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PRINT November 2008

MICHAEL WANG

 Jean-Gilles Décosterd and Philippe Rahm, Hormonorium, 2002, mixed media. Installation view, Swiss pavilion, Venice. From the 8th Venice Architecture Biennale. Photo: Niklaus Stauss.

IT WAS IN 1943 that R. Buckminster Fuller made his famous announcement that during the preceding two years he had slept for an average of two hours a day, napping for thirty minutes at six-hour intervals. This “Dymaxion Sleep,” as he called it, followed the Dymaxion House, the Dymaxion Car, and the Dymaxion Map. For Fuller, whose global enterprise relied on the utopian logic that design might intervene consistently across any scale, the body itself was a “complex pattern integrity”—a reproducible structure rather than a physical entity. Obliterating the line between architecture and the human organism, Dymaxion Sleep mapped Fuller’s maxim of “doing more with less” onto the body.

Fuller coined the term ephemeralization to describe the trend toward ever-lighter construction and ever-more efficient use of resources. It promised structures of incredible volume produced with a minimum of material mass. The drive for maximum efficiency brought with it a preference both for the optical over the material—anticipating the ascendance of the screen today—and for the invisible over the visible, portending the total dematerialization of the digital. Fuller predicted: “Architecture may be accomplished tomorrow with electrical field and other utterly invisible environment controls.”

Fuller’s own speculative schemes at their grandest—his two-mile-diameter geodesic dome over Midtown Manhattan, or his “Cloud 9” proposals for floating cities contained in geodesic bubbles—operated at a scale beyond the scope of the individual building, offering an urban or environmental solution to what was formerly architecture’s chief concern: the delineation of enclosure. Severed from this once-essential activity, architecture was freed to pursue other tasks, all of which effectively amounted to the articulation of an endless interior. We have grown accustomed to the resulting built landscape today: expanses of air-conditioned and fluorescent-lit airports, indoor driving ranges, and shopping malls, internally organized according to the semiotics of the global marketplace. These spaces are perfectly complemented by Fuller’s insomniac schedule. As art historian Jonathan Crary has recently postulated, sleep cannot be reconciled with a 24-7 consumer society.

Yet the implications of this atmospheric uniformity might best be grasped by considering the work of Paris- and Lausanne-based architect Philippe Rahm. In a 2005 text written to accompany an exhibition at the Centre Culturel Suisse in Paris, Rahm wrote:

Architectural space is no longer defined in terms of day and night, the local and the far away, heat or cold, light or dark, but in a sort of global and permanent climatic continuum. There is the same light, average temperature and constant level of humidity everywhere. Architecture deploys itself in a henceforth universal space, projecting without discontinuity an eternal continuous present that is invariable, everywhere the same, always there. The continuum creates spatiality and temporality extending beyond biological cycles, without sleep or season, outside of astronomical and climatic rhythms, without night or winter, without rain or chill.

Understanding architecture as climate control (the accommodation of the human body) or, more radically, as the sensory manipulation of this body, Rahm advocates not the disappearance of design, but, rather, its dispersal as environmental and biological control. His own “invisible architectures” take Fuller’s ephemeralization endgame, in fact, as their degree zero.

Rahm’s work originates in the physiological effects that result from adjusting the parameters of habitability (light, temperature, humidity, etc.). Hormonorium, 2002, for instance, a “degeographized” interior installation designed in collaboration with Jean-Gilles Décosterd for the Swiss pavilion at the Eighth Venice Architecture Biennale, is equipped with UV-emitting fluorescent lights that inhibit melatonin production in the brain, reducing fatigue. It also maintains a low-oxygen atmosphere—artificial alpine air—that stimulates the release of endorphins and other hormones.

Here and elsewhere, Rahm attains a virtual dimension in his internalization of architectural effects. His most recent work, Digestible Gulf Stream, currently installed at the 2008 Architecture Biennale (which has the Fullerean theme of “Architecture Beyond Building”), attempts to synchronize interior bodily sensation with external thermal flows. The climatic effects of a convection current are scaled to the size of a room, as air moves between a ground-mounted steel plate designed to maintain a temperature of eighty-two degrees Fahrenheit and another steel plate twenty feet away, suspended some seven feet from the ground with a constant temperature of fifty-nine. The installation also includes a minty candy that simulates the effect of the cooler temperature on oral receptors, and a skin cream infused with chili that activates a neuroreceptor sensitive to temperatures above 110. These “gastronomical/pharmaceutical preparations” offer the possibility of creating sensations of heat and cold anywhere within the occupiable space between the plates, which contains a spectrum of thermal zones.

Designed simultaneously on architectural and biochemical levels, while alluding to global climatic systems, Rahm’s work surfs vertiginous shifts in scale. This coincidence of the macro with the micro traces its provenance to Fuller and, especially, to his World Game—his most comprehensive proposal for a global design and governance tool, which is often cited as a precursor of virtual reality. The World Game (to which Fuller envisioned universal accessibility) allowed individual “players” to shape, through infinite minute inputs, and to interpret, through the generalized mapping of resource and energy exchange, the course of world history. It cannily figured the ultimate collapse of architecture—not to mention politics, economics, and industry—into global communication networks. Much as Fuller might have anticipated, information and capital flow along the same global channels today. Yet instead of making “the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone”—as Fuller touted his World Game—the market appropriates resources, bodies, even experience, for its own ends.

As the ongoing subprime mortgage crisis reminds us, the market’s virtual field of play has become fundamentally separated from the world it governs. The economics of ephemeralization today privileges the instant gratification of information exchange and sensory stimulation, ignoring, at its own peril, the material effects at the core of Fuller’s ecological and societal program. New neuropharmaceuticals treat the brain, too, virtually—as a set of internal variables susceptible to efficient restructuring. The recent surge in sales of the sleep suppressant Provigil, which can keep users awake and fully functional for days at a time, reveals just how far we’ve outpaced Fuller’s Dymaxion schemes. Here again Rahm’s architecture offers an astute comment, operating as it does within a kind of aftermath. Global catastrophe has become par for the course. “There is global warming and climate concern,” Rahm explains, “but these become tools for architecture.”

Michael Wang, based in New York, works between fields of art and architecture.