The realm of architecture is one of apparent stability, but is actually one of restrained force or of forces held in equilibrium. The implications of tectonic stability for inhabitation are immediately apparent, but the epistemological implications are less so. I will touch on them here in only one regard.
In thinking of architecture as ‘at rest,’ we are adopting a position based on stability and predictability. Also, we are constructing a system of knowledge that privileges these qualities. This underpins our actions and dictates our goals. The unity and symmetry of monumental architecture refers symbolically to a harmonious and balanced universe, in which contending forces are reconciled. The traditional role of architecture has been one of reassuring us that things are under our control. But it is quite another thing to think of architecture as ‘in tension.’
An architecture in tension suggests a struggling architecture, and a humanity with limited control of nature, and of itself. The forces in such an architecture are activated, not pacified. For the moment, they seem to be held in check, at least to the extent they can be measured at all. Still, they are straining against the materials holding them. Experience teaches that this is not a stable or predictable situation. Change is inevitable, as the materials age or tire, or as they are affected by disturbances within or around them. The forces are, in effect, at war with the materials; they want to overcome them; they want to be free of materiality, to flow into the world’s vast oceans of energy, from which they will be reborn again and again, in countless cycles of transformation. Such an understanding of architecture conditions our outlook on the world and leads to the construction of a knowledge-system based on concepts and processes of transformation.
The installation of a tension field in The Cooper Union was small in size. The room was the size of a large classroom or of a modest laboratory for the testing of materials. At the same time, the installation had no absolute scale. The room was a frame placed around a 1:1 constructed landscape that could just as easily be read as much larger—or much smaller. Forces have magnitude, but no inherent scale. Only the materials—braided steel cables and wood rods (painted to conceal their wooden-ness)—spoke to both the magnitude and the scale. It was a test model, a mock-up of conditions that had the ambition to address a general, if not universal, condition: a spatial field in increasing tension.
The cables were strung from wall to wall, passing through vertical tubes of steel that allowed for changes of direction, until a fluctuating stream of forces were captured in tension. The cables, and the forces contained within them, were not connected. Then wood rods were inserted into the cables, increasing their tension by pulling them together or pushing them apart, putting the rods either in tension or compression. As more rods were added, the tension in the whole field increased. There was a breaking point, never reached, unknown in advance, at which the weakest point in the field would exceed the limit of its capacity to restrain the forces. Because the structure acted as a field and not as collection of independently stable, ‘classical’ objects, the failure of any element reduces the tension in the entire structure. The idea of transformation in a tension field is linked with inter-dependence of the elements in the field, and, more accurately, to their inter-connectedness. The field changes as an integrated whole, whatever its size or scale. And it performs as a space.
This tension field was a spatial field, that much is obvious. But the nature of its spaces cannot be accounted for by thinking of them as the products of design as we are accustomed to thinking of it. To the contrary, they were constructed in a kind of heuristic game in which I, as designer, actually designed only a set of ‘standard’ elements and general rules of their assembly, embodied in a small set of drawings, and left it for collaborators to make. It would have been possible to assemble the elements—cables and rods—in any number of different ways without changing in essence the nature of the field or its spaces. In short, there was no hierarchy in the process of designing, or in the placement of elements and their resulting spaces. But it still mattered, in an existential sense, and without an imposed hierarchy to signify degrees of importance, exactly how the elements are assembled. Different configurations result in different effects. These impact our experiences of the field. They also facilitate our knowledge of it differently. A dense assemblage of rods and cables informs us, in a spatial sense, differently than a dispersed assemblage. Yet, the subjects of our knowledge are still ‘field’ and ‘assembly,’ and, ultimately, ‘experience,’ even though understood from quite different points of view. By way of analogy, the difference would be roughly the same as the idea of ‘landscape’ as understood by a person living in the country and a person living in the city. In the tension field, unlike the apparently stable field of independent objects dispersed in a designed spatial order, the non-hierarchical order of spaces, the spatially variable and conceptually indeterminate order of spaces, enables each person—regardless of standpoint—to comprehend that they share with others not only the same planetary surface, but the same degree of experience. There is a caveat, however. Inter-connectedness and global consciousness come with a price. Each person feels the increase in tension produced by the others. The tension field acts as a whole, though without being unified in the classical sense of being designed. Uncertainty as to where the next pressure point will be increases the tension in the system. As the tension increases it feeds back into the entire field. Independent actions occur, and often, but the idea of pure autonomy is effectively rendered obsolete.
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- December 19, 2009 / 10:39 pm
- Lebbeus Woods