May. 18, 2005
There is always somebody buried inside concrete. Cats or people are said to have been entombed in foundations of old buildings to ward off evil sprits. The mystic anchoress of the Middle Ages finds a way to becoming part of the church architecture, to be sealed in the foundation. How many people have disappeared into the foundations of buildings? Some on the job at a massive construction site like a dam or bridge, some in the dead of night. This kind of information, like never acknowledging the '13th' floor, is suppressed when one is being introduced to a building. The first dwellings were caves. Caves are dark. Caves are camera obscuras. Any covering at the cave's entrance creates the perfect conditions for virtual image production. A puncture in this membrane between inside and out will reveal a remarkable property of physics and optics. On a sunny day, the inside of the cave will remain dark, and a pinhole in the entrance will produce a camera-like aperture allowing the outside light to pass through and project an inverted moving image of the outside world on the opposite interior wall. The effect is that of a virtual moving image mirroring life happening outside the dwelling.
Buildings are always moving just a little bit. They have to give a little sway in the wind otherwise they would break under the pressure. If you are high up in a skyscraper you can actually feel it moving. The 60-story Hancock Tower designed by Henry N. Cobb of I. M. Pei & partners, 1974 in Boston was plagued with problems: 'wind oscillation was an influence on the physiological reactions of the occupants: Resonant acceleration made people airsick.' 1 Glass panels rained down randomly to the street below. If we were not connected to our time, human time, and we were connected to geological time we would see the buildings grow and fall like so many weeds in a sped-up science movie. Everybody has seen fast forward time- lapse movies of construction sites and, the opposite, images of slow motion demolition. We all know what it's like to see the future from the point of view of a rock.
Concrete. A heavy building material made from a mixture of broken stone or gravel, sand, cement and water, which forms a stone-like mass on hardening. Origin: 5600 B.C. January 17-19, 1905. A society known as the National Association of Cement Users was organized. The original suggestion was to form an association of manufacturers of concrete block machines to educate the users of such machines in the proper methods of making good block. After the informal meeting, the scope of the organization was extended to cover all the various uses of cement to bring about a better knowledge of the art.
When did sound and light shows begin? I saw one in Athens in 1981. At sunset the audience would meet on a hill side overlooking the Acropolis and watch a 're-enactment' or perhaps a better description would be an illustration of the tumultuous history of the Parthenon and other buildings atop the famous hill. The show was executed very simply with a combination of voices, music and changing colored lights. The bleached white marble became a screen for the pure primary colors vaguely synchronized with the narration. Red for a great fire and flashes of white light for a battle.
Phantasmagoria, the first moving image theatre was started by a Belgium, Gaspar Roberstson, in a deconsecrated chapel on the grounds of an old Capuchin monastery surrounded by tombs in Paris, 1797. Robertson used magic lanterns with glass, hand painted slides to project macabre images, apparitions and skeletons. His show had a six-year run, was wildly imitated and pre-visioned cinema. In 1831, Robertson published Memoires, which explains his early attempts to use occult methods of summoning the 'devil.'2 He was unsuccessful, greatly frustrated and made the decision to turn to 'artifice', using a combination optical and theatrical tricks to the same ends. This is an historic moment, a nexus of religion and entertainment is made evident in his architectural setting. The principal continues today.
The early movie theatre combined elements of playhouse, churches, concrete halls and sports arenas. The central transition from previous architectural forms was the replacement of the 'Fourth wall'. This had been the imaginary wall of live productions which allows the audience to peer into an organic mirror of exaggeration in three dimensions. The new projection screen became a magic wall of infinitely repeatable collective experience. The sliver screen could play the same film over and over again each frame in the exact same place in the narrative structure.
In the golden days of motion picture palaces, 1920 - 1950, architect S. Charles Lee designed 250 fantastic movie theatres influenced by an eclectic amalgam of styles. As the first feature length films were evolving in Hollywood, Lee understood that 'cinema as an industry sold experience and memory' as a virtual product and that this could be reflected in architecture. He was masterful at manipulating space and form to this end. Lee referred to a 'psychology of entertainment' to describe the seduction of the customer and the inclusion of the customer in the theatrical experience.3 Lee's architecture of theatre palaces extends the screen space through the house, the lobby, the exterior to the sidewalk.
1963 'The Man with the X-ray Eyes'. The premise of the Roger Corman film involves a scientist who invents a way of seeing through things. This form of vision quickly gets out of control; at first he can see naked bodies and through walls but his exploration becomes a nightmare. He sees people are a collection of internal organs and skeletons. Finally he sees the center of the universe and at a church meeting, prompted by the biblical quotation 'if thine eyes offend thee, pluck them out,' the scientist gouges out his eyes. This was a popular movie in 'drive-in theaters', particularly effective when projected below a star filled sky.
Early architectural complexes, such as Ireland's, New Grange, 3000 B.C., Machu Picchu, and Stonehenge were built in response to celestial phenomenon. The stars, sun and moon flow inside, mingling architecture and heavenly bodies in synch. Later, the humble glass window and electric light replace the precision of synchronizing a built structure and a celestial system. Buildings are down to earth even as technology allows them to rise ever higher. Cities became subtlely controlled by light and shadows. No one wanted to live in a gloomy canyon of concrete, steel and glass. Around 1915 anti-shadow laws became an attempt to counteract the shadow problem. Buildings were subsequently constructed in a pyramidal form similar to the Mayan temple ruins. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe set the new standard for avoiding casting an offensive shadow, the Seagram building was set off the street on it's own shadowy court yard.4
In 1596 Matteo Ricci describes the construction of a memory palace. A memory palace is a mnemonic construct employing a technique of imagining a series of images of buildings, which would contain one's memories of various subjects. Ricci explains that the building could be real, imaginary or a combination of both, 'half real and half fictive,' as in the case of a building one knew well and through the back wall of which one broke an imaginary door as a shortcut to new spaces, or in the middle of which one created a mental staircase that would lead one up to higher floors that had not existed before. The real purpose of all these mental constructs was to provide storage spaces for the myriad concepts that make up the sum of our human knowledge. To everything that we wish to remember, wrote Ricci, we should give an image; and to every one of these images we should assign a position where it can repose peacefully until we are ready to reclaim it by an act of memory. Meanwhile actual bodies are moving through buildings like automatons waiting for the future to animate them. Until that day we must settle for opening windows and doors or the excitement of an elevator ride.
Smart buildings. The building next door speaks to me sometimes, at all hours of the night. It says only one thing. over and over 'you have violated private property, leave immediately!. The police have been notified.' Which is punctuated with a loud siren. The building is not too intelligent as there is never really an intruder just a false alarm.
'Fahrenheit 451', the Ray Bradbury novel and 1966 Francois Truffaut film introduced the concept of walls of moving images. The main character's wife wants as many walls as possible - four to make a complete virtual environment The story involves the burning of books which are outlawed and replaced with moving images.
How long does the average building last?
24 frames a second?
Brick is said to be the longest lasting building material. In a movie the image must reconstitute itself by the second to form a structure.
'Come say it with a brick!' Krazy Kat, George Herriman's cartoon character involved in a sadomasochistic love-hate-existential relationship between Krazy Kat, the one who always gets hit with a brick and Ignatz Mouse, the one who always throws the brick. Electrical systems along with body excrements in sewage pipes trace the hidden infrastructure of the building, carrying a cascade of information, power and waste. The building itself is one big collector of signals for the inhabitant to do with what they may. Social space is synonymous with corporate interests. Advertisements adorn the corridors of the metropolis scrolling out of the computer's memory on candy colored LED's. A window is a lens, a building is a camera. Light passing through the pane of glass represents the immaculate conception of Christ. What should be seen? What should not be seen? A building is a place for organizing private and public life: where should you eat, sleep, have sex? Groups of lives separated and interlocked by location by stone and metal.
Alfred Hitchcock's movie 'Rear Window' plays on the voyeuristic relationship between a hobbled man and the lives of his neighbors. The window is a narrative organizational devise as the plot unfolds within the back alley. Narrative blocks stacked upon each other, the seen and the un- seen are treated as equally important. The banal equality of the human condition: each of us is special but framed in architecture our similarities are all too clear. The voyeur waits, spending his time, hoping for a glimpse of something transcendent, the mysterious missing element. The glass of the window pain is a very slow moving liquid; gravity relentlessly pulls it down. If you look carefully at an old window it's thicker at the bottom like a teardrop. We need to keep the light out to have darkness to have a private space. Recently, legislation has been passed to protect the public from the prying eyes of the police and government agents using new cameras. It employs T- rays. A little-studied but ubiquitous radiation allows a camera to effectively see through smoke, walls and even clothing or bandages. The technology is sometimes referred to as quasi-optics because T-rays straddle the border between radio and optical emissions: the terahertz. The image has unbuilt the structure and dissolved the solid state. Concrete is liquid again, transparent. The process was devised by Hungarian architect, Aron Losonczi in 2001. A company in Aachen, Germany, called LiTraCon for "light transmitting concrete," makes translucent blocks and plans to have them market-ready this year. Inside and out the building documents itself with surveillance.
A pixel is the building block of the image; based on the humble brick. When communicating to alien civilizations of unknown characteristics millions of light years away we must agree on a system of shared language. 'Pictures, and visual representations of data in general will play an important role in defining an abstract language to a far off civilization we know little about.' To display motion we would store it in 4 x 4 x 4 array consisting of 64 pixel. Think of each layer in this cube (going from front to back) as a single frame in a reel of film.
Note To help the recipient figure out the order in which the frames should be displayed, we could send motion pictures of a process that is not reversible. For example, a movie of an ice cube melting would contain information about the direction in which time flows, as this process is not reversible (a puddle of water will not spontaneously form an ice cube).5
1 Levy, Matthys and Mario Salvadori. Why Buildings Fall Down. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1992) 197.
2 Barnouw, Erik. The Magician and the Cinema. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 19.
3 Valentine, Maggie. The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theater, Starring S. Charles Lee. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) 9.
4 Casati, Roberto. The Shadow Club: The Greatest Mystery in the Unvierse-Shadows- and the Thinkers Who Unlocked Their Secrets. (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2003) 16.
5 McConnell, Brian. Beyond Contact: A Guide to Seti And Communicating with Alien Civilizations. (Sebastopol: O'Reiley, 2001) 308.