Building The Edge Of Thought

transArchitecture, architecture beyond architecture, is an architecture of heretofore invisible scaffolds. It has a twofold character: within cyberspace is exists as liquid architecture that is transmitted across the global information networks; within physical space it exists as an invisible electronic double superimposed on our material world. Marcos Novac, architect and artist, explains the philosophical background of the liquid architecture and shows the two faces of digital architecture.

0. Eidos and Idea

For eidos, in the common speech, meant the outward aspect that a visible thing offers to the physical eye. Plato exacts of this word, however, something utterly extraordinary: that it name what precisely is not and never will be perceivable with physical eyes. But even this is by no means the full extent of what is extraordinary here. For idea names not only the nonsensuous aspect of what is physically visible. Aspect (idea) names and is, also, that which constitutes the essence in the audible, the tasteable, the tactile, in everything that is in any way accessible.:Martin Heidegger - The Question Concerning Technology

Ideas are the invisible scaffolds upon which the real is constructed. The history of architecture is a history of the increasing elaboration of invisible scaffolds. There are literal scaffolds, such as those that hold up arches and vaults as they are being constructed; there are scaffolds of industry, such as the factories that persuade raw materials to combine, harden and form into the structures and skins of our cities; and there are information scaffolds that connect human interests and activities across the vastness of distance and knowledge. transArchitecture, architecture beyond architecure, is an architecture of invisible scaffolds.

1. Aliens

As change accelerates, once exotic technologies become assimilated into normalcy before their consequences can be thought through. Blinded by the flash of the tomorrow's wave of inventions, we forget to inquire further into today's innovations.

Virtual reality and cyberspace entered our social consciousness with the force of a revelation. They continue to exercise an immense, if inarticulate, fascination. However, as the technologies that enabled them become increasingly available and novelty fades, we run the danger of retreating from vision to vulgarity, from amazement to apathy. For a while it seemed that the virtual world could address our every need, give form to our every dream. Then, one day, the new computers arrived, the boxes of peripherals were opened, and the magic became a walkthrough through an uninspired replica of the ordinary. Just as the time came to work toward the realization of potentials, another wave of promises of fulfillment arrived in the guise of the widespread availability of internet access through the worldwide web. Anyone who remembers the wide-eyed wonder of finding and retrieving a pearl of information from the other side of the planet using some archaic command-line interface, or perhaps even an early version of Mosaic or Netscape, may already have observed the deflationary effect of ease. Once we are able to assume that the net is really in place and that information is ubiquitous, we move on to the next novelty, losing sight of both the magic and the purpose of having arranged something as unlikely as this spider's web that wraps the planet.

The human sciences have made great progress in overcoming what amounted to a severe technophobia. However, catching up with past does not amount to leading oneself into the future. In a climate of exponentially accelerating change, slowness and hesitation are sure formulas for irrelevance. With new technological temptations arriving daily, the urge to purchase the appearance of relevance through the consumption of invention aggravates an already difficult situation.

The only way out of this quandary is to approach new technologies daringly and with the intent to question the very foundations of each discipline and its role in the world that is forming around us. This must be done with the confidence that those aspects that are most important will survive any challenge, not because we are sworn to protect them, but because they are irreducible.

If mimesis of the physical built world is a partial and limited goal for the technologies of virtuality, what are some possibilities that are more challenging? In City of Bits, William Mitchell has systematically examined most of our institutions with the purpose of showing how each of them is dismantled by technology, only to become recombinant. Strangely, in this account, everything changes but everything remains the same. The pursuit of the social, political, economic, and intellectual repercussions of this dismantling are left to the reader.

This is not surprising. A great paradoxical pause follows the realization that everything is mutating. There seems to be nothing left to say, even though everything needs to be said. We suspect that what we dream might happen has already happened. As innovation converges and crowds into the imagination, the radius of fiction collapses. It is exactly this sense of collapse that must be resisted.

Architecture has indeed become recombinant, as has culture and identity, but recombination soon leads to mutation, mother of monsters and angels. Reality will be much more alien than we expect.

2. Learning From Aliens

Exponential growth means that one moment's vision is the next moment's fact. It is therefore imperative to recognize at once that architecture and cyberspace are no longer connected only in theory, but are already part of one another. We must begin by assuming that the boldest projections have already been realized. For the first time in history, architecture has become transmissible and is already architecture-in-cyberspace; our institutions have already dematerialized, as have our identities; we are already particle-selves, we are already cyborgs, we already live in a rhizomatic multiplicity of globally mediated mindspaces.

Acceptance of these changes is mere pragmatism. Two tasks remain: to inquire deeper into the implications of these developments, in order to see the fine grain of the transformations that are upon us; and to attempt to focus farther into the future, in order to break past the collapsing radius of fiction.

Architecture has already moved into cyberspace. Now cyberspace is about to colonize real space and physical architecture. Information and interactivity will be ubiquitous and physical space will be intelligent. Computer screens, our present portals to cyberspace, will grow to encompass all the surfaces and volumes of the spaces we live in. A gesture in Tokyo will be a telegesture in Los Angeles. Simple accommodation of these potentials within architecture will not suffice. Providing sensor/effector pairs does not by itself create architecture any more than stacking bricks does. Technique is necessary but insufficient.

Architecture arises from excess over need, the extra effort added over and above the satisfaction of the limited requirements that establish the excuse for the effort involved in any complex construction. If interactivity and connectivity characterize the new technologies, what must be learned is how to provide interactivities and connectivities that provide excess over need. Having doors open for us to pass through does not yet make architecture, if the automation does not heighten and elaborate the act of passage. The history of architecture is replete with portals that are many times larger than a human being. Such architectural expressions have many more functions than the one they are named by: a 'door' is never simply a door. They both embody and symbolize ideas and exemplify or reflect numerous other human structures.

When we design conventional unmediated architecture, we draw on millenia of sophistication. We are familiar with traditional means of expression through centuries of practice: scaling, choice of materials and processes, attitude and orientation, ornamentation, weight and permanence, structure and nuance. We have no equivalent concepts for the technologies that are arriving: how does a robotic gate elaborate the ceremony, not just the fact, of crossing a threshold? How do we prolong the passage through a hyperlink, not as a delay in the transmission of data but as meaningful affective transition?

The answers to such questions need not come from within architecture, and as the members of Archigram knew, the answer may not be architecture as we normally think of it. Every discipline can be observed through a series of filters: theory, practice, research, production, education. Technological innovation, both within and outside a particular discipline, challenges each of these. Technological neighbors insinuate themselves into a discipline's modes of production and consumption. Already, buildings are under pressure to provide the sophistication we have become accustomed to in the design of vehicles and media. The technological capacity to prototype aircraft entirely on computer puts pressure on architecture to rise to the same level of proficiency. The potency of cinema as a worldwide cultural force, even, or perhaps especially, when it is based on the suspension on reality by special effects, challenges architecture to find a voice that is as powerful and eloquent.

In the past fifty years we have gone from programming the computer by literal patching of cords between inputs and outputs to using powerful paradigms of high-level instruction in object-oriented programming. Neural network simulators are allowing us to program what we have no explicit description for, and artificial life techniques are allowing us to create programs that evolve toward the required solution. Affective computing and wearabl e computers are on the horizon, bringing technology to the body and its moods. We are currently on the eve of massive distributed supercomputing over the internet, ready to harness the astronomical number of processor cycles that go wasted every moment we divert our attentions from our screens. The conceptual and methodological structures that enable these developments must be transposed and tested across contexts, disciplines, discourses and epistemes.

Technological pressure does not confine itself to development within industries. The total information environment we have created brings together ideas that under different circumstances would have been alien to one another. Learning from Las Vegas must become learning from software, hardware, and network design, and everything elses besides. Jacques Attali's argument about the prophetic nature of musical production with respect to the development of subsequent political economy must be extended to the understanding of technological development as a premonition of the organization of industry and society.

3. Enframing and Disenframing Cyberspace

In Enframing, that unconcealment comes to pass in conformity with which the work of modern technology reveals the real as standing-reserve.:Martin Heidegger

Heidegger's essay "The Question Concerning Technology", from which all the quotations in this section are drawn, can help illuminate the issues that arise when we consider information technology to be one of architecture's alien others.

A new public realm has been created by the development of VRML, the Virtual Reality Modeling Language, a standard of the exchange of three-dimensional data, and browsing and server software that allows multiple users to access the same database and see, co-inhabit and interact with one another in distributed virtual environments. Three-dimensional, transmissible, navigable models of the Barcelona Pavillion, Le Corbusier's unbuilt villas, churches, temples and museums, sections of cities, built and unbuilt projects of all sorts are already available on the web in standing-reserve.

Architecture is placed on a virtual shelf, available to be put to any use, on demand. Likewise, physical space is made abstract by technological and social arrangements that allow us to use almost any space for almost any function. By decoupling form from function and reality from actuality we have vectorized significance into a series of independent dimensions. We assemble what we need by picking and choosing among endless arrays of options. As the digital replaces the analog, checklists replace the exercise of judgement and counting multitudes replaces measuring magnitudes.

Heidegger's prescient comments on technology were written at the very dawn of the age of computers, at a time before the word 'data' gained the ubiquity we currently give it. The word 'datum' means, literally, 'that which is given', therefore 'that which is available in standing-reserve'. Everyone everywhere is using the internet as an encyclopedia. When a question arises in the proximity of a computer that is connected to the net, a common first response is to initiate a query using the most powerful search-engine available. More often than not, an answer is returned. It does not seem to matter how uncommon the topic may be. With a little skill, one can access detailed information about a myriad subjects. If one is looking for the absolute latest information, the internet is clearly the best source available. Knowledge itself becomes a globally available resource, an information current upon which we draw at will, electricity for the mind. Computing power, once limited to the resources available locally, becomes an omnipresent, global utility.

The availability of information on the internet vindicates Heidegger's remark to an astonishing degree. Knowledge, even knowledge that is barely ripe for the name, even knowledge that would once have been reserved for specialists or members of the most improbable fringe, is converted into standing-reserve. But witness the paradox: confronted with a site that is rich in linkages to other information, the most commonly observed response is that of maniacally following links without pausing to examine the contents of any particular one in detail. Like mad cartographers, we seek to map the territory without lingering to visit the place. We reveal our preoccupation with ordering, not savoring, our resources.

Enframing, as a challenging-forth into ordering, sends into a way of revealing. Enframing is an ordaining of destining, as is every way of revealing. Bringing forth, poiesis, is also a destining in this sense ... Enframing belongs within the destining of revealing.:Martin Heidegger

Enframing is destining and destining is poiesis. Heidegger points out the fictional and poietic character of the ordering of the real into standing reserve. Enframing, the understanding of the skeletal structure of the real, is a poietic action, an act of bringing forth what is from what is not. We use this operation to reduce reality to an electronically mediated graph-theoretic representation of links and nodes, and then order and count the nodes and linkages and reassure ourselves of the wealth of our standing reserve of accessible data. We construct skeletons of linkages, but leave no time for the flesh of what is known.

We should not be surprised, then, to read:

"The destining of revealing is in itself not just any danger, but danger as such ... Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding-sway of truth. The destining that sends into ordering is consequently the extreme danger. The danger hidden within modern technology is that in the effort to convert the real into standing-reserve, we ourselves come to see everything including ourselves and each other as standing-reserve. Neither the real nor we, either as members of the real or as those who would order the real, are any longer visible in particular detail. All that remains is a general sense of the whole and of the sum. Each part, be it person, idea, or fact, becomes expendable. Self and fact are replaced by component particles and the particles are catalogued for unspecified future use, infinitely deferred. This condition leaves entire constellations of knowledge undigested, entire fields of experience unlived."

All is not lost, however. As Heidegger observes, the constantly changing nature of technology requires our full participation in the invention of truth by acts of imaginative projection or 'granting'. In this participation we encounter what he calls the 'saving power':

"But if this destining, Enframing, is the extreme danger, not only for man's coming to presence, but for all revealing as such, should this destining still be called a granting? Yes, most emphatically, if in this destining the saving power is said to grow. Every destining of revealing comes to pass from out of a granting and as such a granting. For it is granting that first conveys to man that share in revealing which the coming-to-pass of revealing needs. As the one so needed and used, man is given to belong to the coming-to-pass of truth."

"The coming to presence of technology threatens revealing, threatens it with the possibility that all revealing will be consumed in ordering and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealedness of standing-reserve. Human activity can never directly counter this danger. Human achievement alone can never banish it. But human reflection can ponder the fact that all saving power must be of a higher essence than what is endangered, though at the same time kindred to it. "

"Because the essence of technology is nothing technological, essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology, and, on the other, fundamentally different from it."

"Such a realm is art. But certainly only if reflection on art, for its part, does not shut its eyes to the constellation of truth after which we are questioning."

Thus Heidegger anticipates what we are presently witnessing: the reconvergence of art, science, and technology intotechne, "a single, manifold revealing" of the ways in which we know the world that is neither merely instrumentalized nor merely aestheticized, but that brings our present appoximations of the true into the range of lived experience through questioning.

At each moment in human history the edge of thought has had particular contours. Sometimes these contours were known by the society of a given period as part the matrix of everyday life. In our time, the contours of the leading edge of knowledge are placed in standing-reserve along with everything else. transArchitecture can help reclaim them to our full experience.

4. Rupture And Mending - Inhabiting The Edge Of Thought

By 1829, the year Nikolay Ivanovich Lobachevsky published his theory of non-Euclidean geometry, the once intimate relation between architecture and the edge of knowledge had already eroded. Almost simultaneously, in 1830, Victor Hugo published "Notre Dame de Paris", a novel that is a work of architecture in the form of a book. In 1832 Hugo released the second, definitive version of "Notre Dame de Paris", adding to it a chapter entitled "Ceci Tuera Cela", "This Will Kill That." The whole book, and this chapter in particular, discusses at length the realization that the book had killed the building. Anticipating McLuhan, Hugo argues that the slow death of architecture began in the fifteenth century, with Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. The reproducibility and ubiquity of printing gave ideas a means of propagation far more agile than architecture. By the 1830s, the impoverishment of architecture was plainly visible. Dethroned and unable to keep pace with the edge of ideas, architecture was becoming increasingly secular and more narrowly utilitarian, ever more distant from the influx of the extraordinarily counterintuitive conceptions that replaced the calm dichotomy of space and time that prevailed before the advent of non-Euclidean geometries. Stripped of its ancient role as the built manifestation of the edge of thought, architecture did not have the physical means by which to follow science into the exotic territories of space-time/mass-energy relativity, quantum mechanics, and the curious world of what we now call the Standard Model.

In the West, architecture had expressed in built form the cosmological knowledge of each historical period at least since the time when Pythagoras understood that integer ratios regulated the harmonies of the monochord. Number wove music through the fabric of the world. Plato's articulation of the relationship of number, music, and cosmology in the Timaeus dialogue resonated throughout architectural thought all the way up to the nineteenth century: Architecture was to be the built reflection of the best understanding humans had of the structure of the universe.

Plato did not expect human knowledge to be static, even though he imagined the ideal world had to be. In the beginning of Timaeus he makes it clear that the theory that was about to be expounded was a 'likely story', as good as any one was likely to hear, but a story nonetheless, because humans could never know reality completely. This expectation implies that as human knowledge changes, partial and flawed though it may be, its corresponding architecture must also change, a slow art following the slow growth of human understanding.

Between the beginning and the end of the nineteenth century an entire world view evaporated, and all its stabilizing concepts were shown to be merely special cases of more encompassing structures whose characteristic was change and variability. Euclid's geometry, assumed to be the only possible geometry, was shown not to be unique. Saccheri, Gauss, Bolyai, and Lobachevsky had come across the fact that alternative consistent geometries could be developed that did not rely on Euclid's fifth axiom regarding parallel lines. Euclid's hold on the Western mind was phenomenal, however: Saccheri persuaded himself he was wrong, Gauss did not dare publish his findings, Bolyai was discouraged after being discounted by Gauss, and the importance of Lobachevsky's work was not immediately grasped. It was not until George Bernhard Riemann, in 1866, that the notion of space was generalized to n-dimensions. Minkowski proposed time as a fourth dimension, uniting space and time into spacetime, but this was quite different from the idea that there could be more than three spatial dimensions. Einstein used the ideas of both Riemann and Minkowski in his formulation of the theory of relativity. By the beginning of the twentieth century David Hilbert would propose an infinite-dimensional space. By the time of Heisenberg and Gödel, certitude was replaced by probability and reason was shown to have boundaries and islands.

The period between the development of non-Euclidean geometries and the present has been a period of growing rupture between how we know the world and how we express that knowledge architectonically. It is only now, with the advent of cyberspace as a new public domain in search of suitable architectonic expression, that this rupture can be mended.

Since several geometries were shown to be theoretically valid, the resolution to the question of which one governs our universe became an empirical issue. For many, mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike, the exploration of a fourth spatial dimension was a natural place to begin.

Throughout the twentieth century, the fourth dimension found many interpretations and influenced many thinkers and artists, but few architects. Most efforts were impressionistic, however, with little actual mathematical underpinning. Even when those efforts show a deeper mathematical understanding, the inherent difficulty of having any direct experience of four-dimensional phenomena has, until now, placed severe limits on what could be imagined. And, even when the imagination has overcome such limits, there has been no sense in which the fruit of such thought experiments could approach everyday experience.

The ongoing transition from energy to information has altered these conditions. We have discovered space within information, free of the limitations of the physical world and amenable to explorations of alternate laws. Within this space we have created a new public realm in search of an architecture appropriate to its nature. What seems natural to this space demonstrates many of the features of higher dimensional, curved space.

Architects are familiar with the problem of adding a third dimension to a two-dimensional plan. Now that the plan id dead, how does one add a fourth dimension to the third? Such a question challenges all aspects of our discipline. There are no theoretical, practical, or pedagogical models for such explorations - which is exactly the reason why such explorations are interesting and important.

At first, the problem seems daunting. After a certain point, however, as one persists in working within four dimensional space, any initial unfamiliarity is rapidly replaced by a progressively sharper intuition of how things must behave. This transition happens quickly when one works in real time. Soon thereafter, one begins to understand another benefit.

Any composer of forms, words, sounds, numbers, movements, or ideas is deeply concerned with the nature of pattern, especially those patterns that affect the human psyche. How to create such patterns is a daily preoccupation of any maker. Imagine, then, the surprising sense of revelation one feels in discovering that patterns that would be difficult to create in n- dimensions can be the results of much simpler operations in the n+1- dimensions! One cannot resist asking, what then of the fifth, the sixth, the twenty-sixth? Indeed, the mathematical models used by physicists studying the theory of superstrings suggest a twenty-six dimensional universe.

Cyberspace, in its many forms, will not replace physical space. Rather, the two will merge into the amalgam already forming under names such as augmented reality and intelligent environments. Smart buildings and smart rooms are already here. The significance of this transition into, then through and eventually out of the looking-glass is that the exploration of ideas and phenomena such as the fourth dimension will not remain limited to computer screens and head-mounted displays but will occupy the actual spaces we inhabit. Information objects, invisible but definite, will form around us as we need or desire them to. A wave of the hand in Rome will trigger a chain of events in New Zealand because it will intersect with a hyperdimensional object that links the two through a wormhole in information space. Folded into two or three dimensions, this object will just be a point in space, following its owner. Rotated and projected into the third dimension, or intersected with the shape of a region of space we are interested in, it will occupy a definite volume near or around its users.

Already, researchers at Xerox Parc, studying 'context-and-focus' approaches to the problem of depicting portions of the internet, have demonstrated a web browser based on hyperbolic geometry. It is inevitable that as we enter information space we will encounter phenomena involving higher dimensions and alternative conceptions of space with increasing frequency. No doubt new generations will be as familiar with such phenomena as we are with our daily world. No doubt, human consciousness will expand to a greater understanding of relations hidden from sight but present within a nonlocal hyperweb.

Higher-dimensional phenomena are just one branch of phenomena we have grasped intellectually but not experientially. Bioarchitectonics may be the name of a new program for architectural investigation, an exploration that would strive to bring together the developments in the ways we know the world with a growing understanding of how it is that certain configurations of spatial pattern can affect us deeply. Bioarchitectonics could be the spatial equivalent to what is already known as biomusicology.