Architecture and the Potential for Effect (2014)
We can’t avoid coexisting with architecture. We come into constant, direct contact with it every day. Because our milieu is the city, we as architects and users, among others, are responsible for creating a harmonic relationship with it, what experimental psychology at the beginning of the 20th century referred to as being in tune with our environment. In the words of Eugène Minkowski, it has to do with “how [we] are capable of penetrating into the events of the atmosphere, mixing in with them, vibrating in unison under their influence.”(1) This vibration that stems from a relationship of mutual connection, either on an individual or collective level, is founded on empathy and on how each architectural assemblage is identified with its users. Architecture, as both cultural and tectonic construction, gives off sensory experiences. Their effects combine to form a complex alternative nature, which acts largely a source of satisfaction, of pleasant experiences, and is responsible for the viability of the city as a human habitat.
Urban space is an active substance, an aether imbibed with multiple properties that encourage mutual assimilation between atmospheres and users. The city and its inhabitants share in this reciprocal impregnation, an “urban eroticism” where space surrounds people and embraces them; it flows and breaks apart, leading them somewhere, drawing them in, changing shape, vibrating and dissolving... The city is full of potential experiences. As such, urban life frequently takes place in the playful and hedonistic relationship between subject and milieu, a relationship that has generated a new architectural faciality (that has seeped into public space and conditions our way of life.
Our current concept of space is therefore heavily influenced by strategies that pursue the production of all kinds of atmospheric effects, whether they are ornamental, emotional or physiological. The material practices that are based on the aesthetics of effect — i.e., practices that emphasize how objects have the capacity to move beyond themselves, and which therefore focus more on the effects than on the objects that produce them — will be an important model for architecture that is committed to experience and correlation.
"Architectural effects combine to form a complex alternative nature, which acts a source of pleasant experiences, and are responsible for the viability of the city as a human habitat."
The first precedent for the production of fascinating ambient experiences was the primitive form of science called natural magic, which gave rise to scientific demonstrations, public presentations of an exuberant and unprecedented material environment that was waiting to be explored. The development of the sophisticated techniques used in stage magic, especially in the 19th century, also constitutes one of the pre-modern roots of the spatial and constructive technologies of effect. Something similar happens in the case of their natural heir, the special effects industry, which incorporates the mechanics of magic.
The malleable and wondrous space created by the techniques of magical levitation, disappearance, production and metempsychosis, led to techniques involving scale manipulation and overlapping, the production of temporary atmospheres and the programmed destruction of built stages. Ultimately, it gave rise to the creation of artificial environments characteristic of movie special effects. All of these assemblages have contributed to changing the collective perception of space, transforming it into an animate and communicative substance. From Shklovsky to Eisenstein, from Merz to Youngblood, the theory of the production of special effects has been consolidated as the creation of aesthetic and emotional impact, an activity where illusion is a fundamental tool, and the corresponding aesthetic category is wonder. Today, architects are the real experts in special effects. It is inevitable: architecture produces effects, whether they are deliberately designed or not. Effects are as fleeting as life itself and they contribute to an architecture that exudes vitality. Effects rely on allure and seduction to produce a continuous latent persuasion in search of potential users. The act of seduction involves diverting meaning, displacing it in order to give way to new added information. Like a flash of light, special effects avoid any kind of linear, programmed narrative. Not only do they lack meaning; they destabilize the meanings that they affect, transforming them into pure play.(2)
"Effects rely on allure and seduction to produce a continuous latent persuasion in search of potential users."
The reaction created by effect is wonder. The history of modern archi-tecture has consisted in experimenting with spatial experiences outside of formal conventions and traditional symbolism, i.e., with experiences that are capable of inspiring wonder. We are naturally drawn to delightful situations, those which are intelligible while generating curiosity and emotion at the same time, and we tend to live with objects that can “put us at their mercy”, both from the point of view of haptic and phenomenological experience, and from a technical and tectonic point of view. (3) Wonder implies opening up; it implies vulnerability in the face of something unexpected, without knowing how it will end.
As such, it sets up a threshold of intelligibility. A philosopher experiences wonder in the face of what is around him, and that wonder serves as the origin for his activity. “Wonder is the only beginning of philosophy,” as Socrates said. Wonder carries the connotation of surprise, of gaining sudden access to knowledge: wonder is also enlightenment.*
Although wonder is rarely mentioned as a fundamental aesthetic category, as is the case with the sublime, for example, it is inseparable from architecture. At some point, we have all come across a particular work of architecture that fascinates and intrigues us to the point that we identify with it. When we are faced with vibrant and astonishing architecture, our admiration comes from the experience of an effect with an unknown cause. Our wonder is not just the result of a simple initial amazement, it also occurs in conjunction with our desire to understand the architectural mechanism. Wonder, consequently, also depends on how the architect makes use of construction technologies, spatial organization and form. In this meticulous preparation, the intelligent application of machinations to hide or exhibit the constituent parts of the work of architecture triggers a dialogue, a slow intellectual delectation between the work and the user.
Just like when a detective is trying to solve a mystery, there is a circular process of feedback that stimulates the desire for understanding: when an event has been partially revealed to us, we are faced with the possibility that things may be different from what we had previously thought.
The processes of intelligibility generate a satisfaction that pushes us to continue, not so much our pursuit of a total understanding or an ultimate cause, but the search for meaning. The cry of “Eureka!” accompanies the sudden realization of something we have intuited but not entirely comprehended.
Though it may not provide any kind of certainty, the search for meaning pushes the detective forward. The architectural medium contains a multitude of components, both visible and invisible. To use the term coined by Philip Fisher, it is a “field of details” that combine with one another. (4) The aesthetic component of wonder is based on how the mind enters into play with that field. This enjoyment strategy, i.e., the ability to take notice of all of the details of an object or phenomenon, results in a maximization of the process’s duration, and an intensification of the experience.
The Russian Formalists described it as increasing the difficulty of perception, lengthening the time that goes into perceiving a work of art. If we pay enough attention, wonder can also be found in everyday life. Suddenly, what seemed strange at first becomes recognizable. Works of art should lead us to uncover the creative process based on an assemblage that can trigger and intensify its interpretation. The fundamental commitment of a work of art is to resist immediate assimilation.
"Just like when a detective is trying to solve a mystery, there is a circular process of feedback that stimulates the desire for understanding: when an event has been partially revealed to us, we are faced with the possibility that things may be different from what we had previously thought."
The creation of this ambient vibration should not be understood as a negative stimulus, or a distraction, but rather as an attempt to implicate the user in his or her surroundings. A defamiliarized vision of reality allows us to recover a sense of the unknown, constantly renewing our relationship with our surroundings. Ultimately, the aim of architecture, to a greater or lesser extent, is to cancel out the sedative effects of everyday life.
Architecture’s legibility is elusive. The key to understanding it is the relationship between what is revealed and what remains hidden. Magicians talk about creating “windows”, i.e., spaces of perceptive control used to attract the audience’s attention. In traditional anglo-saxon construction, “truth windows” problematize the inevitable tension between construction and its outward expression. Used frequently in strawbale houses, they are openings cut into the interior surface of the wall which reveal its internal makeup. The area is then framed with a glass window pane that can be opened. A small area of the wall’s surface is left unplastered to reveal the compact straw that serves as its load-bearing structure.
In early architectural modernity, constructive legibility was derived from “revealing the mechanism”, based on the model of the formalist concept of defamiliarization. Viktor Shklovsky referred to defamiliarization as laying bare the methods used in preparing the artistic object, making the mechanisms of manipulation and construction visible. He proposed bringing the plans for a work into the foreground, creating awareness about the structure and the technique used. One might imagine that the program of constructive honesty that characterized the Neue Sachlichkeit during the second decade of the 20th century was a form of “unveiling the mechanism”, of integrating and exhibiting the art of construction. Soon the impossibility of that program would be confirmed, along with the difficulty of completely revealing the architectural mechanism, i.e. of offering a total and transparent reading. Like in a magic trick, even when one aspect is revealed, some other part inevitably remains hidden, creating a situation of ambiguity which also sets curiosity and wonder into motion. That is architecture’s potential for effect.
"Like in a magic trick, even when one aspect is revealed, some other part inevitably remains hidden, creating a situation of ambiguity which also sets curiosity and wonder into motion."
In order to achieve a particular effect, the mechanisms for concealment are sometimes enormously complex in relation to the components that are displayed. Robin Evans’ writings on Mies are proof of this statement. According to Evans, Mies wasn’t as interested in constructive truth as he was in its expression. (5) Even Miesian structural rationality is fundamentally an exercise in persuasion.
The role of structure is also central in the legibility mechanisms described above. The Flemish scientist Simon Stevin (1548-1620) wrote the following in his treatise on statics: “Wonder en is gheen wonder,” i.e., What appears a wonder is not a wonder, referring again to the relationship between wonder and the intelligibility of scientific and philosophical inquiry.
What looks like magic isn’t, but the admiration it produces is necessary to revealing its mystery. Wonder is a central motivation in reordering the forces of gravity by way of architectural structures. In addition to potential instability, modern architectural structure is also characterized by the transmission of structural tensions by avoiding the shortest and the most predictable route. In order to construct wonder, forces must be diverted, branched off and rerouted, resisting their natural tendencies... the whole constitutes a peculiar ensemble of structural and formal properties for each structure.
Architecture is a crisis of forces, an animate system of conflicting loads and supports.
Structural legibility is full of moments of emphasis and elaborate concealment. According to the historian Eduard F. Sekler, tectonics is a vehicle for spatial legibility that creates an intentional relationship betweenconstruction and structure, providing each with a particular expression. Similarly, he also describes atectonics as the contradictory relationship between load and support, which challenges a preconceived reading and destabilizes direct intuition on the part of the observer. (6)
In atectonic architecture, structure and ornamentation converge in a fusion of statics and aesthetics. Ornament, a tool of seduction par excellence, is a rule that is autonomously propagated to the ornamented support, capable of introducing a parenthesis or a spatial sweep with its own rules. The architecture of vibration and the production of effect is what the Situationists called “ephemeral decoration”, with the ability to influence our behavior and our mood. The resulting effect of ornament is the erosion of the readability of space, the creation of a graphic and anti-spatial environment.
Together with ambient manipulation, it promotes the dissolution between the subject and his environment. “I” and “my world” converge into a spatial reality and a reality of experiences. “We propose inventing new, interchangeable decorations,” asserted Ivan Chtcheglov in 1958. (7)
Debord, for his part, talked about exercising a “serious seduction” through the construction of urban atmospheres. (8) The architecture of effects does not pursue a succession of “mechanically provoked surprises”, but rather the creation of a field of activity disposed to human desires. (9)
Compared with the sublime, a category based on the aesthetization of fear, the wondrous is based on the pleasure principle, and in our case, on the search for perceptive experiences that provide sensory and intellectual satisfaction. Admiration is also closely tied in with humor. Freud mentions how jokes provide us access to something that was previously hidden. The comic effect is derived from an initial moment of confusion followed by revelation and understanding. (10)
"Together with ambient manipulation architecture promotes the dissolution between the subject and his environment."
An architecture of wonder pushes us to look for intelligibility where, initially, there is none. Architecture, therefore, defies gravity because it plays with the habitual rules of the transmission of force and because it dedramatizes and uses humor in the architectural design process. The architecture of effects is central to creating experiences of connection and reciprocity between the user and the architectural assemblage, between the object and the milieu. It should be designed based on capabilities coming together to create a specific ambiance; then a structure can be developed that will be consistent with it. The key lies in the effects themselves, not the objects that produce them or the processes that generate them.
The architecture of effects should also constantly explore the whole field of programmatic and phenomenological possibilities that it could put into motion, in a continuous manipulation of itself in search of new protocols for interaction. Architecture as a wonder-producing mechanism can be the origin of complex experiences, with cultural connotations that are deliberately modulated and which encourage a paradoxical reading. Based on spaces with a limited complexity, the architecture of effects is capable of producing an inexhaustible reading of itself.
*— TN: In Spanish, the author originally plays on the relationship between the verb
asombrar and the noun sombra.
1. The French psychiatrist Eugène Minkowski in La schizophrénie: Psychopathologie
des schizoïdes et des schizophrènes, (Paris: Payot, 1927).
2. Jean Baudrillard, “The Sacred Horizon of Appearances,” Seduction, (New York:
New World Perspectives, 1990).
3. “Wonder puts man at the mercy of things.” Cornelis Verhoeven, The Philosophy
of Wonder: An Introduction and Incitement to Philosophy, (The MacMillan Company:
New York, 1972) p. 28.
4. Phillip Fisher, Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences,
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
5. Robin Evans, Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays, AA Documents
2, (London: Architectural Association, 1997).
6. Eduard F. Sekler, “Structure, Construction, Tectonics” in Gyorgy Kepes, The
Structure of Art and Science, (New York: George Braziller, 1965).
7. Ivan Chtcheglov, “Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau,” Written in 1953 and
published in part in Internationale Situationniste no.1, Paris, June 1958.
8. Guy Debord, “Introduction à une critique de la géographie urbaine,” in Les
Lèvres Nues no. 6, September 1955.
9. Guy Debord, “Problèmes préliminaires à la construction d’une situation,”
Internationale Situationniste no. 1, Paris, June 1958.
10. Sigmund Freud, Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious, (New York: Moffat,
Yard & Co., 1916).
Published in Paez, Roger. Critical Prison Design. With contributions by Keller Easterling, Adrià Carbonell, Lluís Ortega, Juan Azulay, Juan Elvira, Ed Keller, Ramon Faura, Camí, Eòghann MacColl, Angela Kay Bunning, Gruff Rhys, Jordi Bernadó. Actar Publishers, NY, 2014. ISBN 978-0-9893317-7-7. Pp. 73-86. Translated by Angela K. Bunning.
Copyright Juan Elvira 2015