Magic tricks to absentminded audiences.
In the periphery of sense-making, a host of weird experiences take place. Worlds open up and close down. I wonder why metaphors and magic are so rare in architecture.
I think the first time I saw Twin Peaks was in my late teens. Among the mesmerized and confused feelings, I instantly felt nostalgia for something I never had. It’s wonderful how a piece of media can affect you so.
Over the years, plenty of other media has hit the same nerve. Firewatch, an interactive visual narrative is soaked in orange light and the pre-smart world of walkie-talkies left me an easily graspable memory. Perhaps it’s the apparent purity of the analog world that still sticks.
These developed, crafted, and orchestrated experiences are the outcome of the new technology-enabled media.
I have a theory that while technology has no agency of its own, it is often developed towards more precise ways to communicate more, to experience more, about human life.
On this note, I’ve grown to appreciate David Lynch’s mastery of the medium of the film. Check out the following clip from Lynch’s Mulholland Drive:
That scene from Club Silencio cuts through the experience like a decisive cleaver.
To say it’s breaking the fourth wall is not giving enough credit, it’s a much more nuanced operation on the movie medium and the viewing experience. By detaching what we see and what we hear, Lynch de-immerses us from the heartrending song of Rebekah del Rio. All you’re seeing is a silent stage, what you’re hearing is something else. What the audience feels, is a fabrication, a magic trick with emotions.
And so, whenever see that clip, I’m dropped downto my place and distanced from what I’m watching.
This Lynchian approach makes the familiar unfamiliar by playing with the purity of experience. In cinema, there is always a camera that captures and the outcome is an outcome of deliberate choice. A script.
The authenticity of experience has been a popular subject in sci-fi as well. Take Ghost in the Shell, a 1995 classic anime that tackles the topic in the now-commonplace trope of machines and souls. In a similar vein, 1997’s Perfect Blue drama anime is well-recognized for its mind-bending space-time-continuities (and discontinuities).
To this end, I suggest these illusions are a partner-in-crime in metaphors.
To tell stories, to convey ideas from one domain to another we often employ metaphors. So where the language meets its limits, tools are designed more familiar, or a more powerful expression is desired, metaphors are often found. They have such a fascinating power, that at one point, in the process of reading George Lakoff’s book Metaphors We Live By, I thought I might divert into studying linguistics.
But let’s get technical.
Technology is full of approaches that metaphorize the world to bring meaning and order into complex systems.
Take text processors, for instance. What I’m typing now is not the words I see on the screen, exactly. You see, my keyboard inputs are read as a string of letters and thrown into a black magic top hat (AKA a variable). Then, in a fluid sleight of hand, the magician-application then pulls out the words from the hat and presents me the text in the style I want.
When I bold the text, I don’t type the text in bold letters, but just instruct the magician to present that specific part bolded. And so, it doesn’t really matter what the word means. The magician is blind to the content: bold and thin are handled equally.
For me, this realization between content and style was paramount for understanding how the web works, what is the difference between data and visuals. Parallelly, form and its meaning are applicable analytical lenses in arts, languages, and even something like cryptography.
This problem was robustly tackled in Gödel, Escher, Bach: Eternal Golden Braid, a meta-mathematical monolith, a completely unique, and all-encompassing exploration by Douglas Hofstadter. It braids together the three seemingly unrelated threads of mathematical logic by Kurt Gödel, paradoxical visualizations by M.C. Escher, and spiraling arrangements of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Hofstadter’s main thesis runs long and is worth the hefty read. However, in essence, he uses Gödel’s findings in logic to propose isomorphisms (i.e., talking about one thing is applicable in the other) between machines and minds. The main argument, crudely abbreviated, then suggests that the self-referential structure of the mind and human DNA gives rise to consciousness, and isomorphically the same could apply to computers. GEB is a treasure-trove of ideas and further writing about it would need many more texts, so, let us leave it at that.
However, isomorphism now plays an interesting role as a translator. It’s a bridge between contexts, and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say isomorphism is the logical sibling of a metaphor.
Moving into architecture, the womb is probably the most fundamental architectural metaphor, representing safety and shelter. However, as far as metaphors go, I find it has less actionable capacity for design.
And so, I feel stairs are possibly the clearest metaphor. Stairs link hierarchies and statuses, and in going up you exert energy and conversely, the descent is easier. In other words, ascending and descending the stairs are not symmetric events and serve to place some above others, e.g., socially and financially.
While the womb is the source of human life, the psychological dimensions of spaces are also an inspiration for many writers.
Maybe most relevantly, Gaston Bachelard, the famed author of The Poetics of Space, among many special features of human dwelling, zoomed in on attics as the source of dreams and imagination.
Still, these metaphors lack the same potency as the various media above.
In comparison to previous domains of word processors and magic tricks, architecture is many orders of magnitude more complex. And so, any clever tricks run need to be equally more contrived to produce the same effect in the holistic experience of architecture.
This leads me to wonder how do you design for metaphors, illusions, and false nostalgia? Or are metaphors even part of the design process, or are they merely an after-the-fact intellectualization?
I have a sneaking suspicion that the technological abstraction of the world also enables those illusions, which are not possible with spatially fixed methods of architecture.
Simon Unwin’s book called Metaphor lies on my desk. The subtitle: an exploration of the metaphorical dimensions and potential of architecture. As of yet, I have only skimmed through it.
So far, I have not often found these magical qualities in architecture. Still, there is something ungraspable but palpable in the topic of metaphors and architecture. And so, I plan to return to the topic with hopefully more knowledge, at a later date.
Until then, I’ll leave you with Jacques Brel.
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Someone said that we never see phones or other modern technology in our dreams. This is slightly disturbing or comforting, depending on your outlook.
Note that the scene brought me up, to drop me down. Spatial metaphors run wild.