Motor Geometry

Essay by architect Lars Spuybroek, for "TechnoMorphica," 1997.

Motor Geometry

TechnoMorphica 1997

"'There's this thing, this ghost-foot,' said one of Oliver Sacks' patients. 'Sometimes it hurts like hell and the toes curl up, or go into spasm. This is worst at night, or with the prosthesis off, or when I'm not doing anything. It goes away when I strap the prosthesis onand walk. I still feel the leg then, vividly, but it's a good phantom, different ? it animates the prosthesis, and allows me to walk.'" 1

1. Oliver Sacks, "The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat," Picador, 1986, p. 66.

What is it that animates a mere mechanical extension? How is it that the body is so good at incorporating this lifeless component into its motor system that it recovers its former fluency and grace? The body does not care if the leg is made of flesh or of wood, as long as it fits; that is to say, it fits into the unconscious body model created by the different possible movements ? proprioception, as the neurologists term it, the body's power of unconscious self-perception. Our legs are a "comfortable fit" by their very nature, but only because the leg coincides exactly with the phantom image invoked by the automatism of walking. Once a leg is frozen in immobility, however, it very soon no longer "fits." Sacks reports one such instance: "... when, after a few weeks, the leg was freed from its prison of plaster, it had lost the power to make all kinds of movements that were formerly "automatic" and which now had to be learned all over again. She felt that her comprehension of these movements had gone [...] if you stop making complex movements, if you don't "practice" them internally (italics L.S.) [...] they will be "forgotten" within a few weeks and become [...] impossible." 2

2. Oliver Sacks, "A Leg to Stand On," Picador, 1991, afterword, note 2.

With practice and training, the movements of a prosthesis can become second nature, regardless of whether it is made of flesh, of wood or ? a little more complex ? of metal, as in the case of a car. That is the secret of the animation principle: the body's inner phantom has an irrepressible tendency to expand, to integrate every sufficiently responsive prosthesis into its motor system, its repertoire of movements, and make it run smoothly. That is why a car is not an instrument or piece of equipment that you simply sit in, but something you merge with; anyone who does a lot of driving will recognize the dreamlike sensation of gliding along the motorway or through traffic, barely conscious of what one is doing. This does not mean that our cars turn us into mechanical Frankensteins but that the human body is capable of inspiriting the car and making its bodywork become the skin of the driver. And this must be true, otherwise we would bump into everything. If we do not merge with the car, if we do not change our body into something four by one-and-a-half meters, it would not be possible to park our car, to take a curve, or to overtake others. Movements can only be fluent if the skin extends as far as possible over the prosthesis and into the surrounding space, so that every action takes place within the interior of the body, which no longer does things consciously but relies totally on "feeling."

When this haptic sense of extension is taken seriously it means that everything starts at the interior of the body, and from there on it just never stops. The body has no outer reference to direct its actions to, neither a horizon to relate to, nor any depth of vision to create a space for itself. It relates only to itself. There is no outside: there is no world in which my actions take place, the body forms itself by action, by action it constantly organizes and reorganizes itself motorically to keep "in form." As Maturana and Varela say: there is no structured information on the outside, it becomes information only by forming itself through my body, by transforming my body, which is called action ... 3

3. H. Maturana and F. Varela, "The Tree of Knowledge," Shambhala, 1987, chapter 7.

"'Hey, we are lost!', Michael said to his guide. The guide gave him a withering glance and answered: 'We are not lost, the camp is lost!' In a flash Michael realized a very important aspect of what separated his vision of the world from that of his guide: for Michael, space was fixed and having free agents moving around in it, like actors on a stage, a vast space in which you could lose your way. The guide however saw space as something within, rather than outside the body, a fluid and changing medium in which one could never lose one's way where the only fixed point in the universe consisted of himself and where although he might be putting one foot in front of the other he never actually moved." 4

4. Derrick de Kerckhove, "The Skin of Our Culture," Somerville House Books, 1995, p. 29.

This, of course, is a nomad's view of the world, the view of somebody on the move, because only by the prosthetic act of walking does the whole space become one's own skin. And the tent nomads carry with them is part of that walking, it never interrupts space, as a house does. So every prosthesis is in the nature of a vehicle, something that adds movement to the body, that adds a new repertoire of actions to the body. Of course, the car changes the skin into an interface, able to change the exterior into the interior of the body itself. The openness of the world would make no sense if it were not absorbed by my body-car. The body simply creates a haptic field completely centered upon itself, in which every outer event becomes related to this bodily network of virtual movements, becoming actualized in form and action. "Where there is close vision, space is not visual, or rather the eye itself has a haptic, non-optical function: no line separates earth from sky, which are of the same substance, there is neither horizon nor background, nor perspective nor limit nor outline of form nor center; there is no intermediary distance, or all distance is intermediary." 5

5. G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, "A Thousand Plateaus," The Athlone Press, 1988, p. 492.

In Tamás Waliczky's short 1992 film "The Garden," made with video manipulation and computer animation, we see a little girl running around a garden, stretching out her hands for a dragonfly, sitting down under a big tree, climbing up the ladder of a slide, and then sliding down. We see all this and at the same time, nothing like it. In fact, during the whole movie the little girl does not move at all or rather, she moves her hands and feet all right, but her head never leaves the center of the screen. We see the tree unfolding under her legs, we see the rungs of the ladder shrink and bulge under her feet, we see the slide deform under her body. Nothing moves, but everything changes shape. We see the dragonfly, as the girl reaches out for it with her hand, grow disproportionately large then shrink and disappear the moment she shifts her attention. The girl does not move around in a perspective world where things are between the eye and the horizon, no, through her actions she is in perfect balance and stays fixed on the vertical axis: she has become the vertiginous horizon of things, she has become the vanishing point of the world. Things become part of her body by topological deformation, not by perspective distortion. She has become the gravitational center of a field, or better, a sphere of action ? a motor field ? her own planet ... This is not perception but proprioception. Everything immediately becomes networked within the body, where the seen is the touched and the felt, where no distinction can be made between the near and the far, between the hand of manipulation and the sphere of the global.

An eye acts as if it were a hand, not as a receptive but as an active organ, and what is at hand is always nearby and close, without any sense of depth or perspective, and without background or horizon. So every action becomes prosthetic because it extends the feeling reach of the skin, and, the other way around, every prosthesis ? and I mean every technological device ? becomes an action, a vector-object, a twirl in the environmental geometry. Every change of muscle tone in the motor system has its topological effect, because outside and body are networked into one object with its own particular coherence, where seeing and walking and acting are interconnected in one feeling skin, without top or bottom but with an all around orientation. Without the orthogonality of the vertical and gravitational axis of the body's posture in relation to frontal and horizonal perspective, but a three-dimensionality where images and actions relate to one and the same geometry, without any X, or without any Y, or without any Z ... 6

6. Maurice Nio and Lars Spuybroek, "X and Y and Z ? a manual," ARCHIS, 11/1995.

Liquid architecture is not the mimesis of natural fluids in architecture. 7 First and foremost it is a liquidizing of everything that has traditionally been crystalline and solid in architecture. It is the contamination by media. The liquid in architecture has earlier been associated with the easing back of architecture for human needs, of real-time fulfillment. This soft & smart technology of desire can only end up with the body as a residue, where its first steps in cyberspace will probably be its last steps ever. But the desire of technology seems far greater and a far more destabilizing force, since our need for the accidental is far greater than our need of comfort. Liquid architecture is always about trying to connect one act to another, about putting a virus in the program itself, about the hyperbolic linking of events, where every object and every event can have unforeseen and unprogramed effects. Nothing, no function, no object can remain isolated; everything is involved in a continual process of transformation into the other ? everything is necessarily opened up and leaking away. Liquid architecture is not about nice and pleasing or sculptural forms ? because there is always the risk of things going over the edge. Of form being swallowed in the abyss of the formless, of unspeakable monstrosities of the ugly beyond ugly ? yet, in a more cultural sense, without this risk the act of architecture seems absolutely worthless.

7. Liquid Architecture, Marcos Novak, "Cyberspace: First Steps," ed. Michael Benedikt, MIT Press, 1993, p. 225.

"H2O eX PO" 8, as we named it, but generally known as the "water pavilion" in the Netherlands, was built in 1997, and has been completely seized by the concept of the liquid, not only in its shape and its use of materials, but also because the interior environment tries to bring about a prototypical merging of hardware, software and wetware. The pavilion consists of a series of completely deformed ellipses. Imagine the curves connecting all the ellipses being torn apart, bent and twisted by outside forces ? the wind, the dunes, the ground water, while internal forces try to maintain the liquidity of the form, but not as ellipses per se. The geometry then consists of longitudinal curves connected to closed transversal curves. The vector-oriented manipulation of curves, the "splines"? form the basis of a geometry where lines cannot exist without forces and vice versa. The "spline" with its control points and tangential handles in 3D modeling software originates directly from naval architecture where a curve was created by a wooden spline bend by the positioning of several weights at the "control points." Line and point are not separate dimensions, one or zero, but something in between, always in tension, never free of vectorial force and direction. In this case the line becomes an action, and not the trace of an action. H2O eX PO is a bundle, a braid of splines, a springy geometry, a soft network in which no distinction is made between form and deformation. It derives its coherence from the moving, its stability from the unstable.

8. Publications about "H2O eX PO" are among others in Archis, Ineke Schwartz, "A testing ground for interactivity," 9/1997, pp 8-11; DOMUS, Bart Lootsma, "NOX/Aquatic pavilion," 796, 9/97, pp 28-33.

We loved the idea of wheelchairs from the very first day. Could we design something that was completely in line with the law governing wheelchair accessibility (e.g. the steepness of ramps) while at the same time devising a prosthetic geometry, a geometry of wheels, a geometry of speed and imbalance? Not one part of the building is horizontal, not one slope stays within the same gradient. Conceptually the building has not been so much "placed on" the ground as "dug out of" the ground. The essential instability is achieved through the idea that the ground is all around. The floor becomes hyperdimensional and tries to become a volume. When dealing with a haptic, three-dimensional body, a body without the distinction between feet and eyes, the difference between floor and ceiling becomes irrelevant. With this kind of topological perception you lose the idea that action is on the ground and that your eyes are being moved along blindly. Buildings are generally based on this dichotomy of transport and vision, where the programmatic is on the floor and the formal is in the elevation. But, to paraphrase Jeffrey Kipnis, in this building the information on the floor is blended with the deformation of the volume. In "H2O eX PO" there is no horizon, no window looking out, there is no horizontality, no floor underlining the basis of perspective. This is of course the moment of dizziness, because walking and falling become confused. Or, as the manual for 3D Studio MAX has it, in the chapter on animation: walking and running are special cases of falling ... This imbalance is the very basis of this building, and also the basis of every action, because not one position is without a vector. This building is not only for wheelchairs and skateboards, it is also for the wrong foot, the leg one happens to stand on ... That is why, instead of a window, there is a well. The Well is another kind of horizon, more like a window to the center of the earth, a hidden horizon, not horizontal, but vertical, on the axis of vertigo, of falling.

Where, then, is the point of action, where is the source of the Will? Here, just like a surfer, the body is placed on a vector and is obliged to react to that outer force, although it can change its direction or goal at any time. The architecture charges the body because its geometry is one where points become vectors. In an architecture that has become transported and moved, whose geometry has become a prosthetic vehicle by contagion, the source of the action is exactly in between body and environment. This is not subject versus object, but an interactive blend. Part of the action is in the object, and when the object is animated, the body is too. The interactivity is not only in the geometry, it is in the materials too. It is the action that moves through the material ? not a form with a certain speed or on the move, but action in the form. 9

9. Maurice Nio and Lars Spuybroek, "De Strategie van de Vorm," de Architect, themanummer 57, 11/1994.

Building is violence, it is force, sometimes excessive force. It is not drawing or generating the geometry in your office, and then going out and building it ? the act of drawing resulting in the feeling of the body being under way is continued in the act of building. The pavilion would never have been possible if the contractor had not picked up one of the cheapest beams you can get in the industry and torqued it with his hands, just by lifting it. This is like memory metal, it is steel plus experience, steel plus action. Material is not neutral and uncharged. The form is constructed by deformation and is part of the material-vector: stretching the material itself, using force, that is, drawing ... But it does not stop with the concrete and steel, which were obviously considered as liquid, but instead moved on with cloth and rubber, then the ice, and the mist, of course the fluid water (taking over the action and wetting not only the building, but also the visitor), moving on to electronic media, interactive sound, light and projections. We did not separate the material from the so-called immaterial, there was only substance and action. The continuous surface of the interior is covered with different sensing devices. Imagine yourself walking or running up the central slope towards a wireframe projection in front of you on the floor. While walking you activate a few light sensors, one after the other, and step right into the projection ? you'll be covered in a grid of light ? the waves start running through the mesh. Now youstart to run with the waves, activating more sensors, creating more waves ... The vertigo of the motor system is inextricably linked to sensory hallucination. At the same time the pulse of light going through the sp(L)ine ? a line of numerous blue lamps ? is speeded up by the crowd activating the light sensors. When you dare to step on a touch sensor, suddenly ripples shoot out from your feet, circular decaying waves in the wireframe projection. Somebody else jumps onto the second sensor, a few meters away from where you stand, ripples shoot out from his feet too, interfering with your ripples halfway. As you both start jumping up and down you are also both pushing away the sound and activating the light running along the sp(L)ine: suddenly a high level of blue light splits in two and slowly fades away. Further on a sphere is projected in wireframe on a steep slope between handles. Four people are gently operating them, deforming the sphere in as many directions, while at the same time they "pull the sound" from the Well and ... when pulling at their hardest they freeze the light on the sp(L)ine in its last position, and by that the action and the other visitors.

Why still speak of the real and the virtual, the material and the immaterial? Here, these categories are not in opposition, or in some metaphysical disagreement, but rather in an electroliquid aggregation, enforcing each other as in a two-part adhesive, constantly exposing its metastability to induce animation. For where is the sun, anyway? Left out and reflected by the outer skin of stainless steel, the sun is left behind in a museum. 10 This building is lit from the inside out, by the endogenous sun of the computer ? that must be why the light is so blue ? doing hundreds of thousands of real-time calculations, shining on everybody, and rendering the action. See these spectral bodies, without shadows, their motor systems exactly coinciding with the reality engine of the computers.

10. Paul Virilio, "The Museum of the Sun," TechnoMorphica. V2_Organisation, 1997. Also "The Art of the Motor," Minnesota, 1995 and "The Function of the Oblique," AA Publications, 1996 and ARCH+ 124/125, p.46.

© 1997 Lars Spuybroek / V2_

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