(above) Philippe Petit walks on a wire between the Twin Towers in August, 1974.
At the edge, we perform at our peak, our best. We have no choice, really. Anything less and we fall off the edge, plunging into the unknown. The edge is a limit, in the first place of our knowledge. We have to push ourselves to get to it. The closer we come to the edge, the more we have to use the knowledge we have. At the edge only the hard-core knowledge is useful. All the frills and redundancies, the posturings and pretensions, simply get in the way and in fact will doom us to failure. At the edge it is only the essential and the authentic that count.
Architects rarely work anywhere near the edge. They usually operate well within the boundaries of what they comfortably know and what others know, too. We expect architecture to be stable and sure, indeed with just enough frills and pretensioms to make it a little, but not too, different from what we have known perhaps many times before. In this way, architecture can be reassuring and at the same time interesting. The designed spaces we inhabit, architects and their clients believe, should not push us to the edge, but instead keep us in a comfort zone, where we can live out our lives as fully as possible.
But wait. There is a contradiction here. If our goal is to live as fully as possible, to perform at our peak, our best, to use our most crucial knowledge and to shed all the superficialities that only distract us, then architecture that keeps us in the comfort zone, never testing our knowledge or skills or our will to excel, would seem to be somehow inadequate. The design of spaces we live in should challenge us to be imaginative, inventive, intrepid.
But wait again. Maybe most people prefer comfort to living fully, at the edge. Maybe we can live vicariously to the full—through movies, art, sports—that is, by watching others living at the edge, exercising their knowledge and skills to the limit. Throw in the occasional thrill ride at the theme park, or the once-in-a -lifetime car crash, or the inevitable death in the family, and that will do very nicely, thank you. Architecture, in this case, should give us refuge, sanctuary, protection from the extremes, placing us somewhere in a secure existential ‘middle.’
In today’s world, living in the middle has become, for many people, difficult. Living at the edge because of war, natural disasters, loss of homes, jobs, identities, they do not have the advantage of being actors, artists, or athletes trained to push themselves to the limits of their knowledge and skill, and perform at their best on the edge. Only those used to living in poverty, including slum-dwellers, learn somehow to live there, but their daily struggles for survival yield an abject victory at best. For the rest, the indignities of loss mount as they wait to be rescued. We do not often hear the stories of those for whom rescue never comes.
Philippe Petit’s walk on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, in August of 1974, tells us a lot about architecture and the edge. He and his team, who illegally penetrated the buildings’ security systems and rigged the wire, conceived the two towers as anchor points, stable and sure. Architecture, we believe, endures. Our lives continually moving within and around it are fleeting, ephemeral. It is a very great, but also instructive, irony that, in this case, the architecture did not endure. The towers were brought down by illegal ‘interventions’ different from Petit’s only in their intent to do harm, and to prove the instability of architecture. Both proved the vulnerability of presumably secure systems—especially the social ones symbolized by architecture—and shifted the focus of public perception and debate to what might be called ‘the endurance of ephemerality’ in contemporary worlds driven so often to the edge.
More on Philippe Petit’s August 1974 wire-walk:
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- February 21, 2010 / 10:04 pm
- Lebbeus Woods