Traditional and Digital Sceneries in the Architectural Research
I will immediately start by telling you what my thesis is. To the questions virtual or real? spirit or body? I would like to answer: enough of choices like: either…or, give me both of them, please. I will confess to you that during this period I am tired, fed up and maybe desperate, of the opposition, which is made by many authors, some very intelligent, between virtual and real as if there were a real distinction between these two worlds. The main intention of my intervention is to show you, that continuing to follow this false problem has as consequence that we are forgetting to look at the reality of every day where virtual and real coexist in new forms, unexpected, unusual and in particularly interesting ways. Let’s start from the first observation, which is of personal-philosophical nature. I have been formed in the adoration of a book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions of Thomas Kuhn, who sustained that in the history of the thought, the intellectual revolutions have always been driven by a change of conceptual paradigms. Never by simple empirical observations. The great scientific discoveries, according to Kuhn, in fact, always impose a kind of intellectual re-foundation. The theses of Kuhn have been very successful and not only to an inexperienced reader as me. The idea that we are thinking by paradigms can be found in nearly all the epistemologies of the sixties and the seventies. Even philosophers who have largely criticized Kuhn as Popper, the first Feyerabend, Lakatos have in fact approved this vision of the paradigm, of the ‘knight’s move’ as Sklovskij would have said.
In brief and even if repeated: the thought operates with a jump, with a revolution, in a kind of Platonism, in accordance with which the senses are only seeing what the brain wants to see. With consequent devaluation of the role of the tools, of the techniques, of the concrete ways to see the reality.
Recently I have read two books that have impressed me and are making me change my opinion. One has made me become very angry, however on this point it was convincing: it was a text of Holton, a philosopher of the science. The other is of an author that I love also because he writes magnificently, Freeman Dyson. Both sustained that one of the motives that pushes of more the revolutions of the thought in this period, are not so much the paradigmatic changes, as the different techniques that are used in the concrete experimentation of the events. And that behind the methodological Platonism of Kuhn is hidden: the giving too much importance to the brain and too little to the concrete reality of the prostheses of the brain, namely the techniques and the machines, some times very complex, through which the scientists read the reality.
This is the first observation, which I, a little further, will try to clarify. The second is a reflection that I am doing since a long time, remembering the magistery of a spiritual teacher of mine who is Giulio Carlo Argan (spiritual teacher because I read, with avarice, his books since I were at the high school and later, when I attended Architecture, I often went to the Faculty of Humanities to listen to his lectures). Argan, if you do remember, talking about the perspective, and I mention the perspective because, according to me, we are living in a period of technological revolution and of a way of seeing things that has a lot to do with the perspective revolution, Argan said, “through the perspective the man perceives so as his mind conceives”; and he showed two lines of research, which he called of the empirical space and of the theoretical space. Simplifying: in the fifteenth century, on the one hand, there are authors that use the perspective from an intellectual point of view, I’m thinking about Paolo Uccello, about Piero della Francesca, on the other there are authors that use the perspective from an empirical point of view, like Lippi.
Well, I believe that today, privileging the virtual too much, we are looking at it with the eyes of Paolo Uccello or of Piero della Francesca, namely, with the eyes of a theorization too abstract even if fascinating, forgetting that the perspective has given us, at the same time, characters of the calibre of Leonardo, of Michelangelo, who looked, instead, with more intelligence and concreteness at the empirical space, the existential space and they looked at it within a way of seeing, within a paradigm that was exactly the geometric projective one, formulated by Brunelleschi.
Let’s now try to substitute the term empirical space with the term real space and the term theoretical space with that of virtual space. Doing so, I believe that you are realizing that I am returning to my first observation: the virtual is nothing else than a system to which we should not contrast, but integrate the reality, exactly as Leonardo and Michelangelo did.
Let’s see how. But let’s first see some other more contemporary examples.
Gordon Matta Clark, in his work, confuses artfully theorical space and empirical space. In Conical Intersect or in his house cut in half, which is the empirical space? Which is the theoretical space? If we are inside a room, we cannot know what is happening outside. We are only able to imagine it. Generally, when we are in any environment, we have a perception of the space that depends on our senses. Yet, at the same time, we succeed to imagine even what is not seen, we are able to think that behind a wall something is happening, we are able, in other words, to run a space through with the eye of the mind. I don’t know if you have read the beautiful book of Georges Perec Life: A User’s Manual in which is described the life inside a block, and the contemporaneous stories of the different families, as if it was seen by an eye that looks through the walls. It is an experience that you may have tried at your home… if you have thought that over you lives a family that in this moment perhaps is quarrelling or that, downstairs, there is a little boy who is playing. With the eye of the mind you are able to run through your building and, somehow, imagine it, exactly as Perec does in his splendid book. And so, maybe, you became aware that the empirical space is always a limitation, in opposition or, better, in counterpoint to the ideal space that you grab with the brain, with the imagination. Digging some holes in the wall, Gordon Matta Clark succeeds in working on the ambiguity of the two types of space, he succeeds, namely, to show what normally is not seen.
Arakawa, another artist, Japanese, works on similar problems. He makes the spaces that we are accustomed with unusual, he creates estrangement operations, so as to cause a collapse of what we normally consider two coincident elements, but in reality separate, if not opposite: theoretical vision and empirical vision. I will try to explain what I mean with another example: when you walk, what are you doing? You activate your normal perception of the reality, an empirical perception, that is, the information arrives to you through the senses. When you drive a car, what happens? There is a car window, a windscreen, and some commands. What are you using: a theoretical perception or an empirical perception of the space? I would say, a bit empirical because you are looking at the reality through your senses and a bit theoretical because the speedometers, the measurement tools of the speed, give you some information that are useful to you, even precious, to make you be able to do your task. Now, go into the cockpit of an airplane. The windows become smaller and smaller and, the quantity of equipments that give you theoretical information on the flight increases exceedingly. Are you in a theoretical space or in an empirical space? Suppose now that there are no good conditions of visibility. What do you use to land, your perception of the empirical space or the tools that allow you to control the theorical space? Surely these last. So, in this case the theoretical information on the space became predominant in comparison to your empirical observations. It is as if you are inside a video game. Let’s resume: there are two different eyes, an empirical ego and a theoretical ego and normally the representation call them both into play, but in different manners, depending on the circumstances.
Let’s schematize, there is the eye that looks, there is an object that is looked at and there is a picture on which its image is projected. Notice that this scheme is the traditional scheme of the perspective of Dürer. Who knows how many times you have seen it, at one side is the painter, at another the model and at the other the picture. How many persons are there? How many eyes are looking at this picture? Maybe you are tempted to say one, the one of the painter who is looking at the model. I say, instead, that there are two eyes: from one side there is your eye that looks with the eye of the painter, and from the other there is one eye of yours that is placed outside and that looks at all the scene; a splitting of your sight takes place in the moment you are looking at this perspective. Are you convinced that there are two eyes that look now? Yes or no? I hope yes.
Let’s go ahead, and consider a work of art realized by Duchamp, but revealed to the public only in 1969, after the death of the author, when it was installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: in a bare room there is an old wooden door with two peepholes through which you can see what is behind the door, consisting in a nude female form, which lies supine on a bed of twigs with an illuminated gas lamp in one hand. Étant donnés, this is the name of the work, has many meanings. Maybe one of these is, that it represents the three-dimensional realization of the four-dimensional project, as the Large Glass of the beginning of the twentieth century was, but, in this occasion, we want to observe it only from the point of view of the sight, as a tool that focus a particular technique of the vision. And then, let’s see how the scheme works: at one side is the observer who looks, at another a picture, at the other a model. Now, notice how this scheme corresponds exactly to the one of Dürer, but with a difference that consists in the fact that the observer, who first was out of the picture, now has to enter inside the work. In other words we have some kind of confusion, of ambiguity between reality and virtuality. Étant donnés is, I believe, one of the first examples, which shows us clearly how the way of conceiving the vision of the things is changing, and how it has progressively become complicated, bringing to a series of interesting consequences.
Let’s observe another thing: if instead of making this vision simple, as the perspective vision was, we put a camcorder in the middle of the scene, it will end up that I do not look anymore at the reality with the empirical eye, but I look at it through the mechanical eye of the camcorder. We pass, namely, from a traditional scheme of perspective type, which is that of the picture, to a way of seeing the reality which is typical of our days: we do not look at the reality directly anymore, but through the tools, through the machines, through means extraneous to us in the sense that they are other things in comparison to our body. Now, the question that I am asking myself is: in the face of this change, does our experience of the reality remain the same or does it change? And if it changes, how does it change?
What happens when we look at the reality through another eye? Let’s leave aside the fact that when I look at the reality through another eye, and it is the case of the television, there is a whole zone that escapes to my control and that it is possible to manipulate and let’s take for granted that the manipulation simply happens in positive. For example, that the report is objective for medical motivations and not manipulated for political motivations. It is the case of when we look at a CAT (Computerized Axial Tomography). The human body, in this case, is seen with your eye or with the eye of the machine? Good question…. yet, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that 90 percent of the experiences of contact with the reality is today of this kind. Mediate, abstract. In short, to use the expression of Argan: theoretical.
Let’s make another reasoning; what happens in the moment that, instead of addressing the television camera toward other objects, I put it in a way that it looks at me? The experiment has been theorized by Paul Virilio who classified it with a particular name, stereophony of the reality and who synthesized it with a quite strong image: imagine to be the pilots of an airplane, – he said, – and that you are looking at the images of your airplane filmed by a television camera placed on the ground, if the airplane falls you will find yourselves observing your own death on the screen. With this image Virilio tries to show how an eye change, a different dislocation of the eye, from natural to mechanical, produce a change of the concept of the reality, not in the sense that it changes the reality, but that it is perceived, it is lived in a different manner. Two American architects, Diller and Scofidio, are working with a lot of intelligence in the ambit of the new media: they have organized a premises in New York, to tell the truth very fashionable, in which you are, at the same time, observers and observed, in which the game of the sights multiplies nearly endlessly, and the real space and the ideal space mingles.
I would like to conclude analyzing what happens when the television cameras are manifold. Even in this case we will resort to an example surely well known: the auto competitions. When you watch a competition at the autodrome you are standing in one place and from that place you see, every now and then, the cars speeding by. How boring! What has the television done to make the event a little more exciting? It has put television cameras along the whole race circuit, giving life to a removal operation of the sight, so that, in the same moment, we are able to see the competition from eight, ten points of view. Furthermore it has put a television camera in the helmet of the pilot, in a way that we can watch the competition with the eyes of the pilot. Finally, a television camera might frame a plan in which, in real-time, the positions of the pilots are marked, giving us a synoptic vision. Let’s now examine the two characteristics of such a kind of representation: one, it happens through a displaced eye, which is predominantly a theoretical eye; two, it rejoins many points of view. At this point I’ll ask a question: a space of this kind, is it still a perspective space or does it correspond to another visual formality? The answer is not simple. I believe that this kind of vision is typical to the cubistic vision. Obviously my affirmation is to be taken with cum grano salis. Also because the cubists made their experiments in the beginning of the twentieth century, when all the present-day technologies were not even conceivable. But, as it is known, sometimes the artists have some flash of genius or some prefigurations or at least so we want to believe.
It is easy to agree that the experience of being contemporaneously in one place and in many places is typical of our contemporaneity. And it is not a transient condition, episodic or distorted, as conservative and reactionary persons would like to make us believe, but a condition that I believe has become definitive and it seems to me serious that, being architects, we have not yet started to work on it. On the other hand the experiments made by avant-garde artists or architects on the theme of the de-location, don’t do anything else than accentuate very much the importance of a new condition. But, I repeat, I would like that it emerges from my speech, that it is a question of ways to live and to perceive the reality that we commonly use in the experience of every day.
By now it seems to me, that two typical formalities of the vision are led into crisis, namely, the vision from the fixed point of view and the vision from the mobile point of view. Which is the formality of the fixed point of view? If you are inside the Pantheon, which is it the point of observation that you prefer? It is the central position. The classical work almost always has a privileged point of view, through which it is perceived. Which is the formality of the mobile point of view? I remember that, when I studied, they have repeated a thousand times to us, explaining us the Bauhaus, that this kind of architecture, in comparison to the others, to be perceived in its articulated geometry requires the movement of the observer who, going around the building, finally succeeds in representing it. The kind of present-day vision, the one in which, instead, we live, is a vision that wants, not the movement, but the co-presence. I spoke before about the space of the cubists, but I could also talk about the artistic experiments of the sixties and onwards; I think, for example about the One and Three Chairs of Kosuth, where the same object was showed in its reality, in photograph and through a definition in the dictionary.
There is finally the problematic of the interaction at a distance. The interaction can take place both in one sense, intervening within the object, and in the other, intervening toward the subject. The interaction changes the ontological statute of the objects. I will try to explain it better: which was it, before, the difference that existed between animate and inanimate? The animate, when I apply an action to it, it tends to react: if I kick a dog, if the dog is big it bites me, if it is small it runs away, namely, it put itself, with me, in a relationship of some kind. The inanimate object, instead, does not have a reaction. If I try to punch a wall, the wall doesn’t cry, it doesn’t yelp, no mourns, it answers with its deafness. Today, it is not so anymore. It is under the eyes of everybody that the objects start to become animate, they are able to give a feedback, to give answers. Consequence: even a geography of the behaviours starts to change, a way to relate in comparison to the things. Have you visited the latest Biennale where there was the table that “approaches” to you in accordance with its degree of attraction to the persons? It was a beautiful leg-pull of an artist, who had put in a room a table that moved itself and had written, that the table approached to the persons with whom it felt a certain feeling. But all the persons set themselves, in comparison to the table, a little like as you set yourself when there is a little dog or a child, namely, you hope to gain their attention; in our case they hoped that the table would draw near. The experiment served to show in which way our way to put ourselves in comparison with the objects changes, in the moment that these are able to interact with us. There are experiments made by other artists in which they try an interaction at a distance. For example, in one room there is a canary and in another room there is a plant, the two objects are tied together through sensors. When the canary sings in the room then a series of messages that goes to the plant are filtrated, the plant receives them as stimulations and it answers in a certain way activating a distance interaction between plant and canary. The experiment could seem very complicated and bizarre. But, to look closer, it leads into crisis one of the main points of our culture, which is the thinking of the interaction as only among near objects and among rational subjects. Think about the possible consequences of an approach of that kind. And about how reasoning of this kind, in the hands of a good architect, can produce results able to change the way of seeing and of conceiving the space.