Dense Space (2009)
New urban social practices are developed within the framework of a ludic and hedonistic view of the relationship between the individual and the environment. The current ever-growing relevance of activities related to consumption as a means of subjective expression and as a binding and social activity can be confirmed, as can be the importance of ephemeral ornaments and the fast accessibility to a vast array •of information and objects for consumption that are renewed at a blinding pace. All these factors are the key to the fascination and the vertigo caused by contemporary metropolitan spaces. This urban enchantment applies methods that, although spread through superficial saturation, constitute a continuous and enveloping environment. This urban environment has a tendency to proliferate and fill all the space available, in the same way as a new natural environment would. This complex urban faciality transcends public spaces and conditions our way of life.
The romantic whirlwind of producing outstanding effects is being increasingly transferred to experience in urban spaces. Humankind has always been irresistibly and playfully keen on increasing its perception, on simulations and on games that take it to the edge. A widespread game children play as to go round in circles simply for the sake of giddiness, of losing your balance and reaching visual clarity. The slide and the merry-go-round are examples of games where speed and vertigo are experienced, not to mention fun fairs, where these dizzying games are taken to the extreme. Here, the whole body is subjected to a manipulation of perception, and physical and spatial situations that are out of the ordinary are experienced. Similarly, dancing can also be intoxicating: dervishes seek the unbalance caused by their endless turns, in a collective and contagious rotation.
"The romantic whirlwind of producing outstanding effects is being increasingly transferred to experience in urban spaces".
A new spatial paradigm that is sensitive to this metropolitan eroticism must therefore investigate new forms of architectural programming and seduction, where the creation of visual effects will undoubtedly hold an important role: effects that are vivid, decorative, emotional, physiological.
Based on this idea of efficiency, the performance capability of architecture acquires a greater importance: the way it performs, what it obtains, what it provides and what strategies of meaning it contains. The architectural project must be conceived on the basis of the capabilities that, when put together, will create a certain atmosphere. A coherent structure must then be developed, because the focus is on the effects and not the objects they come from or the processes that generate them. The range of possibilities, both as programs and phenomena that could potentially be established must also be continuously explored in an untiring manipulation of itself and in the search for new interaction protocols. Thus, such architecture is capable of generating any manifestation of any phenomenon, from fictions about the already existing 'outside' world to the independent and hitherto unknown sensory mechanisms and new technologies of subjective identification.
The effect can be transmitted by overlapping complex surfaces, turning to two-dimensional images that reach a space in mimicking enchantment or in mutable faciality through saturation. It can also be extended to the whole of space, providing its own translation mechanisms and ultimately, building a space where all the previous projected operating capabilities has been transferred.
We know that architectural effects can involve all our senses to the point of actuating on our whole body. But there are also those that originate in the interaction of individuals with their environment. In order to obtain the preliminary ideas for his films, Chaplin would start by building the sets. These sets would dictate the possibilities for drama in the story. In them, Chaplin saw all the narrative and the coups de theater (the number of characters, how to connect them in the most unexpected way, their location, their paths, where they would slip and fall, what window could suddenly open so that the policeman could catch the thief.... Performers and stuntmen all manage the capabilities of architecture and obtain an exact measure of the space around them to do their act, their show. They operate the theatre of effects and plan its duration and perceptive properties.
Following in the footsteps of the likes of Ruskin and Houdini, the trick becomes part of the resources of this theatre of effects. Since the start of the modern age, tectonic artifices were considered suspicious and unworthy of authentic architecture. Nothing should be hidden, and all technical and building resources were there for everyone to see.
"Performers and stuntmen all manage the capabilities of architecture and obtain an exact measure of the space around them to do their act, their show. They operate the theatre of effects and plan its duration and perceptive properties".
In spite of this, avant garde architecture has always fought in some way or another against the limitations of architecture and against its submission to the laws of perception and gravity. History is full of floating houses, staircases in mid-air, shining towers, etc. In time, these artifices have incorporated their own tectonics. Tectonic tricks are not conjuring devices but techniques for the transmission of information that is ever more integrated, efficient and consistent.
Principles of Dissolution of Architecture
The appearance of efficient tectonics of ambient architecture can be traced back to the avant-garde movements of the sixties. The development of superstructures designed mainly to colonize a stable framework with moving and ephemeral elements constitutes one of the main signs that the mass constructed around a predominant structural element was breaking up. This tendency towards the atomization of the constructive architectural elements would later lead to an extraordinarily light architecture that applies the idea of dematerialization as a metaphor polarizing its development.
Thus, the construction of the superstructure has fluctuated between the brutalist framework and metabolist infrastructure to a structure that looks increasingly towards growing lighter and disappearing together with the elements that constitute the building, maybe even the 'intelligent dust' developed nowadays by nanotechnology. At the end of this process, the hierarchy between the structure and the rest of the parts has disappeared and become a material continuum.
Modern spatiality is replaced by a mass of material contained within a minimal architectural enclosure. Air architecture and the gardens of wind and fire by Yves Klein inaugurated a lengthy investigation on how to manipulate what seems like almost nothing.
Opposite this 'immaterial' architecture, other architects study the nature of solid materials. In the manner of alchemists, they investigate their tendencies and their active nature, to the point of devising constructions with progressively decaying surfaces. Materials are thus allowed to freely display their properties in relation with their surrounding environment.
This material and phenomenological sensitivity is a celebration of absolute duration and proof of the profound lack of solidity of materials, whose intimate structure is a vibrating assembly of particles that form a transparent body. Space, for this reason, is a continuous environment with drastic variations in density. It is a material environment with changing properties. The following step of the transition from a solid to a light architecture containing a space-mass with varying characteristics or with a qualified atmosphere is a space where the body of the user and architecture share constructive components, where we can breathe the material it is made of. As if it were a perfume, atmospheric architecture negates a complete separation from the user, so we take a part of it with us, as can be seen in some of the works by Jean-Gilles Décosterd and Philippe Rahm. Corporality, space and architecture are intertwined.
Another fundamental factor in the development of atmospheric architecture is the parameterization of the architectural project, allowing its construction from the handling of the amounts that intervene in it. This procedure allows the incorporation of a wider array of elements that in the ancient domain of architecture. Parameterization ultimately allows the initially heterogeneous set of elements used as working material for architecture to be handled as a continuous body.
This operating capability allows architecture to establish a larger number of interrelations with its users and its environment. It creates the possibility of having an atomized and percentile architecture where every component can proliferate as necessary, and of having a space with maximum continuity by introducing intensive qualities in the project. While the characteristic extensive properties of metric space (length, area, volume, amount of energy and entropy) are Intrinsically dividable, the intensive properties that are characteristic of the topological space (temperature, pressure, density, etc.) cannot be divided without causing an unbalance in each part. Similarly, the parameterization of the project allows the handling of a series of properties of said project that interact dynamically with the environment where they operate, thus displaying intensive properties in common with it. An intensive project would therefore be potentially compatible with its environment, while, for the same reason, the environment could potentially also be simultaneously manipulable.
The three above investigations, the development of an implementable, ultra-light, super material and parametric architecture are three dissolution parameters that converge simultaneously in an atmospheric architecture. They constitute three asymptotes with the same basic limit: the atomization of the components of architecture, the dematerialization of construction by the development of efficient tectonics, and, finally, the densification of space.
"...the development of an implementable, ultra-light, super material and parametric architecture are three dissolution parameters that converge simultaneously in an atmospheric architecture. They constitute three asymptotes with the same basic limit: the atomization of the components of architecture, the dematerialization of construction by the development of efficient tectonics, and, finally, the densification of space".
Dense space is concrete space.
In the modern tradition, architectural space has been considered the negative of an architectural mold containing an interior that always depends on what is constructed, without a sense in itself. Specifically, 'void' is the word that is normally closest to what space represents as an independent architectural element. But this emptiness, the absence of a construction, which is completely transparent to let architecture 'be', is a purely metaphorical notion. It ought to be understood as immaterial, but in reality it is a substance that occupies the architectural Interior, It is a dense space where air takes on a new relevance. Air has logically been an important part in tile technical process of conditioning of the human space given the need for it to be sanitized and tempered, but this importance has been merely instrumental and technical, again away from the specific field of architectural space (which has always maintained its 'emptiness'). Air, the specific space, is the substance used for the presentation of all the atmospheric architectural effects. Within this context, the idea of an abstract space lacks importance when opposed to the supply of a gas closer to a form of ether than to the vacuum it has to shape. In fact, ether has been traditionally defined as a continuous medium for transmission that fills the vacuum and penetrates the core of materials. (1) This scientific image, abandoned after the appearance of Einstein's theories in the 1920s, tried to fill the gaps that prevented finding a satisfactory explanation of certain physical phenomena. In reality, it was an instrument of continuity between all of them, and thus a good means to widen our imagery of atmospheric architecture. After a quick breakdown of the various properties attributed to this substance, ether was the result of the impossibility of 'distance actions' (Newton), a deformation of a continuous environment that fills all the space and is derived from the investigations into the undulating nature of light (Huygens), a vibrant substance (Fresnel), a transmitter of force lines (Faraday), a luminous and inert substance that penetrates all bodies and is at the same time elastic, fluid and plastic (Maxwell), and a still substance (Lorentz).
Nowadays there only remains one poetic mode of ether and, possibly, an architectural mode. In “House and Universe”, Bachelard lists some literary examples that describe these poetic, aqueous and infinitely continuous ethers: 'my house is diaphanous, but not of glass. It is more like the nature of steam. Its walls condense and relax upon my wish. I sometimes bring them closer around me, as isolating armor, but others I let the walls of my house expand in their own, infinitely extendable space. (2)
Imagining architectural ether is useful to describe the contemporary formal utopia par excellence: continuous, full, fluid space, embodied in an atmosphere that can ultimately become a constructed environment. (3)
Dense space is also that which assimilates the actions of its users. From a programmatic point of view, the first space 'filling' operation takes place when so-called 'events' (as defined by Bernard Tschumi) are included. (4) A space characterized by users and their actions, movements and the objects they carry subjected to an activation that leads to an overall commitment. Expressions such as 'going into a fight' denote that these sets of actions, movements and impacts that are interpreted by several actors constitute a space, an interior in them. We are thus faced with a further degree of densification, in view of the saturation caused by the combination of the environment and the various activations of its users.
"Dense space assimilates the actions of its users"
At this point, it would be worthwhile to remember some projects where the constructed mass filled with a basic programmatic principle replaces the architectural void. (5) The Bibliothéque de France of Rem Koolhaas (1989) is basically a totalizing whole, a compact and dark block of information. Inside this colossal compact mass there are bubbles floating that correspond to reading rooms and other public places.
These singularities or changes in the density of the informative ether allow movement inside the building. The Aqua Alta 1.0 project (1998) by R&Sie burdens the fluctuations in the tides of the lake of Venice, to the point that the water 'raises up’ the walls of the building and liquefies its material components'. (6) The project re aces air with a spatial will of a body of water intake, which leads to all the spatial continuities of the project. Some of the projects by Françoise and Lewis, such as the Rural Houses (1995), are masses of vegetation into which inhabitable spaces are 'pruned'.
Finally, the hyper-spatiality of the full space takes us to the climax of interior space. Atmospheric architecture transforms the creation of an inhabitable space into the potentiality of a pocket world. This promise of a definitively interior world is present in some instances of art and architecture, in sun containers that are already a part of our architectural experience. We have learnt about gigantic spaces with blinding suns (7) and others that simulate a never-ending series of dawns and dusks and inject stimulating gases in the air, thus distorting our perception of circadian rhythms. (8) These solar fictions are ultimate the symptom o a will to completely interiorize our vital living space, or, in other words, to make the interior and exterior worlds converge in a single spatial category.
As in the case of emptiness, transparency is also a metaphorical quality. In reality, this figurative space is irrelevant within the context of architecture as a visual discipline. If the sole function of architecture is to organize space, then it is not an eminently visual practice, but an experience of being submerged, of movement and physical presence in an interior. Modern transparency (where both the exterior and the parts that make up the interior are intact and at the mercy of our vision) concedes its place to the opacity of a filled space, to a fluid that mediates in our perception and colors it with the most varied substances.
Space itself becomes visible because it can now be assimilated, but, at the same time, vision as the vector that crosses space to reach the exterior is hindered. Dense space is, rather than perceived, assimilated and incorporated to our conscience.
In the words of Roger Caillois, assimilation of space is a process of spatial generalization. (9) There is almost no separation between the individual and its surrounding environment, where the distinction between the interior and exterior is blurred or Irrelevant. For Caillois, dark space is, in the same way as night is, the place where the distinction between the body and its environment is destabilized. In the luminous space, objects present a clear lack of continuity with respect to light, they are a negation of it, whereas darkness fills everything, impregnates every object. This dense and dark space is also our starting point: a place where the ongoing development in the floating center of the placenta of what is initially indistinguishable and inseparable from its environment will slowly and progressively differentiate the individual from its environment. (10)
"...dark space is the place where the distinction between the body and its environment is destabilized".
The Blur building (2002) by Elisabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio is one of the rare examples of problematization of these ideas of space assimilation. It constitutes the construction of an experience: the entry inside an ether with blurred visual characteristics. This fog is a dense space that penetrates the visitors. It is a dark space, which makes every body have the same interior and exterior space and has a substance that impregnates everything. The vaporized water and the water that makes up the users constitute a shared constructive component. Man and space are mutually assimilated in an involuntary mimesis with their environment. And then, since the visual mechanisms are limited to a large extent, a new 'organ', a hybrid gadget, is necessary for the intersubjective relations to take place by codifying the potential compatibilities between individuals.
This plastic and waterproof coating is the necessary element to separate the two aqueous worlds present: the interior bodily world and the exterior foggy world that floats over the body of water of the lake.
In “Hashish in Marseille” (11) an intoxicated Walter Benjamin compares the crowded city with a toy theatre: a tin box with a glass window containing paper figures. When the glass is rubbed, the actors are charged with electricity and they start a frantic dance. This magnetized space is a metaphor of the city and of the activation of a generic space by means of psychological stimulation and social interaction, as well as of the construction of an energy-charged space capable of transforming the perception of our environment.
In the intersubjective space we find a further degree of spatial densification. The physical space cannot be separated from the social space, the one that is formed by the relationships between individuals and the intimate places they generate. The intersubjective social space that is characteristic of collective inhabitation. (12) Architecture plays a key role in the development of these places, since its nature as emitter of information grants it a potential emotional load and a power to mediate between the social and individual spaces.
The formalization of, firstly, an own mental space and secondly, a collective one, was one of the aims of the architectural avant-garde of the sixties and seventies. (13) The basic aim of its proposals was to condition a portion of air.
The drive of an atmospheric architecture is already present an the pneumatic architecture of the time, aimed at creating bubbles of inhabitable space with a size proportional to the number of people that are to interact in it. Haus-Rucker Co exemplifies this variable-scale envelope of the vital sphere in the Mind Expander programs. Here, a sort of spatial envelope spontaneously concentrates around one or several individuals. The reason for this project is the extension of these fields of perception by the implementation of techniques that cause various effects, from the Environment Transformer (1968), for a single person, to the Pneumacosm (1967), for a group of individuals. The latest version of the mental expansion program, Mind Expander II, is nothing more than a technological shield that promises the possibility of an alternative and expanded perception, a manner of ultra compact interface directly related with the human body for the production of an extended immersive environment.
The most radical proposal for an extended psychic and wholly subjective space comes from Hans Hollein, author of Svobodair and Non-physical Environmental Control Kit (Hans Hollein and Peter Noever, 1967). Svobodair was a spray that allowed for the simultaneous transformation of the personal space and the state of mind, together forming a custom atmosphere. One burst is enough to color tile day at will. "No drive? Boss in a bad mood? Down? No ideas? Boring work? Exhausted? Feeling blue? Dow Jones down? Pfff... and your surroundings change". (14) The Non-physical Environmental Control Kit is a pill, a proposal for a pharmaceutical architecture. It is recommended to experiment custom made spatial effects. The prescription is the project.
These two proposals, together with the one by Hans Rucker Co. were part of the visual manifesto that accompanied the first real essay about atmospheric architecture: “Alles ist Architektur”, written Hans Hollein in 1968. (15)
Here, Hollein foresees architectural practice as environmental characterization by means of producing effects to condition psychological states. Everything is architecture, because the media, the proliferation of information and a growing technology of environmental conditioning define what contemporary space is like more precisely than conventional architecture does. The increasing mastery of the physical characterization of space convinces Hollein to investigate the relationship between the reality of affection and the formal and spatial organizations in order to explore a new freedom. The extension of the phenomenological possibilities of architecture paves the way for the psychological extension of atmosphere definition.
As a means of communication, architecture expands our psychological sphere. With this in mind, the production of information, not the emitter as an object, has an increasing importance to meet our spatial and psychological needs.