Monday, December 15, 2008


It seems that I am to write a little piece here about titles and their metaphysical independence from the entitled. I have no idea why I feel obligated to do so. It's as if  I'm possessed by a spirit which read Borges in a truly loose translation and (only vaguely comprehending the philosophic principals--namely, Idealism--that seem to lie behind the master's fictions) decided to cynically hammer Borgesian motifs into an unlikely ontological schema derived from the practice of architectural design.


Anyway....a few years back I had access to a fabrication lab and several capable computer-numerically-controlled subtractive machines, the most important of which for this parable was a water jet that cut--well, nearly anything under it--with a highspeed fluid chocked full of abrasive corundum sand. As a graduate student in architecture in an astonishingly exclusive program, as part of a course dealing with the concepts involved with "craftsmanship," I had been given a fairly nebulous assignment to develop a technique involving the process of "inlay" in some form.

I was already fascinated but dismissive of architectural numerology, which had not been annointed as "generative" or "algorithmic" design then and largely manifested itself in many of my fellow students and our supposed instructors as a bizarre near-religious reverence for certain mathematical relationships that were to "be found in nature," most notably "the Golden Section" or phi.  I held then (as now) that you could establish that any kind of mathematical relationship had a consecrating "basis in natural forms"--if only you looked long and hard enough. It wasn't the particular magic numbers that was the maniacal stance that one assumed in pursuing them. Therefore I was always postulating (but not publicly, lest I be branded a heretic) that certain numbers were Really Important in Odd Ways. For instance (and I still like to do this) I would decide that the number 17 was an Evil Number because no one really likes it and therefore designs that had angular and linear measurements derived in cryptic ways from the number 17 would be Om-in-nous and Dis-turb-ing.  Of course, you couldn't just use multiples or divisions of 17 for these relationships. There were special rules.  For instance, the first Evil Multiple of 17 was 33, not 34...because no one really likes the number 33. And etc.--I would develop whole frameworks of contrived portentousness that could be used to secretly justify this, that, or the other choice in any architectural design quandary. 

I took some arrangement of rectangles proportioned according to some such instantly and callously sanctified mathematical relationship, copied the grid three times, and finally skewed each copy according to some equally arbitrary but instantly hallowed corollary to my numerological conceit. (I'm delighted to admit that, having analyzed the resulting geometry again tonight, for the first time in years, I find it absolutely impossible to reconstruct from the ratios of my measurements the particular numerological system that I used for this, although I clearly remember developing one! Ah, the ghost of intent!)

For my project I developed the notion that I would overlap (once again, according to some arbitrary rule system) these skewed grids; combine the results using a system of "perverse" Boolean operations; and finally use these--and a convenient circle with a diameter determined by the shortest length of the water jet's cutting bed--as tool paths for cutting four different sorts of materials so that the resulting different-thickness and differently-textured fragments could be layered and registered in a way consistent of with my arbitrary other words, inlaid.

Initially I had in mind as a subjects for this heretical mathematical surgery some sheet steel, half-inch plywood, some quarter-inch marble tile, and a piece of concrete cast in a half-ovoid "dome" with  the flat underside fitting into the cutting-bed-limited circle.  

A few tests with the jet indicated that the thicker of my various targets would not cut with enough cleanness for me to risk expensive, new-bought materials, nor could the tool itself be trusted not to make random extensions or other unexpected modifications to the cutting paths.  So I filled a crate with various pieces of sheet-good trash pulled from construction sites and tested the contents in turn against the jet. In the end, the inlay process was accomplished with a piece of warped exterior siding; some corroded galvanized duct-metal; some hundred-year-old fir that had once been sub-flooring in a Victorian house; cementious backing board; and a thick ovoid "dome" of plaster of Paris (as opposed to concrete--and cast in a milled form made of inexpensive coarse-cell expanded polystyrene foam that gave it a texture of either bone or coarse-cell e.p.s. foam, depending on your generosity of spirit).  Given the less-than-immaculate conditions of the materials, the inaccuracies and accidental erosion resulting from the jet's action are not apparent.  It all seems deliberate.  Which is of course the real secret to a successful design undertaking: make it look like you meant for that (whatever accident "that" is) to happen all along.

As I glued it all up, I added some oxidized Dutch-metal "fake gold" leaf on the lowest wooden surface to give the piece that extra, nearly-hidden dollop of degraded Byzantine glamour. I had already decided that after the assignment was completed and reviewed that I would treat my assembled artifact as an objet d'art and hang it on a (sturdy) wall somewhere.  (I should explain that architecture school--largely a prolonged and painful hazing ritual--was all about doing pointless, fad-ish, complex things that consumed much time or much material or both while holding no lasting aesthetic, pragmatic, or experiential value for the student or anyone else. Consequently, at every opportunity and with varying degrees of success, I strove to subvert the whole pointless rite-of-passage and produce designs and objects which could be secretly re-purposed to something other than the detritus of an architectural education.)

In terms of technique I more than met the requirements of the course, but even here there were questions from the instructor and the other students about "the design" when I presented the product of my effort. This was a small, unpopular seminar, and the instructor was decidedly not one of those narcissistic, insecure martinets (the recognized or self-proclaimed luminaries of the field) that one tended to find in the more sought-after courses and studios. As I was approaching the end of my degree, and I had a sense that I had wasted huge sums of my savings on my tuition and even more valuable years of my life, I for once had little qualms in admitting that I had cynically developed a unique numerology as an artifice for proceeding with my work. To my surprise, no one was offended or accused me of abrogating my "responsibilities" as a "designer." I suspect that was because the seminar was shared between the graduate school of architecture and the very foreign (to us) graduate school of art...provision had been made for the artists who were perfectly used to assuming ulterior, exterior, cynical, and entirely provisional strategies for the creation of objects without any value other than aesthetics and personal symbolism. OR perhaps no one understood my explanation. OR they instantly dismissed me as mad. (One can never rule out the last.)

"So does it have a title?" someone--an artist, I think--asked.

"Yes, something like 'Abstract with Rotations at Such-and-such Degrees'."

"Really?  That's all?" someone laughed.

And then one of those strange things happened: an idea appeared in my head without prompting, without any clear antecedent. I heard myself say,  "Let's just call it Portrait of Agamemnon, then. Doesn't that change everything?"

And it did, as if some magic had been worked.  

To this day, when I walk by the piece (which hangs at the top of a flight of stairs in my house, as pictured here, close to an item featured in another post), I find myself thinking about royal, arrogant, doomed Agamemnon and his tragic milieu, which I have since felt compelled to study and understand as well as a non-Mycenaean or a non-archaeologist can. I don't find myself, unless I make an effort, thinking about a spurious numerological operation performed on construction debris. As I have noted, I can no longer remember exactly what system I developed for determining the geometrical relationships. It was most certainly not one based on the number 17 (although--no kidding--I later did use exactly that for my Pavilion for Oblivion project!)

I wish I still had access to a water jet. I'd really like to develop a heretical numerology that could cut an Electra companion piece.


Paulo Guerreiro said...

Fascinating, in my junior year we had to read Robert's Lawlor Sacred Geometry, it starts with the golden ration a evolves into phi and later the Vesica Pixies, and some examples in architectural examples in classical terms, maintaining along the way the relation with "nature's geometries"..... This initiation took me to Lubic's Temple in man, amazing book, sometimes a bit of a stretch. Along the way we can perceive that some numbers, and number ratios, relations whatever, are always associated with certain visual patterns, some of a relative "beauty and harmony", and others generating alternative relations, that some would name "disproportion and dis-harmony".
Back then we did a test, with shapes based on golden geometry mixed with others more random, the first were picked as being the most "attractive", they were also the most regular or symmetrical, very interesting to perceive this.. Rudolf Arnhein and some others relate this events with Gestalt theories, some quite interesting.

Personally, i still maintain great interest in this subject, I think that might yet be new ways to explore, hence my keen interest in natural structures and shapes. If i could get my hands on a laser cutter or something, i would experiment a couple of things.
About Agamemnon, at a time i was let to believe that the name of sculpture was just a number, 17 or related, the name Agamemnon 17 stayed in my mind... i guess I've adopted it !!!

Thanks Lewis, great post