2nd part of a lecture at The Berlage Institute Amsterdam
Miodrag Mitrasinovic, Alien - The Electronic Cloud, Europan, 1993
One could argue that despite the reduction of working hours - a four-day working week has been recently introduced in Western Europe - life has become so complex that beside the fact that we have more free time, we face a lack of ideas which can generate a collective program for a vast number of people, so necessary for the existence of physical public space.
Since the invention of the telephone and, lately, of mass-media telecommunications systems, we have started exploring and inhabiting an unknown and incomprehensible virtual space, which also introduced a new sphere very different from all we knew before. The recent development of interactive communications systems and personal computer systems led to the creation of a complex, multilayered, virtual public space, with a related mode of behavior and particular cultural model. This also leads to the question of whether a public space has to be an open physical space or does it just belong to the "public sphere"?
Consequently, decentralization in general became one of the most obvious consequences of these changes in contemporary society, being divided into a vast number of subcultures and self-sufficient fragments, each operating within its own boundaries. The way in which they exist together is determined by the necessity of being mutually linked to the infrastructure communicational systems, which has become the essence of their being. This inevitably refers back to the idea of the Total Landscape and the Global City concept, the idea of an overall, global, ever-changing framework, a self-regulating living system. It is the architecture of our time, it has the scale, form, dimension, it has even certain aesthetics without being physical. Anyway, what is "physical"?
We did not think that changes in the near future were going to be brought up to us in a visible and recognizable way, but rather by another small interface somewhere in our rooms in the same way in which the telephone or TV have changed our world silently, without demolishing the existing mental and physical landscape of the collective memory.
Presumably, the most important changes are going to be brought about by new materials, and they are fundamentally going to question the very nature of architectural discourse.
The nature of our communication with the world around us has generally changed into an attitude of "remote control" of everything, from TV to what is nature, from human emotions to what is human reproduction, which does not need a direct sensual contact in order to continue its existence.
Under these circumstances we communicate with our environment via an untouchable and recyclable electronic information which introduces the visual aspect of our "being" as crucial. The relationship between man and his unit is defined by the visual, rather than by the tactile, by image, sound and color. Human fascination with images inevitably influences the very nature of our culture/civilization and architectural raison d'etre. The essence of immaterial, the media, the message and image is becoming one of the crucial issues for architecture today.
In that respect, we understood the Electronic Cloud project and even more the Cardiff Opera House and Slavija projects as paradigms, as case studies in searching for new models!
These were consequently the conditions in which we tried to operate in the project for the Europan competition, the project entitled Alien - The Electronic Cloud. We decided to keep the existing situation - land and buildings - as the actual landscape and to add another layer to the existing fabric, a layer which starts from +15m. In the ground floor plan our intervention is not visible, except the translucent glass roof of the underground parking lot which runs all the way underneath the house (300m) marking the ground and an electronic playground placed next to the "natural" one.
What is important is that classic urban planning, horizontal zoning, is now becoming vertical layering, a superposition of different programs, and the city is thus becoming readable through diagrammatic section rather than plans.
Since this project was situated in the recently made forest on the edge of the man-made lake in S'Hertogensbosh - which itself brings forward the issue of "artificial nature" - we were immediately confronted with the problem of defining what is natural and what is not, of where nature stops or changes its qualities and becomes an "artificial environment" cultivated and articulated by man.
What we call "nature" today is a theoretical discourse and technological field that we operate in. Following Zenghelis in the universal framework of infrastructure, there are subtle differences of degree rather than kind. The point is in learning to respond to these differences of degree rather than to the drastic divisions between the previously distinct entities of nature and city.
The electronic playground is an open space with a grid of computer monitors where each player stands by his own monitor and plays alone. The duality between the "natural" playground and the electronic playground is a metaphor of the project because it amplifies the programmatic void born between the "collectivity" of the past and the individuality of the present. Thus, it is an open space generated by individual activities as opposed to what we knew as the generator of the public space being a collective activity.
The Alien was made out of transparent panels made of glass panes with liquid crystals placed in a double silicon skin so that all the surfaces of "monads" became screens of high resolution.
Over the computer screen one could create one's own interior landscape, the shape of the floor, content of the walls and the ceiling, disposition of images or different patterns, the way one wants to use the service wall, microclimate, desirable disposition of the window and the view, the position of light curtains which are at the same time sound and smell barriers, etc.
The surface of the house contains sensors which record the context in which it exists and provide every cell with a desirable view projected on a surface called "window". The angle of perspective would change following the movement of the viewer's eye. One would be able to change the disposition of windows, but also to have a "natural" view through the transparent non-simulated screen (wall).
In the Welsh National Opera House project we tried to enable the visitor to have different levels of experience and the possibility of public participation. One was able to enjoy the opera performance but also to exclude oneself and add a new layer to the conventional opera experience by creating one's own personal performance. Visitors are provided with LCD screens which are situated on the back of each seat, in fact in front of every visitor. The screens transmit images recorded by six fixed cameras positioned around the stage. Each screen has consequently six 'buttons' so that the visitor is easily able to choose the desirable additional angle for experiencing the performance.
Headphones are provided to enable those visitors who are outside the main hall to have the possibility of sound experience, too, as an addition to the visual one which is possible thanks to the transparency of the acoustic curtain enclosing the main auditorium. The acoustic curtain is part of the system of curtains which enclose and control access and define the functioning of the volumes:
"Heating Curtain" - composed of strong warm-air streams that provide climate control between the main foyer and Opera Square, thus establishing an entrance zone that requires no doors; "Security Curtain" - a glass panel, closed when the Opera House is not in operation; "Checking Curtain" - a rolling LCD screen panel meant to be closed during performances so as to allow the security control of the flow of visitors. One part divides the foyer in two parts and the second part divides the restaurant, which then becomes accessible also to the visitors not attending the performances; "Acoustic Curtain" - made of plastic, transparent from the outside and 50% translucent from the inside, closes the Main auditorium from the foyer allowing access through the fixed circular entrances; "Stage Curtain" - a classical curtain moved by the fly tower mechanism which closes the main stage from the auditorium; "Back Stage Curtain" - made of steel and aluminum and closes the back stage (which also serves as storage area) from the loading area.
Another aspect of this project is that public participation is also happening on other levels: the main component of the Opera Square is an "electronic forest" - a music library, contained within a grid of audio/video displays. The forest on the glazed roof of an underground experimental music theater which, together with the grid of built-in floor lighting illuminates the Square. Audio/video provide the visitors with information covering the field of music in general, but also with data about particular performances of the Welsh National Opera.
The music forest acts as an intermediary element, a buffer zone generated by a series of individual activities, mediating between the open space of the city and the public space of the opera performance.
The ground floor of the building is a sloping platform, the main spatial and organizational element generating the entire complex. In that way the stage becomes, both physically and visually, a part of the extended Opera Square.
What we realized working on this project (WNO) is that the complexity of programs and the size of its volume - 40,000 sq. m - prevented us from giving any identity to that building .
It became so big that its size made any discussion about aesthetics of its shape needless and, moreover, its incomprehensibility would inevitably distract our perception of its appearance. We concluded that the shape of the building, the aesthetics of its envelope, does not have anything to do whatsoever with its programmatic determinacy. Since we wanted our project to clarify the strategy for the particular programmatic and metropolitan model, we decided to play a semiological game and to borrow the envelope by taking a well-known model of perfection and beauty which would embody the program and, by materializing it, become a part of our superficially intellectual strategy.
We chose the famous design of the Olympus MUJI-1 camera, adjusted it to our needs and concluded the competition entry with the following words: "The inside of the building is clad with matte-black santophrene-rubber panels, while from the outside the cladding is in black aluminum and glass plates that constitute a homogenous appearance of perfectly cut onyx arising from Cardiff Bay as a pristine seductive landmark in one of the Europe's future cultural capitals".
However, one has to keep in mind that the Opera Square, and consequently the platform for the Opera house itself, is generated by being situated at the end of the main city avenue and at the last stop of the LTR network. One could argue that the flow of information and people in the contemporary metropolis is similar to the flow of electronic impulses in an electromagnetic field/microchip, in which each distance is measured by time or speed rather than by metric distances.
Time thus becomes the essence of living, part of the global consensus on efficiency. Back to Virillio - once again - who argues that the loss of material space leads to the government of nothing but time...
Analyzing the site for the competition project in Belgrade we realized that the building typology was generated by the relaxed pedestrian flow through JNA Boulevard on a tangent to the site, ending in the city's most important traffic knot -Slavija Square - which is the point of intersection of the global city traffic infrastructure. There was nothing else to attract people to walk along this busy boulevard. Today, by introducing the metro network, the pedestrian flow is moving towards the underground center which is to be built underneath the square. That made me think of turning the existing block type upside-down, changing programmaticaly its content. Another aspect of the site is the presence of the recently completed St. Sava Church and the surrounding park which became the everyday destination for a vast number of people. The height difference between the two levels - the square level and the church level - is 26 meters.
The project was about bringing together these two levels by extending the metro level to the underground parking lot on one side, while extending the park towards the square on the other side. The whole narrative drama of this junction is achieved by a vertical connection of two levels created by a system of elevators, escalators and ramps running through the middle part of the building, programmaticaly determined as a shopping center and an open/indoor city piazza. Every attempt to create an architectural promenade, an urban itinerary, a continuous flow of people through that space has been distracted by the presence of elevators. Though elevators are becoming faster and faster, we thought that the speed of the transparent elevators and consequently the escalators, should be adjusted to the average speed of human walk.
The outer/envelope parts of the building are programmaticaly office spaces with maximal flexibility, being given even possibility to extend their territory into the shopping center. The shopping center space is penetrated by programmaticaly determined voids. In the second phase of development, as density in this area of the city arises, the same voids are meant to be openings for the structure and communications for the skyscrapers whose "level zero" would be that of the roof of the shopping center. The growing complexity of life has lead to miniaturization of elements that help us control the environment and to the fact that machines have become visually incomprehensible, suggesting the materialization of solid forms. We are moving away from the solidity of the visible, the tactile and the directly manipulable towards the immaterial and indirectly controllable environment. Consequently, that programmatic complexity has distracted the perception of our environment. The essential complexity, intelligence and logic of life is expressed through the microchip as the paradigm of our time.
For example, after almost 40 minutes of an architectural lecture I did not show one single facade drawing. All the projects were explained mostly through diagrammatic sections and plans. The whole Belgrade project was about interiority and nothing to do with exteriority. Its envelope had no importance whatsoever for the character of the building. Its character was captured in the connection of two levels of the city infrastructure and it became an urban itinerary, resting point for city travelers...
How can one design a facade for a building of 45,000 sq. m in conditions of metropolitan compactness? How can one give identity to a non-perceivable mass? Even if one would try to draw a facade for such a building in 1:500 scale, in 1:1 situations one would be able to perceive only a very small part of it. It is something that was already mentioned before, in connection with the Opera House project: the size of the building distracts our perception of its appearance, and consequently of our environment in general.
Nevertheless, that will finally free architects from the culturally created obsession of an architect as identity-maker, as form-giver, from the obsession that has distracted our understanding of architecture for ages. We are once again able to design the logic and the intelligence of life based on the value-judgement of an architect, following the primordial narration that enables men to resume contact with the world.
Miodrag Mitrasinovic, Slavija, Beograd, 1992