NEGOTIATING DESIRE: HUMAN MOVEMENT AS AN ARCHITECTURAL MEDIUM
I am interested in human movement as architecture, as a set of constantly shifting formal relations. This idea is manifest in Rudolf von Laban’s complex notational system for dance, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s rhizomatic approach towards existence, and Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa’s project of the “architectural body” in constant flux. A historical trajectory of movement's agency—as both the vehicle for experiencing architecture and the primary medium of concert dance—is established through analysis of specific works in both disciplines throughout the 20th century, delineating the changing dynamic between the choreographer-architect and the audience-user.
We understand space primarily via our movement through it, both real and imagined. Movement is a generative force that cycles in a constant feedback loop connecting all bodies in a site. Below, in an excerpt from my undergraduate thesis, I explore this idea through a spatial reading of two war memorials—Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe—to explicate the imaginary as constructed by actual experience and, in so doing, illustrate kinesthetic agency possessed by the user.
Architecture is not architecture until it is inhabited by living, moving bodies.
The stage is a ground from which a narrative arises, enacted through choreographed motions of a group of bodies. In the same way that the stage can support any number of fantasies in any number of genres, architecture is the venue where life, in all its multiplicities, occurs. Yet, architecture goes beyond the flatness of a stage to provide a set, a multi-dimensional environment that bodies exist in, not on.
As a dancer on a stage does, an inhabitant of architecture can imagine what it might feel like to arrange their body in a succession of positions along a trajectory, which invites them to imagine how they might manipulate their limbs and travel between those positions. Yet these positions are more than untethered forms in a darkened void; they are intimately tied to the notion of a unique and embodied location in space. This tracing of motion, imagined and actual, invokes the architectural imaginary. Cognizance of this imaginary cultivates awareness of one’s space and spurs recognition that they, as a body, are a dynamic feature of that space. From one perspective, a body is affected by the space. From another simultaneous perspective, that same body affects the space.
More awareness propagates openness to participation in the constant collective re-authoring of the imaginary, which proliferates especially well within a vertically-oriented environment. The conditions of uniquely expanded or limited visibility coupled with projective trajectories that leap and fly come together to encourage the user to cast their own series of forms into the space, outlining movement that is uncertain or even impossible. As Laban states, “Empty space does not exist. On the contrary, space is a superabundance of simultaneous movements.”1 What does this superabundance consist of? It is not so much vibrations of the walls themselves, but the echoes and reverberations of movement generated by people contained within the walls, both actual and projected.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, is in the northwest corner of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Memorial has only two access points; a path that leads to the western leg of the Wall and another to the eastern leg. These paths are connected—prescriptively—by arcs that circumvent the entire area that the Wall bisects. Against the wishes of Lin, the grassy area to the anterior and posterior of the wall is completely fenced off with lengths of chain on posts. Visitors must stay on paved paths that vary in width from 5 to 15 feet. As such, visitors have very little choice in how they engage with the space of the monument. They must enter from either the western or eastern edge, process down the path immediately adjacent to the Wall to its vertex, and then ascend along the other side.
The Wall is symmetrical bilaterally, so approaching from the east or the west provides no significant difference in terms of formal experience of the monument. Each leg is 246 feet 9 inches long and is composed of 74 black granite panels. The distal panels are just inches tall, while the central panels are 10 feet 6 inches tall – or deep, depending on one’s perspective. (An interesting note is that the docents at the Wall refer to the center point where the eastern and western legs meet as the apex, while technically it is the lowest point in the monument since the Wall gradually cuts deeper into the earth. This reinforces the notion that the space is experienced not omnisciently, but rather from relative human scale.) The path abutting the wall has a slight downward slope until the 51st panel, where it levels to form a flat pool of space between the 28 panels proximal to the vertex. Here, the path gradually widens and hits its widest point at 15 feet.
The monument’s prescribed path of travel provides a controlled, predictable environment for an analysis of kinesthetic agency. Defining characteristics of the monument are its urban context, planar and sectional form, materiality, and comparative density and scale of built material to users. The amalgamation of these elements produces specific movement patterns among the visitors. Emotion, a final characterizing layer, is generated from the forms and speeds inherent in the movement patterns. As such, the emotional component of movement enters a feedback loop back with its formal counterpart.
As mentioned, there are essentially two options for ambulating through the space: from east to west, or west to east. Its location in within the Mall—removed from buildings and traffic and embedded within a field of many other monuments—preconditions a tranquil and somber atmosphere. The emptiness of the grass, whether covered in snow or markedly devoid of people relaxing and playing on a warm summer day, contributes to this mood. Chaotic dynamism is further suppressed by the prohibition to inhabit the upper edge of the Wall. This limiting of trajectorial agency and lack of competing stimuli from the surrounding environment serve to focus the user’s perception on the Wall itself. The Wall is initially magnetizing: it pulls its users toward it and along it, concentrating focus upon its dark and growing mass.
As the user processes further towards the vertex, and thus lower in section, the Wall becomes physically as well as visually overpowering as the height of the panels exceeds that of the user; it eventually reaches almost double the average human height. As the Wall increases in both visual and material dominance, it becomes subtly more repelling. A user at the distal portions of the legs is much more likely to casually approach the wall, lean on it, walk close to it, run a hand along the top of the panels. (Another interesting note: children engage with the Wall in this way even more readily than adults do, and they continue this intimate, possibly irreverent relationship with the Wall for its entire length despite the formal changes.) The shift in the user’s relationship with the Wall builds up gradually but manifests most clearly at panel 51, when the path levels and the maximum panel height is reached. The user’s downward momentum is halted by the abrupt change in slope and their focus is directed into the vertex by the remaining panels along their leg of travel as well as the opposing panels, which at this point come fully into view.
Here, the position of privilege in terms of height and visual power shifts from user to built object. This shift is palpable, and the user responds by articulating their relationship to the Wall with heightened awareness and increased caution. They maintain more of a distance between them and the Wall’s surface; if there is actual contact, it is light and tentative, facilitated by a bend of the waist or a reach of the arm. Children, at this point, are now chastised for explorations of a weight-sharing nature for which they were not reprimanded at earlier points along the Wall. The user rarely moves into the space closest to the meeting of the two central panels.
Motion pools here at the vertex. The user might eddy around in this space for different viewing angles, negotiating with people coming from both directions, finding their place in a crowd half in stillness and half in motion. Yet it is impossible to stay in this space forever. The user will turn their back to the vertex and process up the opposing path to the exit, slowly restoring their position of dominance over the environment that they held at the moment of entry. This makes the user aware of competing intentions for use of the space: one as contemplative and sedentary, and the other as transitional and ambulatory. It is in negotiating this misalignment that the user makes an active choice in how they are going to inhabit their space.
While the user’s height still exceeds those of the panels, they seem not to notice the reflection of (half of) their body and instead focuses on the inscription of the names, which seem to “go on forever,” as I overheard one younger visitor express. It is not until the user’s head sinks lower than the top edge of the panel and they are made to confront their own reflection that they seem to become fully cognizant of their own presence in the space. They are no longer simply reading names; now they are a body watching themselves occupy space while reading names. This realization is powerful and contributes to the tension that collects and swirls in the pooling area of the vertex. It is not without consequence that the user’s realization of their own presence and the feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of names coincide. The names cease to be letters that align into monikers. They become a physical construction with dimension and weight; thousands of faceless labels bearing down upon one living body, burying it. This sudden shift occurs on an individual level, even when surrounded by the bodies of hundreds of other visitors. The key affective mechanism of the Wall is this slow inversion of relative formal and emotional hierarchy between human body and built object.
The driving design element behind these conditions is the monument’s vertical expression, its gradual negative change in datum. It is true that users are physically constrained to the path by the Wall on one side and chain fence on the other, but this constriction is accentuated in the emotional realm by the surreptitious uniformity of the slow, straight-line descent culminating in a singular moment of trapping at the vertex. The user’s physical agency is unwittingly stripped as they descend, and the theft is not revealed to them until they reach the lowest point on their journey. Escape is not an option: there is no way to scale the wall—they would be attempting to clamber up their own reflected body or metaphorical pile of unknown bodies, much less a polished granite wall—and there seem to be no examples of turning around and retracing one’s steps. The only course is to keep moving forward and back up along the opposite wall, passing 29,143 more names.
At this site, the post-climactic ascension is a mnemonic construction mirroring the initial descent, causing the user to replay it in conjunction with their gradual return to the original datum. The ascension triggers an emotional recall which further solidifies the significance and meaning of those emotions; internal journeys reflected and rendered tangible in a formal motif. Even though the user ends up in a physically and emotionally different point from where they started, the journey feels circular due to the mirrored vertical articulation of the monument.
What happens when the path of travel expands from a single line to multiple, a grid with infinite possibilities? Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin is a gridded field that covers an entire city block and is populated by 2,711 concrete stelae. The Grid has over 200 entry/exit points—four times the square root of 2,711—which is, indeed, orders of magnitude greater than the Wall’s two points of access. Already the monument offers an unfathomable number of trajectories that the user can enact. The trajectories are laid down upon a non-uniform surface, "an undulating virtual landscape at odds with the actual topography of the site beneath… [which] allows visitors at some points to stand above and survey the site, and at other places to sink deep into the chasm[s]" lined by the stelae.2 Given the limited visibility of interior conditions from the outside, it is next to impossible for the user to predict what sectional changes they might encounter once they embed themselves into the site.
As a field rather than a line in plan—a condition that is visible to the user only prior to entry—the Grid’s frame is discrete and confrontational. The user’s approach will always be frontal, never tangential. They gain advance and immediate knowledge that they are about to enter an interior space with physical bounds, as opposed to slowly becoming aware of a line’s imaginary magnetic power and the gradual solidification of a perceived but not necessarily observed world. The sidewalks surrounding the Grid are wide, well lit, and predictable. The passageways through the Grid are orthogonal in plan, but become deep and dark, encouraging germination of fantasies, causing unplanned encounters, and instilling "a palpable sense of bodily awareness."3 There is nothing to instruct the user where to enter, where to exit, how much time they should spend in the Grid, or even if they should physically engage with it at all.
The three-dimensionality of the Grid is not a simple uniform extrusion. It is delimited by two independent topographical layers: the bottom inhabitable layer that reveals its contours in gradual process, and the top layer whose gradations are registered only visually from vantage points at the edges of the site. The bottom layer undulates irregularly, carrying the user through hills and valleys of varying slopes and depths throughout the site. Meanwhile, the top layer follows a gradual slope that is more consistent to the site’s original gentle sweep. The disjunction between the initial visual and subsequent kinesthetic experience lends power to the deepest parts of the field.
The distribution and trajectories of users at the Grid stand in stark distinction to those at the Wall. The Wall’s steady flow of people, always visible in its unidirectional nature and material reflectivity, stabilizes individual’s awareness of others. Yet, this constancy could be an agent of disappearance; people become so accustomed to the presence and sustained pace of their companions that they become unaware of them. There are no unexpected encounters, as there are no marked beginnings and ends to connections with other users. This is not so in the Grid, where users sporadically vanish and reappear along the multiple paths between the stelae. This sited patterning of awareness of others—not the space alone or people in a void—motivates continued locomotion, to see what plays out next. It is desire enacted not through preemptive design but the thrill of experiencing which thread emerges in a tangled field of possibilities.
Crucial in these two memorials is rhythm of spatial articulations as perceived through motion. The trajectory of one’s travel has a nontrivial effect on the look and feel of their environment. The rhythm of the Wall is slow and subtle, given its smoothness in material and prescribed path. On the other hand, engagement with the Grid necessitates a variegated rhythm. Even if it is observed from a single point at the edge of the site, the eye will inevitably follow a certain path mediated by the size and spacing of the stelae, accented with the sudden appearances and disappearances of users amid the concrete forms. These blips in visual connection hinder one's ability to accurately ascertain with how many others they are sharing the space. The same person might appear to be different, or multiple people might bleed into one as the stelae fragment users' connections.
Like the Wall, the Grid derives much of its affective power through section. The entire site undulates, but it the stelae are generally shallower towards the edges and push deeper in the middle of the Grid. This leads users who traverse the entire site along a very similar journey to that of the Wall; they start above the monument and gradually descend to a point at least twice their height lower than the tops of the stelae. However, in the Grid there is no clear vertex or climactic moment that is collectively shared.
Exactly for this egalitarian uniformity, the grid has always been a useful structural and organizational tool, but it took on a new connotation when it proliferated in the visual arts of the 20th century as an aesthetic object. Rosalind Krauss, in her essay "Grids," explains how the grid "states the autonomy of the realm of art." The arrival of the grid was a major turning point in art; it is when art "turns its back on nature," in favor of an object that is "antinatural, antimimetic, antireal." The grid's order is determined not by content; it is a construct of "pure relationship."4 By taking the grid out of the museum and into the urban context but preserving its artistic application, the user of Eisenman’s Memorial can explore and indeed create these relationships with their own body, instead of just observing the object as hung on a wall.
Given that most cities––or at least parts of cities––are arranged in some sort of grid, Eisenman’s Memorial acts as an abstracted microcosm of its surround. Users become giants in comparison; they can traverse the distance analogous to a city block in less than ten seconds, fill an entire intersection with their own bodies, and at some points see over the tops of buildings. This condenses and abstracts the urban experience into a much smaller space and shorter amount of time, making connections between users more apparent and faster-paced. With no colorful or programmatic distraction amidst the diffuse grey concrete stelae, users have nothing to turn to but each other for the building of a narrative. Indeed, Krauss identifies the grid as a structure of myth. She states,
For like all myths, [the grid] deals with paradox or contradiction not by dissolving the paradox or resolving the contradiction, but by covering them over so that they seem (but only seem) to go away. The grid's mythic power is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction).5
It is this paradoxical quality that makes the Memorial such an intriguing site, supporting a wide range of emotional and behavioral reactions. The site was commissioned as a memorial, an object to bear and elicit witness to grave historical events. Yet, the way that the site requires such dynamic and immersive interaction from the user spurs another seemingly discordant emotional direction. However, this is perfectly alright––even desirable––if the grid in its construction of paradoxical layers can simultaneously support divergent and even competing narratives and modes of use. Each user is free to create their own story, their own myth, all of which can coexist “in some kind of para-logical suspension.”6
The user’s experience of the Grid can be nothing but disorienting. The ease of getting lost within the Grid is the primary driver of the user's invention of a (necessarily fictional) image of their journey through it, which will be shaped by the number of turns they made, the time they spent inside of the Grid, and the development of their height relation to the stelae. This image will be different for every user, often drastically so. An imagined layering of these multiple images is what makes for a rich experience for both the individual and the collective. The peppering of visual and kinesthetic links between users spurs the recognition that others’ experiences are evolving concurrently with one’s own, and that the trajectories implied by these moments influence, directly or indirectly, the user's own motion and perception.
The formal irregularity in the stelae themselves contained in an undulating field with no discernible logic, like the repetitive devices in the Wall, act in a mnemonic capacity; but they are deceptive. Since there is no clear pattern in the mutations, and there are so many iterations, the memory trigger is more of a sense of déjà vu than actual replay. The user may think they have been there before, but they cannot be sure, especially if they have spent a long time in the Grid making many short turns. This hazy repetition is what ushers in the imaginary, charging the actual space and the user's experience with added emotional potency. This is channeled into the variety of programmatic activities in which people engage in and around the Grid.
Undoubtedly, built form itself holds great power over an individual user, but it is with human infill, the imaginary construction of bodies weaving into and around the built object, that these monuments reach their full affective potential. The Wall, when populated, transforms from a rent in the earth to a circulatory system. Similarly, the Grid shifts from a monotone notational device to a dynamic environment, pulsating with the juxtaposition of living, fluidly-moving bodies against stark, static rectilinear forms reminiscent of the interned. Again, none of this would be possible without the articulation of the vertical in these sites. At the Wall, the change in datum is symmetrical and the rate of change is constant and gradual, making for a stealthy infiltration into the subconscious. The Grid, in contrast, takes the user by surprise right at the precipice. The quick plunging and rising through the stelae is registered just as it happens, and there is no way of predicting what will next transpire amidst the visual limitations and multiplicity of paths. Here, the user assumes full responsibility for the determination of their experience.
A shared agency between built material, movement, and emotion can be read into both the Wall and the Grid. In the absence of large quantities of physical formal material, Lin’s Memorial relies heavily on emotional impact and subsequent reverberations through the user's body and mind to create a fully articulated environment. Eisenman’s Memorial employs more built material, whose form exponentially increases the user’s kinesthetic agency and broadens the field of affect. In both cases, movement is a perpetual authorial force connecting fluid individual to malleable site, and site to dynamic collective.
1 Rudolf von Laban, Choreutics, ed. Lisa Ullmann (Philadelphia: The Falmer Press, 1984), 3.
2 Stanley Mathews, From Agit-Prop to Free Space: The Architecture of Cedric Price, (London: Black Dog Pub. Ltd.), 253.
4 Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October 9, Summer, 1979 (n.d.): 50.
5 Ibid, 54.
6 Ibid, 55.