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Architecture

Anything long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. (话说天下大势,分久必合,合久必分钟).

Romance of the Three KingdomsLuo Guanzhong

Hakuin – Enso (circle)

Architecture’s dream is to create a unity of place through the division of space. This is not only an area that we enter into with our bodies; it also is a subjective state that we enter into through our senses. The entry into this state can be defined physically – by an enclosure, a quality of surface, a sculptural form, or a relationship between interior and exterior; it can also be entered through a perceptual shift – a change in acoustics, the sensation of colour, a feeling of immersion, or an awareness of gravity. Unity occurs when there is no separation between self and surroundings; it is a place that can be experienced alone, but is best enjoyed with friends.

I. Perspective

As an undergraduate, I always looked forward to Dalibor Vesely‘s weekly lectures on Phenomenology, which took me years to understand. Essentially, it is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. Technology and science create a divide between humanity and an increasingly distant natural world; in “Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation“, Dalibor claims that fragmentation is the defining characteristic of our times, and describes how the development of linear perspective in Renaissance Italy changed our relationship with the environment from being one of symbiotic unity to become one of objectivity and separation.

Now that a proliferation of media, cameras, images, and computer-based geometric worlds have industrialized the first-person perspective, he suggests that architecture has a major role to play in healing this disconnect. Through architecture, we can connect with the world immediately around us by transforming the abstract notion of space into the site-specific archetype of a place.

II. Collective

“I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Walt Whitman suggests a complex the idea of the self – as a being who is both individual and group. However, the creative expression of the collective self is dangerous when it challenges the politics of control. After all, Freedom, not Unity, is the core value of the United States of America. The country values the idea of the individualistic self above the idea of the collective, and it is the conflict between these ideologies that stirs global uprisings from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park.

The turn of the 21st century has many parallels with the beginnings of the 20th: technological progress and political turbulence have greatly altered how we view the world. We are now witnessing the precarious condition of the world’s mechanisms  – the nation-state, the global economy, the family, our education, the natural environment, and our future. While it is tempting to retreat into the dream-state of escapism, architecture must contribute to the reality of the world outside. By allocating public space and safe zones of protest through installations within the fabric of the city, architecture can unite rather than divide.

III. Synthesizer
Kurt Schwitters – Merzbau

Dalibor interpreted Cubism and montage as attempts to express the chaos of their times by combining multiple fragments through collage composition. When we asked him how many separate elements the ideal montage had, he answered, “… each should be made of two and a half parts – two that you can see, and the other half inside your mind“.  If we can combine the sculptural, social, and subjective states of Architecture, it would augment our waking life with a zone of suspended disbelief – a place to unify the world around us.

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Atomic Bomb Test - Bikini Atoll 1946. The small black figures just outside the cloud are decommissioned World War II Battleships from the US Navy.

Albert Einstein arrived in America on October 17 1933, an exile from the Nazi regime that had just risen to power. The scientist was 54 years old and spent a lot of his time at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton becoming a public figure, investigating subatomic physics, and opposing the military aspects of the nuclear age he helped to create.

His work provided a catalyst for the transmutation of matter into energy – a new form of power that had as much social and cultural impact as the development of steam engines and electricity had during the 19th century. The originality of his thinking stems from his focus on the relative over the absolute, on the infinite over the particular, and on the power of the imagination over the physical. His very human approach to science made him profoundly disturbed with the development of atomic weapons, and the negative side of technology. Images of early nuclear tests in the Bikini Atoll during the 1940s evoke the two-faced nature of energy: like the Hindu god Shiva, their ability to create is inseparable from their ability to destroy.

In 1757, Edmund Burke published his Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, in which he names awe-inspiring works of nature as vessels for the sublime: “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, what is any sort terrible… is a source of the sublime.” Kant develops this idea further, situating the sublime in one’s response to the object, rather than in the object itself. This instinctive terror of Nature’s power is in turn crystallized in one’s realization of the individual’s own power. For Kant, the question of human agency comes to the fore, though it is still secondary to the grandeur of the natural.

Large Hadron Collider. A section of one of the magnetic sections in the 17-mile acceleration route.

A century after Einstein’s  E = mc² , the theory of mass-energy equivalence, developments in atomic physics have been realized most dramatically in the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. The most commonly cited photograph of the LHC is not from the reaction chamber itself (which is dark, monochrome, and inert), but rather a view looking down one of the magnetic particle detector sections. This perspective offers a better impression of the machinery needed to accelerate particles close to the speed of light. The dramatic shift in scale between the 17-mile long acceleration chamber and the subatomic particles creates a “technological sublime”, where an experiment at the scale of a landform recreates conditions analogous to those at the beginning of time.

This shift in the idea of the sublime is part of a continuous progression from nature to artifice, and also has defined spatial characteristics. Whereas the idea of nature in the Sublime was expansive and pervasive, the atomic tests in the Bikini Atoll were highly visible, external and extensive, and the Hadron particle accelerator operates in an invisible, internalized, and intensive space. Whatever the dimensions of the technology, the popular fear of a black hole appearing in Switzerland and swallowing the earth as a result of experiments at the LHC demonstrate our persistent fear of the unknown.

Heavy Ion Collision


Yesterday China launched Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace-1), its first step towards a manned orbital space station. I remembered reading that the last Space Shuttle mission, STS-135, finished earlier this year, signalling an end to America’s utopian dream of colonizing space.

As I read more about the history of these inhabitable satellites, they started to attain personalities independent from the astro/cosmonauts who passed through their airlocks. The life of satellites began to take on similar narrative arcs – beginning with a dramatic countdown to a launch sequence filled with nationalist pride, followed by a productive scientific research phase, and then a long period in exile as space debris. They would eventually spiral back down to Earth, burn up in the atmosphere, and finally disappear into the sea.


This fact that these skeletal, modular, fully functional structures possessed an animistic fate triggered a realization that the Japanese Metabolists’ dream of growing and degenerating architecture had actually been realized in the context of zero gravity. The prototypes for metabolic buildings proposed by Tange, Kikutake, Isozaki, and Kurokawa never physically grew further than their original boundaries. The completed buildings were frozen in their final construction stage as they had to be occupied, and the dream of architecture-as-organism remained as a series of beautifully executed models.

Kiyunori Kikutake, Floating City Project, 1971

International Space Station, 2009

Unlike the space shuttle with its streamlined aerodynamic shape for atmospheric flight, the morphology of the space station is not constrained by gravity. In the vacuum, a different set of stylistic considerations govern space station design: surface area-to-volume ratios, weight, and structural integrity in the vacuum become key. The unfolding, layering, and collapse of form becomes a practical constraint for deployable elements such as solar panel arrays that pack down into minimal storage volumes.

For the space station in the hostile vacuum of outer space, modular growth becomes a necessity rather than a theoretical concept. Due to restrictions on launching heavy rockets from earth, structures were designed to be upgraded with additional scientific or habitation modules as needed. The entire typology of the space station thus becomes pure metabolist architecture – a technological utopia whose growth and eventual obsolescence allows it to regenerate in future iterations with knowledge gained during its own existence.

Looking back at some early Metabolist projects, I wonder if Kikutake ever dreamt of launching his earthbound architecture into orbit.

Kiyunori Kikutake – Expo Tower, Osaka, 1972

UPDATE: Viktor Timofeev sent me a link to

featuring Laika, Sputnik, and other stars of the Soviet Space Programme.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Towers have an archetypal force rooted in the expression of militarized political power. Their use as centers of repression and surveillance has a long history – watchtowers, the castle keep, the hilltop fortress. They are often the prison for innocents – Rapunzel, the Princes in the Tower of London, and the inhabitants of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

The flattening of the world by centuries of globalization and communication has changed the experience of architecture into a largely remote activity, and has changed the form of architecture itself. However, as physical artefacts of mythic proportions, towers have retained their expressive essence. Although buildings now embody relatively transparent intentions, they often harbour politicized intentions that are best revealed though extreme circumstances.

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, is it possible to reflect on the inevitable counterpart of ideology – unattainable ambitions that result in incomplete, inaccessible, or destroyed acts of architecture. Is it possible that the Tower has changed from being the site of exile, to being an exiled object itself?

The fall of the Twin Towers immortalized them as cultural and political icons, existing from that moment on as symbols of the pre-terrorist, Arcadian Age of (Economic) Freedom, and as a post-terrorism rationale for the War on Terror. Their destruction provided the Republican Government with irrefutable justification for their wars, and gave White House speechwriters the three essential elements of Aristotle’s rhetoric: logos / argument: a plea for striking back against the enemy; pathos / feeling: never forget the fallen; ethos / beliefs: let us fight for freedom.

With the visible contrast between high-rise and ground zero in the case of the World Trade Center, the poetics of the narrative served as the perfect basis for America’s military-industrial complex to self-mythologize again. In this case, the Twin Towers were exiled to memory as we are prevented from ever entering their interior again.

On the same day, across the globe in North Korea, the Ryugyong hotel has been exiled from occupants for seven years. It is the victim not of terrorism, but of a diametrically opposed worldview – one based on suppression, the cult of the dictator, and urban propaganda.

At the centre of Pyongyang, this 105-floor hotel has been in a state of perpetual construction since 1987. Its categorization as a hotel is questionable, as it has never had any rooms, let alone occupants. The project was intended to be a showpiece project for foreign journalists to marvel at the economic miracle of North Korea. The work was halted for a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union and the lack of economic support from the country’s largest supporter.  The intention of the designers was for the hotel to stand as the largest structure in the world, an ambitious endeavor for a nation that revels in the cult culture of Kim Jong-Il despite widespread energy and agricultural crises.

Official data surrounding its properties have been shrouded in bureaucratic mist. A United Nations task force has deemed Ryugyong Hotel’s structure unfit for human habitation, with an international group of engineers declaring that the elevator cores do not run vertically upwards.

In 2011, somehow, both sites in Pyongyang and New York City have become the stuff of speculators’ dreams: the WTC site now a Silverstein properties exclusive deal, and the Ryugyong has been clad as part of an ‘aid package’ by an Egyptian telecommunications company eager to implement a 3G mobile phone network in the country. The deal is that in exchange for capital investment in North Korea’s infrastructure, the Egyptian company will undertake the cladding of the concrete shell, adding a layer of purely reflective glass to give it an air of dignity, appropriately enough like dressing a corpse for the afterlife.

Although both these buildings started from opposite sides of the world upon different principles, both have become exiled from the sphere of functional architecture to attain virtual immortality. If all goes well, Ryugyong will hopefully become a hermetically sealed pyramid – a perfect example of concrete Communism – pure façade and zero transparency.