Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Saul Steinberg's Metaphor for Consciousness

When talking about the great Saul Steinberg I should really focus on his incredible Architectural cartoons and illustrations that depict how architecture is animated, occupied and brought into existence through its occupants. However I may leave that for another post. Instead I wish to use a particular illustration of his as a metaphor and musing for the cognitive mechanisms at play when we experience a piece of architecture (or anything for that matter).

The above illustration depicts a visitor in an art gallery looking at a painting by Georges Braque. Above the visitor is his thought bubble containing the stream of mental imagery that is provoked upon seeing the painting. ‘Braque, baroque, barrack’ begins a stream of consciousness that evolves into a set of highly personal references and ideas. It is interesting to consider that this stream is happening continuously as we perceive our external reality. Ideas, past experiences and references are all deeply interwoven instantaneously and unnoticed into our perception of the external world.

This is our subjective experience which is often mistaken for an objective reality. This simple cartoon is a reminder of how we are in constant dialogue with our surroundings - mapping ideas and meanings onto external stimuli which in turn alter the meanings we imbue them with. It also reminds us how we can cloud our own perception, with unfettered images and random meanings, which to us feel of significance even if it is to the detriment of the moment of experience.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Aldo Van Eyck's insight into the Unchanging Condition of Man

"It seems to me that past, present and future must be active in the mind’s interior as a continuum. If they are not, the artifacts we make will be without temporal depth or associative perspective…. Man after all has been accommodating himself physically in this world for thousands of years. His natural genius has neither increased nor decreased during that time. It is obvious that the full scope of this enormous environmental experience cannot be combined unless we telescope the past…. Architects nowadays are pathologically addicted to change, regarding it as something one either hinders, runs after, or at best keeps up with. This, I suggest, is why they tend to sever the past from the future, with the result that the present is rendered emotionally inaccessible, without temporal dimension. I dislike a sentimental antiquarian attitude toward the past as much as I dislike a sentimental technocratic one toward the future. Both are founded on a static, clockwork notion of time (what antiquarians and technocrats have in common), so let’s start with the past for a change and discover the unchanging condition of man."
—Aldo Van Eyck

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Entropy Designs

I have spoken fondly before of buildings that are on the brink of collapse, decaying and unloved. Their decline is attributable to the second law of thermodynamics which asserts that entropy always increases, thus inevitably reducing man’s attempts at order. This universal law of impermanence is a force that is constantly shaping Architecture, our cities and the cosmos. As architects we can ignore the irreversibility of time resulting from this law, or acknowledge it as a critical dimension in which architecture exists.

Joseph Gandy, the troubled genius draftsman, often depicted the impermanence of architecture through paintings of Sir John Soane’s buildings as ruins. Although this may have been a fashionable picturesque trend of the time to romanticise Soane’s built works, the effects of contemplating architecture’s impermanence and perpetual move towards higher entropy structures can be poignant and insightful to us as designers.

Gandy’s famous painting of Soane’s Bank of England immortalises the building as a timeless ruin. As well as representing the architecture in a dramatic, evocative perspective, these paintings can also pose questions relevant to today’s construction industry concerning the lifespan and future usage of our current building stock.

Contemplating our modern buildings as ruins is not a popular trend, perhaps as it is difficult to envisage modern construction materials aging as gracefully as the classical palette. However acknowledging that our buildings will always move towards higher entropy structures (i.e. -they are time based) means we can design with this movement in mind. The process of becoming a high entropy structure is one of interaction between building and environment: both human behaviour and the natural world.

Resisting this interaction is short sighted; designing with it opens up possibilities for holistic and deeply sustainable ideas. Flexible, adaptive and responsive buildings that willingly change with time can be conceived. Existing unused and unloved buildings can be re configured and re used. Beginning with the end in mind might not be as pessimistic and is it first appears but rather a liberating tool for architecture.