Speculative | 2012
This project begins with a simple and singular point of departure: a work of literature by Jorge Luis Borges entitled “The Library of Babel”. While the thesis itself doesn't pursue the library typology, out of an obsession with this fictional Universe I have unfolded a series of architectural desires and questions I hope to explore through the production of my own fictional, architectural Universe.
The library is simple as a concept: A hexagonal cell, lined with books, is the homogenous building block of the Universe. The cell is entirely realistic, believable, and easily describable. Suddenly, we realize that the cell is proliferated infinitely in all directions. The concept is still easily understood, but its consequences unimaginable. Though the content and order of the books is random, by virtue of the infinite nature of the library, all possible permutations of meaning and language are contained within the library. On a local level, the library is spatially normative. Rather, it is the global implications of its matricial organization and infinite expanse that produce elements of the imaginary which far exceed that of its parts. We are given the premise of the Library within the first sentence--the duration of the story is spent in exploring its effects.
The beauty of Borges’ library lies in its poetic occupation of polar extremes and seeming ability for its components to be both completely real--even banal--and its consequences extreme. Fiction is injected with verisimilitudes (or truth injected with fiction), producing a “liberation from traditionally compartmentalized views of realistic and imaginative fiction”. The world of Borges’ fiction is one in which the reader is caught in a perpetual moment of hesitation between the real and the imaginary, and as a result allows a condition of the fantastic to permeate.
Todorov’s definition of the literary fantastic is in many ways the frame through which I understand the Library, and the germ of my thesis.
“In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know... there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is a victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination--and the laws of the world remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality--but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us...the fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event”
Borrowing from literary theory once again, the basic dynamic of interest to me here is that of Metafiction. In the words of Patricia Waugh,
“Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In providing a critique of their methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the fictional quality of the world outside the literary fictional text...they explore a theory of fiction through the practice of writing fiction.”
My desire is to leverage the fantastic and the genre of metafiction in order to maintain an ambiguous relationship to the known and the real, producing a machine framework n architecture that can straddle the territory between the visionary and the banal, ultimately instrumentalizing fiction, the imaginary, the playful, the seemingly nonsensical for the grounded and the real.
While Borges utilizes a purely geometric unit in the Library of Babel, I believe that in translating the notion of Babel into an architectural thesis, a more fundamentally architectural and structural unit is necessary to provide the required resistance to the variations of form such a matrix would produce.
The vault became of interest to me due to its tightly bonded relationship to form, structure and geometry.
I began with a line of research into the structural type of the vault, examining the full range of typological variations and geometric expressions within the normative and established vocabulary of the vault, and examining a series of atypical and deviant or defamiliarized conditions within each.
Out of this, two primary operations of interest surfaced: non-orthogonal axes of cross vault intersection and modulation between vault profile types. These two operations began to defamiliarize the form of the vault while maintaining its structural performance and accommodating programmatic needs for scalar modulation and both rigid and soft boundaries within a continuous space
A secondary operation of cutting in section was discovered by selecting from between the two implicit barrel vault surfaces that define the overall cross vault, producing openings in section while maintaining coverage in plan, allowing for light, entry, or ventilation, and producing oriented, defined subsets of space within the larger structural system. Under finite element analysis, it was discovered that rather than disrupting the structural performance of the vault, in many cases the operation served to reduce stresses which seemed to have built up at complex surface intersections. As a result, design decisions within the logic of the unit necessarily produce at once spatial, programmatic, circulatory and structural effects.
The inclusion of both implicit geometric sets produces a finely and cellularly subdivided set of interior spaces. Spaces in plan are covered by 2 vault surfaces. This redundancy leaves the option for poche and multilevel space, and allows for variable transformations of the same vault geometry to affect circulation, degree of subdivision and cellularity, enclosure, porosity, and light differently. This exponentially increases the configurable scenarios of the project and also allow for a narrative of continuous, use-specific transformation over time. Constituent vault geometries can be categorized along two spectrums: that of continuous/cellular space, and longitudinal/latitudinal space. As the cross vault is comprised of two intersecting barrel vaults (roughly) oriented perpendicularly to one another, an inherent grain exists within the vaulting system which produces a possible expression of warp and weft as in textiles. While a completely neutral selection of the two sets results in a normative cross vaulted space which is directionally neutral, hybridization between the two allows for the orientation of space and circulation to be designed at the same time as the vaulting system itself.
The geometric system is characterized by a double duality. First, the system’s inherent redundancy in plan produces 2 surfaces—the selection of which dictates the spatial and architectural qualities of the unit. In producing any given space using this particular system of vault construction, only half of the geometry is ever expressed. This produces a substantial matrix of possible configurations even within a singular geometric iteration. Second, the dual classification of each surface as either cellular/continuous or longitudinal/latitudinal allows for each surface to be plotted within the matrix along 2 different ranges, each preferencing either spatial enclosure or orientation. The same result, then, can be derived from different driving principles.
The first duality expands the range of iterations within a single geometric system, while the second expands the range of associated meanings of a single iteration.
While the notion of Babel is characterized by apparent chaos, I believe it is a fundamentally structured matrix. Apparent chaos is a byproduct of its tremendous complexity and scope. The matricial nature of the organization of such an architectural machine produces a requirement for both an abstract matricial site, and the requirement to deal with the boundaries of such a matrix. While literary representations of Babel easily ascribe to the infinite, an architectural thesis cannot. However, I believe that in order for the matrix to function effectively, the base matrix must exist in a homogenous condition which does not differentiate on the basis of edge, but function in a mathematically abstract manner. The only surface which is finite but boundless in all dimensions require looped and continuous surfaces, the simplest of which is the sphere, which can be easily discretized into a grid characterized by latitudes and longitudes. The site for the project is the surface of a sphere: a planet.
The program selected for the thesis is a menagerie for animals. The programmatic requirements of each animal are in a way singular and specific enough to be distilled into a series of specific sectional and planimetric moves, while allowing for a degree of abstraction in their satisfaction.
In this way, variation of the structural and geometric vaulting system is able to produce typological differentiation, pairing geometry and typology
The menagerie as a type is differentiated from that of the zoo in several ways which makes it more suited for the thesis. The menagerie is a far older type than the zoological garden, arguably existing since the Classical era, and become formally recognized as a type in the Renaissance period, finally evolving into the contemporary zoological garden in the 19th century.
While the zoological garden is generally oriented around education, research and conservation programs and animal exhibits arranged ecologically or zoogeographically, the menagerie is often characterized by structured, taxonomic arrangements which rather than seeking to reproduce a naturalistic environment, explicate an order of things. Animals in a menagerie have been singled out to be unique representatives of their species. As such, all menagerie animals, from the freakish specimens of a circus menagerie to a royal menagerie's heraldic lions and eagles, evoke an emotional response that is different from any other encounter humans have with other creatures. A menagerie, whatever its physical form, is primarily concerned with the symbolic role of animals within a culture. As such, while the zoological garden reveals and examines the animal, the menagerie conversely, through its architectural form and organization, reveals ourselves.
The term menagerie, commonly thought to be an old French word for "farmyard", is actually derived from the French root ménage, which means to manage, or management, and the suffix rie, which is used to indicate a place...In the literal sense, therefore, a menagerie is a place for the management of animals, a word that implies not only containment but, in a sense, domination and control as well.
"Every true gentleman must have…a garden to be built about with rooms to stable in all rare beasts and to cage in all rare birds; with two lakes adjoining, the one of fresh water the other of salt, for like variety of fishes. And so you may have in small compass a model of the universal nature made private.”
Francis Bacon, Gesta Grayorum (1594)
Regarded as the first modern zoological work, Gesner’s 17th century tome, Historia Animalium, was the first comprehensive attempt to document all known animals within a single work. This document was born at an intellectual moment which I found uniquely suited to the notion of the fantastic. While the beginnings of true scientific analysis were emerging, myth and reality were still inseparably intertwined, and as such both subjected to the rigors of analysis.
Gesner treats familiar animals in unfamiliar ways, indeed doubting the existence of many animals from the New World quite familiar to us, and presents fictional animals in familiar ways, having had far more contact with them through Classical sources as Aristotle’s own Historia Animalium, which served as a significant source for Gesner’s own volume.
The programmatic requirements of each animal were distilled into a set of variables which can be attributed to singular architectural values: plan, section, proportion, scale, circulation, sightlines, etc. and used to produce a dataset which drives the range of matricial variation within the project.
This is in a conscious effort to produce a degree of separation from known and familiar associations with the traditional habitats of each animal. Rather, they are treated as abstract entities in order to circumvent the tendency towards the familiar and uncritical reproductions of existing environments or precedents. Similarly, it allows for a certain suspension of disbelief in regards to non-real entities in Gesner’s volume.
As a result of the habitat analysis, clusters of similar programmatic requirements were discovered which allowed for an underlying structure to the matrix. These clusters began to organize around animal behaviors (re-affirming the behavioral model of zoological organization, one of 5 existing models): flying, basking, grazing, burrowing, etc.
These become organized within the matrix according to expedient adjacencies of resources: destructive animals (dragon, manticore) are isolated while others may serve as common resources (freshwater environments)
The dataset of habitat requirements are scripted into parametric digital tools and evolutionary learning algorithms which produce the entire planet in an act of automated design. The architectural surface of the planet is subjected to finite element analysis (structural analysis) and feasible portions are translated into full-scale physical prototypes. Material and scale are driven by habitat requirements: a 10'x10'x10' portion of the Aviary is constructed out of CNC milled translucent polypropylene in order to admit light while producing enclosure. The entire planet becomes a catalogue of potential architectural forms ranging from the real to the unreal, and allowing for a new elasticity between speculative and professional practice.