Relief from the Order of Architectural Transparency via the Monad and the Nocturnal: Allegory of the Lunatic

Project

On the upper level we have a line of variable curvature, without coordinates, a curve of infinite inflection, where inner vectors of concavity mark for each ramification the position of individual monads in suspension. But only on the lower level have we coordinates that determine extrema, extrema that define the stability of figures, figures that organize masses, masses that follow an extrinsic vector of gravity or of the greatest incline….
The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque by Gilles Deleuze
This work is about the undiscerning night: cryptic, soft, and perilous. It is like the Baroque, but discrete. It is a response to transparency: “that paradigm of total control” championed by René Descartes and later Jeremy Bentham and Le Corbusier. Transparency was, and continues to be, a primary tool for the measured, logical edifice that denies “the domain of myth, suspicion, tyranny, and above all the irrational.”(1) I am looking for grounds for a more tolerant architecture: one which need not reconcile fiction with fact, one which allows the opaque to preclude totalizing apprehension.
The monad is the autonomy of the inside, an inside without an outside. It has as its correlative the independence of the façade, an outside without an inside… a severing by which each term casts the other forward, a tension by which each fold is pulled into the other. (2)
If the monad makes room for incongruence, the night propagates non-contiguity. Where obscured, all sorts of strange creepers lurk, subconsciously imagined or otherwise: the lunatic in allegory. The lunatic’s den therefore becomes a haven for secondary opportunism exactly because it is relieved from the need to over-perform,(3) or to perform everywhere.
1. Architectural Uncanny by Anthony Vidler
2. The Fold by Gilles Deleuze
3. Architectural Parallax by Slavoj Žižek

Interview

What prompted the project and the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria as site?

Alexandria was the center of knowledge in the Hellenistic world and by 322BC had become the seat of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. It hosted the Great Library. Circa 250BC, polymath Eratosthenes measured shadows in Alexandria both to determine that the Earth is round and to estimate its circumference to within 0.16% accuracy, and he thereby mapped the known world. The Great Lighthouse was constructed around that same time, and as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World it was one of humanity’s tallest structures. Its fire was a beacon of optics, trade, and power. It mediated ships from the murky depth below. Quite literally, it wrung architectural transparency out of a chaotic and troubling natural world. From where better to aim this authority of the transparent towards other ends?

What sparked your interest into notions of transparency and opacity on architecture?

Just the event of nighttime. It may seem ordinary, but to actually behold the night is very different than our modern experience (e.g. electrical lighting, psychotherapy of dream states, terror of the mystical). I became interested in what nighttime meant for someone living in 250BC, for example, and how that state has been systematically diminished by contrivances of transparency. Working in the opposite direction, I wondered what strategies of opacity could produce, and how they might operate on a condition like what we find today.

What drew you to the texts referenced throughout the project?

There were a number of good texts on nighttime, but fewer on its application to architecture. Vidler, Deleuze, and Žižek (among others) offered tangential doors in. They discuss realms of architectural ambiguity. My thesis advisor, Perry Kulper, encouraged various iterations of structural-thinking drawings to see the relationships of ideas and agents involved; this was essential to gathering a decent group of friends in the room, and knowing how to talk to them.

What role does light play within this discourse?

Twofold: one is the literal use of light, and the other is the ideology is symbolizes in this context. These two roles are sometimes confluent, and sometimes at odds.

How is light used and explored within the drawings which almost seem to be drawn through this?

In this work, illumination is not taken as a default state. Each point on the drawings is a ray of light projected against the geometry from a chosen vantage; the aggregation of light forms identity against the void. Sometimes a point of information is black. This is one of the methods of obfuscation. Others methods include mutations to points of light, collapsing points visually other where other representational strategies might prohibit, and light lingering over time. Logistically, code was required to actually operate on the large number of points with the precision needed.

What tools did you use throughout? How did these shape the project?

I quickly found that my go-to modeling software could not handle large datasets of points, let alone operate on them with individual attention. Most of the generation and manipulation was done with Python scripting. Raytracing was introduced to color the points. Visualization was done via a tool called Processing, which allowed me to navigate and season the model using sensors. Having to code operations made me understand that other more typical 3D software commands come with latent assumptions—assumptions that you may neither be aware of nor be capable of changing. With code that could look at each point as a unique condition and then apply tailored modifications, I found myself able to operate in ways I hadn’t known possible.

Not obvious is a second layer of tools: various narrative agents appearing within the work in different ways. Many of these characters originate from research (Francisco Goya painting ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ for example) and exist within the work as shadows of their real-world progenitors. The intent is to circumscribe the work with efforts of those before. These agents also lend a certain richness: what is at-hand to discuss and modify becomes much more lively and complex. Moreover, lots of unforseen baggage gets tangled in the project, and can lead to interesting finds.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

Analogous thinking. I can credit Perry Kulper for introducing this one. Basically: what is a thing alike to, analogously. Then, given a thing in the world, what analogous things can be created? It really opens up doors to work on problems in new ways.

About

mwkeller@umich.edu

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