On the Mantic Paradigm in Architecture


The projective evocation of future edifices

MARCO FRASCARI WILLIAM BRAHAM University of Pennsylvania


Ethical and aesthetic values no longer coincide naturally in architecture. A conjunction which was once common now requires careful attention to the design, construction, and inhabitation of buildings. The quality of thinking required for this activity can be discerned in the meaning of the words edifice and edification: to build and to learn. These concepts are connected because architecture is a practice based on specific sites and occasions. Every project, no matter how trivial, must begin anew with its given conditions and develop its own logic and procedures. Theories can be generalized from previous projects, but each edifice demonstrates its attendant process of edification.

A clue to the nature of this edification arrived in a fax, solicited from Emilio Ambasz by ID magazine: "I hold that design's real task begins once functional and behavioral needs have been satisfied. It is not hunger, but love and fear, and sometimes wonder, that makes us create."1 We would go further and say that wonder is, in fact, always the source of design. It was just such a "ceaseless wonder" which Plato, and then Aristotle, credited as the origin of philosophy.i Only the magical essence of wonder can inspire the long investments of time in such intangibles and at the same time, deliver sufficient gratification to sustain their pursuit. Architects must forget their fashionable methods of design in order to rediscover the presence and proper role of wonder in everyday life. Wonder in itself is a fleeting phenomena, excited by novelty and lending itself to the addictive cycles of fashion. There is, however, a productive wonder which can sustain ~ and the distinction is the subject of this paper.

In a subsequent fax, Ambasz suggested that an architect should aspire to be an "erring magus." A magus or magician is a solitary individual who receives acute and prudent visions. He certainly doesn't belong to the tribe of shamans that specialize in predictions of fashion or style. The crucial distinction was captured in a final missive: "a shaman may forecast rain, but a Magician, when really

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Fig. 1. Maisonneuve prospecting with a pendulum. Vire, Comment devenir sourcier.

good, can bring tears to our eyes." This power is a rediscovery of the pathos of design and its passionate, nonrational origin. Non-rationality does not imply irrationality, but rather the discovery of a reasonable knowledge that accepts magical events in the everyday life of the intellect.

Magic is extremely difficult to define. The word has had many meanings, including the natural, the wonderful, the impossible and the absurd. From this immense spectrum magic has arrived at two extremes which define it today: poetry and charlatanism. In his Social Theory of Magic, Daniel O'Keefe has observed that, "the difference between modem and primitive socities is not that they had magic and we do not, The difference isthat they accepted the magic around them, whereas we deny it. n4 The poetic value of magic in design was rediscove~~ts. Historicany, Lynn_

'-Thorndike argues that magic is not surreal, but experimental and that it constituted the origin of modem

science and technology.' It is this experimental, even pragmatic, pursuit of wonder that informs architectural thinking.

James Fraser has shown that magic operates analogically according to "two fundamental principles: first, that like produces like, effect resembling cause; second that things which have once been in contact continue ever afterwards to act on each other." In the case of resemblance, magic is called homeopathic or sympathetic. Its poetic counterparts are metaphor and simile. Contact assumes the contagious affinity of parts or fragments to the objects of their contact and the corresponding poetic figures are metonymy and synecdoche. Marcel Mauss has identified a third principle, that of negation or irony, which can be generalized as the attraction of opposites.' Irony is considered a dark form of humor, but the tension between opposites is the magical force underlying love of all kinds and haunting the infinite series of opposites which concern metaphysics. Magic is above all preternatural and its greatest product is a wonder founded on intellectual construction.

The investigation of architectural wonder must proceed without coveting the logic of other disciplines or producing even more convoluted definitions. Wonder is an alogical form of judgement, classed by convention among the passions, but very much an intellectual passion. The measure of its emotional judgement can be discovered everywhere in the long tradition of architectural speculation, from Vitruvius to Venturi. Our purpose is to make the mantic and geometric face of that wonder evident, demonstrating that through its application the discipline is ever compressible, resilient, and resourceful. From the beginning, geometry was the tool with which the magic of wonder was pursued. Vitruvius presented the types of columns according to their metaphoric resemblance to men, women and maidens. The operative connection was secured with proportional measures taken from a human footprint (pedis vestigium). The precision of their geometric manipulation easily lends itself to the rigors of construction and also permits the open-ended incorporation of human characteristics.

It is our contention that the techniques of geometry can still unite the ethos and pathos of architecture, although its magical and symbolic role has been limited by pseudo-mathematical and analytical interpretations. When the medieval masons declared that "art was nothing without science" (ars sine scientia nihil est), it was to this geometry that they referred. Its full understanding requires a rethinking of current architectural discourse.

Geometry is more than mere technique.

Etymologically it described the measurement of farm lands applied annually with ropes and boards to the flooded area

around the Nile. In construction, the measures it most often conveyed were the dimensions and proportions of the body, poetically elaborating human tales and characteristics. Conversely, in Euclid's hands, the manipulation of geometric figures became the highest standard of logical reasoning. Yet these same manipulations were employed in divinatory procedures as a form of natural writing to be deciphered from the chance arrangement of things such as stars or lots or cracks. These "pre-visions" contrast with the optical analysis of vision. Geometry explains the interactions of material with light, the projection of shadows, and the distortions of surfaces. Even the complementary opposites by which color is understood are themselves a geometrical method for managing otherwise fleeting and corporeal phenomena.

Fig. 2. Aristippus, Recreations Mathematiques, 1696


Architecture is based on geometric acts of prediction which are used to evoke future constructions. These are projections in both the literal and figurative sense. The possibility of projection is born of two distinctions: the first between information and knowledge, the second between description and demonstration.

Projective demonstrations are built on constructive knowledge and represent both the physical building and the story of its distant origin," Origins are not beginnings and like histories they are the result, not the source, of knowledgeable projections. As Lewis Mumford conceded, the historians measure is not abstract truth, but the "usability" of his stories. This is not simple relativism but the higher standard of relevance, which distinguishes knowledge from information and demonstration from mere descriptions. Like histories, architectural projections are attempts to make the future constructions available and usable. They are quite literally "self-fulfilling" prophecies. As such, they are both a class of geometric procedures and acts of imagination; the one making the others visible.

The examination of architectural projection begins with some figures traced on the sand and partially erased by the sea. According to Vitruvius, a follower of Socrates named Aristippus of Cyrene was shipwrecked with his fellow travellers on the coast of Rhodes. As they disembarked, he came upon some geometrica schemata in the sand and exclaimed, "There is hope; I see human footsteps" (bene speramus! hominum enim vestigia video). Following this discovery, Aristippus went into the city where he engaged in friendly discussions of philosophy and various arts and amassed a fortune. He ultimately decided not to return horne,"

The fact that Vitruvius chose this rather sibylline story to introduce the book dedicated to private building has always seemed puzzling. The traditional interpretations of this story assumed that the geometrica schemata were the figures and proofs of Euclidian geometry. As emblems of rational thought, Arristipus was presumed to interpret them as indications of civilized human presence on the island of Rhodes. This was not an uncommon activity; geometric exercises were frequently executed on sand in ancient stories. Archimedes himself was killed while tracing geometrica schemata on the beach during the invasion of Syracuse. Completely focused on his drawing, he did not respond to the legionnaire who asked what he was doing. The Centurion of the invasion had ordered that the famous thinker be spared and so the Roman soldiers asked the name of each Syracusan they executed. But, after the third unanswered request, the soldier lost his patience and deprived humanity of both the lines that Archimedes was tracing and their meaning. The orthodox interpretation again assumes the construction of Euclidian figures like those on the beach at Rhodes. But, in our view, the fact that Archimedes could not be distracted from a procedure which he was conducting while his home city was under attack, indicates that the figures belonged to a semiotic specter much more profound and farreaching. It was, after all, Archimedes who invented

focusing mirrors to burn an earlier attacking fleet in the harbor. What was the subject of his speculation during this attack?

A revealing analogue to these sea-side exercises is found in the Marriage of Mercury and Philology by Martianus Capella. This is an allegorical text in which the arts of the trivium and the quadrivium are combined and presented as feminine figures." In the ceremony, lady geometry wears a hat embroidered with the signs of the zodiac (astrology) and shoes tattered from walking the earth (geomancy). She is accompanied by two maids, Philosophy and Paidea (learning), who carry a silver abacus - a flat tray with raised borders and feet that is covered with a fine green sand," The courts of the time used the sand of the abacus in which to delineate their geometrica schemata. In part, Capella's allegory illustrated the proper relationship among the arts of the quadrivium:

Arithmetic is the science required to understand the ratios of Harmony, both of which are added to Geometry for the unified study of Astrology. Understanding the motion (astronomia), music (annonia), and influence (astroIogia) of the stars is the art of philosophers, who nevertheless are constrained to keep their feet on the ground and fingers in the sand.

However, this sand-traced geometry, which forbids distraction and is so important that it must be performed on a silver tray, is not the Euclidian geometry we know, but the non-rational practice of geomancy. In the unorthodox version of Archimedes's death, he was drawing figures in the sand to determine the outcome of the battle." Unlike the "ideal objectivity" of geometry, which remains the same in each demonstration, geomantic exercises are specific to time and place, differing in each construction and repetition," The lack of self-sufficiency disqualifies it as a modern science, with its rules of testing, but the ambiguous specificity of geomancy links it to nonideal practices such as architecture. The assassination of Archimedes can further be read as a warning about the contentious nature of predictions. Visions of the future, whether artistic, religious, or scientific are inherently political and deeply bound to cultural identities. 14 Moreover, every prediction affects the future it foretells in some fashion. Even the most mundane extrapolation is, in part, hopefully magical. Architecture is no exception; it involves deeply mantic procedures through which its constructions are imagined. Nevertheless, the classic warnings are still relevant. The invocation of artifacts quickly becomes a suspect science when it is separated from the ethics and wonders of everyday life.

In this spirit, an architect can imagine, or more properly divine, a plan and section simply by observing an existing building. He can also reconstruct them from a ruined building and ultimately envision those of a building

that doesn't yet exist. The common denominator of these operations is the capacity of the architect to formulate a graphic evocation of the invisible. Through the operations of composition, decomposition, and recomposition, and the polysemic use of marks on a site (paper, ground ... ), architects trace the figures of rooms and walls as functional and symbolic operators. Identical signs render visible the different invisible aspects and qualities of the space, connecting those that will eventually be hidden in the completed building. A plan or section simultaneously demonstrates the inside and outside of a building, revealing temporal sequences and different perceptions in a single image. These are acts of projective geometry.

Descriptive and projective geometry are the disciplinary basis of any architectural representation. The change from Euclidian to Non-Euclidian geometries has reduced geometric representations to a seemingly objective modelling which separates architecture from its original representational matrix. Both geometries originate in the attempt to understand shadows. Descriptive geometry is the reading of edifices, based on its edges, surfaces through shadows." Projective geometry is the writing of them in graphic form, literally as a foreshadowing. Both are necessary to architecture. While descriptive geometry deals with the metric factors of construction, projective geometry deals with the edifying factors of design. The translations and distortions of projection, which fascinated both the 17th century anamorphicists and the surrealists, constitute the pathological (pathos) starting point of a mantic architecture."

The architect makes visible the invisible through the figures of geometry. In the descriptive drawings of construction documents a building is represented in its entirety, yet there is no longer an iconic connection between building and drawing. In projective divination, plans and sections are neither facsimiles nor symbols nor models; they represent architecture through their methods, invoking the project in a poetic manner. In this

Fig. 3. Tracing the Knights Tour in Chess, Claude Bragdon, The Frozen Fountain

graphic poesis lies the enigmatic nature of design as a projection; the pursuit of wonder through design becomes

its own final purpose. For the Romans, the idea of descriptio was not separate from the idea of scriptura, descriptions were actual translations of objects into drawings; they were icons. Dario Sabbatucci has described

this divination as the reading and writing of the world. In

our modem condition, the act of projection is a radical act

of invention, constructing the secular tracing of this divinatory scriptura. However, if the various arts of divination are misunderstood as improper semiotic systems

and judged for abstract truth, then the interpretations of symbolic relations will confuse objects with their traces. Projective drawings are the "use" of a building, not a literal l representation. The recognition of divination as reading

and writing undermines the negative vision, giving projection a twofold character which bounds the world of imagining.

In this way, a mantic architecture imagines its constructions in edifying acts of graphic prediction. The devices used to elaborate these representations reveal its evocative and magical nature. There are two types of instruments employed by architects in their reading and writing of past constructions and prefiguring of future constructions. As magical procedures, these instruments act through analogies based on metaphor and metonymy.

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Fig. 4. Dowsing. Speculum Meta/lurgiae Politissimum, Dresden, 1700

The metonymic instruments are the square and the compass, which are the same as those used by carpenters and builders in construction. The metaphorical instruments are divided in two categories. On one side we have the graphic lines derived from the chalk-lines and metrif markings used to Tay out the building. On the other hand we have the parallel bar or T -square which establishes the rectilinear ordering developed from the plumb-lines or grid-lines_with which the building is laid out.

Fig. 5. Frontispiece - [ Quatri Libri Fig. 6. Greek Canons

U sing these analogous instruments, the opportunity for a project is developed. This is not simply

a spatial procedure, but a mantic operation requiring careful timing and specific opportunities. The act of ) projection initiates what the Greeks called Kairos, the fundamental act of weaving, which is a procedure of separation and edification. It marks the opportune moment when the bobbin carries the woof across the warp. The support of the bobbin by the warp is the ordering rule and the woof it carries becomes the trace of the projective weaving. Kairos, the god of projective occasions, collaborates with Metis, the divinity of acute and prudent intelligence, required for successful designs. The acolytes of Metis are Tekmar (signs of guidance) and Poros (signs of safety), which we find in the geometric constructions both on paper and on construction sites. Palladio posed these complementary divinities on the base

of the columns that adorn the frontispiece of his Quattro Libri dell'Architettura. On the left is Metis with the head of the slain minotaur, an edifying symbol that was only possible with the help of Ariadne's thread that functioned

as both a sign of safety and of guidance. On the right is Kairos, who preserves the canon. Projection is the interpretation and production of signs for safety and for guidance in the invention of monuments. Kairos provides

a canon of proportion which is assembled through a hermeneutic examination of the opportunities for the constructive procedure that produces wonder.

An architectural projection is graphically divined through rules when the opportunity for construction arises. The translation of edifices into drawings and of drawing into edifices is the foundation of the mantic paradigm in architecture. This speculative chiasm determines the structure underlying projective making, weaving a method that rediscovers a tradition of mantic translation and transcription. The final piece of the puzzle of mantic projection was given by Vitruvius in the middle of his treatise, at the point of the symmetrical roman numeral V. He suggests that a treatise following the pythagorean tradition must be constructed as a cube inscribed to resemble dice. Cubes are stable and memorable forms, however dice are projective devices based on chance, so his treatise is both a weaving and a writing.'? The projection of a future architecture is always risky and though the science of probability can define the odds, it can neither tell us how to play nor what to bet. Only by reuniting the ethos and pathos of everyday life in edifying projections is a memorable and wonderful architecture achieved. Alea [acta Est

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1. Emilio Ambasz, Fax, ID Magazine, February, 1992, pp. 50-51

2. Plato, Timaeus,55d. Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book I.

3. Ambasz, pg. 50

4. Daniel Lawrence O'Keefe, Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic (New York: Continuum, 1982)

5. Lynn Thorndike, The History of Magic and Experimental Science 14 vol. (New York: Columbia University Press)

6. James Fraser, The New Golden Bough, abridged (New York: New American Library, 1959), pg. 35

7. Marcel Mauss, A General Theory of Magic (Boston:

Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972).

8. Much of this discussion is clearer in Italian, where project/projection (progetto, progettazione, progettare) are the common words used to discuss planning and design as well as the English sense of propelling something outward or forward, especially into the future.

9. Vitruvius, De Architectura. Preface of Book VI.

10. The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, Vol. II of Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts, edited by W.H. Stahl & R. Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977)

11. It should be noted that Capella directly links geometry to painting (Apelles) and sculpture (Polyclitus) but cites her as the daughter of the first architect (Daedulaus). "The woman soon to appear doubtless surpasses Apelles and Polyclitus, indeed, she is so highly reputed to be able to represent any object that we must conclude that she is the offspring of Daedalus, of Labyrinth fame." Capella, pg. 218

12. Nigel Pennick, "Ancient Secrets of the Earth: The Oracle of Geomancy" in The World Atlas of Divination:

The Systems, W'here they Originate, How They Work. John Matthews, ed. (Bulfmch Press - Little, Brown and Company, 1992), pg 195.

13. Edmund Husserl, "Origin of Geometry" in Jacques Derrida, Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction (Nicholas Hays, 1978). pg. 160: "But geometrical existence is not psychic existence: it does not exist as something personal within the personal sphere of consciousness: it is the existence of what is objectively there for "everyone" (for actual and possible geometers, or those who understand geometry) ... This is, we note, an "ideal" objectivity. It is proper to a whole class of spiritual products of the cultural world, to which not only all scientific constructions and the sciences themselves belong but also, for example, the constructions of fine literature. Works of this class do not, like tools (hammers, pliers) or like architectural and other such products, have a repeatability in many like exemplars. The Pythagorean theorem, [indeed] all of geometry, exists only once, no matter how often or even in what language it is expressed. It is identically the same in the "original language" of Euclid and in all "translations": and within each language it is again the same, no matter how many times it has been sensibly uttered."

14. Jean Pierre Vernant, "Speech and Mute Signs" in Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays (Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. 303-317

15. For a partial discussion see Thomas da Costa Kaufman, "The Perspective of Shadows: The History of the Theory of Shadow Projection", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, V. 42, 1979.

16. See for example, Jurgen Baltrusaitis, Aberrations: A Story in the Legend of Form (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989)

17. Girolamo Cardano, Liber de Ludo Aleae (1564). See F.N. David, Games, Gods, and Gambling: The origins and history of probability and statistical ideas from the earliest times to the Newtonian era, (London: Charles Griffin and Co., 1962) pp. 40-60