I want to begin by telling you about a short story by Voltaire in which a group of philosophers lost at sea are handed a book that they are told holds the answers to the universe. Upon opening the book, they discover that it’s pages are completely blank. Each reader is handed the power to write their own answers into the pages.
In 1979, Libeskind borrows the title of this story – Micromegas – for a new series of drawings. Drawn during a context of megastructural and utopian projects, Libeskind’s Micromegas are a graphic exercise that serve as the anti-thesis to context and figure. In addition to the title, Libeskind also takes on Voltaire’s thesis – how does one write the story of the universe? He does so through the reversal of his predecessor’s solution – by presenting pages saturated with lines, the complete opposite to blankness.
Or so it seems, on the surface, but the further we navigate into this world, the more we realise that the only way to read Micromegas is actually by rewriting it. Exploring these 11 incredibly dense, subjective drawings – subjective in that they are very much authored by Libeskind – we become elevated from the role of the reader to writer.
The process of engaging with the drawings is that you start by falling into the trap of reading Micromegas as a map of a supposed territory that Libeskind is describing, only to realise that this attempt is futile. It’s not that these drawings are without context but that this particular context is irrelevant. The significance of the drawings lies not in what we read being projected out of them, but what we, as the authors, begin to project into them.
When the Territory Precedes the Map
We begin. Let’s place ourselves back in the same boat as the philosophers for a moment, lost in the world of Libeskind’s Micromegas. We are holding the drawing to navigate. On the boat are some other useful tools for exploring; a globe and a compass, as well as Libeskind’s monograph, a book of architectural drawing conventions, a book about the visionary projects of the 70s. My own work.
The first tendency is to assume that Micromegas is indeed a map, and that there is a territory that precedes it, of which it derives from, with the hope that some of these tools can serve to find it.
When the Map and the Territory are Separate Entities
Scene Two. As we explore further we do discover a territory, one that’s constantly changing. It’s not static, like the map implies, but has a life of it’s own. And the more we read the map, the more we territory we create – until it becomes completely different from the original drawing.
When we look back at the map now, we reread it as a carefully curated abstraction, a product of the territory it maps, but not identical to it. It wants us to think it exists in a vacuum – literally, as even its edges are offset within the page – but this is not the case and the project is very much a product of its time. What Libeskind leaves blank on the map is the context that he’s choosing to omit. Hidden, in the background of the explosion, are the monumental utopian projects of the 70s, who Libeskind was battling, and friends, like Eisenman. This omitted context is what we are now writing back into the territory.
When, finally, the Map Precedes the Territory
As we continue moving, we continue authoring the space. We arrive at the final scene, where the two-dimensional flatland of Micromegas has fully become a three-dimensional spaces.
But just like Atlantis has been mapped so many times that it has become hyperreal, when we zoom out we see that we are looking at a map whose territory is only believed to exist, but doesn’t. The new space that we were writing in turn has become so real that we start to believe in it.
Edge of Paper
Navigating through Micromegas is like constantly rediscovering the power of drawing – where abstraction, rather than losing information, creates it, through the multiplicity of readings it allows. Micromegas is the aftermath of an explosion, filled with architectural debris – but it doesn’t matter at all what the stuff is, just that it’s there and hurled at us for our use. So much is gained from a simple manipulation of known forms, a restricted palette of drawing conventions that leave enough questions unanswered to set our imagination off.
Whilst the map and the territory relationship is typically understood in opposition to one another, Micromegas collapse this dichotomy. Reading Micromegas, we were all the time writing it too – as a tool to explore unknown territory, to question and critique it, and ultimately to create our own version of it. To write, to draw, to author, is not to represent but to make.
This leads to the question of whether anything exists outside of it’s own representation, or whether that is even relevant. If, in the case of Micromegas, what is significant is not the territory that the map derives from, but the territory it allows me to create, then who cares what the reality of the representation is. Just as in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the Khan only knows about the various cities in his empire through the stories Marco Polo tells him and it does not matter whether those cities are “real” or exist in any sense outside Marco Polo’s imagination.
Similarly, with Micromegas, we do not read with the drawings to discover Libeskind’s intent. In any case, this is irrelevant and the notion of reading strips us, as architects, of our own freedom, reduces us to the passive role of the ‘reader’. Instead, they really are in a sense the aftermath of an explosion, pieces of architecture thrown at us so that we write our own story with them. We navigate through them by authoring our own territories, by transforming them into something they were never intended to be.