An amusement park for Marcel Marceau in Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius


Marcel Marceau had just finished work.

He has become so brilliant at work that everyone came to watch his mime for entertainment. Photos of his painted white face are all over the paper. The news praised him for the highly abstracted, yet extremely precise and delicate representation of man.

Just like any other day, audiences had left after their long applause and the curtains are dropped down.

Marcel Marceau sat on the stage alone in silence, looking around at his black and white world, when he realized he hasn’t forgotten how to dream.

He started to remember vaguely some stories he read long time ago about a place call Tlon, or Uqbar, he couldn’t recall. But he did remember that all nations of this planet are idealist.

As he tries to forget this utterly absurd memory, things start to appear, so small, mundane and subtle that he didn’t even notice. A chair, a desk, some nameless colors, and airy lights. But soon they multiplied, swelled, inflated, extended, proliferated and exploded.

Now he found his very own amusement park.

These are hypothetical illustrations of rides of this intangible amusement park. It is successive and temporal, not spatial. These rides convoked and dissolved in a moment, according to poetic needs. Their number is 23 but the experience is practically infinite. They are a series of mental processes which do not develop in space but successively in time and continues to proliferate.


What prompted the project?

The site of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” comes first. This Borges’ meta-fiction is one of my favorite stories and it is just so tempting to do a design about it. The story narrates the intrusion and overturn of reality by an imaginary planet of unconventional ideology written in an encyclopedia. What’s more fascinating is that the text itself, like the story, is also a “Mise en abyme” (the technique of inserting a story within a story). The content and the media together convey philosophical ideologies of subjective idealism. Reading Borges offers an escape from a fixed pattern and liberation of the mind. I wanted to explore the potential to visualize and spatialize such freedom of imagination in an architectural project.

What defined the choice of Marcel Marceau as character?

Marcel Marceau is a mime actor who plays at a level of abstraction. He presents a dramatic representation of daily life and a satire of our society. For me, he is an abstraction of man. As Marceau said in an interview, “mime is the portrayal of the human being.” He is a representation of ourselves in society and we find him amusing because we always see in him, a part of ourselves.
In this sense, although the amusement park is tailored for him only, it is essential for all of us. Underneath his silent satiric performance and monochromic costumes, the loneliness and the unbearable repetitiveness resemble the melancholy and self-mockery of everyone. Very much like him, we are so bound in the social conventions and life routines in a speechless, colorless world. Thus, like all amusement parks, the project, although not a physical one, aims to be an escape from work routine and mundane life. In a more abstract way, the project is the mental escape of the commonsense logic and a liberating imagination for everyone that’s so wrapped up in this world.

Could you expand on the relationship between reality and imagination as a dynamic field?

I think this is a very rich and interesting theme to explore. From a very personal point of view, my earliest memory has become a snapshot image with many versions of stories either in my narration or in my dreams. Somehow the forever suspended mystery of my childhood shaped my understanding of reality, memory, imagination, and fantasy.
I don’t consider reality and imagination as an either-or binary logic. Kant has meticulously theorized “reality” and “imagination” both as image formation, but one of the present, perception, and sensation, and the other of the absent, memory and invention. In the attempt to diagram such condition, I borrowed Greimas semiotic square, where a set of concepts are generated by contradictions and oppositions of the original term. They form a dynamic field, very much like a set of mirrors that constantly produces representations of other representations. This “structure en-aymbe” resonates with Borges’ meta-fictions, where the object of imagination gradually becomes the reality.
Also, in the discussion of media, reality and imagination are important subjects. Simulations, virtual reality, and the proliferation of images all blurred the traditional understanding of reality, nature and truth. I think rather than considering this theme as a contemporary social problem, we could look at it as a subject of rich history and future potential.
Among this extensive theme, the project tries to create the specific type of imagination, the “invention”, of what Kant defines as the imaginative formation, a poetically invented image of an object which is neither present, nor future, nor past, but it is a fiction, it is a symbol.

How important is narrative as a tool through which to design and think about architecture?

For me, narrative is very crucial in design and I often design through narrative. Moreover, I think architecture as a spatial practice conveys multiple narratives as a collaborative work of the creator and the participants. In this project, all the drawings begin with a very simple narrative: the process of spectacle formation from the proliferation of something insignificant (small, mundane, or intangible). The resulting images, however, are unexpected and by themselves form different stories for different viewers. When they are disassembled and reconstructed in the exhibition, it becomes even more dynamic.

How does the text articulate and sit in relation to the drawn material?

The text is the descriptive experience of the intelligible amusement park or it could be thought of as a manual of the park’s rides (the images). On the one hand, they help to define and understand the drawn material or the amusement park; on the other hand, they convey the poetry of the drawings in written form. Playing with some analogies and puns, the text itself can also be recreational. Most of the titles refer to conventional amusement park rides, for example, the panel titled “Dreamy Lazy River” refers to the traditional water ride that gently streamed along a slow current.

What informed the format through which the narrative is unveiled both within the exhibition and within the frames?

I still conceived the project as an architecture project, so I try to use “drawings” and a “model” to represent this amusement park.
The comic panels narrate individual experiences of Marcel Marceau on amusement park rides. When they are disassembled and reassembled in the exhibition, they visually reconstruct the amusement park may be in a more spatial way. Its form conveys the freedom and richness of imagination. Like the story of Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the set of images slowly scales up and becomes denser and more colorful in the middle and then vanish in the end.

Did you ever think of exploring mediums as the book, video or animation?

Yes. I also developed some video and animation, also a text insertion to the short story. But in the end, the comic format is unique and essential to the project because the agency itself also conveys the idea of the project. As I was drawing them, I started to see the qualities of architecture that comics also share. Comics can present a sequence at the same time, something that a video or animation cannot do. Also, it is a media to communicate the understanding of color, scale, proportion, the manipulation of boundaries or frames.

To what extent is the medium the message?

For this project, it is very important to make obvious that the medium themselves are also the project. I’m very deeply influenced by philosophers writing about media theory such as Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard. I wish to convey McLuhan’s critics that “the medium is the message,” or Baudrillard’s radical idea of the “implosion of the message in the medium.” Also, I hope this exploration may uncover the potential of media as a means to express an idea or to narrate a story.
Specifically, the medium of comics and exhibition relates to the idea of the site and program. Each panel of comics, the collection of 23 panels and the model are all images made of images or images within images. It is obvious the format refers to the recursive structure of the “site” Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. But also, the medium help to convey an understanding of the amusement park as unlimited entertainment, an empty canvas for a collection of architectural spectacles and extreme experiences. Koolhaas wrote about Coney Island as an “alienated part of the earth’s surface” that architecture has turned it into “a magic carpet that can reproduce experience and fabricate almost any sensation.” The witty, colorful, narrative qualities of comic art perfectly represent the extremeness, limitless and otherworld-ness of the amusement park.

What is for you the architect's most important tool?

I think the ability to think and imagine is the most important quality of an architect, but the most important tool is the communication of thinking and imagination through visual, spatial and other architectural means.
Architecture is a language that conveys thoughts differently. It may not be as direct as a piece of writing or a painting, but its embodiment makes it much more nonfictional and thus powerful in presenting an idea. I adore radical architects of the 1960s, Archizoom, Superstudio, Archigram and Japanese architects of the Metabolism movement. I also admire the poetic exploration of Khan and Hejduk. I think they have found a way to relate architecture into a world of intangible ideas, whether political, sociological or philosophical. And in this world, architecture’s special quality to create visual and spatial embodiment reached another potential. The architectural result of the intangible thoughts becomes very powerful that it refers back to the original thinking and makes us reflect upon it.