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What We Want Is In That Room

Essay Excerpt

As architects know well, there is a certain pleasure to be found in a thing well made. This pleasure is so simple, it seems, that it does not warrant further investigation. Architects find little point in discussing the obvious fact that, without a certain minimum degree of precision, a building does not stand up. Likewise, that one can be pleased to come across a structure that holds together apparently against the odds – the work of a designer that has brought ingenuity and finesse to their craft – seems too basic, too obvious, to draw comment. But it is a pleasure about which there is more to say.

The Department of No’s interest in this very particular kind of pleasure is piqued by the tranche of newly developed technologies to which this issue of AD is dedicated. These technologies comprise systems for scanning environments and modelling the processes within them, to historically unprecedented levels of detail. Of course, such systems, and the increasingly acute spatial interventions they permit, find a wide range of applications. They offer new resources to, say, those interested in the optimisation of wing surfaces, rifle bores or chip architectures. They unlock new constructive possibilities through novel material arrangements at the nano scale; the extraordinary conductive, optical and mechanical properties of a one-atom-thick graphene lattice is one example.1 And they help to construct strikingly new spatial situations. Consider, for example, the military contractor VAWD Engineering’s ‘life form detection’ system, which exploits new radar technologies to ‘see through’ architectural obstructions and identify, by their heartbeats, the human targets they conceal.2

The purpose of this essay is not to prospect the architectural potential of one, or a group of, these technologies. Its interests lie elsewhere. If these technologies implicitly posit a principle of zero tolerance as a horizon architecture can approach, it invites an exploration of this principle as such – an aesthetic of precision as a quality of design in general, not the precision afforded by a given system or technology. The following discusses how this aesthetic is at work when architectural stratagems are given force through exact placement and timely action. In these situations, the precision with which a single spatial intervention is made can turn a world on its head, creating, undoing or transforming the whole.

The Aesthetic of Precision

An aesthetic of precision connects architecture with other fields, and can offer a point of transit between them.

If architecture hones an appreciation for the arrangement of material in space and over time, this appreciation can extend to forms other than those taken by buildings. Within the very same register – highly materialist, mechanical, geometric – one can appreciate the deft hands of the pickpocket or a surgeon as much as those of the architect.3 Indeed, architects perhaps have more to learn than to teach in this regard – in the first instance from film, where the use of detail to mobilise a plot is a staple device.

Among many possible examples, David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002) stands out for its rigour. The film’s minimalist premise is that three men break into a Manhattan townhouse, believing it unoccupied. A mother (Jodie Foster) and daughter (Kristen Stewart), who moved in that day, take refuge in the fortified panic room of the film’s title, not knowing the intruders are after a fortune in bearer bonds in a concealed safe within their haven. The film documents the increasingly desperate measures taken by the invaders to get into the room, and by its occupants to get out. The structural geometry of the house goes beyond mise-en-scène and becomes a protagonist in its own right; the phrase that titles this essay, ‘What we want is in that room’, is written on card and held up to a closed-circuit camera in one of many moments in which highlights and textural details become integrated into the plot, as a set of coordinates and portals that locate, differentiate and connect the house’s rooms. The drama hinges on plug sockets, phone lines, ventilation shafts, wall cavities and other domestic infrastructure, which become vital components in the siege as means of entrance and exit. The camera moves unimpeded through the house’s architecture, smoothly passing through walls and doors, following the lines of pipes and telephone cables, rendering the action in slow, perfectly linear pan shots that focus on the details of space, material and surface as pivots in the plot.

Written with Benedict Singleton.


© Ilona Gaynor and Benedict Singleton 2013

Essay for the Architectural Journal, Architectural Design (AD)
High Definition and Zero Tolerence in Design Production