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Sensation & the Figure

written for LOG 17, 2009


Francis Bacon: Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1976; oil on canvas, in three parts, each 14 x 12 inches

Sensations are believed by some psychologists to be the first stages in the functioning of senses that lead to perception, the process of understanding the sensory information. However, to Gillez Deleuze sensation was not prior to the world of perception or representation, but coextensive with it. It was the world of “lived experience,” exactly what the phenomenologists have attempted to describe. Our focus on sensation in architecture can be seen as an attempt to do what what the ‘phenomenological architects’ failed at - to overcome the experience of ‘reading’ a narrative emerging from structural expression, meaning, history and process, in order to foreground a lived experience - a sensation.

The most sophisticated contemporary work on the subject deploys representation skillfully in order to create sensation through what Deleuze called the Figure - “a form that is connected to a sensation, and that conveys the violence of this sensation directly to the nervous system” [1]. The Figure is an oscillating form between figuration [representation] and abstraction. It is specific in its’ affect, yet never enables a definitive understanding or ‘reading’ to take place.

In Frank Gehry’s work a figurative element such as fish or a rose will often emerge transformed into near abstraction creating the Figure. It is perhaps one reason to his success in capturing people’s imagination because paradoxically, by avoiding telling any stories, the Figure becomes fertile ground for a multiplicity of them as sensible ‘rhythms’ start to emerge from the seeming ‘chaos’ of architectural effects. It is what caused Herbert Muschamp to write that “Bilbao is a sanctuary of free association. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman. It’s a ship, an artichoke, the miracle of the rose” [2].

We, the ‘superficial architects’ of a younger generation, attack the clichés of type and form associated with ‘serious architecture’ just as Gehry has done, because cliché is what prevents the genesis of a sensation “just as opinion and convention prevent the genesis of thought.” [3] Sensations generate superficial, immediate lived experiences at the expense of the intellectual ‘depth’ associated with the conceptual or process driven work, but in so doing they break through clichés and produce fundamentally new architecture and with that, new feelings and new meanings.

1 Gilles Deleuze / Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation / Translated and with an introduction by Daniel W. Smith/ Afterword by Tom Conley / University of Minnesota Press / ISBN: 0-8166-4342-3 / ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-4342-4

2 Herbert Muschamp / The Miracle In Bilbao / The New York Times / Published: Sunday, September 7, 1997

“After my first visit to the building, I went back to the hotel to write notes. It was early evening and starting to rain. I took a break to look out the window and saw a woman standing alone outside a bar across the street. She was wearing a long, white dress with matching white pumps, and she carried a pearlescent handbag. Was her date late? Had she been stood up?