metaphysical & metaphorical musings : art, architecture, and arithmetic

Monday, January 24, 2011


Revolving and revolving in the deepening fractal,
The falcon can still hear the falconer;
Things come together; the center cannot hold

Combing through notes, a question is posed: “what about this problem resists a utilitarian solution?”  A question best answered by an aphorism: “You can’t douse a fire with lighter fluid.”  The problem resists utilitarian solution because utilitarian solution is the problem itself.

The image of the Pruitt-Igoe projects: the grid

The grid might be the most practical apparatus ever developed.  Descartes’ coordinate plane revolutionized the study and applicability of geometry.  The use of plane geometry similarly revolutionized mimesis in painting during the Renaissance.  Nearly every diagram in Poundstone’s book is on a grid, a testament to its importance in game theory.  This sentence is represented on yet another grid.

The grid imposes form onto content, what Coleridge calls the mechanical, repetitious and uncreative.  Bergson (in The Creative Mind) warns against letting the abstractions of science and mathematics govern life and philosophy.  Or, as “Weeds” suggests:

on the grid, there is nowhere to grow.

Pruitt-Igoe is a potent image of disaster and policy rolled in one.  The grid is a diagrammatic feature expressing an intensive feature.  A disaster in and of itself, Pruitt-Igoe is also a symptom of a larger cultural disaster that springs from the pursuit of metaphysical stability: the accident of positing the accident in the first place, then suppressing it in favor of an illusory essence.  Trying to banish the accident just opens the door to the very thing itself, welcomes it and all of its baggage.  If Thetus and Peleus had invited Eris to the wedding, she would have had no reason to roll the golden apple down the aisle.  We would have been robbed of what Russell calls history’s only rational war.  Von Neumann got lucky.

The typographical manipulations of some Futurist poets (like Marinetti here) demonstrates the limitations of the grid that governs the material space of literacy by sharply contrasting it:

There is no room to play when you’re on the grid; game theory’s name is antithetical.  The laws of rationality leave no room for actual play, which revels in uncertainty and perpetually rides the crest of the happy accident.  When rules take on too much weight, the game becomes a chore.

The grid itself is a policy, one of regularity and uniformity that answers the call of Plato’s metaphysics to focus on that which is stable, what has constant uniform identity, an unchanging essence.  Electracy’s metaphysics: a poetics of the grid, reinvestment in the accidental to expose where the grid gerrymanders—where/when/how/why the image deforms—perceiving and conceptualizing the effect of form on content, toward developing an inherent poetics of the digital and radiant.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Simple Project

An increasingly urbanized world must eventually confront the problem of space, and high-rise architecture in areas with limited ground sprawl seems to be an obvious and convenient solution.  This is the situation in which St. Louis' Pruitt-Igoe Projects were conceptualized, tested, and ultimately failed.

Pruitt-Igoe’s modernist deployment of living space architecturally elicited a disaster that is social rather than overtly physical--the unforeseen consequences of social engineering through spatial layout.  Destruction was the response, not the disaster, inverting the normal causal pattern of destructive accident and policy formation.   In this case, the accident was social and the policy was demolition of the disastrous space.

Pruitt-Igoe's individual and contextual history constitutes a sort of accident-cascade brought about by a cycle of physical and social decay and changing demands placed on habitable urban space.  What was intended to be an ideal community organization in vertical space exhibited an unforeseen emergent property, an accident inherent within Pruitt-Igoe's essence as community housing.  

What began as a modernist architecture tinged with utopianism never even reached full occupancy, and ended as an abject failure after only 22 years (from first occupation to total demolition).  Originally costing $36 million (60% over the average for national housing projects at the time), Pruitt-Igoe’s physical and social decay began almost immediately, and over its lifespan costs expanded to $57 million.  Meanwhile, the adjacent Carr Village projects with similar demographic makeup, but different architectural design, remained fully occupied and free of trouble.