Notable Realities: Balancing from World to World

June 4, 2012

Essay by Michael Hirschbichler, principal of Atelier Hirschbichler, a Zurich based practice for architecture, urbanism, design and cultural studies.


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Philippe Petit, World Trade Center Walk. © 2002 by Jean-Louis Blondeau/GAMMA.

“Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.”
—Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking

“You must not fall. When you lose your balance, resist for a long time before turning yourself toward the earth. Then jump. You must not force yourself to stay steady. You must move forward.”
—Philippe Petit

In our constant endeavor to make sense of the world we live in, to structure it, to conserve and communicate certain of its aspects and most notably to restructure and change it, we depend on notations. Notations—understood in the widest sense as symbol systems, including texts, images, drawings, artifacts and various other forms of scientific and artistic expression—enable us to trace and note down aspects of reality and thus to maintain an active relationship with the world and to communicate about it. Notations are devices for establishing common ground among inconceivably complex and contradicting realities. The notation is the medium through which the world must pass in order to be analyzed or altered. The practice of architects and planners is characterized by a paradoxical separation from the works they produce. As a collective effort is usually necessary to turn concepts into physical realities, the notation is the only pathway between personal ideas and intentions and their objective and physical manifestation.

Reality’s abundance and constant elusion

The relationship between the world and the notation is in some ways similar to the relationship between the territory and the map. Whereas reality is characterized by an essential abundance, an irreducible complexity that surpasses every effort to capture it in its totality, the notation is constrained to an ontological status of substantial flatness. Its mode of existence is one of reduction and constraint. Only by confining itself to one or a few reality aspects can the notation fulfill its purpose as a tool to store, reflect on, communicate about and restructure those aspects with which it is engaged. A map, such as the one described by Borges,1 which tries to approach and finally merge with the territory in its scale and degree of complexity, is lured by the illusion of documentary omnipotence, loses its specific purpose and finally fades away. While on one hand an intentional reduction constitutes the notation’s usefulness, its limitations, on the other hand, reveal our inability or difficulty to analyze, track down and creatively engage with many aspects of the world. The development of observational and notational techniques can be read as a history of progress concerning our relationship with reality. This relationship is always unequal, as necessarily simple, comprehensible and commonly understandable filters have to be used to observe and notate an essentially abundant and elusive reality.


In order to produce a notation based on a reality subset of the world, processes of translation are necessary. Only through acts of reduction, fragmentation and selection, which a transfer into the form of signs, symbols, images and so on entails, can irreducible reality aspects be translated into the flat medium of the notation. The rather objective and coherent nature of the world in its totality can hereby not be maintained. In the translation process, facts enter a field of subjectivity and assume a vague state in which they are subject to a multitude of transformations and weightings based on the knowledge, perceptional experience and concepts of the notating individual. The translation process’ subjective, complex and vague nature can easily be made evident looking at two well-known notational translations of an everyday phenomenon–the sunset:

TRANSLATION 1: Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament, Sunset, 1903

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Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament. (Setting Sun), 1900-01, 81×92, W.1603, Private Collection, Japan, Detail. © Courtesy Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo.

TRANSLATION 2: Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, Sunset, 1955

At exactly a quarter to six the first phase began. The sun was already low, but had not yet touched the horizon. At the moment when it appeared beneath the cloud-structure, it seemed to break open like the yolk of an egg and its light spilled over the forms to which it was still attached. This burst of bright light was soon followed by a withdrawal; the sun’s surroundings lost all brilliance and in the empty space that marked off the topmost limit of the sea from the bottom of the cloud structure there could be seen a cordillera of vapours, which had but lately been so dazzling as to be indecipherable and was now darkened and sharp-pointed. At the same time it began to belly out, where originally it had been quite flat. These small objects, black and solid, moved to and fro, lazy-bodied migrants, across a large patch of reddening sky which marked the beginning of the colour-phase and was slowly mounting upwards from the horizon. […] Network after network of fine vapours rose high in the sky; they seemed to stretch in all directions horizontal, oblique, perpendicular, even spiral. As the sun’s rays went down (like a bow that must be tilted this way or that, according to which string we seek to use), they caught one after another of these and sent them flying in a gamut of colour which one would have thought to be the exclusive and arbitrary property of each one in turn. […] When the sun’s disc cut down into the western horizon we suddenly saw, very high up in the east, clouds acid-mauve in tonality which had hitherto been invisible. […] After a few seconds nothing remained but the cleaned slate of the sky above the nebulous cloud-rampart. And this rampart was turning to white and grey while the rest of the sky went rose-pink. (p. 70-71)

Claude Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Sunset is a painting belonging to a series of paintings of the Palace of Westminster under different weather and lighting conditions. It is an example of Monet’s artistic investigation into the ever-changing nature of the sun and the atmosphere and their color effects on objects and sceneries with the means of paint on canvas. Claude Levi-Strauss’ written account of a sunset, emerging from an observation he made on deck a Brazil-bound ship in 1934, does not so much follow a specific purpose as it is a study of the ability of language to describe and capture rather banal and commonly visible, but at the same time highly complex and dynamic, phenomena. It is, so to speak, a test and an exercise of Strauss’ notational skills before carrying out his ethnological studies in Brazil, the success of which heavily depends upon his descriptive power.2 Both notations—pictorial and verbal—result from the translation of a similar event that, although happening thirty-one years apart and at different locations, basically follow the same rules. It is evident that an “accurate” translation of a sunset is impossible. Whereas Levi-Strauss evokes the procession of different visual states caused by the setting sun—the succession of which is foregrounded—in a highly metaphoric and figurative language, Monet concentrates on a single moment or a short period of time that is condensed by the artist into a single frame. The sunset itself is not Monet’s subject, but its influence on the observed scenery and its delicate coloring. Time is absent from Monet’s painting; dynamic processes are frozen in paint in order to halt their inexorable evanescence.

Apart from the mastery permeating both translations, their subjective assumptions based on individual perceptions and the conscious choices of medium, focus, frame of representation and reference to emotional contents highly determine the resulting notation. Although they can be viewed and read objectively and thus exist independently from their creators, their “correctness” depends on their individual translation. Notations are neither true nor false and, to a certain extent, neither totally correct nor totally incorrect. They are moreover sedimentations of unique and complex translation procedures, which might start from the same reality, but in the endeavor of tracking it down, conserving, describing and communicating it, diligently and unwittingly alter and multiply it in its representations.

Notations realities – Between existing and resulting worlds

Worldmaking as set forth by Nelson Goodman3 is, on one hand, a cognitive act concerned with the understanding of the world, which in a constructivist approach involves interpretations and projections. On the other hand, worldmaking in the realm of corporeal reality consists of acts aimed at the physical transformation of certain aspects of reality, such as architectural constructions. Not strictly following Goodman’s relativism, but accepting worldmaking as a basic and undeniable engagement with reality, it is important to emphasize that worldmaking is carried out by constructing notations (symbol systems), which either frame different views on the world they relate to or serve as blueprints for its physical alteration.

The notation assumes an interim position between the world it is created from through translation processes and the world (or perception of the world) it is implying. Situated between an existing world that we know or are eager to understand and a resulting world which we might come to discover, the notation can be ascribed to a symbolic world—one that unfolds on the basis of signs, pictures et cetera but exists in the imaginary and cognitive realm as reductions and elaborations of reality aspects. In order to function as a filter through which reality can be viewed, scientifically and artistically categorized, structured, controlled and intentionally altered, and in order to establish a platform for critical reflection and potential prospects, it has to maintain a distance to the physical world.

This distance is created by notational gaps, which consist of subjective and individual processes of translation, which determine the notational output, however, not necessarily in a traceable and explicit way. Fields of obscurity and subjectivity separate the notation from the objective realities to which it relates. Knowledge, understanding, common experience, habits and conventions serve as guidelines for the construction of notations (coding) and their reading and interpretation (decoding). Hence, notational gaps are not purely subjective (in this case a notation could never be understood by anybody). Their detachment from the physical realm assigns to notations an inchoate existence, a vaguely determined state.

This vagueness, although impeding totally correct descriptions, is one of the notation’s cardinal virtues and strengths. It allows for playing out potential forms of being of specific reality aspects as well as different perspectives on them. Thus, notations are granted a speculative quality enabling them to research, on the basis of isolated aspects, what could be and what should be. Hereby potential worlds can be mapped out, their consequences explored and references to the existing world drawn.

There is no one-to-one relation between a reality aspect and its notation. As the notation is detached from the world by rather obscure and subjective gaps, reality aspects can be multiplied and modified by noting them down. One reality aspect can be the starting point for a multitude of notation realities, which play out its complexity and potential forms of being in an array of notational reductions, i.e. one sunset observed at a specific location by various observers can lead to different and even contradicting notation realities, which through different forms of observation and translation reach different conclusions on the same phenomenon.

A notation can never refer to the world as a whole, therefore fragmentation and selection precede any translation process. A very conscious choice as to the limited scope of the reality excerpt to be notated has to be made.

As has already been said, the notation is ontologically flat, meaning its whole purpose and usefulness depend on the reduction of the world’s essential richness, on the simplification of complexity and on the focus on a very limited reality excerpt, both quantitatively and qualitatively. If the necessary fragmentation and reduction procedure is omitted—as in the case of the map described by Borges—the result will be uncontrollable and useless. Whereas the enlargement of the notation’s scope is a central criterion for descriptive and projective progress, a transgression of certain exigencies of reduction and abstraction will disqualify the output.

In contrast to the hardly traceable and highly individual cognitive processes that were necessary in the process of its creation, the notation as opposed to pure thought and reflection lays an understandable and debatable common ground. The notation reality, although it is mainly non-physical, offers the possibility for objectification. It is an explicit and commonly visible, yet not always commonly understandable, reality.

Due to the fact of its objectification, the notation enables communication and is, furthermore, the only basis for sustainable communication, which can be temporally extended and include a large number of participants.

Balancing from world to world

Every translation of an aspect of the world into a medium of storage or reflection and every attempt at deciphering that translation require intricate acts of balance. In the dynamic and complex transition from an existing world (or perception of the world) to a resulting world (or perception of the world), which is achieved by the succession of a number of steps—fragmentations, abstractions, reductions, choices based on translational conventions and habits as well as individual decisions—the notation offers a stable and objectifiable stepping stone. Notations are not direct and neutral representations of the world, but results of and in turn starting points for intricate acts of balance that link different states of reality and our knowledge thereof as well as our capability to act creatively and purposefully within the framework of a changing and highly complex reality. Like on the high-wire, the rule is: “You must not force yourself to stay steady. You must move forward.” In our ongoing struggle to explore, categorize, observe and plan the world, constructing, deciphering and communicating notation over notation, this is exactly what we do.

1 “… In that empire, the art of cartography attained such perfection that the map of a single
province occupied the entirety of a city, and the map of the empire, the entirety of a province. In time, those unconscionable maps no longer satisfied, and the cartographers’ guilds struck a map of the empire whose size was that of the empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following generations, who were not so fond of the study of cartography as their forebears had been, saw that that vast map was useless, and not without some pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the inclemencies of sun and winters. In the deserts of the west, still today, there are tattered ruins of that map, inhabited by animals and beggars; in all the land there is no other relic of the disciplines of geography.” Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658 ; Jorge Luis Borges, “On exactitude in science,” in Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 325.
2 “I felt that if I could find the right words to describe these ever-changing phenomena, if I could communicate to others the character of an event which was never twice the same, then I should have penetrated or so I felt to the inmost secrets of my profession.” Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John Russell (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1961), 66.
3 Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, (Indianapolis : Hackett Publishing Company, 1978).