The Limit and the Labyrinth

Jonah Rowan

Jonah Rowen is the head of the collaborative architectural practice Rowen Studio, and founding editor of Project. Additionally, Rowen is an instructor at SCI-Arc.

But of all the games, the one I like best is pretending that there is another Asterion. I pretend that he has come to visit me, and I show him around the house. Bowing majestically, I say to him: Now let us return to our previous intersection or Let us go this way, now, out into another courtyard or I knew you would like this rain gutter or Now you will see a cistern that has filled with sand or Now you will see how the cellar forks. Sometimes I make a mistake and the two of us have a good laugh over it.

It is not just these games I have thought up – I have also thought a great deal about the house. Each part of the house occurs many times; any particular place is another place. Jorge Luis Borges, “The House of Asterion”

One may begin a history of architecture with any of several spaces: Abbé Laugier’s narrative of man’s movement from cave to primitive hut is as viable as Abbé Suger’s genesis of architecture as a celebration of light, which, in turn, is no less feasible than Gottfried Semper’s construction of architecture beginning with knots, weaving, and the wall. And none of these stories is more (or less) convincing than the persistent image of the primeval architect Daedalus, whose labyrinth remains a prototypical symbol for architecture, occasionally deployed yet somehow never quite successful as a discursive contribution to the discipline. The labyrinth itself is unique as a symbol for architecture for at least two reasons: first, the labyrinth is neither based in the quotidian world of construction, as in Laugier or Semper, nor in something so ephemeral as light as in Suger; second, the labyrinth, in contrast to the benign sheltering function of the primitive hut, is built to keep its inhabitants inside. Such an interiority, as expressed in the fables about Daedalus, may be extended to metaphorically reflect the conditional possibility of architecture’s emergence out of architecture. After the paper tiger that was the advent of digital processes and methods, the discipline of architecture has largely been left by the wayside in favor of various locations between polarities of technical acuity and affective ephemerality, between the overlapping exteriorities of technology and phenomenology. Now is the opportune time for architecture to reengage with architecture, to reinvigorate the parameters that are and have been the productive limiting factors in the discipline for good reason, and to investigate architecture for what it is rather than what it is not.

The figure of the labyrinth is as recurrent in architectural history as it is impenetrable, a seductive symbol of spatial complexity that, at least indirectly, alludes to the priority and necessity of the architect. In the plan, the architect has the tools to build and navigate the labyrinth, utterly separate from and unrelated to the phenomenological perception of the spaces represented in the plan. Theseus may be able to use the trick of the thread to find his way around the labyrinth, but the omniscient view is reserved for the architect. The plan itself, of course, is only a single reflection of the labyrinth, but so too is the built instantiation of it, or any singular perception of it; as Yve-Alain Bois writes about Giambattista Piranesi, “The elevation cannot provide the plan [and vice versa], for as one walks around it, one finds no element that has maintained a relation of identity with the others.”2 Each instance of a project is but a mere fragmentary reflection of an object that does not exist. However, like the notion of “appearance” in Nietzsche, those reflections are everything: “what at first was appearance becomes in the end, almost invariably, the essence and is effective as such!”3

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Perspective view from the audience to the stage, with the representation of the set as prepared for the prologue during the inauguration of the royal theater in Berlin, 1821.

In addition to the labyrinth, then, the mirror becomes an important figure for architecture. Both the mirror and the labyrinth allude to fragmentation through ellipsis yet both also extenuate fragmentation through multiplication. At the beginning of the story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Jorge Luis Borges writes, “mirrors and copulation are abominable, for they both multiply the numbers of man,”4 a memorable quotation that Borges himself might addend to include labyrinths as multipliers of the volume of space. Again, however, the labyrinth does this by extending open space into a promenade architecturale, an orchestrated path which one follows through the architecture. The materials of such orchestration must then be limits, whose function is to direct physical and visual accessibility. Piranesi’s fascinatingly labyrinthine Pianta di ampio magnifico Collegio is an example of architecture-as-limits par excellence: where it seems at first glance to be a symmetrical, concentric plan organized under the French École des Beaux-Arts method, such a cursory reading overlooks the denial of physical access to the center. That is, in spite of all of the stairs, halls, and pathways – or rather, because of them – no path from the front stair can lead to the building’s center.5 The traditional elements of architecture that would allow for physical communication from one space to the next are in fact employed here to disallow that communication, i.e., as limits.

Limits, are, of course, meant to be transgressed; and yet such transgression is impossible. If limits are inherent to architecture, as indeed any wall, colonnade, screen, or level change may be taken to be, so too is aporia. As Marcel Duchamp so articulately showed in his Porte: 11 rue Larrey, which operates on a single hinge attached to two doorframes, a limit as elementary as a door is unstable, at the very least; any open door closes some passage.6 The paradoxical etymology of the word “sublime” relates to this aporia in that the word sublime, denoting that which is absolutely large, is comprised of “sub-,” under, and “lime,” limit or lintel.7 The fact that the very sensation supposedly spurred by vastness is still subject to being underneath or within limits is mirrored by the associated concept of parameters. Subject to similar dissection, “parameter” yields perhaps an obverse paradox in that “para-,” beyond or next to, and “-meter,” meaning measure, would seem to suggest immeasurability, a concept quite in tension with the dictionary definition of “parameters” as constraints.

These are the same types of linguistic issues which arise from Piranesi’s Collegio and Duchamp’s Door. If the derivation of “parameter” seems to align more closely with the meaning of “sublime” and vice versa, then the supposed parameters of architecture – plan, section, extension, figure, typology, etc. – would have to be beyond measure, sublime, under the limit. One is reminded of Maurice Blanchot’s proclamation, “Desire of writing, writing of desire. Desire of knowledge, knowledge of desire. Let us not believe that we have said anything at all with these reversals.”8 Blanchot’s terseness appears as a declaration against tricks; parameters against parametrics.

After all, what can architecture say or do? One might venture a response to this tricky question through another of Piranesi’s constructions. In addition to Piranesi’s Collegio, his Campo Marzio plan is a veritable catalogue of labyrinthine agglomerations, which, taken together, elude the conventional dimensions of architecture or the city. Under the ostensible auspices of archaeology, the Campo Marzio plan rhetorically suggests a temporal labyrinth as well, placing buildings that once existed next to ones that still stand today and ones that never existed at all, an architectural demonstration of Jacques Derrida’s quotation of Stéphane Mallarmé, “un present n’existe pas.”9 In an even more tangibly spatial gesture, the Campo Marzio plan proposes an altogether different relationship between figure and ground than the conventional notion of the city. While the received icon of the labyrinth (for instance, the one inlaid in the floor of the Cathedral at Chartres) does not necessarily accord with the more captivating written descriptions of Virgil or Pliny the Younger, all share the characteristic of:

imaging the artistry/confusion paradox; as with optical illusions, we may find ourselves flashing back and forth between perceptions of the whole and its parts, thereby experiencing labyrinthine convertibility. Because we can see the artistic whole, intermittently at least, the labyrinth’s con-fusing process is counterbalanced by an assurance that a great maze-maker, a controlling artist, planned the maze so that it has order.10

In what Peter Eisenman calls “figure/figure urbanism,” the respective spaces of architecture, poché, and the city fluctuate and thus become ambiguous and equivocal.11

This, then, is precisely what architecture can do: equivocate,
question, and thereby elucidate the instabilities inherent in our physical world. This is perhaps most apparent in the long tradition of associating architecture with theater; by creating a setting, architecture removes the definite context for location and allows doubt to be cast on presence, which may then be replaced by “presentness.”12 This term connotes a displacement, a distance between perception and material in a single divided moment. Two architectural examples will hopefully suffice to illustrate this as a possibility, though similar effects can be found in all architecture, if usually less explicitly. The first example is Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Schauspielhaus in Berlin, a building set symmetrically between two symmetrical churches with a grand front stair too steep to actually encourage use, effectively transforming the Gendarmenmarkt Platz into the stage of a theater whose audience looks out from the theater’s colonnaded plinth.13 In a further sign of displacement Schinkel draws a rendering of the interior of the hall with a backdrop, itself displaying the image of the exterior of the hall, a clear demonstration of recurrent mise en abime14 from interior to exterior. The second example is inspired by Aldo Rossi’s suggestion:

I have always claimed that places are stronger than people, the fixed scene stronger than the transitory succession of events. This is the theoretical basis not of my architecture, but of architecture itself. In substance, it is one possibility of living. I liken this idea to the theater; people are like actors; when the footlights go up they become involved in an event with which they are probably unfamiliar, and ultimately they will always be so. The lights, the music, are no different from a fleeting summer thunderstorm, a passing conversation, a face.15

Rossi alludes to the mode of displacement that he most often engaged, the estrangement of form and of material perhaps most apparent in his Teatro del Mundo project for the 1980 Venice Biennale. Rossi’s theater quite literally is displaced from any location, standing on a barge drifting through the labyrinthine network of Venetian canals in a double estrangement from context; the theater has no place.

These two examples, both perhaps more immediately associated with the mirror than the labyrinth, nonetheless reflect qualities of the labyrinth through, respectively, interior extension and removal from their respective settings. Both signify spatial extension by transgressing the boundaries of their enclosures, in much the same way in which the labyrinth always refers to simultaneous existence of the space behind, through, or adjacent to the one currently at hand. And to extend the metaphor further, that space behind, through, or adjacent stands for the simultaneous existence of architecture, a sign that presence in one space always stands for irreconcilable absence in another. Ultimately, it is the spaces that make reference to other spaces, spaces that palpably express their affiliation to architecture, to which we refer when we discuss architecture. Architecture exists when any particular place is another place.

Such is precisely the persistent relevance, and thus potency, of the labyrinth for architecture: the labyrinth is a figure both undiluted by the flippancy demonstrated in the underwhelming developments of architecture over the past two decades, and never singularly bound to any place. In other words, the labyrinth transcends the petty translation from style to style while still making reference to the parameters of our discipline. It recurs and mirrors itself, ever multiplying and reflecting its own interiority. Architecture was significant for philosophy and for other cultural discourses from the 1960s to the 1980s because it upheld a symbolic function; for architecture to remain relevant as a discipline it must uphold its own symbols, its own languages, and, most importantly, its own persistent parameters.

1. Jorge Luis Borges, “The House of Asterion,” in Collected Fictions (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), p. 221.
2.  Yve-Alain Bois, “A Picturesque Stroll around Clara-Clara,” October 29 (Summer 1984): 45.
3.  Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), §58.
4.  Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in Ficciones (New York: Grove Press, 1962), p. 17.
5. This assertion is made by Peter Eisenman, who conducted a studio heavily based in analysis of Piranesi’s drawings. Eisenman discusses Piranesi’s Collegio plan in his Formal Analysis course at the Yale School of Architecture, in which the author participated as both a student and Teaching Fellow in the fall of 2008 and 2010, respectively (class lecture, Yale School of Architecture, 9 October 2008 and 18 November 2010).
6. Duchamp’s Door cannot be discussed without at least oblique reference to the section “The Hinge [La Brisure]” in Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Derrida’s discussion of the hinge as the aporetic difference between signifier and signified leads to the notion of written language as traces, in addition to the chapters titled “The Inside and the Outside” and “The Inside Is the Outside” makes him undoubtedly relevant to the current discussion. Cf. Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), pp. 65-73.
7. Immanuel Kant defines the sublime, “In comparison with this all else…is small.” See Kant, Critique of Judgment (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005), p. 69.
8. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), p. 42.
9. See Derrida, Memoires for Paul de Man (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986),
p. 59.
10. Doob, Penelope Reed, The Idea of the Labyrinth (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 61. Regarding the tensions and differences between the two typologies/topologies of labyrinths, multicursal and unicursal, respectively described and diagrammed, see Doob’s chapter “The Labyrinth as Significant Form: Two Paradigms,” in The Idea of the Labyrinth, ibid., 39-63.
11. Eisenman, “Piranesi and the City,” in Piranesi as Designer (New York: Smithsonian, Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum: 2007), p. 305.
12. This term is taken from Peter Eisenman’s article “Presentness and the ‘Being-Only-Once’ of Architecture,” in Written Into the Void: Selected Writings, 1990-2004 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 42-49. The vague definition Eisenman gives in the article, “a distance between the object as presence, which is a given in architecture, and the quality of presence as time, which may be something other than mere presence,” is insufficient for the discussion here, a textual labyrinth in its own right in the form of a single sentence. The provisional definition I give here – admittedly still lacking – comes out of a class conversation with Eisenman, Matt Roman, and other students at the Yale School of Architecture on 27 August 2010.
13. These ideas and the following are borrowed from Kurt W. Forster. See Forster, “Schinkel’s Panoramic Planning of Central Berlin,” in Modulus 16 (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1983), pp. 62-77.
14. Editors’ note: Originally from French meaning “placing into infinity,” the phrase most commonly describes the infinite reproduction of an image when standing between two mirrors.
15. Aldo Rossi, A Scientific Autobiography (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1981), p. 50.