In many ways, the design disciplines that deal with the built environment (architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design) can be described as instruments for materializing sociocultural forces into physical spaces. Like a long dinner table with its head occupied by the head of the family, the food giver, most designed products are embedded with sociocultural hierarchies. Design variables such as programs, surface areas, seasonal adaptations, or spatial adjacencies, just to name a few, are all devices through which designers assess their ability in the translation of forces into spaces. Physical spaces, in return, help shape and change traditions, rituals, and habits. Undoubtedly, most designers (architects, landscape architects, and urban designers) aspire to master this feedback loop.
Although this feedback loop between sociocultural forces and physical spaces is necessary, in many situations it can become an overpowering and inescapable condition that leaves no room for the emergence of unimagined possibilities. As a product of rational discourses, this feedback loop is constantly optimized through technical means, constantly fine tuned to current cultural meanings, constantly reassessed in its political repercussions, constantly reevaluated for its aesthetic implications, and constantly questioned for its ecological impact.
However, it is possible to prevent sociocultural structures from becoming embedded within the designed products. This liberating slippage can occur with different degrees of severity, with complete homogenization (neutrality via repetition) and full foreignness (absurdity via surrealism) as the two most extreme cases. Most of the time this disconnection is only seen as fun and temporary. Any permanent disconnection between sociocultural forces and spatial organizations is usually seen as an error. Or even worse, it gets labeled as a utopian condition.
Utopias are always proposals that escape the feedback loop between culture and space. As such, utopias exist in the gaps between sociocultural forces and physical spaces. They present a different kind of bridge between both realms that is not regulated by the standard discourses of the design disciplines that deal with the built environment.
Since these design disciplines are arguably bound by social contracts, differentiation (of spaces, circulations, materials, ecologies, etc.) is a basic design strategy in the translation of forces into spaces. Consequently, one possible utopian design strategy would be to pursue spatial homogenization, achieving neutrality by repeating every single one of the built provisions. For example, by repeating singular elements, these lose their uniqueness as they suddenly become (just) one more element within a field; by repeating symmetries, hierarchical orders are neutralized into multiple axes, and so on. These spaces, structured as repetitive and undifferentiated spatial fabrics with no customary social structures embedded within them, are more possible than impossible, more real than ideal. As an alternative to designed products derived through the use of the feedback loop between culture and space, these fields of repeated and undifferentiated elements present a different reality, ready for the emergence of unimagined possibilities.
In this article I expose and briefly describe twelve spatial ideas that can be found in fields constituted by repeated and undifferentiated elements. Each of these twelve spatial ideas is accompanied by an image of different projects developed by my own design practice, Holes of Matter, which explores the gaps existing in the relationships between social structures and spatial organizations.
“…we therefore call Neutral the field of nonparadigmatic intensities (those introducing a trick into the paradigm), and in consequence we ask that the Neutral not be conceived, connoted as a flattening of intensities but to the contrary as a bubbling up émoustillement (champagne foam).”1 Roland Barthes’ definition suggests a kind of unneutral neutrality. Neutral spaces are usually criticized as accidental and unfortunate by-products of design proposals lacking a committed political position. In order to intentionally design them, however, a designer requires a deep disciplinary knowledge as well as a decisive attitude toward achieving this spatial condition. The result can be a neutral space but the means to achieve it are not; in other words, the design process is engaged in an unneutral neutrality.
During the winter of 2010-11, Olmsted’s Blank Snow was a temporary winter landscape located in the parking lot of Front Park, one of the six Olmsted Parks in Buffalo, New York. With the ambition of transforming this parking lot into a winter garden, we implemented a snow plowing plan that located eleven snow mounds generated from daily plowing in positions different from the regular ones. The resulting landscape was defined by a repetitive and homogenous pattern of mounds that was significantly different from the typical continuous mound that would surround the parking lot along its outside edge. The snow plowing patterns devised for the implementation of this project could then be considered as the trick we introduced into the paradigm that allowed us to devise a new type of spatial intensity, one bubbling up into a neutral field.
As an organizational and compositional tool, symmetry is a geometric operation that can be used to produce singular events within a structure (a distribution axis or a point of access, for example). As such, symmetry operations are regularly used to define hierarchy within organizations. But, what would happen if we were to repeat multiple symmetry operations to the extent that their results are no longer singular? The American minimalist artist, Carl Andre, defined anaxial symmetry as “a kind of symmetry in which any one part can replace any other part.”2 As such, anaxial symmetries can be used to produce homogenous fields.
The interiors of factories, warehouses, and storage facilities demonstrate intense spatial qualities due to the virtual horizon line produced by the protective extra coat of paint located in the lower half of the columns and reaching up to a person’s eye-level. This accidental datum, unique to this type of building when it is completely empty, makes the visitor feel as if in an interior desert. Scenes in a Concrete Deserta explores the manipulation of this interior space by transforming the virtual horizon line into a series of homogeneously distributed virtual volumes repeated through multiple (anaxial) symmetry operations.
In the design of nondirectional spaces—a desired spatial condition for the production of a field—it is necessary to avoid any predominant and permanent directionalities emerging from the repetition of individual elements. For this reason, it is ideal that the individual elements to be repeated do not display a fixed alignment.
We cannot see the wind; we can only see its effects. Due to its invisible and evasive nature, wind is a natural element that tinges what it touches with a luster of poetry. Colors of the Wind is a playful and weightless landscape that capitalizes on this condition and attempts to visualize wind by allowing it to simultaneously spin and swivel a proposed field of mini turbines. By emphasizing this natural occurrence, this project, a proposal to the competition organized by the Land Art Generator Initiative in 2012, would contribute to defining Fresh Kills as a place to experience and see the wind as it becomes “colored” by a field of turbines.
As The Charged Void shows, the Smithsons were longtime interrogators of empty but charged architecture.3 Peter Smithson expressed the idea of enabling in a clear manner: “In a way, what I am explaining is like a children’s party. The mother organizes certain possibilities for play, but whether the party goes well or not depends on the invention of the children. The mother is designing a framework.”4 In this manner, the spaces’ emptiness also acts as a mirror revealing the nature of the individuals whose desires are enabled.
Imprecise Infrastructure is a competition proposal for a technology media lab and library for SIDAREC, a not-for-profit organization in Mukuru Kwa Njenga—a slum settlement of Nairobi, Kenya. Slums show a poignant sense of fragility and adaptability that has inspired this design. We envision this center as an infrastructure for the slum’s artistic, cultural, and functional expression: rooms are defined by a concentric system of blank fences that users can appropriate as they see fit. The fences can be covered to define areas to privacy; they can be used to hang artwork produced by SIDAREC’s members; notices and advertisements can be clipped onto the fences in order to establish a fluid communication amongst the members of the community. The proposed system of walls, which is homogeneously repeated to define every single space of the building, is designed with multiple tolerances in an attempt to overcome potential problems such as the lack of specific building materials or specialized labor. Furthermore, this system of layers would also enable SIDAREC to build their building in phases as materials, funding, or time become available. The resulting building is delicate yet with a strong character and exhibits an image that is aligned with the mission of SIDAREC.
“What is ‘the architectural’ in an edifice? We can begin to answer this question by noting that, strictly speaking, architects design frames.”5 Bernard Cache’s description in Earth Moves: The Furnishing of Territories has the summarizing power of a maxim. Deriving his ideas from Eugène Dupréel’s notion of the frame of probability—as an interval that separates causes from their effects—Cache further elaborates proposing architecture as “the art of introducing intervals in a territory in order to construct frames of probability.”6 That is, architects design frames that cannot be considered the direct cause of the events that happen within them. Consequently, and following this reasoning, it could be argued that flexibility is not a temporary architectural quality but rather a sine qua non condition for the existence of architecture.
Painted Topography is an installation located in the ground floor of the derelict American Flour Warehouse in Silo City, Buffalo. In this project, the existing structural frames are visually reconfigured by means of a repetitive painted topography. The resulting interior landscape is a form of newly “renovated” industrial space that is available to be occupied by different types of events. These events may or may not react to the spatial conditions newly defined by the wavy painted topography.
Physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s dictum “black holes have no hair”7 implies that besides the information derived from three basic parameters (mass, electric charge, and angular momentum) no other information about the matter that formed a black hole alters its external image. In other words, the content of a black hole remains invisible to an external observer; and, reversely, the image of a black hole remains constant regardless of the black hole’s contents. Similarly, it could be argued that spaces defined by structural repetition have no hair either. Despite a generalized criticism against this design approach, these spaces show a strong resilient image, as they always look the same regardless of their permanent or temporary occupancy.
In cold cities, running and exercising outdoors during the winter months can be an arduous task: ice, snow, and low temperatures make it difficult to freely roam throughout the city. Blue Rainbow is a proposal for a new type of indoor/outdoor landscape. This project proposes transforming abandoned parking structures into playscapes for year-round use by placing color bands of a synthetic track-like layer over the existing concrete surface. With its tints of color, the Blue Rainbow emphasizes the repetitiveness of these parking structures while infusing them with a new spatial intensity, all without altering the parking structure’s exterior image.
True spatial homogeneity is difficult to achieve as singular elements (a column, a drain, or a main door, for example) tend to disrupt the spatial continuum, creating singularities (structural, functional, environmental, and of other kinds) throughout the space. One design technique for making them lose their singleness is to multiply and evenly distribute them throughout the space. The result will be a homogeneous field of (originally singular) repeated elements. Many of the projects developed by Archizoom Associati—in particular No-Stop City—are good examples of this homogenizing technique as wiggly walls, bathrooms, and closets are homogeneously repeated and distributed through the structural field. The neutral qualities of the resulting field become immediately apparent since the lack of any singular elements eliminate any sense of hierarchy within the space.
Umbrellaland is a design research project on tensegrity-like structures developed during a residency at The MacDowell Colony. A tensegrity is a structural model that finds its equilibrium on a homogeneous distribution of members and cables that are strictly working in compression or tension. Conceptually speaking, a tensegrity is a three dimensional structural field. In this regard, this project uses tensegrity-like structures to establish continuous spatial fields, ready to accept and encourage a wide array of social, cultural, and programmatic diversity.
When the snow covers the ground, people realize they can move around as they see fit and notices like “Keep off the grass” or “Stay on path” suddenly become useless and irrelevant. The snow, as a relentlessly repetitive condition, renders instructions obsolete by homogenizing different land covers and erases the episodic memory of a place by covering up traces of past events. This temporary amnesia provoked by the blanketing snow opens up possibilities for new and unexpected appropriations.
Urban Shade Field is a competition proposal for an outdoor shaded patio. The proposed open-air shading structure will contribute to the new emerging identity of Detroit’s “Avenue of Fashion” while defining a flexible outdoor space capable of offering multiple programmatic possibilities. This structure is composed of nine repeated modules—each one measuring approximately 11 x 11 x 11 feet—and will be placed in the center of an abandoned lot measuring 40 x 80 feet. As a new fresh layer of snow, this project attempts to blanket the space, offering new possibilities for its occupation.
Places in Limbo
Besides being the title of one of their books, “areas of impunity” is an expression used by architects Iñaki Abalos and Juan Herreros to describe their work.8 Areas of impunity are:
Those sites in which the practices of a new civil society coalesce. . . . Areas of impunity are opportunities for developing programs free of restrictions and hierarchies, centers or rhetorical figures; they are opportunities and programs (to be invented, for the most part) in which the modes and practices of the new social subject can be developed… They operate neither through reform nor criticism: they coalesce through the varied use of contemporary techniques, in contexts and with a physicality different from traditional ones. They seek to isolate the system of social regulation prevailing today, which produces the new subject and his practices, fields that are free from domination, new political spaces selected from the hybridization of culture, production, and leisure.9
Repetition provides a valid means for establishing a strong spatial identity without relying on sociocultural forces. Unplanned and spontaneous events taking place in these neutral spaces, however, do not define a permanent narrative. And without fixed and permanent narratives, these neutral spaces tend to be located outside of space and time: they are in limbo. Due to their limbo status, these neutral spaces could be taken over by different forms of authority, potentially transforming them into spaces of domination. However, if they were to be protected, that is, if their limbo status was to be protected, these spaces could be perceived as refuges from sociocultural norms, allowing occupants to imagine new unexpected possibilities or to invent hybrids from the already existing ones.
A certain amount of randomness within a stream of multiple repetitions is all that might be required to design. For example, π, e, and √2 are all irrational numbers and consequently, their decimal representation never ends and never settles into a permanent repeating pattern. Although no proof of this has yet been discovered, it seems that these numeric constants also appear to be absolutely normal numbers—that is, numbers that are normal to every base and whose digits appear to be randomly distributed. If this were the case, every possible combination of numbers would exist somewhere within each of these numeric constants. That is, all the information of the universe, both true and false, both past and future, could be contained within them. In summary, random decisions might be all a designer needs as long as the field of repeated elements is large enough to accept a certain amount of them.
Hypostyle Garden is a proposal to rethink the traditionally horizontal flower garden as a forest of flowers. As a renewal of this garden, this project presents flowers arranged in vertical piers, constructed out of steel funnels—oil, chemical, and rust resistant—regularly used in the automotive industry and placed in a seemingly random manner with open spaces between them. The selected flowers (Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Blanketflower, Dotted Mint, and White Asper) are all local wildflowers with vivid colors and smells that attract butterflies. Since they all have similar growing needs—full sun and sand-based soil—this would be an easy to grow and maintain garden.
The design of a spatial field is an allegation against “Bigness.”10 As a singularity within the urban fabric, “Bigness” promotes formal intensity through its sheer size. Rather than relying on a singular object, the design of fields involves the repetition of one or multiple elements. In the design of fields, elements are added rather than enlarged or diminished in size. In doing so, the intensity is not achieved through one large singular element but rather by an array of intensities created through the variation of the elements added.
The mini turbines that configure the landscape of Colors of the Wind are each colored with a specific tone according to their altitude: Pantone PMS Warm Red 2X for elevations of up to 39 feet, PMS 485 for 40-49 feet, PMS 172 for 50-59 feet, PMS 1655 for 60-69 feet, PMS 021 for 70-79 feet, PMS 716 for 80-89 feet, PMS 151 for 90-99 feet, PMS 143 for 100-109 feet, PMS 114 for 110-119 feet, PMS 101 for 120-129 feet, PMS 291 for 130-139 feet, and PMS 7455 for elevations above 139 feet. The overall effect of this operation emphasizes the possible variations that can emerge through a field of repeated elements.
Emptiness is a temporary condition. Blankness, however, is a permanent spatial property as it eliminates the connection between spatial organizations and social structures. A double-headed table, for example, can be empty at any given moment but it will not be blank regardless of its temporary inoccupation—as its predominant orientation implies a social hierarchy. This spatial property is seen by many as a design error as it questions what many designers consider to be design’s ultimate purpose: the making of a place.
The Perfect Human is a short film from 1967 by Jørgen Leth. It portrays a couple (female and male) as the perfect humans in a boundless and empty white room with no horizon line. Depending on the needs of the perfect humans, several pieces of furniture progressively show up in the room throughout the film. An off-screen voice describes and reflects on what happens on the screen. For instance, the room occupied by the perfect humans is described by the voice as “boundless and radiant with light. It is an empty room. Here are no boundaries. Here is nothing.” The perfect humans live alone in a boundless blank room, out of place and time.
In 1971 George Lucas directed his first feature-length film, THX 1138. It presents a dystopian future of an underground city inhabited by citizens that are drugged in order to control their emotions. A factory worker, THX 1138, is sent to jail when he stops taking his daily drug dose and, as a consequence, falls in love with his roommate, LUH 3417. The prison is contradictorily presented as an endless and almost shadowless white interior with no horizon line: prisoners can go wherever they want but there is no place to go. This prison is a blank space lacking all structure—physical, temporal, or social.
Strangely enough, the perfect humans’ home presents an identical spatial condition to THX 1138’s prison. Both of these blank spaces are horizontally isotropic and, consequently, their uniformity is achieved by the infinite repetition of a single spatial condition. So, the perfect human lives in a prison then? Probably not. But, precisely because of this mismatching, should we not perceive this utopian space as a revealing gap in the relationships between sociocultural forces and physical spaces?
I would like to thank Thomas Kelley for his invitation to present at “On Error”–a symposium he organized at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning during his 2012-13 Banham Fellowship–as it was at this venue when I first tested many of the arguments contained in this article.
Drawings: Joshua Graham, Sergio Lopez-Pineiro.
Olmsted’s Blank Snow.
Designers: Nicole Halstead, Sergio Lopez-Pineiro.
Execution: Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, Buffalo, New York, USA.
Sponsors: 2010 Independent Projects Grant, New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), New York, USA [Grant support]; Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, Buffalo, USA [Fiscal sponsor].
Scenes in a Concrete Deserta.
Designer: Sergio Lopez-Pineiro.
Sponsor: Department of Architecture, School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York, USA.
Colors of the Wind.
Designers: Sandra Berdick, Sergio Lopez-Pineiro.
Designers: Kin Chun Ma, Sergio Lopez-Pineiro, Saki Yoshimura.
Designer: Sergio Lopez-Pineiro.
Execution: Sandra Berdick, Angel Cruz, Sergio Lopez-Pineiro.
Sponsor: Silo City, Buffalo, USA.
Designer: Sergio Lopez-Pineiro.
Designer: Sergio Lopez-Pineiro. Sponsor: The MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, USA.
Urban Shade Field.
Designer: Sergio Lopez-Pineiro.
Designer: Sergio Lopez-Pineiro.