Israeli architect based in Berlin. Ron practices computational design, design-research and writes about digital culture in architecture.
Life with CoVid-19 changed the way we perceive measurement units (Eden Kupermintz describes this well in our opening article) and redefined our familiar spaces. On the one hand, our spaces shrunk. Whether it is to a 500 meter radius, an apartment or a small room in a retirement home, the physical space became a confined one. On the other hand, the space we are conscious of has substantially grown: the occurrences in other countries and continents became more relevant than ever. We found ourselves imbibing reports, personal testimonials and speculations from every media source, with thirst. As a global phenomenon, the pandemic is found in many places at once, spreads out in time to the past, the present and potential futures, with forecasts of waves and lockdowns looming. It ties together previously unrelated issues, such as flu season, remote learning and the decrease in oil prices. It is abstract, it is everywhere and it is always on our mind.
Hyperobjects: Outline and Characteristics
The engagement with concepts of inhuman scales has been gaining traction and popularity since 2010 in the philosophy of ecology (1). Humanity’s impact on the environment (and vice versa, that of the environment on humanity) has been studied under the term “hyperobject”. Hyperobjects (2), according to British philosopher Timothy Morton (3), are tremendously large-scale phenomena. They are so large that we cannot attribute a specific time or place to them. Unlike regular objects, these hyperobjects have no clear beginning or end, neither in time, nor in space. Norton borrows the catchy term from computer science: a multidimensional, non-local object (denoting n-dimensional non-local entities). He connects the scientific term to pop culture, specifically to the lyrics of ‘Hyperballad’ (4) (1996) song by acclaimed Icelandic singer and artist, Bjork. Hyperballad is a love song depicting a relationship in which two lovers hide their flaws from one another, but the song also describes an abusive relationship between humans, the tools they make and their surroundings.
This intersection is the starting point for Morton’s philosophy, uniting ecology (the interaction between organisms) and ontology [the nature of (human) being]. Morton argues (5) (similarly to the OOO: the Object-Oriented Ontology school of thought), that human beings are of similar significance as animals or rocks. He also challenges the distinction between “man” and “nature”, “natural” and “synthetic”. People and environment are equal players in a closed system. Every action that humans perform in the environment, will reverberate back to them.
Originally, the term “Hyperobject” illustrates the connection between ecological catastrophes to our personal experience of them. At its core, a hyperobject quite simply blows your mind: it is vague, it is larger than life. By engaging with Hyperobjects, we better understand our relationship with ourselves and our surroundings. Newscasts, editorial articles, tweets – are all a reminder that every act has an affect on the environment and that eventually, it comes back to us. We dispose of tons of plastic into the ocean? We will end up eating that plastic with the fish that we’ll be having for dinner (Morton himself compares these relations to Blade Runner: The hunter that hunts it/himself).
Enormous, Molten and Viscous
How do we identify enormous and obscure concepts? Take the example of a climate disaster: on the one hand, we all know what it is about. We now identify hurricanes, droughts, icebergs melting or flash floods, and we’re able to see them as part of a bigger phenomenon, much bigger than each of them, individually. On the other hand, we cannot tell when it all began. Is humanity’s destructive impact on the environment dated to the 20th century? Perhaps it began with the industrial revolution, or possibly the Neolithic revolution? When and Where did it start? When and will it end? As far as hyperobjects are involved, time and space intermix, we witness them at all times, everywhere.
One cannot see or touch a hyperobject, but we know it’s out there, through data. While global warming is not visible to the naked eye, its effects are seen, measured and well documented in extreme temperatures, the rise of sea level and the quantity of CO2 emissions. Data and scientific analysis point to global warming.
Finally, once we become aware of the hyperobject we cannot forget it, dismiss it or deny it. It will stick to every aspect of our lives and it will change the way we see the world.
Inhuman Scale, in Architecture
Architecture, much like philosophy, mediates the personal and the environment. Its purpose is to protect and adjust environments for humans to inhabit, through the creation of space. Therefore it deals with practical knowledge: the powers acting on a structure, the systems operating a structure, its temperatures, acoustics, etc. Architecture is a craft: it engages with form, matter and fabrication processes. It is also an art, it has the expressive capability for abstract ideas.
Architecture uses in-human scales to contemplate the relationship between humans and their environment. Following are four leading examples:
Enormity and the New God: Boullée’s Infinity
Long before the erection of the first modern planetarium, French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799) designed a structure aimed to send its visitors to space. Boullée devised his most important works while teaching at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in the latter half of the 18th century; most of which were not built. Theoretical architecture holds an inherent advantage: it can be wilder than anything existing in real life. The Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton (6) is an enormous, round structure, accessed by an external stairway. The internal space is round and almost completely dark. Minute spherical openings in the structure’s shell allow shallow light in, mimicking the night sky, filled with stars. The Cenotaph, referencing the Pyramids in Giza, associates the deceased (Newton) with eternity, with the sky and his ascendance as god. Boullée builds a religious sepulcher for a secular god, the scientist.
“Sublime spirit! Vast and profound genius! Divine being! Accept the homage of my weak talents… Oh, Newton!” – Étienne-Louis Boullée’s dedication to the Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton
Science’s prominence over religion is part of Boullée’s message, echoing the Enlightenment movement. Entering the vast, dark and empty space, the visitor is confronted with the new scientific truth about the world: it is infinite. The space embalms the sheer size of the cosmos and man’s scantiness in comparison. In this example, architectural design declares a new world order and a new god: science.
Size and Power: Shpeer’s Horror
The National-Socialist party in Germany used every trick in the book to convey the supremacy of the Aryan race and the party’s natural right to power.
In August 1933, already Chancellor of Germany, Hitler declares the city of Nuremberg as congress center of the Nazi party. The focus on the somewhat-boring Bavarian city stems from its historical role: during the middle-age it served as the administrative center and unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Hitler writes a new historical narrative for the German people, doing so in part through architecture. He holds that the Third Reich is a direct descendant of the Second Reich, reprising Germany’s grand role in Europe up to the Great War (WWI), it in itself being the direct successor of the First Reich, (The Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, with its center in Germany). The latter being the immediate and supposed successor to The Roman Empire of antiquity. Hitler wants to be Caesar.
To convince the Germans that they are a noble breed worthy of Empire, a colossal compound is built. Between the years 1933-1938, Albert Speer, the National-Socialist party’s architect and Hitler’s accomplice in the design of their abhorrent utopia, designs and (partly) executes a series of buildings, aimed at the glorifcation of the German people and the Nazi party. The compound serves mostly as headquarters and stage for Nazi propaganda, the Nuremberg Rallies. Enveloping the parade ground, Der Lichtdom, the “Cathedral of Lights” was erected: a giant light-installation made of spotlights illuminating 12 km up to the sky. Speer used the Luftwaffe search lights, originally intended to search and illuminate enemy aircraft as they were shot out of the sky by anti-aircraft guns. The huge rally arena, marching armies and light-installation splicing the night sky, all demonstrate power. The aesthetic and historic gesture, conjoining military and national power, tells the story of an empire with sacred foundations.
Hitler and Speer harness the hyperobject for the purposes of their powerful propaganda.
Infinity and Death: Kusama’s Contagious Insanity
Coping with incomprehensible concepts that contain and consume us is constantly present at the heart of the creative work of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.
Kusama, 91, is known for her iconic works, creative art that’s sprinkled with intense colors, and for her kaleidoscopic, reflective installations. Her aesthetic is a result of both choice and coercion: a way to deal with the visual hallucinations she suffers from a young age. Kusama copes with a history of abuse, her phobias and an obsessive-compulsive mental disorder, by depicting the world as she experiences it.
In a series of installations called “Infinity Rooms” (7), Kusama has created over 20 kaleidoscopic playful environments that invite participants to take part and perceive a version of her hallucinations. The 2013 installation Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, is a room of mirrors designed for a single visitor. As the door closes, movement detectors illuminate the performative space, the Infinity Mirrored Room, with obscure, flickering lights, reflecting in the mirror-covered walls. The viewer watches infinite space as it duplicates their one viewing angle and completely eliminates it, in another.
The Superhuman: Hansmeyer’s Machine
The showdown between man and machine is ever-present in the works of German architect and software programmer, Michael Hansmeyer. Hansmeyer studies digital design and fabrication in architecture and art-installations. He is one of the prominent architects to belong to the Neo-Baroque art-movement. A style characterized by exuberant, lavish detail, meshed into a single sequence. The aesthetic of Neo-Baroque and hyperobjects is similar: they both describe objects whose beginning and end are obscure (according to art scholar Ernst Hans Gombrich in his book Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1977) (8). Hansmeyer’s designs are the product of repetitive mathematical calculations and generative algorithms. The hyper-aesthetic result can only exist as a result of a machine’s calculative operation. Similarly, using 3D printing, laser cutting and robotic arms (9). A design aesthetic so congested and accurately manufactured, it evokes simultaneous feelings of astonishment and estrangement. Its’ perfection raises a troubling thought: the supremacy of machine over human competence.
For thousands of years architecture has put humans at the center of all things: the architectural space was made by humans, for humans. Tools and habitats were made to protect them from the natural environment and adapt it to their needs. Paradoxically, man-made technological advancements destabilize human-control. When technology develops, it inevitably changes the environment and its inhabitants/users.
Technological advancements of the 19th century industrial revolution (the production line, steel, cement and glass) in architecture gave way to massive bridges, skyscrapers and train stations. While technological progress benefited the economy and changed the face of the city, it also brought resistance.
The Arts and Crafts Movement reinstated traditional craftsmanship and manual labour. Leaders of the movement opposed the repetitive aesthetics of the production line and encouraged a return to traditional methods of production, in Central Europe, the United States and Japan. Writer John Ruskin (1819-1900), a key figure of the movement, argued that the question of mechanical production is a moral question: It is immoral to produce something utilizing a mediator and not yourself. 130 years later the city of Detroit, the diamond jewel in the crown of the industrial revolution in the United States, declared bankruptcy. The technology that the United States cherished so dearly, became irrelevant due to international competition and continual innovation.
Technological innovations advanced quickly and without any correlation with market or employment. The replacement of employees with advanced instruments, or automation, eradicates old professions and changes the social-economical fabric. Societies that do not offer workers assistance in transitioning into new professional fields and markets, fail, Detroit being a prime example, one of many. No wonder we dread superhuman performances: years of life under unconstrained Capitalism makes innovation look like a bad omen. Under the theme of ‘Digital Grotesque’, Hansmeyer’s designs embody the fear of the reversal of powers in the relationships between man and machine – from master to slave.
From Aesthetics to Revolution
The way in which we imagine the future is influenced by the technologies we possess. The four architectural examples described herein form fantastical environments, spanning the 18th to 21st centuries. The more recent the example, the more sophisticated are the creative instruments used in its design: from sketches to lighting displays, sensors and code. In reverse relation, the more advanced the technology, the smaller the design;. from an enormous cenotaph and a parade ground to a single room installation and computer simulation. To envision infinity, one no longer needs infinite space.
Infinity evokes emotions of both amazement and horror. Philosopher Emanuel Kant explains the contradiction through “The Sublime”. A paradoxical feeling towards an object, enormous, awesome, and horrible all at once, summoning both extreme anxiety and immense pleasure. Kant uses this term to describe people’s encounter with natural phenomena, facing a massive mountain range or an eclipse of the Sun. These are the moments when we experience infinity and our own imperfections, compared to it.
Speer uses inhuman-scale differently. While the other designs are open to interpretation, Speer’s has an unequivocal message. As an agent of a bigger force (the Nazi party), he enlists the hyperobejct to glorify the German National Socialist movement. In the example of the Cathedral of Lights, Speer uses grandiosity to enchant the viewer and present the Aryans as an infinite, enormous genus. This type of artistic messagary is mostly referred to as “Kitsch”: a manipulation on the viewers to perceive only specific pre-concieved messages (10) (A Theory of Mass Culture, 1954, MacDonald). Like previous examples, kitsch utilizes detail-abundance and exceptional size. But unlike high-art, kitsch has no criticism or hidden layers. Author Milan Kundera wrote that kitsch is an emotion that we experience together as an audience, instead of as critical individuals, commonly used by totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian regimes do it all the time: the Nazis, the Fascists and the USSR under Stalin used simplified representations of reality to sweep the masses and suppress opposition. Pictures of blond moms with perfect blond children? Nazi Kitsch cultivating xenophobia. Hard-working men and women satisfied with their lot? Stalinist Kitsch masking exploitation and social inequality. The Kitsch is so captivating, that it is blinding. The Kitsch creator designs an aesthetic and narrative that maintains themselves in the upper hand, vis-à-vis the audience, the public.
The Hyperobject: a Necessary Irritant
The recruited hyperobject is starring all over global media these days. Country leaders use the CoVid-19 pandemic to promote a variety of messages: technocratic leadership (Angela Merkel, Germany), national strength (Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan), economic-political agendas against China (Donald Trump, USA), and change of political stance (Gantz and Netanyahu’s National Unity government, Israel). Just like wars and other disasters, pandemics are perfect for “stealing” the public discourse. At the end of the 20th century, Jean Francois Lyotard speaks of the “sublime” as an attempt to control and represent what is beyond our control. In this context, it is interesting to look at the narratives in the media: Who perpetuates a feeling of safety? Who gives promises that cannot be fulfilled? Who takes a ride on confusion and anxiety for their own personal gain?
Footnotes and Other Stray Thoughts
1 // The groundwork for the philosophy of ecology was set by British philosopher Timothy Morton, first in his book, The Ecological Thought.
2 // For further reading, published under the academic journal Speculations, Timothy Morton’s article Subline Objects, 2011.
3 // Timothy Morton (b. London, 1968), British philosopher, professor and Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University in Houston, Texas, USA, member of the object-oriented philosophy movement. More info on Wikipedia.
5 // For further reading: OOO: Object-Oriented Onotology.
6 // For further reading: the Sir Isaac Newton Cenotaph on ArchDaily.
7 // For further reading: The Kusama “Infinity Mirrored Rooms” at the Hirshhorn Museum for Contemporary Art & Culture, The Smithsonian, Washington DC, USA.
8 // To get in deep: Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, Ernst Hans Gombrich, 1977.
9 // For further reading on Hansmeyer creative work, Michael Hansmeyer ‘automates’ Islamic architecture with Muqarna mutation on Designboom.
10 // A Theory of Mass Culture, 1954, MacDonald.