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2007 01 24
Angle of Incident #39: SEMINAR 1 “Crystals on the Body”

By Gary Michael Dault and Members of the Arch 684 Graduate Seminar

This is the Jade plant, growing in a giant coffee cup (convenient emblem of development fuelled by energy), that sits in the window of the Melville Café at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture at Cambridge, Ontario. On Mondays, while waiting for my graduate seminar (Arch.684-004) to begin (1pm-4-pm), I sit before it, sip a large latte, and gaze out upon the Grand River, passing, canal-like, by the School of Architecture building.

The seminar, which is officially titled Writing the City, began two days ago (it was delayed by snow and freezing rain the Monday before), and runs until April 2.

I had a plan-less plan for it. I wanted to get through some possibly useful ideas, but I wanted to get through them in a way that would keep the seminar always on the edge of a kind of creative chaos—which I hoped would feel and behave like fecundity.

This is the way I wrote it up:

Here is my possibly unworkable but (for me) conceptually invigorating plan for its structure: given the fact that the seminar lasts 12 weeks, and that there are probably going to be a minimum of 10-12 students enrolled in it, it is my suggestion that the course’s content—which swarms around civic modernism and its post-modernist sequel, through which we are all living—be examined and informed by the course’s becoming an Alphabet of Ideas. Each half session will thus be wound on the armature of a letter: the first session will be hinged on A and B. The second, C and D. The third, E and F. And so on. I call this alphabet “centripetal”, because it is my hope that once we are launched upon the shaping provided by “A”, for example, we will all be able to bring to the discussion certain (sometimes surprising) A-ideas. “A” might stand for “anachronism”, for example, or “anaemic” (architecturally speaking), or “advertising” or “agit-prop” or “airplane”, etc. etc. “B” might order a discussion to which we all might contribute our ideas about “bucolic”, “boundary”, “basement”, etc. And so on.

So, an Alphabet of Ideas. Clearly, a great deal of whatever intellectual vitality the seminar was to generate and display was going to become the responsibility of the students making up the group. I sat in front of the Jade plant and worried. I was visited by the overwhelming desire simply to lecture. But that would be inappropriate to the workings if a seminar. The lecture, I decided, would be a fallback position.

At 1pm, as the students begin quietly accumulating, we gather outside the door of the seminar room. I spend the time eavesdropping on the last moments of a brilliantly precise and unaccountably sensuous lecture by a teacher I didn’t know about moisture in buildings. It was made up of radiantly useful ideas, procedures and admonitions. So much content! How, by contrast, can Arch 684-004 meet and match such exactitude?

Just moments before we are to trade places with the moisture lecture, I happen to ask one of the gathered students—whose name I don’t yet know (who turns out to be Laura Knap)—a vacuous question: “So…do some of you have your laptops with you?”. Knap smiles and points out that some may have, but that, you know, it’s good once in a while to be without one. “Otherwise”, she says, “it’s like having crystals on your body!” I am galvanized by the fervent beauty of this idea. And it is precisely at this point that I know the seminar is going to work.

At 3:00 am Tuesday morning, all passion spent but unable to sleep for excitement, I move, somnambulist, to my keyboard and write this (with the rhapsody that only deep sleeplessness can provide) about the first session of Arch 684:

“We are ingenuous, passionate, irrationally given to the triumph of hope over experience, pledged to invention, willing to follow almost any route that opens itself to new understandings of the city, of city culture, of city objects, of the city as Will and Idea, of city as Being and Time, of the city, Rhizomatic and Folded. We are hopelessly trying to read everything, draw everything, remember everything, reframe everything, (re)construct our lives on-screen, on-line, in the air. The seminar is built on failure, on the inevitable unattainability of any final, usable meaning. We revel in it and go on:
We are interested in ruin—and regeneration. The seminar is a ruin, an accelerating shambles: shards of our aggregate sensibilities, snatches of remembered reading, clippings, wisps of computer provender, the fragrances of one-lucid theses now to be gathered and reintegrated into new touchstone wholes, the whole three-hour flotilla of the thing (a think-tank without a proffered, bounded problem)”. Night Thoughts.

The next day, one of the Seminarists, Jody Patterson, who had been my teaching assistant last summer, emailed me the following list. She wrote:

Here is some of what I noted yesterday, which may be useful as a sidebar to the article, demonstrating the range of our alphabet of ideas. I included references where I remember them but only listed the A,B,C ideas. There were, of course, other topics to which I am certain we will return ... in due alphabetical course.

Acoustic assault & isolation
Alienation (Freud)
Alternative realities
Angst (Munch, German Expressionism)
Anthony Vidler
Anxiety (Meidner)
Archetypal barbershop
'Architectural Uncanny'
Architecture of light
Artist and author (Borges)
Atrophy of the city
Bataille, Georges
Blackberry architecture
Bodiless architecture
Body without organs (Deleuze, Zizek)
Borges, Alberto Manguel
Beuys, Joseph
Building overload
'Butter/horse' (Bataille)
Caravan of civilization (Hejduk)
Carnival city
Cartesian cellphone existence
Categorical city
Chaos vs. order
Chinese reclamation cities
Circuit city
Circus city
City as avatar
City as body (Hobbes)
City disembodied (Libeskind, Coop HimmelBlau)
Communication city
Component city
Crystalline forms
Crystals of technology
Culture-specific space
Cultural demands for space

Not bad for a few hours ... let me know if you need something more concrete written, after all submissions are in. It was, as they say, quite a trip. J.

It is a commonplace, no doubt, that the city is a text. It is not, of course, a text made primarily of language (though it generates lots of that), but is rather a “text” (or meta-text) which, as well as being linguistic or—better—semantic, is also, obviously, the fluid, shifting locus of bodily, aesthetic, ideological and metaphysical sensations and ideas. The city is a mega-poem, and we are taking seriously the informing aphorism of Robert Ouellette’s Reading Toronto which suggests that “The City is a Book with 100,000 Million Poems”. It is one of the proscribed aims of Writing the City that our ideas
of “city” (and therefore our ideas about “dwelling”, housing, morphology, interactivity, commerce, and the various new prospects for and meanings of survivability) should be examined as freshly and originally and as inventively as possible.

We are swarming about the letter “A”. There is insufficient space here to recount and reproduce all the material (cf. the bristling list above) the Seminarists bring to the table. In the course of the next ten weeks, I’m going to use Angle of Incident as a showcase for at least some of it.

Here, for example is Jonathan Tyrell on “Alcove”. First his text and then his photograph:


The Alcove is about 3 feet high, 2 feet wide, 2 feet deep and 5 inches from the ground. It is located at the meeting point of large bricks and small bricks. Two scrap pieces of wood are tentatively attached to the top right hand corner inside. They hang at a perfect 45 degree angle and no one knows why they’re there. In fact no one knows why The Alcove itself is even there.

The Architects pass by here each week but they don’t always notice it. When they do, they take turns crouching in to The Alcove. This is not an easy task for they must compact their bodies a great deal in order to fit inside that space that is 3 feet high, 2 feet wide, 2 feet deep and 5 inches from the ground.

No one knows why they do this. In fact not even the Architects know why. Perhaps they are trying to fill in for missing bricks. Perhaps they are trying to feel what the wall feels. Or perhaps they do it simply to remind themselves of how big they are and all of the problems that can come from being so big and always thinking about big things.


Tyrrell also brought to the table, this delicious passage from Georges Bataille:


“Of poetry, I will now say that it is, I believe, the sacrifice in which words are victims. Words-we use them, we make of them the instruments of useful acts. We would in no way have anything of the human about us if language had to be entirely servile within us. Neither can we do without the efficacious relations which words introduce between men and things. But we tear words from these links in a delerium.

Should words such as horse or butter enter into a poem, they do so detached from interested concerns. For as many times as the words butter, horse are put to practical ends, the use which poetry makes of them liberates human life from these ends. When the farm girl says butter or the stable boy says horse, they know butter, horse. The knowledge which they have of them in a sense even exhausts the idea of knowing, for they can make butter or lead a horse at will. The making, the raising, the using, perfect and even found knowledge (the essential links of knowledge are relations of practical efficacy; to know an object is, according to Janet, to know how to go about making it). But, on the contrary, poetry leads from the known to the unknown. It can do what neither the boy nor the girl can do: introduce the idea of a butter horse. It places one, in this way, before the unknowable. No doubt I have barely enunciated the words when the familiar images of horses and of butter present themselves, but they are solicited only in order to die. In which sense poetry is sacrifice, but of the most accessible sort. For if the use or abuse of words, to which the operations of words oblige us, takes place on the ideal, unreal level of language, the same is true of the sacrifice of words which is poetry.”

Bataille, Georges. Inner Experience. Intersections : Philosophy and Critical Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988., p. 135

Seminarist Jody Patterson, (purveyor of the hectic, exhilarating list posted above), thinking about A for Anxiety, brought to the seminar’s attention, two usefully contrastable works of German graphic art: a medieval view of the city of Nuremburg, and an early 20th century work (from 1913) of German Expressionism (by Ludwig Meidner, 1884-1965).


These engendered a useful discussion centering around the essential quietude of the horizontal and vertical axes, their presumed ongoingness, each axis, x and y, stretching out (emotionally of not literally) to infinity (as in the presumed placidity and x-y there-ness of the view of Nuremburg. This was contrasted to the assemblage of destabilizing diagonals that makes up the Meidner work (a sort of Caligiri equivalent in two-dimensional space), diagonals being perceived as lengths of local energy, rising to become verticals or falling to become horizontals and, prevented from becoming either, being relegated to, condemned to, a kind of perpetual graphic agitation—and anxiety-making.

Next Monday the Seminarists and I hurl ourselves into C,D,E, and F.
[email this story] Posted by Gary Michael Dault on 01/24 at 12:24 PM

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