Where Space Gets Lost

E-mail interview with Lars Spuybroek by Andreas Ruby, published in "The Art of the Accident," 1998.

Where Space Gets Lost

The Art of the Accident, 1998

Andreas Ruby: A mechanistic system of thought like modernism could only deal with the accident by isolating and repressing it as an undesired event interrupting the well-planned course of events. Paul Virilio qualifies the accident however as merely the other face of substance, following the Aristotelian distinction between substans and accidens. If you translate these two constituent elements of the accident to architecture, you get an astounding equivalence: the built mass becomes almost literally the substance (from lat. substans: that which stands from below), whereas people act as the accident (from lat. accidens: that which falls into something). It is a very conventional definition, obviously, in which only the fixed accounts for something substantial while everything which moves is disqualified as accidental. Could you imagine a definition of architecture which inverts this condition, that is an architecture in which stability is accidental and movement substantial?

Lars Spuybroek: Here we have two lines of thought and realize they could become interrelated. Firstly, we should observe that our whole conception of form has been inverted. Physical form, biological form, the mathematics of form, how order emerges, how stability emerges, these have now all been structured in time, where form has become part of time. Fractal geometry, order on the edge of chaos, self-organization, catastrophe theory, finally concepts of geometry have emerged in which time itself has become essential, where the accident has become substantial, where form and order have become pattern, interference, iteration, rhythm, something created in time, and only to be understood in time. Secondly - as you mention Virilio's constant returning to the accident - media as the continuous accident of architecture. Of course, this dichotomy is omnipresent in theory, and I oppose it vigorously. I don't see media as the dark side of architecture at all. Why? Because I'd like to propose an architectural view of media, and vice versa. First of all, media comes in waves, in tides, and it deals with space as a medium, as a field, that is a soft substance through which events are transported by waves, and become interrelated as a result of interference, amplification and decay ... Media are a way to inhabit time as it were, a movement connected with our own movements, something far more sensitive and responsive than an architecture of frames, crystals and solids that is only capable of returning always the same answers to an experiential body. I think we should keep in mind that architecture was the first machine, the first medium to connect behavior and action to time, to place it under the revolving light of the sun, but now, on the other hand, we should not mix up the old history of architecture, its Euclidean mathematics with its new potentials. I just cannot see why architecture, because it is old, should stay old.

AR: The French word for real estate is "immobilier," which is the opposite of "mobilier" which means furniture. These two notions seem to indicate architecture's maximum radius of action: from absolute immobility (the building mass defining the invariable envelope) to total mobility (the furniture which could be placed anywhere inside). In other words, architecture actually has a whole set of varieties to choose from in order to "situate" itself in the variable relationship of form and movement. Nevertheless, throughout its (occidental) history architecture has displayed a clear tendency to opt for the immobile element as its definition. The challenging potential of furniture as the imminently destabilizing force of architecture is left aside, if not also embraced by the disciplining regime of order. In the plans of his single family houses, Mies van der Rohe used to place the furniture elements as precisely as the indeed unmovable elements like walls and columns. There is an anecdote about the Tugendhat House: a couple of months after the completion Mies came back to Brno unannounced to check if everything was in order. And Mrs. Tugendhat had indeed dared to arrange the chairs in a slightly different way. So Mies emphatically asked her to put them back in their proper position, pointing to the plan of the house he had discreetly brought along. What would an architecture be like which goes the opposite way, that is an architecture that would approach real estate with a furniture logic?

LS: We should resist Mies. We should resist this preservation of the old Aristotelian split of matter and time, substance and accident, tectonics and textile. Architecture as tectonics, media as textile. Architecture as a passive and neutral carrier, media as (inter)active image. That is: architecture as urbanism, as tectonics, as (infra)structure, as "bigness" - as Koolhaas has titled his agenda - and media as life, the changing, the ephemeral, whatever. Instead of moving architecture into bigness, I would suggest to move it into textile, into furniture, into media ... We should never mix up architecture and building. Just because our buildings can't move, it doesn't mean our architecture can't. As our buildings are hard and intransigent, our architecture could be active and liquid. This obviously does not mean the Miesian and Koolhaasian retreat into neutrality, into the hall, the empty envelope. It's an old misunderstanding in architecture that when you create the greatest common denominator of all possible movements, an architecture that gets out of the way, it will induce movement and vitality in the actual building. It is exactly the other way around, one just creates stillness, with that kind of generic neutrality one neutralizes action. That means they don't appreciate that architecture is media, that architecture is an event in itself, an event that, in their case, passes its tectonics onto the body. I opt for a geometry of the mobile, where the geometry has become part of the furniture, the moveable - nothing neutral, nor passive.

AR: Generally, Siegfried Giedion is seen as the theoretical advocate for a new space conception based on the notion of time. But if he indeed pointed to the new importance of the dynamic user moving freely through the building, he never got beyond the opposition of a static space and a mobile subject. He in fact kept the hierarchical distinction of space as substans and body as accidens, never realizing the transfer of movement from the subject onto the space. Curiously enough this transfer of movement was a major theme in the early experimental cinema and was also poignantly analyzed at the time by various scholars. In a seminal essay, German art historian Erwin Panofsky concluded that "as movable as the spectator is, as movable is, for the same reason, the space presented to him. Not only bodies move in space, but space itself does, approaching, receding, turning, dissolving and recrystallizing as it appears through the controlled locomotion and focusing of the camera and through the cutting and editing of the various shots."

LS: Can I start answering this with a classic study of Held and Hein, mentioned in Francisco Varela's book "The Embodied Mind"? They did this amazing experiment. They had a number of kittens with a carriage attached to each of them. Each carriage contained a basket with another kitten in it. So there were two groups of kittens sharing the same visual experience, but with one group active, the other stayed entirely passive. After a few weeks they were released and studied again as individual cats. The first group was okay and behaved normally, the second behaved as if they were blind, they bumped into everything. Obviously our whole idea of perception and action being unrelated bodily functions, the whole Cartesian distinction between eyes and feet is incarnated in architecture in the dichotomy of walls and floors, esthetics and program, elevation and plan. Simple as that. This also means the relation between space, movement and body has always been misunderstood, or at least, been related in the wrong order. There just is no movement apart from image, no image apart from movement. The way we construct images within our bodies is a million times more complicated than the cognitive concept of printing reality on light-sensitive gray matter. The sensory charges the motor, and the other way around, they are intertwined and connected. In this sense we should even resist thinking in terms of "space" - I never mention space actually - we have to conceptualize the body first, not the proportional Vitruvian body as the architectural center of the constructed world, no, the experiential body, the excited, vital body, where millions of processes go on at the same time. Therefore we should always remember the body is a clock, not the Huygens clock, but a manifold patterning trying to gain stability through action. Bodies try to transgress themselves in time by action, throwing themselves into time, that is: connect to other bodies, other rhythms, other actions. In this sense, you can really only talk about "space" as a result of an experiential body timing its actions. Space is never a given. There can be space in time, but not the other way round. Perspective was nothing else than leaving out the movement in experience and having the image as a residue - and it is: the image is what's left over when everything has dried out, like at the bottom of a cup of coffee. Pure recollection, and recollection only.

AR: But even if you refuse to use the word "space," you do seem to have a concept of it: one which is derived from radical constructivism. According to this theory, space does not exist per se, or in other words, where everything around us is only unstructured information which becomes only structured as soon as we interfere and interact with it.
This idea implies the dissolution of the inside/outside opposition; conceptually, body and architecture merge to one synthetic action space. But does not this opposition reappear in the real experience of a building?

LS: Well, no, because there is no "real" experience of the building. You're right to refer to radical constructivism, or even Varela's concept of enaction, which is even more radical. His idea of embodied action goes absolutely against cognitivist representation, where the so-called outer world is only recorded by the brain - and simultaneously absolutely against idealism where this outer world is only a subjective projection of an inner one. He, and Maturana, only refer to "structural coupling" in which body and world are interrelated and interactively transform each other. The "true" experience doesn't take place anywhere, neither in the body, nor in the world. Only in the coupling. This is the point where the distinction between inner knowledge and outer world ceases to exist. I'll try to give a better explanation of what a "real" experience is, especially vis à vis machines and technology. What we call reality, what we call our sense of reality, is nothing but an effect of synchronization, the synchronization of our own bodily rhythms with processes going on in the world around us. Our sense of reality is created by our sense of timing, trying to be "in phase" with the world, to live with the rhythm of the light. I don't mean this metaphorically; "in phase" is a direct and physical connection. That is why seeing-machines like film and television - and now computing - should be seen as a motorization of reality, as a speeding up of reality itself. They speed up our sense of timing. This also explains why we suffer from jet lag. Now, what has been disturbed by the speed of the plane can be undone by (sun)light - remember the sun is our first clock, we're created by it. Light is not only stored in the form of motor-images, but it is also the main indication for setting our own clock, the bio-rhythm. We are made of light. We long for a seamless stream of actions, carried by light, not the derealization and parkinsonian stuttering we experience during a jet lag. Actually, doctors nowadays prescribe melatonine, a neuro-hormone that influences the pigment in the skin, as a cure for jet lags ...

AR: All classical definitions of architecture contain the idea of fixing the movement which vibrates in the world outside architecture - in Vitruvius' famous definition it is called "firmitas." Any concern about dynamics and fluidity is avoided like a bad germ. It seems like architecture feels strangely endangered by movement, maybe simply for not knowing how to handle it. To a certain degree this might be caused by "timeless" condition of the drawing systems architecture has traditionally used: plan, section, elevation - all static modes of graphic inscription which can comprise three dimensions at the most, but certainly not time as the dimension of unfolding and change. Architecture has never developed a notation system for movement like choreography developed in dance.

LS: First we have to understand what an experiencing body is. How the body shifts between habit and action. Of course, in architecture, they've very often tried to combine them, but it proved difficult and they mostly came up with either/or concepts. The standard architectural program consists of habits, routines and work. This is viewed as the mechanistic repetition of certain acts - the program only takes into account actions that are considered repeatable. On the other hand, there is the desire for free action, play, experiment, as in Constant's "New Babylon." For me, it is not a question of either/or, it is not work-or-play, life is just the complication of these, the one is always hidden in the other. Sure, we habituate, we develop cycles of behavior. Why? Because it is hardly possible for humans to carry the whole act, to - as a Cartesian Machine - steer themselves continuously into intentions. We create our own rhythms, and make them stronger than ourselves, we create an internal music that gets us going. Our rhythms create us, we are an actual product of them. On the other hand we do not program ourselves, human software is much softer than computer software, we do not repeat the same actions over and over again, they change, they differ, they vary from each other, enabling us to change, to renew or to move smoothly into other acts.
That's why I would be in favor of separating work from dance, and after doing so, would try to merge them immediately. The whole set up of "firmitas," standing upright, habituation and routines, and opposing these with dance, play and experiment relating to the twisting of this posture fixed through gravity should be set aside for being too simple. We should not make the same mistakes as in the sixties. We would be marginalized. We should find a way in architecture to complicate habit, to multiply routines in action. It is the "winding up" of the soft clock of the body with motor geometry. Obviously, this geometry is not a geometry of section, elevation and plan, but one that tries to envisage these three - construction, perception and action - within one conceptual continuum.

AR: Doesn't space get lost somewhere?

LS: The way we act is similar to that of a skateboarder. We have a sense of direction, we have a sense of intentionality. We throw ourselves into time by movement. But then it is not a road or path we walk down. Our roads may be straight, but our tracks certainly are not. It is a vector with a point of action, and in that sense every act is an act of faith. Once underway we adapt, change our minds, engage other forces, but we do not just see these as resistance, no, they are like the curbs and obstacles for the skater. We use them as push offs, as points of inflection in the curve. That's it: a straight line goes from A to B, but while it leaves A it curves, trying to reach B. Architects have always misunderstood this position of B as something in space, instead of time. We humans complicate movement, we make movement from movement. Our moves are truly labyrinthine, like Nietzsches Dionysian dance, because we are our own alcohol, our own music - to quote Oliver Sacks. Every act has to be carried by this complication, this tilting of the horizon, where the act is carried by itself, and is orientated on its own need for gaining strength and stability. I must end here by quoting once more, now Baudelaire, who said: "Mentally and bodily I've always had this feeling of falling. The abyss not only of sleep, but also the abyss of acting, of dreaming, memories, desires, sorrow, the many, et cetera ... I'm in a permanent state of vertigo."

AR: Do you think that new notation systems provided by computer animation modeling techniques like the ones you use finally account for the body as an active part of architecture?

LS: Yes I do. On all kinds of levels. Both in conceptualization and building. As I've written in The Motorization of Reality - a Virilio piece without the Virilio hesitations - media should invade all aspects of architecture, both in diagramming and in programming. Let's not forget that all seeing-machines became drawing-machines (in architecture), and went from the static towards the kinetic. From perspective towards films and trains and television and cars (all with their own architectural styles), moving eyes constructing spaces. Now - with computing - this step is not metaphorical anymore, now we not only incorporate and embody the conceptuality of a machine in design, we can now actually step inside the screen and create reality from there. The design itself has become motorized, liquid, unstable, charged - the accelerating power of the computer is truly enormous, and is itself like a skateboard. But it is in the motor geometry, the geometry of the liquid that this machine becomes instrumental. What I try to oppose as much as I can is the dichotomy of floors and walls, action and perception, we have to create one from the other. So, I'm neither animating the floor and later on covering it in a tectonic envelope, nor am I animating the volume and later on stacking it with floors. It might be better though to animate the programmatic fluxes to animate the building. But after some time you would see that this hasn't lead you anywhere either, except for the smoothing of the already planned movement within the program. The aim is not just replacing program as military or Jesuit disciplining by free choreographies of movement, and then superimposing them, as if program is dance, which it is clearly not! It is not the fixation of the movement in the program, nor is it is the fixation of motion in the form. Either way, it's not only motion capture. You would end up with the so-called "stopping problem" - the question where to freeze the animation - while the real question is how to pass the movement on, from the machine to the architecture, from the architecture to the body, and from the body to the machine. First of all the movement should be going from floor to wall and vice versa. That is: in the architecture itself. The movement itself creates three-dimensionality, what Kiesler would have called the endless, which is always vectorial, as in Zeno's arrow. This would deframe architecture and here the looping of perception and action, the optic and the haptic would never stop. So, it's about creating tension and suspense in the program. This is very important. We deal - on the one hand - with the desire to cool down behavior, to structure and separate actions, in short with the instrumentality of the program - on the other hand, we vitalize action through animation, by replacing fixed points and fixed geometries by moving geometries, going from points to knots to springs, and we vitalize action through suspense, by shifting B from space to time, by multiplicationof action.

AR: In dance, space does not exist as a given entity (except the physical space of the stage, but that exists only as a precondition for the performance of the dance). Dance creates space out of movement. The shape of a form only exists in time, you can never grasp it in one moment but you have to commit its forms to memory. In all of these aspects, dance seems to be the art form that is furthest removed from architecture. Nevertheless I have the impression that it describes the most exactly what interests you in architecture?!

LS: Architecture and dance are generally but wrongfully separated by this notion of either-time-or-space, and rightfully connected by music. The great thing in architecture though, is that there's no audience and there's no sound. The beauty of dance is the thinking of movement as a movement within itself, a gesture, a closed thing. When one would consider the program in gestures and actions, you would have to organize them both in time and in space, not only sequentially as in dance but also simultaneously - in that way one gesture wouldn't be followed by the prescribed next gesture, but one could study them in different relationships and interactions.
Let us consider the notion of tension again. Tension can only be created by elasticity and springs, by lines that can be stretched or lines that are connected by "flexible points." In the concept of the spring the point is an inseparable part of the line, a twist in the line that can both expand and shrink. I used a non-abstract machine built out of lines and springs to animate the design for the V2_Lab. It's an office, a matrix of tasks and work. Quite rigid, most of the time. I would like to focus on a detail here. The programmatic set-up was quite clear - the position of the lab, next to the audio room, video room and storage, and in between a corridor, slightly raised from the existing floor. And located at the beginning of the corridor is the table for the manager of the Lab. I did not superimpose this scheme over another animated one. Everything would have stayed as it was. I animated a diagram of springs and snares through the organizational diagram. What happened? At one point, the snares moved up so high we couldn't interpret them as part of the raised corridor anymore but only as part of the table. Suddenly we had a corridor that morphed, that moved into a table ... So at one point I'm sure one should call this a corridor, at another spot, three, four meters further on, I'm sure to call it a table, but what is it in between? There is program, there is the rhythm of moving in the corridor, there is also a rhythm of working at the table, and there is the vector in between. This vector is always charging the others, that's the music, the silent music of the snares, so to say, that moves work into action. And back again, of course. Normally one would separate table and corridor by space, now they are connected by movement. And where does the movement go? The tension in the snares goes directly into the muscles and tendons of the body - the motor geometry relates to the "virtual motion," as Merleau-Ponty has called it, the background tension in the body, enabling an act to release itself from neurological anonymity and take shape. Now people sometimes lie down there as if on a beach, or just walk up the table ...

© 1998 Andreas Ruby / V2_

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