Sounding Lines

December 7, 2015

Essay by Andrew Ruff.


The history of cartography may be understood as a between the known and the unknown; in cartographic terms, between the terra cognita and the terra incognita. The role of the cartographer is to record particular moments of that endless negotiation, inscribing a subjective—and likely fleeting—perception of territory onto the smooth surface of the map. As historical objects, maps present recordings of a translation from wilderness to territory, a translation of spatial knowledge into a stable artifact.

Once land has been found, surveyed, charted, and inhabited, its originally mysterious topographies are ultimately tamed by abstract lines that mark borders, districts, cities, and nations. These artificial armatures transform the character of telluric landscape; the periphery of the map ossifies as once-wild lands succumb to the theodolite and the sextant. In contrast, oceans retain their dynamic nature despite attempts to chart their constantly changing, liquid surfaces. The ephemeral disposition of the sea presented a challenge to traditional cartographic techniques that sought to present stable, permanent images of space rather than accepting the possibility of more fluid geographies.

Unlike terrestrial landscapes, whose vast expanses can be immediately grasped through vision, the sea demands a more tactile engagement with its elusive territories, an engagement that transcends the planimetric terrestrial surface and embraces the sectional condition of its liquid volume. The sounding line, cast into uncharted waters, is a spatial instrument that physically mediates between the hands of the surveyor and the depths of the sea. A constructed line marked with the dimensions of the human body, the sounding creates a connection between an invisible, undersea topography and a position on the map determined through readings of the night sky. The sounding does not merely sink beneath the waves, but marks a solitary point in space, a singular volumetric reading in the text of the hidden unknown. As the ephemeral seam between two worlds, the sounding line both reveals the unknown and creates new knowledge. The sounding is a record of discovery, an instrument of exploration, and an armature for creation.

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Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio, “Mesure du fond avec la sonde sur une frigate,” in La Marine: arsenaux, navires, équipages, navigation, atterages, combats, Eugène Pacini, 1844.

An ancient technology mediating between the ship and the sea, the sounding has plumbed the depths of the oceans ever since sailors began to venture beyond the security of shore and into the open sea.1 As maritime trade developed across increasingly large bodies of water, sailors could no longer rely on familiar knowledge of harbors nor constant visual contact with the coastline. When approaching new ports from the sea, sailors often sounded the depths to determine whether their ship would run aground against the seabed’s hidden topography. The line itself was marked with a coded system of colored fabric, and as the leaded weight sunk beneath the waves the maritime surveyor would record the maximum depth in the ship’s log.2 These fathom marks dotting the waters surrounding ports created an informal knowledge system—a rhizomatic network of depths aggregated around heavily trafficked harbors—that traced the invisible trajectories of ships across the constantly changing surface of the sea. Despite the rudimentary nature of its cartographic technology and the complex performance required to ascertain the ocean’s depths, this technique allowed early maritime merchants and explorers to enter into uncharted waters with a fleeting, yet critical knowledge of the unseen bathymetry beneath the waves.

Unlike the trigonometric survey, which projected sight lines into uncharted territory as it traced a future trajectory across the landscape, the sounding operated as an archaeology of the unknown, a tedious, blind excavation of space beneath the ship. These projective castings not only revealed the depth of the sea, but the geological condition of the seabed itself. As each sounding returned to the surface, it carried a minuscule core sample of the ocean floor: grains of soil, shells, and sand which adhered to the tallow footing of the sounding weight.3 Through this multiplication of cartographic information, the sounding was able to serve as an effective instrument of embodied spatial knowledge: as the official hydrographer to the British Navy once proclaimed: “navigating is not by chart and compass, but by the sounding lead!”4

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Matthew Fontaine Maury, Brooke’s Deep-Sea Sounding Apparatus, 1858, Physical Geography of the Sea (New York: Harper & Brothers,1858), 250.

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Thomson, Sir C. Wyville and John Murray, Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Challenger During the Years 1873-76, vol. I (London: H.M.S.O. 1885), 60.

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Thomson, Sir C. Wyville and John Murray, Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Challenger During the Years 1873-76, vol. I (London: H.M.S.O. 1885), 60.

There is a certain power in embracing the unknown. Just as the sailor and the cartographer constructed images of hidden worlds through weighted lines and vertical sections, the architect, poet, and educator John Hejduk sought to construct worlds through lines of text and assemblages of images. He proposed that architecture and cartography share a similar relationship to terra incognita: they both inhabit the concealed spaces between the world we know and the possible worlds which lie ahead. His 1993 publication Soundings adopted cartographic metaphors to create a tapestry of texts and images enraptured in his imagination. Like the cartographers who mapped the constantly shifting surface of the ocean, Hejduk’s work emerged from the fluid spaces between fiction and reality, territories of the imagination ripe for exploration.

Hejduk, along with his editor Kim Shkapich, presented his figural speculations in stark pen and ink sketches that were accompanied with poetic musings printed in sans-serif font. Exploring this dialectic between image and text was one of Hejduk’s critical projects. Bound within Soundings’ heavy, white cover were 73 architectural projects grouped into seven chapters. Mimicking the size and weight of earlier cartographic tomes, Hejduk’s work formed an atlas of architectural speculations exploring formal possibilities at the periphery of contemporary spatial practices. In each project, Hejduk articulated his architectural position through intertwined pen-drawn lines and carefully composed text. These two lines- the quick, overlaid, and night-black lines of his sketches and the carefully composed, minimal lines of his poetry and notes- constituted the entirety of his architectural syntax.5 Hejduk did not make any grand claims about his work; he did not step outside of the text to introduce it nor did he attempt to contextualize it. The work was presented as a newly discovered World: 400 pages of fictions, fabulations, and figurations directly from Hejduk’s episodic flânerie through the unknown.

It is only appropriate, then, that the title of this work speaks to the exploratory nature of the projects: architectural figures wandering beyond the cartographic edges of the known world and into the uncharted lands of Hejduk’s dreams. Seen in its entirety, Hejduk’s work rejected permanence in favor of more nomadic explorations. His “soundings” were projective measurements—both calibration and fabrication—translating the horizontal span of terra incognita into inscriptions of unseen vertical depths.

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John Hejduk, Soundings: Tomb for Space Shape/Form Light: two perspective views, 1991, ink on paper, mounted on paper, 28 × 21.6 cm. DR1998:0129:067:002, John Hejduk fonds, Collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal.

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John Hejduk, Soundings: Tomb for Space Shape/Form Light: perspective view and plan, 1991, ink on paper, 21.6 × 28 cm. DR1998:0129:067:005, John Hejduk fonds, Collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal.

In Soundings, Hejduk’s vivid drawings and poetry were introduced by a rigidly set Table of Contents, portraying his work as a precise collection of unique figurative specimens. Unlike an entomological exhibit, though, Hejduk’s work cannot be pinned to the page; each project reverberated with the rest of the volume, forms disappearing only to reappear unexpectedly in projects separated by time, space, scale, and program. In the first chapter, he folds a single line into a set of Platonic solids, comprising “The Architect’s Balance”: a pyramid, cube, sphere, and cross arranged in a series of aggregated compositions, recalling Le Corbusier’s abstracted and idealized sketches of Rome.6 These Platonic forms later reappeared in projects strewn throughout the volume, in “Home of the Architect,” “Museum for Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse and Giacometti,” “Rooms of/for Justice,” and “Tomb.” Each project created successive evolutions and variations on the original, idealized composition: collectively, these iterations established a syntactical, reciprocal dialogue amongst projects of divergent intentions and histories. This aggregate of figurations existed in a state of continuous in-between; they were not bounded by section titles and page numbers, or by the traditional considerations which delineate architectural typologies, but threaded throughout the book, tracing complex networks and new constellations.

In Soundings, the line is the main instrument through which Hejduk crafted personal fictions and founded imagined worlds. The line was both the armature of discovery and the medium of representation, a product of geometry which produced the universe anew. Expanding the formal implications of Carlo Levi’s axiom that the origin and the terminus of a single line were determined by two one-dimensional points, poet Jorge Luis Borges wrote that the line was “made up of an infinite number of points; the plane of an infinite number of lines; the volume of an infinite number of planes; the hypervolume of an infinite number of volumes.”7 In this way, Borges suggested how the solitary, single line was interwoven into the fabric of the universe; how the line was an Ariadnian thread connecting us all. Hejduk’s architectural line did not find easy rest between the pages of the book, nor did it remain fixed between the poles of beginning and end. Just as Borges’ line emerged from the plane to construct new worlds, so did Hejduk’s work wander from the paper, flickering with memories of distant pasts and projections of as—yet—unrealized futures.

Although the sounding line provided a theoretical structure to Hejduk’s work, his architectural creations did not ascribe to a linear teleology. Rather than presenting his work as a clear narrative, Hejduk and Shkapich structured Soundings as an experiment in constructing multiple, ambiguous readings. Just as the cube, pyramid, and sphere of “The Architect’s Balance” existed in a continual state of reemergence throughout Soundings, other distinct figures and formal operations echoed in the chambers of this volume. The spiral held within the boundary of “Victims,” bears a striking resemblance for Le Corbusier’s recurring model for a Museum of Unlimited Growth.8 Hejduk also incorporated the spiral into the sketches for “Sanctuary,” in the plan of the “Museum for Words,” in the figuration of “The Three Serpents,” and in the hierarchical, Dantesque diagram for “Cemetery.” Another formal archetype in “Cemetery,” the spoked wheel, emerged as the primary organizational diagram for both “The Architect’s Wheel,” and “Eight Night Chapels.” This slippage of formal tropes between projects forced a positional reckoning with Hejduk’s conception of the line. Was the line created once, as both a unique performance and object which cannot be repeated? Or was the line an armature which vacillates between many spaces and times simultaneously, following the reader’s eyes from chapter to chapter, page to page? To frame this binary within the language of the map, did Hejduk repetitiously cast a sounding line, slowly charting the unknown through linear strokes? Or was he simultaneously casting an infinite number of soundings at once? Perhaps a means to approach this fundamental question is to consider Hejduk’s work not as a series of discrete architectural projects, but as an architectural text.

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John Hejduk, Soundings: Rooms of/for Justice: perspective view,
1991, ink on paper, 21.6 × 28 cm. DR1998:0129:027:003, John Hejduk fonds, Collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal.

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John Hejduk, Soundings: the Architect’s Balance: a sacred support: tangent, point,touch, 1991, ink and colored pencil on paper, 21.6 × 28 cm. DR1998:0129:005:001, John Hejduk fonds, Collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal.

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John Hejduk, Soundings: Museum for Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse and Giacometti: perspective view, 1991, ink on paper, 28 × 21,6 cm. DR1998:0129:019:005, John Hejduk fonds, Collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal.

As the only writing which did not find itself directly associated with an architectural project, Hejduk’s introduction framed his work in a larger theoretical perspective: “If one gyrates, rotates ellipses with sufficient energies they become a straight line moving from space to space, from time to time. The original curvature is unseen but nonetheless felt.”9 Hejduk considered his work as a series of successive figurations, explorations of the line’s potential to migrate and deform, to become simultaneously ephemeral and generative. The geometrical principles underlying Hejduk’s introduction, that the transformation of a curved enclosed into a linear element through stress and force would not entirely remove the genomic identity of its original form, found themselves reminiscent of Nicholas of Cusa’s own mathematical theorems postulated in his theological text De Docta Ignorantia.10 Cusanus wrote that while the straight line is simply a section of the infinite line, the curved line relates to the infinite through “mediate and remote participation.”11

The mediating line offers a potential insight into the relationship between the formal limitations of the signs, symbols, and emblems in Soundings and the infinite concepts which they address: death and preservation, religion and myth, heaven and hell. For Hejduk and Cusanus, the curvature of the line revealed a latent desire to enclose and delineate between interior and exterior, to define finite territories from infinite space. These territorial boundaries became the means by which the finite communicates with the infinite, a malleable and permeable threshold between worlds. In this reading of Soundings, the sketched plans, elevations, and axonometric projections scattered throughout the volume do not present themselves as isolated symbols or discriminate members of an alphabet yet to be deciphered. Instead, the author Wim van den Bergh described these figures as “runes: the signs, so it seems, of a geometric language, a language about space and time,” a language which has been lost to modern man and was never meant to be recovered.12 Hejduk’s narrative for the consular official in “Berlin Nights” illuminated how he created a figural architectural language which could simultaneously speak to and create the cosmos:

[The Consular Official] thinks about the reality of still/frame images. Things are flattened out for image/thought transferences and transmissions. The three-dimensional world is fabricated in order to be two-dimensionally transferred into an image where its maximum potency is still/stopped. And its most intensive energy is reflected into nature morte, still life.13

Hejduk’s commune with the infinite could not be translated into symbolic communication, but was replicated in a potent, empathetic act of representation. The inaccessible opacity between the finite and the infinite was rendered in the flatness of Hejduk’s architectural figures. Their homogeneously rendered facades implored the reader not to inhabit the forms, but to join the images in their inhabitation of the space of the book. In this text of indecipherable signs, the infinite could not be possessed through knowing all the emblems; only by becoming “an emblem among emblems” could one hope to enter Hejduk’s invented universe.14

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John Hejduk, Soundings: The Architect’s Wheel: perspective view, 1991, ink on paper, 28 × 21.6 cm. DR1998:0129:004:002, John Hejduk fonds, Collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal.

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John Hejduk, Soundings: The Architect’s Wheel: perspective view, 1991, ink on paper, 28 × 21.6 cm. DR1998:0129:004:001, John Hejduk fonds, Collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal.

In its sheer density and intensely personal nature, Soundings does not easily lend itself to analysis. Despite the iconographic symbols which illustrate the projects, there was no clear internal language to be translated, no objective truth to be extracted from the pages, no code to be deciphered. As van den Bergh wrote in the preface to the book, “Hejduk’s work ridicules this objective view, as there is no absolute meaning in it, no objective outside.”15 If Soundings lacked an outside, then perhaps the entire volume was constructed as an exposed interiority, an architecture which had been meticulously unfolded to reveal something of the hidden terra incognita. The notion that Hejduk’s work emerged from a source of discovery may explain van den Bergh’s consideration of Hejduk’s work as “a kind of many-folded space, a labyrinth, or a maze.16 Soundings does not have an objective outside, only an exposed interiority. Understood in this sense, Hejduk’s architectural atlas, with its opaque figurations and mysterious writings, was stimulated through intentional interactions with its exterior: shelters for his architectural wanderings to condense, to nucleate new spatial possibilities from within the corpus of his first line.

Mediating between the interiority of John Hejduk’s architectural subject and the objective infinite, the book serves as both the cipher and the fabric of the universe. The necessity for bridging between the universal and the singular was reflected in Hejduk’s architectural project, and the tenuous path between the finite and the infinite found its means of articulation in the line.17 While Hejduk devoted the first page of Soundings to exploring the possibility of compressing the world into a straight line, the final page of the book revealed an alternate reality: a line which became a world.18 Positioned horizontally across the stark white paper, a single, black line was struck across the middle of the otherwise empty portrait. No longer did the sounding stretch towards the depths of the unknown; instead, Hejduk constructed an artificial horizon, a line adrift in a sea of white, a thin filament momentarily holding the center. Rotated from its vertical orientation, the sounding line became unanchored, tenuous, loosened from space and time. This austere mark concluded the encompassing worlds of Hejduk’s volume, a fitting end to his cantos of symbols and emblems. Unlike the nautical soundings which were the namesake of his text, Hejduk’s projections into the unknown did not strike a hidden surface beneath the black water. His soundings informed an architecture which extended to infinity, never reaching an edge, following the endless curvature of the universe.

1 The Navel Chronicle: Containing a General and Biographical History of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom with a Variety of Original Papers on Nautical Subjects, Volume II (London: Bumney & Gold, 1799), 180-181.
2 Ibid., 364.
3 Francis Lieber, ed, Encyclopaedia Americana: A Popular Dictionary of Arts (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1849), 496.
4 As quoted in Clifford Conner’s A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and “Low Mechanicks” (New York: Nation Books, 2005), 236.
5 The architect Andrew Macnair grouped John Hejduk, Raimund Abraham, and Lebbeus Woods together as “the Blacks.” Herbert Muschamp, “John Hejduk, an Architect and Educator, Dies at 71,” New York Times, published July 6, 2000,
6 John Hejduk, Soundings, ed. Kim Shkapich (New York: Rizzoli, 1993), 32-35. See Figure 02.
7 Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1979), 87.
8 Deborah Gans, The Le Corbusier Guide (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006), 213.
9 Hejduk, Soundings, 17.
10 Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance, trans. Jasper Hopkin (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 1990), 7., “A finite straight line, insofar as it is straight (minimal curvature is a reduction to that which is straight) participates in the infinite line according to a more simple participation, and a curve [participates in the infinite line] not [according to] a simple and immediate participation but rather [according to] a mediate and remote participation; for [it participates] through the medium of the straightness in which it participates.”
11 Cusanus is a shortened reference for Nicholas of Cusa.
12 Wim van den Bergh, “Seven Memos on the Geometry of Pain,” Soundings, 19.
13 Hejduk, Soundings, 160.
14 Ibid., 22-23.
15 van den Bergh, “Seven Memos on the Geometry of Pain,” 23.
16 Ibid., 22.
17 Ibid., 12.
18 Hejduk, Soundings, 399.