The Operative Line
The surface of the earth is defined no longer through its geographical features but as a geology delineated through the architect’s marks – a landscape of structures, events and plots.
The architect is the projective storyteller, the author, whose context is as much the surface of the earth as it is the blank page. The strength of the architect lies in the ability to directly control and author context, embodied in the drawing of a line.
Each time we put pen to paper, we are redefining and delineating one possible version of the world. The fundamental acts of architecture – of enclosure, connection and division can all be expressed through the line.
Any line that is removed from the territory that it maps becomes merely representation, and in order not to remain in that realm, the line has to be operative. This happens when it covers a surface at 1:1, and kills the sign. It allows for no interpretation but sets down static instructions for the future.
When the architectural drawing scores the earth it is no longer representation but the work itself. It becomes a direct translation of the architect’s intent straight onto ground.
I am going to present Libeskind’s Micromegas in order to assert this thesis. In 1979, Libeskind borrows the title of Voltaire’s short story – Micromegas – for a series of drawings. In the Voltaire version, a group of philosophers that are lost at sea are handed a book that they are told holds the answers to the universe. They are all very excited thinking that they are finally going to be let in on a big secret. Upon opening the book however, they discover that it’s pages are completely blank.
In the story, the understanding of the universe is an incredibly personal and subjective experience. Each person is handed the power to write their own answers into the pages.
As well as the title, Libeskind also takes on Voltaire’s thesis in his drawings – how does one present the answers to the universe to an audience? What he also concludes through the drawings is that you simply can not. His approach is the reversal of his predecessor’s solution – by presenting pages saturated with lines, the complete opposite to blankness. But they operate in the same way – the further we navigate into this world, the more we realise that the only way to read Micromegas is actually by rewriting them, and so we author our own understanding of the universe.
For example, they can be read as microscopic renderings of dust – or on the meta-scale of the argument, as explosions manifesting their anti-thesis to figure and context.
This is where the strength in the drawings lie – they reveal that as architects we are constantly attempting to describe and control the world around us, and this description is a very subjective one.
The way in which it is communicated is when the architectural drawing has to make the leap off the paper, and on to ground. The line has to physically divide and control, be the road scored on to earth that creates entire cities, or the wall that divides nations. It has to leave behind no confusion, no doubt as to the architect’s intention.
It has to become a concrete act that turns into reality the architect’s fundamental thought –
I draw, therefore it exists.
In the aftermath of the French Revolution in 1798, the French government wanted to discard all old units of measure associated with the old regime, and create new international standards. The first new standard to be defined was a unit of measure, the metre. It was decided that this new measure should be equivalent to one millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator – one quarter of the earth’s circumference. Two surveyors were sent out on this mission. They were going to accurately measure the distance of a straight line running between Dunkirk and Barcelona through a complex system of triangulations, and base the length of the metre on that.
The task took seven years because of the difficulties that the two men faced. They were working in the aftermath of the revolution and political uprisings kept delaying their work. They were both imprisoned several times during the surveying, and one of them even caught Yellow Fever and died before he had finished the measurements. Seven years later, the length of the metre was decided on.
The project proposes to define a new form for the architect’s studio, which comes about through a redefinition of the architect’s role. Like the two surveyors, the architect’s perpetual quest is to describe and control the world around her. However, whilst the only thing that comes out of the story of the metre is a single definition of length, I propose for a unified theory of architecture, where a physical distance wouldn’t have been decided on despite politics or culture, but these events would play a role in adapting that definition.
This studio becomes the embodiment of the architect’s perpetual quest. One that is not tied to a geography but travels continually across the earth’s surface as it does across a blank page.
The project of the studio is trifold. It constructs its own tracks and ploughs through earth to clear its trajectory. It is the vessel through which the architect is asserted as author of context. It leaves behind in built form its manifesto through the tracks it had to build to project itself forward.
Within the studio, which is essentially a single room so long that it appears as an infinite interior – context is at the same time read and authored. It is constantly mapping its surroundings – not just physical features but also histories, politics, cultures, and then taking decisions about how to act based on these mappings. The architecture isolates the architect from the surroundings, and within this containment she exerts control of this vast, limitless domain.
Ploughing through whatever context she encounters, the architect inside the studio sits in front of her panorama, detached from the mechanics that allow that view. Instead, her reliance on paper gives her almost god-like potential. If the vessel encounters water, it will bridge its way across it. If there is a mountain in the way, it will cut through it. The surrounding territory unfolds in front of the architect’s eyes as an endless elevation.
It is the moments of literal collisions that cause ruptures in the studio’s constant velocity and jolt her back from the paper real world to the very real. The selection of a 0.5 point line on paper disguises the violent 7 year excavation period as well as the labour of hundreds if not thousands of people that would be required to accomplish the feat of ploughing through a mountain. But the violence is good, because you learn from it.
The studio authors a new understanding of architecture defined not by former theories or camps but through the immediate action it takes on the very physical realities it encounters. It exists independent of any context but that which it immediately encounters, not tied to any ideology but that which is of immediate urgency.
The architect’s utopian gene is the vessel’s fuel.
Let’s say we are 25 years down the line, and the studio is continually ploughing through, and eventually comes back across its own tracks that it left 25 years ago. This is where its potential lies – it becomes the inhabitation of trial and error. The new readings the architect will do of the same site will now be an assessment of a past architectural act, and its consequences.
The studio leaves behind its own archeology – already by the time it has moved forward, what used to be its projective tracks are behind it. These tracks become trenches, roads or buildings. Walls or congregation spaces. They become a physical as well as a contextual datum. They empower the architect to treat the surface of the earth with the same abstractness as the sheet of paper, and take the line drawn on paper as seriously and as real as the line scored on ground.
Unlike the platinum measure of the metre that is today kept locked away somewhere in Paris, this datum keeps changing and adapting.
What has previously been classified as separate disciplines – social science, history, geography, architecture, civil engineering – all become unified. The architect’s studio is that agency that combines all of these. History has demonstrated how any accepted doctrine can overnight turn against itself and declare the contrary to be true. Because it operates on physical ground, architecture has the power to constantly question its conceptual ground.