Within and Without Architecture

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Within and Without Architecture
Within and Without Architecture
Edward Steed, The New Yorker, December 15, 2014

The imaginative possibilities of miniature things lie not in their being shrunken versions of a larger thing. The world of the miniature opens to reveal a secret life.

Sometimes you encounter a thing that is not “properly” architectural, but which yet has something profound to say about the discipline.

That thing might be a passage of text, an image, an incident, an analogy, a construction even — and it strikes you in a very particular way, not because it is delightful (although there may also be that) but because it seems to say something you’ve been wanting to say, something you’ve been thinking but have not quite articulated, something lurking at the vague shadowy edges of your mind. It’s tantalizing, such a thing. It holds the promise of extension, expansion, the pushing-back of some frontier, or the naming of some truth, even if it is only one’s own. It seems to offer an aperture to a new space, a new insight.

So when you find such a thing, it’s a writerly instinct to examine it, to turn it over in words, to tap it first lightly, then harder; to sniff and shake it, to try and work out what small verities might lie within, and how to get them out. An essay is the way to do it. An essay is your lock pick and your sickle probe, your bevel chisel and your sledgehammer. To assay: to grope towards understanding through words. This is one such essay.

The object: a cartoon
The object at hand is a cartoon. A single cell image and accompanying caption, with the familiar, intensely spare visual and textual economy that is the hallmark of The New Yorker’s cartoons. I liked it, and laughed at it, because it seemed to me unexpected, and witty, and illuminating; and also something more — I saw something in it and couldn’t say quite what that was, or why it might be important, or whether it might be important to anyone other than me.

The image seemed telling, but I couldn’t quite tell it. Its insights were elusive, they feinted and dodged. There were loose ends, and they refused to be neatly tied: That’s where we are right now.

In fact the image affected me with an almost visceral thrill. But when I showed it around, others seemed unmoved — if they responded it was to laugh, but not really a laugh, more that kind of breathy snort that people give, to show mild appreciation but not actually raise a guffaw. They seemed to think it was more clever than funny, but even then perhaps only clever in a smart-arse, one-liner kind of way, maybe even a kind of gimmick, a dimension-bending sci-fi scenario of an M.C. Escher kind. A curio, nothing more. It became clear I was appreciating something here that others were not. This, also, was intriguing. […]

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