Back to the surface of things

I wanted to write one more blog on architecture to address some ideas that remain for me regarding the ways in which technology, when applied to stratifications of the body, has altered perceptions and therefore formations of architectural space.

Andreas Vesalius

Cathédrale Notre Dame, Reims

Chapter 6 in Cache’s Earth Moves, titled “Dehors” (outside), is the section that interested me in relation to the body and the functionalities of surface and structure in contemporary architectural forms.  Here, Cache addresses modern architecture as a confrontation of skin and structure (70).  The emphasis on skin, architecture and technology are concepts I would like to explore.  The skin encases an interior that we have begun to virtually navigate at ever-increasing speeds.  This navigation is predicated on a more discreet and less invasive mode of discovery as new and emergent technologies are rapidly illuminating the worlds beneath our skin.  Prior to this technological age of a removed optical permeability, the scalpel was the tool for internal discovery.  For those of you who read Richard Sennet’s book, The Craftsman,  you might remember the section on how Vesalius’ discoveries with the scalpel were applied to mining and engineering technologies in the 1500s or how experiments in blood transfusions practiced on canines led to a reconsideration of roadways in London.  The former revealed that the earth, like the body, is best approached through a peeling away of layers, and the later revealed the way in which blood in the arteries travels one way and the blood in the veins travels another thus initiating the implementation of “one way” roads.  These are two examples of how internal discoveries within body can be applied to external constructions.  Likewise, consider the “skeletal structure and expression”[1] of the High Gothic style in architecture and how the explorations of dissection, even if only applied to animals, influenced this style.  (Although Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (1543) was published during the later end of this stylistic period, detailed human dissections are documented from the early 1300s and the practice of animal dissection dates back to the Aristotle and is well documented in the research of the Roman physician, Galen).  Thus, with the application of the scalpel to the interior body, external constructions responded in reference to this visceral investigation.

The title page of De humani corporis fabrica (1543)


Drawing by Vesalius

Modern architecture is liberated within non-Euclidean spaces and formulated by new computer technologies that influence and are influenced by a new corporal investigation.  While past forms were influenced by skeletal protrusions and the deftness of a wrist versed in the nuances of a scalpel’s precision, contemporary buildings exhibit a smoothness—even within their striations—of surface that, I feel, are influenced by this new perception of the body that is realized through new visualization technologies.  This modern perception emphasizes the surface; the skin; the surface of organs and the skin-organ.  The outside.  The inside’s outside.  And the virtual permeability of the skin and the smoothness beneath which this realm embodies.  These smoother buildings no longer embellish the didactics of society on their surfaces as churches or civic buildings once exhibited (this [the printing press] did kill that in this rapport).  However, these new forms retain the hierarchies inherent to them, ie. the capital to actualize their forms.  As an example, the work of Zaha Hadid Architects (her firm has approximately 400 employees) produces some of the most interesting forms (some more blobby than others) in modern architecture, in my opinion.

Cardiac MRI

Zaha Hadid Architects, Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center

Zaha Hadid Architects, Northpark Cable Railway

As I noted in my last post, the materiality of buildings have significantly altered in this era and with new and evolving engineering, buildings continue to settle and re-settle their weight.  For example, steel I-beams and the ubiquitous curtain-wall have are intimately related and as Lynn addresses, naval engineering has significantly altered modern architecture. (Gehry also employs marine technology especially in developing new processes to develop his surfaces).  From an aesthetic perspective, these new and flowing architectural forms appear as derivations of both air and  sea as well as a new topography of the body—fluid surfaces that undulate in light and reflection; settle and resettle in their weight; abstract organs waiting to become filled and emptied with circulations of other bodies.

Here is an animation of what they call “non-uniform rational B-spline (NURBS).  This is how most architects design with computer software today.

A NURBS curve


[1] Ackerman, James S. 2002.  Origins, Imitation, Conventions.  The MIT Press, Cambridge, London.

4 Responses to “Back to the surface of things”

  1. Great images and discussion…The history of dissection (Vesalius) and contemporary architecture’s turn toward the body for inspiration (Zaha Hadid) are definitely a fascinating trajectory to explore in the context of Cache/Deleuze/Guattari. It is key to understanding new architecture that one understands the intersecting technologies of aesthetics, engineering, digital modeling/graphical design, and even medicine/psychology — just as Deleuze’s work constantly sought the intersections between science, art and philosophy. I’m often engaged to think about the influences of these other realms when seeing/experiencing the buildings of people like Gehry, Tadao Ando, and Herzog/deMeuron.

  2. immanentterrainsp11 Says:

    I agree it’s so fascinating! We just purchased a new book written by Zaha Hadid’s business partner, Patrick Schumacher. I have not read it yet- browsed and dipped-in here and there, but I think you would really like it, Noelia. Vol. 1 of The Autopoiesis of Architecture just published in 2011. Vol. 2 will be out later this year. It’s a clear read (which is a nice break from most architectural work as of late). Of buildings, it is interesting to see how these new technologies alter exteriors and also which buildings internalize these new forms within their function…Gehry’s new IAC building, for example, is like any other building (although nautically influenced) on the interior. *To save money, another firm designed the inside. As opposed to, say, his music project building in Seattle. Have you been to the new Alice Tully Hall auditorium that diller scofidio + renfro designed? It’s very interesting inside- interior/exterior curvy with some wooden panels that are slightly light-permeable. I’ve only been once and I sat in the 3rd row so I don’t know about the accoustics but the experiencing the space in that capacity was very memorable (also because I experienced Jordi Savall’s quintent so intimately!).


  3. Yes, Alice Tully Hall is amazing, as are all of the recent renovations/new construction at Lincoln Center. Spaces designed for acoustical experiences are an interesting subcategory of their own concerning architectural/body comparisons. (Check out the renderings of the new concert hall in Reykjavic by Olafur Eliasson. Like an ice cube on the outside, beating heart inside!)
    Bring the books to class if you think of it!

  4. mayank Says:

    plz send me all maya notes

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