Author: Lebbeus Woods

Source: Perspecta , 2006, Vol. 38, Architecture after All (2006), pp. 125-132
Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of Perspecta.


I dearly love the forms of things. Particularly because forms make light visible, and light is a sublime substance. We only see light when it is reflected from the surfaces of forms and the diverse materials of which they are made. It is not only that light pervades the universe and is a kind of messenger of the histories and mysteries of time and space, but that it is also the most intimate of phenomena, even as it is the most ephemeral. Maybe the two concepts are inexorably linked, sensuality and transience, intensity of experience and its brevity. Forms are, for me, less important than the light they reveal. This proves, I suppose, that I am not a tactile person, but a visual one. What I see moves me more deeply than what I touch. 

This brings to mind Kenneth Frampton’s writings of some years ago, and his long- time advocacy of the tactile in architecture. His interest lies in the visual, but he puts emphasis on tangibility, on the tactility of actuality and not the conceptual offerings of mediation. For him, the choice is ethical and political. The visual has become a gratuitous flood of images that washes over us undermining values and judgement. Our tolerance of it is a worrying sign of a kind of decadence, a preference for illusion over reality. Images – like politicians – usually lie. Picasso, like many modern artists, proclaimed that the only responsibility of art was to be true to itself, so we no longer expect it to portray, in any literal sense, a shared reality. Until the advent of the computer, we could believe that photos – which account for most of the inundating images today – never lie. We used to laugh at the clumsy cut-and-paste alterations of history manufactured in photos by Communist censors; PhotoShop and film FX have shown that they were actually avant-garde. Now we are right to expect that the images we consume are meant to mislead us, for one reason or another. What is surprising to some and disturbing to others is that we seem to enjoy the experience. This, in turn, seems to prove that fantasy is a lot more satisfying than reality ever was. There goes democracy and social justice, some would warn, and with it, any chance for an ethically founded, authentic architecture. 

Personally, I am willing to accept the images I see in books and films not as misleading distortions, but rather for what they are, even when it comes to architecture. A photo of (your favorite building) may not be the same as seeing it in the flesh, but it has its own virtues, if taken for what it is. The photo is sometimes better, not only in terms of traditional visual expectations, but as an expression of underlying ideas. And, the light is still there, reflecting off the ink and paper of the book, projected onto or through the movie, TV and computer screen. I do not care if the images lie, that is, do not accurately depict the actuality of a built environment, determined by first-hand experience, or depict something else. They have an independent existence.

It is up to us to distinguish between this and other incarnations. Living in a reality composed, as it were, of multiple, competing and sometimes conflicting realities calls on us to make ever more nuanced distinctions. Some believe this is beyond the cognitive capacities of most people, and that private and public institutions will exploit the disparity, but I believe this is a view that works against the special challenges of the relatively open society we share. In any event, the situation is as it is, and no amount of nostalgia for knowledge based primarily on first-hand experience will do anything but distract us from the need to steadily sharpen our abilities to make distinctions in an increasingly inferential field of experience.

Mention of this field brings something new into the discussion and that is the idea of space. We think of space as the reciprocal of form, and in one sense it is. We can experience it only as the implication of objects. We can see objects, but we cannot see space. We can touch objects, but we cannot touch space. A preference for the tactile is a preference for objects and their material forms over space and its unquestionably non-tactile, incorporeal reality. Our present perception of space is entirely conceptual in nature. To experience space, we must think it into existence.

Technology has done much to extend what we can perceive within the limitations of our optical faculties, and while instruments such as the computer and television impact our daily lives, making visible many things formerly invisible, by and large we are still dependent (and will remain so until brain implants or bio-engineering change the ways our brain works) upon seeing the narrow band of visible light in the spectrum. In the same way, we will remain dependent on objects and their forms to infer the existence of space. Binocular vision, the overlapping of objects in space, the diminution of the size and tonal contrast of objects as they are farther away, the shift of color towards blue as it recedes, and so on, still relies on objects to infer the existence of space.

Let me linger a bit on this point. We know – or think we know – that space is there, because three-dimensional objects need space to exist in, so we infer its existence from the forms of objects, but space itself remains elusive in any directly experienced way. This assertion may seem absurd, because we move through space ourselves, but we must remember that in a bodily sense we are objects. We feel the wind, see smoke and drifting clouds, but they are only material objects like us that occupy space and infer its existence. This distinction is important because, like all things inferred, space may be something different from what the inferences of forms imply.

To test this assertion we might project a mode of human perception that can perceive, in an organic way, a broader band of the electromagnetic spectrum – from gamma rays to radio waves-than our evolutionary trajectory has so far given us: space would visibly vibrate with pulsations of color and energy. How would we want, or need, to occupy, to live, in such spaces? What kind of information would we exchange with each other? How would our truer experience of space as a medium for the propagation of energy change our ideas about living, and about architecture and the structuring of space for human purposes? Could we still say that space is dependent upon objects and their presence? Or would it be possible to live in space wrapped, as it were, in the energy comprising its texture? 

For a long time, scientists – physicists mostly – believed that space was an ‘aether’. They reasoned, understandably, that for energy to be transmitted through space, space itself must be a ‘carrying medium’ – nothing can pass through a void, a nothing- ness. The aether was a special kind of substance that could carry light and heat across cosmic distances, yet would not – like other carrying mediums, say, water and air- behave like a fluid, creating waves, eddies, and so on. Rather it was so ethereally low in density that it would pass through material objects like planets and people, as they moved through space. 

The experiments by Michelson and Morley in the late 19th century that measured the speed of light blew a large hole, so to speak, in the credibility of the existence of an aether. As the earth moves through space, light travelling in the direction of its movement should, according to theory, move slightly faster than light traveling normal to this direction. Their precise experiments showed that this was not the case and that light moved at the same speed in all directions. Einstein put the nail in the aether’s coffin by simply leaving any consideration of it out of his theory of “the electrodynamics of moving bodies,” which later became known as the Special Theory of Relativity, effectively putting to an end the idea that space has substance. Some years later, in his theory of gravitation, the General Theory of Relativity, he showed that space has form – its geometry is distorted by the force of gravity – but not substance, aethereal or otherwise. Form without substance -this is certainly the brainchild of a genius of theory, who placed the hypothetical before the empirical, and was able, ironically, to ‘prove’ his hypothesis by empirical means. No wonder that Einstein became the patron saint of physical science in the era that followed him and is very much still with us. 

Form without substance could, not coincidentally, be an apt description of present culture as a whole, dominated as it is by the image in preference to tactile reality.

But, what is space itself? We can’t let go of that daunting question, because it is of such critical importance to architecture. Is it form without substance? Or, is it a substance with a form of its own, independent of the objects that are arrayed in it? Or, in the end, is it something that we can only experience as the inference of objects? Each possibility dictates quite different imperatives for the human control – the design – of space. 

Now, for a brief, but necessary digression: the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer ranked the arts and put architecture at the lowest level because it dealt primarily with matter and its enslavement to gravity. He placed music at the highest level because it offered the prospect of “knowledge without interest,” meaning knowledge for its own sake, serving no practical purpose, such as resisting the attraction of gravitational forces. For him, the gaining of this type of knowledge was the only way to break the vicious cycle of desiring what we don’t have, getting bored with it once we have it, then desiring something new, getting bored, and so on and on. This sounds like a description of our present culture, where images serve as lures that seduce us into an endless cycle of desiring, buying and consuming, and desiring again. We are all addicted in one way or another to these ‘benefits’ of what Galbraith called our “consumer society:” planned obsolescence and upward mobility, the belief in progress, trickle-down economics. With Nietzsche, many of us might say with an uneasy mix of candor and fear, “I, too, am a child of my time, that is, a decadent. But I resisted it!” Today, resistance might mean trying to slow down the cycle of consumption and waste by working towards a set of ecologically aware views and practices that honor the human and the natural as mutually interdependent conditions. In terms of architecture, it might mean privileging the field over objects and space over form. 

If Schopenhauer had lived today, and had access to post-Einsteinian knowledge, he might have said that music is the highest art because it gives us a perception of the energies that travel not simply through space, but which constitute the fabric of space itself. Since Einstein’s hypotheses, we cannot think any longer of space as a neutral field filled by material objects, but as a phenomenon alive with energy vibrations in the forms of energy waves. Sound, of course, is a wave. Its existence as such has implications. It follows, from Einstein’s reasoning, that light is a wave. And, gravity. Matter is a wave, too. Space itself is a complex interacting sea of waves. This is not a reversion to the notion of an aether, but a recognition that space is not empty, but alive with energy. 

We might look forward, even if it is very far, to a time when it would be possible to create space – livable, habitable space in the full sense of our experience – without the necessity of inferring it from objects and their tightly bounded forms. This is not to say that objects would no longer be important – we, being objects ourselves, have an irrevocable affinity for objects and their forms, their physical tangibility and tactility and the many uses these avail – but rather that we would be free of our present absolute dependence upon them in order to experience space. Form and space, we might say, would coexist in our experience as equals. 

The present dependence on forms, which only promises to increase, unless new modes of thinking intervene, teaches us that objects and their forms as ends in themselves are limited when it comes to expanding our knowledge, with or without ‘interest.’ It appears now that we can create with our design and construction technologies any forms we want. When we could only build with bricks and mortar, or even industrially produced components of steel and glass, a certain discipline was demanded, and a certain meaning invoked, based on the nature of the human labor involved. When anything is possible, and any built (from actual materials) or imagined (from conceptual materials) forms can be posited, distorted, combined and recombined ad infinitum, then the idea of form itself is devalued. In that case, it is in its making no longer a discipline uniting thought, feeling, aspiration, and modes of social construction, but a manufacture of commodities, to be bought and traded as products. Their value is determined by the ‘market,’ which sets it as that for which it might be traded in terms of money or other commodities, following principles of aggressive competition such as Marshall’s ‘supply and demand,’ and Smith’s ‘invisible hand.’ With very few exceptions, this is the tendency of architecture today. Driven by real estate developers, banks, and public institutions invested less in the public interest than in ‘free market’ economics, the practice of architecture and its physical production are hemmed in. 

For the past several years, together with a number of collaborators, I have been working on the problem outlined above: how to experience space palpably and directly. The ultimate goal of our work, which has taken the form of installations1 in various settings, is to inform the design of architectural projects for the construction of habitable spaces. Before this can be accomplished, though, a type of basic research must be carried out that addresses two crucial problems. The first is: how can spaces be created by other than inferential means? The second is: how can such spaces relate to diverse human needs and experiences? 

The results of our efforts have been detailed in several books,2 so it must do to say that in terms of the first question, the tectonic structuring of space is achieved by the definition of physical lines, or contours, or vectors, which have been liberated from being merely the boundaries of forms in order to become an active fabric of space. Analogous to the wave-energetic structure of space we cannot perceive directly, the installations are fields rather than ob- jects, energy captured and crystallized in aluminum rods, steel cables, lines drawn on walls, all of which embody the energy – physical, cognitive, affective – of those who made them. These are analogous, in turn, to the structure of the city, which is made and remade every day by the efforts of its people. The lines are still in the strict sense objects, but they are no longer inferential. Instead, through their continual diffusion, they are spatially actual. 

The second question is addressed in the following way. The present pace of change, profoundly impacting our experience in all its aspects, demands that architects, the designers of space, find ways of thinking and acting that leave behind outmoded ideas of form emphasizing a fixity of existence. Instead, they will envision space as comprised of interacting energy systems. Because human beings are primarily social, the methodologies for creating energetic spaces will be collaborative, if not collective. Because human beings are primarily adaptive, these methodologies will rely on spontaneity as much as planning and other deterministic forms of design. 

Spontaneous collaboration sounds like a desirable strategy for the present and future, mobilizing both democratic aspirations and technological possibilities. Our work is intended as an opening onto the landscapes of these potentials. At the same time, it is an exhortation to architects to make their own moves in this direction. 

After forms, we might say, comes architecture. 


1. The most relevant installations are: “The Storm,” Arthur Houghton gallery of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York City, 20 December 2001 to 5 February 2002; “The Fall,” Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 26 November 2002 to 30 March 2003 (part of the exhibition “Unknown Quantity,” conceived and curated by Paul Virilio); and “System Wien,” Museum fur angewandte Kunst (MAK), Vienna, 26 June to 16 October 2005. Principal collaborators were, respectively, Alexander Gil and Amir Shahrokhi; Alexis Rochas; Christoph A. Kumpusch. 
2. Most notably. The Storm and The Fall (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004) and System Wien, (Stuttgart: MAK/Hatje Cantz, 2005