austin is right when he asserts that words alone do not mean anything. It is the contents, the life and the thought they convey that are meaningful.