THE QUESTION OF SPACE
Space is essentially a mental construct. We imagine space to be there, even if we experience it as a void, an absence we cannot perceive.
Space is always the implication of objects. For an object to exist, we think, it needs some kind of space. So, the first space we can imagine is the space occupied by objects.
In order to see an object we must be separate from it. A space must exist between us and the object. Therefore, we imagine a space around the object, and also around ourselves, because, at some stage in our mental development, we realize that we, too, are objects. Space is the medium of our relationships with the world and everything in it, but, for all of that, we do not experience it in a palpable, physical sense. We must think space into existence.
It is worth pausing to consider this assertion. If space is mental and non-material, what does this say about our relationships to the world? And to the idea and reality of architecture?
First, we should consider the probability of the assertion. Isn’t space palpable? Isn’t it filled with substance, the air we breathe, and move through and feel as a tangible presence? Isn’t this the way we know space? No, it is not. When we feel the wind blowing, we do not say “I feel the space moving.” The air and the wind are only inhabitants of the space, like us. Space itself is something else. What is it?
Thinking of movies, we must admit that the spaces in which movies we see are acted out have only minimal physical reality, as projections on a screen. Nevertheless, they have a full spatial presence that we experience directly and also remember. If this were not the case, we would come away from a movie speaking of our experience of a two-dimensional surface we have seen in a dark room illuminated by moving patterns of light, shadow and color. But we do not. We speak as though we had ‘been there.’ This ‘being there,’ in the scenography of the movie, is a reality we experience only in our minds—still, we were there, because space itself is always only mental. On the other hand, we do not believe that we were part of the narrative, or were the characters acting it out. We identify ourselves with them, and the events of their lives, but we do not consider them real. The very fact that our experience of space is essentially mental and not physical makes the ‘movie space’ real. For this reason, we can say that it is the reality of the space that gives the movie’s action and the actors credibility, not the other way around. Even movies with the most unbelievable screenplays and the most inept actors can still leave a strong and entirely credible spatial impression, as countless ‘noir’ B-movies attest.
Movies were the first ‘virtual’ realities. Before them, paintings and other forms of graphic art worked in a similar way. Piranesi’s etchings of ‘prisons’ stay in our minds much more vividly than any similarly grand space—say, the atrium of an enormous contemporary hotel—that we have actually walked through. Surely part of this vividness is due to the superiority of Piranesi’s spatial design, but this would matter little if the etching and the atrium were not in some important way the same in our experience. After the movies comes the computer, in all its manifestations. As we stand on the threshold of a world defined in terms of digitally-generated realities, we need to consider more carefully than ever before the question of space and the nature of its reality.
Consider the example given by Albert Einstein in his popular book Relativity. Here, he defines particular space as arising from the simple act of establishing coordinates within general space. So, simply drawing a box with conceptually thin—that is, non-physical—lines is enough to bring a distinct and separate space into being. Let us test his thought. Well, if we think of Austria or Thailand, we take the point. The existence of such spaces is conceptual, because the lines of the box, the ‘borders’ of the nations, drawn between the coordinate points only mentally are physical only on maps. Nevertheless, we regard them as real, even when we traverse the actual landscape they circumscribe. When it comes to space, the mental is as potent as the physical. What is the physical, after all, but sensations impacting the neural nets of our brains? Where do the sensations come from? How do we know that what we see is not an artifice of projections onto the brain? Ultimately, we do not. Space, in the end, is what we think it is.
It is easy to fool the senses, and therefore the mind. Epics of human history are largely written in terms of places that exist only as idea: motherland, fatherland, homeland, nation, country. The gullibility of human beings to be seduced by the reality of that we only think exists is the source of our dreams and fantasies, and also of our inventions—seeing what is not there, as though it were. But that is only half the story. The other half of intelligence is its skepticism. How true are our sensations? Our thoughts? Can we trust them? Is space real, just because we think it is? Are, then, dreams real? And movies? And projects drawn by architects that describe objects that might exist physically but do not?
The question of what is real touches on profound philosophical questions. The most critical of these concerns the limitations of our capabilities to know through our sense-organs, and our abilities to imagine through our cognitive faculties. For now, we must settle for provisional answers, and the most salient of these seems to be that the limits of the real are isomorphic with the limits of what we can conceive.
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- November 19, 2009 / 12:53 am
- Lebbeus Woods