Archive for June, 2005


On Space, Western Architecture and 9/11


1. Introduction

Perhaps the best way to surprise oneself is to look a bit more closely at what seems totally obvious. Looking at it more closely may surprise and can give us great pleasure. What was always there, suddenly appears for the very first time. For instance, if you use glasses, you know you never actually see them. Until you loose them; THEN you go into “panic” mode. One such deceptively simple reality lies behind the concept of space. We move through space as fish through water; we rarely even notice it. Again, we seem to do so only negatively, that is, specially when some object obstructs our movements and we trip. Suddenly we find ourselves cursing the thing which made us “think” about space itself!

Or you might wonder at spatial realities we take for granted; for instance, that the space in the classroom —-or in prison, or in the hospital, as Foucault points out—- must be set in such and such a form. If the classroom is simply a set of rows, then the teacher appears as all-governing; if the chairs are set out in a circle, then the teacher becomes a participant, although still a privileged one. And for sure, in many cases there may be no chairs because of poverty. But the issue concerns not simply objects out there, as in the classroom, but even the very way we relate to others. In the previous example of the classroom, the space between students and professors in North America has strict legalistic and prohibitive boundaries; meanwhile, in Latin America teachers and students require a certain closeness which sometimes even involves the comfort of benign touch.

But isn’t space just something quite easy to understand? Under a common view, a view to which we moderns have become accustomed to, the puzzle behind space is easily “answered” by being equated to the distance between things. Want to know the space between two things? Well, just measure it. The measurement gives 2 meters, that’s the space between stuff. (However, even when space is quantified, we cannot agree as to how to do it; some of us use meters, others who are more powerful use feet.)

Leaving aside the issue of how surprising it is that our bodies are fit for space (Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor marvels continuously at this taken for granted issue), and leaving aside the very important Kantian discussion of space, it must be stressed that the relation of the artist to space is quite unique and privileged. Here in dA, specially in the area of photography, one constantly sees amazing photographs of architectural landmarks. Architecture is THE foundational art that deals with the issue of space, in particular, modeling those lived spaces in which we humans inhabit our meaningful spatial world. In this sense, the first cavern which was inhabited was no longer simply a cavern; it had already become a primitive home affording the security of a shelter which allowed for the appearance of symbolic painting, for communal language and for a concern with the divine.

This foundational role of architecture was ironically captured by Frank Lloyd Wright who, while constructing the Guggenheim Museum, had to deal with letters by renowned artists who complained about the impossibility of their art being displayed on the curved walls and low ceilings of the, then, very controversial museum. Wright —-exemplifying his personality—- responded: “If the paintings are too large, cut them in half!” Such words allow us non-architects to acknowledge that architecture has an understanding of space which most of us lack. However, to reflect on the conceptual nature of the space which is the concern of architecture, is a task not all architects may have the skills to do. For this, some philosophers are needed. It is in this respect that architects –one could even say in general those many artists interested in issues of spatiality— and perceptive philosophers —trained in the difficult process of clarification of conceptual realities– must work together to get clearer on the perplexing nature of space. Perhaps in their combined efforts they might cross those spaces and boundaries which separate them. We political philosophers feel the need for such collaboration; do artists and architects?

Furthermore, it seems clear that the way we inhabit space is transformed historically and reflects our political regimes. The architecture of a democracy is not that of an aristocracy; the castle is not the place for a voting society. The architecture of a theocracy, such as that of Iran, is not that of a parliamentary regime. As our brilliant Colombian Architect Rogelio Salmona –creator of the inspiring Virgilio Barco public Library in my beloved Bogotá— wrote: “the architectonic is the path which I followed in order to find that modernity begins with a new perception of space … he who wants to produce another system of figuration, representation and construction of space, must know its evolution and know the moments ruptures are produced.” Spatiality has a history and therefore it is traversed by temporality. In this respect one should not expect the architectural spaces of Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Modern Canada, and that of the Inuit’s to be identical. But more primordially, the representation of space by the modern West becomes a topic unto itself.

The political question on the nature of modern spatiality becomes all the more urgent if one attends to the events of September 11, 2001. But you might ask: “what would the way we decide to inhabit space have anything to do with politics (a common theme of all my journals)?” Well one could do an exercise in imagination. The atrocious and cowardly attacks of 9/11 on the USA specifically, and on the West in general (e.g., the later infamous attacks on Madrid in 2004) —–it seems to me—- could be seen as attacks on some of the elements of the Modern Western conception of space. In this respect, the guiding questions for this very tentative journal is: If our views of space not only have personal or artistic values, but more primordially political and theological ones, then: Are the attacks of 9/11, which transformed the world radically, an attack on the very concept of space which guides the western view of spatiality? And connected to this question: Is there something that can be seen as arrogant, even hubristic, about some of our North American architecture, in particular of our financial institutions who have sought to reach the sky through the building of ever taller and taller skyscrapers? But if there is some truth to this, as the anti-globalization marches seem to portray, can we just simply let these institutions collapse without attending to the dangerous repercussions of such positions? More importantly; isn’t the emptiness we all felt after the 9/11 attacks, the very condition which allows us to reconsider our sense of space?

And going further still into very difficult and dangerous territory: does this sense of space as radically secular come into conflict with a sense of space permeated by the presence of the divine? “What do you mean,” you might ask. Well this; a Muslim’s sense of space is radically different from that of a secular westerner. For instance, if you are a secular unbeliever you might consider: have you ever thought about having to kneel down in prayer five times a day –according to the position of the sun— and forcing your body to direct itself towards a spatial reality which is the foundation of your faith, of your very sense of being and of your connection to the divine? [link] Do we westerners —even those who are believers— ever stop five times to reach out for the divine through the positioning itself of our bodies? Or consider the following: a pilgrimage is the way a believers traverses worldly spaces towards a certain reconciliation with the divine. Now, each and every Muslim ––with some monetary and health related exceptions— must do one in his/her life? In contrast: where does our western pilgrimage head towards? Unsure of myself, I ask, can two such different views of space actually find a space to meet? Or must space be obliterated continuously by the two parties, making it a real impossibility for us to inhabit the very same Earth which is our only spatial possibility?

Fortunately for us, there are within our western traditions, architects who have seen the issue very clearly. Among them, Kahn, Wright, Niemeyer, and Libeskind. In this respect perhaps it is worthwhile to remember what Wright thought of modern skyscrapers, the symbol of North American economic power: “Wherever human life is concerned, the unnatural stricture of excessive verticality cannot stand against more natural horizontality.” Words by Wright that could not have foreseen the unacceptable atrocities perpetrated on 9/11 by extremists intent on simply obliterating space.

2. The philosophy of western spatiality; our maps.

So, how could one go about seeing what is behind these different concepts of space, if in fact we move through our spaces as fish move through water? I once asked a young boy how fish took a shower if there were already in water. He was puzzled. I laughed a bit, but I feel the same way with regards to our notion of space. In this respect I laugh a bit at myself. If we are “immersed” in our spatial being in the world, how to find a way to surprise ourselves? Here, recourse to history is one fundamental possibility.

If our understandings of space have a history, then ours is the history of the radical and, hardly questioned, compression of time and space. If previously the distance between us and others we loved was mediated by letters which took long periods of time to reach their destination —-think of how difficult it was to arrange battles as the succumbing of the Spanish Armada shows—-, now the instantaneous connection of those near to us is easily achieved via email, internet messenger, blogging and SMS. Cyberspace complicates the picture even more given that the space of truly realistic video games further deepens our puzzles. The amazing spaces “within” such games, and the spaces shared by those playing on-line is non-existent. Even money and financial transactions have lost their spatial touchability; e-commerce allows virtual reality to guide our everyday transactions. Many of our work relations are likewise mediated by cyberspace, a strange kind of space which we know is nowhere. Just puzzle a bit about our own dA; it allows for the instantaneous communication through thousands of kilometers with fellow deviants who share paintings and photographs that are “spaceless” images repeated constantly and instantaneously (well, almost!)

All in all, it seems as though the reality of spatiality becomes obliterated in our virtual world. I firmly believe this is why, in a world guided by images, the fall of the Twin Towers was perceived by many as a “movie”; which it CERTAINLY WAS NOT. No wonder it is harder and harder for us to even think the question itself. As David Harvey in his amazing The Condition of Postmodernity puts it:

“As space appears to shrink to a ‘global village’ of telecommunications and a ‘spaceship earth’ of economic and ecological interdependencies —to use just two familiar and everyday images —- and as time horizons shorten to the point where the present is all there is (the world of the schizophrenic), so we have to learn how to cope with an overwhelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds.”

For many this tendency began historically with the emergence of science which required a quantifiable view of space as providing the basis for the certainty of objective data needed to develop a scientific understanding of the world. . But I cannot deal with this issue here (though many, including Taylor, have dealt with the issue extensively; see his “Overcoming epistemology”.)

But, how to get at this problematic if one is not a “trained” philosopher or architect? Well, I will try to show you a way to do it. I will tell you where I live. Goggle maps provide us with the possibility of pinpointing the very exact space which we inhabit. So here is where I live; approximately, just in case any deviant wants to get back at me for having to read such long journals!


You look and find everything all too familiar. THAT is part of the problem. But do you have a sense that there is something very limiting about this representation of space? “Well, “ you could reply, “how else can one go around places then?” And I wonder worried, “so you do not see it”. Well, I must not give up and try to allow you to see what is so strange here. Take a look at another period in time in which other types of relations to space existed. Take a look at some early medieval maps:

Paris Map 1250


Chronicles of St. Denis 1364-1372


Now you at least see that OUR maps are profoundly different. You look a bit startled. And of course you laugh a bit and say to yourself: “Poor people they were so ignorant then, they just simply did not have the technology to map out correctly their maps.” And I agree, in part: I mean, look at those little houses, well, was that drawn by children? Did Klee draw these maps?

But maybe, you might just start to ponder whether it is YOU who does not see what those maps take for granted. A bit worried, you start to realize that the medieval maps were not guided by the x-y coordinates of the Cartesian grid. In contrast, early medieval maps represent the world in terms of the world’s significance to the inhabitants of these spaces. What mattered was not the distance between the houses, but the houses; and if a given place had a special significance, well, it was actually drawn to stand out. The church, the castle, Prince Amelo’s retreat, were much larger than they actually were in reality. And besides, you might just start to see how your modern eyes are connected to a secular way of seeing the world. The Chronicle of St. Denis is a mapping which involves the stages of the life of a Saint. Remember what we said at the start of the Muslim pilgrimage? Our maps certainly have no sense of any pilgrimage whatsoever; their function is to get us around as quickly and efficiently as possible. Harvey summarizes well the issue: “Maps stripped of all fantasy and religious belief, as well as any sign of the experiences involved in their production, had become abstract and strictly functional systems for the factual pondering of phenomena in space” (249). Charles Taylor, the architectonic foundation of my Ph.D. thesis, adds: “A way is essentially something you go through in time. The map on the other hand, lays out everything simultaneously, and relates every point to every point without discrimination”. (176)

And we wonder how come we have never seen this before. What else might we not be seeing? What else might we not even want to open ourselves to seeing? A firm conviction of the Socratic uneasiness which sets itself up against those who simply know they know, motivates me to write this journal, to face up to my own ignorance of myself and of the spatial world I inhabit daily.

3. The Cartesian model of spatiality in modern architecture: Le Corbusier
and the city of

But, what does this have to do at all with architecture as the privileged art dealing with space? A lot. The Cartesian gird which informed our maps, itself informed the construction of architectural reality. Even Descartes understood that his method, set out in his Discourse on Method —–the pillar of early modernity—– implied that cities should be ordered rationally by truly rational city planners: “..and the way they make the street twisted and irregular, one would say that it was chance that placed them so, not the will of men who had the use of reason.” (Part II). And what is most intriguing about this whole story, and to be as brief as possible, is that architects like Le Corbusier, in their defense of modernity, tried to implement in their works the presuppositions of this type of rationality based on an overconfident sense of technological progress which would, allegedly, allow for the realization of noble social projects. The rational and efficient use of space is seen clearly in Le Corbusier’s plans for Paris:


It is a spatial layout which reminds us of images in the famous documentary Koyaanistqatsi, and of images of the inner city projects in North America which later decayed progressively in contrast to the initial intentions of their creators.

But perhaps the single most impressive attempt to instantiate this model is the creation of a capital city itself where nothing stood before. Such is the case of the absolutely amazing example of Brasilia, capital of Brazil, which was built from scratch. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brasilia#A_planned_city It was built during 4 years, starting in 1956, and followed Le Corbusier’s ideals of modernism. As a modernist project, it was built as a totally new beginning, so as to point how modernity is a radical new start which sees previous ages with a bit of disdain. Medieval maps of course appear a bit inferior, they appear as the products of dark ages. Furthermore, to emphasize the radical importance of political space, the capital was built in the very centre of colossal Brazil, in order to ensure the unity of the Nation as was established in the constitution itself.

Brasilia under construction


But as with our modern maps, the meaningfulness of those inhabiting Brasilia itself took second place. This is why today nobody can go to places in Brasilia without having to deal with excessively long walking distances for the city was designed with an unquestioned and naïve view of the role of automobiles in our modern city streets. As citizens in Brasilia put it in a popular saying that points out the deficiencies of this model of spatiality: “(in Brasilia) the inhabitants are born with wheels instead of feet.” (Turning further North for a second, we are dismayed as 6 smog alerts have already covered the space which is our Toronto this year; precisely, in part, because of the excessive use of cars. This is a stark reminder that the way we decide to inhabit our space has everything to do with our day to day quality of life. My dear Bogota is ahead in this respect with its car-free days, model public transportation and famous limiting of cars by their license plates.)

And to have a better grasp for what was on the mind of the architects of the time, their utter optimism with regards to technology, Brasilia itself was made to be seen from above as resembling a modern airplane!

Brasilia: City Plan


This is certainly an extremely cruel irony when one thinks of the disastrous outcome which resulted from the hijacking of the US airplanes on 9/11. It showed the world the possibility of using aircraft as destructive weapons of the very space which embodies some of the very important ideals of the West.

4. Deconstructing our modernist spatiality

So how can this perception of space be transformed? It has actually already been done for many years by postmodernists architects and their critiques of modernist architects such as Le Corbusier; as well as by well-known architects such as Wright (see his Fallingwater house, [link] ), Kahn (see his National Assembly in Dacca Bangladesh, ), Gaudi (see his Sagrada Familia, [link] ) and Niemeyer (see his Niteroi Museum in Rio, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Niemeyer). Harvey once again provides a good summary of some of the broad differences: “Above all, postmodernists depart radically from modernist conceptions of how to regard space. Whereas the modernists see space as something to be shaped for social purposes and therefore always subservient to the construction of a special project, the postmodernists see space as something independent and autonomous, to be shaped according to the aesthetic aims and principles which have nothing necessarily to do with any overarching objective, save, perhaps, the achievement of timelessness and ‘disinterested’ beauty as an objective in itself”. (66) Another way to put is as Wright does: “Beautiful buildings are more than scientific. They are true organisms, spiritually conceived; works of art, using the best technology by inspiration rather than the idiosyncrasies of mere taste or any averaging by the committee mind.” Or elsewhere: “Organic buildings are of the strength and lightness of the spider’s spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.” Positions which are beautifully captured in the most famous house in the world:



But given that my concern is to bridge the space constantly separating artists and philosophers, I will briefly look indirectly at the work of Martin Heidegger who, of all philosophers, stands only second to Nietzsche on his writings on modern art. In his very difficult Being and Time, using his very complex language, he dedicates numerals *22-*24 to the issue of a reconsideration of Cartesian spatiality. There he says some truly odd and difficult things to understand. For example, Heidegger says: “In Dasein there lies an essential tendency towards closeness. All the ways in which we speed up things, as we are more or less compelled to do today, push us towards the conquest of remoteness.“ *23, (106)

What might Heidegger be getting at? Well, primary and negatively, he is all for an intelligent critique of our conception of space as being guided by the Cartesian framework in which space is what can be simply measured; a methodological framework which presents the world as something out THERE to be objectively considered. Instead, for Heidegger in our everyday going about spatially in the world, we are ALREADY moving in space in a primary way which is rarely questioned. This is why Heidegger speaks of our primordially already “being-in-the-world”. Heidegger loves to use examples of everyday utensils to bring out what is obvious, but has been lost from sight.

Those utensils we actually use in our dally lives are never found in independent spaces, but rather are found in a network of spaces which interconnects them. Things occupy a space in this web of significance which is never questioned except when something goes wrong. We all remember our mom “freaking out” when she found the basketball in the living room. “THAT is not its place,” she constantly reminded us. This normal affair partly reveals how the spaces we humans inhabit are set up in ways which provide meaning to our surroundings Or think of what happens when your remote control is nowhere to be found. We rarely pause to think about it, but not finding the remote upsets our moving about in the world in such a way that, for the most neurotic of us, we just can’t go on. We can’t even continue watching the movie, or even pause to turn on the TV ourselves!

The multiplicity of spaces in which we move about daily conforms a network of meaning which goes unquestioned just as we saw with our modern understanding of space itself. We could not even question the maps we use daily; it is for this very same reason that we cannot see anything strange or deforming about them. For while we move in space, we cannot think about the issue; we just move. We simply use the map, and that of course, is what they are there for. Can you imagine trying to get to the CN Tower and suddenly some philosopher starts to talk about the x-y grid! We would never get anywhere!

I fear I have lost some of you in mapping out this last section which I have compressed beyond what is acceptable. So because we are all artists here, let me try another example from literature. The work of Albert Camus allows us to get a better grasp for what Heidegger might mean. If we remember spaces which we inhabited once and no longer do —- the houses of our childhood, the countries we have left, the parks we used to play in, the farm we used to visit, our first apartment—, if we try hard to imagine them, we might see what is so odd about a Cartesian view of spatiality. Remembering them, the network of signification stares us directly. Camus allows us this return in his Return to Tipasa:

“Yet I persisted without very well knowing what I was waiting for, unless perhaps the moment to go back to Tipasa. To be sure, it is sheer madness, almost always punished to return to the sites of one’s youth, to relive at forty what one loved or keenly enjoyed at twenty . But I was forewarned of that madness … I hoped, I think, to recapture there a freedom I could not forget” Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays, “Return to Tipasa, pg. 196. Vintage Books, 1983.)

Revisiting the spaces which formed us, requires revisiting ourselves as we once were. This is not easy, for the places might no longer be the networks of significance they once were. The old family house is now simply a broken-down store; the park where we played, condominiums surrounded by pavement; the farm, a guerrilla outpost. But as Camus writes, we are simultaneously reminded of the very freedom which allowed us to leave these places in the first place. For in some cases —–more than just “some cases” I fear is more accurate for the lives of artists and philosophers—– these places might have become a bit like caverns or cages. According to Camus, we remember through this exercise in imaginary revival the courage it took to embark ourselves towards new spatial possibilities. This, some immigrants, specially those who have thought through their courage a bit, know all too well. It is this same courage we need to undertake in order to reconsider our own modern spatiality which came radically into question after the horrifying collapse of the World Trade Center Towers; now, their space can no longer be filled by anything except a memorial of what once was, and is no longer there.

5. Conclusion

What is obvious has the tendency to surprise us the most because it is the most hidden from us. Because it is so “obvious”, we rarely have the courage to confront it. Something similar happens within families. But thanks to the combined work of artists and philosophers we can start to move towards reconciling ourselves, not only with ourselves, but with other cultures by means of a critical dialogue in which both parties argue intelligently about their unquestioned presuppositions. For this task, the help of philosophers, specially artistically-inclined philosophers, is required. For this task, the help of artists/architects, specially philosophically-inclined artists, is required. For it is clear we do not want to become the inhabitants of the deadly space which surrounds the doomed panther in Rilke’s famous poem :

“His tired gaze -from passing endless bars-
has turned into a vacant stare which nothing holds.
To him there seem to be a thousand bars,
and out beyond these bars exists no world.”

For this is the world of those who perpetrated 9/11 and left for thousands of unsuspecting victims only the reality of collapsing space and timeless grief.

Libeskind’s plans for WTC: “Memory Foundations”


Appendix: secular and/or divine spaces?
Briefly in what follows I put forward, as a result of the previous exercise, some tentative parallels on some plausible differences between a space guided by secular reason, and one founded upon the faith of the divine, particularly, though not exclusively, as seen in Islam:

1. Notion of immediacy and compression of space through continuous technological encounters via cell-phones, email, messengers.
2. The space of the individual as the paramount foundation of meaningfulness; giving authentic meaning to my spaces is done through my direct participation.
3. The skyscraper as the outstanding achievement of western architecture, symbolizing the economic strength and political unity of the most powerful reaching, as high as materials can, to a secular sky above.
4. A Cartesian model of spatiality conforming to Euclidian geometry which makes of reality something detached and scientifically observable.
5. Earth as the unique and sole spatial abode which requires of our human care.
6. Architecture as the art which dignifies our secular presence in a world which famous architects transform in the search for a certain kind of immortality, that of creation. As Philip Johnson said: . “All architects want to live beyond their deaths.” [link]

1. Notion of space mediated though the presence of the divine as can be seen in the importance and lay out, for instance, of the Mosque and the parts which conform its architecture, including the Mihrab and the Minbar. http://www.islamicarchitecture.org/architecture/themosque.html [link]
2. The space of the individual takes a secondary role, overshadowed by the divine moral commands which include specific roles for the body; kneeling, fasting, preparing for pilgrimage, among many others.
3. The temple as the architectural summit: the Mosque as the greatest architectural achievement in praise of Allah.
4. Marveling at the possibility of geometry by including geometric patterns repeating themselves infinitely in great architectural works. These attempt to lead us through perception itself to the unity of the infinite in God: “Driven by the religious passion for abstraction and the related doctrine of unity, the Muslim intellectuals recognized in geometry the unifying intermediary between they material and the spiritual world” http://www.islamicarchitecture.org/art/islamic-geometry-and-floral-patterns.html [link]
5. God as the unique reality beyond any spatial finitude. God as spaceless and yet the sole creator of space.
6. The only true architect is God as exemplified by the poetic psalms of impressive King David: Psalm 31: 1-3 ”In thee, O LORD, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed: deliver me in thy righteousness.; Bow down thine ear to me; deliver me speedily: be thou my strong rock, for a house of defense to save me.; For thou art my rock and my fortress; therefore for thy name’s sake lead me, and guide me.”


Read Full Post »