The heap-monster and the anthill – some thoughts on the indeterminacy of buildings
January 12, 2013 1 Comment
One of my favourite CGI animation films is Monster House, a rather underrated 2006 offering from Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. It riffs on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher in aligning the atmosphere (and activities) of a dilapidated house with the bitter decrepitude of its lone human occupant, the splendidly named Horace Nebbercracker . The film loses something in its final third where the haunted mystery of this place gives way to the house stepping forth, out of the shadows and in monstrous form, tottering on two improvised legs, in pursuit of the children who dared to venture inside it. But in moving from haunted suggestion to Transformers-like actuality, the rampaging house-monster does give me a great image to start the rumination that follows on the identity and agency of assemblages of construction materials.
What’s it like to be a building?
Recently I’ve been burrowing into theorists who argue – in one way or another – for a return to matter in social theory, a material turn in which things should be given their due along people and discourse. Due to this, earlier this week I took a colleague to task for a research proposal in which she claimed allegiance to actor network theory. For whilst she noted ANT’s commitment to a principle of symmetry (i.e that the non-human, physical realm should get equal billing in any analytical account), she considered that to give such matter equal billing in her study of the fate of a particular type of ruined building could appear ‘forced’. I questioned what that meant, and why an attentiveness to the existence of the bricks, the wood, the steel and the other elements and their shaping contribution to the life and fate of buildings would be forced, if forced meant ‘artificial’. Buildings are made of matter. Matter interacts with other matter. Buildings decay through human neglect because these material processes are free to take over. The fate of a building is precisely a rich interplay of human and other actors.
But to the extent that ‘forced’, means that we – as humans – struggle to give ‘authentic’ depiction of the world as viewed from the perspective of a stone, a brick or a slate roof tile then I accept the point, but only up to a point.
I recently read Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What it’s Like to Be a Thing (2012). It’s a great book, but its title is rather naughty, for Bogost readily admits inside that we humans can never know what it’s like to be a thing, and that instead all we can do is attempt to write:
“the speculative fictions of their processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger”
Certainly any attempt to write about those processes within the humanities / social sciences is awkward due to its novelty – but to regard such endeavours as necessarily ‘forced’ is to reject a key tenet of ANT as I understand it, namely that the presence and role of non-human objects needs to be admitted back into analysis of the networks of interactions through which reality is made.
I also questioned my colleague’s framing of ‘the buildings’ as the only physical element to be accorded a place in the story. Yes, the building as-a-whole is an important physical part of the story, but so are the sub-elements and their interactions. In classic ANT terms, a building is an assemblage, a temporary stable network of elements. It holds together whilst the human stakeholders, the material elements and the surrounding environment permit it.
So, in this essay I want to consider what happens when we ascribe agency to buildings, or instead try to see them as the sum of their parts.
The heap-monster – the rampant whole
In Monster House we are presented with the anomaly of a rampaging house, a fixity rendered strangely mobile and chaotically shedding clapperboards and other domestic elements as it stumbles to life, rising on its newly found haunches and launching into the chase. This heap-monster is portrayed as purposeful, as alive in a way that is alien to our experience of the built environment.
In the real world – rather than that of Hollywood – a brick doesn’t know that it’s part of a house, and has no sentience.
Yet to us humans we look at an intentional construction of brick, wood, slate and steel and we see a house (or a home if we happen to have a reason to associate emotionally with it). We perceive it at a particular default scale (unless we are a roofer, public health inspector or double glazing salesman in which case we focus on a particular sub-part). We see it as a whole, as a building, rather than as a set of component parts.
But what of the summation of broken buildings, to what extent do we still see ‘house’ in the demolition pile or the tornado’s wake? To what extent do we give identity to heaps? Can the amorphous still have identity?
Ordinarily, we struggle to see form or stable identity in such chaotic piles of matter, particularly if the rubble pile is not our own home. But, in extremis we can. Take for instance the following description of the remains of the World Trade Centre and the way in which the twisted mound of debris came to be framed as a thing, as an ominous foe:
“And then of course, there was the pile, always the pile. It had been the focus of ferocious energy during the collapse, and now again was the focus during the unbuilding. The pile was an extreme in itself. It was not just the ruins of seven big buildings but a terrain of tangled steel on an unimaginable scale, with mountainous slopes breathing smoke and flame, roamed by diesel dinosaurs and filled with the human dead. The pile heaved and groaned and constantly changed, and was capable at any moment of killing again. People did not merely work to clear it out but went there day and night to fling themselves against it. The pile was the enemy, the objective, the obsession, the hard-won ground.” (Langewiesche, 2003: 72)
For me, whether the pile self-identifies as a pile is not the point. Objects have properties that shape how they interact with other things (think of smooth vs rough surfaces and the different that makes when two objects pass each other). Objects do cause effects on other objects. But we shouldn’t confuse this ability to cause effects, with intentionality. We’re in the world, it’s made of physical stuff, and we should acknowledge that – but actually what I’m most interested in how we as humans orientate to these physical things and their ‘natural’ processes and properties. How we give them house room (or not), why we do this and how those framings affect the outcome of our relationships with these places and things.
The anthill – the sum of all parts
The narrator, gazing upon The House of Usher before him attempts not only to read the mood of the ancestral seat, but also to find a stable correspondence between the totality and the component parts of the building, for:
“No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be no wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for some years in a long neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. [Yet] perhaps the eye of a scrutinising observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure…” (Poe, 2003: 93)
In this passage Poe not only gives us a rare incursion of building surveying into gothic fiction, but he also asks us to consider a building as an assemblage of parts, hinting at the impermanence of the relationships between those parts, and also of the relationships with the surrounding world and its forces (gravity, erosion, corrosion and subsidence). Poe reminds us that the integrity of any building is finite – and by the end of the narrator’s fateful visit the once ‘barely perceptible fissure’ has finally brought the house of Usher to its fall.
In this image, a building is an unnatural assemblage, waiting to fall apart. It is the sum of its parts, and dependent for its existence and identity upon the integrity of those parts. And those parts interact with each other, act upon each other. Sometimes this aids the overall structure (think of the strength-through-compression features of a stone arch assembly), yet in other circumstances (like Poe’s crack) the interaction is the seed of eventual catastrophic failure.
And here we can jump domains. Leaving literature behind we can follow the point into the prosaic world of construction law, and how the courts grapple with the ontology of buildings and the prospective damage of Poe’s ‘imperceptible fissure’. For, perhaps surprisingly, the courts in their very down to earth adjudication of disputes about building defects are having to decide the appropriate scale with which to frame the built environment and its elements, for (for convoluted reasons I won’t delved into here) compensation may only be payable, outside the realm of contractual relationships, in situations where a latent defect has caused damage to property other than itself. And here the question becomes both very practical and very esoteric – if I have a defect in the construction of a door lintel that threatens the future stability of the upper floors of the house, should the law regard the whole building as the ‘thing itself’ or just the door lintel?
Thus, the courts have to decide what they are looking at – is this a meta-assembly of component systems (door systems, wall systems, window systems) or is it indivisibly a single thing, a building? English speaking courts around the world have grappled with this conundrum for the last 25 years. In North America they have started to view buildings as an amalgam of multiple zones and systems, thus accepting the notion that systems/zones of a building can cause damage to other zones/systems. But to date in the English courts this ‘complex structure theory’ has not taken hold.
To English judges at least, a house is a building, not an assemblage of bricks, wood and metal.
Bogost, I. (2012) Alien Phenomenology , or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.
Langewiesche, W. (2003) American Ground – unbuilding the World Trade Center, Scribiner: London.
Poe, E.A. (2003) The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, Penguin: London.
Picture source: http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/File:Monster-house-poster.jpg