Architectural theory is a unique and snarly beast. Sometimes it consists of deep and groundbreaking insights relevant to design practice and the human experience; mostly it feels like an exercise in excessive verbiage and flowery language. It embodies my new favorite word: “obfuscate”.
I’m still trying to find my footing in theory.
This past semester was a surprisingly positive experience with the beast, being only excruciatingly painful a tiny part of the time. I’m sometimes bashful about accepting my successes, but after being chosen as one of the ten presenters in the school to speak (briefly!) about my project, I will admit that success was had. Also, that I’m a little proud.
The presentation and its images are below – italic image captions added to aid those unfamiliar with architectural theory and archi-speak. And honestly, to aid those who are, too – because who isn’t confused by theory, truly?
Delirious New York, the assigned text that incited my exploration into “virtual architecture,” understanding our perception of the visual and our mind’s reconstruction of reality. Written by Rem Koolhaas, a both famous and popular architect and architectural theorist.
Delirious New York is a springboard for contemplation – an example of a way of thinking. As Koolhaas comments on the nature of reality and lays out architecture’s role within it, the story is not of the subjects, but in his way of telling. My polemic begins with the text and extends to this:
NYC’s skyline; Delirious New York is an in-depth analysis of Manhattan, from its pre-settlement history through to the near present. Here a concept is shown in a familiar way (the skyline’s silhouette) as well as in another, mirrored reality. It is digital, artificially constructed, emphasized by the AutoCAD cursor hovering over the dashed lines.
As we accelerate into an increasingly digital and virtual world, what is the nature of reality? What is architecture’s role in the understanding and manipulation of the virtual, and how does architecture’s identity change in order to keep its relevance in this shifting paradigm? Using Manhattan as a case study, Koolhaas reveals reality as a multi-layered series of experiences in which architecture’s identity is maturing to incorporate this ideological shift by providing varied experiences that tap into the virtual.
This image was created by the surrealist artist Salvador Dali as a visual representation of his Paranoid-Critical method, used in the text by Rem Koolhaas to make sense of an otherwise seemingly chaotic reality in Manhattan.
The level of interaction falls to the individual, to chance, and is one of many possibilities derived from our own actions; it is an overlay of the virtual, the tactile, and our interpretation of both.
Delirious New York provides the explanations and groundwork for interpreting reality; these techniques can then be applied anywhere. Koolhaas writes his retroactive manifesto as a reconstruction of history full of accepted facts but woven into a new narrative.
Two figures – Dali’s illustrations of NYC skyscrapers coming to life as figurines from Millet’s painting “Angelus” – collaged onto a photograph of the ashes of Dreamland (theme park.) Koolhaas writes a deviation from the strictly historical narrative based on an alternative spatial development of the city.
This text should not be read as a work of isolation, but rather used as a lens from which to view the potential of how to change human experience through architecture. Our interaction with the world is largely virtual – which is to say, it is experienced through indirect means, through an implication of a space, depth, or environment that may not physically exist. This is often illusory, and digitally generated. Consider Times Square, a site with as many digital screens and imagery as physical building facades. One experiences the images on-screen more than the physical architecture itself, which is continuously changing and represents a temporal, not a material context.
Outlines taken from a 1939 World’s Fair poster showing the architectural icons “globe and needle”: the sphere maximizes volume, the tower maximizes height. Each represents design concepts more so than actual buildings.
In many ways virtual experience has replaced the tactile reality as the predominant mode of understanding the world, whether it be understanding highway transportation through its signs more than its trajectories, or using the QR codes on smartphones to uncover additional information about a location or site.
Additional graphics added to demonstrate the possibility of complexity on the interior, and the layering of information through digital means.
Virtual architecture, or architecture with virtual components, could span grounds not covered by other forms of architecture because of its incredible flexibility and immediacy. It would have the capacity to be responsive, tailoring to specific individuals, conditions, or input at an unprecedented speed and level of specificity. What could this mean for human experience- an architecture which was continually transformative, learning, and immediately responding to this new information?
I layered two written essays on top of one another, one in blue and the other in red, a snapshot of which is shown here. Accompanying the poster were two filters (again, one blue and one red) – while viewing the poster through the red filter, only the blue text became visible, and while viewing the poster through the blue filter, only the red text became visible. These images show the application of a blue filter, revealing the red text, written in an essay-style format.
Architecture could become an amalgamation of individual and virtual experience, and the consistent but variably interpreted material and tactile constructions which constitute our environment. Virtual architecture is not the notion of the picturesque, constructed forms meant to be seen from one particular vantage point. It is the antithesis of designs which unify experiences to a single moment or a single idea. Without variance, architecture ceases to be meaningfully engaging.
Applying a red filter reveals the blue text, which is written in a semi-stream-of-consciousness style, as a nod to free-writing as referenced in Delirious New York.
The idea of complete individualization does not mean total freedom, or complete lack of structure or bounds; architecture taken to such an extreme would render itself nonexistent, a nothingness in a vast sea of endless possibilities without the structure necessary to provide them… architecture becomes a Rorschach inkblot,
The text is arranged in the form of a Rorschach inkblot [link!], a concept used in psychology wherein the viewer interprets abstract images as a way of analyzing their personal perceptions and state of mind. The concept here is similar in that the image requires interpretation from the viewer, but instead of a complete abstraction it contains actual text (and later, images.)
but with deliberate intent, not truly a mass entirely based on perception only but carefully crafted, seeding the subconscious, providing in reality a limited set of possible operations… but since the engagement is still left up to the viewer, and since the entire picture is never viewed at once, the illusion of endless possibilities remains…
Adding in the images and diagrams as featured above, the poster is complete: the faded image of a Rorschach inkblot, inviting multiple interpretations; images and diagrams relating to the text, space, and the digital realm; two layers of text with different tone and slightly different perspectives on the same topic; and of course, two filters, enabling the viewer to read the passages of their choosing.
Architecture’s inclusion of the virtual is a manner of expression as well as allowing for a new form of inhabitation, which again places the experience of architecture squarely in the hands of the individual, falling to exploration; chance; personal engagement; multi-layered and full of possibilities…
Red filter in action – voila! Legible (even if not intelligible) text.