Moving Architecture—is this an oxymoron or a tautology? Read one way it names a contradiction, read the other it states a trivial redundancy—for architecture is that which always stays still, but a building is only architecture when it is moving. Architecture is profoundly invested in fixity and stillness, and this moves us.
At its most general, “architecture” is that which is fixed, in the sense of being located (space), and in being decided (time). From this localized determination proceeds a quality of stability, and then dependability: architecture names the framework or structure (space) that secures (time) the relationships of the other terms in a discourse (for instance, the architecture of meaning is language). Something is called architectural, or an architecture (computer architecture, for example) to describe its assured invariance along these axes. The difference between an architecture and a mere organization or diagram is a stateliness and conviction that expresses architecture’s disciplined embodiment of authority. An organization or diagram becomes an architecture when it has been dignified by a perseverance that itself has been ratified by a proven generative capacity.
More specifically, architecture provides the datum upon which history depends for the (seeming) decisiveness of its relations, and the framework that stabilizes philosophical understanding: etymologically, logically, it provides the “storia,” or shelf upon which history’s trophies are arranged (as well as being a trophy itself). This structure—the possibility of structure—promises a continuity that promotes a decidability that underwrites intentionality itself. Furthermore, the endurance of such structure is magical, because all other experience shows that time flows, that things change, humans are mortal.
Even more specifically, or at least more traditionally, architecture provides the sense of structure that orders space, providing for the possibility of location. Space and architecture can be seen to form an irreducible duality, each defined in terms of the other, neither capable of standing alone enough to establish priority. In this view, architecture is either the result or the means of the first human sojourn into space. In-to space: “in” already implies immersion, suggesting the infinite continuity associated with space in common sense; “to,” on the other hand, already suggests some “place” or otherwise identifiable condition that might accept the directedness of this “towardness.” Space becomes comfortable when it can be addressed. This “in” is the seed of space, this “to” the seed of architecture. From this perspective, the building is just the material embodiment of the comfort that the architectural already invests in space, preparing the possibility for a Something amid a universe of Nothing.
It could be said that “architecture” emerges in the first idea of space, or that “space” could not properly be said to have existed until architecture could describe it—but only because there is already an unspoken presumption (in place) of constancy and stillness underwriting the confidence of the sojourn and the comfort of the destination. Architecture’s relation to space is contingent upon this prior assumption of stability and the possibility of presence. For this reason, architecture is specifically that which is always already there, always still there, always coming into existence as if it were always already still there.
Meanwhile, the confluence of space and time gives motion. The quality called “architectural” harbors movement just under the surface, proscribed yet tacit: “in”-“to” suggests some bridged distance, concealed in the implied dash, in the address. Architecture identifies a destination, in space, in comfort-in-space, which must be fixed to be located and addressed, while at the same time encouraging the movement toward itself as that destination. This fugitive movement is beginning to assert itself as technology takes over from architecture the role of establishing society’s place in the world. Consequently, a non-architectural sense of space is becoming increasingly thinkable. This new space, insinuated in the synapses of digital wizardry or traced out by the contrails of more brute technology, escapes the sort of totalizing abstraction—and dignity—imposed by architecture. “It” “is” a wild and woolly hairball of virtuality that refuses the generalizations that architecture structures.
By the same token, it is becoming equally possible to imagine architecture non-spatially as its meta-positive role is diminished. Other dimensions of the architectural are emerging as non-trivial, courtesy the computer’s de-emphasis of physical space as a medium of engaging experience and society’s de-emphasis of architecture as the standard of order. In balancing against this the prospects for architecture’s continuing relevance in a cyber-dominated world, architecture’s solidity and “reality” and bigness carry more weight than immaterial space ever could. Once the importance of these other dimensions is accepted, it is a short step to consideration of the will that ties the material presence together, and the freedom of movement the willful entity desires.
So what does it mean to think of architecture in motion? It depends on what is really meant by “motion.” At one level, the concept is not foreign: the idea that architecture could be seen as “frozen music” already suggests arrested movement, for example. The Baroque and deconstructivism showed that architecture could engage this directly, if metaphorically. Modernism showed another way, by embodying references to speed. Recent fashions in form-making are inspired by a complexity theory thoroughly steeped in movement. Yet in none of these examples has anything ever actually moved. The music has always been frozen; all the action happens on the drawing board or screen, not in the building.
Why doesn’t architecture move? Beyond the conceptual/definitional issues mentioned above, there are a host of obvious practical impediments. For one thing, it is too big. For another, movement is too expensive, too difficult. The ease with which these objections spring to mind is more evidence of habitual thinking, though, than true reasoning. They owe much of their force to the historically unexamined proscriptions outlined above: it only seems that architecture might be too big, or the costs prohibitive because nobody is accustomed to thinking otherwise. Only because architecture has never moved does anyone value its stillness. Actually, some really big things do move—aircraft carriers, 747s, launch assemblies, retractable stadium roofs, trains, radio telescopes, Japanese parking garages, bucketwheel excavators—though they might not be considered architecture. Conversely, some things that would be considered architecture are quite small and could easily be put in motion: the tempieto, say. In fact, it could be launched.
While the economics of the building process can be blamed for many of architecture’s shortcomings, this is not a sufficient excuse to explain its lack of motion as well: even in a situation without a budget, like the Getty Center or the Hong Kong Bank, the possibility of movement does not arise. No one is thinking: “if only there was more money, this tower could spin on its axis to track the sun,” or, “with a few more bucks this wing of the building could just fold over here to shelter the entrance in the rain.”
Instead architects are taught to think that architecture’s stillness is a hard won battle with the forces of gravity and the claims of entropy, without considering other positive forces it could engage through movement. Instead, it is felt that if a building moves, it is a catastrophe, caused by gravity, leading to ruin. The structural science of “statics” is named as an expression of desire as much as fact. Structural expressionism is a non-metaphoric dramatization of the efforts expended to control this movement. The visual dynamism it may affect is in contrast to the physical dynamism it tries to prevent.
Finally, though, in all honesty, architecture doesn’t really need to move, does it? Why should a building move? Where would it go, what would it do? Conventionally it satisfies its program by just sitting there. That’s why it is put there in the first place. And yet, is even this really a limitation of architecture or of the conception of it? In fact, conventionally, programs are written to avoid movement as much as possible—even by the users. The passion for efficient layouts and rational use of space is not just economically based; it also expresses a belief in the harmful effects of distance and the inconvenience of travel. In fact, the intensity of the profession’s devotion to minimizing the distance between a desk and a restroom or the sink and the refrigerator borders on the absurd when considered in terms of the actual differences in travel time affected. This absurdity extends to the “zoning” of the plan to avoid movement among unpleasant adjacencies, pushing unlike activities as far apart as the building can accommodate. The repressive nature of the social partitioning that results from such thinking is inspiring a contemporary critical response.
This response is taking the form of programs written to maximize the positive tension between unlike activities by purposely throwing them together in close proximity. The intention, however, is not to resolve this tension by encouraging movement, but to take advantage of the habits of stasis to stoke the anxiety levels and heighten an empowering awareness of the surroundings.
The most influential critics are those who also practice; they have a greater effect on what happens in the built environment because they are filling that space with images. In fact, theory has gone to great lengths to challenge the repressive effects of the convention of stillness, embracing complexity and chaos and the anxious realm of politics. To escape the grip of establishment and convention—to break into the clear blue sky of novelty or the virtual—design has become dynamic, the play of abstract mechanisms, fields of flux, gestural forces. A new standard has emerged for the appreciation of reality, challenging faith in plain appearance or brute materiality—PhotoShop and Pixar are replacing a general indifference before the mundane with a more delightful expectation of transformation. Digital images of the animate will everywhere tease the imagination. The beef, however, has yet to be found.
It is this work that provides the clearest illustration of the distance between the thematizing of motion and the flight from actual movement—without this difference being at all evident. How this can happen unnoticed is hard to understand, except as a demonstration of the magnitude of the threat that movement must hold for architecture: even the theory that questions stasis does not think to consider actual movement as a remedy. Architecture can seemingly tolerate being sliced, diced, smeared, torqued, stretched, scattered, or morphed—so long as it doesn’t actually, simply, move. Again the question arises: why not? In this context another answer comes to mind, maybe the real one, the one that addresses where the power is located. More than any other party to the hairball of relationships surrounding the production of environmental objects and effects, the avant-garde or critical architect is interested in the object’s staying where he put it. The best chaos and choicest effects-of-chance (which many critical practices today depend on for their notoriety) are closely scripted, and the results are carefully evaluated before release. Authorship in general is interested in fixity for the continuity it assures, or even immortality, but critique values it even more, for the control that secures the critic’s meta-position.
Such formal critiques fail to account for the object as a force in life. A practice-oriented critique has arisen to solve this problem by diffusing authorship and the design process into the object’s eventual constituency; yet even this work forgets a life for the object itself, still assigning the object an ultimately lifeless fixity that must ossify into repressiveness at some point. The still object must at some point be in the way.
Real movement is empowerment. It liberates. The proscription of movement is not absolute. It is conventional. It can be overturned.
The potential for an object’s motion is usually defined on a scale measuring “degrees of freedom.” This is an interesting expression. It captures the quality of willfulness in movement that is naturally ascribed to animate form. For the designed object this willfulness can be credited to the movement that acts out the object’s own desires, and movement that traces the will of another upon it. The author is left behind in these relationships; the moving object takes the responsibility for engagement and extends its own invitation to be tuned, manipulated, configured. In this gesture of respect the bond of engagement is cemented, directly, between the object and the observer, and a richer, more empowering relationship is established.
Ultimately, though, it all comes down to this: the architectural should embrace movement because it can. For the same reason that technological progress will eventually make even blobs buildable (and so they will be built), movement will become as common as stillness is today... and it will lose its capacity to sustain wonder. Today, however, the potential of movement is still untested, its realization still floating out there as the next big thing. The present generation of architects has the opportunity to feel the tension as that stillness gives way, and the wonder as architecture grows a new dimension.
In considering the possibility of movement in a project, the first hurdle is feeling a need to justify it programmatically, to understand that movement’s contribution to a design need not be mere functionality. Movement is not only a means but can be an end in itself; not simply alteration of spatial relationships in the interest of flexibility but a pleasing visual or haptic sensation. The same boat can haul freight and provide an enjoyable experience of the sea’s motions; a hammock can save space and be a pleasant place to swing. At the same time, movement appropriate to architecture—movement that may be considered architecturally in the same way as massing or materiality, in other words—is not necessarily spectacular, as architecture is not necessarily spectacular or merely functional.
As a general rule, movement in architecture will be consistent with the form of the architecture. Indeed, movement could be said to describe a form itself, which may be addressed as a part of the design on the same terms as the static, physical forms. The movement will relate to the static forms according to the design logic particular to that project. Yet the project’s identity as architecture will always make it subject as well to architecture’s broader concerns, so while the specific project imperatives may be quite carefully and extensively defined, architecture might allow purposeful deviation from those project imperatives. The underlying architectural value of consistency does not preclude surprise. In fact, surprise is dependant on a general trust in expectations of consistency. While movement might typically be expected to follow lines implied in the static form, which might even go so far as to express that movement through inflection or mimicry, such expectations might be intentionally frustrated for effect. Because the movement is in fact another dimension of the architectural presence, another kind of thing, the static form is logically less obligated to expression of the movement, or even to continuity with it. The fact of choice makes the decision one way or the other more significant; this realization frees up the relationship to allow such movements as may seem diagrammatically opposed to what the forms would suggest, but which in action are not displeasing or jarring, and thus remain within the bounds of architectural propriety.
This is not to imply, however, that anything goes. Above all, architectural movement is intentional. Architectural movement is repeating or repeatable, rather than accidental, free-willed, or open-ended, just as architectural form is ordered, not random or simply gestural (the work of Frank Gehry notwithstanding, since his work must be considered a species of building-related art, from the standpoint of the discipline). The will of architecture is far from free; it is obligated to work within the bounds of the discipline. (Though it may appear to step outside these lines, the results will only be deemed architecture if the lines are redrawn—perhaps by those very efforts—to include those results.) The nature of the architectural will is easily understood by its contrast from that of engineering, particularly concerning the issue of movement. Though both work within defined boundaries that produce their identity, and in so doing limit meaningful outcomes, architectural will is restrained, while engineering willfulness is constrained. Architecture restrains itself from freely engaging all possible form in the interest of producing only significant form, while engineering is constrained by physical laws and an overriding concern for efficiency from producing useless or ineffectual technology. Movement is a venue where this distinction may be most evident—and intentional, both when the purpose is delight rather than function, and when delight derives from a celebration of function.
As an example, consider the case of a rail-mounted structure, such as a bridge crane (from the engineering world), or house (from the architectural). In both instances the rails appear to dictate the direction and extent of the structure’s travel and limit the range of its possible movement. Neither the crane nor the house may venture elsewhere or otherwise. The engineered object, already embedded within a regime of absolute functionality burdened by the limits of nature/physical law, must find this additional locational constraint unnatural, artificial. This would seem to imbue the object with a certain sense of resentful servitude, but instead the object has dutifully internalized the additional constriction of possibility. Indeed, the bridge crane aspires to nothing else. A concern for efficiency and effectiveness with respect to the job at hand consumes it entirely; it is satisfied with the limited world it knows completely, remembering nothing else, and is in this an unselfconscious example of the constraints placed upon technology generally. The architectural object, on the other hand, is also satisfied with its limited range of motion, but for a different reason. Though the house knows the rest of the world beyond the rail-defined tract it commands, any aspiration it might have to experience that wider possibility is restrained by its conviction that it is already in the best place. Its present situation is the result of choice, and its choice is one that it would recommend to others. The architectural object is in this sense exemplary, while the engineered object is only ever an example.
This difference is apparent in the design of the two structures. The bridge crane unselfconsciously lives to pick things up from one part of its restricted world and put them down again somewhere else, and design is limited to considerations that effect this activity, as decisions made into the current of physical and technological constraints. There can be a beauty to this, as often noted, in the object’s transparency to its function, in its fitness to its purpose. As evidence of this fitness, forms that would otherwise be considered clumsy take on a charm that would be lost if they were seen as designed, and movement is extreme in speed and abruptness, absolutely confident in its limited range. In contrast, the house, as architecture, is excruciatingly self-conscious. With all possibilities of form beyond the merely functional open to it, every aspect of the design is understood to advance specific arguments (tectonic, topologic, social/cultural, and contextual) for restraining the design to the chosen architectural presence. Any clumsiness must be understood as intentional. As for its movement, the arguments embodied in the form will produce the opposite sense from those of the engineered object: the movement will be celebrated as an achievement rather than a concession. Because the design of movement in architecture involves engineering and must operate to that extent in the constrained world of the engineered object, the design of the architectural movement’s relation to the form must concentrate on overcoming this mere functionality. For the architectural object the relation between the object and its motion is a self-conscious argument against necessity, and each of the elements that contribute to the achievement of that movement must be brought within architecture’s formal regime. Most of the necessarily engineered elements are resistant to this, though, since their functionality is a product of their forms. So it is the architecture that must adapt to the profiles and parallelism of the rails and the trucks that ride along them, to make these engineered elements fit in. If the architectural object is formally continuous with the movement along the rails, for example, rather than contradicting it, the rails and trucks will not be seen as functionally constrained, but architecturally restrained.
A more direct solution to this problem might seem to be a (formal) denial of the means for such movement, rendering them literally or metaphorically invisible. Painting such elements black like Mies did with the chimney and soil lines at the Farnsworth House, or eliminating the mullions from the glazing, never really makes stuff disappear, but it does make it less noticeable. Movement, though, is so overt that while the invisibility of the means can make it seem “magical,” more often than not that sort of subterfuge backfires, rendering the moving object trivial or silly, making it seem insubstantial and thus anti-architectural. When such aids to movement as rails are present, they are best taken into account in the design. Such account-taking may include other considerations like an intention to signal/foreshadow the movement ahead, to embellish or underline the movement at hand, or simply be continuous with other parts of the form that may not be related to movement (a form of camouflage).
Architectural movement occurs at a certain speed that is appropriate to the use and the form. Since the starting and stopping must be included in this determination, it is more proper to think in terms of velocity, which accounts for the rate of change of the movement (as well as its direction, bringing the freedom or restraint of conveyance into the discussion). To do so is to judge movement as a performance. The issue for performance is not simply how efficiently it connects the end states, how it quickly it goes from A to B, but how well. Such judgment is of course foreign to engineering but entirely appropriate to architecture. It could even be said that this is the difference: when the viewer or designer feels compelled to consider the character or quality of the motion as well as its effectiveness, to see it as a matter of a performance, the question has left the realm of engineering and entered the architectural. It is no longer a matter of maximizing efficiency or output but a question of how that output feels, what it conveys. Of course, the choice between quick or slow movement, between abrupt or gradual acceleration or deceleration may also be related to strictly functional concerns like the fragility of the structure or the physical comfort of the occupants, but when this difference is approached as a limiting condition rather than a necessity, the possibility of choice that remains becomes a sign that architecture is happening. The question raised by this choice engages the architectural will.