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InVERTego Author(s): Thomas Leeser Source: Assemblage, No. 16 (Dec., 1991), pp.

54-69 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 20/02/2011 21:12
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Medieval scholarsof optical sciences were quite aware that they could not anticipate the future applications of their most advanced principlesand theories. Among the most sophisticated of these scientific theories was that of the image formation in a concave spherical mirror,a structure in which an erect and virtual image appears behind the mirror, while in front an image appears that is inverted and real. In his discussionsof the mirrorstage, Lacan would describe the same diagram: "Virtualimages in some instances behave like objects, and real images
can be made into virtual objects .... Here the imagi-


naryspace and the real space fuse, nonetheless, they have to be conceived of as different." Thisexact principleis at work in that most powerful and promisingeye of the twentieth century penetrating outer space, the Hubbletelescope; only here, through a flaw in the mirror'scurvature,the inverted and real image being produced is also distorted. A condition exists in which we are blinded, disrupted in our desire to make the real image coincide with the imaginary.As Jacqueline Rose puts it, this "lossof perceptual coordinates..., an undifferentiated vision of the world in the present," prevents us from locating ourselves "in either space or time." The present project is based on inversion,difference, and immaterializationin the postmodern world. The inversion diagram serves as a reference for the structure. Eachend of the structure is an inverse of the other; the projection of any point of the two ends forms a line; any line eventually forms two points, which define the extent of the previouslydescribed line. The images inverted through the projection of these lines undergo a similartransition from a real to
a virtual condition. If what is upside-down is seen as real, what is right-side-up becomes the image of the virtual: "For there to be an optics, for each given point in real space, there must be a corresponding point in the virtual, the imaginary space" (Lacan). Thus a line is not conceived, in the tradition of Western thinking, as a linear continuum, but rather as a

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constantly changing condition of inversion. In optics, this process of translation is known as the circle of confusion: through variations in the polished surfaces of a single lens a projection produces simultaneously two spatially and directionallydistinct focal lines. In psychoanalyticdiscourse,this diagram is used to explain the splitting of the Ur-lch(the originating self) from the external world of difference. The interest of the diagram for this project lies in its potential to spatially manifest the liquidityof processes - as opposed to the stasis of iconic imagery. Fusingthe confusion of difference and realizing the folding in and onto itself of realityand virtuality makes it possible to allude to issues of gender, sexuality, and desire, to electronic and televisual environments, to biological and nonperspectivalspace, without having to resort to the display of their respective images. Traditionalhierarchicalpower relations are undercut through an ever-present simultaneity. One thing is always also the other. This disturbanceof power relations is perceived precisely at the point where inversiontakes place. This "zero space" can be described as a space of no depth, as a line and two points. All parts of any image by which space is produced must eventually pass through the "zero space" of translation and will generate a distorted and inverted reflection of themselves. Through this virtualizationof space, the twin inhabitants that programmaticallyoccupy opposite ends of the structure,at any given time each standing on the plane that forms the other's ceiling, are irrevocablyentwined with one another, even though physicallyapart. The inhabitants' twinness is thus spatially inscribedin the structureand creates a condition of inseparabilityin absentia: each is caught within the liquid mirror. The introduction of the double twists the experience of the other. Suddenly,the inhabitant is not only confronted with his virtual reality, but further confused with yet another mirroring.To again turn the



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logic of the inversion process onto itself, we could now quote Lacanmirrored:"Foreach given point in virtual, imaginaryspace, there must be a corresponding point in real space"; "objects in some instances behave like virtual images, and virtual images can be made into real objects." Thismanifest heterotropia allows for a deliberate false recognition between the doubles the virtual reality of one projection seen as the inverted reality of its double. But with this structure turned upside down, one erect and two inverted images can be read on one side at the same time as one inverted and two erect images are read on the other. The misreading of the virtual reality of one projection as the inverted reality of the other guarantees the process will be seen as a complex folding back and forth and inside out rather than as a singular, linear event. The continuous process of "copying"introduces, like a Xerox machine, mutations that then open the door for further impurities.Function,arbitraryand interchangeable, seeming familiaronly to disclose its alienated and estranged reality, appears radicallyas an impurity,a perfect accident. Shifting the focal line of each projection out of alignment, one upward, the other downward, introduces another impurity.It produces, on top of the doubling, a blurringthat further undermines the possibilityof reference and reinforcesthe immaterializationof the image. and misrecognition have become essential Invisibility of the war machineryin this century. Whether aspects through the "dazzle painting" of battleships in World War I or now through the electronic noise and radar that evades stealth aircraft,deception is a condition of immaterialization.And, as was quicklydiscovered, it is not invisibilityalone, but deliberate conspicuousness that achieves the desired state of confusion. Thisdislocation of images from their respective objects, Rose's "indeterminacyof the visual sign," represents a fundamental loss of (self-)referentiality.To enforce such a reconfiguration of image and identity in this project, a process of delamination and slippage has been introduced. The surface, separated from the structure be-




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low, slips slightly out of register, displacing its edges without actually reshaping the volume itself. Here opacity becomes transparency,allowing for literal cracksin the shell. The multiple pieces, like the reconfigured elements of a broken jar, no longer fit together properlyand thus encourage the inhabitants to enter the entire structurecritically.



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ThomasLeeserteaches architectureat and is a practicing Princeton University architect in New YorkCity. 60


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Architect:Thomas Leeser. Assistants:HideakiAriizumi, J6rg Gleiter, CarySiresswith BrendanCotter, Jennifer Hocking, Michelle Lederer,and Jeff Borck. Structure:Guy Nordenson and RayCrane(Ove Arup & Partners).

P. 54, left. David C. Lindberg, Studies in the Historyof Medieval Optics (London:Variorium Reprints,1983). P. 56, upper right. JacquesAlain Miller, The Seminarof Jacques Lacan,bk. 1, Freud's Paperson Technique, 19531954 (New York:W. W. Norton & Co., 1991). P. 58, lower left. Bernard Fitzsimons,Warshipsof the FirstWorld War(London:BPC PublishingLtd., 1973). All other images courtesy of the architect.

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16 assemblage


Dead Ringers: Thomas Leeser's Falling House

Today the architect'sdesires (and resistances)play themselves out in constant negotiation with stated and unstated theoretical paradigms.To make visible these paradigms, it may sometimes be necessaryto brush theory against its grain. "What is at stake," notes Slavoj Zi ek, "in the endeavor to 'look awry' at theoretical motifs is not just a kind of contrived attempt to 'illustrate'high theory, to make it 'easily accessible, and thus to spare us the effort of effective thinking. The point is rather that such an exemplification, such a mise-en-scene of theoretical motifs renders visible aspects that would otherwise remain unnoticed" (LookingAwry:An Introductionto Lacanthrough Popular Culture[Cambridge, Mass.:MITPress,1991], 3). Thomas Leeserhas proposed the design process of the Falling House as preciselysuch a "mise-en-sceneof theoretical motifs." In an uncanny programmaticfit, this house for twin brothers (a brain surgeon and an eye researcher)stages an exercise in models of perception, representation, and vision. But translation, in its literalness, is blind to theory. The confirmation that the object would seem to offer is paradoxical.It unravelsthe very possibilityof a linear movement from theoretical model to exemplification. Leeserselected a diagram of the "image formation in a concave spherical mirror" an "objective" of technical information fragment proposing an available surplusof architecturalcontent in the diagram. The trajectoryof the project consists in drawing out the potential of that part of architecture'stheoretical apparatus (from Brunelleschito Lacan) 66

that concerns geometry and perception. Already implicit in the starting point are the conundrumsof reflection, identity, and doubling, but also an asymmetry,a swerve. By a complex and largely empirical process, Leeserconstructed numerous "wire frame" models in the attempt to shape the diagram in three dimensions. These wire-frame models act as spatial coordinates, later to be assigned volume or materiality. Fully aware that the diagram represents only a reduced and limited description of the phenomenon of image formation, Leeseralso extended the boundaries of the diagram. The resulting diagram of intersecting optical planes generalizes the model. A further development complicates and undermines this generalization. Leeserdislocated the planes one from the next, destabilizing the idealized viewing point from which the distortions could be regulated and controlled. The resulting "heterotropie" simulate the blurringof vision. This reproduces an effect Lacanhas described as aphanisis, a splitting and fading away of the subject: "Thereis no subject without, somewhere, aphanisis of the subject, and it is in this alienation, in this fundamental division, that the dialectic of the subject is established" (FourFundamental [New Concepts of Psycho-Analysis York:Norton, 1981], 221). This doubling of vision, in turn, produces structuraluncertainty.The viewer lacksa fixed datum against which distortion or fragmentation can be registered. The expectation that the site might provide this stability is so far denied. Leeserdeveloped the house without detailed knowledge of the site, on the basis of an internal logic.


He grafted the object onto the site and extended and elaborated the resulting connections and resonances. Not surprisingly,this led to a close fit of the house to site. The logic of the house in this way produced its own siting. The house takes its form through the obsessive reiteration of a series of related themes: inversion, reflection, and doubling. But this semantic reduction does not clarifythe object. This is not a process of stripping away the idea to its essence, but rather of drowning the origin in the elaboration of its possibilities.The project acquires density by means of a deceptive literalness. It is a simple object that can never be described simply.The theoretical model is put into play not to demonstrate its smooth workings, but to reveal complications and hidden inconsistencies. Theory'sdouble is practice inverted in a concave mirror. So far, the description of the house has been a rehearsal of the process of its design. This is, in a sense, to fall into the trap that the house sets. Appealing to geometry as a privileged language of description establishes a kind of fatal symmetry. Forgeometric description can only imperfectly reiterate the complex architecture of its process. To think that the diagram
in any

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way explains the house would be a mistake. It would be to accede to the regulating power of the geometric structureas object. The critic(like the architect) of necessity describes the house by reference to geometry, but with full awareness that such a description may be completely inadequate. It intentionally riskssaying nothing about the house. This reconstruction may or may not be faithful

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to the actual process of design. Embedded in the object is the memory and trace of a process of engendering geometric transformations. But the process cannot justify the object. Processis always already outside of the field of the object, inflected by the object itself and incapable of derailing its logic. In postmodern practice, geometry's authority to establish limits and closure is not so much negated as bypassed. Inthis case, the object in question presents itself as an arbitrarysampling of the field of potential effects suggested by the optical diagram. This partial solution gives the construction a sense of provisionality.The argument here is not that this is the only configuration to be derived from this diagram, but rather that this precise configuration could not have been imagined without this process. Despite the virtuosityof the demonstration, doubts linger. The first has to do with the status of geometry: its capacity to map vision and perception. Implicitin the project to diagram perception is a faith in the authority of geometry to arbitrate relations of desire and to construct subjectivity- in short, the whole hygienic-panoptic project of modernism. Leeser maintainsthe propriety of the geometric and, consequently, enforces the claim of geometry as the exclusive property of the architect. The form of the diagram is translated unproblematicallyinto material. Isthis fundamentally different from Palladio'sinscriptionof harmonic ratios or Le Corbusier'suse of regulating lines? Inthis context, it is interesting to note Lacan'sown caution in introducingthe conventional geometrical models of vision that he sometimes used to exemplify his



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ideas. In his later work, he drew from non-Euclideangeometry and topology in the effort to describe the structureof the unconsciousand from interconnected flow charts of currentsand algorithms in an effort to map desire. (Jacques-AlainMiller, in the "Commentaryon the Graphs" appended to Ecrits,notes that "if it is true that perception eclipses structure, a schema will infalliblylead the subject 'to forget in an intuitive image the analysison which it is based.'... Such a precaution reveals the inadequation in principle between the graphic representation and its object (the object of psychoanalysis).Moreover, all the constructions gathered together here have no more than a didactic role: their relation with the structure is one of analogy.") Perception, which for Lacanalways implicatesthe fluidity of the gaze and the flux of desire, is simplytoo complicated to be reduced to fixed, geometrical models. Related to this is a curious metaphoricalslippage sponsored by the indifference of the diagram. The diagram can only signify in the broadest and most general sense. (Note, in this context, Norman Bryson'scritique of structuralismas a "disposition to treat structureas though it were information, and to regard what may be only a feature permitting communication as communication already.") But in this case, the close fit of the formal thematic of inversionwith the twin clients suggests an unfolding of programand meaning in the development of scenarios for inhabitation. When the bodies are projected into the house, however, the program no longer coheres. Functionsare assigned and spaces occupied arbitrarily.One


fromLacan, 6. Diagram Ecrits




7. Film fromDavid still Cronenberg,

Dead Ringers

brother walks on the other's ceiling; stairs invade the interstices of the diagram. These juxtapositions seem insignificant given the larger claim of the program. Nowhere is occupancy doubled. The diagram reveals its shortcomings; program cannot be addressed with the same rigor that attends formal development. This, in turn, throws into question the original signifying claim. After all, why should a house for twin brothers necessarilyengage the thematics of twinness, optics, and perception? For reasons social, technological, and political, it seems anachronisticthat the primarysignifying claim of the house would be to represent the vocation of its owners. How does this differ from the eighteenth-century
ideas of an architecture parlante?

the reduction of the body to vectors and ciphers.The "clean war" in the Gulf was a risk-freemathematical event, illuminated by shadowless "video light." Inthe last decade of the twentieth century, geometric abstraction may be the safest of all possible languages. In David Cronenberg'sfilm Dead Ringers,by contrast, the conundrumsof identity and difference (not to mention gender and sexuality) elicited by the question of twinness are only resolved by bloodletting and death. In this limpid, sculpturalobject, the shadows - of ideology, representation, or subjectivity- are lacking. Whether one can imagine today an architecturethat could adequately confront these issues is another question. Leeser has attempted this "impossibility"and in so doing he has shaken architecture out of some of its customarydull habits. Perhaps here, despite the architect'sdesires, there is a tacit recognition of a diminished program for architecture. This would be to suggest that any project is partial and provisional;to recognize this provisionalitywithout quite believing in it would be the basis for continued work. Stan Allen

In Response to Stan Allen

Welcoming a criticalreview of and commentary on my work, I have to admit to being somewhat pleased by the disturbancesof the critic,since I would find it less challenging only to disturbthe habitual customs of a client and his relationshipto architecture. But I would, however, like to take the opportunity to clarifythree points. First,if my interest had been to "represent the vocation" of the client, in an architectureparlante, whether the clients were fishermen, eye or brain surgeons, then the project might have been simply about a fish, an eye, or a brain. But it seems to me that the issues explored do not address any of these things. Second, the concern that the house is a "sanitized object that does not admit the presence of dirt" implies an idea of waste and dirt actually being dirty (schmutzig). Intoday's politics of space, contamination might not reveal itself in the traditional form of dirt. Schmutz might infiltrate our houses as the "clean mathematical event" of a Gulf War moving across the polished glass of a television monitor. Third,the critique of geometry as a model for architecturalprocesses ignores not only that architecture is on some level always geometric, but also that here the geometric model is put into play against itself. Geometry is not an endpoint. As the project calls into question the status of the subject, it inherently questions the status of geometry. T. L.

What disturbs,finally, is the projection of this house as a sanitized object. It is presented as a highly abstract sculpturalobject that does not admit the presence of dirt, waste, or contamination. Rendered in polished concrete, aircraftaluminum, and prismaticglass, it seems aloof not only to history and the passage of time, but also to its politics. Digital technology makes possible

Figure Credits
1, 3-5. Courtesyof Thomas Leeser. 2. Jacques Lacan,The Four Fundamental (New York: Concepts of Psycho-Analysis

Norton,1978). A 6. Jacques Lacan, (New Ecrits: Selection York: Norton,1977). 7. Courtesy UnitedArtists. of