picture: Etching by Eric Desmazieres for The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges. Boston : David R. Godine, 2000

As I wrote a week ago, I was lucky enough to write for the last issue of Pratt’s grad students’ journal TARP which was proposing to investigate new ways of considering Computational Architecture. Here is the article:

COMPUTATIONAL LABYRINTH or Towards a Borgesian Architecture

Through the years, a man peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, tools, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before its death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.

Jorge Luis Borges

It has been several years now since computation has grown within a group of international architecture schools in the Western world. However, something that I regret too often, computational architecture stands as a self-contained discipline. Increasing the limits of the field of possibilities is definitely a laudable idea; however this achievement seems relatively meaningless if it is not achieved with serious consideration for the human dimension in architecture. Based on this statement, I will elaborate with a short study of how computation allows one to design what I would call a ‘Borgesian’ architecture. Jorge Luis Borges’ work indeed involves very evocative spatial dimensions and I will try to focus here on what may be his two most famous short stories: The Lottery in Babylon and The Library of Babel.

The Lottery in Babylon dramatizes a city whose integral human behaviors and functions are systematically subordinate to chance. It is very important to understand that the notion of lottery in this short story is not characterized by an arbitrary distribution of more or less valuable prizes, but rather by a random determination of every citizens’ acts and fates whether those are desirable or dreadful. The whole frenzy – not to say idolatry – of this lottery actually comes from this existence of danger and loss of control.

The notion of loss of control is primordial because it is that which brings us to the creation and origins of architecture and the ability we now have to design with computational methods. In the same way that the Borgesian Babylon ceases to depend on the causal judgment of a transcendental morality, architecture can now tend towards an emancipation from the omnipotence of the architect by partially delegating a power of decision to chance. Actually, the Babylonians and computational architecture still depends on a transcendence; however, the latter no longer arises from a direct subjectivity but rather from an illegible disorder triggered by this subjectivity. On the contrary I would suggest that randomness is able to bring an important dose of irrationality and illegibility which I am personally interested to study. If the hyper-rationalization of an architecture tends to make it more controllable by an institutional power, breaking with this process, could thus be considered as a form of resistance towards such a power. As a homage to Borges, I would propose to call labyrinth any “out of control” architecture inserting in its core a decent amount of resistance to rationality.

The other short story that seems appropriate to evoke in this short study is The Library of Babel. This story is a conscientious description of the library as “a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible,” that host the totality of books composed with all letter combinations possible. The Library is thus questioning the notion of the infinite and its paradoxical spatial application. I intentionally write “paradoxical” because the infinite seems to me as illustrating a conflict between mathematics and physics. The latter can only suggest the infinite without actually describing it whereas, mathematics is a language based on the idea of the infinite. Returning to our field of study, architecture originally belongs to the universe of physics; computation tends to insert mathematics into it and therefore the notion of the infinite.

The only limit to an architecture generated by mathematics is the finite characteristics of its generator: the computer. However, simply the idea of relating architecture to one or several equations is to allow itself to acquire an infinite dimension. Such an idea obviously tackles the issue of its physicality and therefore allows architecture to exist through other means than within the finite amount of the physical world’s particles.

In the same way Borges succeeded to create an infinite world thanks to words and to the reader’s imagination, computation allows the creation of an infinite architecture thanks to its relation to mathematics.

In 1949, Jorge Luis Borges published Ficcionnes, a collection of labyrinthine short stories including the two studied here, and thus proved once again that some of the richest architectures were not necessarily designed by traditional means. Sixty years later, computation, another untraditional means, allows such scenarii to be visualized. It seems appropriate here to evoke very briefly the creation of the hyperlink, which elaborates protocols for the infinite narrative arborescence of another short story from Ficcionnes, The Garden of Forking Paths.

Computation now allows architecture to reach a new dimension be it poetic, political, mathematical or even metaphysical, and thus seems to justify the use of these new tools. The architect now needs to adopt a perfect balance between, on one hand, the amount of control he gives up in order to improve his design, and on the other hand, the amount of control he actually needs to tame the tool so as to not fall into idolatry.

APPENDIX

However unlikely it might seem, no one had tried out before then a general theory of chance. Babylonians are not very speculative. They revere the judgments of fate, they deliver to them their lives, their hopes, their panic, but it does not occur to them to investigate fate labyrinthine laws nor the gyratory spheres which reveal it. Nevertheless, the unofficial declaration that I have mentioned inspired many discussions of judicial-mathematical character. From some one of them the following conjecture was born: If the lottery is an intensification of chance, a periodical infusion of chaos in the cosmos, would it not be right for chance to intervene in all stages of the drawing and not in one alone?

The Lottery in Babylon. Jorge Luis Borges. Ficcionnes (1949). Rayo 2008

The universe (which other calls the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal book case. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one’s fecal necessities. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances.

The Library of Babel. Jorge Luis Borges. Ficcionnes (1949). Rayo 2008