Spaces, Poetics and Voids

NARRATIVES[16] 16 - Narration: in Italian narrare, from Latin narrare, and the root gna, meaning ’to know’, to let someone know something, to tell a story. Narrative is the process of transmitting connected events or information by means of a story.

Simone Pizzagalli

The process of framing, composing and sequencing the materials available in the urban realm in order to define complex formal narratives is only possible when all the constituent parts, characteristics and relationships that make up the urban context are understood and visible. This can only be achieved by creating a representation. The difficulty in constructing architecture that corresponds to a meaningful formal interpretation of the urban fabric is due to the lack of adequate representational tools for interpreting the urban elements involved in the architectural composition and, paradoxically, not to the actual technical realisation of the architectural artefact itself. The relationship between the architectural object and its representation lies in the differences between realisation and imagination, reality and utopia, written language and drawing, the act of composition and the analytical process.[17] 17 - The work of Aldo Rossi provides an example of how an architecture structured within a rigid logic, and research on the contamination of notational languages, have been developed by the architect in the formulation of a specific point of view about the architectural project and its representation. In his book A Scientific Autobiography the architect explains the generative process of his projects and introduces the themes of silence, the impossibility of speech, muteness or, as he preferred to call it, the ‘absence of words’. Rossi links these themes to his interest in and fixation about the differences between drawing and writing. He writes: ‘the difficulty of the word often creates an inexhaustible verbal continuity as with certain expressions of Hamlet or Mercutio. “Thou talk’st of nothing” is a way of saying nothing and everything – something similar to that graphic obsession I spoke of just before. I recognize this in many of my drawings, in a type of drawing where the line is no longer a line, but writing.’ This ‘graphic obsession’ leads to a convergence of the two notational systems and thus it becomes difficult to discern and complex to understand – a mixture of ambiguous and mysterious languages and compositions that clearly recall some of Rossi’s most enigmatic and poetic projects. Rossi comments that ‘[…] the union of different techniques resulting in a sort of realisation-confusion has always impressed me. It has to do with the boundary between order and disorder; and the boundary, the wall, is a fact of mathematics and masonry. Thus the boundary or wall between city and non-city establishes two different orders. The wall can be a kind of graphic sign representing something like the difference between drawing and writing, or the meaning can emerge from the conjunction of the two.’ Rossi considers the composition and meaning of an architectural project to be viable only within a partial and inconclusive interpretation of reality. Furthermore, the architectural composition is the assemblage of meaningless fragments and parts that become meaningful only within a sequence whose premises, for Rossi, lie somewhere between autobiography and logic.

A distance separates the architectural artefact from its analogous image, which has been drawn within the complexity of two-dimensional notational languages. The apparent fictional character of the unrealised architecture opposes its actual material form, unexpectedly making the image more influential and specific than the completed construction itself. In his essay ‘The Flatness of Depth’ John Hejduk wrote that for the spectator ‘the most profound confrontation of all’ with a representation of an architectural object ‘takes place’ in front of a photograph of the architecture when ‘the mind of the observer is heightened to an extreme, exorcising out from a single fixed photographic image all its possible sensations and meanings – a fragment of time suspended, a recapturing of the very image that has been photographed.’ In other words, as if the mere act of excluding a part of reality from a composition presented on a static framed surface could invest the image with more impact, power and clarity than the real object itself. However, despite the evocative power of a single photograph, it is impossible to convey all the qualities and characteristics of a spatial composition in a single image. No single, invariable representation can contain the meaningful overlapping of the different interpretative levels of the urban fabric, its complex physical unfolding and construction, and the history of its evolution into a specific form. Hejduk described how a truthful representation of a building or a space is impossible and will always be limited to compositions of two-dimensional fragments and partial representations (schemas, pictures, drawings) organised as far as possible to be consistent with the original. He stated that a representation is in itself already an architectural reality,[18] 18 - Matta-Clark developed this same concept in the materials he produced to record his performances and interventions on buildings. As I mentioned before, the juxtapositions of texts, sketches and images developed by the artist during and after the completion of his interventions were composed as a means of recording traces of the spaces and forms destined to disappear. Once the original building had been demolished, its representation became the only real object for any intervention and the only remaining reality. In this way, any representation of reality assumes an independent existence once the world it represents disappears. and concluded that a three-dimensional entity can only be represented as a composition of discrete, two-dimensional elements and parts. The intuition that gives rise to an architectural form is just as fragmentary as any of its representations, and both architecture and representation are generated by means of a specific notational system. If it is impossible to understand reality as a whole, as Aldo Rossi concluded in A Scientific Autobiography, then what is left is a form of relativity expressed by means of a sequence of partial and inconclusive truths.[19] 19 - Among the theories I considered during the design process were those of Roland Barthes and Robbe-Grillet concerning the end of the traditional novel and the idea of language and literature recommencing from a tabula rasa of meaning and form. Other interesting references regarding this topic are Raymond Roussel’s How I Wrote Certain of My Books, where the quasi-mathematical method of composition the author used for his novels is revealed; the work of Jorge Luis Borges; the experimentations on meta-literature of groups like the OULIPO (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle formed by Queneau, Calvino, Perec, etc.) and The Outsider by Albert Camus. In this last example, the act of writing consists in reporting a reality that appears before the eyes of the author and main character as nothing more than a quantity of juxtaposed objects. In the book, writing becomes a mere listing of events – no questions are raised and no answers are given – the text sketches in a dry, essential style the interplay and relationships of living and dead objects, man and things. Another important source that deals with the idea of multiplicity and openness of meaning and language is Umberto Eco’s Opera Aperta.

One can also argue that an entity can be understood and represented only when removed from its context, when it becomes ‘other than itself’. The process of making meaningful architecture in an urban context evolves by arranging the city’s constituent parts into a formalised sequence, so that relationships are created within a fundamental formal discourse. In his essay ‘Observations on the Long Take’ (‘Osservazioni sul piano-sequenza’, [1967]) Pasolini argues that if reality is something we experience as temporally present, then cinema renders these realities as something past and concluded. ‘Only the facts that have already happened can be coordinated and thus acquire a sense […] it is therefore necessary to die, because as long as we live we lack sense, […] and it is not possible to translate the language of our life, which is a chaos of possibilities, an endless search for relations and meanings.’ Therefore, only within a narration, the act of telling a story by coordinating and sequencing some elements into a plot, is it possible to separate reality from itself and understand it objectively. To paraphrase Pasolini: narration is the act of converting the present into something belonging to the past, thus making both time frames comprehensible and able to be represented. Representation in this context is intended as a process that implies a logic, a grammar and a syntactical structure of sequenced materials. As I said earlier, the specificity of Pasolini’s approach to representation and visual narration lies in the way he sees the process as comprising a first stage, which entails the selection and organisation of reality into sequenced frames, and a second, editorial phase, which requires the syntactical correlation of the parts. In this regard it is important to note that a narration achieved through framing and editing is different from a process whereby reality is reproduced through a mere bricolage and juxtaposition of elements unable to transcend their actual fragmentation.

If editing is understood as a linguistic tool that coordinates different elements selected from reality, in the way that montage is for Pasolini, then it is part of a process aimed at a synthetic representation of reality, but a reality removed from the present, whereas editing[20] 20 - Referring to the concept of editing and the figure of the artist in post-modern society in an interview with Bennet Simpson, the critic Nicolas Bourriaud states that ‘artists today don’t really “create” any more, they reorganise. There are two dominant figures in today’s culture: the DJ and the programmer. Both are dealing with things that are already produced.’ Brian Eno expressed the same idea in the interview ‘Gossip is Philosophy’ with the magazine Wired in 1995: “An artist is now a curator. An artist is now much more seen as a connector of things, a person who scans the enormous field of possible places for artistic attention, and says, what I am going to do is draw your attention to this sequence of things.” If you read art history up until 25 or 30 years ago, you’d find there was this supposition of succession: from Verrocchio, through Giotto, Primaticcio, Titian and so on, as if a crown passes down through the generations. But in the 20th century, instead of that straight kingly line, there’s suddenly a broad field of things that get called art, including vernacular things, things from other cultures, things using new technologies like photo and film. It’s difficult to make any simple linear connection through them. […] What postmodernist thinking is suggesting is that there isn’t one line, there’s just a field, a field through which different people negotiate differently. Thus there is no longer such a thing as “art history” but there are multiple “art stories”. […] You have made what seems to you a meaningful pattern in this field of possibilities. You’ve drawn your own line. This is why the curator, the editor, the compiler, and the anthologist have become such big figures. They are all people whose job it is to digest things, and to connect them together […] To create meanings – or perhaps “new readings”, which is what curators try to do – is to create.’ in the form of a bricolage[21] 21 - Bricolage: a construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things randomly selected. of fragments constitutes only another empty and static reproduction of the present. Representation can therefore be understood as the degree of formal synthesis of reality the architect achieves as a result of a spatial narration. Narration is therefore not only the process by which reality is objectified in order to be understood, but also the representation of reality itself, a reminder of both Fontana and Matta-Clark’s approach. The synthesis achieved by framing, sequencing and editing the elements of the urban fabric means the city can be represented in new formal narrations while at the same time acknowledging the narrated and represented reality, and understanding the meaning and logic of forms and spaces.

In this way the concepts of void, framing and sequence acquire a specific value in reference to the spatial narration and its formal outcome. From this perspective, the void becomes the unrelated and timeless place where the possibility of form is suspended between nothingness and silence, and, at the same time, the entry point for a possible interpretation of the language of the city. If the process of selection – the starting point for the linguistic arrangement of the city’s fragments into a formal narration – is to be developed from the contents of the urban fabric, it will probably start from a place where there is nothing, such as the area of destruction shown in the map of the Great Fire of London, which I referred to at the beginning of this essay. The delineation of borders or limits within the formal possibilities of the modern metropolis is a first step towards understanding the ‘infinity’ of different realities and languages present in the city. The deliberate constraint imposed by choosing and framing a delimited group of elements is not only an act that interprets reality, but also the way to achieve a meaning that is no longer a random juxtaposition of elements but a composition of interrelated, sequential parts, a structure that narrates and transmits meaning.

As I said in reference to Pasolini’s interpretation of the ‘language of reality’, the individual is both the object and spectator of the same narration, and constitutes the primary force in transforming and evolving the urban form by assuming the twofold role of actor and interpreter: citizen and architect. In this way the architect acquires a role that is no longer external to reality or confused with that of a sociologist, economist, developer, sculptor, designer of objects or editor, but one that is an inherent part of reality, and essential for understanding and formulating spaces and forms for everyday life. Through interpreting, representing and constructing new formal narratives the architect is able to formalise transformations in the language of the city; thus, within defined boundaries, the ‘poiesis’[22] 22 - The word ‘poetic’ used in the text and title of this project derives from the Greek root poieo and the word poiesis, meaning to make, construct, compose, or combine forms. Its specific meaning here refers to the possibility of creating a language that can be put to use in the process of constructing reality and architectural forms. of form occurs during the spatial narration of an architectural form. Just as Hejduk claimed was the case for painting and sculpture, architecture generates objects that are simultaneously conceived, represented and realised within a process of constructing sense.

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TU Delft / Faculty of Architecture