The Literal and the Spectacular

After the rapid development of visual effects, from early experiments with maquettes and optical effects to seamless digital animation and manipulation, the notion of a basic truth to the visual world as experienced through media has been obliterated and viewers, by default, no longer believe their eyes. This is a protective behavior: without being able to tell the difference between "real" and manufactured images the only other option is the exact opposite, to believe everything, to be at home in a world of walking robot cars and resurrected pirate ships captained by octopus-men. The added popularity of reality television in recent years has further exacerbated this condition such that even unlikely situations in real life, away from any media device (if such a thing is even possible), are questionable. Am I on camera?

This is the scarred battlefield of imagery that forced Fallon, a London-based ad agency, to drop 250,000 actual bouncy balls down an actual street in San Francisco, CA in an attempt to create a remarkable "visual celebration of color" for Sony. That viewers are so skeptical of the reality of anything seeming even slightly spectacular forced Fallon and Sony to buttress the ad itself with a website describing the actuality of the production. In the same vein as the pyramids at Giza, this commercial is both a stunning visual experience and a logistical feat. Indeed, a sense of wonder develops out of the combination of the two: this is why the "Pyramid of Las Vegas" doesn't have quite the same ring to it and the bouncy balls would not have developed nearly as much interest if they were merely another digital particle system.

The success of Sony's bouncy balls commercial and its two follow ups, using paint and claymation bunnies respectively, belies a current cultural interest in the intersection of the literal and the spectacular- a handful of physical bouncy balls would have been just as uninteresting as a million digitally simulated balls. Yet despite being fantastic orchestrations of material, to accept these commercials as literal representations of reality (even if we temporarily excuse the weighty artifice of commercial film) is to overlook the extent to which digital and physical have fused in the production of contemporary media. Removed from all of the shots is the equipment of the fantastic, the armatures that allow these spectacular material formations to occur in the world. Rather than leave them as trace or rely on the use of camera angles to hide the methods of production, Fallon digitally removed mortars shooting bouncy balls, canisters containing paint awaiting explosion, and wire stands allowing bunnies to hang perpetually in mid-leap. These three commercials are a kind of worked-over reality: not an additive product of augmentation so much as un augmented or- to reverse time temporarily- un-touched. This digital retouching of armatures (wire removal, as the industry calls it) is the process of creating visual foam: real matter artificially inflated.

What is an architecture of "real matter artificially inflated?" Quickly the mind scans from the literally ballooning, to hollowed spheres, and to the hidden space of poche. On the other hand, histopomo's flattening of traditional building elements into a compositional skin that hangs on an otherwise contemporary structural frame is a kind of forced inflation as well. I'd like to propose that a more subtle definition of the term would mobilize the spectacular and the literal to create a tentatively supported condition: space on the verge of popping.

Mies' expansive, echoing lobby plan at the Neue Nationalgalerie, for instance, is too open, too materially refined, and too self-supported. Although the space inside Mies' pavilions is tentative in that it may be reconfigured at will, the container itself is heroic, commanding, and singular. One need only travel a few blocks to find Scharoun's alternative in the Philharmonie. Here the fractured planes of the main listening hall itself form a space which is already bursting at the seams. The primacy of this one room in the building has allowed its supporting functions such as stairs and columns to fall freely into neighboring spaces. That is to say, the logic of the lobby is not revealed until one has already entered the listening hall.

While Scharoun's more expressive formalism does create spaces which oscillate between being provisional and stately, the rest of the building is made to suffer. In contrast to Scharoun and Mies, the Casa Da Musica by OMA provides a satisfyingly foamy building through its combination of affect and geometry. Porto presents a simple formula: where the spaces are simple, go crazy with material and where the spaces are crazy, stay simple with material. Spatial continuity is provided between the hall, its support spaces, and the outside through the clever use of materials which results is a concert hall so punctured by instruments of affect (mega-scale corrugated glazing, gold leaf walls, an acoustic balloon) that the otherwise dead simple geometry of the space cannot help but vibrate.

OMA myth describes the Casa as the result of subtractive operations, but it's actually full of hot air.
Porto inverts the relationship between oblique and cartesian but everyone is so caught up in materiality that this goes unnoticed. By casting the concert hall as the single cartesian space in the building, the rest of the program is left to fend for itself in a mesh of pocket spaces caught between the hall and the oblique exterior. The sheer formal variety of these left over spaces produces its own oblique subjectivity, a religion of the boulder that erases any complaints about the original contrivance of the exterior. Whereas Corbusier mobilized his free plan to allow irregular forms to sit inside a regular grid, he did so by giving these irregular objects a wide berth, tending to let them effect the circulatory tissue of large buildings and thus focusing on their sculptural presence more than space making potential. OMA's inversion of regular and irregular as they exist in the Corbusian model gives the honorific space of the building functional priority while mobilizing the affect of the oblique to save the support spaces from becoming undifferentiated cells.

While the architect is not allowed the freedoms of digital wire removal, they may trade special effects for the power of affect to color our perception of a space. The spectacle of the Sony commercial is concerned with this balance between expectations of reality and the possibility of the spectacular exception. Even if the actual hand is unseen, the presence of the hand that set these systems in motion is critical to the reception of the commercials as real, valid, not digital manipulation. Thus only a building that hosts spectacular spatial experiences while simultaneously articulating the forces that shape these spaces may be considered foamy. No dough without a vessel to form it in. At the Casa Da Musica, oblique geometry is employed to erase the traditional, more banal conception of support spaces. With the cartesian geometry of the main hall actively contested by its material reality, and subsequently the support spaces forced to become oblique (and thus provisional c.f. Virilio), the totality of the building is agitated into a lively, foamy whole both literal (observable) and spectacular.