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Amsterdam - 14, 15, 16 November 2002

A space for half-formed thoughts

Philip Tabor

Here’s how William Gibson’s Neuromancer introduced us to the word ‘cyberspace’:

[It] flowed … for him, fluid neon origami trick … transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.

Immeasurably complex flows of information, capital and power drive the social, economic and political order—invisible and instantaneous. But in Gibson’s cyberspace these flows take visible shape in mental space and time. Through this space and time Gibson’s hero, an embodied search-engine, chases data at headlong speed.

Gibson’s cyberspace and its successors in films like The Matrix are virtual spaces of infinite extension, incomprehensibly intricate and menacing. This nightmare cyberspace is a fiction, but its alien malevolence symbolises the suspicion that informatics has constructed a parallel universe in which information increases exponentially, swamps the individual, and transfers power either to automatic processes or to remote networks of hidden self-interest.

The digital encyclopedia and dataspace
A defence against our perceived loss of power is to use computing to retake control of these torrential data flows. Two metaphors spring to mind.

One is the ‘digital encyclopaedia’, a constantly updated compendium of knowledge. Largely in text or numerical form, it’s accessed by menus and keywords; web-searching is a version of this. The other metaphor is a benign equivalent of cyberspace in which information is represented in three-dimensional space. Let’s call it, to use Gibson’s term, ‘dataspace’. Such dataspaces are almost invariably an infinitely extended Euclidean space in which abstract solid objects take their measured position and are viewed in Renaissance perspective. Gibson’s cyberspace takes this form too: ‘a 3D chessboard extending to infinity’ in which float scarlet pyramids, green cubes and distant spirals.

Sometimes the grid of dataspace isn’t rectangular but centroidal or hyperbolic. But it’s still represented in Renaissance space.

A space for half-formed thoughts
Now, these models seem ideal if the user seeks a specific piece or array of information. This is our main aim when we consult an encyclopaedia or search the web. Once located, the data allows us to make the statement, or take the decision or action, that depends upon it. Essential to this purpose is comprehensive overview, fast retrieval, and the clarity of the data retrieved.

But an equally important use of information is much more vague. It’s why we read newspapers every day, exchange idle gossip or attend conferences. It’s why we suffer an education. We’re not seeking a specific piece of information. We’re accumulating a semi-random collection of data, ideas and gut feelings which have no immediate or apparent use.

We build up this semi-random cloud of mental stuff to equip ourselves with a continually updated ‘feel’ for events—so that, when in the hazy future a need or opportunity arises, facts and intuitions will hopefully fuse into patterns that allow us to take actions appropriate to their context. We also hope that, while wandering and wondering in this space, we might stumble across valuable facts or ideas which, had we sought them, might not have been found. Let’s call this imaginary cloud ‘a space for half-formed thoughts’.

Here’s Einstein, describing how he thinks:

"Words … do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The physical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined … before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other signs …These physical entities are of visual and some of muscular type."

So Einstein’s ‘space for half-formed thoughts’ is pre-logical, pre-verbal and playful. It contains entities of varying degrees of clarity and vagueness which float and sometimes fuse together; and in imagination he apprehends them not just through his eyes but also through his muscles. We’re all familiar with those apparently logic-free, but occasionally productive, sequences of musing. They sometimes flow when we walk the dog, for example, stare into a log fire, or slumber through an afternoon lecture.

It could be said that systematic graphic representations of dataspace are counterparts of that part of the brain that rationally categorises and stores data; their function is to amplify the operations of that part of the brain. I therefore wonder whether a software counterpart, a ‘daydream engine’, might also be made of the space for half-formed thoughts. I’ve no examples to show, but I’d like to speculate about its possible attributes.

Psychologically charged space
For many years I’ve taught architecture students how to design. And I’m struck by how much imaginary spaces such as that described by Einstein often resemble the fluid, so-called ‘solution’ spaces in which architects grope experimentally towards a design. I’ve noticed too that these imaginary solution spaces, as designers describe them, resemble the ‘psychologically charged’ space conjured up in their heads when they experience the real space of buildings and landscapes. This imagined space, though usually much less precise than a real dimensional space, has metaphorical, psychologically charged qualities which designers hope will be experienced by other people encountering their buildings.

Here are three attributes of this psychologically charged space:

1: It’s constructed by the body

2: It’s a physical substance, and

3: It’s structured by invisible forces.

In objective, scientific terms this space is a fantasy: it doesn’t describe the space in which real buildings are built. But it does reflect some psychological truth. In some ways real space differs from charged space in the same way that clock time differs from the fluid and discontinuous time we experience in our heads.

This charged space was first theorised by four German writers in the five years between 1888 and 1893 (Heinrich Wölfflin’s Renaissance and Baroque, Adolf Hildebrand’s Problem of Form in the Fine Arts, Theodor Lipps’s Spatial Aesthetics, and August Schmarsow’s Essence of Architectural Creation). It was demonstrated in avant-garde art and architecture in the early twentieth century and remains to this day a powerful metaphor.

In imagination, space is constructed by the body

So, attribute 1: In imagination space is constructed by the body.
Before the late nineteenth century, architectural discourse tended to imagine an observer contemplating the building across perspectival space. The observer doesn’t move. Instead, he (and it always was a ‘he’) sees the building, from outside or inside, as if through a picture frame or the proscenium arch of a theatre. However, in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, a different picture emerges, perhaps encouraged by cinematography. It becomes acknowledged as significant that a building usually unfolds over time, like music. Through movement, as we circle the building’s exterior and perambulate its interior, we gradually assemble fragmentary impressions into a whole mental image.

But it’s not just the eye that that scans and navigates. The whole body constructs the space anew. It was suggested that such adult perambulations were reenactments of a baby’s first crawl. Touching, grasping and sucking—all build up a mental representation of the material world; and this tactile representation is gradually mapped onto the initially meaningless patches of coloured light that bombard the baby’s eye.

By the same token, crawling through the world, then walking or running through it, feeling its dynamics through our muscles, we build up an internal, so-called ‘haptic’, representation of the world’s spatiality. You may have seen competition skiers on TV, waiting to start their run. They stand, swaying and flexing, with their eyes closed, rehearsing the muscular sequence of the run, not just in their minds but also in their bodies. It’s not too far-fetched to say that on previous runs the three-dimensional geometry of the mountain has been constructed in, and by, the skier’s body. So there’s a kinetic equivalence between the dance of the skier traversing the slope and the dance of the slope itself. In the same way the body in architectural space, combined with memory, constructs its inner equivalent of the architecture which surrounds it.

We project our imaginary bodies into architectural space. In our imagination, stress flows through space just as it flows through stone and steel. And we empathise with it in the same way. A narrow doorway compresses the space within it, so our body feels this compression as we move through it. In a long space, like a cathedral nave, stresses flow along its long axis, encouraging us to follow this flowing stream.

In imagination, space is a substance

This leads to the second attribute:
In imagination, space is not just a void but a physical substance.
If stress can flow through space, space must have a certain materiality. Space is imagined as some kind of gas or viscous fluid. There’s a scientific precedent for this, of course: the discredited hypothesis that space is filled with an invisible stuff, ‘ether’. The idea that space is a flowing substance is intuitively credible because we swim all our lives in air, a transparent yet tangible medium. And we can accurately picture to ourselves an invisible current of wind through a wheat field, say, from the visible turbulent motion of the wheat.

It’s a weird metaphor. And it’s linked to another idea derived from physics: ether didn’t simply occupy the void between objects but penetrated them, flowed through them. Here’s Adolf Hildebrand, writing in 1893:

By a spatial continuum we mean … a three-dimensional mobility or kinaesthetic activity of our imagination…. Let us imagine it as a body of water in which we can submerge individual volumes [of water] … without losing the conception of the whole as one continuous body of water.

There was in effect no categorical difference between objects and space. This may partly explain modern architecture’s continuing urge to become ever less solid and more transparent.

In imagination, space is structured by invisible forces

This leads to the last attribute:
In imagination, space is structured by invisible forces.
The sculptor Umberto Boccioni writes in 1914 that ‘areas between one object and another are not empty spaces but rather continuing materials of different intensities .... This is why we [futurists] do not have in our paintings objects and empty spaces but only a greater or lesser intensity and solidity of space’.

If substantial space is all there is, it can’t have any form unless currents of energy, flowing through it, disturb its homogeneity. Invisible forces structure its varying density, just as smoke manifests turbulent air flow, or iron-filings manifest magnetic fields.

One force field that disturbs charged space has been called ‘vectoral’ or ‘ideated’ extension. If you plant two poles into the ground, say ten metres apart, they’ll imply an invisible vertical plane stretching between them, rather like a curtain. If you’re a sensitive soul, when passing between the two poles you may feel, consciously or not, as if you were passing through an imaginary magnetic field or a virtual draught of air. In general, a building will by its geometry slice the space around it or irradiate it with wavelike patterns.

Much modern architecture has this centrifugal quality: it flings its force fields out into its surroundings. In some recent architecture, indeed, the centrifugal forces appear so violent and disordered that the building seems to tear itself apart, writhing and fracturing under some catastrophic stress.

And just as a building, by its geometry, slices the space around it, so it too will itself be sliced and irradiated by surrounding force fields. According to functionalist theory, a building is like an animal or a plant species whose form, at each evolutionary stage, is the intersection, the provisional resolution, of the genetic forces intrinsic to the organism as it has evolved so far, and the extrinsic forces of the environment in which it now finds itself. Forces within the organism or the building, and the forces outside it, bend and sculpt it into a shape adapted to its current location in time and space.

Argument summarised
These pictures were made by the Chilean painter Roberto Matta Echaurren, known as Matta, between 1938 and 1943. He is, incidentally, the father of the artist Gordon Matta-Clark.

I’ll summarise my argument. There are mental spaces which in some ways correspond to external physical space but in other ways certainly don’t. One such mental space, what I’ve called ‘charged space’, seems to have developed over the past century or so. It tries to represent how we respond as a whole to the physical world—through all our senses, our whole body and our imagination. It’s thick, fluid and immersive, it’s set in motion by its occupants, and it’s kept in flux by invisible flows and fields of force.

In these respects, charged space corresponds with mental ‘solution space’ in which answers to questions and problems are sought by manipulating and fusing half-formed information and ideas—experimentally, intuitively, and only half-consciously.

I’ve proposed that some aspects of this space might usefully be replicated in a simulated ‘space for half-formed thoughts’. For this purpose, clearly presented information is death because success in solution space depends on keeping everything fluid and vague until it’s time to fix and harden a solution.

I haven’t seen my daydream engine yet. But I glimpse something like it in these early paintings by Matta. They enable me to list four attributes of a simulated ‘space for half-formed thoughts’:

1: Its metaphor is spatial, but its spatial character is not limited by the constraints of real space and physics

2: It contains flowing patterns that reflect incoming data about the world. But we don’t just see these patterns: we sense them as sounds and vibrations; we feel them as wind in hair, taste on tongue, tension in muscles

3: Informational patterns are manifested in varying densities of this smoky space; and

4: We can sharpen the outlines of things, make them harder and clearer. But we’d only do so when we feel our ideas are ready to coalesce

Vagueness is sometimes a virtue, and clarity is sometimes a vice.

© Philip Tabor 2002.
Not to be reproduced without the permission of the author.

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