the (architectural) section

The (architectural) section is a conventional drawing, a part of every set of 'working drawings', and thus not normally thought to be a big deal. What is a big deal are the real life boundary conditions that work like a section drawing and force us to consider their radical nature. This section-condition includes the imaginary surface dividing the theater auditorium from the stage, the glass screen boundary of the television, and the façades of store-fronts on a city street. Many surfaces that are 'presentational' but secretive in their suggestion of an interior in fact are sections. The face, in the face-to-face situation, is the best section, in this regard, since it is a chiastic complex of mask and masque.

Then, there is the 'time-section' made famous by Berson and, later, by Gilles Deleuze, who used the comparison of photography and cinema to capture the interplay between the 'snapshots' or 'representative poses' fused by perception to create dynamic notions of motion and plastic notions of duration. In fact, it is good at this point to bring in a summary made by Deleuze: that Bergson's ideas of time reveal a sequence rather than a single model. The sequence goes from (1) a static idea of the 'time-section', akin to the single frame of the strip of cinema film, to (2) a dynamic idea, a section that represents a revised idea of time as a whole. In between, Deleuze argues, is a 'hinge' — something that artists have created as a part of their own project of creating a time 'signature'. His example is Hitchcock, who creates a hinge by taking some object or element (think of the birds in The Birds) out of the natural order. In Vertigo the object is a jewel broach, in Rear Window a wedding ring, in Strangers on a Train a monogrammed cigarette lighter. The thing taken out of its natural order becomes charged but a-symbolic — Deleuze calls this a 'demark'.

The demark is our guide in looking at the architectural section. It is identical with Lacan's objet petit a — the 'small object of desire' that is does not fit in any of the networks of symbolic order. It has fallen out of that order or been lost: a surplus or lack that is now a missing link, an object of desire. The displacement of the demark is the beginning of a process of circulation that finds its model in the Möbius strip: the one-sided, one-edged band that seems at any 'instant' to have two sides and two edges (only travel can dispel this view — hence, the need for motility dysfunction and scale dysfunction to initiate the process of losing then recovering the demark).

The loss and recovery/return of the demark mark the process identified by Lacan as 'between the two deaths'. There is a period in every culture where, after a physical death, the soul is thought to be unsettled, in a state of judgment, wandering, or peril. In some cases, this is the period required for the natural decay of the body to the stable state of a skeleton. The process can be hastened by burial, burning, or exposure. Some cultures expose the body to be eaten by birds or animals designated as 'sacred' for that purpose. Stone sarcophagi were, literally, 'eaters of flesh', since stone was thought to hasten the decay process.

As ritual was secularized and its forms made into entertainment, the period 'between the two deaths' came to mark the beginning and end of the work of art. The descent theme (katabasis), a journey resembling or taking place in a labyrinth, was the model for the standard 'obstacle plot'. In the fairy-tale version of this model, some magic object is stolen or lost, and its recovery restores not only the social order but nature as well.

The section can thus be traced back to this matter of life and death. The drawing in its most simple form presumes an audience. Part of a building is cut away, removed, to show the edges and remaining, visible half. The relation of the section to the theater's proscenium line is telling. The audience occupies the 'fourth wall' of an imaginary room, a wall never literally seen without destroying the spell of the illusion. This fourth wall initiated by the demark, the door to the labyrinthine 'interval between the two deaths'. When the demark is restored/returned/found, the second death, the dynamic vision of time, is restored with it.

This is not so outlandish as it may sound at this point. Serlio famously presented architectural scenes that correlated to dramatic comedy and tragedy, and the famous set-designers, the Bibi-Galiena's, developed a highly geometricized technique for 'cutting' architectural sets to provide a space for the audience. Sections have always had this theatrical element. The interest in anatomy in the late Renaissance was saturated with the notion that the section 'vivified' the body between the two deaths. In the famous anatomical drawings of Andreas Vesalius, the body is 'alive' and the landscape is dead. Vivified by sectioning, the dialog between the viewer and the body is dynamic. The inverval of time is 'outside' of time, just as the time of a play is liminal.


frontispiece to Vesalius's book on anatomy


one of Vesalius's 'lively' models

The transaction between audience and theater, life and death, and between the loss and restoration of the demark lead to several examples that have had a prominent role in architecture history and anthropology. In his book on the descent theme as used in the Æneid, W. F. Jackson Knight connected Roman practices with the rituals of distant Malekula, in the New Hebrides. There, it was believed that the soul of the deceased arrived at the mouth of a cave guarded by a female demon. There was a drawing on the wall of the cave that 'prefigured' the plan of the maze the soul had to pass through in order to reach final rest in paradise. Before the dead (for the first time) soul can take in the pattern, the demon erases half of the plan. The same details characterize Æneas's visit to the shrine at Cumæ, thought to be the entrance to the underworld. Æneas plans to visit his grandfather, to get his blessing and some advice about founding Rome. There, Æneas faces doors designed by Dædalus, the 'first architect' who, having escaped Minos's prison (at the expense of losing his son, Icarus, who flew too near the sun and melted the wax of the wings Dædalus had designed), repayed the sybil of Cumæ with gold doors depicting eight episodes: the murder of Androges, Minos's son, the tribute of 12 Athenian youth to bull-sacrifice, the story of Pasiphäe, the Minotaur, etc. Before Æneas can take in the full set, however, the priestess leads him hastily away on his journey underground.


Æneas at the gates of the Underworld, Cumæ

This panorama takes each story, makes a 'section' of it in a drawing, and arranges each story in a pattern that has something to do with the labyrinth below the ground of Cumæ. The diagram commonly called Theseus's labyrinth' and found throughout the Mediterranean suggests something of the logic behind this 'ekphrasis' in the otherwise continuous poem of the Æneid. The curves above mimic the paths of the seven starts believed to control human life in ancient times (Saturn, Jupiter/Jove, Mars, the sun (Apollo), Venus, Mercury/Hermes, and the moon (Diana). The patterns above are static in the sense that the circles do not account for the 'precession' that the Babylonians carefully observed around 1000 b.c.e. This precession was explained by the observation that the stars themselves had to 'tread their path' between the death of the sunset and sunrise, that the underworld began at the horizon for both the celestial sphere and the earth. The apparent backwards motion of the stars was accounted for by the twists and turns concealed beneath the horizon. This is the 'half' of the diagram erased by the demon at the cave, the half that Æneas did not have time to take in, and the half that had to be remembered from ritual dances practiced from childhood.


diagram of the path of the Thesean labyrinth, showing the 'underground' half

As is evident, the lower half of the diagram would have been labeled 'no user-accessible parts inside'. These are the secret to the labyrinth's 'fractal design' (turn-twist-turn) and the key to the soul's way-finding task 'between the two deaths'.

Combining Æneas's view of the Cumæan gates and the idea of the 'fourth wall', we see the section idea expanded in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window set, where apartments have been 'sectioned' visually by the heat wave that has forced residents to open their curtains and blinds.

Hitchcock even had this in mind. The 'aspect ratios' of the main windows were thoughtfully patterned after the historical aspect ratios used by film formats prior to Cinemascope. The 'shows' that the invalid photographer Jefferies watches while recuperating with a broken leg are like so many mini-theaters, with his studio apartment serving as the 'fourth wall'. This role is marked out clearly by the reference to the rising curtains of the theater-apartment in the opening credits.

The audience, identifying with the visual point-of-view of Jefferies, takes up its position within the apartment, in a way that 'ectoplasm' might haung this space between the two deaths. The resemblance of Jefferies' journey to the katabasis is underscored by Lisa, who serves Jeff as a guide in the same way Beatrice served Dante: 'She who hath imparadised my mind', as one translator put it.

Jefferies seated before the apartments 'cut in half' by the heat resembles very much Æneas standing before the Cumæan gates. He is 'between the two deaths' (measured by the length of time taken for his convalescence — a 'motility dysfunction'). AND, if the half-circles are arranged concentrically, we get the upper half of the Thesean labyrinth. Certainly this is the function of the plot, which weaves the stories of the characters together in the 'night' created by the crime of Lars Thorwald and Jefferies optical sleuthing.

next — new ideas of how to 'take a section' in architecture (= divining an architectural future)

© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved