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  • Kivi Sotamaa

The Elegant Affect of the Evolved Object

Written for AD Magazine, Elegance Issue 2007

Frozen. Kivi Sotamaa, Tuuli Sotamaa, Ernesto Neto

Elegant projects do not reveal the process of their formation. The complexity and depth of their formal and material articulation is such they cannot be “read”. They produce new rhythms and sensations of emergent formations. Think of staring at a cloud. The Frozen Void was an attempt to reoriginate [1] that experience into architecture, or sculpture. We were after the elegant affect of an evolved object.

The Frozen Void was an ice building – a cylindrical object of ice approximately 4 meters in height and diameter, and contained a naturally evolved void that people could enter. It was designed using a natural form finding process - freezing water: Ernesto Neto, our collaborator on the piece, thought the process of freezing water in a mold was like baking a sculpture. Just pour water in a “negative oven” and wait for the void to emerge. I thought the process was much like a computer algorithm, which is essentially a recipe, a finite set of well-defined instructions for accomplishing a task, such as a development of a form. Either way, our ice building was entirely generated by the mold and the automated form finding process.

Both Neto and I deploy algorithmic physical and computational processes in our work, but neither would want those processes to “read” on the end result. Neto builds his sculptures out of spandex fabric that naturally finds mathematical minimal surface geometries akin to the structures of Frei Otto. Unlike Otto, he avoids calling attention to the forces that govern them. He uses translucency, color and representation - loose affiliations to bodily forms - to distract peoples’ attention from the construction logic. I explore algorithmic processes because their power to produce continuous variation of topological form. These forms can be very precise in terms of their affect and simultaneously suggestive, open to interpretation. They do not produce differences in kind - typological differences [2]. They generate differences in intensities which operate more like our feelings. They create moods and atmospheres [3] that appeal to emotions as opposed to our intellect.

Process based architectural works often contain an identifiable geometrical primitive which has traveled through space leaving a trace. A canonic example is Peter Eisenman’s Aronoff Center in Cincinnati. Contemporary examples are the many digitally generated designs that deploy mutating iterations of a form. In most cases, the traces call viewers attention to the process. Some of the latest work, however, reaches a level of complexity that escapes “reading”. Hernan Diaz Alonso’s iterative forms create a sensation of a rhythm and Ali Rahim and Hina Jamelle’s patterns produce figurative formations. Both effects have the power to turn the viewer’s attention away from the formative process towards new emergent phenomenon.

The challenge in the design of the Frozen Void, was to hide the process, because it, computer algorithm or freezing water, always causes people to focus on the traces, “read” them, as opposed to emotionally experience the architecture. Formally driven, process based design often seems “difficult” [4] to people, because it stages an analytical, cold and distanced experience, as opposed to the “easy” [5], immediate and emotional one. In order to fore ground the affective powers of our ice-building the process had to be in the background.

Frozen Void worked. People could sense the mathematics behind its formations but not decipher them. In the Frozen Void, there was no geometrical primitive, no construction details, seams, joints, trusses, surfaces that would make the structure legible, just a continuously differentiated skin of ice that refracts and reflects light. Inside the Void one quickly became distracted, engulfed in pure atmosphere of the space. It was in that state of distracted attention[6], staring at the ice, that form and pattern emerged out of the chaos, and the architecture lost all of its traces of process and become entirely about new effects. It contained no history, messages, no meaning, but together with a person’s nervous system produced new meaning, messages and feelings.

The sensation produced was akin to that of the sublime - the experience of nothingness in the face of the force and complexity of a natural formation [7]. Many naturally evolved environments and objects are a result of such a complex set of forces that one can only sense the presence of logic, but not fully comprehend it, “read” it. Imagine staring at a waterfall, a fire, a slot canyon or the snakeskin surface of the ocean at sunset. Today’s digital, algorithmic design processes enable designs whose sensations rival those of evolved objects and environments. Elegance, I would suggest, is achieved when a complex architectural object foregrounds its affective powers and delivers its effects effortlessly. The Elegant architectural object embodies process, without calling attention to it.


[1] Jeffrey Kipnis has introduced the term reorigination to architectural discourse as an alternative to representation.

[2] Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto have said that they explore differences in intensity as opposed to differences is in kind in order to foreground the affective powers of their work

[3] Jefrrey Kipnis has theorized the importance of mood and atmosphere in architecture

[4 & 5] Robert Somol has introduce the concepts of ‘difficult’ & ‘easy’ in his discussion of architecture of ‘form’ vs. architecture of ‘shape’. My use of the terms in this essay deviates from Somol’s as I am proposing that there are both ‘difficult’ and ‘easy’ forms in terms of people’s experience.

[6] Distracted attention was first discussed in Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction.

[7] Immanuel Kant 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. Gillez Deleuze 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.


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