Fine Grain II
April 7, 2011 § Leave a comment
I would like to steer away from criticizing at length particular Sydney city projects that are on the horizon – in reality it does not take any architectural training to know that what is being produced is instinctively unsatisfying. Nor do I really want to get too involved in the substantial topic of what these projects should be providing to the urban realm – Jan Gehl’s ‘public space, public life‘i report for Sydney Council already articulates this. I would rather focus on running some ideas and drawing vectors to abstract locations of thought; in the hope of stumbling across some useful minerals that might begin to crystallise concepts of how the fine grain can be sought.
The Desert Machine
“The machine as a whole might be producing a desert where there was a forest, but each individual in the machine might be doing very well out of it along the way, and would feel that he or she was responding to the abstract logic of the situation”ii
Since the industrial revolution society has developed a voracious desire for efficiency, a synonym for profit. What has resulted is a culture dependant on a pass-the-buck mentality, in a race from birth to secure wealth for ones self and ones family. This is why I resist placing blame on any individual when asking the question of why such critical architectural projects lack quality – the city machine has many desiring parties, all of whom are simultaneously to blame and blameless; depending on perspective. Can we place the blame on the architect, who fulfils the desires of the client – or the client, fulfilling the desires of the investors, who carry the desires of shareholders, who are often pension fund managers, looking after the elderly? The appealing abstract logic of the desert machine plunders along behind even the most topical issues; from the recent BP disasters to our inaction on climate change – and as much as we like to believe that we will learn from our mistakes, as long as the desert machine exists, we will find ourselves playing though similar motions. Hence, any thought must begin from outside the concentric confines of the machine – or we will be drawn into cycles that re-affirm its existence.
“Once the machines are assembled, they have an identity and life of their own.” iii
Fragments and Psychological Space
Perhaps the fine grain exists, partly, in psychological space – or perhaps this is where it becomes most significant. I would like to begin with Steven Holl’s understanding of psychological space, and then fly to ideas on how this space can perhaps be evoked.
“On a macro scale, psychological space expands to the psychological field of urban space. The simultaneous interactions of topography, program, lines of urban movement, materials, and light come together to manifest te spirit of an urban place. The psychological effects of sound must be considered as well as other temporal fragmentations. In this regard, architecture produces desire. The exhilaration we find when we walk into the space between or inside certain buildings produces a kind of psychological space. It can represent an experience we never had before and we want to see more of. The recognition of spatial and material phenomena meets the imagination.”iv
I think the notion of the fragment could be particularly useful in establishing ways by which psychological space is evoked – which might lead by way of experiment to how we can imbue great urban projects with a sense of the fine grain. There is a perhaps growing tendency to disregard the fragment; or maybe more accurately, there is an enticing distraction by systems (of thought and technical nature) that sprout from the assumption that what is desired is a single expression. For example, many CAD and modelling systems demand an established substance in all of its complexities; and some architecture even seems to strive for the virtual perfection that the complete render allows. Perhaps this results in us forgetting that a substance can form multiple expressions and attributes, not all of which we have succeeded in quantifying.
I should express that fragments are not lonely entities that exist only in themselves. In fact, fragments can evoke a sincere and dynamic sense of unity. The very definition of fragment suggests the existence of multiple expressions of the same substance – morsels, that are currently expressing themselves in particular ways, perhaps casting light on attributes that can only be glimpsed from particular perspectives. Fragments can be the various expressions of substance, through whatever body the substance may be manifesting as at a particular time – maybe this body is what we call human, or architecture, or anything.
While there is a definite unity of substance between fragments, their existence as fragments suggests separation and difference – this is the second aspect of the fragment to consider. It is along and between their edges or frames that interpretation occurs. The fragment evokes a psychological plane/plan, upon which thought can establish the virtual relationships between fragments. The fragment entices us with its incomplete nature; it excites the imagination. The substance in its univocality will hence not only exist in the actual but also be woven into the virtual; it is finished by who experiences it.
The glory of the fragment in its affect can often be strikingly discovered in film – as discussed by Lebbeus Woods in his ‘Magic Marker’v blog post where he dissects the 1962 film La Jetee. I must mention his article proved a significant catalyst for these thoughts. Why do we often find well-directed, low budget films more sensually satisfying than high-end blockbusters? Surely more resources would mean better actors, stunning special effects, realistic costumes, and hence a product of more quality? The truth is that the human mind can create more powerful dreams than Hollywood can ever muster. The quality of a film depends on how successfully the director can weave a story into the flesh of our imaginations – a subtle and delicate task, and one that does not necessarily benefit from scenes saturated in information which in fact distract us from our own constructions. A film that artfully relies on very particular fragments, rather than whole entities, evokes our imagination – it allows our mind to wander the context that we construct, in all its foldings and unfoldings. We begin to establish personal and rich connections between fragments, and the result is the sense of something special; something of depth and meaning.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is one such film – a forebodingly sublime sensation is continuously built throughout by the directors precise capture of fragments. After the arrival of an unknown, alien presence to a rural Russian village, there is a shroud of mystery surrounding the site – maintained by a government blockade of fences and soldiers who refuse to enter. Guides, known as stalkers, offer to take those who have reached an impasse in their life to the centre of the ‘zone’; where they can confront strange and powerful forces of change. The abandoned village is ultimately uncanny; The human elements: homes, fields and factories, are occupied by an invisible force – resulting in settings that are simultaneously familiar and unknown. This force cannot be understood by our logic – Its desires are incomprehensible to venturers, its power undefinable yet unquestionable. One must be humble in their navigation of its territory, or one will die by its abstract justice – The route a stalker makes by an abstract dialogue with the zone is convoluted, indirect and undefined.
The individuals spend what appears to be a long while navigating what is in fact a small area (although the Zone’s conception of time seems to differ from our own). This allows the director to produce a series of fragments or scenes; all are of the same substance – the village – and yet they form vastly different expressions under the influential and mysterious desire of the zone. The zone introduces a new force; with the power to shape the flesh of worlds and all that is contained within. This notion of fragments is not limited to the exterior, but extends deep into the personal character of the three protagonists. The stalker, the writer, and the scientist are all exploring fragmentations of their own; as their internal desiring machines wage political struggles over their conceptions of self and purpose – “My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world. And my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat. But what do I want?” vi[writer]
The films rich mise en scène, along with the [at times] philosophical dialogue (”And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world.”vii) – articulate the many fragments we come across. What results are fragments with a critical sense of depth and textured edges – points of nucleation for our thoughts on the zone (and those who interact with it) to develop. Satisfying answers are not provided, but instead ones that are lined with questions. We are enticed to speculate; we envision a psychological space that the zone fluxes throughout; we explore possibilities; draw lines of flight to multiple fragments, both those present and those which we bring with us.
Perhaps the fragment could become something to consider when considering a fine grain architecture – as Woods puts it;
“It cannot not be through the design of intentionally incomplete buildings—though every architect knows the excitement of seeing a building still in construction, or another that has slowly, gracefully become a ruin—this kind of self-conscious literalism is fit only for theme parks and B-movies. The La Jetée approach in architecture must be as abstract as architecture itself. So, the creation of spaces of the imagination can only be found, it would seem, in an architecture of fragments, loosely joined like neurons in the brain, separated by synapses that can only be bridged by an electrical charge of thought. The key to such an architecture would be the potency of its fragments and thus its capability to inspire leaps of imagination that join them into a whole within the mind. Exactly how such an architecture would appear to us we cannot know at present, as its emergence is still in the future.”viii
ii Andrew Ballantyne, Deleuze & Guattari for Architects (New York: Routledge, 2007) p 22
vi Andrei Tarkovsky [director], Stalker, Screenplay written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky (Russia, 1979)