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Unfolding Events

Peter Eisenman

In all of the design arts we are experiencing a paradigm s h f t from mechanical to electronic modes of production; from an age of interpretative techniques to one of mediation. Thus mechanical reproduction (the photograph) differs from electronic reproduction (the facsimile); in the former, transformation - and therefore interpretation - may occur between original and reproduction; in the latter, there is no change, that is, no interpretation, and it is in this sense that one might say the electronic reproduction has n o essence. While in both cases the value of an original is thrown into question, mediated reproduction poses a different value system precisely because it involves no interpretation. Contemporary media undermine the essence and aura not only of the original, but of the very nature of reality. Media environments such as advertising and synthetic realities such as Disney World have become so potent that they might be said to form a new reality. Whereas architecture formerly served as a baseline for reality - bricks and mortar, house and home, structure and foundation were the metaphors that anchored our reality -what constitutes reality today is not so clear. Traditionally, architecture was placebound, linked to a condition of experience. Today, mediated environments challenge the givens of classical time, the time of experience: on any afternoon anywhere in the world, whether a t the Prado in Madrid or the Metropolitan in New York, hordes of people pass before artworks, hardly stopping to see, at best perhaps merely photographing their experience. They have no time for the original, even less for the experience of the original. Due to media, the time of experience has changed; the soundbite infinitesimal, discontinuous, autonomous - has conditioned our new time. Architecture can no longer be bound by the static conditions of space and place, here and there. In a mediated world, there are no longer places in the sense that we once knew them. Architecture must now address the problem of the event. Today, rock concerts may be considered the archetypal form of architectural event. People go to rock concerts not to listen because one cannot merely hear the music - but to become port ofthe environment. This is a

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new type of environment, comprised of light, sound, movement, an event-structure in which architecture does not simply stand against media, but is consumed by it. Media deals neither with physical facts nor with interpretation, but rather with the autonomous condition of electronic reproduction. With amplified sound and engineered lighting, the rock concert attempts t o deny physical presence. Although architecture cannot accomplish this, it can propose an alternative - some other kind of event, one in which a displacement of the static environment is not merely an electronic one-liner but, rather, an interpretation in which the environment is problematized, in which the event comes between sign and object. Traditional architectural theory largely ignores the idea of the event. Rather, it assumes that there are two static conditions of object: figure and ground. These in turn give rise to two dialectical modes of building. One mode concerns figure-ground contextualism, which assumes a reversible and interactive relationship between the solid building blocks and the voids between them. A typical exemplar of contextualism would say that in any historical context there are latent structures capable of forming a present-day urbanism. The other mode concerns the point block or linear slab isolated on a tabula rasa ground. Here, there is no relationship between old and new, figure and ground. Rather, the ground is seen as a clear neutral datum, projecting its autonomy into the future. In each case, the terms figure/object and ground are both determinant and all-encompassing: they are thought to explain the totality of urbanism. As in most disciplines, though, such all-encompassing totalities have come into question; they are no longer thought to explain the true complexity of phenomena. This is certainly true of urbanism. What is needed is the possibility of reading figure/object and ground within another frame of reference. Such a new reading might reveal other conditions that may always have been immanent or repressed in the urban fabric. Such a reframing would perhaps allow for the possibilities of new urban structures and for existing structures to be seen in a way that they too are redefined. In such a displacement, the new, rather than being understood as fundamentally different from the old, would instead be seen as slightly out of focus in relation to what exists. This out-of-focus condition, then, would permit a blurring or displacing of the whole, which is both old and new. One such possibility of displacement can be found in the form of thefold.


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It was Leibniz who first conceived of matter as explosive. He turned his back on Cartesian rationalism, and argued that in the labyrinth of the continuous the smallest element is not the point but the fold. From Leibniz, one can turn to the ideas of two contemporary thinkers concerning the fold: one is Gilles Deleuze, the other is Ren6 Thom. In the idea of the fold, form is seen as continuous even as it articulates possible new relationships between vertical and horizontal, figure and ground, breaking up the existing Cartesian order of space. Deleuze says the first condition for Leibnizs event is extension, in the sense of a philosophical movement outward along a plane rather than downward into a depth. Deleuze argues that in mathematical studies of variation, the notion of the object is changed: it is no longer defined by an essential form. This new object he calls an object-event, an objectile - a modern conception of a technological object. This new object, for Deleuze, is n o longer concerned with framing space but, rather, with a temporal modulation that implies a continual variation of matter, unfolding through the agency of the fold (an idea first defined in the Baroque). He differentiates between the Gothic, which privileges the elements of construction, frame and enclosure, and the Baroque, which emphasizes a matter overflowing its boundaries, and before which the frame eventually disappears. Deleuze states that the fold/unfold are the constants today in the idea of an object-event. This linking of fold and event also influences work in other disciplines, notably the mathematics of Thom. In his catastrophe theory, Thom defines seven elementary events or transformations, which allow no classical symmetry, hence no possibility of a static object (for there is no privileged plan of projection). Instead, there is a neutral surface formed from a variable curvature or a fold. This variable curvature is the inflection of pure event. For Thom, the structure of the event of change already inheres in the object; it cannot be seen but can be modeled (in the neutral surface of the catastrophe fold). Thus, while a single grain of sand can trigger a landslide, we cannot know which grain or when; but the conditions leading up to the moment of movement can already be seen to be in place in the structure. Thom proposed his seven forms of catastrophe to account precisely for how object-events unfold I n one sense, then, catastrophe theory can explain abrupt changes in state or form, such as figure to ground, urban to rural, commercial to housing, by means of complex folds that

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remain unseen. This quality of the unseen folding deals with the fact that it neither stands out from nor looks like the old but is somewhere between the old and the new, an in-between or third figure. It can never be neutral; the fold is neither figure nor ground but contains aspects of both. Architecture can interpret the fold, which is essentially planar in three-dimensional volumes, but not merely as an extrusion from a plan (as in traditional architecture), but rather as something that affects both plan and section. The neutral surface of the catastrophic fold already exists between figure and ground, between plan and section, yet it is homogenous; it is not merely the appearance of a third, rather, it is a third in its own being. By introducing the concept of the fold as a nondialectical third condition, one between figure and ground yet reconstituting the nature of both, it becomes possible to reframe what is extant on any site. Such a reframing would express that which was repressed by former systems of authority - analytical or otherwise - and transform it into potentially new interpretations of existing organizations. The fold, I want to argue, becomes the site of all the repressed immanent conditions of existing urbanism, which at a certain point, like the grain of sand that causes the landslide, has the potential not to destroy existing urbanism but to set it off in a new direction. The fold gives the traditional idea of edge new dimension: what was seen as an abrupt line now has a volumetric dimension, which both mediates and reframes conditions such as old and new, transport and arrival, commerce and housing - the fold is not merely a formal device, but a way of unfolding new social organizations from existing urban environments. Thus, as we near the end of one era and are about to enter a new one, there is an opportunity to reassess the entire idea of a static urbanism that deals only with objects, not with events. In a media age, static objects are no longer as meaningful as timely events, in which the temporal dimension of the present merges past and future.

E a r t h q u a k e , 1990 Glass, steel, p h o t o g r a p h s , l i g h t s a n d m o t o r

69 x 48'/z x 15 ' / z i n c h e s .
Jon Kessler Courtesy of L u h r i n g Augustine Gallery





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