Geographical machines in architectural thought
An ongoing obsession here involves the possible links between architecture and geography. There are so many different ways to think about this: the historical use of geographical thought in architecture, the development of geographical methods for architectural and architectural historical research, the architectural history of geographical exploration, etc. It’s one of my favorite subjects.
Lately, I have been reconsidering another, more direct and crude application of geographical ideas within architecture — in particular architectural history. I’m interested in the architectural historical appropriation of those structures used by geographers to produce knowledge. I mean “structures” with absolute literalness. Those deployables, vehicles, and sensing stations that we see in geographical methods of examining the world might be considered by architectural historians to examine the built world. This could be done as an aspect of a normative or more experimental historical technique.
When I was working on my phd between the departments of geography and architectural history, I often fantasized about venturing with the geographers (the “real” geographers) who conducted fieldwork in the most extreme environments. At the department of geography at UCL, I recall one expedition to Chad, in which the geography students of UCL went to the “dustiest place on earth” (that’s the image above) with some interesting field equipment. I have been in a nasty archive or two, but the images in the geography newsletter suggested that these students were in some entirely different situation (and using some cool tools). It was a bit frightening and exciting to imagine the possibilities.
This form of “exploration” appears throughout the history of architecture, where it has a long and often troubled history. But I’m not here to berate the explorers; others are far better at that than me. I am interested in considering the possible alterity that might be found in these acts of geographical/architectural curiosity. The use of geo-explorative structures, which is part of this larger history, is much less examined. Perhaps it’s there where something new might be found.
One of my favorite examples of an architectural appropriation of geo-exploration is the Otranto project by Renzo Piano and Peter Rice. In 1979 Piano and Rice appropriated the imagery of geographical field stations for a Unesco-sponsored workshop on the restoration of Otranto, Italy. Within this deployable station, workshops were held with local residents to consider strategies for renewing this somewhat impoverished Italian town. I still find the project (below) an interesting counterpoint to most contemporary imagery surrounding “community” based, restorative architecture — the latter movement typically embracing a low-tech, folksy and local visual grammar. Here, a community architecture, is understood as something that draws on the technological prowess of a contemporary state.
In the 1980s, a different, but equally technological realization of geographical knowledge systems within architecture appeared in the tree raft structure (below) by Gilles Ebersolt. Here, the French architect worked with naturalists and environmental geographers to develop an architecture that enabled scientists to explore the canopies of rain forests. In some projects, Ebersolt developed fantastic research stations for use in urban sites. In enormous inflatable spheres, Ebersolt’s urban explorers move through terrain, appearing with a sometimes troublesome scientific detachment.
In the past ten years, the architect Laura Kurgan updated the image of geo-knowledge production within architecture, transforming it into something far less instrumental and far more informed by various “critical” turns. In a recent project that illustrates her interests, Kurgan used imagery from the Ikonos satellite to examine how the attacks of September 11th registered in geographical space/time (below). The project considers how September 11th will be recorded as a historical event due to the particular remote strategies of seeing that pervade contemporary strategies of planetary visualization.
The above projects present many interesting possibilities. Among the possible geo-machines yet to be staged within architecture, I continue to consider recent robotic imagery in contemporary experimental architectural practice. Various architects embrace robotic to reconsider architectural program and construction labor, but could we reinterpret the robot image as a form of knowledge production about architecture. This makes particular sense, as robots are already used to examine sites remotely, particularly those inhospitable to direct human observation, and unreachable via satellite (eg. the urban underground and extra-planetary!).
I am not sure how such a project would intertwine with additional forms of commentary evident in the work above, particularly the critical directions implicit within Kurgan’s work. Kurgan’s project, and perhaps Piano’s, foreground the techniques of knowledge production in such a way that knowledge and its instruments are open to debate, even as they are put to use. That, to me, is the key in the development of a remote-sensing, geo-architectural historical machine.