The Grotesque Body and the Post-Humanist Subject

Val Warke is an associate professor at Cornell University’s Department of Architecture, and a partner in Simitch + Warke Architecture. His teaching and research focus is on criticism and genre theory, including issues of fashion, formalism, populism, reception, and relations to literary theory.
Venus of Willendorf. © Naturhistorisches Museum Wien. Photo: Alice Schumacher.
Venus of Willendorf. © Naturhistorisches Museum Wien. Photo: Alice Schumacher.

Human fascination with the figuration of bodies seems to have taken a variety of forms, to varying degrees, at various times. Inevitably, these fascinations have had effects on modes of artistic—and therefore, architectural—production.

These interests appear to have been derived from five renditions of the body: there is the continually theorized and periodically eroticized fascination with the ideal body (with notions of the “ideal” differing, of course, from culture to culture, time to time); the probably instinctive and possibly totemic fascination with the hypertrophically fertile human body; the ostensibly anthropological and occasionally theological fascination with the amalgamous marvelous/monstrous body; the socially ignoble but probably equally instinctive fascination with the anomalous body; and the relatively recent horrific and enchanting fascination with the otherworldly body.

Vitruvius is one of the earliest proponents of the analogs that might be developed between the ideal human figure and ideal proportions in architecture. There are enthusiastic iterations of these Vitruvian constructions throughout much of architectural history, from the Renaissance onward through certain strains of 20th-century modernism. One finds that, beginning in the Renaissance, the geometrized body appears in both the theoretical architecture of treatises as well as among the Western world’s foremost constructed works. Ideal bodies appear in everything from the component: (columns [where proportions might even be gendered in relation to their orders], capital details, doors, windows, moldings, and so on) to the overall building formation (plans, sections, and elevations) to the city plan. In the Renaissance, for instance, one need only look at the proportioned drawings of Francesco di Giorgio—of his cornices, capitals, columns, and cathedrals—to find bodies everywhere. In the 20th century one has Le Corbusier’s Modulor.[1]

In most of these earlier instances, the translation of the ideal human body’s proportions to two- and three-dimensional figures generally employed ratios in establishing proportions: bottom-of-feet-to-navel by feet-to-top-of-head, for instance. Scale per se was not as significant as proportion, in that proportion was considered to be a fundamental element of perspective construction and, therefore, of the spatial developments that followed from theories of perspective:[2] the repetition of an identifiable rectangular figure can imply depth in two dimensions, a technique frequently utilized in facade compositions from the Renaissance onward.[3] Also, since the human body as an ideal condition was essentially both a translation (ostensibly, of the image of God) and a microcosm (of the universe), the scalar aspects of the body were clearly subordinated to their more abstract geometric attributes.

Furthermore, just as architecture already from the time of Vitruvius has used incorporations and representations of “nature” and “the natural” to justify the validity of its fundamental precepts, the “discovery” of certain of architecture’s “ideal” ratios and proportions throughout nature—in leaves, shells, and other botanical and biological figures—has served to reinforce the notion that there is a singular, harmonic geometry that unites the ideal body/building with the remainder of the natural world. For the first of the five renditions of the body mentioned above, mathematics has served as the cohesive mechanism for uniting conceptions of the ideal in nature to the presumptive ideal in architecture, for embedding notions of the ideal man and his god within the forms of the ideal building and city.

But, as mentioned above, the ideal body is only one of five configurations that have piqued human interest. The other four non-ideal types—the hypertrophically fertile, the amalgamous, the anomalous, and the otherworldly—might be generally described as variations of what, for the sake of brevity, one might refer to as the “grotesque body.”[4]

The grotesque body is grotesque to the degree that it appears to deviate from normative conceptions of the body. The key words here are appears and normative: one must necessarily define the grotesque body as it is measured against a preconceived understanding of the normative body, which is essentially an imagined average of all known bodies. Paradoxically, then, “normative” or “typical” bodies can only very rarely exist, based as they are on the norm of a presumptive set of vaguely ascertained measures; and, of course, these measures as well as the concomitant techniques for measurement have changed from period to period, society to society. Furthermore, left to their own devices, cultures inevitably desire the ideal to be a subset of the normative, whereas the actual “typical” might more likely be found migrating toward the category of the grotesque. And while the concept of “appearance” is not only intensely individual—and, as conceived by the individual, “appearance” is also always momentary and contextual—the grotesque body inevitably transcends simple “appearance,” generally operating on more than one level of apprehension, frequently incorporating a sense of the alien.[5]

In other words, both the ideal and the grotesque body are always a latent aspect of the normative. As Ernst Gombrich has pointed out in an essay considering Leonardo da Vinci’s “Grotesque Heads”:

In fact anyone who studies these drawings for any length of time will tend to see them suddenly spring to life among the crowds of our cities. The reason must be that we are too much disposed to call a ‘monstrosity’ in art what is rather commonplace ugliness in reality. Those of us who are not professional painters, at any rate, are easily inclined to think of the typical human face in terms of the traditional ‘conceptual’ image and not to notice the frequent deviations, such as asymmetry and distortions, unless we meet with them unexpectedly within the context of art.[6]

Gombrich convincingly demonstrates that Leonardo’s fascination with the production of the “grotesque heads” is an essential step in his construction of the ideal, Vitruvian man.

The hypertrophically fertile body is perhaps the most elemental of all of the grotesque configurations, and is the subject of some of the earliest representations on record. Consider the Woman of Willendorf, dated to between 24,000 and 22,000 B.C.E., or her earlier ancestor, the Woman of Hohle Fels, dated to between 38,000 and 32,000 B.C.E.

Art historians and museum curators have commonly named both of these figurines “Venus,” after the Roman goddess of fertility, despite any possible deistic connection. The name is in recognition of the figures’ exaggerated breasts, abdomens, and detailed vulvae, and quite probably it is a means of entitling the theory that these early representations functioned as some sort of totems. An alternative theory—that the figurines are actually self-portraits, and that the facial omissions and proportional distortions are the effects of self-observation[7]—is perhaps even more suggestive: grotesque hypertrophy is possibly rooted in an attempt at representing the normative, a form of self-portraiture.

Interestingly, in the same cave in Hohle Fels where the ancient woman was discovered, a polished stone phallus of approximately the same age was also pieced together. Just as representations of exaggeratedly fertile female figures have proliferated since prehistory, exaggeratedly endowed male figures—or at least metonymic elements of such endowment—have also found their way into the artifacts of most early cultures. In classic cultures, hypertrophic fertility is prized (if not admired), and so it was inevitable that gods would evolve that would be endowed with these characteristics; one thinks of Priapus, especially popular in Pompeii, and Diana of Ephesus, who enjoyed enthusiastic esteem well into the 17th century, not least of all as a frequent garden ornament.

This is perhaps because, as cultures developed into more complex societies, this particular body form—the hypertrophically fertile—seems to have become a fundamental element of the various carnival cultures that developed. The bulbous protrusions that represented the distinguishing characteristics of each gender were replicated not only as an emblematic presence within carnivals, but also as a basic characteristic of the costumed appearance of many carnival participants. As has been well documented, these public celebrations of the grotesque body were gradually suppressed in most societies, allowed to erupt only in the occasional literary and artistic work, in the forms of various psychological neuroses, and in infrequent but sanctioned events.[8]

By the 16th century, even the most romantic depictions of the pagan gods with their occasional and fearful gigantism—physical transmogrifications that were central to so many origin myths—were almost completely eradicated by the predominant religious beliefs of the Western world. What we find instead is the comic and grotesque gigantism of literary characters such as Rabelais’s Gargantua and his son, Pantagruel, where the enormity of the subjects has its repercussions in terms of appetite and various explicit body functions. Meanwhile, the public recitation of songs and rhymes, and even the exaggerated miming of these functions—intercourse, urination, defecation, regurgitation, and so on—formed an important part of carnival activities. In other words, at the same time that ideal man was seen as model or microcosm of the entirety of the known world, carnivalized hypertrophic man (or woman) was understood to literally become that world. As Bakhtin has pointed out, “the grotesque body is cosmic and universal…. This body can merge with various natural phenomena, with mountains, rivers, seas, islands, and continents. It can fill the entire universe.”[9]

If, beginning in the 13th century, and especially in the Renaissance, architecture and the arts provided the principal venues for the ideal body, and literature and carnival seems to have been the predominant sites of the hypertrophic body, it seems that during this same period the amalgamous body found its greatest exposure in religious and scientific works.

By the amalgamous body, I refer to the semihuman, compound bodies that incorporated certain human elements, but with parts that were either rearranged or combined with the anatomies of other animals. Amalgamous bodies occupied much of folklore and, with Pliny’s accounts of some of these “monstrous races,” were given a certain verisimilitude as they were incorporated into countless anthropological, ethnological, and theological studies. St. Augustine, for example, while not asserting their existence, incorporated these “races” in one of his treatises, arguing that they were undoubtedly descended from the children of Noah. As a result of this validation, Rudolf Wittkower has demonstrated that these “creatures” could be found in most of the more exhaustive encyclopedias of the 12th and 13th centuries.[10] Amalgamous bodies ranged from those with extremely long ears, sciapods (with their singular large leg), antipodes (with reversed feet), and cyclopeans, to acephalons (with their heads subsumed within their chests), cynocephali (with the heads of dogs), crane-headed men, manticores, and so on. As Wittkower pointed out, various illustrated “bestiaries” were published in the 13th century—and with considerable popular appeal—giving these “creatures” certain metaphorical and symbolic moral values, such as humility, pride, and so on.[11] Inevitably, by the late 13th century, and once these metaphorical values were established, satirical versions were substituted for the more virtuous ones. The dog-headed beings, for example, were depicted as representing calumny, and the headless people represented lawyers who overcharged.[12]

“Scientific” literature on the amalgamous body as an ethnographic phenomenon was perpetuated and validated in that it reinforced the limitless expanse of the unknown world. That there were unknown and wondrous species—witness the fantastic renderings of the first rhinoceroses, alligators, and so on, as late as the 17th century—was taken as a matter of fact.

The concept of the amalgamous body provided considerable inspiration to Hieronymous Bosch, who seems to have taken to heart the Augustinian argu­ments regarding the lost offspring of Noah, as he combined humans with birds, fish, and even plants, especially in his paintings depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony and the World in the Days of Noah (right hand panel).[13]

The Garden of Earthly Delights (The World in the Days of Noah), Hieronymous Bosch, Museo Nacional del Prado.
The Garden of Earthly Delights (The World in the Days of Noah), Hieronymous Bosch, Museo Nacional del Prado.

His tree-man, for example, reappeared in a number of paintings, etchings, and drawings, and has clearly stirred the fantasy of a number of other artists as well as architects. In the Noah triptych, this character appears to be a rather benevolent figure hosting a pub inside his body cavity and a promenade deck on his head, with his trunklike legs rooted in two large boats. The image seems to be a direct inspiration for a number of Hermann Finsterlin’s designs from 1919 to 1924, for Frederick Kiesler’s famous Endless House model for the Museum of Modern Art Exhibition of 1958–59, and quite possibly of J. Mayer H.’s Metropol Parasol in Seville of 2011.

Nevertheless, despite the inventiveness of artists such as Bosch, it seems that most of these amalgamous, semihuman species as depicted in popular and “scientific” literature were based upon some initial observation, probably of someone with serious birth anomalies, and that this initial observation was ultimately conveyed with the same degree of hyperbole with which previously unknown animal species were described. These birth conditions could be as minor as albinism, as moderate as various skin conditions (hence, the birdlike or reptilian analogs—the Bird Men and Alligator Boys—so popular with the sideshows of the 20th century), or as major as acute birth irregularities (such as conjoined twins) and other forms of severe physical deformity.

Additionally, by the start of the 16th century, threats of conquest from non-Christian powers to the east, the forceful consolidation of certain religious and political states, and the development of Protestantism, led to numerous invasions, civil disruptions, reformations, and counterreformations. There was a ubiquitous fear of the unknown that amplified superstitious beliefs. Inevitably, disruptions of the status quo were linked with the recording of abnormal births, since both events were being noted and publicized with increased frequency.

The observation of abnormal births was most often noted in various nonhuman species. Albrecht Dürer’s Monstrous Sow of Landser, for instance,

The Monstrous Sow of Landser, Albrecht Dürer, 1496
The Monstrous Sow of Landser, Albrecht Dürer, 1496

is based upon the description and rough woodcut of a partially twin-bodied pig that appeared in a pamphlet by Sebastian Brant.[14] Despite the fact that this pig, born in Alsace in 1496, lived for only one day, Dürer’s elegant and realistic depiction—a relatively healthy pig seems to be blissfully grazing on the grounds of a romanticized Landser castle—provides the description with the ultimate credence one can achieve only through the verisimilitude of graphic representation. The sow’s birth was interpreted, alternately, as foreshadowing a Turkish invasion, as the end of Christendom, and as the coming of the antichrist.

Slowly and eventually, Augustine’s charitable theory of these “monsters” as having been descended from Noah was rejected in favor of claims that such births were instead omens of some imminent evil.[15] We find increased occurrences when the nonstandard body—previously called “monstrous” (as in “demonstrative”), “marvelous,” and “prodigious,” and generally understood to be a wonder of creation—was broadly vilified, not just occasionally but universally. The case of the Monster of Ravenna is clearly such an instance.

The Monster of Ravenna, from De Monstrorum Caussis. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
The Monster of Ravenna, from De Monstrorum Caussis. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

In the 16th century, a pharmacist published a description of a drawing he had seen that depicted an abnormal birth in Ravenna:

We had heard that a monster had been born at Ravenna, of which a drawing was sent here; it had a horn on its head, straight up like a sword, and instead of arms it had two wings like a bat’s, and the height of its breasts it had a fio [Y-shaped mark] on one side and a cross on the other, and lower down at the waist, two serpents, and it was a hermaphrodite, and on the right knee it had an eye, and its left foot was like an eagle. I saw it painted, and anyone who wished could see this painting in Florence.[16]

The description uses imagery that is already related to religious and military symbolism in describing an unknown phenomenon. Naturally, such a description—already several times removed from the original (“a drawing was sent here … I saw it painted”)—can lead only to more vividly imagined images, and more exaggerated graphic representations of these descriptions. The besiegement of Ravenna 18 days after the reputed birth seemed an inevitability to the pharmacist.

While current science tends to see in the description either a case of Roberts Syndrome or a group of clustered birth anomalies,[17] popular imagination ran wild with the description and a series of increasingly exaggerated illustrations followed. See, for example, the illustration in Fortunio Liceti’s De Monstrorum Natura, Caussis, et Differentiis, a 17th-century text that advocated that we should embrace these anomalies as wondrous examples of nature’s flexibility. By the time of Liceti, who also attempted to offer scientific explanations for the anomalies, the wings had become more avian (and angelic) and the legs had merged into one, reminiscent of the early sciapods.

While texts such as Liceti’s were still being consulted for their scientific value well into the 19th century,[18] and a fascination with teratology remains a simultaneous form of distaste and delight for most people, the 20th century brought on a new form of the grotesque in terms of the otherworldly body.

Distinctly nonhuman bodies made their first major appearance in the late 1890s, in H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds,[19] although they were most likely substituting for others of a very human type. As with the earlier prognostications associated with abnormal births, Wells’s Invaders foretold of a new form of invasion, one that was threatening the world in the years leading up to World War I. The Invaders from Mars in the Wells novel are described as somewhat octopoid—with a single large head, two eyes, and eight tentacular appendages encircling a beaked mouth—although the text suggests that they were perhaps evolved from humanoid stock, a brain and partial neural and circulatory systems without any digestive organs, they were essentially organs without a body.

Perhaps it is to be expected that descriptions of such bodies are often metaphorically constructed. Nonhuman bodies from other worlds tended to be described in either anthropomorphic or zoomorphic terms (such as insectoid, lizardlike, and so on), with the occasional ominous vegetable. Not until the 1950s, when film had almost completely supplanted texts as the preferred medium of science fiction and the descriptive was replaced by the shown, does one begin to discover relatively featureless monsters (such as the eponymous Blob from filmdom) as well as a spate of aliens that are fully imitative of humans or that have parasitic mind-controlling capabilities.[20] If the former were propelled at least in part by the fears of nuclear invasion, the latter seem to predict the effects of ideological invasions.[21] By the 1980s, we find other types of intrinsically featureless, but chameleonic entities (the 1982 Thing and the 1991 T-1000 Terminator, for example), suggesting that one should reserve the most fear for the bodies that look the most like us. Ultimately, as with a Leonardo drawing, the grotesque body merges with the real.[22]

As Bakhtin had discussed in connection to Rabelais’s construction of the grotesque body—a construction rooted in the persistence of carnival culture—the carnivalized grotesque body is perhaps best characterized by its exaggerated features, its excessive bodily functions, and its general profanation of the sacred world in which it is (temporarily and provisionally) located, a world from which it is banished and to which it inevitably returns. “The grotesque body … is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continuously built, created, and builds and creates another body.”[23] He continues, “The grotesque body has no façade, no impenetrable surface, neither has it any expressive features…. It swallows and generates, gives and takes. Such a body, composed of fertile depths and procreative convexities is never clearly differentiated from the world but it is transferred, merged, and fused with it.”[24]

While this description of the grotesque body, based primarily on early conceptions of the grotesque and carnival, could apply equally to many of the later versions,[25] the societal function of the grotesque, especially in its relationship to fear, has varied considerably through time. The grotesque monsters of the medieval and Renaissance times were primarily comic, representative of terrors that could be dissolved through laughter.[26] However, “[t]he world of Romantic grotesque is to a certain extent a terrifying world, alien to man. All that is ordinary, commonplace, belonging to everyday life, and recognized by all suddenly becomes meaningless, dubious, and hostile. Our own world becomes an alien world. Something frightening is revealed in that which was habitual and secure.”[27]

One might argue that, beginning in the latter 20th century and as an extension of the Romantic world, the aliens were manifestly and literally alien, and that fear and terror were hypothetically deferred by the production of these aliens made obvious. Concomitantly, beginning with the Romantic grotesque, “bodily life, such as eating, drinking, copulation, defecation, almost entirely lost their regenerating power and were turned into ‘vulgarities.’”[28] One of the more terrifying traits of the Romantic grotesque, found in Victor Hugo and Mary Shelley, is a version of the anomalous body—incomplete metamorphosis—whereby the constant evolution of the carnival grotesque and its promises of continuous renewal is suddenly frozen in a stunted state.[29] This is a form of the grotesque that cannot be shed from daily life; it is always present in the inchoate, in the irresolute.

Until the late 20th century, architects have traditionally employed mathematics for at least three reasons. There are the quantitative mathematics that are in service of structural formulas and used for describing spatial enclosures such as domes, vaults, and gables. There are the cultural mathematics that shape a work by means of symbolic or ritualized geometries meant to transfer allegorical meanings (such as is the case with star-shaped churches, pyramidal tombs, and so on). And there are the mathematics that attempt to imbue a work with some qualitative notion of the ideal, often by associating the proportions of the body to the proportions of a building. It is a version of this latter role of mathematics as a series of harmonic ratios that Rudolf Wittkower invokes, in his Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, in an attempt to demonstrate the Renaissance amalgamation of the arts into a singular humanist project.

The preeminence of this final form of mathematics is undoubtedly derived from the ancient belief in geometry as an underlying explicator of nature,[30] and nature has provided the fundamental verisimilitude for most architectural theories, at least until the 20th century, when certain technological and industrial metaphors began to challenge nature as architecture’s principal measure.

Nevertheless, at least one architect, Le Corbusier, inherited and developed a sense of mathematics that was fundamentally based in the Renaissance, with 19th-century overtones. In The Modulor, he invokes the microcosmic conception of proportions when he says, “Mathematics is the majestic structure conceived by man to grant him comprehension of the universe. It holds both the absolute and the infinite, the understandable and the forever elusive.”[31]

Le Corbusier’s attitude toward proportion is undoubtedly descended from that of Owen Jones, whose The Grammar of Ornament, originally published in 1856, was probably the closest to a design textbook the young Charles-Édouard Jeanneret ever possessed.[32] In that, Jones enumerates a series of “General Principles in the Arrangement of Form and Colour, in Architecture and the Decorative Arts, Which Are Advocated Throughout This Work” that include:

Proposition 1: The Decorative Arts arise from, and should properly be attendant upon, Architecture.
. . .
Proposition 3: As Architecture, so all works of the Decorative Arts, should possess fitness, proportion, harmony, the result of all which is repose.
. . .
Proposition 8: All ornament should be based upon a geometrical construction.
Proposition 9: As in every perfect work of Architecture a true proportion will be found to reign between all the members which compose it, so throughout the Decorative Arts every assemblage of forms should be arranged on certain definite proportions; the whole and each particular member should be a multiple of some simple unit. Those proportions will be the most beautiful which it will be most difficult for the eye to detect. Thus the proportion of a double square, or 4 to 8, will be less beautiful than the more subtle ratio of 5 to 8; 3 to 6, than 3 to 7; 3 to 9, than 3 to 8; 3 to 4, than 3 to 5.[33]

Still, while he was dedicated to the virtues of regulating lines and the principles of similar triangles, Le Corbusier retained a certain ambivalence toward geometry, especially when it was used as a form of occult association (as in the case of the “cultural mathematics” mentioned above) and divorced from the science of vision and rules of perception. He felt that Renaissance architects became bedazzled by mathematics, and as a result, [t]heir architecture was devised with the compass on paper, star-shaped; the humanist geometricians had arrived at the star-shaped icosahedron and dodecahedron, forcing the mind to a philosophizing interpretation, worlds removed, in so far as building is concerned, from the basic premise of the problem: the eye’s vision. Their system was erected outside the medium of visual perception.[34]

And then, in an amazingly prescient statement, and one not without a bizarre surrealist inflection, he warns that “[t]he human eye is not the eye of a fly, placed within the heart of a polyhedron.”[35]

But also during the 20th century, both before and after Le Corbusier’s search for the ideal, there were architects who were distinctly attracted by the appeal of the grotesque. While much of Antonio Gaudí’s work achieves its curvilinear exuberance by utilizing the rigors of ruled surfaces, we see in his work an early understanding of architecture’s capacity to propose a grotesque, deformed corporeality. His understanding of the gothic, for example, is clearly grounded in Romantic notions of the grotesque, incompletely transformed body:

Gothic art is imperfect, only half resolved; it is a style created by the compasses, a formulaic industrial repetition. Its stability depends on constant propping up by the buttresses: it is a defective body held up on crutches…. The proof that Gothic works are of deficient plasticity is that they produce their greatest emotional effect when they are mutilated, covered in ivy and lit by the moon.[36]

Similarly, I have already mentioned the work of Finsterlin and Kiesler. One could also mention Rudolf Steiner, Hugo Häring, Hans Scharoun, and possibly even Bertrand Goldberg, among others: while eschewing the perceived delimitations of the right angle, these architects appear to have found a certain inspiration in architecture’s capacity to evoke versions of the anomalous grotesque body, arriving at the development of forms through the organic externalization of ostensibly internal, programmatic phenomena. At other times, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and on occasion the later work of Charles Moore and the latest of Michael Graves, have been among those infatuated with architecture’s hypertrophic grotesque, with the frequent hyperbolic inflation of selective motifs in the exploitation of a zaftig, hypervoluptuous architecture.[37]

Exterior view of the Endless House model, Frederick Kiesler, 1958/9. Gelatin silver print. Architecture & Design, Study Center, photograph by George Barrows. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York. © Austrian Frederick and Lillian Kiesler Private Foundation, Vienna.
Exterior view of the Endless House model, Frederick Kiesler, 1958/9. Gelatin silver print. Architecture & Design, Study Center, photograph by George Barrows. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York. © Austrian Frederick and Lillian Kiesler Private Foundation, Vienna.

With each of its various incarnations, the grotesque body evolves further from human mimesis, although occasionally retaining a type of human absorption. At the same time, mathematics has moved from ratios and geometry to calculus and beyond. Indeed, there is even a complex mathematics that is more or less buried within the scripts of contemporary graphic programs that enables—occasionally insists upon—certain relational formulae and the almost automatic generation of unpredicted formal attributes. These may be highly advantageous in meteorological and aeronautic applications, in modeling fluid dynamics and biological mutations; but their values in architectural design have been largely metaphorical and allegorical when in the best hands, and at other times, they have facilitated potentially tedious iterations of an often superficial formal inventiveness.

There has been a parallel relationship—though somewhat lagging and not thoroughly considered—between the developments of the computer-generated imagery one finds within the hybrid sci-fi/horror genres of film and the developments of certain “calculus-based” architectures. While the latter are theoretically spawned from hyperfunctional aspirations founded on certain programmatic determinants, both the cinematic and the architectural graphic proceed with a good deal of decorative frippery. As a result, there seems to be an intimate association between the production of many contemporary architects and the designed monsters of cinema, and these monsters—as well as their constructions (spaceships, satellites, and occasional inhabitations)—have increasingly been represented as exaggeratedly biomorphic.[38]

Perhaps one of the most notable representatives of contemporary architecture’s fascination with anomalous and otherworldy bodies, a fascination supported by arguments insisting on a calculus-based architecture, can be found in the intriguing writings and works of the architect Greg Lynn. While Lynn confesses an interest in the monsters of sci-fi/horror films, he continues to use “nature” as a model. Nevertheless, he rejects the concept of the ideal as well as that of the holistic body, and claims to be more interested in obscure or irregular natures, for which he finds considerable material and support in William Bateson’s Materials for the Study of Variation Treated with Especial Regard to Discontinuity for the Origin of Species of 1894, which proposes the concept of “minor symmetry” in the abnormal replication of anomalous limbs, vertebrae, and organs.[39]

In terms eerily reminiscent of the values proposed within the treatises of early modernism, Lynn equates a holistic model of the body with a “static” condition, whereas “dynamism” is ideal.[40] But it would be a mistake to associate dynamism with the fragmentation of the body: despite his antiholistic concepts, fragmentation of any ilk is equally condemned. Throughout his writings there is a search for a new “whole,” a monstrous whole, founded on notions of anomalous bodies, with an occasional dose of the amalgamous, which he in turn names the “composite body.” He states that “[q]uestions of composite bodies seem intimately related to questions of urban and architectural composition.”[41] Actually, there is an attractive prospect in the notion that urbanism is related to issues of the “composite body” (and less so in terms of architecture at the scale of the building). In a sense, despite Lynn’s denials, such a notion parallels that at the core of Rowe and Koetter’s Collage City text. These denials, the subject of Lynn’s frequent confrontations of this and other writings by Colin Rowe,[42] seem ultimately centered on a conflation of “urban and architectural composition.”

Similarly, the terminology that surrounds Venturi—most notably “complexity and contradiction”—and Scott Brown seems to swirl about Lynn’s work, as does his recurrent associations between Rowe and Venturi/Scott Brown. This process of conflation may be central to his design methodology, but it leads to a series of potential misdirections when he conflates terminologies and references, and then employs definitions derived from select scientific disciplines. For example, in his “The Folded, the Pliant and the Supple,” Lynn merges Venturi’s “complexity” with his “contradiction,” while subtly folding Rowe and Koetter’s Collage City into the mix.[43] He goes on to define “complication” in its biological sense in order to counter Venturi’s construction of “complexity.”[44] Later, Lynn counters Venturi’s construction of “complexity and contradiction” by measuring his use of the concepts against their geometric and mathematical definitions, derived from Deleuze and Guattari in their A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.[45] This is a fundamentally flawed project in that Venturi’s use of “complexity and contradiction” is never intended in its mathematical sense, and is instead profoundly literary in its inception.[46] Accompanying this is Lynn’s regular association of Venturi with Rowe, especially in regard to their formal strategies and concepts of complexity, which again are founded on distinctly nonmathematic characteristics.[47]

Lynn also expresses what seems to be a sense among certain academics, that Rowe and Koetter’s Collage City, published in 1978, represents a retraction of Rowe’s 1947 “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa,” and that Rowe’s interest in proportions was supplanted by the messier process of collage composition in some sort of postmodern epiphany. Lynn writes, “It was the faulty assumption that mathematics could only be used to describe an ideal villa that led Rowe to jettison analytic formalism in favor of collage aesthetics.”[48] Furthermore, the false dichotomy here is suggestive: that a “collage aesthetics” cannot also subscribe at some level to an “analytic formalism.”[49]

Ultimately, what Lynn proposes is a version of Deleuze and Guattari’s “body without organs” that exploits aspects of their concept of “two-fold deterritorialization,” with its continuous redefinition—by means of diffusion and fusion—of inside and outside. He sees that this “logic of continuous differentiation constructs a fluid semi-permeable boundary between interior and exterior.”[50] The goal is apparently the development of an inclusiveness that avoids any of the reductiveness necessarily associated with typological categorization, averaging, material specialization, or of the identification of “ideals.” Linearity is believed to be intrinsically reductive. Because “[g]estures are always intensely curvilinear”[51] (specifically as recorded by Etienne-Jules Marey in the late 19th century), reducing them “to ideal average lines would evacuate them of their particular content.”[52]

Given, then, that the curvilinear is considered to be superior to the linear—for example, as artists have frequently demonstrated, a simple egg can be perceived as a virtually infinite number of figures, from a sphere to a stretched ovoid—an object traced by the three-dimensional movement of a continuously morphing spline might be considered even more superior. The irregular, infinitely variable form is theoretically infinitely adaptable to environments. Its liquid, indefinite shape is considered an asset, and is generally accompanied by a smooth external contour.[53] Again, Lynn finds much to advocate in the malleable, inclusive characteristics of gelatinous smoothness: that “[s]mooth mixtures are made up of disparate elements which maintain their integrity while being blended within a continuous field of other free elements,”[54] while “[s]moothing does not eradicate differences but incorporates free intensities through fluid tactics of mixing and blending.”[55] We return to the filmic Blob as the model of a new exemplar, the Vitruvian man updated.

Eggs. Images by Daniel Marino.
Eggs. Images by Daniel Marino.

Notwithstanding its horror film evocations, and perhaps in validation of Lynn’s advocacy, smoothness has been overwhelmingly adapted as a motif for all types of product design, from apple peelers to automobiles. As philosopher Mark Kingwell has observed, despite being perhaps “a gauge of progress in human affairs”—from the smooth face as a sign of the mastery of sharp tools to the terminological signification whereby performing something “smoothly” is considered to be highly complementary—the blobby smoothness of almost everything seems symptomatic of a return to “the textures of the nursery,” “a sort of infantalization of the post-modern imagination.”[56] Kingwell goes on to postulate that one of the goals of smoothness is the erasure of an artifact’s messy production. As smoothness is often synonymous with ease, as an aesthetic it promises ease of comprehension, ease of consumption, an overall ease of engagement, unburdened by any painful traces of fabrication, of gravity’s insistence, of nature’s battery, of society’s obstreperous individuals.

The inevitable and probably regrettable adaptations necessitated by the human occupation of these attempts at smooth constructions—the occasionally necessary horizontal floor plates, egress cores, standardized ductwork and electrical fixtures (arguably necessitated by unenlightened industries)—seem somewhat tragicomical in these contexts. They are the eruptions of postcarnival “travesty,” essentially a return to “normality” as viewed through a posteuphoric hangover.

Rover, from “The Prisoner” © ITV Studios Global Entertainment
Rover, from “The Prisoner” © ITV Studios Global Entertainment

Architecture passed through its various “humanist” phases, beginning in the mid-15th century, to eventually enter its optimistic industrial phase in the 19th century, followed by the 20th century with its metaphorical machine phase leading to a pessimistic postindustrial phase, and so onward into the first eighth of the 21st century, with its digital-ecstatic phase. We are currently enveloped in a form of carnival-of-the-digital. The rejection of 20th-century modernisms, with their simultaneous beliefs in the distancing of mechanization through metaphor and their adaptation of a genuine mechanization controlled largely through capital forces rather than designed objectives or humanist interests, has led to the manifestation of a “monstrous” and biomorphic post-humanism. (Perhaps one might more appropriately name this a tera-humanism.)

The concept of “post-humanism” seems to have split into a number of variants, the most notable of which include ecological post-humanism (with its belief in the primacy of pan-species accommodation),[57] a cyber-dominated postbiological empiricism,[58] a scientifically enhanced form of humanism (generally, described as a trans-humanism or h+),[59] and the somewhat geeky nonhumanism that is heavily inflected with doses of science fiction and a fascination with alien life forms and occasionally spiced with theories of conspiracy.

What is common throughout these versions of post-humanism is that one discovers that the subordination of humanist objectives can be facilitated by fundamental mathematic operations: the indefinite aspect of mathematics—its virtually endless generative capacities—promotes the production of interminable variants. Selection becomes connoisseurship. Nothing can be definite.

Meanwhile and alas, in contemporary society, representations of the “ideal body” seem to have become the exclusive property of advertising and the various visual media that saturate popular culture. The visual arts seem to counteract this usurpation, either by avoiding the representational body altogether or by manipulating it in a number of modes, through hypertrophy, amalgamation, fragmentation, and the like.
By rendering the body in a grotesque manner, the cultural grotesqueness that is served by the ideal body is made evident.[60] In most of the visual arts, these violent manipulations of the body seem to be utilized in order to reveal society’s subtle manipulations of the mind.

Strangely, architecture’s post-humanist experiments seem to be unaware of the significance of these inverse operations.


1. In this abridged exposition of the relevance of the ideal body, I apologize for what some might construe as reductiveness, others as evasiveness, many as unnecessary. (But one might take heart: while I am, for example, omitting the delightful physiognomic experiments of Lequeu, that contemporary of Ledoux and Boulée who used self-portraits in various emotional and even transgendered modes to represent potential façade compositions in their relationships to various functional requirements, one can be thankful that this allows me to also omit Schultze-Naumburg, one of the Third Reich’s architects and a proponent of Aryan physical perfection). Everyone may be correct: I simply hope that we mostly know this concept already, and that it needs only a cursory mention.

2. Direct scalar relationships emerge most frequently in those treatises concerned with rhetoric and artificial memory, with the memory loci units of theo reticians such as Peter of Ravenna (1491), Johannes Romberch (1533), and Agostino del Riccio (1595); see, for instance, Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966). Not until the 20th century do we find renewed fascination with body scale: with Oskar Schlemmer’s locus-defining Bauhaus costumes and the above-mentioned Modulor of Le Corbusier, a system that uses the scale of the ideal body—specifically, in its second iteration, that of the traditional English detective—as the basis of a more expansive proportioning system.

3. See my “The Plight of the Object,” in Cornell Journal of Architecture, No. 3 (New York: Rizzoli, 1987), 78–95.

4. While I am stretching its meaning here, I use the term fundamentally as it was developed by Mikhael Bakhtin in his Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968; original 1940). As with Bakhtin, I am more interested in the external, public, and social aspects of the grotesque than with its internal, psychological modes.

5. For more on this, see Caroline O’Donnell, in “Fugly,” Log 22 (Spring/Summer 2011), who provides an outline of the changeability as well as the integrative aspects of various concepts of ugliness in their relationships to architecture and art.

6. Ernst Gombrich, “The Grotesque Heads,” in The Heritage of Apelles: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), 58–59.

7. LeRoy McDermott, “Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines,” Current Anthropology 37, no. 2 (April 1996).

8. This is most effectively introduced by M.M. Bakhtin in his Problems in the Work of Dostoevsky (the later version, published as Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, translated by Caryl Emerson, is more broadly known) and in his Rabelais and His World, cited above; and with further, more specific analysis by others, including Allon White, “Hysteria and the End of Carnival: Festivity and Bourgeois Neurosis,” in The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence, ed. Armstrong and Tennenhouse (New York: Routledge, 1989) 157ff; Terry Castle’s Masquerade and Civilization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986), and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006).

9. Bakhtin, Rabelais, 218.

10. Rudolf Wittkower, “Marvels of the East: A Study in the History of Monsters,” in Allegory and the Migration of Symbols (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), 50.

11. Ibid., 56.

12. Ibid., 56–57.

13. Gombrich’s arguments are quite compelling regarding the notion that Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights should more properly be called Sicut erat in Diebus Noe, “As it was in the Days of Noah,” or “The Lesson of the Flood,” and I see no reason to doubt him. E.H. Gombrich, “Jerome Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delight,’” in The Heritage of Apelles: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976), 90.

14. Giulia Bartrum, Albrecht Dürer and His Legacy, exhibition catalog no. 43 (London: The British Museum Press, 2002).

15. Ibid., 64. Wittkower cites publications, including those of Jobus Fincelius, Johannes Wolf, as well as an omen reported by Martin Luther himself and involving two abnormal births. Luther and Philip Malancthon published illustrations of such anomalies in pamphlets that were widely distributed, usually linking them to antipapal auguries.

16. Luca Landucci, in March 1512, quoted in Armand Marie Leroi, Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body (New York: Viking, 2003), 3.

17. María-Luisa Martínez-Frías, “Another Way to Interpret the Description of the Monster of Ravenna of the Sixteenth Century,” American Journal of Medical Genetics 93, no. 3 (February 1994): 362, for example, argues that the child could have had “cyclopia with forehead probiscus and sirenomelia.”

18. Dan Knapp, “Rare 17th-Century Book Examines Anatomical Anomalies,” USC Chronicle, October 18, 2011,

19. Some of the very earliest space aliens, those from Sirius and Saturn in Voltaire’s “Micromégas” of 1752, differed from humans primarily in scale (about 120,000 feet tall) rather than form. The text was fundamentally a critique of myopically human-centric studies and of theological interpretations of astronomy.

20. One assumes that the initial impetus for human-as-alien was largely budgetary: it’s more economical to have humans play at being monsters than for a film production to simulate convincing alien monsters. The full implications of the alien/human were probably understood only later.

21. During the 1950s there was also a subset of science fiction/horror films involving gigantic animals, the “big bug” films. These films were very inexpensive to make, requiring simple camera effects, and their messages were invariably warnings of the instability of post-nuclear biology.

22. For this reason, one notes that among the science fiction films of the 1950s, the hubris of humanity is frequently cast as the monstrous entity, and that today a considerable number of horror films deal with characters who posses severe levels of psychopathology; cf., Ruth Goldberg, “‘In the church of the poison mind,’” in Monstrous Adaptations, ed. Richard J. Hand and Jay McRoy (New York: Manchester University Press, 2007).

23. M.M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968), 317.

24. Ibid., 339.

25. In some ways, Bakhtin could, for example, have been describing the Blob.

26. One finds a compressed, modern version of the medieval carnivalesque in J.J. Rawlings’s Harry Potter novels with the “Boggart-banishing spell,” whereby a fearful entity is transformed by proxy into one that can be ridiculed.

27. Bakhtin, 39. This aspect of the grotesque should not be confused with that of the uncanny. As Rosemary Jackson pointed out, the grotesque is essentially a structure of “the estranged world, our world, which has been transformed,” whereas the uncanny is without a structure, the “real” emptied of “meaning.” (See Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion [London, Methuen, 1981], 68.)

28. Ibid.

29. David K. Danow, The Spirit of Carnival: Magical Realism and the Grotesque (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995), 35.

Endnotes (continued)

30. As D’Arcy Thompson had written in 1917: “The mathematical definition of ‘form’ has a quality of precision[:] … it is expressed in few words or still briefer symbols, and these words or symbols are so pregnant with meaning that thought itself is economised; we are brought by means of it in touch with Galileo’s aphorism (as old as Plato, as old as Pythagoras, as old perhaps as the wisdom of the Egyptians), that ‘the Book of Nature is written in characters of Geometry.’” D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 269.

31. Le Corbusier, The Modulor: A Harmonious Measure to the Human Scale Universally Applicable to Architecture and Mathematics, trans. Peter de Francia and Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA: mit. Press, 1968), 71.

32. Charles Jencks, Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 20.

33. Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament (New York: Portland House, 1986), 5–6. Note that, throughout the text, Jones’s more refined proportions are frequently derived from the Fibonacci series, also the basis for Le Corbusier’s Modulor proportions.

34. Le Corbusier, The Modulor, 72. At the same time, it is not beyond belief that Le Corbusier’s Modulor of 1954 was at least in some small way provoked by Rowe’s “Mathematics of the Ideal Villa” from 1947, with its comparisons of Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta to Le Corbusier’s Villa Garches, and of the Villa Rotonda to Villa Savoye (see below). While Le Corbusier was constantly placing himself alongside Michelangelo, especially in his Vers Une Architecture, the opportunity to propagate a comparison with one of the iconic architects of the Renaissance would not have been passed up.

35. Ibid., 73.

36. Quoted in Carlos Flores, Les lliçons de Gaudí, trans. Glòria Bohigas (Barcelona: Empúries, 2002), 89.

37. The theme even runs throughout the Venturi, Scott Brown, and occasionally Izenour productions. One thinks, for example, of the revised edition of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977), with its cover featuring a billboard featuring a woman in a bikini, and text with matrices that appear at first to be methodically filled, but that, on closer inspection, include repetitive images of a man in a white suit and a woman in very low-cut bathing attire (Learning from Las Vegas, 43–44). One also thinks of Venturi and Scott Brown’s more subtly full-figured “ironic column” at Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin.

38. For example, whereas the constructions left behind by the ancient, intellectually advanced alien Krell civilization in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet were based on very primary solids (principally cubes and spheres), in 1958’s The Blob, the eponymous alien life-form that seems devoted exclusively to acts of ingestion, was fully shapeless and, to a certain extent, even scaleless, changing size throughout the film. It seems that angular, geometric forms typically signify highly intelligent yet often aggressive aliens that tend to develop elaborate strategies for domination. (Think also of the spherical, moonlike Death Stars of the Star Wars series.) The more bulbous, biomorphic types of aliens and their constructions often signify aliens that are also mostly aggressive, but for whom domination is more instinctive than strategized. While Star Trek’s Klingons, for example, tend toward lots of sharp angles mixed with avian references, and the Borgs toward platonic solids—cubes and spheres, with lots of nurnies and greebles—we find that most of the nonhumanoid aliens move about in bulbous, organlike vessels that appear to have been manufactured using a process of secretion or excretion. (Interestingly, even in his famous designs for various alien environments, such as in Alien and Aliens, H.R. Giger frequently implies horizontally stacked masonry and metal panels shaped into curvilinear objects and voids that generally evoke biomorphic forms. Perhaps the signification of construction as a technological endeavor or as a scale-giving technique, trumps any desire for liquidity.) One might assume that art directors choose such forms to either signal a tendency for alien species to replicate their own physiques—often insectoid or lizardlike—as if there were an extraterrestrial Vitruvius posing an alienist iteration of the ideal alien body as design determinant. Or the art directors may be attempting to demonstrate the nature of constructions that might be generated by species lacking opposable thumbs.

39. It seems that minor, however, is the operative term, in that Bateson demonstrates such replication when there are extra-secondary appendages (for example, a secondary thumb is generated from within the original thumb, rendered in a curvature in opposition to the primary thumb), though these replications are rarely symmetrical when considering the entire animal. (Rowe and Slutzky, and Hoesli in their various essays in Transparency would have referred to these as “local symmetries,” a significant aspect of the center/recenter mantra that dominated much of their façade analysis and design techniques, and is most evident in certain palazzi throughout the Veneto, in the paintings of Cezanne, and in the occasional Corbusian elevation. Similarly, one could note here Barry Maitland’s “The Grid,” which is an extension of Rowe’s “Mathematics of the Ideal Villa” arguments and deals with the almost Batesonian deformations of the grid in certain of Le Corbusier’s designs, most notably in the Villa Savoye and the Porte Molitor apartment building. See Barry Maitland, “The Grid,” Oppositions 15/16 [Winter/Spring 1979]: 90–117.) More often than not, as Bateson illustrates, the larger effect is that of asymmetrical development, as with extra nipples on humans and bulldogs (Chapter VIII; the engraving of suit-cuffed male hands lifting the breasts of a nude female, taken from F.L. Von Neugebauer, was possibly an early version of the bikini-matrix diagram in Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas) or of roebuck horns (chapter XI). See William Bateson, Materials for the Study of Variation Treated with Especial Regard to Discontinuity for the Origin of Species (New York: MacMillan and Co., 1894).

Strangely, this concept of symmetry becomes major in Lynn’s work. One need only look at the bathroom Lynn designed for the Bloom House (described in terms of the hypertrophic grotesque by New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff: “luxury” and “voluptuous white surfaces decorated with mirrors,” he enthuses in his article [Nicolai Ouroussoff, “Ahead of the Curve,” New York Times Magazine, April 19, 2009, M276]). The bathroom could have provided an ideal proof of the capacity of a calculus-based architecture to transcend the illusive ideal and prototypical in favor of the individual and nonstandard. Instead, its double vanity ignores the opportunity of accommodating the variable distinctions of two personalities, ergonomics, use patterns, genders, and so on. The vanity and its mirroring mirror (it replicates the sinks’ fascia) become a symmetrically swollen confection in service to the Corian company, more reminiscent of a Botero than the Blob. As is often the case, the messy process of construction—and possibly of sponsorship—seems to grate against theoretical constructs.

40. Greg Lynn, Folds, Bodies, & Blobs (Brussels: La Lettre Volée, 2004), 135–136, 167 n2.

41. Ibid., 136. This essay, “Body Matters,” was originally published in Journal of Philosophy and the Visual Arts: The Body, 1993.

42. See, for example, the essays originally first published as “Multiplicitous and Inorganic Bodies,” Assemblage 19 (1992); “Architectural Curvilinearity: The Folded, the Pliant, and the Supple,” Architectural Design 102 (March/April 1993); “New Variations on the Rowe Complex,” ANY Magazine 7/8 (1994); and “Charles Gwathmey: A Physique Out of Proportion,” ANY Magazine 11 (1995). All are republished in his Folds, Bodies, & Blobs collection cited above.

43. Lynn, Folds, Bodies, & Blobs, 109–110 ff.

44. Ibid., 120. Specifically, Lynn’s definition is borrowed from the process whereby an embryo folds in on itself.

45. Paradoxically, the use of mathematic concepts—in particular as derived from Deleuze and Guattari (D&G)—to interpret a literary dichotomy is in some ways a reversal of certain critiques of D&G (for example, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s critique in Fashionable Nonsense, suggesting that D&G’s mathematics are actually literary tropes in disguise).

(continues. . . )

Endnotes (continued)

46. Ibid., 162.

See the notes in Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966), 134–135. Venturi’s text is essentially an exercise in finding an architectural application for the literary theories associated with American New Criticism, an analytical/critical movement of sorts, to which he was undoubtedly exposed at Princeton (possibly through the programs established by R.P. Blackmur) and perhaps more intensively at the University of Pennsylvania. Venturi’s notes are a virtual reading list of the poets and critics central to New Criticism: T.S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Kenneth Burke (who was heavily influenced by New Critics Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate), and William Empson (who, while not directly associated with the group, supplied theories of ambiguity that were readily incorporated into their analytic projects). Very few others not associated with the movement are cited.

Strangely, Robert Penn Warren is one of the few New Critics to have been omitted from Venturi’s text—even from citation—despite the fact that he clearly supplied the text’s title and principle formal arguments in his famous essay “Pure and Impure Poetry.” The essay was taken from one of the Mesures Lectures Warren delivered at Princeton in 1942, just as Venturi arrived on campus, and following such New Critical luminaries as Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate. (Needless to say, Warren comes down on the side of “impure” poetry: complex, occasionally contradictory, full of ironies and ambiguities, tensions and turbulence.)

Specifically, Warren writes: “The saint proves his vision by stepping cheerfully into the fires. The poet, somewhat less spectacularly, proves his vision by submitting it to the fires of irony—to the drama of his structure—in the hope that the fires will refine it. In other words, the poet wishes to indicate that his vision has been earned, that it can survive reference to the complexities and contradictions of experience. And irony is one such device of reference.” (Robert Penn Warren, “Pure and Impure Poetry,” The Kenyon Review 5, no. 2 [Spring 1943], 252.) Both Warren and Allen Tate were visitors at the American Academy in Rome in 1955, when Venturi was a fellow. (Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biograpy [New York: Knopf, 2007], 317.)

47. If Venturi’s concepts of “complexity” and “contradiction” are steeped in New Criticism’s techniques of poetic analysis, Rowe’s tend toward a more critically based, art historical process that measure texts, drawings, and buildings against each other. Here he relates these concepts to Le Corbusier: In other words, publicly, he upheld a structure which he could then, privately, proceed to contradict. For contradiction does imply something valuable and known in that which is contradicted; and, just as Le Corbusier’s complexities are located in simplicity, so his contradictions assert a situation conceived to be public. (Colin Rowe, “Robert Venturi and the Yale Mathematics Building,” Oppositions 6 [Fall 1976]: 13.)

Clearly, Rowe shows little tolerance for the New Critical manifestation of ambiguity through the ordinary, and for Venturi’s employment of it:

“And, apart from all this, it might be suggested that the cult of ambiguity could become an excuse for irresolution, that the cult of the “ordinary” might become an alibi for non-performance. Am I being fastidious or am I being careless? One sees already where the question leads. Blatant failures can become explained as ironies and total lack of distinction may become exonerated by asserting the ideal of the average.” (Rowe, Oppositions 6: 18–19.)

Rowe’s definition of complexity—used primarily in the earlier Transparency text of 1955, coauthored with Robert Slutzky—seems to have been based on that supplied by Gyorgy Kepes in his The Language of Vision.

48. Greg Lynn, Folds, Bodies, & Blobs: Collected Essays, 201; essay originally published as “New Variations on the Rowe Complex,” Any Magazine 7/8 (1994).

(continues. . . )

Endnotes (continued)

49. There are at least five responses to the observation that Rowe’s later work represents a retraction of his position on “mathematics.” First, the difference in emphasis is largely a shift in subject matter: “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa” is about villas, and Collage City is about cities. Whereas villas—even more than other buildings—are intrinsically freestanding, often isolated, and traditionally utopian in their aspirations, cities tend to be consequential, contingent, occasionally utilitarian, often accidental, and generally sporadic in their formation. It is rare that a city would be composed of villas, except in cases of suburban sprawl, building exhibitions, or of “surgically” bombed postwarfare cities. The notion that villas might be different from cities could be unacceptable only to those who believe in some form of unified theory of architecture.

Second, both of the texts have at their centers a critique of formulaic modernism. “Mathematics of the Ideal Villa” concludes with an admonition regarding the vacuousness of derivative architectures of both the Palladian and Corbusian brands:

Corbusier is in some ways the most ingenious of eclectics. The orders, the Roman allusion, are the apparatus of authority, customary, and in a sense universal forms. It is hard for the modern architect to be quite so emphatic about any particular civilisation; and with Corbusier there is always present an element of wit, suggesting that the historical reference has remained a quotation between inverted commas, possessing always the double value of the quotation, the associations of both old and new context….

Allusion is dissipated at Garches, concentrated at the Malcontenta; within the one cube the performance is mixed, within the other; Roman; Corbusier selects the irrelevant and the particular, the fortuitously picturesque and the incidentally significant forms of mechanics, as the objects of his virtuosity…. Unlike Palladio’s forms there is nothing final about their relationship: their rapprochement would seem to be affected by the artificial emptying of the cube, when the senses are confounded by the apparent arbitrariness, and the intellect more than convinced by the intuitive knowledge, that here in spite of all to the contrary, there is order and there are rules.

Corbusier has become the source of fervent pastiches, and witty exhibition techniques: the neo-Palladian villa became the picturesque object in the English park…. It is the magnificently realisable quality of the originals which one fails to find in the works of neo-Palladians and exponents of “le style Corbu.” The difference is that between the universal, and the decorative or merely competent; perhaps in both cases it is the adherence to rules which has lapsed. (Colin Rowe, “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa: Palladio and Le Corbusier Compared,” The Architectural Review [March 1947]: 104.) Which brings us to the observation that, while mathematics is the ostensible subject of the essay, the vocabulary of the article’s conclusion—words like wit, reference, quotation, context, allusion, and so on—clearly situates the object of the essay outside of mathematics. Both texts ultimately argue against invention as a type of functionalist myth, suggesting that historical referents might be requisite foundations for the development of architecture and urban design. (Compare Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Collage City [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1978].)

Third, in the later version of the “Mathema-tics” essay, published in 1976, there is an adden-dum written in 1973, while the Collage City arguments were being formulated, that rather than retracting the original arguments, expands them to include Le Corbusier’s later works. This version also contains minor modifications to the original text and considerably more illustrations. (Colin Rowe, Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1976], 1–28.) One can even imagine further mathematical engagements of Le Corbusier’s last works: it is possible to see D’Arcy Thompson’s explanation of the evolution of diverse species by means of distorted matrices as a plausible explanation for Ronchamp’s evolution from a basic cubic volume.

Fourth, Rowe’s “Lockhart, Texas,” written in 1955, and with contributions by John Hejduk (who states that the text was by Rowe [John Hejduk, Mask of Medusa (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 460]) already lays the groundwork for a mediate position between the “Mathematics” and Collage texts in its enthusiasm for the gridded courthouse cities of the West, along with the modest monumentality expressed through iconographically charged set pieces. (See Colin Rowe and John Hejduk, “Lockhart, Texas,” Architectural Record 121, no. 3 [March 1957], 201–206.)

And finally, it seems that Rowe never lost his fascination with mathematics, especially insofar as it promised pleasant proportions. In all of his teaching, at Cornell and elsewhere, the mathematics of organization and proportion was always brought to the foreground, from the arrangement of the components of a collaged urbanism to the ratios of baseboard to wainscot to wall.

50. Lynn, 143. Deleuze and Guattari’s “body without organs” proposition, from their A Thousand Plateaus, is in some ways the inverse of Wells’s Martian Invaders—organs without bodies—as described above.

51. Ibid., 149.

52. Ibid., 152–153.

53. However, this smooth external character doesn’t mean an absence of decoration. Lynn believes that one of the advantages of a blob aesthetics is its capability to generate “decorative” knobs and the like in its fabrication. (See TED Talk: Greg Lynn on Calculus in Architecture, [Feb. 2005, posted Jan. 2009].) This notion of the microcosmic or perhaps fractile-like decorative element seems derived from art direction in film, and the concepts of “wiggets,” “greebles,” and “nurnies,” whereby details would be added to physical and computer models, especially of spacecraft, in order to imply an immensity of scale in an otherwise scaleless environment.

54. One thinks of Rover in The Prisoner television series: a quivering spheroid, apparently birthed from some aqueous medium and that attacks and retrieves potential escapees of the Village.

55. Lynn, 110–111.

56. Mark Kingwell, “Against Smoothness,” Harper’s Magazine (July 2000), 15. This essay was originally delivered as a convocation address at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. In fact, nowhere is the smoothness of the blob more welcome than in the design of children’s toys. For its children’s line, for example, Nambé had designer Sean O’Hara design bloblike, handmade, seamless, stainless-steel baby rattles that look much like miniature versions of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago.

57. Granted: there are plants and animals living within every human construction. It is a good idea to accommodate, by amplification or amelioration
—depending on their functions within the localized environments (I can’t imagine the value of fleas, lice, or mosquitoes, but I await the research)—the cohabitants of humans within a structure. However, in the realm of architectural design, when humans remain the principal occupants and addressees, a certain degree of humanism does not seem to be uncalled for. There should be some graciousness expressed for being a good host.

58. More broadly, this is the case whereby the creations of humans will eventually become more adept at managing the human world than humans themselves.

59. The term transhumanist was essentially inaugurated by FM-2030 and disseminated in his Are You a Transhuman? Monitoring and Stimulating Your Personal Rate of Growth in a Rapidly Changing World of 1989, though covering work he had been developing since the early 1960s. The concept has been elaborated by futurist/philosophers such as Max More and Nick Bostrom. The term is an abbreviation of “transitional humans,” although in many ways it is perhaps more a type of supra-humanism.

60. See, for example, Michael O’Pray’s discussion of the frequently disturbing elements of humor, violence, nostalgia, and horror in Švankmajer’s partially animated films in his “Surrealism, Fantasy and the Grotesque: The Cinema of Jan Švankmajer,” in Fantasy and the Cinema, ed. James Donald (London British Film Institute, 1989).

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