Gazing upon monstrous hulks: landships, stone frigates and buildings that wander

 

“Everything degenerates in the hands of man…He mixes and confuses the climates, the elements, the seasons… He turns everything upside down; he disfigures everything; he loves deformity, monsters”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) Emile or On Education

And thus Rousseau launched what would become the Romantic movement, a rallying cry issued at the brink of the first wave of the Eighteenth century’s revolutions. So much was about to change – new orders of politics, manufacture and ideas. But Rousseau saw in the Enlightenment not a will to order and sense making, but a multiplication of forms, an acceleration of man’s warping of otherwise static, given ways of things. The emergent brave new world was increasingly jumbling things up.

Imagining mills as landships

Not all saw this shock-of-the-new as a bad thing though, and some sought to apply the rules of the sublime (until then a characteristic of the awe-inspiring otherness of the natural world at its extremes) to man-made sights. There was a frisson to be savoured in that uncomfortable –  uncategoriseable – sense of gazing at something new and unfamiliar.  Thus, in June 1790, gazing for the first time upon Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mills, the world’s first factory scale cotton factory, a traveller – Viscount Torrington – wrote in his travelogue – groping for a metaphor by which to circumscribe this exceptional place:

“seven stories high and fill’d with inhabitants, remind me of a first rate man of war; and when they are lighted up on a dark night look luminously beautiful”.

For this was a place that – by the standards of the day – was infeasibly large, purposeful and which resisted the century old environmental command that the waning of daylight is the signal of the end of the working day. Torrington gives us a glimpse here of an embryonic industrial sublime, something echoed in Joseph Wright of Derby’s contemporaneous painting shown above, Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night (c.1783) – the frisson of the new, a pride in progress of the new ‘manufactories’ and their entrepreneurs. Around this time the block form of Arkwright’s buildings, now modest in scale to our eyes given what we know of what came next, reverberated across Georgian popular culture – the factory, positioned as picturesque object, amidst greenery as decoration to drawing room wall or hand painted dinner plates, alongside representations of the ascendant British Navy and its infeasibly large and purpose-filled vessels.

In this piece I want to take for a walk (or a sail) the rebellious image of building-as-ship. This is a deviant proposition, for if there is one thing taken for granted with buildings it is that they do not move, they are fixed (in law ‘real estate’ denotes a type of property that is characterised by its very immobility). In short, a ship and a building are meant to be unrelated concepts. A building is not a ship, and a ship is not a building. Normally.

Stone frigates and military bureaucracy

15 years after Viscount Torrington gazed at Cromford Mills, and saw a stone building as a galleon, the British Navy commissioned a rocky isle in the West Indies as a frigate, adapting its caves as cannon emplacements from which to harry the Franco-Spanish navy as part of what would become known as the Trafalgar campaign.  By virtue of the vagaries (and bureaucracies) of the laws of war the British felt the need to regularise their possession of the island and did so by classifying it as an enemy sloop, and as a ‘prize’ of war thereafter commissioning the island as a frigate in service of the Crown: HMS Diamond Rock. In doing so a new naval category was formed – that of the ‘stone frigate’, a landship having the status of a seagoing naval vessel for the purposes of military law. Subsequently naval on-shore establishments became known as stone frigates, and were regarded as landward extensions of seafaring ships to whom they affiliated. They needed to be affiliated to sea vessels in this way, because the Admiralty was concerned that these landward places might otherwise be undisciplined – for the Naval Discipline Act of 1866 only applied to personnel enrolled upon the books of a warship.

To my mind the most inland and unseaworthy stone frigate is the colossal concrete bunker known – until 1998 – as HMS St Vincent, the Admiralty citadel in Whitehall. Overlooking Horse Guards Parade, this naval bunker was built in 1940, replete with a 20 feet thick concrete roof. In recent years Russian vine has been encouraged to grown upon its Brutalist flanks. Shorn of this greenery, the citadel looks like the approximation of an oil tanker, but also has primal – ark-like – connotations. It looks very immovable though.

Buildings that become ships

One of my kids’ favourite picture books was The School that Went to Sea. In that story a flood upends a classic village schoolhouse and the teacher and a few pupils must convert the standard fare of a school building into a sailing ship. Fortunately for them they manage this task and by the book’s end find themselves and their ship’ sailing into a sunny New York harbour, to be met with cheery smiles from an assembled welcome party.

One of my formative childhood moments was – in contrast – watching the Monty Python short 15 minutes film The Crimson Permanent Assurance, that ran as the opener to their (not great) Meaning of Life (1983). In Crimson an elderly crew of insurance clerks find their company taken over by “The Very Big Corporation of America” and its slick young executives. Throughout the ensuing mutiny the clerks convert their Edwardian office building into a gallon (with builder’s hording providing convenient sails) and having gruesomely killed their officers (the Americans) with improvised cutlasses, pull up anchor, detach from the city street and sail off to do rebellious battle with other offices, in other financial centres around the world.

 

Watching the film as a young boy it was the oddity of buildings becoming ships that had left its lasting impression – but watching it again now it’s the viscerality of the inter-generational / 1980s City of London ‘Big Bang’  and corporate takeover tensions that strike me most. But, it still remains – thanks to Terry Gilliam’s animation – a magical vision of a building becoming a ship and leaves you looking at the city-scape through new eyes. What if these buildings started moving?

And sometimes they do. There’s an uncanny echo of Crimson in this 1961 newsreel, which shows how an Elizabethan house was jacked up onto wheels and tugged to a new location in Exeter, out of the path of an impending motorway. Watch out in particular for the moment at which the building is seen to start moving from its resting position – in a way that challenges the viewer’s in-built assumptions about the static essentiality of buildings – and then the view of this house on wheels as it slowly crawls up the hill with Gilliam-like monstrousness.

 

Ships that become buildings

It is – of course – more common for ships to become buildings. In addition to ships at sea and stone frigates the Royal Navy in the Nineteenth century increasingly utilised old warships as dock accommodation – barracks, stores, hospitals and prisons. Via incremental adjustment these once-were-ships steadily changed into approximations of the functional buildings which they aspired to be. For example, in Cardiff, HMS Hamandryad an elderly 46 gun man-o-war was retired by the Admiralty to become in the 1860s a dockside hospital for sailors, eventually being replaced by a brick-built hospital of the same name in 1905 (when the sanitary status of mixing the proposition ‘hospital’ and ‘old ship’ no longer appeared to fit together). In turn that building was removed (in the de-institutionalisation drives of the 1980s) and the ship’s name now adheres to a nondescript steel and cement Community Mental Health Centre.

 

Sources:

Hamadryad Hospital Ship: http://education.gtj.org.uk/en/item1/30309

Former HMS St. Vincent: The Admiralty Citadel: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/Admiralty_Citadel2008.jpg

Auguste Mayer (1815) The Capture of Diamond Rock: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Capture_of_Diamond_Rock.jpg

‘Sails’ of the Crimson Permanent Assurance: http://node801.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/crimson-permanent-assurance-1983-by.html

Joseph Wright of Derby (c.1783)  Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night: http://www.wikiart.org/en/joseph-wright/arkwright-s-cotton-mills-by-night

Waddell, M. & Hartas, L. (1993) The School that Went to Sea: http://www.theaoi.com/portfolios/images/portfolio/thumb/847-374.jpg

Moving the house that moved: http://news.bbc.co.uk/media/images/47920000/jpg/_47920573_exeter_house_1961.jpg

 

Lashed to the world: exploring building services with Slavoj Žižek

IMG-20121119-00037

“Inside and Outside never cover the entire space: there is always an excess of a third space which gets lost in the division into Outside and Inside. In human dwellings, there is an intermediate space which is disavowed: we all know it exists, but we do not really accept its existence – it remains ignored and (mostly) unsayable. The main content of this invisible space is excrement (canalization), but also the complex network of electricity, digital links, etc. – all this is contained in narrow spaces between walls or floors.” (Žižek 2009)

So writes Slavoj Žižek in a rather rambling rumination ranging across class struggle and post modern architecture. But it is in a few corners of this piece that he touches on something that I find worth exploring here: his passing ruminations on the ‘invisible’ zones and elements of everyday buildings. This is a preoccupation that has been hovering in my posts this year as – amongst others – I’ve pondered the narrow spaces between walls and corridors to café restrooms. In these I’ve come close to echoing Žižek’s desire for:

“a house composed only of secondary spaces and places of passage – stairs, corridors, toilets, store-rooms, kitchen – with no living room or bedroom.”

But, in this essay I want to chase infrastructural conduits around one of my University’s campuses and think about how their necessary invisibilities lash to the world their more prominent cousin features. For, without these silent ‘services’, we would be lost.

I came to the Žižek essay very recently courtesy of Amanda Crawley Jackson, and it’s helped me to pull together the following reflections on an explore that took place a few months before I encountered Žižek’s thoughts on interstitial space and the spandrel.

A spandrel is an area, form or thing created by the occurrence of something else. Byproducts and wastes are an example – think plastic sprues from which model kit pieces are harvested and you have the idea. The word is architectural in origin: a spandrel is the portion of masonry sitting at the top of a column, the edges of which are the arch. The arch is seen, intended – it is foregrounded – but the attendant spandrel is ‘invisible’. It is ‘background’ to the arch and its profile. But the arch would not exist without its dull hinterland of stonework.

Chasing flows and conduits on campus
We were sitting in a room, gathered here at the end of term to discuss the variety of ways in which our teaching and research practices interrogate space and place. I’d travelled to my University’s ‘other’ campus for this session. Day in, day out I’m based in a dense, high-rise cluster of modern(ist) buildings in the centre of the city. But today I was sitting in an older building, with the ambience of a cottage hospital, set amidst the rolling green lawns, trees and winding paths of my University’s suburban campus.

We set aside an hour to each go out and investigate this space, and to bring back that which interested us and which reflected our methodologies. Sitting listening to my colleague wind up the morning session, I still hadn’t decided what I’d focus on. Looking beyond him, towards the doorway, its signage, automatic closure armature, its safety glass and the pipes and wiring conduits that also leaving our room near this point, an idea started to build, round about the time that he uttered the words “Foucault was attentive to the materiality of power.”

Stepping out into the courtyard I started photographing the fire-escapes, struck by their (physically and functionally) ‘bolted-on’ nature. I thought I might focus upon the way in which anxieties about fire safety have mapped out on-top of this pre-existing configuration of buildings and uses, but then I started to notice – smaller but ubiquitous – the sinews of black cabling held fast to the sides of these pre-electric buildings and the fistula by which these black lines wormed their way into, and out of, these buildings. Then I saw spider-like partners, clinging to the sides of these walls. Erratic, bifurcating vertical runs of pipes clinging to these stone surfaces.

I set out to follow these strange emergent connectors – tendrils binding detached buildings to each other as an assembly of indeterminant purpose. Tracing these features around the nooks and crannies of this raggedy estate found moments of bold leap, where cabling flew through the air from gully to gully, and strange gathering points at which multiple lines congregated, perhaps awaiting their turn to go inside in conformity to some unobservable rules of physics, a bottle neck or electron marshalling yard.

I also followed the cables as they burst through from the outside, switching from their black form to interior-white. I traced their paths via strange junction boxes, their dives into internal walls and most satisfying (for me – and I’d like to think for them too) their moment of eventual congress with a device requiring their power or data.

I’m told that many of the cables playing through the sky at this campus are – in fact – now redundant, with most data relayed around the estate via microwave transmitters. Perhaps it all lingers on simply because there’s nothing to be gained in taking them all down.

On being connected
Reflecting on the fascination that this web-like interconnection of buildings via these black cables summoned to mind got me thinking about a number of pictures in which supposedly separate items are connected into a group or family via web-like connections. I thought of doodling, that drive (maybe not everyone has it) to totalise individual doodles, by joining them together into an array across the page, or the techno-human assemblages of psychiatric patients, or corporate organograms.

The image here is scanned from the cover to a 1981 LP by SPK (the Australian industrial noise band, sometimes more fulsomely monikered Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv) the painting – which I’ve been unable to trace by any 21st century type and click methods – is attributed to a “R. Gie”, a patient at Rosegg Sanitorium in Switzerland in 1916 and entitled “Circulation of Effluvia with Central Machine and Metric Tableau”.

Gie (1916)
This patient’s depiction of all elements being wired together has both a disturbing, horror effect (think the body farm pods from The Matrix for example) and yet also a logic if you stop to think about it. As for Žižek and for Gie, we can’t escape the fact of our effluent related interconnections with mechanical systems and the senses of others. We also are enmeshed in a web of electro-mechanical power, as Jane Bennett (2010) – no relation – has shown in her analysis of “thing-power” (the agency of assemblages), with specific reference to electricity systems and their volatile assemblage of “humans and their (social, legal, linguisitic) constructions [and][…] some very active and powerful nonhumans: electrons, trees, wind, fire, electromagnetic fields.” (24)

Foucault certainly took a broader view of power than convention had dictated – seeing it as a force (fluid like) circulating in situations to enable or retard action, things to appear or positions to be framed and sustained. But perhaps he could have gone even further, to make the link between ‘social’ power and electrical / gas / water power. The full panoply of circulating, and life sustaining forces, and of the culturally ‘invisible’ spandrel empire that provides the infrastructure for this mechanical circulation and servicing of power.

To spend a lunchtime chasing conduits and cables on campus is to follow Alice down the rabbit hole and find there not a cartoon otherworld, but rather the arteries and tendrels of the vast web of interstitial spaces that anchor us – and our buildings – to the world.

References

Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant matter – a political ecology of things, Duke University Press: London.
Žižek, S. (2009) ‘Architectural Parallax – Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle’ at http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=218

Insect Theatre Redux: dusty floor as post traumatic landscape

This is an alternate version of my jaunty and whimsical review posted today on the Occursus site.

“The

storytellers

have not realized that the

Sleeping Beauty would have awoken covered

in a thick layer of dust; nor have envisaged the sinister

spiders’ webs that would have been torn

apart the first movement

of her red

tresses.”

Georges Bataille  Dust (1929)

moth

By some strange conjunction that you don’t dare question, the day I finished reading Nick Papadimitrou’s Scarp I heard I’d be getting Tim Edgar’s Insect Theatre to review for Occursus. As I savoured the closing stages of Scarp, I stumbled upon the following prescient paragraph in the appendix-like set of stream of consciousness journal notes that close that book:

“This isn’t some TV-series or drama-workshop universe. This is the real world, Sir: the realm of ants swarming on kerbstones and wasps tapping against the window at dawn. There are sandy mounds behind the brake-drum factory; a myriad of insects dying in drainage ditches or under wheels. They click in their death throes as they are torn by mandibles, stamped on by children, squashed under tyres by roadside verge. The world is a fiery storm roaring at the base of the hedge – flames spreading, invisible in the tussocks.”

Insect Theatre violently drags the spectator into the tussocks. In Edgar’s close up images of dead flies, the spindle trails of spent spider webs and the death-field detritus of broken wings, legs and other shrivelled insect matter we journey into an unrelentingly Hobbesian state of nature, a world of devastation and desiccation-into-dust.

Accompanied by four short essays by anthropologist Hugh Raffles, the book manages to achieve an even bleaker tone than Papadimitriou’s paragraph, and something even more sinister than Bataille’s meditation on dust. Here the air is chilled by Raffles opening depiction of the death throes of a fly as it surrenders “in muddled exhaustion”, stuck fast on a flypaper, and things get no warmer in the tone and staging of Edgar’s images, for even his colour images have a muted, decay ridden palette. The abject effect is also achieved by focussing exclusively upon dead insects – dead defeated insects. This book does not present a valedictory account of the heroic life of rampant creatures. The victors are not seen here. These scenes are aftermaths of insect wars, and only the victims are left on stage. This conjures a strange horror-absence effect , for the victorious protagonist is absent, the sensation of viewing these images is a bit like stumbling into a giant’s cave and its litter of strewn bones.

Will the giant return and trap you as you gaze on at the remains of his last meal?

Many of the images show conquering web, a shroud-like dirty gossamer tightly wrapping the trapped insect carcases. These death-bundles are attended by tendrils of filament striated across the frame, taught lines of ominous vibration-cord, still capable of signalling to the predator off-stage.

Careful where you tread next, you might awaken the monster beyond the page.

The viewer becomes uncomfortable partly because here is dirt as art, but also because of the scale effect of dragging the viewer into the scene. Edgar’s pictures shrink the viewer down to insect size. And strangely this is achieved through removal of human reference points. This isn’t a Honey I Shrunk the Kids world, where the insects are shown living in small corners of our world. No, the absence of such collateral renders this a more alien place, one that is terrifying (and perhaps beautiful in an odd way) in its own terms rather than through any clear association to a ‘background’ human world.

Tim Edgar (2013) Insect Theatre, Black Dog Publishing: London, £14.95

More info at Black Dog’s site.

‘Of cabbages and kings’ – on summoning things with lists

b2b21_Dali_Sewing_Machine_With_Umbrella

 

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“to talk of many things:

Of shoes — and ships –and sealing-wax–

Of cabbages and kings

And why the sea is boiling hot

And whether pigs have wings”

Lewis Carroll (1872) Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There

 

New Year seems like a good time to take stock, and in the process to think about lists and their interaction with things.

Lists sorted Santa’s recent mission, and three dimensional things arrived, wrapped and wanted in the correct hands. Each object became the centre of attention at its presenting and unveiling. Lists accomplished this bringing of objects to an audience. Lists also worked to assemble ingredients and create meals, also to plan and execute feasible journeys.

Then there were the New Year’s lists; written in the mind or on paper. The quiet reckoning of the events of the preceding year, and groping towards ideas for action (and forebearance) in the forthcoming one. Lists are powerful tools. They create order, they name, frame and coordinate objects and ideas. They are herders, thing-shepherds.

But lists can also be deployed to invoke strange disordering effects – something that has recently come to the fore in the ‘neo-materialism’ of Object Oriented Ontology and in Actor Network Theory. Lists can connect us to the untameable plenitude of things; of their complexity, their messiness and their beyond-human scale and purpose. For the material turn:

“…allows for the return of concrete objects to philosophy, after their long exile decreed by those who were too clever to talk about paper, donkeys and marbles, and thereafter allowed themselves to speak only of the aloof and alienated cognito-linguistic structures that make all such objects possible.” (Harman, 2009a: 91)

Graham Harman and his fellow travellers seek to assert the reality of objects, unshackling their existence from the conditionality of human perception. But, Harman’s is a wierd realism, a speculative one that sees human perception of any objects qualities as partial. A speculation is entailed, essences are unattainable. Objects are encountered incompletely and pragmatically. But they exist without our regard. If a tree falls in an empty forest it probably makes a sound, but no-one can know what the sound of a lonely tree’s fall is.

For Aristotle, human interrogation of objects was a search for essences, definitive primary qualities by which each object could be known and classified. Linnaeus followed in this vein with his systematic taxonomy of flora and fauna – genus and species. This was the Enlightenment and its encyclopaedic project. Everything under the sun (and the sun and stars too) must have their labels, and places, within a system of cosmic order. For Kant this drive was reductive, an attempt to ‘cleave the air’. But it remains a powerful force. Order, categorisation, control as the raison d’être of the modern list.

Michel Foucault examined this drive to order in his The Order of Things (2002) presenting in it his analysis of the evolution of the human sciences and its conceptual framing and discursive control of objects. Foucault’s study begins with an examination of Borges’ oft-quoted fictional “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” in which animals are divided into a wholly alien taxonomy: including “those belonging to the emperor”; those that “have just broken a pitcher” and “those that look like flies from a long way off”. Foucault marvels at the strangeness of this categorisation, notes the arbitrariness of any cleaving of reality, but also the object framing power of such taxonomic activities.

Foucault uses Borges’ imaginary list as a springboard to considering the genesis of the Enlightenment’s urge to classify. He views Borges’ alien taxonomy as an exercise in fantastical thinking, something wholly other to the prevailing logics of Enlightenment science. But in passing acknowledges the revelatory power of juxtaposition in Borges’ list:

“We are all familiar with the disconcerting effect of the proximity of extremes, or , quite simply, with the sudden vicinity of things that have no relation to each other; the mere act of enumeration that heaps them all together has a power of enchantment all of its own.” (2002: 18)

Foucault illustrates his point with the Comte de Lautréamont’s proto-surrealist similie describing a young man “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Foucault takes the similie as absurdist, and thereby an example of how impossible  juxtapositions open up imaginary combinations that can only exist in imaginary – linguistic – space, for they are not real, they are non-physical creations of language and abstract thought.

In contrast Harman, Bruno Latour and Ian Bogost have all extolled the enchanting power of lists to summon the alien strangeness of reality itself to fleeting human view. Such juxtapositions are ritually invoked not to create heterotopias, but rather to shine attentive light onto aspects of the vastness of reality that usually get little if any attention. They do so as part of a critique of human-centred conventional approaches to investigation of the physical world.

For Latour, for example, the social sciences have evolved a very narrowly drawn notion of the world, a narrowness which must be challenged:

“there is a very small list of inhabitants. I mean for them there are no objects, no animals (or very little), so it’s only the humans. But they are naked humans, often even just heads, sometimes with a body but not with clothes on or without internal organs.” (Halsall, 2012: 966)

Reading some Harman recently, and Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology: or what it’s like to be a thing (2012) over Christmas, I’ve been struck by how often these theorists toss heterogeneous lists of stuff to their audience. Bogost is aware of this trope, and that some may dismiss the practice as a ‘poetics’ of objects but invokes Harman in defence of this practice as:

“the best stylistic antidote to [the] grim deadlock [of mainstream philosophy] is a repeated sorcerer’s chant of the multitude of things that resist any unified empire.” (Harman 2009b:  102)

Such litanies are intended to set up aberrant conjunctions precisely for the purpose of emphasising the alien-ness of objects to us, and also to each other – that most of the things in the universe have no obvious relationship to most other things.

I get the point here – but find that whenever confronted with one of these lists I’m titillated but almost immediately find myself trying to stitch the objects together (sheltering from the rain in the operating theatre with my recently purchased sewing machine as I do so). These lists operate – despite their authors’ intentions – as some form of random plot generator. The randomness soon fades from view as the meaning-making drive kicks in. This process makes me think of the human perceptual tendency to perceive face-shapes in dim light, or to find patterns in fields of dots. We are wired to make sense of what we are confronted with. The surrealists, fuelled by Freud’s ‘discovery’ of the unconscious, understood this. Their juxtapositions were intended to act upon human sense-making in this way (as does the ‘subliminal’ end of the advertising spectrum which owes much to the symbolic preoccupation of the early 20th century avant garde).

Yet conveniently, Harman and co leave me space for this. They accept that humans cannot escape from their anthropomorphic and/or pragmatic orientation towards things in the world. For these theorists, reality exists independent of perception, but can only be glimpsed in fragments through perception. Thus what excites me by their thinking is their call to turn attention to the full range of ‘things’ in the world, and also the space left open for consideration of the perceptive and representational practices by which human actors seek to speculate about the objects with which they are interacting, and to select and glimpse aspects that appear relevant to their needs.

Bogost, despite his book’s subtitle, doesn’t actually tell us what it’s like to be a thing. That can’t be done. What his book (and those of Harman and Latour etc) does is inspire us to be aware of things (both physical and ideational) and how we humans try to shepherd them, but never quite fully manage to fully know, or fully dominate them.

And so, refreshed, I head back into exploring the world of bricks, bunkers, quarries, church roofs, café toilets, flammable sofas, road signs and wandering.

Ah, a list. All makes sense to me…

Here’s a list of some references

Bogost, I. (2011) Alien Phenomenology , or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, University of Minnesota Press:  Minneapolis.

Foucault, M. (2002) The Order of Things, Routledge: London

Halsall, F. (2012) ‘An aesthetics of proof: a conversation between Bruno Latour and Francis Halsall on art and inquiry’ Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 30(6) 963 – 970

Harman, G. (2009a) Towards Speculative Realism, Zero Books: Winchester

Harman, G. (2009b) Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, re.press: Melbourne

Picture credit: Salvador Dali (1941) Sewing Machine With Umbrella via https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/download/attachments/81860488/b2b21_Dali_Sewing_Machine_With_Umbrella.jpg

The heap-monster and the anthill – some thoughts on the indeterminacy of buildings

Monster-house-poster via mirror.uncyc.org

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.

 References

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

Going inside – the alien world of nooks, crannies and other non-human spaces

IMG-20121208-00060

“…the imagination, by virtue of its freshness and its own peculiar activity, can make what is familiar into what is strange. With a single poetic detail, the imagination confronts us with a new world. From then on, the detail takes precedence over the panorama, and a simple image, if it is new, will open up an entire world.”

Gaston Bachelard (1964) The Poetics of Space

This essay is about confined spaces that only reveal themselves to humans fleetingly (if at all). It is about the effect of noticing them and lingering to contemplate them. In spirit it follows in the footsteps of Gaston Bachelard’s meditations on the shelter-world of homes, shells and nests. But I will drift more towards man-made interstices, with the voids within walls, furniture and floors. Bachelard’s project was to enquire into the ways in which the creative unconscious and places of dwelling are linked in human minds and actions. I find myself drawn more towards the alienness of spaces that are non-human due to their size, location or other form of human inaccessibility. In what circumstances are these spaces noticed by us, and in what ways do we possess, know or colonise them?

Revealed by flames

Watching an old sofa burn earlier this week, it was the moment that the fabric panel beneath the arm rest rolled back in the face of the flames that caught my eye. For, in that unfurling, the inside of the sofa arm revealed itself to me as a cavity, a small cavern bounded by a wooden framework, iron springs and matting; an unknown hollow that I had spent many hours resting against. This was a place that had not seen daylight since it was enclosed by the upholsterer many decades ago. But for a few moments fresh air was able to rush into this once enclosed territory, flames then quickly following in air’s invasive wake, briefly filling this void with overwhelming heat and light before bringing about the collapse of the framing tiers of this now failing structure, and the extinction of this space.

This sofa’s fate was sealed by an incontinent cat. This furniture had to go, it couldn’t be passed on. So, it went by fire. During the life of this sofa this enclosed space was inhabited only by stale air, crumbs, dust mites, fleas (courtesy of our dog and cats) and perhaps holidaying viruses and bacteria migrating there from the surficial smear-strips of youthful residents or their guests. It was an alien ecology, a vibrant place (perhaps) for some life forms, but not a place of human habitation. It was, in human terms a ‘non-space’, a place beyond access, beyond the human everyday realm. I’d fleetingly glimpsed another world down the back of the sofa.

Looking in the wardrobe

We normally only venture inside our possessions when we are searching for something. A lost key causes us to explore coats, pockets and sofa crevices in a way quite out of keeping with our usual disregard for such locations. Briefly we pour over them intently, inspecting such cavities with unfamiliar intimacy, often with hesitancy. Contorted fingers venture tentatively beyond sight into foreign lands, fearing spiders, dirt or other unknowns. Then we withdraw once again from these spaces, they cannot be occupied permanently, the body and/or the mind could not stand it. To slide under a car or bed, to probe a sofa, cupboard or wall void, to climb into a wardrobe, attic or inspection chamber: all are challenging and thrilling, but they are temporary incursions. Daily human life could not be lived in these spaces.

And yet, occasionally humans do in extremis seek to dwell in such places: priests, fugitives and other refugees have all sought out spaces to dwell within the hidden portions of houses. In such situations the acquaintance with those spaces would energise otherwise liminal space. In a feint echo of this perhaps, hiding as a child, striving to suppress the sound of breathing whilst squeezed into the wardrobe you became strangely aware of the nature and features of that furniture. The grain on the door, the smell of the place, the occupation of this space by other stuff stored there and the resistance to your weight as it creaked to accommodate its new exceptional loading. For a few moments you might have glimpsed the sentinel-like essence of what it must be like to be a wardrobe. But then you stepped back into the real world, stood up straight and got on with being a human.

Human engagements with non-human space

Clearly we can never actually come to know what it’s like to be a wardrobe, or even what it’s like to be a creature whose natural habitat is such spaces. Yet fictions of miniaturisation, like The Borrowers, Mrs Pepperpot or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids embrace this alienness. The humans are for some reason shrunken, and find themselves exploring the familiar home-world in new ways. Everyday objects become functionally mutated. A shoe becomes a house or a boat, a puddle a lake. As a room becomes a continent, an alien landscape is glimpsed in all its now-apparent jeopardy. And then a full-size human appears and the mini-people have to flee the ‘giant’s’ footsteps, as that giant goes about his everyday engagement with mundane spaces and things. If the mini-people are lucky they will manage to reach the relative safety of a mouse-hole, and will enter the wall cavity.

These mini-people get to go where the full size humans cannot. To explore floor voids, cavity walls, rafters – to see a house from the truly-inside, to scurry sideways through a house like a mouse or a spider. I’m jealous. The closest I’ve come is in a videogame adaptation of Disney’s Ratatouille film, in which players get to venture, like a rodent Laura Croft amidst the cavity wall of a Parisian town house. To see the wall from the inside is to see the way that plaster oozes there in sensuous bulges through the lath strips. On the outside the plaster is all smooth and neat, but on the inside it is the epitome of disorder, irregularity and an excess of matter. The quest for epic smoothness on the exterior, requires this secret opposite effect inside the wall. There is something Dorian Gray-like in the banishment of imperfection from one zone into another. But this by-product effect isn’t meant to be seen by the human eye.

The authenticity of the invisible

And yet the invisble stuff seems important, or at least it does to me. I recall a recent work meeting. A gathering to view a nearly complete 3D virtual reality model of a house, designed for building surveying students to practice upon. During the meeting the presenter was keen to assure his audience that this simulation was a replica of a real house, and that the design of the model was one strictly shaped by adherence to ‘real world physics’ (which meant the students could not levitate, walk through walls or otherwise use super powers in their engagement with this place). But it was an abrogation of real world matter-detail that irked me. I asked whether it would be possible to lift up the floorboards, to search for the wiring, to observe the runs of the central heating system or the remnant traces of the gas lamp piping. ‘Um, no’ came the reply, ‘building surveyors don’t report on those systems’. So, that aspect of detail would be ignored, partly because in disciplinary terms it was considered irrelevant and partly because of the vast coding and data resource that would be entailed in depicting hidden features of the house that might never actually be searched for.

At the level of logic I understood, but at gut level this felt like a serious dent in the authenticity of this depiction of the house. Like an obsessive dolls house maker I felt the need to paint walls it would not be possible to see, to fully populate this model. To strive to include everything, even the invisble stuff. Eventually, a concession was offered. A few bounded zones of subsurface detail could be added, places where the students could chase out mold, damp or other building pathologies. Students would there have the equivalent of ‘dig here’ prompts, and could mine at those locations into the ‘relevant’ interior detail. This was a token nod to the invisible realm, but better than leaving the invisible entirely unrepresented.

The hidden portions of a house have always fascinated me. Pulling up a floorboard a few years ago I discovered fragments of a bell wire run in an attic bedroom, the remains of the maid calling apparatus. Then there was the time that I pulled up some floor boards in an old house and found a marble fireplace dumped below. Occasionally in fitful dreams I uncover unknown rooms beneath my known house. Bachelard tells me this is all quite normal, reading via Jung the cellar as disquieted unconscious, such that:

“If the dreamer’s house is in the city it is not unusual that the dream is one of dominating in depth the surrounding cellars. His abode wants the undergrounds of legendary fortified castles, where mysterious passages run under the enclosing walls, the ramparts and the moat put the heart of the castle into communication with the distant forest.” (20)

But Bachelard seems to be conflating two different drives here, and neither is what I feel. In Bachelard’s quote there is a concern with escape from the house, and with colonisation beyond its borders. But what drives me to pull up floorboards, or to look in the wardrobe, each so that I can sleep better at night is a desire to fully know the house that I’m in. I don’t want to escape or to invade next door. I just want to be fully connecting to my own home.

Rewiring, plumbing and exorcism

I’ve come to realise that there is something ritual in my floorboard-thing, and yet I usually end up looking into floors or walls for pragmatic DIY reasons. The soul-resting bit usually comes as an afterthought, a realisation that I know have made peace with an otherwise alien void space. It has become known, claimed. It is part now of my home, rather than a brooding alien presence within the fabric of my house. Yet this resulting purging effect does have a feel of solving (or at least salving) a haunting.

I’d imagine that those who may have experienced an actual infestation – a wasp nest or some other living, breathing and breeding alien presence within their home – would have that sense of release in even greater measure. The antagonistic pest co-resident banished at last from somewhere within the recesses of the home, must make the home feel fully known and possessed.

And perhaps to get rid of that alien presence a specialist was procured. Someone well versed in inspecting, reading and probing these non-human voids. Someone who knows the ways of these spaces, understands their ecology and/or the infrastructure that passes quietly through them. The humble pest exterminator, plumber or electrician is not so humble when viewed from this perspective, for these are the silent custodians of an arcane knowledge, the product of a daily acquaintance of many hundreds of homes’ hidden voids.

Were those professions more literary we might have legion of psychogeographically inclinded accounts of chasing pests, pipe and wire routes through these alien zones. We would be able to sit, read and marvel at the ingenuity and accumulated place-reading skills of those liminal technicians. We would hear tales of strange items, sensations, sounds and smells encountered in the deepest recesses of our homes. But sadly these technicians do not (to my knowledge at least) commit these thoughts to paper.

Through walls with wifi, Georges Perec and the IDF

“What happens behind the flats’ heavy doors can most often be perceived only through those fragmented echoes, those splinters, remnants, shadows, those first moves or incidents or accidents that happen in what are called the ‘common areas’” (Perec, 1978: 23)

Wandering through walls

I’m back in Torquay again on family business, back in that strange situation of being somewhere I once knew well, but which now feels a slightly strange place; a place which operates life differently to how I’ve become used to living it. This is a slower place (not that Sheffield is particularly fast). Here things follow slightly different rules and orientate around different hubs.

This is an old-world of ornaments, dusting and sweeping, net curtains, the ritual exchange of greetings cards and close observance of the ailments and decline of acquaintances. It is also a world largely bereft of wifi.

With the twitchiness of electro-withdrawal I went for a preoccupied walk around the local neighbourhood. My aim and preoccupation? Wifi squatting in order to download a suddenly longed for e-book.

I walked the streets searching for unsecured wifi signals bleeding out from the homes I slowly walked past. Eventually I found one and attended to my business. Most of the signals I detected were secured, and most retained their ‘out of the packet’ abstract machine names for their private networks. But a few had been personalised, giving a glimpse into each home’s deportment. From proud declaration of the identity of a family domain (‘The Bakers’) to compression of the postal address (‘the Laurels’) or a sign of a personal attachment or domestic-technical dominance (‘Mike’s). I’ve seen a fair few wifi names on my recent travels – and ‘The Wank Network’ takes the biscuit (so to speak). Yes, most of these networks are private – but whether or not they realise this their network names are broadcasting for all to read.

Anyway, this wandering cyber-snooping got me thinking about the ways in which we travel through walls, whether in making assumptions from a handful of external signifiers or via more sophisticated techniques and technologies. What therefore follows is a rumination on ways of going through walls.

Seeing through walls

“I put a picture up on a wall. Then I forget there is a wall. I no longer know what there is behind this wall, I no longer know what a wall is. I no longer know that in my apartment there are walls, and if there weren’t any walls there would be no apartment.” (39)

So writes Georges Perec in his 1974 essay Species of Spaces. Perec notes how by this adornment and functional obfuscation, the apartment wall’s function as a delimiter of place, of private and public, of ‘my’ private and someone else’s private is forgotten, rendered invisible. But it still operates.

I’m not a great fiction reader, but Perec’s essay has encouraged me to read some of his ‘novel’ Life: A User’s Manual (1978), a 600 page project in which Perec sought to remove the front wall from a Parisian apartment block and describe the image of each denizen, frozen in one moment on one day. I say ‘describe the image’ because Perec’s style is wilfully visual, his is storytelling as surveying. The reader is given depictive lists of the material content, arrangement and proportions of each room, and the rooms take on as much identity as their glimpsed inhabitants. Through this we get some sense of the independent lives of the building, the rooms and their material things.

So, in his novel Perec takes us via imagination (and a sense of the familiar) into these private, indoor spaces. Through his words we ‘see’ through the walls, but they are still there. The constellation holds. These places are not destroyed by this observation.

Walking through walls

But what of techniques that could physically take us (or others) through those walls? Here we encounter ‘home invasion’, a specific offence in the U.S.  A crime born of simply invading a home. In contrast English Law enquires into the purpose and acts of the trespasser before finding a criminal offence, whether via theft (burglary) or – now in England at least – the squatting of domestic premises.

Before they graduated to murder, the Manson ‘family’ relished a lesser form of house invasion – they would break into houses solely for the purpose of rearranging the furniture there, thrilling in expectation that that subtle intrusion would upset the comforting certainties of the residents’ dwelling there.

For Hannah Arendt violation of the private sanctity of the home was a fundamental breach in the fabric of civilised, democratic life. Physical incursion into a home speaks to a fundamental violation, a deeply unsettling act at the heartland of identity and comfort. Home invasion laws seek to acknowledge this intangible ‘essence of privacy and home’. An essence we can find embodied in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and its (qualified) respect for a quiet enjoyment of “home and family life.”

Which brings me to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and its practice of ‘walking through walls’ when conducting ‘security operations’ in Palestinian townships, as investigated by ‘forensic architect’ Eyal Weizman in Hollow Land (2007), his masterful study of the architectural dimensions of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Weizman captures the normative destabilising effect of the IDF’s action by quoting one Palestinian resident thus:

“Imagine it – you’re sitting in your living room, which you know so well…And suddenly, that wall disappears with a deafening roar, the room fills with dust and debris, and through the wall pours one soldier after the another screaming orders. You have no idea if they’re after you, if they have come to take over your home, or if your house just lies on their route to somewhere else…[and pointing to another wall now covered by a bookcase, she adds] and this is where they left. They blew up the wall and continued to our neighbour’s house”. (195)

Weizman shows how those responsible for innovating the IDF’s urban warfare tactics found inspiration in Post-Structuralist thinking, turning Deleuze & Guattari’s notions of nomadism, smooth space and the rhizomatic action to a state’s advantage. Even social constructionism was co-opted, as one of the IDF’s strategists put it:

“This space that you look at, this room…is nothing but your interpretation of it…we interpret the alley as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because weapons await us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors…this is why we opted for the method of walking through walls…like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing…” (Weizman, 2007: 198-199)

Reading these testimonies of walking through walls reminded me of passages on floodwater ingress, in particular one that I’ve read recently in an account of the 1952 ‘great’ flood of the North Devon village of Lynmouth:

“The front door had been bolted and barred to withstand the pressure of the water. The fact that it was appearing around the back, showed that it was surrounding the cottages but no real alarm was felt until suddenly the front door, forced by a tree or boulder, crashed open to admit a waist-deep wave. As if to synchronize, the back door flew inwards and two surges of water met in the kitchen. There was no electric power and all witnesses agree on the feeling of impotence without light, and the deafening noise which intensified within minutes.” (Delderfield 1981: 31-32)

Whether by military action or floodtide, in each case the ‘privacy’ of the home was violated by a violent incursion from the outside, each forcing its way, ignoring (or assailing) the conventional forms of entry and/or exclusion. In each case the home was contaminated (materially and symbolically) by the arrival of things alien to it. In each case ‘home’ was invaded and despoilt.

I will now step back out into the street and see if that wifi hotspot is still unsecured. If it is you will be able to read this meditation on the fragility of walls and of their permeability…

Delderfield, E.R. (1981) The Lynmouth Flood Disaster, ERD Publications: Exmouth.

Perec, G. (1974) The Species of Space, Penguin: London

Perec, G (1978) Life, A User’s Manual, Vintage: London

Weizman, E. (2007) Hollow Land – Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, Verso: London