Building Breathing Space
A lecture given at the Bartlett School of Architecture, 3 March 2004
A dense lattice of anthropomorphic figures and fancies connnects buildings to bodies. One metaphorical strain will construe the body as a fabric, an edifice, a temple, a structure that holds together, tenement, and that lifts, eminence. In Old English, the body is a ‘banhus’, or ‘bone house’. The flesh is clay, as many buildings are. Our contemporary talk of the discursive ‘construction’ of the body may mean to dissolve the body’s fleshy immediacy, but does so only to replace it with the notion of the blueprint, a structure built according to a plan or projection. It is a surprise that etymology does not in fact verify the sense that there is a connection between a body and an abode, through a shared notion of ‘abiding’ or dwelling.
Reciprocally, buildings are said to be like bodies. Windows are not just the eyes of the soul, they are the eyes – the ‘wind-eyes’ – of the house. Buildings have faces (façades), wings, fronts and backs, and outsides, which we nowadays call skins. Buildings sweat, age, excrete. And they respire.
Where the metaphor of the building lends the body solidity, integrity and permanence, bodily metaphors tend by contrast to emphasise the physiological processes of buildings.The idea of a building provides an image of what a body is; the body provides ways of apprehending what buildings do. This contrast is at its most intense when the physical processes in question are least material, which is to say do not involve the dispositions of goods, persons, or substances, but those functions of the building that are carried on or in the air: light, heat, sound, odour.
Air has traditionally been, not the antagonist of the building, but its unobserved complement. Buildings, like utterances, are articulations of the air. No structure that contained no space, had no cavity in it, could qualify as a building. And yet, though buildings include, enclose and admit air, that air is not thought of as belonging to the building.
The title of this talk borrows and gently maltreats the title of Heidegger’s 1951 essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’. There, Heidegger insists that building is related to and discloses an essential form of being, which must always have the form of a dwelling in a particular place. Indeed, he maintains that the original meaning of bauen, to build, was actually to dwell:
bauen, buan. bhu, beo are our word bin in the versions: ich bin, I am, du bist, you are, the imperative form bis, be. What then does ich bin mean? The old word bauen, to which the binbelongs, answers: ich bin, du bist mean: I dwell, you dwell. The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is Buan, dwelling. To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. it means to dwell. (Heidegger 1971)
Building/dwelling binds together what Heidegger calls ‘the fourfold': earth and sky, mortals and gods. We apprehend this powerful, knit simplicity by listening attentively to language, or to the essential root truths of language – which for Heidegger means turning down the volume on the chatter that fills the airwaves: ‘It is language that tells us about the nature of a thing, provided that we respect language’s own nature. In the meantime, to be sure, there rages round the earth an unbridled yet clever talking, writing, and broadcasting of spoken words.’ The language that intimates to us the imbrication of being and dwelling is rooted in the earth, rather than storming and swirling round it.
It is this strongly chthonic tug in in Heidegger’s writing that draws from Luce Irigaray her sustained reproof, in The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger. Irigaray opens her book with an accusation that Heidegger’s metaphysics is always, founded upon the value of density, which is perhaps to say, architectural:
Metaphysics always supposes, in some manner, a solid crust from which to raise a construction. Thus a physics that gives privilege to, or at least would have constituted, the solid plane. Whether philosophers distance themselves from it, or whether they modify it, the ground is always there. (Irigaray 1999, 2)
Irigaray maintains that this necessitates in Heidegger, as in fact in all philosophy, a neglect of the dimension of air, the principal characteristic of which she believes to be its spreading, nourishing, infinite abundance. She replies to Heidegger’s linking of dwelling and peace – ‘To dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its nature; human being consists in dwelling and, indeed, dwelling in the sense of the stay of mortals on the earth’ by asking ‘Is there a dwelling more vast, more spacious, or even more generally peaceful than that of air? Can man live elsewhere than in air?…The excess of air is so immediately “evident” and so little “apparent” that he did not think of it’ (Irigaray 1999, 8, 40).
What Irigarary intends by her reproof is not so much the forgetting of air, as the forgetting of ‘the air’, which is to say, the ‘open air’, or the French ‘plein air’; so, not so much that which lies between things, as that dimension of exteriority that lies beyond or outside them. Heidegger’s philosophy, she says, is a gathering-in, a petrification or vitrification, of the open, fluid, abundant space of the female, which, by setting up his standard, taking his stand, the male thereby consumes, gives his seal.
Irigaray frames the matter in terms of the difference between a closed or appropriative use of space and a relation to space that is itself open and relational. I would like to propose a slightly different contrast, between what I will call the spatiopetal and the spatiofugal, a term that I adapt from Humphrey Osmond’s idea of unsocial or ‘sociofugal’ buildings (1957). Gaston Bachelard evokes in his The Poetics of Space the qualities of the burrow, the nest and the shell, that primary form of abode made by the simple rotation of a body in its own space (Bachelard 1994, 90-135). The snugness and comfort of the burrow derive from the fact that is formed from the body’s own shape and the track of its movements. This is space scooped or spun out from the inside outwards. Most buildings are not formed in this way. Rather than burrowing out space, they lassoo it, by an act of projection (the model, the plan), followed by encapsulation of air. Indeed, there seems to be a kind of disinclination to describe this kind of inside-out or spatiofugal construction as ‘architecture’ at all. Is digging a tunnel architecture?
The principal difference between these two kinds of built space is that one is made and renewed by a sequence of repeated actions, whereas the other is made according to a single plan, which can be rendered all at once, as an act of decision, scission. Some of the language associated with this act of mental projection testifies to its normally sealed, or airtight character. When we enlarge an image without changing any of its dimensions or shape, we ‘blow it up’, as though we were inflating a balloon, or bubble of glass. An image which has been opened to the gaze, by contrast, is said to be an ‘exploded’ view. The manner of the burrow or abode brings space into being as a form of habitat; the other demarcates a space by withdrawing it from a larger space. Rather than a privative space, the spatiofugal is a precipitated space, made of actions in time.
We are perhaps at the end, or in more Churchillian wise, in the middle of the beginning of the end, of what seems to have been the surprisingly brief and fitful career of the idea of absolute space. Although the idea that space is absolutely uniform and exhaustible by quantitative accounts is necessary to all geometrical thought, it is Descartes’s coordinated grid which really makes good the idea of absolute space: a space which is entirely uniform and absolutely unaffected by everything that takes place within it. There is no end to space, in this conception, but also nothing in it that is not susceptible to rule and ratio. Absolute space governed the scene more or less serenely (setting aside wrinkles in the archive like the frettings about the existence of an ether, which afflicted Newton and others) until non-Euclidean geometries began to multiply and relativise spaces in the later nineteenth century and Einstein’s special theory of relativity made space relative to speed, gravity and other cosmic variables. Before the late seventeenth century, space was conceived not as neutral, homogeneous and invariant, but as saturated with and inflected by feeling and value. Space was quality rather than quantum. Since Einstein in physics, and Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau and others in geography, space has begun again to be seen as produced and dynamic, rather than absolute and given.
Another way of putting this might be to say that, before the brief heyday of absolute space, space was identified with what occupied it, whether air, or ether. Space was not the empty and invariant frame within which things happened, but rather those happenings themselves. Like the sky, space was therefore mobile, mutable, perturbed, polymorphous, subject to stress, strain and fatigue. The most important agitations of space were sound, heat and odour. And the carrier and occasion of these agitations was the air, and whatever else it was that filled the space between the stars.
Though we feel that they ‘fill’ space, sound, heat and odour all have in common a spatiofugal tendency, for, under ideal conditions, they all of them expand and diffuse evenly in all directions at once, like a gas. They take time to do this, and all therefore, so to speak, temporise with space. Travelling through space, diffusing and weakening as they go, they thin and etiolate the space they traverse. They saturate space with their going out. We have become familiar, if that is the word exactly, with such a notion since the discovery of the expansion of the universe and the theory of the Big Bang which was developed to account for it. The base state of space is not uniform but spatiofugal. Space is on the move. According to the ‘inflationary’ theory of Alan Guth (1997), it is being blown up. Its days are numbered.
Architecture constitutes a permanent confrontation and exchange between these two spatial orders or registers. The development of architecture may be read in terms of its attempts to balance the demands of the spatiopetal and the spatiofugal, of enclosure and partition against the swelling incontinence and importunity of sound, heat and odour.
There is a close reciprocal relationship between sound and architecture. There are turbulent as well as snug burrows, and there is something of the burrow in these ‘open’ enclaves of clamour, since they are dependent on what occupies them for their continued existence. The battlefield and the market place are unstable places, in which sound must strive against competition and distraction to maintain the integrity and extent of the space. The enclosure provided by buildings allows the voice to be filtered, modulated, inflected. Sound is no longer merely a brawling claim to territory, as it is on the outside. In a space that can be taken as given, a space that provides a setting, because it is itself set apart, abstracted, the voice does not have to struggle against distraction, distance and diffusion, and can become cooler, lower, softer, subtler, more intimate, modulated, seductive, secretive. As R. Murray Schafer suggests, Western music is largely defined by the intramural condition it adopted from the late medieval period onwards, such that ‘it would be possible to write the entire history of European music in terms of walls’ (Schafer 1992, 35). All indoor music is chamber music, music in camera. Walter Ong proposes that the notion of subjective interiority arose in Europe as a result of the new practice of silent, reflective reading, in which the words no longer need open space in which to resound. But maybe the new modalities of sound and voice made possible by the private house, with its ever more specialised and less public rooms, may also have had something to do with procuring the fine and private place that is the mind, and the experience of thinking as a low, interior murmur (that wall-to-wall word) of self to self.
But there are also buildings constructed for the production and reception of public utterance, theatres, concert-halls, churches, council chambers, parliaments and schools. Such buildings provide a space in which the voice can resound, rather than being the spaces chaotically and unstably sculpted by clamour. They stage the voice, clearly distinguishing the sites or stations of speech – the stage, dais, lectern and pulpit – from the spaces of hearing. Such spaces do not just resemble theatres, they may be said to be in their nature theatrical. For they are not only spaces that allow staging, which is to say setting off and setting apart, they are a staging of the spectacle of space.
Vitruvius devotes almost an entire book, Book V, of his de Architectura to a discussion of the architecture of theatres. The book makes a strong connection between air and sound. First of all, he recommends that, following the Greek practice, theatres should be built in natural situations that have good air:
the spectators, with their wives and children, delighted with the entertainment, sit out the whole of the games, and the pores of their bodies being opened by the pleasure they enjoy, are easily affected by the air, which, if it blows from marshy or other noisome places, infuses its bad qualities into the system. These evils are avoided by the careful choice of a situation for the theatre, taking especial precaution that it be not exposed to the south; for when the sun fills the cavity of the theatre, the air confined in that compass being incapable of circulating, by its stoppage therein, is heated, and burns up, extracts, and diminishes the moisture of the body. On these accounts, those places where bad air abounds are to be avoided, and wholesome spots to be chosen. V.3.1-2
We should note two features of the air here: its relation to heat, humidity and also implicitly to odour, and the importance of circulation. Air that simply occupies a space rather than permeating it will seem to be, by definition, corrupt (from corrumpere, to break or burst asunder, which is to say, explode) or putrefied (from Greek puon, to stink).
Vitruvius then goes on to explain the technique of burying brazen vases, tuned to resonate to different musical intervals, at different levels of the steps of the auditorium. Vitruvius is careful to note, not only that the vases must enclose space (they are in fact bubbles of air), but must also themselves be enclosed in space (they must be ‘disposed therein in musical order, but so as not to touch the wall in any part, but to have a clear space round them and over their top’, V.5.1) Vitruvius distinguishes the various vicissitudes that may befall the voice in an unhappily-designed theatre:
Some places are naturally unfavourable to the diffusion of the voice. Such are the dissonant, which in Greek are called catechountes; the circumsonant, which the Greeks call periechountes; the resonant, which they call antechountes; and the consonant, which they call synechountas. The dissonant places are those in which the voice, rising first upwards, is obstructed by some hard bodies above, and, in its return downwards, checks the ascent of its following sounds. The circumsonant are those where the voice, wandering round, is at last retained in the centre, where it is dissipated, and, the final syllables being lost, the meaning of words is not distinguished. The resonant are those in which the voice, striking against some hard body, is echoed in the last syllables so that they appear doubled. Lastly, the consonant are those in which the voice, aided by something below, falls on the ear with great distinctness of words. V.8.1-2
Though Vitruvius thinks of this space as an auditorium, or hearing-site rather than as a theatron, a scene of seeing, it is also a thoroughly rational space, which in this case means one constructed literally according to ratio. The vases are to be installed in rows of fifteen, with vases tuned in octaves at the outsides, and moving inwards in whole-tone intervals. The steppings, or vertical intervals between the vases buried in the rows are also important.
The theatre is therefore an abstract diagram, a machine for capturing and amplifying the voice, as well as for converting sound into music. What matters are the ranging of the intervals in the music – thus, in a sense, the making substantial and visble of the invisible, namely the action and occasion of sonority. So the auditorium is, after all, turned into a theatron, a seeing-place, a see-hearing, or place in which hearing is made visible, and not from the seats, but rather from the stage, which is the position one must occupy if one is to appreciate the rational prospect of sound and its reception.
Vitruvius makes it clear that the Roman theatres of his day are not built on this principle. But the Greek theatre is no simple enclosure of air, or abstract space. Within the space of the theatre, there are secondary cavities and enclosures, alveoli, perforations and pocketings. Michel Serres has compared the theatre of Epidaurus with a gigantic ear (Serres 1998, 107). But here, in its multiple perforations and pocketings, it is also on the way to becoming a stone lung. Although Vitruvius’s tuned theatrical space aims to make a spectacle of sound, the air in this place is still active, agitated, motional. Although there is abstraction of the space, in the transformation of sound into number and ratio, space is not wholly reduced to geometry in this conception. The space of the theatre is episodic, intermittent, itinerant. We should remember the prescription with which Book V begins, that theatres should be built in such situations as will prevent the build-up of pent, static, but explosive air. Surely at work here is the conception of the body as machine for the production of spirit, through various modes and degrees of coction and fermentation. The cooking or burning of the black bile was thought to produce scorching choking fumes which were responsible for the delusion and lassitude of melancholic states.
There is no conception of a static volume of air here. What matters is not shape and volume, but variations on density, movement, heat and odour. The theatre is conceived as a thermodynamic heat-exchanger with its outside, much of which it in fact includes, since there are no roof or walls. The model for this exchange is the action of the breath, though we should not forget that that action itself was understood as a thermal transaction in the classical world, since breathing was thought to have a cooling rather than a nourishing function. The diffusive aspect of sound is also indicated in the fact that the Greek theatre was typically constructed in a landscape where a natural slope provided the gradient for the seats. Theorists and explicators of sound will follow Vitruvius in comparing its movements to ripples across the surface of a pond, but the kind of theatrical space Vitruvius has in mind does not allow him to forget that sound goes up as well as out. Roman theatres, by contrast, would tend to be built on the flat, and artifically to construct the seeing walls which accommodated the audience.
Theatrical space is always already a concentration of space, the forming of space from a spatiopetal focussing inwards from an outside, rather than a diffusion outwards from a centre. Hereafter, it would become so more and more. And, in a sense, one may say that architecture equivalently defines itself more and more through the staging or theatricalisation of space. All buildings that are more than the most rudimentary temporary structure are theatres of space. Not only do theatres require a kind of sacred, or reserved space that has been set apart, architecture procures a certain kind of space as theatre, which is to say, space conceived as neutral setting, frame or context, an empty stage which can be filled with various kinds of action. Before it stages anything in this empty space, it stages it, sets it out, projects it, as empty space. The cathedral, one of the earliest spaces of performance in medieval Europe (Carlson 1989, 14-17), is governed by orientation lines that are not relative merely to the space itself. The cathedral is laid out in such a way that it faces east, towards a particular spot on the earth – this is, after all, where we get the word ‘orientation’ from. But a theatre, which is a space subtracted from the world in order that it may include it (‘yea, the very globe itself’), can reorientate space relative to its own conditions. Left and right, upstage and downstage, become abstract, arbitrary and reversible. The staging of space constituted by a building, the abstraction and exhibition of space as space rather than as room made by occurrence, comes more and more to be a feature of architecture as such. The burrow or abode make space from events; the stage makes space for them.
Samuel Beckett is not usually thought of as a conspicuously architectural writer, though his work constitutes a sustained reflection on the relations between the body and the built space. In particular Beckett’s cylinder pieces of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Ping, Imagination Dead Imagination and All Strange Away, are remarkable exercises in the staging of such spaces. But, despite their oppressively enclosed, intramural condition, they do not chart given spaces. Rather than an outside-in projection of an expanse within which one might move and have one’s being, these works laboriously grope for the very spaces they seek to inhabit. Thus, Beckett’s late Worstward Ho lurches into grudging life by evoking a body, but then realises that some kind of ground or setting is also indispensable: ‘A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into’ (Beckett 1983, 7).
Usually, the strange igloo-uterine constructions evoked in the cylinder pieces seem designed to accommodate only a single body. The opening sentence of the most developed of these texts, The Lost Ones, toys with the link between abode and body that I have said is etymologically unsupported – ‘Abode where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one’. But this text evolves a space not out of the stirrings of a single body, but rather from the movements of a whole population or ‘little people of searchers’, who inhabit a closed cylinder, and spend their lives searching, who knows for what, climbing ladders to gain access to niches in the walls.
To be sure, there is something extremely theatrical about Beckett’s staging of The Lost Ones, his prose often being so much more theatrical than his theatre. We are given a series of ‘scenes’, shots, ‘apercus’, perspectives and ‘spectacles’, in which the actions of exhibiting and inspecting are to the fore. When the Mabou Mines company staged Beckett’s text, they constructed a model of the space, over which a narrator stooped, like a puppetmaster, moving model figures around to demonstrate the movements described in Beckett’s text. Performing the text in this way gave the text a kind of setting, a givenness, a space in which it might be made out, to which it never attains in its written condition. There is nothing exterior, fixed or given in this texted space, which is made up simply of the perambulations and percolations of its little people and the dry spasms of report that are how we learn what little we do of them.
Built space is agoraphobic. Moving progressively indoors, into more and more controlled, and more architectural environments, theatre-space, the staging of space as theatre, has slowly developed a series of allergic reactions to the spatiofugal features of open space. I have characterised these up to now as essentially diffusive. But I have also said that the elements which evoke the spatiofugal, smoke, heat, odour, sound, are not only diffusive, but also impermanent, uneven and unpredictable. What we know as the ‘open air’ is in fact no such thing. It is heterogeneous, spasmodic, tremulous, given to crisis. It is characterised by turbid swirls, gusts and clusterings, grots, hotspots, pockets and epochs, sudden saltations as well as sluggish dissipations. The outside air is never uniform, but hysterically zoned and striated. We speak of the ambient temperature as though it were constant, but in fact we move through a patchwork of different temperature zones all the time, and are adapted without realising it to fact that the significant temperature differentials that exist between the air at head-height at that a few inches above the ground. Diffusion is not radiation.
Buildings defend and sustain their interiority by creating uniform and linear conditions. Just as Leviticus gives instructions for identifying the unclean condition of poxy or leprous walls, so our buildings seek to obviate the patched, pocketed and irregularly quantised condition of the air. This need not involve the substitution of stasis and uniformity for motion and flow. In fact, buildings have become less and less static, characterised more and more by internal and external flows, of air, heat, power, information and waste. But these flows are regulated, paced, and channelled. The chimney is perhaps the paradigm of this movement. The chimney takes the irregular movement of tainted air under uneven expansion and conducts it to the outside of the building. Most chimneys extend for some distance away from the edge of the building, whether factory or domestic house, as though to set up a second boundary, a buffer zone of air, or breezeblock, extending for some distance beyond the actual outside of the walls and roof, to guard against blowback, reversibility being one of the characteristics of irregularly diffusing gases. Constricted within the channel of the chimney, the unorientated vortex is turned into a vector, and an air which might otherwise invade and appropriate space to itself becomes a substance which meekly occupies and is moved through it. The chimney makes air toe the line, thereby saving the notion of space. Yet, as an alternative exit to the front door, the chimney is extremely ambivalent. It can be the source of unexpected abundance, as when Santa Claus descends it with his bulging sack, but also a way back into the house for what is wild and monstrous. like the murderous mason in the ballad Long Lankin. When he fails to blow their house down, it is down the chimney of the three little pigs’ house that the wolf descends.
Nowhere is the chimney more apparent than in the airport, the name and function of which might lead one to expect of it more hospitality to air. Although there are plenty of open spaces in airports, these spaces seem to incite acute agoraphobic anxiety. The desire to escape the exposure of the open spaces of the airport is instanced in the nest-building and corner-hugging routines of travellers striving to be snugly pent amid their impedimenta. The air in airports is not only ruthlessly controlled, it is also channelled. Airports are in fact, as Robert Sommer suggested (1974, 70-80) the tightest of tight spaces. Passengers are routed through many different kinds of duct, tunnel and funnel, as though the airport were in fact a vast pneumatic delivery system The air traveller is tempted to echo the exasperated question voiced by Sigourney Weaver’s character in Galaxy Quest, as she is confronted by yet another ventilation shaft to be crawled through, and seems to recall the endless labyrinthine innards of the space-ships in the Alien series: ‘Why is it always ducts?’ (And why, one might further ask, are those mobile air-bubbles, ‘space ships’, so densely congested, so lacking in breathing space on the inside?) In the airport, one tube drains into another, the conduits getting narrower and narrower, until fnally the passenger is injected into the most enclosed and air-conditioned tube of all, the aeroplane itself. Where the chimney merely reaches into the sky, aircraft turn the open and disorderly meteorology of the air into a grid of tunnels and chimneys bored through what we call airspace, the newest of our architectures.
It is a mark of the burrow space of Beckett’s The Lost Ones that all the seeming ways out – through niches hollowed out of the walls of the cylinder – lead back in. But there are persistent rumours to the contrary. A remarkable paragraph deals with the notions abroad in the cylinder regarding the nature and location of the exits. There are two candidates for this way out and two schools of thought formed around them:
One school swears by a secret passage branching from one of the tunnels and leading in the words of the poet to nature’s sanctuaries. The other dreams of a trapdoor hidden in the hub of the ceiling giving access to a flue at the end of which the sun and other stars would still be shining. (Beckett 1984, 163)
The consensus of opinion fluctuates unpredictably between the two opinions though the narration allows itself the hypothesis that, were one able to take the long view, the belief in ‘a way out possible of access as via a tunnel it would be’ could be shown to be giving way, as uniformly and irresistibly as warm air drifts toward cold, to the belief in a more reassuringly inaccessible way out through the ceiling. But the long view is precisely what the narration denies itself. The shift of opinion, if it exists, takes place ‘in a manner so desultory and slow and of course with so little effect upon the comportment of either sect that to perceive it one must be in the secret of the gods.’ The reference to ‘the gods’ here is as much to the interior architecture of the theatre as to mythlogy. But this quasi-theatrical cylinder is also the sealed chamber in which James Clerk Maxwell set his putative demon to sorting the fast-moving from slow-moving molecules, and thus seemingly creating a heat differential or issue of energy out of thin air. In Beckett’s text, the demon is the very idea of a way out: ‘the partisans of the trapdoor are spared this demon by the fact that the hub of the ceiling is out of reach’. The Latin word for the hearth is focus, a word which has undergone a decisive shift into the optical register and the regulated, extended space it secures. For the inhabitants of the cylinder, which possesses no centre or hub, other than one that is out of reach, the belief in a way out provides no steadying focus, but only a fluctuating ignis fatuus: ‘Its fatuous little light will assuredly be the last to leave them always assuming they are darkward bound’ (Beckett 1984, 163).
All there is in the cylinder is fluctuation, a fluctuation which does not take place in the space of the cylinder, but rather is the cylinder. If the light is uniformly distributed to an unnatural degree (another reason why there is no focus in the cylinder), the cylinder is subject to unusual fluctuations of sound and temperature. The temperature of the walls, floors and air is constantly changing, swinging intemperately between tropical heat and wintry cold. Far from enclosing these fluctuations, the ‘fiery flickering murk’ of the cylinder may be thought of as their nebulous precipitation.
Vitruvius cautions against the build-up (telling word) of bad air in the theatre. Architecture’s allergy to turbulently self-forming space is typified and allegorised in its precautions against fire. Fire prevention requires an intensification of regulated movement – clearly-marked exits, drills that reduce the random millings and effusiveness of social movements into controlled routines, in order that the occupants of the building can attain the safety of the open air as quickly as possible. But air is not just the escape from fire, it is also fire’s accomplice, for temperature gradients create air-flows and vortices that multiply the fire, as it feeds on itself in an epidemic of air. Thus, one must leave a burning building by the stairs, hoping that the heat and smoke will not find a way to turn them into a smokestack.
If, as I have been claiming, there is something theatrical about all architecture, then the institutional pyrophobia of the theatre is an intensified image of the architectural horror of unmanaged air. As I have observed in my essay ‘Steam Radio‘, the history of the theatre is full of spectacular burnings and explosions. A story told of the burning of the Drury Lane theatre seems to suggest how oddly familiar and domestic the horror of theatrical conflagration can sometimes become. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the owner of the Drury Lane Theatre, was drinking with companions in Fleet Street on the night in 1802 when fire broke out in his theatre. Alarmed by the orange flickering in the sky, his companions began to look desperately for ways to assist the fighting of the fire, but Sheridan remained imperturbable, merely remarking ‘May not a man take a glass of wine by his own fireside?’
I suggested earlier that the Greek theatre evoked by Vitruvius was as much a lung as an ear. It is this that makes theatre as flammable as it is flamboyant.The empty space above the stage in a traditional proscenium-arch theatre, full of inflammable fabrics and subject to updraughts of air heated by lights, has posed particular dangers for theatre audiences, who are for that reason more at risk from fires which start on the stage than vice versa.
Though burning buildings have often themselves provided striking spectacles, theatrical and cinematic, when a building burns or explodes, it represents the destruction of the theatre of space. Fire is the self-consumption of space. Michel Serres has characterised the Industrial Revolution as an age of steam and fire that does away with older geometrical machineries, founded upon angle, pulley and line.
Fire will consume [Lagrange’s] Analytical Mechanics and burn down Samuel Whitbread’s warehouse. It will destroy the wooden shed, the wooden ships. Fire finishes off the horses, strikes them down. The source, the origin of fire is in this flash of lightning, this ignition. Its energy exceeds form; it transforms. Geometry disintegrates, lines are erased; matter, ablaze, explodes; the former colour – soft, light, golden – is now dashed with bright hues. The horses, now dead, pass over the ship’s bridge in a cloud of horsepower. The brig-schooner is in dry dock, disarmed: the new ship, which wins the big prize, is called the Durande. Here comes Turner. (Serres 1982, 56)
When a building is toppled, it retains much of its pathos and majesty, which explains some of the embarrassment and sense of uncanny power provoked by an Ozymandias, or grounded Colossus – think of the statues of Lenin that were hauled down across Eastern Europe after 1989, and then put into uneasy retirement in car-parks, or the statue of Saddam, that it was not enough to pull down, but which had to be assaulted and dismembered with desperately redoubled fury. The monument and the ruin are not opposites, but complements.
But when a building explodes, it is subject to a defeat, not by the ground, but by the air. A building that turns instantly to a cloud of dust and smoke has been swallowed up by the turbid expansiveness of its inner space. In place of the former coherence and continuity of line, there are only tiny fragments. When a building is turned to dust, blown to smithereens, the walls and the air sealed within them violently collide and collapse, to create a compound, particulate air full of dust, a dust full of air. The dynamiting of chimney stacks can produce this effect, but it was exhibitied much more spectacularly by the collapse of the two towers of the World Trade Center after the attacks of September 11th 2001. Rather than falling epically headlong, like a Goliath or a Giant’s Causeway, the towers furled sickeningly into themselves, like a sleeve rolling down. One witness in fact described the fall of the south tower as a grotesque act of exhalation:
As we stood in utter disbelief the building seemed to huff, as if inhaling. It appeared to expand from what sounded and looked like unburned jet fuel exploding, then exhaled and collapsed straight to the ground in a slow motion mushroom cloud of dust and debris that slipped between the adjacent buildings and out into the river in front of us. <http://www.evergreen.edu/insideevergreen/911/recollection.htm>
The towers did not crash to the ground, but rather slid into supersaturated lightness, turning, as they went, into smoke and dust. The sky remained lucidly blue, as the streets were swallowed in a thick, swilling cumulonimbus of dust. The site was quickly named ‘ground zero’, but what had occurred was not really grounded at all. Rather it was an airburst, a burst in the air, and the bursting out of air.
Everything about the September 11th attacks seemed to speak of this strange dissolution or supersession of the ground. A building was attacked by an aircraft, which seemed in its turn to make of the target a thing of air. Many of those who died preferred to leap from the building than to die gulping the searing air in the crumbling tower. The condition of their deaths and the unlocatablity of their remains, evoke other appalling vaporisations: the firestorms of Dresden, the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima, and the industrial disposal into the air of the bodies of murdered Jews, as grimly transformed in Paul Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge': ‘wir shaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng’ – ‘we shovel a grave in the air, there we rest unbound’ (Celan 1988, 60-1).
We hear commonly of the need for buildings to be able to breathe, and thus become, like us, softer, more flexible, more responsive, sensitive, intelligent: in a vitiated word, more alive. Often this is represented in Irigarayan terms as a respiratory opening to environment. But the outbreath of the twin towers made for a horrifying inversion. Now, it was not the building that borrowed our breath; it was the inhabitants of Manhattan who breathed the building. Smell has been described as the most singular sense, linking us to particular places and times. But the smell of the vanished building, of the void it left in space, was the smell of the loss of place and time.
I don’t want to remember being woken up by the God-forsaken smell of burning plastic, metal and flesh at 3:30am. I thought my apartment was on fire and stumbled outside. Then I realized the smell was all around the neighborhood. After going back in, I shut the window and turned the radio on. There were reports of the “cloud” being in my neighborhood. The local news would track the “cloud” for several more days. “The cloud is over Midtown. The cloud is over Astoria. The cloud is over Park Slope…” I don’t want to remember smelling the cloud nine months later, while hanging out in the West Village with my friend Paul. He lived in Little Italy and complained about his constantly running nose. The government told us that the air was fine but why were we still smelling the cloud after so much time? (Axelrod 2002)
We have heard tell of Sick Building Syndrome, of architecture that made you ill: but this building seems literally to have become a disease of space, a pulverised theatre of stink, a foetid effluvium of rumour, just as Babel dissolved, not only into rubble, but also into the flickering of forked tongues, that only a Pentecost could coalesce.
Buildings are largely imaginary; all buildings are in part castles in the air. We live them, their lives and deaths, in imagination, even as buildings are part of the way in which the cultural imagination functions and forms itself. There are occasions, like the obliteration of the twin towers, when the literal and the imaginative dimensions of building and buildings come violently together.
We have come to think of the air as the realm of spirit, of freedom, of transcendence. We accuse ourselves of having despoiled the air, as though any mingling of humankind with the air must lead to its ruin. But though air is a necessity to us, it is not a simple value, not a reservoir of good. The air is temporal, tempestuous, and as often intemperate as well-tempered. It is, quite simply, the bearer of the weather, as often malign as marvellous. We may be building ourselves a world in mid-air, but we cannot expect necessarily to find only freeedom and release there. Henceforth, as air and architecture begin to enter into each other’s composition, architecture must find ways to live with air’s difficult weather.
Axelrod, Laura. (2002) ‘I Don’t Want to Remember 9/11.’ <http://www.lauraaxelrod.com/911essay.html>
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