Stress-Testing

I came across this image at Telstar Logistics of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner undergoing stress-testing of the wing assembly. The 787’s carbon-fibre composite wings were loaded to 150% of the maximum expected service loading on a purpose-built rig, flexing them upwards cartoonishly. This improbable spectacle reminded me of an essay by Sanford Kwinter from 1996, describing the spatiality of air-to-air combat in an analogy with the work of Rem Koolhaas, who he suggests exploits space like a dogfighter:

“Koolhaas’s work, with its fierce, stark geometries and imperious logic, is in many senses an extreme architecture and bears philosophical and ontological kinship with all extremity (even virtual or unrealised) in all domains of cultural activity. What these extreme states and activities have in common is sudden precipitation and total blending of diverse materialities, of wild fluxes, in an organic computational ensemble that defies both predetermination and ‘hard’ or rational control.”

The domains of cultural activity to which Kwinter refers include enterprises like BMX riding, surfing, and other ‘extreme’ sports: practices based on inhabiting the edge of stability. Pilots, like practitioners of parkour or half-pipe snowboarding, exploit continuously variable forces and materials that define a performance envelope. Legendary American test-pilot Chuck Yeager exemplifies this:

“Yeager could know what no physicist ever could: he was a pure creature of movement and speed, among the most instinctive pilots the air force has ever seen. “The only pilot I’ve ever flown with who gives the impression that he’s part of the cockpit hardware, so in tune with the machine that instead of being flesh and blood, he could be an autopilot. He could make an airplane talk.” In the space-time world of the dogfight, where Yeager’s instincts were trained, everything takes place right at the limit, perhaps even a little beyond. To survive, “you’ve got to fly the airplane close to the ragged edge where you’ve got to keep it if you really want to make that machine talk.” Knowing the critical tolerances of the aircraft in a variety of violent, dangerous manoeuvres was everything. One had to know exactly “where the outside of the envelope was… [to] know about the part where you reached the outside and then stretched her a little… without breaking through.” Aerial dogfighting, more than anything else, is like space-time arbitrage: one must exploit discrepancies that appear between parallel flows (the twisting vectors of adversarial aircraft). But these flows are so far from equilibrium – so stretched – that the critical discrepancies must be snatched from any dimension that is not already totally strained to the max. No one knew this “fine feathered edge” better than Yeager… In air-to-air combat [the stabilised space of horizon, earth, and sun] becomes not only liquid but turbulent: the sun, the earth, and the horizon spin, volley, and fly – in a phrase, they go ballistic. The pilot episodically uses these elements (and their ballistic pathways) to hide against, the blind the opponent, or to create vertiginous relationships of weaving, gyrating motion.” (77-79)

Yes, Kwinter did just use the phrases ‘to the max’ and ‘go ballistic’ unironically. Yeager, he avers, manipulates an envelope of spatial performance, which is tested against other envelopes in combat. The envelope is not simply a list of properties of the plane (its trim characteristics, power-to-weight ratio, stall angles, etc.) but a relational envelope formed by the pilot, plane, atmospheric conditions, gravity and momentum. Kwinter’s description has affinities to Viollet-le-Duc’s account of the diffusion of fortresses into field of strategic relations and distributed materials, which I’ve previously written about.

The model of air combat Kwinter describes is now dated. Dogfighting was a mainstay of eighties action films, and emblematic of the Cold War: technologically augmented heroes from East and West square off in the stratosphere as 20th century knights. In the 21st century, air combat is dominated by air-to-ground and surveillance capabilities: Global Hawks watch on while Predator drones and AC-130’s visit sudden destruction from on high. If we accept Kwinters analogy between architects and fighter-pilots, the decline of the heroic pilot aligns with the decline of the heroic mode of architectural production. Although a cult of celebrity is obviously still present, it’s clear that this is, and has only ever been, a minority condition. Most architecture is not produced this way, and the emerging generation of architects are more comfortable with collaboration, alternative modes of practice, and operation that exceeds the traditional disciplinary boundaries of architecture.

But although Kwinter’s essay, specifically indexed as it is to Late Capitalism and postmodernism, is of limited use as contemporary architectural anthropology, I think it still contains at least two valuable concepts pertaining to stress-testing.

1. The concept of the limit-state. Performance-testing of physical or digitally-simulated prototypes is nothing new. The experimental systems designed in the Architectural Association’s DRL are a good example: a material model is subjected to testing to establish the parameters of its operation (its ability to mediate light, structural performance, environmental control). In practice, software analysis of structural loading is commonplace in all but the simplest of structural scenarios; and thermal modelling is becoming increasingly important given the widespread interest in controlling energy consumption in buildings. But this kind of performance analysis is concerned with predictability. Prototypes are tested for their performance against a set of normative conditions. What Kwinter’s concept of inhabiting limit-states suggests to me is that stress-testing might not be a way of reassuring ourselves, but might reveal pockets of unexpected performance: areas of ductility to be exploited.

2. The non-dualistic relation between pilot and plane. Theories of technology that emphasise prosthetic operation, or the mediating role of technology between human subject and world are limited, because they only provide a satisfactory account of what happens at the interface between human and tool. The dogfight, as Kwinter describes it, is a relational event involving pilots and planes, but also atmospheric conditions, forces, internal stresses, official procedures, and chemical reactions. To emphasise the prosthetic role of the plane is to reduce all this complexity to Top Gun-style duelling human subjects, and to imply that what they are duelling with is more-or-less interchangeable: it could be swords, pistols at dawn, or rootkits and botnets. This is not really an adequate description of the situation. In Kwinter’s language of fluxes and flows, the situation looks like this:

“free matter, energy, and information become perfectly coextensive fluxes, the translation of one into the other is simultaneous, and events are ‘computed’ instantly. Matter, like history is an aggregate, partly fluid and partly solid, a ‘colloid’ or liquid crystal that shifts its pattern rhythmically in relation to the flow of inputs and outputs that traverse it. The shifts are distributed like stages with triggers that are tripped when variables extend beyond their local ‘equilibria,’ or envelopes.”

The idea of a limit-state spatiality of performance envelopes runs into an issue i’m trying to deal with right now regarding incompatibilities between Latourian object-oriented ontology and the Delandian emphasis on flow. I’m going to go think about that now.

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