AD / Architectural Design
Dream A Little Dream
By training and discipline, architects are intensely visual professionals. Our ability to engage the topic of the very, very small is strained by a predilection for imagery. Architecture has a scalar range that spans from vast skyscrapers and infrastructure to the daintiest of models and miniature simulations, but beyond this domain we rarely tread even in our imaginations. It just gets too tiny. To think clearly about protocell architecture as collective organizations, we can rehearse those instances where we have intellectually dwelt in similar small realms. While this meditation does not require belief, it is helped along by the admission of fantasy, which often finds safe harbour in the minute. Gaston Bachelard makes much of this partnership in The Poetics of Space where he describes the efficacy of “miniature thinking”:
Such formulas as: being-in-the-world and world-being are too majestic for me and I do not succeed in experiencing them. In fact, I feel more at home in miniature worlds, which, for me, are dominated worlds. And when I live them I feel waves of world –consciousness emanating from my dreaming self. For me, the vastness of the world had become merely the jamming of these waves.(1)
This theme of domination has to do with confidence and creativity when imagining the small-scaled. Bachelard stipulates that this intellectual pleasure is rooted to one end of the scale spectrum, citing one´s ability to see a forest when examining moss at close range: “A bit of moss may well be a pine, but a pine will the same conviction on both directions” (2). He suggests this type of thinking approaches a brand of reverie unbound from the dictates of reality:
The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it. But in doing this, it must be understood that the values becomes condensed and enriched in miniature. Platonic dialectics of large and small do not suffice for us to become cognizant of the dynamic virtues of miniature thinking. One must go beyond logic in order to experience what is large in what is small. (3)
This point of view opens up Bachelard´s thesis regarding narrative and the strength storytelling takes setting in radically scaled environments.
Fantastic Voyage is a prime example of this sort of scalar storytelling and one that extends themes of the protocell. The 1966 film, novelized by Isaac Asimov, begins as a Cold War thriller with scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain developing technology capable of temporary, its duration subject to the amound of shrinkage, until a scientist finds a way to make it permanent. As he races to give this breakthrough to the West with the help of a CIA agent, an assassination attempt leaves him in a coma with a blood clot in his brain. The agent assembles a crew and the group, placed inside a nuclear submarine called the Proteus, undergo the miniaturization process in order to micro-surgically remove the clot:
Grant: Wait a minute! They can´t shrink me.
General Carter: Our miniaturizer can shrink anything.
Grant: But I don´t want to be miniaturized!
Grant: Not even for a minute! (4)
As the group journey inside the body, complications arise, detours are required and time starts to run out. One of the crew –who suffers from claustrophobia- is a spy bent on sabotaging the mission. He uses a surgical laser to damage the Proteus and is then, himself, destroyed by a white blood cell. The remaining crew obliterate the clot but must swim to exit the body before they return to normal size. The film ends with the group escaping through an eye, expelled in a teardrop, just in time. In the novel, Asimov corrected the film´s misstep in leaving the wrecked Proteus, which would, presumably, also return to full scale and kill the scientist, behind in the body.
The submarine´s name is borrowed from Greek mythology, the word meaning “primordial”. Proteus can foretell the future but uses his ability to change form – thus the adjective protean – to avoid doing so. The Proteus submarine is a kind of protocell: artificial, indefinitely powered, locomotive. By virtue of it’s a protocell might be. When the laser is damaged, the crew rebuild it using the ship´s radio parts; so the ship had the ability, if not to self-replicate, to mutate and adapt. The crew function as naturally occurring constituents within the vessel, indispensable to its survival. Proteus was the original Old Man of the Sea. This connection comes back to the notion of primordial soup, the creation of humanity from base material and ooze. Abiogenesis is the study of the same theory, life on earth arising from inanimate matter. Protocells connects to this research directly. Replication and metabolism are required of abiogenesis. Amino acids, proteins and nucleic acids form the basis of abiogenetic experimentation replicating conditions of pre-organic earth.
Even more a dip in popular culture than Fantasy Voyage is a celebrated episode of “The Simpsons” created by Matt Groening. “The Genesis Tub”, written by Dan Greaney, takes abiogenesis and miniaturization as the bases of the plot where Lisa Simpson´s science-fair experiment gets out of hand. What was originally a Petri dish test of the effects of soda pop on a recently lost tooth turns into a fast-evolving miniature civilization moving through the Neolithic to the Renaissance in a day and eclipsing human science by changes in architecture, one city constantly rebuilding. The inhabitants of the Petri dish worship Lisa as a god and assume her brother, Bart, is the devil after he destroys several buildings: “Oops, my finger slipped”. The story surely takes some inspiration from Theodore Sturgeon´s award-winning 1941 novelette, The Microcosmic God. (5) Sturgeon´s protagonist is a scientist who creates a miniature race with the same speeded-up evolutionary progress. The scientist introduces technology to his “neoterics”, propelling their research and technological sophistication beyond that of mankind. He reaps benefits claiming their innovations as his own, merely scaling them up. Architecture is part of these narratives´ ability to represented culture and link the small-and full-scaled worlds in a dynamic temporal relationship. The materiality of this architecture is a bit of a mystery. Materials are not borrowed from the Simpson household to build the model city; the soda and tooth are the only original matter required to spawn the building blocks for life and city construction. A protocell´s ability to produce salt strands, for example, is a parallel condition where matter and structure are created from next to nothing. A silica-based architecture is similarly promised by the advertising for Sea Monkeys (water, brine shrimp, sand and viola!).
The otherworldliness of the miniature civilization is reinforced by encapsulation and hermetic seal of glass. The protocell enjoys a similar setting; the Petri dish is no limitation, but a productive frame within which focus is gained and unexpected innovation can safely emerge. These are not´a world in a grain of sand´ metaphors, but something just tangible and visible with the naked eye. There is also the aesthetic miracle of the miniature, the fascination for the impossibly small but well crafted:
Now, the question arises whether the small-scale model or miniature, which is also the “masterpiece” of the journeyman may not in fact be the universal type of the work of art. All miniature seem to have intrinsic aesthetic quality- and from what should they draw this constant virtue if not from the dimensions themselves? (6)
Contemporary artists like Willard Wigan and Nicolaï Siadristy create micro-miniatures in the eyes of needles, the heads of nails or no grains of salt. Microscopes are designed around these works of salt. Microscopes are designed around these works of art, but the objects can also be viewed directly. The flit between unaided vision and magnification is part of the structure of the scalar narratives.
There are not so many narrative in the scalar zone of very small but visible. Fairy tales are by definition about tiny creatures and fairy worlds, but their smallness culminates with stories like Tom Thumb or Thumbelina where the effort is to dwindle human figures to a size where they can interact with small animals as full-scale surrogates; mice for horses and so on, Swift´s Lilliput is exceptional for its architectural focus, the city described in rich detail with specific dimensions. Leaving the visible behind, there are several possibilities from Dr Suess´s Horton Hears a Who! (a world on a speck of dust) to Men in Black and its hidden galaxy encased in a gemstones, to the parallel universe genre – Narnia, “Doctor Who”, Alice in Wonderland –where scale is not the primary issue and what we might call artistic anticipation of protocell architecture is not present. By this I refer to the supposition that to capitalise on a scientific or technical discovery, there must be some cultural preparation for it. For example, the architecture critic Mark Cousins refers to Claude Mellan´s Veil of St Veronica (1649) – as an artistic conceit – as an artistic conceit – as being a harbinger of photography by centuries. (7) The idea that protocell might be deployed to convert the underwater timber supports of Venice to limestone by virtue of a chemical metabolic process draws not only on scalar fantasy, but touches on alchemical lore where elements are converted. This again is mythic, the magic of petrifaction embodied by Medusa. The power to petrify is a curiously architectural ambition.
As with nanotechnology, protocell architecture promises “smart materials” or sentient buildings that can react to climate, emerging resources or even mood. The haunted house comes to mind. Antony Vidler has written extensively on architecture´s association with the sensibility of the uncanny, speculating on the unhomely as a modern architectural condition. (8) The hotel in Stephen King´s The Shining is host to ghosts, but is itself (its spaces and surfaces) possessed of malevolent intelligence. The walls seem to shift colour and flow with blood, windows block out sunlight, electric lights flicker, door seal shut; all anticipated capabilities of smart materials. Michael Crichton´s Prey (10) focuses on the imagined threat of nanorobots. Protocells, might be agents for good or evil ends, less robotic and more viral.
Perhaps the most fantastic recurring narrative anticipating protocell architecture is the archetypical disappearing castle featured in Viking, Hindu and Judeo-Christian mythic traditions where architecture –temple, castle, whole sacred city –just comes into being without any man-made intervention. It emerges from a ghostly fog and disappears under similar condition. The theme is picked up in popular culture, in Japanese anime, with Hayao Miyazaki´s Howl´s Moving Castle (2004), which magically shape-shifts and disappears into other dimensions. This is an architecture of minute assembly, impossibly intricate and connected to some broader intelligence. It shelters heroes, sacred objects or reveals secrets. Without a mortal architect, these buildings are physical but also temporary and transmutable. The fog or mist is not only a cloaking devices, it is the dance of protocells busily at work.
While the protocell might be viewed with the naked eye, its architectural potential requires shedding a miniaturist mentality in favour of the fantastic. For architects this means getting beyond notions of modeling and, instead, entering a domain of mini-architecture that is no longer a sign for something larger, but an end in and of itself. What is required is a scalar paradigm shift were Mies van der Rohe´s “God is in the details” extends to the details of details, to the detailing of their base materials and installation of intelligence within that frame of reference. If we abide by the theorem of The Veil of St Veronica, that the acceptance and full promise of a new technology is dependent on a culture´s anticipation of that technology is dependent on a culture´s anticipation of that technology´s effects evidenced by surrogate and speculative cultural production (painting, writing and so on), it must be recognized that there is some prefiguring of protocell architecture in hand, mostly in the category of fantasy narratives including science fiction. Rehearsing those instances where protocell architecture, though not named as such, seems to be illustrated by these narratives is productive in the sense that these examples are useful precedents prompting forward-looking speculation about the application of protocell architecture in the built environment. It is an anticipatory exercise, one that feeds the future by looking in the rear-view mirror and, most importantly, one that implicates more architects who are most happy visualizing the visualisable. AD
1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (La poétique de l´espace, 1958), trans Maria Jolas, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1994, p 161.
2. Ibid, p 163
3. Ibid, p 150
4. Fantasy Voyage, Director Richard Fleischer, Twentieth Century Fox, 1966
5. Theodore Sturgeon, “The Microscopic God”, Astounding Science Fiction, Street and Smith (New York), April 1941.
6. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, Weidenfield and Nicolson (London), 1966, p 23.
7. Mark Cousins, Public lecture, Architectural Association, 26 October 2001.
Mark Cousins (1965)
8. Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
9. See Stephen King, The Shining, Doubleday (New York), 1977.
10 See Michael Crichton, Prey, HarperCollins (New York), 2002.