Driven by the Sublime
Kivi Sotamaa, “Driven by the Sublime”, pp. 13-20 in Nexus V: Architecture and Mathematics, ed. Kim Williams and Francisco Delgado Cepeda, Fucecchio (Florence): Kim Williams Books, 2004. https://www.nexusjournal.com/conferences/N2004-Sotamaa.html
Architecture bears a close relationship to mathematics and a number of other disciplines. There is often confusion as to what architecture is and a need to justify it through reference to another discipline. Many of today’s avant-garde architects argue for their work in terms of data, statistics for example. In my presentation I would like to challenge the pseudo-scientific approach to design and promote a “return to nature” – to the materiality of architecture.
1998 working on Chamberworks installation for a modern art gallery RAM in Oslo I had a fortune of meeting Oyvind Andreassen at the military research facility outside Oslo. Andreassen is a mathematician studying the formula behind liquid phenomenon such as waves and vortices. He used supercomputers and advanced voxel-based software to visualise his four dimensional formula. I immediately fell in love with the overwhelming complexity and sublime beauty of his flowing animations. Together with my colleagues we convinced him to lend us the software and along with it some of his storm models to be used as inspirational material for our installation design.
Ever since my encounter with Andreassen I have been impressed by the capacity of contemporary mathematics to describe the behavior of complex “liquid“ phenomenon in nature. The formation of clouds, waterfalls, tsunami and bird flocks. This is very simply because those material constellations posses so many qualities I desire for my design. I am fascinated by the depth, beauty and complexity of these formations, organic and inorganic, the kind of sublime experience I had diving over a school of fish on a coral reef in northern Thailand two summers ago. Would it be possible to design architecture which would share some of the qualities of these formations which emerge in the dance of forces of nature?
To begin with; what is the relationship of mathematics, architecture, or any other form of creative human activity to the sublime phenomenon in nature? Immanuel Kant (1) identified two types of sublime: the “mathematical sublime” and the “dynamical sublime.” The latter is found in nature. The experience of nothingness in the face of the force and complexity of a waterfall. According to Kant the “mathematical sublime” emerges over the dynamical sublime as something superior to nature. It is the the realm of Ideas and Reason. It is what makes us as humans superior to nature. Gillez Deleuze (2) proposes another role to the “mathematical sublime”. He says that Ideas are not superior or transcendental to nature but immanent to experience itself, “suprasensible”. He says that “ideas reveal the forces or intensities that lie behind sensations.” For Deleuze the “mathematical sublime” is something inherent in the human experience of the sublime in nature.
It follows from Deleuze’s notion that the abstract realm of mathematics is something inseparable from the intuitive, emotional experience of the world around us, as is architecture, or any other discipline for that matter. It is implied that there is no abstract knowledge above other knowledge but all knowledge is specific to the materiality of its discipline and all disciplines bear a relationship to the sublime, to nature. Mathematics is an outgrowth of the human cognitive apparatus which finds itself in our physical universe. Physics, art, music, architecture are there to “reveal forces and intensities” that lie behind our sensation of nature. All of these human disciplines are creative enterprises of thought. Philosophy is about the creation of concepts, architecture is about the creation sensible material aggregates. Humans construct, but do not discover, mathematics, architecture, music, in order to find “rhythm” in the universe.
There are other schools of thought. For example, the school of Mathematical realism, which correlates with Kant’s notion of the faculty of Ideas as a realm higher to imagination and superior to nature, and holds that mathematical entities exist independently of the human mind. In today’s architecture an approach akin to the mathematical realism is the so called “data-architecture” or “algorithmic architecture.” One of the most famous proponents of the approach is Winy Maas (3) of the the Dutch office MVRDV. Presenting the office’s work he gives the impression that architecture is an inevitable result of the collection and logic organization of abstract data. Whereas the argumentation of the architect for his/her own work in no way defines what the work achieves (I quite like most MVRDV projects and believe their is a great deal of professional expertise and artistic intuition that goes to the designs), these architects claim they focus on self-generating, logical processes to “automatically” produce architecture. It is an approach that, as Architect Greg Lynn (4) puts it, “is based on the conceptual tautology that one should not design until design truths have been programmed”, and ” has proven to be hostile to the disciplinary expertise inherent to the architectural medium in that it defers explicit aesthetic and theoretical claims.” Great architects are great thinkers just as great philosophers or mathematicians and they do not need to resort to pseudo-scientific argumentation to reason for their designs. Architects should be at ease with thinking in terms of percepts and affects rather than concepts and data. Architecture is capable of creating new knowledge bound to its own materiality. The rest of the presentation, I hope, will be in evidence of that.
Projects I will present three projects, three explorations into different aspects of architecture inspired by the sublime phenomenon in nature: The first – Extraterrain - is an exploration in non-recognisable form, the second - Intencities - in complex organization and the third - Spanish Dancer - in the seductive affect.
There is a close relationship, even though I understand the two are different, between the definition of the experience of the “dynamical sublime” and what Umberto Eco calls the experience of an Open Work of art. In his seminal work Opera Aperta ( The Open Work), he posits a notion that the openness of a work art is yielded by its deliberate ambiguity, generates a plurality and multiplicity of orders, which in turn catalyze interactions between a work and the perceiving subject.(5) Eco suggested that such works in motion leave the arrangement of some of their constituents to the public or to chance, thus giving these works a field of possible orders rather than a single definite one. The experience of an open work of art borders on the experience of the “dynamical sublime” in that it escapes our comprehension, cannot just simply be read, and activates the suprasensible faculty of Ideas in an attempt to reveal the forces or intensities that lie behind sensations we are experiencing. The mechanism which triggers the experience is what I believe Jacques Derrida was referring to when he talked about a moment of “non recognition.”(6) He said that “the moment of non recognition is an essential moment everywhere. The moment when the architectural society does not recognize something, a project as architecture, or an architect as an architect. That is a critical moment when something happens…What happens has to happen through the unidentifiable objects.”
The Extraterrain furniture was an attempt to create that moment of non-recognition by uncoupling geometric articulation of an object from the deliberate encoding of meaning. The Extraterrain aimed at charging a simple material surface with potential for use, while simultaneously evading any prescription or indication of a proper use. Diverse geometries were digitally sampled and fused into a non-decomposable surface in order to arrive at geometry free of referential associations to any existing furniture types. The final piece was made of vacuum-formed sheets of ABS-plastic reinforced by a 5mm layer of high-density polyurethane and was painted extreme matte black or Mother-of-Pearl white. The Extraterrain was “tested” in various social occasions. First there was a moment of shock and awe when people couldn’t recognise the piece and but felt seduced by the complexity of its form and the effects on its surface. They then engaged the piece physically, with their body. It was through their bodily exploration, play, that the faculty of Ideas became activated, and the experience and possibilities of the Extraterrain settled in.
Nature’s sublime phenomenon are results of a high number of interconnected elements of a system performing in concert. Imagine a flock of birds flying in formation, or the water molecules spinning down the drain in your sink. Intencities-urban intervention year 2000 in Helsinki was an attempt to take the formal approach of Extraterrain and to create an intense and continuously evolving spectacle generated by the high interlinking of the constituent elements of the project: art, architecture, dance, music, media, and graphic design. The design team devised a loosely-coupled choreographic layout in order to engender dynamic interactions between scheduled performances, defined formal, sonic, tactile, and material elements and emergent flows of movement and ambient effects across the site. The architectural component of the intervention featured five geometrically differentiated structures made of steel tube, timber planks and plastic film.
While the structures made loose provision for programmatic arrangements, such as stages, seating or circulation areas, viewing platforms and bridges, none of these provisions were evident from their formal articulation. Motion-triggered light and sound systems were integrated into the structures and enabled feedback between visitors and changing ambient effects of the intervention. The visitors could use their actual movement to manipulate the projected graphics and therefore the audio-visual appearance of the intervention. The differentiated geometry of the material construct, the changing intensities of ambient effects, as well as the individual and collective movement of visitors and performers continually converged and diverged, assembling and dispersing the elements of the intervention into a dance of ever-changing configurations.
Perhaps the most interesting element of the sublime phenomenon in nature is its affect. Spinoza defined affect as an ensemble of drives, motivations, emotions and feelings.(7) In architectural terms affects operate to create what architecture theorist Jeffrey Kipnis refers to as the “mood”.(8) Affects and mood are created by experiences of sounds, lights, the feeling of a material to the skin, the sense of movement and the sensuality of a form. In the sublime the environment becomes so seductive and overwhelming that we let go of our conscious self for a moment, become one with the environment.
Spanish Dancer, an installation yet to be built in Japan, explores the domain of the affect. Spanish Dancer is a seducer. From the outside the folding translucent surfaces of the installation glow red and lure people in like some magical butterfly. The seductive mood at the exterior is heightened with deep bass sounds. In the central area of the installation lies a surprise - a white dune landscape where sounds are suddenly crisp and clear, fresh and angelic and lighting is bright white daylight. People can wander through and recline in the deep white sand. The surfaces of the installation are made of two pleated polycarbonate sheets with laminated rice paper in between them. The structure of the installation is painted bent round profile steel. The Zen garden -like space in the centre is created by covering the floor with 30-40 cm layer of white silica particles and by placing daylight sources under the particles to illuminate them.
As mathematicians are trying to imagine formula to describe the formations of nature, I am trying to produce some of their effects in architecture - not by representing nature in architecture but by producing new effects bound to the materiality of architecture. I dream of a building whose skin is adaptive and articulated like that of the chameleon, whose form is as sinuous as water flowing in a stream and whose material effects are as seductive as the rippling surface of the ocean at sunset.
1 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Macmillan Press, 1929
2 Gillez Deleuze, Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation, University of Minnesota Press, 2003
3 Winy Maas, lecture at the Ohio State University in February 2004
4 Greg Lynn, Praxis Journal of Writing, Building. Praxis Inc, 2004 5 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1989
The concept of ambiguity finds its counterpart in architectural theory in the notions of blankness and pointing as introduced by Roberto Mangabeira Unger during the Anyone Conference , which are further explicated by Jeffrey Kipnis in AD Folding in Architecture
6 Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida & Peter Eisenman, Chor L Works, The Monacelli Press 1986
7 Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza, Joy Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Harcourt Books, 2003
8 Jeffrey Kipnis, On Those Who Step Into the Same River, Mood River exhibition catalogue, The Wexner Centre for the Arts, 2002