AN EPISTEMOLOGICAL TURN
The proliferation of images and information in the post-digital age have subversively reprogrammed the way we perceive and comprehend things. Voluntarily or not, the systematic acts of speech and read in architecture have surrendered to their incongruent counterparts – perform and look – as a reactive recourse to salvage the activist agency of the disciplinarity.
Yet, inevitably again, the crisis looms. The progenies of the projective suffer from the backlash of its effortless fertility in the age of the post-digital. The alternatives they project, once the outlet for the fallout of the critical, have now been subdued into mere representations on the mass media. As countless ostensibly multifarious propositions produced like commercial commodities, they perversely epitomize the symptoms of today’s digital-driven consumerist society: exhaustive, extensive, and excessive.
We believe, in today’s scenario, without an epistemological turn in the way we as architect designers understand the perceptive effects of architecture, this search for disciplinary agency can be an endless futility that perpetually falls back into the anathema of the quest for alternatives – be that the hermetic self-isolation from the reality, or the unconscious capitulation to the capitalistic novelty – regardless the techniques or methods one deploys: easy or difficult; direct or convolute; projective or critical.1 The fundamental deficiency of this seemingly antithetical yet ontologically synonymous duo (projective and critical, or their offspring), is in the absence of a perceptive dimension, a dimension whose central structure is independent from the antiquated myth of the autonomy, a dimension that emphatically interrogates the constituting causalities of subjectivity in architecture.
The key for this epistemological turn to the renewed dimension lies in the re-recognition of the tension between the external and the internal. As Peter Eisenman aptly pointed out in his doctoral dissertation, The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture – “The generating property of all architectural form is volume, since architecture alone among the plastic means of expression demands comprehension both internally and externally.”2 Eisenman’s remark, being reinterpreted here, could suggest a specific onset of conceiving and perceiving the formal effect of architecture that is built upon the medium specificity of architectural forms which is directly palpable.
However, the dichotomic tension that Eisenman and many of his contemporaries recognized in that time, has led to a restricted mode of comprehension, which predominantly requires expertise knowledge and cerebral labor to see the unseen. Here, the dichotomic tension is reified in a reductive formalism that gravitates toward a codified objectivity. Hence, when instrumentalized in the design process, the outcome is essentially a subjectively deficient one that is inept in projecting to the wider audience with its claimed constructs.
Therefore, to go beyond, we must restructure this dichotomic tension between the internal and the external to an expanded framework that registers the perceiving subject at one side of the dichotomy, while the collateral connotations of the internal and external to the other. This reframing of the underlying dichotomic tension of architectural forms opens up a series of new ways for understanding the potentialities of what form conveys (from the audience perspective) and how form conveys (from the author perspective) that is unique to architecture as an artistic medium itself. By doing so, we could not only transcend the worn-off mode of formal language that definitively established by the post-modern regime, but also capable of escaping the lure of unbounded conceptual novelty that crippled many of the recent experiments.
This renewed perspective for reading and conceiving architecture is consisted of formal expressions that engender immediate vicarious effects3 in the perceptive unconscious of the subject. This vicarious effect provokes a temporally suspended displacement in the perceptive comprehension of the subjective mind, on the ontological function of a specific architectural object, which consequently induces a sense of wondering for the audience. Via the induction of wonder, the audience gains perceptively empathetic participation with the architectural object.
This psychological effect suggests an effortless way for the audience to enter the reading process of an architectural work by provoking the imaginative, instead of resorting to the realm of the symbolic. Here, the absent dimension of the perceiving subject emerges – the vicarious dimension of architecture.
It is worth noticing that the concept of the vicarious dimension is not an exclusive one. Its existence does not preclude or deny the presence of other layers of concepts or ideologies. In other words, this is a latent dimension that operates as the outpost for a larger set of architectural endeavors. It aims to provide a way of entering the project for the universal audience subject that is instinctive and immediate.
The following analysis presents a collection of various built architectural projects that differ from scale and typology. Each of them manifests a specific mode of vicarious effects.
Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of the vicarious form is the Gateway Arch (Figure 1) in St. Louis by Eero Saarinen. The 190-meter monument at the first glance seems impossible to possess any accessible internal space. Its homogeneous slender arch form is a completely opaque sculptural object to the audience, which does not reveal any clues of inhabitability or internal content to the audience. Yet knowing that it is in fact accessible for the tourists displaces this initial perception of the form. This displacement compels one to start to vicariously imagine the experience of being inside of the object. The Gateway Arch infers a mode of displacement of perceptive understanding primarily with its sculptural quality, which appears to destitute the dichotomic tension between the internal and the external that belongs to architecture. With this destitution being defied in actuality, the sense of wondering for the audience is provoked.
Similar effect can also be found in architecture. The tower-like geometry in Coop-Himmelblau’s Central Los Angeles Area High School #9 (Figure 3) which owe its direct reference to Corbusier’s bell tower of the Covent of Latourette, (Figure 4) can be seen as a three-dimensionalized blow up version of the original. The original bell tower is obviously a sculptural form that is devoid of internality. On the contrary, Coop-Himmelblau’s blowed up bell tower appears to be containing a functioning space internally of the top rectangular box. Together with the ribbon like form swirling around the trapezoidal prism body, the composition implies an ascending circulation to the top rectangular room at the first glance. However, this initial impression is immediately confronted by the scale of the ribbon geometry, which appears to be too small for human activities. When viewed from another angel, the ribbon is revealed with both its head and tail truncated with no direct connections with both the bottom part of the building nor the rectangular box on the top (Figure 5). Again, expectation generated by the perception of form is defied.
The abovementioned two projects represent a basic mode of displacement based on the elimination of the dichotomic tension that previously discussed, which is directly related to the manifestation of the sculptural quality of architectural forms. Other possible modes of displacement will be discussed in the following paragraphs.
Jean Nouvel’s Philharmonie de Paris (Figure 6) presents an alternative mode of displacement that does not resort to the destitution of the dichotomic tension of the internal and the external. Upon encountering its flamboyant formal expressions, one type of elements that promptly stand out are the sheet-like decks protruding out from the main building volume. Among them the top platform is the most eccentric one. At the first glance, the deck appears to be a viewing platform. The handrails on the periphery of it seems to be confirming this perception. Yet, the steep drop down of the platform occurs right after a segment of flat part produces an unusual sense of danger, which defies the common feeling of safety typically retained in a public building. This sense of danger displaces the perceptive understanding on the function of the top deck. Since the similar deck language is repeated twice in the lower part of the building, together they rendered the form of the building an estranged reality, which consequently lead to the moment of a vicarious experience for the audience.
Contrasting the previous examples, the Nanjing Performing Arts Center (Figure 7) by Preston Scott Cohen manifests a mode of displacement that is susceptible to a more complex operational construct. When looking at it, the group of buildings evince a sense of defamiliarization. This effect is especially strong on the geometry that is wrapping around the tower. This sense of defamiliarization is constructed by layers of operations. Firstly, being the intensified perspectival effect generated by the skewing roofline and the ascending ramp of the building on the right-hand side of the image. This operation creates an intensified perspective field that blurs the perceptive scale of the building volumes placed in the field. Secondly, the tower is rotated by certain degrees, which makes it work against the intensified perspective field set by the horizontal building. By doing so, the perceptive location and scale of the tower in this composition is further obfuscated. The third operation is then applied to the wrapping geometry, shaping the bottom part of the geometry to be flat, which implies a continuous ramp, resonates with the ascending ramp on the horizontal part of the building, appearing to be a compressed version of its continuation. Whereas the top of the wrapping geometry is shaped as a series of stepping jags that implies the function of a staircase, which directly contradicting the straight cut at the bottom of the wrapping geometry. Lastly, the fenestrations of the geometry adopt an angle that is perpendicular to the angle of ascension, which confronts the common alignment of fenestration. These layers of construct together contribute to a pervasive sense of defamiliarization, and the definitive moment of displacement happens on the wrapping geometry, which its dichotomic tension is partially impaired by the layers of operations. This means the wrapping volume to the audience has become a quasi-sculpture that no longer entirely corelate to the legibility of an architectural element.
1. Somol, Robert, and Sarah Whiting. “Notes around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism.“ Perspecta, Vol.33, (2002),pp. 72-77.
2. Eisenman, Peter. The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture. Baden, Switzerland: LMüller, 2006.
3. Connors, Joseph. “Borromini’s S. Ivo Alla Sapienza: The Spiral.” The Burlington Magazine 138, no. 1123 (October 1996): 668–82. In his study of the exotic lantern and spiral on top of the Borromini’s S. Ivo alla Sapienza, the historian introduced the concept of what he calls the vicarious experience when describing the feeling aroused by seeing the spiral of the S. Ivo.
Figure 1: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/facts-about-st-louis-gateway-arch
Figure 2: https://www.freeimageslive.co.uk/free_stock_image/gatewayarchstlouis00980jpg
Figure 3: http://api.x-traonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/P_0222_F002_RH.jpg
Figure 4: http://archidrop.blogspot.com/2011/11/
Figure 5: https://coop-himmelblau.cn/projects
Figure 6: https://www.dezeen.com/2019/10/25/jean-nouvel-sues-philharmonie-de-paris-late/
Figure 7: https://www.archdaily.com/47864/nanjing-performing-arts-center-preston-scott-cohen