These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here.
— James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here.
— James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
Tim Ingold, in an essay “On Weaving a Basket” suggests that all making be thought of as a kind of weaving. He bases this on observing the way that basket-weaving proceeds very differently to something like making a clay pot. Making a clay pot apparently involves the application of form to a material matrix. The clay is at first shapeless, and more-or-less homogenous. The potter then shapes the clay, as if applying a pattern. The concepts of form and matter that derive from this model of making were particularly influential amongst ancient Greek philosophers, for whom sculpture was the archetypal art. We inherit these concepts of form and matter from this quite specific idea of a specific kind of making.
Ingold, however, asks us to pay attention to a different kind of making. Baskets are made of long flexible sticks, and are far less easy to shape. The weaver begins with a spiral, or a number of interlocking spirals, and the basket slowly develops in her hands. The idea of a form applied doesn’t fit well with this scenario, and Ingold suggests that what it resembles more than anything else is something growing. At any point in the basket’s production, the weaver doesn’t have anything like a free hand. The next move is not completely predetermined, but it’s highly constrained—by the nature of the material, and the structural necessity of the over-under movement. With skill, the shape of the basket can be manouevred through adjusting the tension of the strands, and by inserting or ending strands. The basket arrives as a highly formed object—there is no question of the basket having made itself, or happening accidentally—but the role of the basket-weaver is not that of the ancient Greek sculptor.
Ingold claims that to understand making properly, we need to dispense with the picture of making as form-application, and see making in general as having the character of weaving: as a process that unfolds, in which all the previous states of the thing being made exert constraints and pressures on it’s current and future states. The maker’s action is managing an unfolding growth, rather than reifying a pre-existing idea of form.
Chris McCaw, Sunburned GSP#65(Nevada), 2007. McCaw uses the lens to physically burn photographic paper using long exposures. The images are made all in-camera, including the ghosted landscapes.
Frascari’s first exercise is to draw “a sequence of building details” using only “liquids, pastes, juices of powders that you normally eat, drink or use to spice and flavor your food” and various nibs and brushes. The objective is to cast specific attention onto the materiality of drawing.
Drawing, he believes, isn’t abstract or disembodied—it’s essential to recognise the various textures, smells, pressures, smudges, weights, consistencies and movements involved. This is deliberately at odds with the idea that drawing is a simple representation, a transparent code that describes something that exists or is intended to exist somewhere else. In the case of a set of construction documents, all parties agree that the lines and markings will be read as narrowly as possible, according to a set of prescriptive codes. In this case, lots of things are ignored about the drawing. The contractor’s set may become stained, torn, annotated, or photocopied, but this isn’t important, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the transmission of the required coded information. But the kind of drawing Frascari is advocating isn’t really about clean information-transmission over a pre-formatted channel. The drawing is a place where codes can be treated malleably and content not simply carried but devised. In fact, the distinction between the format and the content isn’t always clear.
By drawing with food, the embodiment of the drawer and the drawing are foregrounded. The marks and lines on the paper carry fragrant and gustatory cues. Attention is drawn to the material qualities of the drawing, and the gut-reactions of the drawer. Frascari’s strategy for escaping the reduction of drawing to information-transmission is to engage the body and it’s tacit knowledge. It’s precisely the point that drawing with wine, paprika and egg-white is unnecessary for effective drawn communication—the exercise invites drawing to be something other than merely semiotic.
Frascari’s most explicit critique of digital drawing tools so far as I’ve read is that they have a “seductive ‘coolness’”, a fascination often picked up before architecture school. This seduction is, for some, a response to the “striking otherwordliness” of renderings; for others a belief that digital tools expedite and economise on the design process; and
“above all… the belief that digital imagery grants instant legitimacy to architectural proposals through a superficial appearance of completeness without considering that this pseudo-completeness hides a loss of rigour”.
This legitimising effect is tied to the apparent realism of digital images. It’s quite true that, as Frascari writes, we have become acculturated to the veracity of the rendered image:
“photo-realistic representations of future buildings are considered the media of choice that allow architects and clients to make informed decisions. The computer screens that show visualisations of architecture in three dimensions have become powerful ‘crystal balls’ or ‘magic mirrors’ capable of showing ‘truthful views’ of the future”.
While I completely agree that this is the case, and that it’s problematic for good architectural production, I see it as necessitating more intelligent and critical use of digital tools, not as making digital tools innately less useful for the imaginative, “cosmopoetic” tasks Frascari envisages.
FRASCARI’S ELEVEN EXERCISES IN ARCHITECTURAL DRAWING
I’ve just received Marco Frascari’s recent Eleven Exercises in the Art of Architectural Drawing (2011). Frascari’s an interesting writer: opinionated, idiosyncratic and unconventional. His essay “The Tell-the-Tale Detail” (1984) is an essential read, and his Monsters of Architecture (1991) is a cogently weird expansion on it. Eleven Exercises isn’t a drawing manual; it’s “not about right or wrong simulations and dissimulations in architectural drawings, but rather about a discerning process that takes part in the interplay generated by our sensorial assimilation.” In other words, drawing in his book isn’t a matter of correct or effective representation, but a cognitive process. This approach is appealing to me because it recognises cognition as a materialised process. It isn’t your mind that thinks, it’s your brain—mind is an abstraction. Nor is thinking exclusively done with brains. I store my upcoming appointments in a calendar, and commit my research ideas to paper because my brain alone isn’t very good at detailed long-term memory. And when I draw, I’m not just documenting ideas that I’ve already had in my brain, I’m inventing new ideas. Drawing is cognition not just documentation.
Questions are raised for me, though, when Frascari appears (at least in this early part of the book) to be setting up a distinction between trivial and non-trivial, imaginative and unimaginative, poetic and prosaic drawings. I encountered Frascari’s skepticism of CAD when he spoke in person at an Interstices symposium in 2011. He’s of the school that sees digital drawing as inherently less soulful and imaginative than hand drawing, leaning heavily towards the prosaic, and unimaginative. In Eleven Exercises he claims “it is uncomplicated to develop computer-processing systems that can straightforwardly substitute the work of engineers, lawyers, and physicians, but it is an impossible Sisyphean task to develop systems that can replace draftspersons, cooks, rôtisseurs, gardeners, and architects.” Where the former set “base their profession on a sequence of logical protocols” the latter “practice imagination”. I think this claim is just snooty and wrong, and I’d like to see him make the claim to a mob of engineers, lawyers and physicians. I’m concerned that while he’s taking a radical line on the materialisation of cognition, he’s still got some deeply traditional subterranean prejudices at work.
ON THE ULTRA-CHEAP
The material environment of the suburbs around the Mangere Inlet is saturated with ultra-cheap imported goods: Stainless steel kitchen equipment from Delhi, fabric from Malaysia, toys, mp3 players, plastic mats from China—all arrive by the container-load. This class of artefact is beyond the merely cheap—it is easily manufactured, using the cheapest possible materials, in factories that spend no extra money on controlling pollution or accessing cleaner energy sources, by workers pais as little as the global labour market will allow, shipped at minimum cost on huge ships, piggybacking on solid existing shipping routes. A child’s vinyl schoolbag, branded with copyright-infringing logos and images from a Nickelodeon cartoon, hangs outside a shop for ten dollars; a similar bag, slightly more durable perhaps, with official branding, might sell for three times as much, even at the Warehouse (a well-known cut-price retailer in the mass-market. There’s no way local manufacture can equal these prices—the additional costs of labour, regulation of environmental effects, taxes, and the need to import materials far outweighing the cheaper costs of transport.
What is the role and effect of this material on human environments? The economy having been deliberately balanced to serve consumers by keeping the exchange-rate high, import has been privileged over export. This has the effect of driving consumption, not simply serving it (demand can be induced; it isn’t simply an abstract force that needs to be served). It would be accurate to talk about an addiction to cheap imports. But they’re not an unmitigated evil: they’re also valuable and worthwhile business, particularly for immigrants who may already have connections to overseas manufacturers and insight into the needs of local immigrant communities. In addition, they serve the needs of the poorest end of the market.
This material deserves attention as one of the substances of contemporary urban life. How does it circulate, condense and disperse? What linkages does it cement? What is it’s agency in the urban, human, and environment assemblages that constitute the city?
Levi Bryant, asking what the world must be like in order for our practices to be intelligible:
“it is difficult to see how language could ever have the power to divide or parcel in the way suggested by the linguistic idealists were it not for the fact that the world itself is structured and differentiated. Absent a world that is structured and differentiated, the surface of the world, as a sort of formless flux, would be too slippery, too smooth, for the signifier to structure at all.”
Preston Scott Cohen’s ‘Recilinear Spiriculate’ (1998; in Cohen 2001: 99) is a pencil drawing showing a sequence of perspectival transformations of a blocky object. It comes from a series of formal experiments Cohen entitles ‘Sterotomic Permutations’, in which a hybrid projective / perspectival drawing technique is used to generate a group of house concepts. The drawing is an open-ended trace of a process. It doesn’t simply represent a three-dimensional object in two dimensions: there is no original object, nor a final one (although, of course, one was drawn first and one last). The drawing produces rather than represents. We witness the operation of a drawing machine. In this sense, the drawing is a calculation rather than a representation. Cohen sees architecture as the resolution of predicaments, to the extent that he argues predicaments should be actively sought out by the designer, and even introduced if necessary:
An architecture that is compelled to distort, and that ultimately highlights and questions norms, requires the invention of surrogate problems… Architecture could create problems, vigorously attempt to solve them, and never be able to. Architecture would thus keep itself alive by remaining an unfulfilled promise. (Cohen, 2001: 13)
Architecture should be a form of calculation, writes Cohen—but this doesn’t mean simply optimising, discovering a minimum or maximum condition. Rather, he intends that problems engender an open-ended instability, an oscillation or circulation.
‘Rectilinear Spiriculate’ oscillates between perspectival and stereotomic projection. There are two operations going on here. The Taylorian perspective apparatus employed includes a potential ambiguity about whether any anamorphosis is an effect of perspective or a property of the object itself; and Cohen exploits this further by using a procedure derived from Desargues for calculating the three-dimensional angles common in stone-cutting given only the standard figures of plan and elevation. The result of combining these two operations is that each projected figure is simultaneously the three-dimensional result of a calculation and a plane figure that can be re-inflated into three dimensions.
Symmetry is invariance under a transformation. The degree of symmetery is measured by the degree of invariance, or more precisely, the number of different transformations under which the object remains invariant. A cube, for example, remains unchanged by X, Y, and Z rotations of 90º, 180º, 270º, 360º, but is changed by other rotations; while a sphere can be rotated any number of degrees without varying. The sphere has a greater degree of symmetry. The transformations of ‘Rectilinear Spiriculate’ are symmetry-breaking. Lengths, angles, parallels, and ratios between lines are not preserved, although co-linearity is. In mathematical terms, this drawing is something between a projective and a differential space. De Landa writes:
Classifying geometrical objects by their degrees of symmetry represents a sharp departure from the traditional classification of geometrical figures by their essences… even though in this new approach we are still classifying entities by a property (their degree of symmetry), this property is never an intrinsic property of the entity being classified but always a property relative to a specific transformation (or group of transformations) (De Landa, 2002:17).
The object made present in ‘Rectilinear Spiriculate’ is tumbled, stretched and spun. It doesn’t rest or settle into any stable configuration. It oscillates between two and three dimensions, cast back and forth across the picture plane. But through this circulation a degree of invariance is preserved, albeit a small one. This minimal definition describes not a single object, but a multiplicitous one that is always being recalculated.
In all my recent work, I think I have been utterly focused on being involved with reality, in other words, always in the midst of contradictions, the difficulties, the misunderstandings, there in the thick of it… When I am asked what sort of architecture interests me, I realize I finally have an answer: ‘architecture that is capable of avoiding demagoguery‘. In other words, architecture that is capable of not hiding the complex reality it starts from.
“Elle gives the recipe of fancy partridges, L’Express gives that of salade niçoise. The readers of Elle are entitled only to fiction; one can suggest real dishes to those of L’Express, in the certainty that they will be able to prepare them.”