They were an artist and a writer. After they meet and married, they emphatically, if not somewhat naively, converted to the life of architects. “We contend that philosophical puzzles cannot be solved short of a thorough architectural reworking.” Despite having no formal training in the practice of architecture, their work was driven by and contained within in it a profound belief in and an understanding of the potentials within our environments.
Architectural Body is required reading for inhabitants, long and short term, of the constructed works of Arakawa and Gins. Imposed by the authors of the book and buildings, this requirement may be on the demanding side, yet it is also key to understanding the serious and significant motivations behind the architecture. While the need for such a primer can easily be billed as a weakness of the built work (does an environment need to make its instrumentality known in order to be instrumental?), the radicalism of their convictions and chosen materialization is accessible only via the combination of this introductory framework and the constructed artifact. The late beginning and short lived nature of their architectural careers never made it possible to resolve this combination into a single construction or experience. For this reason, an operational understanding of the architecture of Arakawa and Gins should focus first on how and what it makes possible and attempts to make possible, and second on what it appears to be.
The Bioscleave House cares little about its surrounding environment. It seems to prefer to create its own interior environment. There are few windows to the outside. The house takes the light from the exterior, but leave the rest of the world outside. The quaint manicured grounds and walls of East Hampton, and its millionaires, are edited out of sight and mind. Across its area, the house produces its own topography, forming itself as a forest or a cave open to colonization and use. The optionality of the house feels indifferent to your occupational decisions, or mistakes. Through the conscious editing out of the local environment, the Bioscleave House radically and clearly asserts that architecture is itself the production of environment.
The Bioscleave House gets in the way. Upon first entering, the house is more likely to produce challenges than to offer support. Through the house, Arakawa and Gins seek to facilitate a different sort of inhabitation, where comfort is not the primary goal – longevity is. However, it is notably counterintuitive to preach longevity in a place as dangerous as this. Ultimately, the house does not tell you what to do. It does have a say in how you do it. The house revels the instrumentality of our constructed environments, in this case specifically and in all cases generally.
The main gallery of the Broad is touted as an acre of open gallery space, a nearly eight meter high column free expanse bathed in an even sky light. Minimally encased by the “veil” above it, the space opens an entirely flexible area for the display of art. Specificities of exterior views, sun angles, and circulation patterns are sought to be minimized. Within this room, difference is erased. However, it seems such a removal of difference, rather than increasing the potentials of the room, imposes limits upon them. The regular users of the museum, the curatorial team, must therefore resort to producing difference and divisions within the space through more conventional means. The acre of gallery is divided into a series of standard galleries, linked together through their shared ceiling and the art that is exhibited within them.
Los Angeles is a city without any clear center. With no single core, the city is composed of many sub-centers and connective thoroughfares. The connective zones have themselves become centers over time. These sprawling centers create a city characterized by the congested in-betweens.
Built along Grand Avenue, the Broad is a star in the constellation of Eli Broad’s on going effort to foster a more engaging downtown Los Angeles. Similar to most any other art museum, the Broad is a destination – the interior is not a part of the city’s everyday life. The popularity of the museum ensures it reaches capacity during opening hours, such that lines form outside and reserved ticketed entry is usually required. Once inside, the exclusivity of the line is quickly replaced by a museum that challenges the everyday assumptions surrounding an art museum. There are no donor walls or a grand staircase here. Instead a single escalator is circulating visitors up through an unfamiliar cave like interior. The experience is more akin to exiting a subway station that entering a museum gallery. The interior creates a gap between the seasoned expectations of the visitor and the lived experience of their visit. This gap opens up a place of engagement within the habitual actions of the Los Angeles public.
Tokyo is growing out over the sea. Much as the Metabolists envisioned and planned, Tokyo is being expanded out into the bay. Perhaps in a less utopic manner, here the buildings do not float, but towers are rising on made-man land reclaimed from the sea, giving form to an urban structure of a scale and density not seen else where in the city. The sea is the tabula rasa that Tokyo never had. The possibilities of urban amusement parks, spacious apartment blocks, or a sprawling onsen and gardens, are born onto new ground. However, unlike the Metabolists’s plans, the expansion and growth is happening slowly – the new city is not the result of a single masterplan, it does not reach across the entire bay. The growth is more gradual and incremental. It is in a word, metabolic.
Waking up to a second March 30th 2017 reveals the constructed nature of time. Time as we use it is the result of human constructions. Being capable to travel and transmit faster than the speed of the sun, or rather the planet’s rotation around itself as it rotates around its sun, requires the construction and demarcation of precise time zones, while these same abilities allow for situations that reveal the absurdity of those very constructions. Twelve hours pass, only to arrive in Los Angeles six hours before the journey began.
Standing as an extension and an edge of a park, the Hana Mindori Cultural Center of Atelier Bow Wow is the typical architectural protoplasm. The sloping and planted roof of the building is suspended from many structural cores that contain within them the precise programs of the building. Kitchens, meeting rooms, offices, restrooms, circulation, and technical equipment are contained within the round monolithic forms, and indeterminate space passes freely between them. The precise plan and the free plan mingle together, to give rise to a plan of potentials. Using different forms, a similar approach is taken for Fujimoto’s Mushashino Library. The walls and structure of the building supply the primary function of the building, the bookshelves, and the gaps in-between are left to be more negotiable areas. This cytoplasmic in-between becomes a region of communication, networking, and forming relationships.
Returning again to the KAIT workshop, the building assumes the role of an active background. The building surrounds the user on all sides, never seeking to foreground itself but rather always foregrounding the activities hosted within it. The building actively shapes and forms the life within it, without becoming itself the focus of attention. Even the gaze of the architect, focused directly on the building, must instead see primarily what happens inside. Images of the interior result in panoramas of students, furniture, equipment, and crafted goods, all framed and edited by bands of white. The whiteness of the building here plays a active role. The whiteness of all elements, columns, roof, and details, here is not a means of constructing an abstraction, but rather it serves to further background the architecture. Like the hand laid white stones making up the ground of Ise, the whiteness here is a constructed decision towards creating an active background.
Shibaura House does not seek to stand out in the city, it simply becomes a part of it. Freely open to the public for any imagined use, the building becomes a part of everyday life. Such a status can not be attributed to the architecture alone, but rather like all successful buildings, it is the result of a client and architect collaboration. Like a playful shelf, the building opens equally to the street and the alleys, supporting and encouraging the programs offered by this private client. With no single level occupying an entire floor, each area of the building is clearly defined but not contained. The public life of the city moves into the building and mingles with the business of the house.
The capsule hotel is essentially an aggregation of the typical hotel programs, but organized with different priorities. With new motivations for programmatic combinations, very different experiences are set into play. A standard hotel room consists of, at minimum: a bed, a shower, a toilet, storage or a luggage area, and a small desk or chair. The five key elements are combined into an as compact a cluster as the price of the room demands, and these clusters are then packed onto a site in an as economically efficient density as possible. This is your standard hotel. The capsule hotel skips the cluster phase and jumps right to the economically efficient packing. Here rather than aiming for complete sets, programmatic functions are grouped together directly – 200 hundred beds are densely arrayed, showers and sinks align in long rows, a locker room replaces the dresser, and the lobby becomes your desk. Most likely born out of economic concerns, the architecture of the capsule hotel ultimately creates a new concept of public. Sometimes it is a funny sort of public, where two hundred people are milling about a shared building wearing identical lounge wear and smelling of the same soap.
The Tama Art University campus is a collection of concrete buildings, most of which are covered with the traces of nearly identical formwork. In this way, the university’s library, designed by Toyo Ito, meets the criteria to establish a family resemblance. However, the Tama Library interiorizes this commonality – the interior is essentially a series of exterior facades intersected with themselves. Along the facade, these concrete faced arches and their taught glass infills draw a strong, yet inflected, boundary between two realms. The inside and outside are clearly delineated. Within the interior, without the glass infills, these same walls of arches do little to produce boundaries or barriers within the space. The interior is essentially a single room differentiated not by lines of arches, but by bookshelves and furniture.
Ise is an exercise in potentials. Both Ise Jingu Haiku and Ise Jingu Geku, separated by some five kilometers and five hundred years in time, are comprised of four sites, each site having multiple sanctuary structures, all of which are rebuilt every twenty years. Over forty free standing structures are built anew each cycle. Architecture becomes offering. The primary material means, more significant than the costs, are the forests themselves. This is illustrated by the scale of the forests dedicated to sourcing the necessary monolithic logs of Japanee Cypress, and the many decades of growth required. The primary architectural means of facilitating such a generous regeneration is the doubling of sites – Kondenchi. For every building at Ise and for every designed gap between them, there is a corresponding double left empty. To visit the shrines is half a visit to these mirrored expanses, carved from the forest and carefully covered in hand laid stones. These sites commemorate shrines of the past and promise the continuation of the cycle in the future. The potential embedded within them feels more impressive and consequential than their completed neighbors standing to the side.
Ise Jingu Naiku cannot be understood independent of the forest. Rebuilt on an adjacent site every twenty years, the newly constructed sanctuaries are young buildings standing in an ancient grove. At their core, these buildings are ancient in design, and at their furthest extents these trees are young growths, only a few weeks old. The regeneration of Ise entwines many times – buildings are cyclically remade to enshrine the deity that resides within the forests of which the buildings are constructed. Methods of assigning ages to a tree may prove a helpful model for understanding the ages of Ise. A tree has three ages. Most simply, the tree has a chronological age, beginning with its seed’s germination. Additionally, portions of the tree have localized ages – the core of the trunk may be hundreds of years older than the sprouts of its furtherest extent. And finally, the tree has an age derived of its life cycle – though chronologically old the tree may be developmentally young, or portions of the tree may exist in various life cycles while having developed at simultaneous times chronologically. A complete understanding of the age of a tree requires the synthesis of all three measures of age. A complete understanding of the architecture of Ise requires the inclusion of such regenerative, cyclical, and localized measures of time.
The Katsura Imperial Villa is totally designed. Here, perhaps more than anywhere, everything is considered and every part is considered in relation to all those that surround it. Constructed over three generations, each expanding and perfecting the work of the previous, the villa is less a finished form than a scripted relationship. The villa is neither first a house nor first a garden, but rather each gives form and informs the other – architecture and garden are locked in a mutually dependent pairing. The reach of its design does not end at the limits of the physical constructions, both architectural and landscape, but it extends into the realm of designing my behavior as I encounter it. The extents of the Villa’s considerations are controlling, but not completely so – there are overwhelming possibilities within its grounds. Walking through the garden each stride is predetermined in stone. Unevenly shaped and placed stepping stones require a careful attention to each step taken, breaking habits of stride and stroll. Observing the garden is routinely punctuated with observations of your body moving through it, until perceptions of the surrounding garden and your body within it become perceptions of one and the same thing. Is this environmental perception? Can a constructed environment give rise to such perception?
The Yokoo House on Teshima, designed by architect Yoko Nagayama collaborating with the artist Tadanori Yokoo, like many of the art houses on the “art islands” of Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima, is a renovation of a previously deserted residential complex. However, in this case the renovation goes beyond restoring the buildings to their originally intended conditions, but rather the Yokoo house goes on to reveal the principles behind the construction itself. Replacing all exterior planar surfaces with transparent glass, the central portion of the house becomes an x-ray model of itself. The house produces a nearly didactic, but still enjoyable, interior as it reveals the strict ordering principles of the tatami.
The Teshima Art Museum is not a museum at all. It is a device for seeing the wind, shaping sound, holding light, demonstrating surface tension (of water and concrete), reflecting temperatures… In short, its interior renders tangible that which exists around its exterior, but invisibly so. It is not about nature at all, but it is about the relationship between our constructed environment and itself.
Nazen-in temple is seven hundred and fifty-three years old, but it was built in 1703. Though it is a temple, it was built as a private house; at one time it even served as the residence of the Japanese imperial family. The building that stands here today is the third (nearly, but not identical) structure to stand on this ground and is now no longer a private home or an active temple. It is a tourist attraction. However, all the buildings that have stood here, despite their varied matter and use, are considered to be Nanzen-in and they have a continuous history. Such a story is more of a rule than an exception amongst the oldest examples of Japanese architecture. It seems that the Japanese understanding of continuity has little to do with material or function, but rather with ideas and actions. The idea of Nanzen-in is continuous, despite the cypress wood being different. Nanzen-in, as a structure, behaves in a continuous manner, no matter what it’s occupants intend to do there. If material or use are interchangeable, then what is the true concern of the architect?
The rock garden at Ryoanji constructs a world contained within walls. Though small in scale, this mirrored world can not be taken in with a single view – all rocks of the garden are never visible from one single vantage point. A world contained in this small walled plot cannot be contained in your view. The house, now temple, of which the rock garden is an extension, can be seen as adhering to similar principles. Built as a single room, the interior of the house is continuous yet divided by a system of sliding walls. While the interior has the potential to be completely open as a single room, the room can never be fully seen or understood from one position. The room seems to be built on simple principles, with a great number of potential outcomes.
The Kyoto Imperial Palace is a collection of halls, each designed for it’s own set of precise functions, set into a highly constructed garden. The full assembly of the palace is confined within a perfectly rectangular walled perimeter. This outer form of the palace is set into a still larger park, that is itself a collection of further palaces and complexes bound within rectangular walls and set into a designed forest. It strikes me as a remarkably similar strategy as employed by Nishizawa at the Moriyama House. Independently considered and perfected houses are held together in a field of relations. The resulting construction is not a simple arithmetic, but rather capable of producing more unforeseen outcomes.
To exercise your sense of balance, you need two free hands. Moving across the landscape of the Arakawa & Gins designed Site of Reversible Destiny, Yoro Park, is an experience of losing your balance and finding it again. This constructed landscape removes conventional cues and supports, throwing off your previously well established sense of occupying your surroundings. When engaged, the park is a device for reformulating your relationship with your environment. However, the operative elements of the park are hindered by the artists’ default use of representative forms – chairs and kitchen cabinets get strewn across and divided by overlapping rooms, the shapes of the Japanese archipelago are pasted and painted across the grounds. These forms, common and dominant in the park, are ultimately more focused on how they appear, than how they behave. They represent concepts, rather than enacting ideas. Thus, they work against the radical operability that the artists intended for the park.
To engage in a productive feedback with it’s users, a constructed environment must be disposed towards the production of difference. Therefore, by what means can a static architecture produce difference over time? Must there be particular forms, or organizations, that possess greater capacity for difference? Toyo Ito’s constructed environments in Gifu Prefecture – “Minna no Mori” Gifu Media Cosmos and the Crematorium in Kakamigahara – seem to be primarily free plans, with furniture or secondary forms inserted beneath an expressive and suggestive roof. The free plan, in it’s state of indifference, seems unable to itself be an active producer of difference.
Visible from afar, resembling a gathering of unnatural green space ships congregating at the base of the mountains, the Site of Reversible Destiny packs a strong visual impression. Though at the same time, you won’t get much out of simply looking at the park. It’s landforms and shapes primarily give rise to visual confusion. To visit this site as a user the camera, and the trained architectural eye that goes with it, will need to be left behind next time.
Amongst all the cases of indeterminate interiors in contemporary Japanese architecture, there is one commonality. They all give little attention to their exterior. Though great effort may be spent on its technical realization, the exterior face and form of these buildings receives little attention – they remain as minimal or generic facades to the surrounding environment. All focus is on their active interiors.
Why am I so spell bound by the traditional Japanese house?
Is it the luring depths created through the screens? Is it the way the space surrounds me, without perspective or emphasis? Is it the flatness framing seemingly infinite and contained gardens? Is it the tease of feeling the light from outside but never being touched by its rays? Is it because I have to take off my shoes, and feel the slippery tatami beneath my feet? Is it the grassy smelly coming from the mats? Is it the fact that the rooms can not be read, but only felt? Is it the corners – the column that reaches out into the garden and the gardens that reach out into the house? Is it the vagueness, because I am always caught in-between? Is it the humbling nature, arising from ducking through doors and carefully treading and gently sliding doors. Is it the scale of the body, mapped in the floors and translated to the walls and volumes of the room? Is it the sense of pervasive sense of mutual dependency, where no element seems impressive or sufficient in isolation? Is it because the building seems to be a living pulsing assembly? Or, Is it the chill in the air? Is it the gentle illumination passing through paper walls? Is it because these houses seem to be capable of extending forever, without stress or compromise to their nature? Is it because the house has little to no concern of it’s external form, because it is impossible to declare what it exterior and what is interior? Is it the rotating patterns of the tatami, surrounding me? Is it simply the rough wood, and the evidence of such craft? Is it simply novelty?
While I can not yet properly explain it, I can not deny it.
This building is built as a uniform circle. However, this geometry results in an anything but uniform experience. Moving through the building often causes feelings of disorientation, while at the same time views to the outside and through corridors always let you know where you are. Navigating through such an environment transforms the building with no front or back into a weighted experience, uniform geometries are distorted into articulated terrains. It becomes clear that uniform form is a spatial concept that does not meaningfully exist within lived experience. After days of visiting and using the building, the circular form has assumed the role of a sort of compass, a compass not evenly divided into cardinal directions, but a compass that orients me towards experientially constructed poles.
Indeterminacy within the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa emerges not from a free plan or movable partitions, but rather arises out of a collection of precise designs. The museum consists of eighteen unique and stand alone galleries – each has it’s own distinctive combination of proportion and scale. The galleries range from domestic in character to soaring fourteen meter high volumes. All are contained and concealed within a corridor that fully surrounds each. Like ginger the corridor cleanses the memory of the previous occupied room, preparing for each gallery to be measured against the same four meter high metric. Some galleries can be entered calmly, others are meet with gasps of surprise. Modeled on a range of existing galleries, these rooms are designed with potential but not predetermined uses in mind. Their doors are placed with possible but not obvious alignments. Ultimately it is this precision and rigidity, balanced within the free zone’s in-between, that results in such a “pleasant complexity.” The limitations of the museum allow for a greater production of difference.
The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa demands a response. For first time visitors, regular members, artists, and curators, the architecture does not dictate but rather suggests possibilities. While adhering to the white-cube typology, the specificities of the museum do not allow for business as usual exhibitions. How do you make use of the range of galleries available? In what sequence should the galleries be visited? How do you, or do you, make use of the extensive in-between spaces? Through its specificities the building actively enters into a conversation with the exhibiting contemporary artist – it challenges and offer possibilities. In turn, the artist reshapes the building to the needs and desires of their art. This productive relationship between artist and architecture renders the building as a tool for the advancement of art itself.
Strolling around the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, you can fully encircle the building on foot, inside and out. From any of the four entrances, you enter a continuous ring of public functions, each coming into view one after another as your follow the receding facade. Open areas swell and contract around public galleries, meeting spaces, a library, a public nursery, a cafe, a bookshop… The building is in fact home to two institutions, one encircling the other. Held in the middle is the museum itself, restricted to ticket holders, but porous to the unpaid public around it. These inner and outer rings, with their views and passages through one another, allow each to occupy the full volume of the combined whole. This museum “open to the city like a park”, is a series of three concentric rings of public space, that while divided by barriers of glass and restricted access, are held together as a single lived assembly.
Kenroku-en Garden does not rely on romantic visions of nature. The garden does not strive to be or appear natural in anyway. The grounds of this four hundred year old garden, in the center of Kanazawa, are amongst one of the most constructed places that can be imagined. Here the trees, supported from beneath and above with poles and ropes, have grown to extreme proportions that are at once grotesque and gorgeous in their suspended state. Streams run over stone paved beds and between delicate arched bamboo fences. The fences here are signals to be read, they are not real defenses of any kind. Perfectly homogenous beds of moss are the work of small armies of attentive gardeners, armed with fine blades and tweezers. Everything here is constructed and manipulated by man and her designs. The garden is a mirroring of the world, and this mirroring is liberated by its denouncement of the natural.
The Hiroshi Senju Museum, designed by Ryue Nishizawa, is a radically interior building. The exterior itself is contained within the building. Despite its entirely glazed facade in a rural town, there are no views to the outside. Only a soft light filters through a silver cloth covering every window. Instead of views out, the building creates views within and through itself – through rounded glass courtyards and over interior slopes. Unlike the art exhibited within it, the building does not aim to represent or reproduce it’s surroundings. While the art of Senju promotes a romanticized understanding of our surroundings (we can call this false construct nature), the museum building takes steps towards enacting ecological principles that give rise to a more productive understanding of our surroundings.
smt tube 05
With the opening of a new exhibition for the Sendai Design League, Tube 5 is now open for public circulation. Usually designated as an emergency exit, this stair is prominently displayed in a glass tube along the facade. At last being able to pass up and down through the tube, the promise of an inhabitable structure seems to be realized – the elevators are too controlling in their speed and orientation to simulate occupational choice. Each floor accessible to the tube is now redefined. Terminal corners have become entry points and gathering spots, the focus and weight of attention within the plate has shifted. Making note of this new balance, it seems a shame that the public circulation is so concentrated around the front of the building, when it could instead act as a distributed motivator for shifting organizations based on use and need. Even when outside the tube and upon the floor plates, the activity of people traveling these “vertical transit lines” animates and highlights the multi-functionality of this structure.
The gallery on floor six took some getting used to. As the most open of all seven floors within the building, and unlike the neighboring galleries of level five with their fixed compartments, the space here is free of permanent dividing walls. It isn’t a surprise that a building aimed at producing “a completely new concept of architecture” was not immediately well received. The critics of the interior were conditioned to expect white cubes, and instead they encountered a gallery punctured thirteen times with large hollow tubes, producing challenges when isolating views and lighting conditions. However, over time the use of the space exhibited the potential within these structural intrusions and resulting free areas surrounding them. New possibilities for conceiving and experimenting with the form of exhibitions emerged. As the curator responsible for such experimentation, Tamotsu-san of the smt, explained, now the critics see the tubes not as a nuisance, but as the gallery’s greatest asset. Such anecdotes remind me of the sentiment of Kenzo Tange, when he said “After all, the appreciation of living space is a lot about getting accustomed to it. It makes me happier to be complimented on a building after ten years of usage rather than immediately after completion.”
Most every part of the smt is open to inhabitation, even the structure. Within this free occupiable expanse, there are essentially only two types of spaces: within the tube or upon the floor plates. Within the tubes, the experience remains more or less the same along all points vertically. Upon the plates, the floor to ceiling height is the primary source of difference from one level to the next. The lofty ceiling of the third level library, situated in the middle of the building, makes it highly visible from most every other level. It’s emblematic red furniture can be glimpsed above and below as you move through the levels. However, while within this high ceilinged room, it is difficult to see even into the shorter library level directly below. Stacked upon one another as self similar variations of one another, these different levels gain distinction through the people, objects, and activities occupying them.
When traveling to the seventh floor of the smt, like in most every other building, you first pass through levels one to six. However, here at the smt this sequence plays out more clearly than perhaps anywhere else. The plates of each floor are reduced to such an extent and the transparency of the enclosure around you is so complete that you get a passing experience of inhabiting each floor as you speed by. The stairs are normally reserved for escape routes only. In his accounts of the building, Toyo Ito explains that with the smt he sought to demolish previously held concepts of program – the floors plates of the smt were meant to be uniform grounds upon which to freely test and form new understandings of programmatic definition and use. And throughout the building this promise begins to be fulfilled. On the seventh floor, this barrier free dream is challenged by the difference demanded by the activities sharing the plate. Directors offices, flexible exhibition areas, and public work spaces combine on a single level, and in the end they have been divided by additional walls. The promise of the thirteen tubes is not fully realized due to an insufficient capacity for the production of difference embedded within their organization.
Entering the Sendai Mediatheque, the building appears as a neat and simple glass prism. The building is not remarkable for it’s exterior form, but rather for it’s interior organization. That organization, and it’s struggle for sufficiency, are at once evident on the ground level. Conceived of as the “public square” the ground floor is a continuation of the sidewalk surface and designed to be entirely open, even being equipped with an operable facade. Today walls portion off much of the area. However, the room begins to grow vertically through the structural tubes extending above and below the floor and ceiling. Light and fellow inhabitants travel up and down, dispersing into the stacked levels.
Visiting the Bato Hiroshige Museum of Art is essentially an elongated experience of entering and exiting the interior. The interior itself has almost no identity – it is a dark hollow vessel only for the display of art. Passing through the turns and screens of Kuma’s architecture echoes, and prepares for, the experience of looking into the scenes of Hiroshige contained within. The exhibited prints of Hiroshige depict an assembly of characters amongst a complex and layered environment. Intricate depths are rendered without perspective. Even the text of the prints enters into the construction of the atmosphere. The prints depict an architecture uninterested in shaped forms or isolated space, but rather, like the museum building itself, are ultimately masterworks of the in-between.
Gazing upon a ‘White Infinity Net’ of Yayoi Kusama seems to increase the area contained within the frame – how can such scope be contained within the limits of the canvas? The serial, non-repetitive, strokes of her brush imitate one another across the canvas, self-similar but each producing a difference from the last. This production of difference produces the sense of the infinite. A rectangle of printed dots would merely produce a pattern. The lack of repetition within the work leaves us in awe of the generative capacities of actions over time.
The capsule is alive and well in Japan. While the legacy of the 1960’s Metabolists lives more through their unbuilt work than through realized projects, the capsule is perhaps the most frequently encountered architectural device in all of Japan. You find it in most every bathroom. Designed as single watertight unit, the shower, toilet, sink, and the room that holds them together are manufactured as an interchangeable plastic and fiberglass capsule with integrated fixtures and drains. These capsules, seemingly made in a variety of dimensions, occupy a corner of apartments and hotels across the country, masked from the outside but revealed in the step up into them and the lowered ceiling within them.
The work of Arakawa & Gins exists on the periphery of architectural discourse. While well known and influential within parts of Japan, the texts, art, and architecture of the couple remain somewhat surprisingly ignored elsewhere. I believe their marginalization can simply be attributed to two factors: the image based obsession of contemporary architects and the couple’s radical claim “We have decided not to die.” The former seems to be the predominate force in play. The appearance of the built work of Arakawa & Gins is considered playful, and therefor not serious. While the Metabolists could produce avant-garde designs, drawing from traditional precedents of the Ise Shrine and Katsura Imperial Villa, many contemporary architects seem to be unable to look past the appearance of a work, to engage with it’s true content.
At KAIT, definitions within the environment are formed through time – the accumulation of past use and experience produces clarity. Upon first entering the room as a visitor, subtle variations of density and orientation of columns may indicate possible territories, but the interior is at first undifferentiated. You might ramble through someone’s office without even being aware. Over time, your own habits and observations of the habits of others, give rise to a definition previously present yet not visible. Without any physical change, the building forms through time. In this way the building is a construction that operates similar to the Naoshima Art House of James Turrell, Minamidera. Entering Minamidera from the daylit exterior, you must stumble your way through pitch black darkness, finding you seat using your hands not your eyes. You are blind to the room around you. Staring ahead into the darkness, a faint light appears in front of you, increasing in intensity over the course of ten or more minutes. The vision before you is in fact not a light, but a glowing void. The void did not begin to glow, but rather over time your eyes began to see it – the void was always faintly illuminated. In the same way that time and attention come together to produce the Turrell, so too do they form the interior environment of Ishigami’s KAIT.
The KAIT Workshop building is a single room. This is a fact that seems simple from the outside, but quite radical from the inside. There isn’t even a bathroom. Despite being a single room, without walls or internal doors, the continuous interior seems to flicker around you. Seated off-center in this not quite square room, perceptions of near and far are hard to keep track of – columns approach and recede, collapse and combine, without ever moving. The movement of your eyes and attentions are enough to redefine the environment around you. Reading in silence, you can begin to feel alone in the room, until a distant sound or glimpse of movement reminds you that you are sharing this expanse.
To make architecture as environment, rather than as space, requires a more inclusive and specific architecture. The KAIT Workshop building expands architecture – it includes new scales of materiality, dimensionality, and place. The work of Arakawa + Gins broadens architecture to include the most mundane of actions rendered in the most specific manner. For these architects their realized works seem to be constructed hypotheses that grow the definition of architecture, while narrowing in on it’s goals.
The forms of the KAIT Workshop emerge from the anecdotal uses of it. In his own presentations of the work, the architect Junya Ishigami presents post occupancy sketches, and even surveillance videos, not only as proof of concept but also as evidence of the architecture’s existence. Without occupancy the smallness of the work may be dismissed as purely a structural feat. Without occupancy the productive capacities embedded within this indeterminate space would be invisible or deniable. With occupancy the architecture is produced.
Architecture conceived as environment may require staging the foundations of it’s own demise. Architecture which engages within productive feedback loops, between environment and occupant, can not expect to be passive or permanent.
Tokyo is a city of many scales. Distinct from most any other urban area, the range of scales represented in Tokyo’s fabric are not nested, as in the gridded city, but rather here they are folded and abutted together. Japan’s postwar history, coupled with current building codes and the existence of 1.8 million landowners within Tokyo (95% individuals), has resulted in the democratic multiscalar fabric that is perhaps the only definitive characteristic of the city. The only scale that does not exist here is the scale of the natural environment – Tokyo is hyper-constructed ground. This neighboring of scales engenders great potential for the production of different within the city.
The published image is rarely the image experienced upon visiting a place. In typical publications, a newly constructed room or building is staged with a few props and stand in actors, or even left entirely empty. When visiting a completed and inhabited construction, the trappings of habitual life have found, or not been able to find, their place within. The comparison of these two images, and the relative success of the later, offers a metric for assessing the success of a built work. Published images promote an aesthetic of un-lived space. Or worse, they promote a space as complete without the presence of its intended occupants, as if the inhabitant were an inconvenient burden on the architecture. The staged photography typical of publications today leads to a spatial aesthetic in architecture. An acknowledgment and accommodation of lived experience, and it’s appearance, leads to an environmental aesthetic.
The Moriyama House, by Nishizawa, and the the Okurayama House, by Sejima, are both exercises in constructing the in-between. Through the dismantling or unwinding of individual programs or rooms, gaps are inserted into the environments of the everyday. These usable gaps create indeterminate places for change, exchange, and negotiation. These are places of possibility. These gaps of potential give rise to a productive feedback between their occupants and the constructed environment – life is generated here.
The “group form” of Maki's Hillside Terrace is such that it is difficult to distinguish the complex from the city surrounding it. Constructed incrementally over the course of three decades, built in a number of materials and forms, the buildings stand unique from their surroundings predominately by nature of the many maps that highlight their unity. When scrutinized, Maki’s designs display a heightened intentionality in relation to their neighbors, but do not boast their difference or received attention. Apart from the other Metabolists, it seems Maki has found grounds for the full realization of his thesis.
The radical constructions of Arakawa and Gins are the built result of their breathtaking belief in architecture. Writing in their co-authored book, “Architectural Body”, the artist and philosopher poet layout their conversion and dedication to the practice of architecture: “We contend that philosophical puzzles cannot be solved short of a thorough architectural reworking. …Architecture is the greatest tool available to our species, both for figuring itself out and for constructing itself differently. …Therefore, architecture ought to be designed for actions it invites. Theoretical constructs as to the nature of person can be assessed in a thoroughgoing manner through—and, in the end, only through—architectural construction.” The depth of their convictions can be felt in the intense specificity of their designs.
WE HAVE DECIDED NOT TO DIE. This defiant and optimistic title of the Guggenheim show of Arakawa and Madeline Gins encapsulates their philosophy of reversible destiny – through the design and occupation of architectural bodies we can chose not to die. The interpretations and merits of the now deceased artist architect duo can be debated. While perhaps they truly intended to live forever, as immortals, I can understand their credo as a dedication to the productive feedbacks between an environment and it’s occupant. Such a relationship may become truly generative and self perpetuating, despite the death or replacement of it’s players over time. In the Reversible Destiny Lofts, Apartment 302 “Critical Resemblance”, a number of designed challenges set such a feedback loop into motion. Bumpy rough textured floors scale to the foot, offering opportunities from griping and stumbling. The sloped ground cradles the body and destabilizes routines. A ceiling landscape of eye-hooks, poles, and ladders, provide an alternative support, freeing the floor for movement and appropriation. Cubic, spherical, and cylindrical rooms radiate off of the central space, each with a proposition, scale, and color all it’s own. Three days within this environment and it continues to unfold in new ways.
Evident within the experience of the Reversible Destiny environment is the belief that our surroundings influence life. The architects’ belief in the power of architecture to make a difference, rather than just an impression, is contained in the idiosyncratic forms and released in the experience of them. The seemingly light hearted apartment is designed to remove crutches from the normal script of everyday life. The choice to replace conventional forms at every turn, results in a space designed with great intentionality. The precise intentions to challenge give rise to indeterminate possible versions of the place.
Living within the Reversible Destiny Lofts of Arawaka and Gins is both challenging and comical. Each unit is equipped with a set of “Instructions for Use”. Rather than being written to alleviate, these instructions amplify the challenges and amusement of living within the place. Walking or stumbling about the apartment gives rise to feelings of unease that spur inventions which result in found comfort.
The built fabric of Tokyo can be understood as a collection of independent visions for the city. Regulations dictate that a single lot contains a single structure and all structures are set back half a meter from the site boundary. Such rules result in a series of neighbors, all at least one meter apart from the next, standing distinctly in the city. There are no party walls here. Each building may or may not acknowledge the urban in-between that surrounds in. The Prada flagship store, designed by Herzog & de Meuron for the fashion brand in 2002, in comparison with it’s many kin of the same ruled origins, stands with the greatest awareness of it’s potential for objectification. The limits of the building are simultaneously form it’s structure, facade, interior logic, and exterior image. Viewed in Tokyo’s relatively inconsequential field of self cancelling icons of commerce the Prada building is objectified to the extreme point of being generic.
Some buildings benefit from the introduction of the objects-of-life, others can easily be ruined by them. The KAIT workshop building by Junya Ishigami is completed and defined by the life that occupies it – the potentials of the place emerge from it’s use. The Yokohama Passenger Terminal by Foreign Office Architects struggles to accommodate the various activities desired to play out within it – the use of the space seems to compromise the architect’s intended image.
TOTO publishing produces some of the most significant architectural publications emerging from Japan, all part of the social program of the popular toilet brand. The motivations behind a leading toilet brands’ promotion of contemporary architecture are in no way opaque, but are surprising all the same. The services specified within a project nurture the discipline from which the original need arises.
Visiting the Art Houses of Naoshima expands the environment of the island. Passing through the outer walls of these once private homes, new domestic and artistic worlds are discovered. The archipelago grows from within. The art and act of visiting becomes part of the town. The Miyanouraa Marine Station by SANAA behaves in a similar manner – beyond serving it’s utilitarian functions it becomes a part of the surrounding environment and seaside village. In contemporary architectural practice it’s humbly assumed position of being a part of everyday life seems radical. While the nearby Chichu Museum of Ando conversely creates worlds unto itself, the work of Sejima and Nishizawa, as well as the neighborhood Art Houses, expand the existing world within which they reside.
Chichu Art Museum is a building with no exterior. Built with interior views only out to the sky above, the building creates a world unto itself. It’s sculptural spaces – masterful compositions of concrete and light – demand the attention of the viewer. Such spaces simultaneously capture the attention of the individual visitor while also being threatened by the visual or acoustic presence of any other individual. Visiting these spaces is akin to being a privileged outsider, temporarily allowed inside this mausoleum of art. Complete unto itself, this building does not desire the contribution or life of its users. Such occupation makes clear the difference between a spatial experience and an environmental one.
The Inujima Art House Project is more a work of integration than one of creation. Located on the island of Inujima, the northernmost of a trio of “art islands” nestled in the archipelago of the inland sea, each house or pavilion of the project is integrated into the village and surrounding landscape. Each structure is an integration of traditional techniques into the contemporary interpretations of the architect, Kazuyo Sejima. The existing constructions, still only part of a larger ever growing and adapting vision, exist along a gradient of this integration. Some appear nearly indistinguishable from their vernacular neighbors while others appear as foreign assemblies of swelling glass integrated through their translucency or reflectivity. These small interventions in the environment are unable to control the art that is exhibited within them or the life of the village around them.
Through containment of space, a sense of immensity or the infinite can be created. Exemplified at Ryoan-ji, but practiced in many traditional Japanese gardens and homes, when walled and bordered by domestically scaled spaces, an enclosed open area can be made to feel larger than it is. Areas of the in-between multiple space, the compactness of the exterior seems to expand it. While the vista through a window of Versailles attempts to order and master the whole world, the average Japanese garden contains within in it many worlds, easily contained and controlled by it’s architecture.
At Kiyomazu-dera the temple complex seems to have grown along the topography to a point where the ground no longer easily supported structures of the scale that was desired. The topography, specifically the mountains, of Japan were a limit to the architectural ambitions of the people. As a result the temple’s main hall famously extends out over the edge of the mountain on a three-dimensionally gridded wooden foundation, formed from monolithic massive timber poles. Each multistory vertical support is the remarkably straight trunk of an individual tree. There are no trees this size growing in sight. This elevated constructed ground appears to be an unreferenced but likely precedent and precursor to the Metabolists’ of the 1960’s solution of artificial ground. What the architects of Kiyomazu-dera did to the side of a hill, the Metabolists later did to the sky and the sea.
Walking the small streets of Kyoto, it is difficult to distinguish between the private house and the tea house. Each building is precisely, but delicately, defined by layers of screens, fences, steps, curtains, eaves, signs, and changing materials. It is difficult to know where the private building begins and the public street ends. The space in-between is indeterminate. Knowing if one can enter relies heavily on a knowledge of the insides. These buildings display a developed vernacular vocabulary for demarcating or dealing with the distance in-between – the distance in-between inside and outside, private and public, one person and another. This sophisticated and nuanced vocabulary of traditional Japanese constructions seems to be reinforced by, or perhaps informed by, the pervasive respectful and private social posture.
Tokyo appears to be a city that has grown over time – it is not the result of top down planning. Without dictated districts or regular street grids, certain orders emerge within the city. Concentrations of buildings, self similar in scale and use, begin to become clear just at the moment their emergent organization begins to break lose and fade into neighboring clusters. Shibuya shops and lights mingle with the alleys of Harajuku fashion, and both rub against the forests of Yoyogi park that give way to Meiji Shrine or Tange’s Olympic Gymnasium.
Given the shortage and expense of free space on Hong Kong Island, reappropriation becomes the norm. Industrial spaces become living rooms, indoor markets become display windows, and elevated office floor plates become public galleries. The generic forms of the city are easily challenged and overturned. Gaining access to these places requires some manner of insider knowledge or simple luck.
The towers of Hong Kong accumulate into walls. Standing thirty or more stories tall, the rows of identical facades appear as monotonous barriers inhospitable to occupation. Though visually concealed within the narrow proportions and self similarity of the towers, the typical Hong Kong apartment unit has two tools for producing differentiated space. Each unit is a collection of rooms, most often each having its own exterior corner. The result is a crenelated floor plan, that opens views in multiple orientations, but more importantly results in each room being formed as it’s own distinct space. Although small, the apartment is an addition of rooms, not a divisions of limited area. Second, in what seems to be a response to building codes regulating footprints and envelopes, most all windows extend through the facade as a sort of rectilinear bay window. The window becomes it’s own small room protruding out over the city.
While Hong Kong has the most open green space of any major world city, the natural and developed areas are constructed entirely apart from one another. There is little existence of an in-between. The result is one of the world’s most dense cities being confined to the edge of an island and peninsula, expanding upward along the mountain side and outward onto reclaimed land. The topography, paired with conservation laws, creates welcomed pockets of seclusion.
Returning to the HSBC building throughout the Lunar New Year holiday, the place that was before a bustling thoroughfare and even public exhibition space has now transformed by nature of a different use. The public plane beneath the tower is being colonized by gathering groups of women socializing, eating, and playing games. However, the purely open space beneath the tower and the plazas and sidewalks around it do not provide adequate division for “defensible space” in the public realm, therefore the women demarcate their territory through cardboard boxes fashioned into sitting mats and even small waist high walls. A series of small living rooms is clustered together into a bustling group.
The density of Hong Kong fosters and requires the relocation of public places – without adequate ground, streets move into the air and public ground finds itself within towers and on top of roofs. Varied in form, ranging from elevated streets that become malls to police apartments renovated into public cafes and shops, the public realm of Hong Kong is accepted, or even expected, to venture into what may otherwise be considered private territory.
The way a tower touches the ground is essentially the only moment in which it operates as more than an image. For the city dweller of Hong Kong, with the significant exception of those who reside or work within the tower itself, a tower is primarily experienced and known from within a few blocks of it’s base, when passing by on foot, in a car, or in other public transport. The HSBC building, designed by Sir Norman Foster and completed in 1986, is perhaps the only major tower in Hong Kong which does not sit directly upon an unwelcoming podium of shopping malls, parking, private lobbies, public transport, or HVAC systems. Suspended between two cores, the building hangs above the ground offering a covered public space to the city. The curtain wall of the tower extends down as a transparent soffit, shaping the room to be an exterior room of massive but comfortable proportions.
The Angkor Temples, and ancient or historical projects like them, are ultimately destinations. They are not projects we occupy or use in a habitual way. In the case of the temples, even the kings who commissioned their construction was unlikely to use the building on a regular basis, but instead visited on occasions. Only the monks who maintained and prayed within them had a habitual practiced understanding of these environments. In this way, the contemporary tourists and even repeat visitors of these places must have experientially constructed versions of these temples that are radically different from those of the original users.
Visiting a ruin seems to require a different attention than that used when visiting a contemporary or even historical, but still functional, environment. How does one look at a ruin? If you focus solely on identifying the qualities that must have been – discovering the original thing – you risk ignoring the current state of the environment as it is as such. If you train your attention on the beauty of it’s disrepair, you risk missing any understanding of the intentions and nature of the original construction. Visiting and reflecting on a ruin highlights the difference between the occupational intention to read an environment versus the intention to simply feel an environment.
The temples of the later Angkor period are visually the most impressive, but ultimately not as engaging or satisfying as their predecessors. The later temples seem to adhere to a new type. Ta Keo is perhaps the archetypical example, amongst a family including Angkor Wat, Bapheon, and many smaller examples. If the early temples are constructed on relatively flat planes, resulting in what might be called a labyrinth form, the later temples are terraced to essentially adhere to a pyramid form. Inhabiting these pyramid structures as a worshiper or visitor, each level is experientially separate from the last, despite employing similar motifs and layouts. Visiting such temples, built more as monuments than environments, begins to become repetitive. Three consecutive visits to the early temple of Ta Phrom, as discussed before, has yet to elicit a duplicate experience.
The temple Ta Phrom is a short tuk tuk ride Northeast of it’s more famous cousin, Angkor Wat. Wandering through the narrow and partially collapsed halls of the temple complex produces a surprising impression – the surrounding rooms and courts seem to multiply around you. Akin to stepping into a hall of mirrors, the impression of an infinite space is created, and is only further enforced by fleeting glimpses of bodies passing by near and far. At first glance the plans of Ta Phrom and Angkor Wat appear nearly identical. Each is a bilateral composition of offset square forms, corner towers, and a pair of libraries, all surrounded by moats and perimeter walls. However, the experience of the two constructions is dramatically different, for reasons more than their discrepancy in scale. The level plan and aligned doorways of Ta Phrom frame, occlude, and multiply the people, sun, shadows, voices, footsteps, bird calls, breeze, smells, and temperatures of it’s constructed and captured environment. These simple means produce an arresting and complex experience, one that vastly predates yet feels akin to such projects as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and Naumann’s “Room with My Soul Left Out.”
Concentrated in a cluster of more than 30 individual complexes, each a monument in its own right, the Angkor Temples are what remains of the Khmer Empire. The temple complexes range from sprawling and alluring to heroic and intimidating, however in all cases the temples were not accessible and often invisible to the public of the time. While each succeeding king lived in one palace, passed down and adapted to the new ruler, every monarch would plan and build his own temple. The temple of a past king was no longer used. At the center of a city of one million people, out numbering the current population some six hundred years later, a collection of abandoned monuments accumulated over the centuries. Each temple is surrounded by a series of arcades, courts, yards, walls, and moats such that the ambitious and awe inspiring forms are predominately or completely hidden from public view. These edifices were built for the eyes and enjoyments of the royals and their priests – not as manifestations of dominance. Temples had exclusive rights to stone construction, while all other buildings were built from the regions abundant forests. Today the wooden structures are gone, and only the private stone monuments are left and open to the public.
Traveling via tuk tuk colors the experience of my surroundings. Bumping along in the open air, enjoying it’s charm and inhaling it’s fumes, it occurs to me that an understanding of a location’s predominate mode of transportation can tell you a great deal about the place. Rather be it the Tuk-Tuks and motorbikes of Siem Reap, an open safari car, a beige Mercedes, or timely tram lines, means of transportation not only cast a particular mood, but they inform about the climate, economy, history, social structure, and general culture of a place.
Upon examination, it seems that the group known as Metabolism, originating in Japan in the 1960’s, is better characterized as a community rather than a movement. First formally assembled in their publication “Metabolism, 1960” on the occasion of the World Design Conference in Tokyo, the group originated as a collection of voices defined as much by their consensus as by their disagreement. The resulting conversation and debate was the adhesive that held the group together and produced their definitive, albeit varied, body of work. As Rem Koolhaas so characteristically distills, it seems that today the state of architecture is more focused on the personality of the architect rather than the work of architecture itself. In such a state it is difficult to imagine having generative conversations or productive communities.
The interior environments of the Rolex Learning Center are not deigned for specific programs, but rather the building’s precise forms are meant to give rise to indeterminate uses. Within this field of translatable space a minimum of singularly defined functional spaces are inserted – the Kahnian duality of served and servant spaces is reversed. Given such inscrutable geometries and the reversal of customary understanding of function, the building requires different means of analysis. The plan must be felt, not read; the interior must be traversed, not surveyed.
SANAA’s Rolex Learning Center creates an interior world unto itself. Sitting on the EPFL campus as an indifferent rectangle, the building has little regard for its surroundings or its own exterior. It remains focused inward on itself and its constructed courts. Unlike most designs which competed for this project, SANAA’s building pays little attention to the views out over Lake Geneva. The building is confident it can produce its own value within its interior, without borrowing form the scenic exterior. A section of any single point within the interior will produce a near identical result – two solid planes, each a meter thick roughly 4 meters apart, carpeted in grey or painted in white. It is the shifting relationship between the many near identical points with in the building that gives rise to the alluring, confounding, challenging, or banal interiors. The monotony of the section, activated through subtle offsets of itself gives rise to a plane of potential activities and uses punctuated by volumes of required specificity. The Rolex Learning Center is a constructed environment, a background, that invites its own manipulation and demands your engagement.
When first approaching and entering the Rolex Learning Center, many aspects of the building call out for attention – impressively undulating forms with unimpressive and unresolved details. Observing with the architect’s gaze, the resolution of matters tends to overwhelm the intentions and resulting experience. What registers from observation of the building is a thing apart from that which registers when you use the building. When settling into the library terraces, reading on a sloped interior hill, or finding your way to a quiet corner, a understanding of the surrounding place is formed distinct from that of your first observations. Over the time of use, the experience of this constructed environment is unhindered by it’s challenges. These interior free flowing worlds overlap and slip past one another, playing host to the range of it’s inhabitants’ intentions.
Hidden beneath the Swiss country side, invisible from on the ground or in the air, the world’s largest scientific instrument tunnels twenty seven kilometers in a perfect circle one hundred meters beneath our feet. Within the tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider, clusters of protons, each smaller than 0.00000000000000001 centimeters, are forced to travel at 99.9% the speed of light and made to collide at one of four points centered within 7,000 tonne machines. Each of the 400 million collisions per second, conducted twenty hours a day, seven months a year, is captured in a unique image, recorded by what amounts to a massive camera capable of recording 100,000 Gigabytes per second. All of this is done in effort to produce and observe the smallest of particles, as the result of essentially simulating the original event of our nearly 14 billion year old universe. Everything in the universe is made of elementary particles, but not all elementary particles are known. The sixty year long history of CERN has resulted in the discovery of one new elementary particle – the half a century ago predicted now provisionally proven Higgs Boson. As humans expand and construct into greater scales of environment and complexity, many of the most basic building blocks are still unknown. Without alternative, we continue upon unknown foundations. Our technological advancement is the only solution to our lack of deep (and dark) knowledge.
The scales of size, time, and significance simultaneously engaged and questioned at CERN produce a sense of awe. The overwhelming feeling results from the discrepancy between the scales of the physical world and the scale of our world of experience. The Large Hadron Collider is so large it disappears and is focused on particles far too small to see. While at the same time it is a tool of discovery likely to change the way we perceive the world. The experience of such a place reminds us that the physical world and the world of experience are unquestionably dependent upon each other, while neither fully includes the other.
Returning as a stranger to a city already well known, the value of lived experience becomes evident – reengaging with familiar surroundings stirs new insights not available via simple consideration or contemplation. All true discoveries are made through experience. This correctly implies that without experience there can be no discovery. To discover requires action carried out on part of the scientist, explorer, architect, or artist. Scientific theories emerge from the trusted experience, and further experience often proves them to be correct. It is important to distinguish between learning and discovering. Learning is the product of engaging with a book, an expert, or a friend, while discovery is the result of engaging directly with our environment. Learning is made possible via discoveries. Without experience we may be learning about our environments, and we can be developing variations of existing models, but we can not discover truly new models of seeing, shaping, and playing our environment.
Standing in a completely dark room listening to a John Cage Composition for Piano, it is the orchestrations not of the artist but of the building that registered most deeply within the body. The cold radiating from the floors and nearby walls, the humming of air filtration systems, purrs of dehumidifiers, and mechanical clicking – these notes were highlighted and held by the occasional sounds of the piano amplified around the space. Situated at the end of an arrival sequence initiated by a walk alongside the canal and a welcoming stranger on the sidewalk, this orchestration of the building faded away upon rounding the corner into the spot-lit gallery. The works of art, exceptional in their own right, felt like alibis for the construction of an underground atmosphere: black mirrored walls, underground lakes with rippling surfaces, a hall of concrete and light beam columns, reverberating clicks from distant shoes and your own.
Tracking movements through a geographic coordinate system reveals something about our understanding of distance and it’s measurement. Traveling halfway across the city of Berlin registers on the GPS coordinate system as a distance that in the Makgadikgadi registered as being very near, even easily within sight. Some discrepancy between perceived and measured distances no doubt arises from variation within the geographic coordinate system itself – a degree of latitude is about one percent smaller at the equator than at the poles, and a degree of longitude ranges from roughly sixty-nine miles at the equator to being zero at the poles. However, given Berlin’s location of 50-degrees north of the equator and Botswana’s of 20-degrees south of the equator, these embedded variations of units are present but don’t account for the full degree of felt discrepancy. Instead, density of the built environment and means of movement seem to play a bigger role in the perception of difference. Moving through the densely constructed city of uniform height, there are few prevalent reference points upon which to register movement and distance. The Berlin TV Tower is the primary, and only occasionally visible, measuring stick of the city. It’s uniform appearance from all 360-degrees hinders it’s function as a compass. In the Makgadikgadi all movement was above and upon the ground plain. Walking was possible within certain safe areas when covering short distances, and long distances were covered only by driving on slow bumpy roads. The horizon was often many kilometers away in all directions. Moving through the city is possible through walking, running, biking, driving, trams, subways, underground trains, and even boats. Ultimately, it is the environment itself and our ability to move through it that shapes our sense of felt distance.
Walking again past the Dutch Embassy in Berlin, I am reminded of how the building stands as evidence that the rules of the city can be played. For thirteen years the embassy stood adjacent to an empty lot, leaving a monumental blank wall to the street. Today the empty lot, never meant to remain that way, is occupied by a freshly constructed Holiday Inn. The embassy has achieved it’s mandate of tucking into the Berlin fabric. Like every building in this predominately governmentally owned neighborhood, the embassy was required to occupy all 4 corners of it’s site and maintain an open court within it’s center. However, within these rules the architects managed to construct a free standing cube who’s interior defies most every convention of the city. The same rules that produce a monotonous, yet harmonious, city may be played in such a way that gives rise to welcomed exceptions. Berlin is not a city of repeated or ascribed forms, but rather is the result of rules and pressures playing themselves out over the historical and dimensional distances of the city.
The Dutch Embassy in Berlin presents itself as a rational cube with hints of an internal exception, unable to fully contain itself within the buildings 5 facades. Once within the building, it is clear what seemed an exception in fact dictates the internal logics of all corners of this built environment. Standing no higher than twenty-seven meters tall, the embassy has 11 levels. The average Berlin building of similar height has no more than 5 levels. These many irregularly shaped floors intimately nest around each other, simultaneously giving way and leading the way for the building’s public trajectory to snake its course vertically to the roof. Such form, rendered in metallic, wooden, transparent, colored, perforated, textured, and illuminated materials results in an alluring but seemingly confounding interior environment. New users of the building routinely get lost. However, the embassy employees, working in the building for a minimum of four year postings, describe the building as comfortable. The lack of clarity and control within the building allows those that live and work within it to slowly build their own personal map of it’s paths and corners. The form offers no obvious reference points or repeated elements. Even the central elevator core does not open on every level, and certainly not in the same orientation. In the Dutch Embassy, habitual occupations make the previously confounding comfortable. Disorientation turns into a strange familiarity fostered from lived experience.
Berlin is littered with open spaces. Varying from the scale of (now) empty building lots to that of an decommissioned airport, these spaces are dotted and connected across the east and west of the city. Despite post wall expansion and densification, many open areas remain unwanted or untouchable. Due to their great number, obvious uses of these sites have been exhausted to the point that idiosyncratic, or even anachronistic, uses are being explored. Together, they accumulate into an network of indeterminate space. The lack of specificity renders the city rich with possibilities. In Berlin there is room to experiment and negotiate with the city. Here, there is wiggle room.
The average Berlin block is large enough that it can, and often is required to, contain it’s own system of internal streets, blocks, and buildings. Walking through the streets of Berlin large and small openings reveal the extent of it’s internal cities. These blocks within blocks are more than private courts belonging to the surrounding tenants, but rather they shape layers of public space that extend deep within them. Many blocks even contain short cuts and alternative passage ways – some link together to form alternative routes through the inner-inner city. Though within the block, there is often more space than within the street. Passing through a wall of buildings may open up to a greener expanse, where your apartment enjoys an extended but contained vista. Within this nested city each mapped block may contain it’s own micro-neighborhood, complete with grocery store, elementary school, community center, vegetable garden, gym, dance club, corporate campus, duck pond, playground, or cemetery. Like is the case for any place within our city or environment, these seemingly hidden places require occupational discovery. Though, exceptionally, in such a case the fact of discovery is evident. Inhabiting the blocks within blocks puts them on the map and the city grows from within.
The concept of space is a reduction of the environment. Proponents of a spatial conception of our surroundings may argue that a reduction or an abstraction of the environment is required in order for us to operate within it – arguing that the complexity of environmental thinking hinders the process of design and weakens the focus of architecture. When considering how far our process of abstraction should extend I am reminded of Alfred North Whitehead’s assertion that “You cannot think without abstractions; accordingly, it is of the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your modes of abstraction.”
The best way to understand a habit is to have one. Thus a habit is not something that you can easily represent, but it is somehow always quite easy to do. The possession of a habit can only be recognized by its recurrence, but simultaneously the general trend can be explained via or identified by a single specific instance. To notice my habit of writing near the window requires several occurrences. To tell you about my habit of doing so only requires one anecdotal instance, carried to the nth degree by your imagination. The essence of a particular habit is contained in a single act while the nature of a habit in general is constituted by its recurrence. One instance does not make a habit, but it does explain one.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is not a memorial meant to be observed, but rather it is meant to be inhabited. While the presence of a field of 2177 stalae is visually remarkable, the experience within the field, the feeling just upon entering, immediately surpasses the prominence of the visual first impression. A visit to the memorial is not well captured in an image, but rather in the memory of a feeling. Despite the emphasis placed on active experience, the memorial is not a place meant to be used per se. The site serves a undeniable function, but it is not ‘used’ in the typical sense. However it’s lack of utility does not limit the dispositional nature of the place – it is a form full of potentials.
Falling back into the movements of urban life makes certain aspects of the city evident that previously went unnoticed or unvalued. In the city, every place has it’s defined purpose, everything seems specialized and compartmentalized. Our habits of use allow and facilitate such specific definitions of use and function, but ultimately such an environment feels very rigid. In comparison to the Makgadikgadi, the environment of the constructed city is much harder to ‘play’ or negotiate.
As a student I was taught that it takes only two weeks to form a habit, while it takes eight weeks to break one. Compared with the behavioral habits to which this rule of thumb applies, our occupational habits tend to be set far faster and possess greater means of resistance to edits or extinction. It is a fact of the everyday that
we predominately occupy spaces we have already occupied before and will occupy again. Considering the rhythms of our everyday life and the structure of our constructed environment, it is rather clear that we are left with little choice but to occupy space in a habitual way.
Perhaps counterintuitively, I am seeking to examine the forms and nature of habitual spaces through travel based research. Leaving the Makgaikgadi and reentering the urban Berlin to which I am accustomed, both highlights my habitual tendencies in this environment and equally emphasizes the occupational habits I had quietly begun to build in Botswana. Such experiences give rise to questions and answers. How long do you have to inhabit a space for occupational habits to set in? How do habits shape our understanding of an environment? How do habits influence my use of my surroundings?
The environments we live in are not objects we observe. We do not live via isolated moments of visual awe. Rather our environments are active playable backgrounds. The value of their appearance is only in how they appear or disappear while functioning.
In the sciences, theories are developed through hypotheses and supported by evidence, evidence usually found through experimentation. Finding evidence of the dispositions within our built environment may require similarly experimental methods of detection – experimental occupations and observations of space. The methods of observation may be as important as that which is being observed. No matter how far fetched a theory may seem to be, evidence in support of it will slowly establish it’s legitimacy. For this reason, I am traveling the world looking for evidence of my theories in action.
When traveling between north and south the weather is the strongest indicator of distance covered – the position of the sun registers the relocation more so than the time spent in motion. The sun does not let me forget how far I have traveled. It’s rise and set, it’s warmth, it’s tendency to shine, these all make me feel the traversed miles.
What is it like to be a building? This may seem an odd or comical question, but it logically follows from a dispositional inquiry concerning the way in which our surroundings play out over time. Understanding the environment of any species in the Makgadikgadi required speculating on the perspective of the many other species surrounding it. In this way, the environment was not something observed and consumed, but rather was itself a collection of forces possessing some, though limited, subjectivity. Reflecting on the architectural environment, most commonly the building, then the parallel question becomes: What is it like to be a building?
Despite the popular narrative that all airports are the same – generic shopping malls mimicked across international borders – I tend to disagree. Perhaps programmatically, international airports are all the same: they are shopping malls with planes parked outside. However, beyond their shared program many differences exist between them. If you manage to look past the sea of Duty Free shops and McDonalds, each airport has a unique character and organization that speaks to the culture and era of which it is a product. The planes parked outside indicate who is invested in this place and your fellow passengers suggests the crossroads of regions that this location uniquely occupies. There is more to the place than it’s program.
The people of Harare prefer to live in houses rather than apartments, enjoying the opportunities and comforts provided from living on the land. Therefore, the population of Harare is very dispersed over a large area. This requires a great deal of daily commuting into the dense city center, in a city with limited or no public transportation in most areas. As a solution to this problem, privately operated mini-buses have emerged to transport the cities working population. Without public ownership or coordination the buses are without numbers of mandated routes, producing a problem for easy recognition on jam packed unmarked dirt roads. However the entrepreneurial drive towards distinction and competition between individual drivers has produced a practical and entertaining solution for identifying your desired mini bus. Instead of numbers, the buses have names. Given names range from the obvious to the sacred or profane. Spelt out in brilliantly colored and iridescent fonts, they include but are not limited to: “Adrian”, “First Choice”, “The Legendary”, “Master Saver”, “Grace”, “Greater Grace”, “God is Able”, “God’s Hand”, “King 02”, “Proverbs”, “CELEBRITY”, “Junior Piano”, “Dream Team”, “V-unit”, “Gotta ramma Betty”, “Diva Dollar”, and “Is it love or convenience?”
The Great Zimbabwe resists capture and depiction through photos. The structure is difficult to position in front of yourself, it is more often all around you. The sounds of other inhabitants’ movements and conversations pass through the multiple meter thick walls, however it is unlikely to encounter these people within such a labyrinth. They are not part of the images, but they are part of the experience. The damp smells of the stones, home to slow growth and decay, can not make it into the image or film.
From the earliest hilltop settlements and enclosures to the smaller valley enclosures and the Great Enclosure, the single element of a dry stacked stone wall is repeated and wrapped around itself in topological variations of thickness, height, and proximity to neighbor. A complex experience is produced from simple means. The numerous combinations produce a seemingly infinite series of spaces, each distinct from the last while only paces apart. The many structures built up over time, are now only taken in over time.
The man made walls, which seem to take inspiration from the surfaces and passages between natural boulders on the site, stand directly upon and before the source granite from which they are cut.
Zimbabwe is a country named after a piece of architecture. The Great Zimbabwe, which along with some three hundred other examples of similar but smaller scale constructions, inspired the name of the nation of Zimbabwe upon it’s independence in 1980. From afar, the structures appear dwarfed and humbled by the vast and spectacular landscape within and from which they were built. When compared with the scale of the ancient Egyptian and South American stone monuments that preceded it, and even in the company of the European Cathedrals that were it’s contemporaries, the Great Zimbabwe is distinctively human scaled. The structures are not presented along a planned axis or path, but rather they unfold through the many wanderings of the visitor. It seems these structures were primarily meant to be used.
Victoria Falls is not a monument that can be seen all at once. It is pieced together from varied vantage points, some sweeping some narrow, that assemble into an impression of the whole falls. No matter during wet or dry season, the rare standpoints offering views down the length of the narrow gorge are always limited by the mist rising from the impact of falling water. To take in the whole image of this gorge, rarely more than 50 meters wide and extending for nearly two kilometers, requires a day long visit to multiple national parks in two countries with two separate visas. The falls reminds the viewer that the perception of a total thing is never possible, but rather we operate with formed conceptions of assembled wholes.
“Traditions in Africa (and everywhere else for that matter) are merely accepted modes of behavior that currently function to the benefit of society as a whole. They persist so long as their benefit is evident, and fade away when it is not. No tradition lasts for ever. Change and adaptability is the very essence of human existence – nowhere more so than in Africa.”
Passing a day which is stepped in tradition, amongst a community at the intersection of international and local Zimbabwean traditions, gives John Reader’s above definition of tradition new personal and felt meaning. No tradition should persist solely for the sake of it’s past practice, but rather for the satisfaction it fosters in the current moment.
As architects we design environments – interior and exterior constructed environments. The acceptance of this simple claim makes clear the significance of the natural environment to the architect. The environment that gave form to our species, that which we then in turn formed to our shared benefit, stands as evidence of the formative feedback between humans and our surroundings. This is the same feedback with which we continue to practice as designers of the built environment. In this way, the grand tour of the architect does not start in Athens or Rome, but rather it begins in our more early manipulated environments of the Kalahari Desert and southern Africa. If our history of design begins here, the discipline of architecture includes far more than the games “of forms assembled in the light.’’
Mosi-Oa-Tunya, meaning “Smoke that Thunders”, is barely visible from afar. It is only the rising mist, which the locals refer to as smoke, that gives any visual indication of the world’s largest waterfall until you are within just meters of it’s edge. The full extent of this visual wonder can be taken in from only a few limited vantage points. The only other warning of the falls presence is the rumbling sound of plummeting water, dropping over one-hundred meters across a width of more than one kilometer. Known also as Victoria Falls, given this second name in 1855 by the British missionary Livingstone in honor of Queen Victoria, the falls is not surrounded by any mountains or major topographical change. The slowly flowing Zambezi River suddenly disappears from view, dropping into the horizon. The rolling tree covered plains, that seem to extend uniformly in all directions, are revealed to conceal beneath them certain variations that produce dramatically different effects in the landscape.
Driving across the point defining a border between four countries, the constructed nature of political boundaries becomes very clear. Even in the case of this border, which follows the natural line of a river, the distinction between all four sides seems rather meaningless. The border itself is home to many inhabitants who live their lives within it. There is of course no perceivable difference between the rolling tree covered hills on either side. These territorial lines matter a great deal to the species who marked them, but not to many others.
After two months of living exclusively outside, at most physically enclosed by mosquito netting but always open to the outside air, I have now moved in. Now that I am here inside, I have little desire to be connected to the outside world. I am reminded on the sentiments of the Greenlanders living in Ilullisat who prefer small windows – they want to be inside or outside, the in-between lacks appeal. Similarly, the San people use their hut’s interiors only for the storage of goods. They do their living and sleeping outside. Perhaps these preferences emerge from a lifestyle of ample exposure to and experiences in the exterior environment. Whatever the cause, I imagine this new preference of mine will not last long.
The traditional form of building in Botswana, seen from the outskirts of Maun to the village of Gweta, consists of two nested round structures. The first and outer structure is a conic shaped thatch roof supported by a ring of roughly finished tree trunk columns. The inner structure may vary, but is most often a circular mud or brick and plaster construction that fits neatly inside of the aforementioned structural columns. Together the two make an enclosed space – a free standing roof and an inset ring wall. Sometimes you see just the roof standing alone, or a an old wall with no roof left to cap it. There seems to be a great deal of unexplored potential within this beautifully efficient system.
For the first time in two months, I am now leaving the ground. Previously, my understanding of the Makgadikgadi was exclusively informed through experiences from within three meters off the plains and never fully enclosed from the outside. Now, looking down from 7,000 ft through small windows, I recognize the landscape but it does not remind me of any experience I had there. From here it all looks like shapes whose outlines blur and meander around one another – the landscape has a different form of beauty from this removed perspective. Seeing the contours of the Salt Pan and it’s thousands of scattered satellite pans does explain the disorienting nature of it’s presence on the ground.
The San people do not talk about space. In fact, they do not speak of environments or a landscape either. Their language does not have terms or labels for any of these three. Instead, they name and discuss their surroundings only through specific terms that may be combined to provide even greater descriptive clarity. These terms are derived from the nature of the place, such as sandy ground, valley, thicket of Brandy Bush, or grassy plain, as well as from lived experiences or anecdotes, such as where I burnt my arm, or where the wildebeest often scratch themselves. Together these terms operably portray the surroundings. The San People have no need for abstractions. The most abstract terms they posses are ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. The word for ‘outside’ is the same word used for ‘bush’. The bush is the most prevalent form of landscape in their surroundings.
Discovering the nature of their language was not a matter of simply asking. These conclusions were the result of community wide discussion and debate. In the end it was a group of voices who explained their language to me and to themselves.
Walking with the San people after the recent rains, they find and collect a wealth of species not previously seen over the last months. Wild ginger, wild carrots, and succulents are suddenly common. What was once dormant in the ground, but still known to the bushmen, is now alive and visible. The wealth of knowledge I have experienced here – the amazing depth of knowledge the Bushmen have displayed through practice – is quite clearly just a fraction of their total shared repertoire. There must be at least ten months of seasonal knowledge I have not seen, and this is not even the landscape within which this community of people grew up.
An inhabitant of the landscape is in constant feedback with their environment. The environment shapes the behavior and the body of the organism, and the organism, no matter how small or simple, influences and reshapes the environment. This is the feedback process of evolutionary theory as much as it is the feedbacks we engage with as architects designing the built environment.
As a visitor to the Makgadikgadi, for lack of any alternative, I focus my attentions on the environment that surrounds me. What is normally a pervasive background becomes the focus of my attention. In this way it is difficult to discern between what about this environment is exceptional and what is typically there and now simply being noticed. For the daily inhabitants of this landscape, outside of those who are here professionally, their environment is also at the center of their attention.
The San people make minimal manipulations to their environment. They are careful to harness what they need while not interfering with what might be sought out later. Walking with these people, it is clear that only a fraction of the surroundings make it on to their ‘map’. In this way, from out of the shared and total physical world, they are continually editing out a whole environment for themselves.
The Makgadikgadi consists of three primary forms of landscape: grasslands, woodlands, and salt pans. Each form has it’s own internal variations, and with few exceptions these three discernible conditions border, intersect, and overlap one another to constitute the fabric of the area. However, there is no macro organization – woodlands are not neatly contained in a single concentration and even the dominant expanse of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pan mingles with the grasslands throughs it’s thousands of smaller ’satellite’ pans. The dispersal of each form of landscape within the others is the result of local geological conditions and animal behavior acting on the landscape over time. Fertility of soils dictates where trees might sustain growth, with nutrients within less fertile grounds quickly being harnessed by a single tree, thus excluding the survival of any younger neighbors. A well established woodland can be leveled by a herd of thirst starved elephants in a number of days. The saline clay soils of the salt pans, unable to support the growth of any plant, are slowly fertilized by accumulations of territorial dung from passing grazers. Small islands of grasses begin to grow in the otherwise desolate, now shrinking, expanse.
The San people never go out into the landscape without their walking stick. The women’s walking stick doubles as a digging stick, with a slightly sharpened end, and the men may sometimes substitute a spear for the same role, when hunting. The stick is used my men and women of all ages. It is not primarily used for assisting the literal act of walking but rather it is a general purpose tool for any need that might arise when out and about. The stick is always in the hands or proximity of it’s owner, playing a key role even during the healing ‘trance dances’. Using the walking stick, it quickly feels akin to a third arm, a prosthetic that is less vulnerable to potential harm or mess. In extreme cases it can even be used as a blunt weapon, with less threat to the body and more lever strength than a flexible arm or leg. The stick allows the San people to come into contact with all parts of their surroundings.
The men’s walking stick, spear handles, and the women’s digging sticks, are all made from the same abundant species of Brandy Bush. Traditional a man will make his own set of tools, and also fashion those for the women in his family. Once made the tool is used for it’s material life, the more weathered it becomes the better it fits the user. The occasional breaking of a walking or digging stick causes some shock in the group, however the surprise it is quickly translated into energy to find a suitable branch for it’s replacement.
During the rainy season the watering holes lose their significance in the landscape. Water, the once limiting resource of the Makgadikgadi, is no longer concentrated in a few named areas. Now it is a distributed and mobile resource. The dispersal of the resource also disperses the activity and interactions within the landscape – areas once guaranteed to be inhabited now may go unnoticed for much of the season. The rains that are assumed to draw out life, sometimes simply draw it away. The many animals adapted to source their water from means independent of watering holes and rains will remain.
For the San people nothing has only one purpose, everything is significant for multiple reasons. Their knowledge of how to successfully ‘play’ the environment has been built over thousands of years lived within a changing landscape and climate. They have assembled and practiced a knowledge that encompasses nearly all the capacities harbored within the surrounding species, throughout their changing seasons, varied forms, and appearances. They understand that they do not live on an abstract plane but rather within a plain of potentials.
The San people know the pervasive grasses of the Kalahari are crucial for fueling the first embers of a fire. But, they also know the same grass is even more effective if found in the form of Zebra dung, having first been refined to a more fine and flammable texture. The wood of the Commiphora africana is known to be ideal as fuel for a fire, but it is even more valuable as the material of the fire sticks that begin the whole process. It is not this specific process of starting a fire that can inform the practice of architecture. Rather, it is the San people’s outlook – an outlook characterized through seeing the world as teaming with capacities as opposed to assembled from images or forms –that may offer a model for understanding and manipulating our built environment. It is also of equal importance that the environment has these capacities built-in to begin with, for the San people to then recognize and utilize.
Living for weeks in a camp with no permanent buildings – no windows, no doors, no solid walls, no staircases – the majority of my surroundings are composed of unprocessed or even living materials. The amount of visual detail in this environment seems to far exceed the regulated surfaces of our constructed environment. This perceived difference raises the question, what role might these near infinite number of visual details play in our daily occupations?
Living for weeks in an environment nearly devoid of anything digital – where even electricity and internet connectivity are limited and unreliable – I often reflect on the role of the virtual. As architects designing the built environment we tend to understand our work as abstract space and geometry. We focus on what appears in conventional orthographic representations. The environmental qualities of the project, those outside the architects attention, are filled in through the lived experience. When designing for the world of virtual reality, the environment only has the capacities we explicitly assign it, even gravity, sun-angles, and solidity of objects have to be defined. Anything that emerges from a constructed virtual space is the result of what put in and the hardware used. The notable exception, the element to an extent outside of the designer’s control in both the constructed and the virtual, is the occupant. These conditions suggest that virtual reality environments are a ripe experimental ground for understanding the limitations and interactions between the physical and environmental worlds. What experiential role is played by conceptions of abstract space and geometry? What experiential role is played by the environmental?
As an architect learning from the Makgadikgadi, I am not here in search of new metaphors for design. Rather I am in search of evidence, evidence of dispositions playing out in the environment. This evidence will shed light on the mechanics of the processes in play across the landscape, and the knowledge of these mechanics can be applied to other, more or less natural, environments.
The Makgadikgadi Salt Pan and it’s thousands of satellite pans are the brightest places to be at night. The uninterrupted expanse of salty dried mud and algae reflect the natural illumination of the moon and stars. The pans are luminous planes devoid of activity, surrounded by dark areas abuzz with animal life.
Zebra follow the rains. During the beginning of the rainy season isolated rains attract the zebra into concentrated areas, where recent rainfall has fueled the growth of fresh green grasses. The localized patches – spreading many square kilometers – become a temporary home to tens of thousands of zebras. As far as the eye can see in two directions, zebras migrate across the plains moving towards new resources. The migration converts the rains and mineral rich grasses into a mobile force.
Heaved onto the ground in three collapsed tangles, Chapman’s Baobab rests as a dramatic memorial to it’s own 4,500 year history. The tree that once stood as a living monument, visible like a light house for travelers crossing the Makgadikgadi pans and plains, now at a distance resembles a carcass of a jurassic proportions. Walking through the fallen trunks, passing through the roots and upon the ground they covered for centuries, small shoots of new vertical growth are visible. These new branches of the baobab are less than one year old.
Officially known as Chapman’s Baobab, the local name for the tree is translated as “The Seven Sisters.” Named for it’s distinctive seven leaders, most likely split by lightening centuries ago, the tree is more fittingly characterized by the local tradition. As a general rule, the European name for African monuments tends to categorically assign them to their “discoverers” while the local name actually tells you something about the nature of the thing.
Knowledge of the San people’s trance dances is passed down through feelings, not through descriptions. In this way, it is an experience that is best understood through feeling rather than in words. The form of the dances has been continuously exercised for thousands of year, while each instance of the dance is at best a version of the last – not a repetition. New songs and movements have been invented over the years, in response to the changing natural and social environment, but the form has remained constant over the generations. The feeling of healing has remained the same.
Stepping into the bush, small trees no more than three meters tall quickly encircle you. The sweeping view, characteristic of the Makgadikgadi grasslands and pans, is hidden away while the same expansive sky dome remains. It feels serene and protected in the bush. However, the conditions that foster this feeling are the same that make this area ideal hunting grounds for the largest of predators.
Categorical classifications are convenient – each species or form is cleanly labeled and distinctive features are described. However, this expedient form of classification does little to address the behavior of a form or species, at best it highlights features that facilitate or permit behavior. It relates animals to those of it’s kind, but does nothing to address the species upon which they rely or impact.
The San people, or other inhabitants of the Makgadikgadi, would never distinguish a species in this way. They know the “how” of a species much more than “that.” Their definitive characteristics are found in the capacities of the thing, and this is how they perceive and portray them. Of course physical differences are known and useful, but the primary perceived distinction between species is the variance in their use or abilities. In many cases the form that might be key to a categorical classification does not advertise it’s potentials, these dispositional strata are only known through a knowledge based on active use. Looking at a tree and it’s morphology it is difficult to determine which may become a valuable fire stick or simple fuel for the fire. Such an active knowledge of a species is a much more powerful, and functional, means of attributing identity. When ascribing dispositions it is important to distinguish between the appearance of a thing and the simple fact of what that thing can do.
A disposition emerges from the relationship between an environment and it’s inhabitant. Dispositions reside within a process. The potential is not contained solely in the behavior of the inhabitant or entirely within the material properties of the thing. The capacity of healing is not within the desire for the leaf of the Yellow Asparagus, nor is it perceived in the image of the plant. The capacity is known through an exercised knowledge.
“We do not live in space” - J. J. Gibson
We live in an environment. The Makgadikgadi is not an abstract plane. Here there is a clear distinction between up and down, there is a consequential difference between being on a surface, under the surface, or flying above. The sun marks a clear east and west and shapes when the landscape is inhabitable or not. Ground materials determine where there is life supporting water, grasslands, woodlands, or expanses of salt. Past movements trace paths of least resistance that enable ease of future movements. Specific locations have consequential meanings, some safe others dangerous, some rich in resources, others barren. Areas where today habitation is unthinkable, will soon be home to millions of aquatic and volant animals. The actions and events of yesterday shape the format and perceptions of the landscape for tomorrow. In this environment, no point is independent. Given this assessment, space is an abstract construct, not based on the geometry of our world. To think only in space, and not of the environment, is to ignore much of our medium as architects.
The environment of one species is not the same as the environment of all species, while the environment of one species overlaps and interacts with the environment of many others. Mapping out the extent of an animal, that is to map out the extent of their environment, requires the observation and inclusion of all species, including it’s own, and places with which the animal interacts over the course of it’s lifetime. Even the smallest of animals, by physical standards, might have a very large environmental size. Delimitating the animal or human in this way, a constellation woven in amongst it’s surroundings, is the first step in understanding the potentials embedded within interspecies relationships.
The San people (formerly referred to here as Bushmen) have occupied constant settlements within the Kalahari for at least 35,000 years, making their village at Xai Xai the most permanent settlement on earth. In this way, the San posses the most exercised relationship between a group of people and their environment. Their knowledge has taken thousands of years to grow, and could be lost in only a few generations. Walking with these people is a rehearsal of their knowledge and an enactment of it’s continuation within their families.
While our environment, natural and constructed, is distinct in it’s qualities and dynamics, our interactions with it may stand to learn from the long-trained fitness of the San people.
The Bushmen trance dances take a few simple movements, rhythms, stomps, fire, and rattles and relates them together, through complex tangles of repetition and exceptions, to produce an intensity – mind and body altering trances. The trance lasts for hours, sometimes even days. It is hectic, it is human, it is healing.
The Makgadikgadi can go without rain for over six months, while during these months temperatures rise above 45º C daily. The result is an exceedingly dry landscape, where river’s cease running and few large mammals can survive. Migration is the primary strategy for survival.
The introduction of a few select man-made solar operated watering holes has dramatically transformed the landscape. The once inhospitable grounds now become established homes for large game such as Zebra and Wildebeest. Life that could never before exist is thriving year round. The scenery for visiting tourists is as bustling as they had hoped for. Many of zebra, who’s rhythm of life was once defined by the annual migration, have now never known a life of walking such distances. Will this effect selection amongst future generation of zebra? Lions who once roamed shifting territories, following the game, now have set up permanent homes between the network of watering holes. Their continuous presence increases pressure on the neighboring farm grounds of the local cattle posts – wandering cattle are easy prey for lion. These cattle are meant to be sold to European Union beef market at four-times standard rates, making agriculture Botswana’s third largest industry. The earth around the watering holes is heavily grazed and trampled, leaving behind only bare earth, inhospitable to termites and other insects and prone to erosion during the rains. Elephants, who now have more steady access to water, uproot fewer trees in search of moisture in their roots – deforestation may begin to decline.
The geographic coordinate system, composed of longitude and latitude, is not a measuring system based on an even grid. It is the relationship between radial lines extending from the earths center to a given point, measured in degrees referenced to either the equatorial plane (latitude) or the more arbitrary selected plane intersecting 90-degrees with the equator and passing through the Greenwich Observatory in England (longitude), then intersected with a non-spherical world. Therefore, a geographic coordinate places you in fact, not on a precise point, but rather along a specific radial line. The variation of absolute distances between equivalent degrees of latitude or longitude vary greatly. One longitudinal second at the equator is 30.92m while located at 60º, near the Antarctic Circle, a longitudinal second is only 15.42m, less than half of it’s dimension at the equator. Additionally, the varied topography of the earths surface introduces further departure from a standard grid. Logging movements through the latitude/longitude system is positioning yourself within this relationship. Your position is not defined as a particular point location, but along a precise vector stretching from the center of the earth out into the atmosphere.
A person on the ground and a person 58 stories above the ground exist at the same place in this relationship, but occupy very different postures in our world.
“Nature is a living whole, not a dead aggregate.” - Alexander von Humboldt
The unbroken horizon of the Magkadikgadi dominates any view or vista, stretching beyond the limits of the gaze, encircling the viewer at all times. The land rejects the artificial construction of perspective. There is no imagined 2D reference plane here. The only reference plane is the gently rolling ground upon which you stand, stretching out and away in all directions. You can not feel dominant over the landscape, but rather you always feel within, wrapped by the environment. If perspective emphasizes control over the image and object, panoramic vision of the Makgadikgadi emphasizes your emergence from encompassing surroundings
Life in the Makgadikadi is organized around access to water, usually limited supplies of water. Now the rains have arrived. The nodes of water, once concentrations of activity, have become simply stops within a wet and greening plain that is crawling, buzzing, and sprouting with awoken life.
The Makgadikgadi is my training ground. Here I am observing active forms and practicing thinking through capacities.
The human and animal inhabitants of the Kalahari do not see the world in the way others do. They do not look at the image of the landscape or the image of their predator, prey, mate, or rival. Rather their perceptions are focused on particular potentials that rest deeper than, or that are even invisible, within a static image. The meerkat, who has excellent vision evolved for spotting distant predators across the plains and skies, can not visually recognize their own offspring – they use scent and behavioral cues to confirm identity after separation. The lion cannot spot a moving human inside of an open safari truck – they stare blankly pass, stalking for further prey. The Bushmen do not identify with the silhouette of palms and the bush on the distant horizon – they stay focused on the human scaled morphologies that to them make a difference. For all of these inhabitants, and others, their “difference that makes a difference” is very different from mine.
Palm trees appear quite out of place in the semi-arid Makgadikgadi. Growing in linear groves, most often oriented away from the Okavango delta some 300 km away, they are thought to have been transplanted here through elephant dung. Elephants, who have an insatiable appetite for the palm nuts, often even leveling whole palm trees to harvest their small fruits, are thought to have carried the palm seeds into the Makgadikgadi in their digestive systems. When left behind, the seeds found fertile ground within which to grow. The palm seeds within the dung that were not fortunate enough to germinate often became “vegetable ivory” for the jewelry of the San Bushmen, and the dung without palm seeds was burnt as an insect repellent. The horizon of the Makgadikgadi is now lined with seemingly foreign and stark silhouettes of the Okavango Palm, luring the elephants deeper into the desert.
After the first rains, zebra begin to migrate into the Makgadikgadi by the thousands. Within a few days the watering holes are teaming with zebra – packs jockeying for their opportunity to get a drink. Looking at them I start to think of all the grass they have consumed to reach their size and numbers. The shear amount of biomass is impressive. All of that grass was converted into zebra and dung. By weight, there is is surely more accumulated dung than zebra. Over it’s life span this single migration has probably produced enough dung to be fire starter for every Bushmen who ever lived.
The disposition of a form, or of an assembly of forms, is best understood through accumulated observations over time. This allows for a more complete survey of how the form might “play-out.” For this reason, anecdotes become more important than general assumptions – anecdotes chart a more complete range of potentials. Generics don’t revel much. Such a study therefore requires long spans of attention, serial observations, and habitual occupations. It is important to have some time on your hands, in order to train the dispositional lens.
A purely verbal, out of context, exchange with the Bushmen does not yield much – questions go unanswered or their answers are brief. However, when asked to demonstrate within the context, suddenly they become a wealth of culture knowledge that can hardly be contained. One idea leads to the next until the whole community is busy about the landscape. In the end, they are not so interested in explaining, but much more interested in enacting or simply doing. They don’t care much for talking without the walking.
Attempting to chart the forces in-play within the Kalahari brings to mind the words of Stephen Mumford: “A world described entirely in categorical terms is a static world, and hence, not ours.” Mapping dispositions within the Kalahari requires looking beyond static categorical taxonomies – a more active mode must be explored.
As an architect studying the natural environment, the most common assumption encountered from others is that such an architect must subscribe to the trends of biomimicry – imitating the forms of termite mounds or the weaver’s nest. However, the forms of the Kalahari environment should not and cannot be rightfully mimicked outside of this ecosystem. To assume that any form of the landscape is independent, and to replicate that form or it’s appearance independently, is equivalent to speaking with the tone of the truth but substituting the content. For the forms only have meaning – they can only be actualized – within their indeterminate, yet precise, set of topologically conjugate interconnections with the larger environment.
Formulating these thoughts in the Kalahari brings to mind the convictions of the theorists Keller Easterling, Andrej Radman, and Sanford Kwinter:
“For designers, authorship of form as an object reliant on profile, shape, and geometry is a crucial, fundamental skill. If asked to create something called active form, designers would naturally rely on what they are best trained to create – formal objects themed, choreographed, or dressed to represent action. … A more simple-minded confusion (made more powerful by being simple-minded) arises when action or activity is confused with movement or kineticism as in a building that appears to be moving or a space composed of or populated by moving objects.” - Keller Easterling, “Disposition”
“[Topology’s] current appeal for architects merely at the formal level is more than obvious and rather sad as it rarely goes beyond mimesis. …They cannot but commit the fallacy of ‘tracing’ – conflating the process with the product.”
- Andrej Radman, “Figure, Discourse: To the Abstract Concretely”
“No one who ever took nature as an image for design of form ever got it right.” - Sanford Kwinter, “African Genesis”
It seems a single Acacia tree hosts more species of birds in a single day than the entire number of mammalian species crossing the Makgadikgadi plain each season.
A map of dispositions does not necessarily chart unknown territory, but rather it offers a lens through which to see a previously known environment. Seeing the world through a dispositional lens refocuses our attention and suggests new ways to approach the worlds we occupy and design. In this way, the dispositional map is a projective reading of an observed environment in action. It offers ways to operate in the future.
A map of dispositions charts the environment not through traditional taxonomies and geographies but rather through the active forms and relationships in-play within the environment.
"Exposing evidence of the infrastructural operating system is as important as acquiring some special skills to hack into it." - Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft
Some scenarios reveal potentials that you thought previously to be impossible.
In the bush you can often hear further than you can see. This requires a recalibration of your visual definitions of near and far; you have to learn to measure close distances through sound.
The sound of a form is often a more reliable identifier than the appearance of a form. Palm leaves in the wind sound like falling rain, Lions communicating in the night sound similar to a neighbor slowly moving furniture in their tent. Training the ear to identify these discrepancies is an important requisite for reading your environment and maintaining basic safety.
Privacy in the Kalahari, and particularly in Jack's Camp, is achieved primarily through distance. Low population density allows for the removal of constructed barriers, as their roles are maintained through the limits of the human eye, ear, and nose.
The plane of the Magkadikgadi Salt Pan is so featureless that the simple act of walking in a straight line proves challenging. When in motion one's course feels straight, however the foot prints left behind indicate something closer to a circular route.
The Makgadikgadi is an environment with few formal or definitive boundaries. Instead the limits to movement most often arise from within the mobile organism itself – specifically the limitations imposed by the need of water and an organisms means of attaining and maintaining it.
“Though the upright stance and the naked skin enabled hominids to forage on the open savannas of tropical Africa at higher temperatures and over greater distances than virtually any other mammal, in terms of basic physiology they were simply the functional elements of a whole body cooling system that protected the brain from heat stress.”
Without doubting the validity of John Reader’s assessment of the human cooling system, when temperatures reach 46-degrees Celsius on the African plains, it can feel as if your brain might actually melt.
The Bushmen's language only has words to count up to the number five. After five things, there are only many.
Their ruled games never allow more than five people to play per team.
In the Makgadikgadi everything ends up covered in dust; time can be measured through the accumulation of dust. In compliment to the abstract second, time has a material property. During a sandstorm time can feel as if it is stretched and slowed, while the amount of dust accumulation accelerates, increasing ten-fold.
A study of the dispositional must focus it’s attention not on the appearance of a form but rather on the behavior of a form. As dispositions are played out in relationships, the individuals involved may not always be significant themselves, but the interactions within and between them are. It is with this understanding that I came to the Kalahari. It is here that I encountered the excerpt below, written concerning this very landscape, from Sanford Kwinter’s presentation African Genesis.
“In nature, design is the composition of tension into circuits stable enough to process a more or less wide range of input and variation. Nothing is ever arrested. And form is never more than an illusion. No one who ever took nature as an image for design of form ever got it right. Nature represents a certain way that events are produced, a certain rhythm of emission, of contraction and dilation; it is a design engine responsible less for the matter it organizes than for the organization forces it deploys.”
The language of the San Bushmen incorporates many varied clicking sounds, made using the tongue. Linguists describe the Bushmen's language as the only case which takes full advantage of human's capabilities of speech production. Their ability to fully utilize the mouth during speech is similar to their practice of completely utilizing, and maintaining, their environment.
Mapping dispositions in-play across the landscape is less about any individual species and more about the relationships between them.
When having lunch under Baines Baobabs, you're using millennia-old semi-succulent trees for their shade. This is a tradition not only of humans, but also of elephants, lions, and other beasts.
To pity the caged animal is to prefer a life of fear to a life of boredom. The animal in the zoo is well fed and protected, while the wild animal lives in constant fear of hunger and death. Ultimately, evolution has made clear that an environment of fear is more productive and innovative than an environment of boredom.
The San Bushmen interpret the landscape in different ways based on different needs. The same branch used one day to start a fire can be sought out the next day to relieve a fever. Nothing in the landscape is without purpose and nothing is wasted.
2,940 ft above sea level
Driving over the Makgadikgadi Pan, the horizon encircles you 360-degrees at an equal distance. There is next to no topographical change for an area the size of Switzerland. The dome of the sky stretches over you in an undisturbed hemisphere, expressing the full color spectrum from noon to night. At once you feel as if your body is positioned at the center of a foreign world and as if you have no body at all. The primary reminder of ones self is the sound of blood pulsing in your head. There are no other sounds.
"If I am a lion I am many things at once, and if I am a man I am even more." - Robert Ardrey, The Territorial Imperative
Driving across the consistently flat plane of Makgadikgadi Pans National Park brings to mind Francious Jullien's illustrative analogy, where he describes a dispositional situation being like that of a round ball on a flat plane. The form and the qualities of each sets potentials and limits for action.
It is clear while rolling over the Makgadikgadi Pans that this landscape is in fact not perfectly flat.
My map of Cape Town primarily contains a detailed account of waterfronts and mountains that can be seen from the sea.
Starting at the end of the continent.
The activation energy is a significant component of the experiment.
The Great Animal Orchestra is about sharing, much in the same way that Nouvel's building is sharing the site rather than occupying it.
© Taylor Dover, 2016 Rotch Scholar