... the morphine had its customary effect – that of enduing all the external world with an intensity of interest. In the quivering of a leaf – in the hue of a blade of grass – in the shape of a trefoil – in the humming of a bee – in the gleaming of a dew-drop – in the breathing of the wind – in the faint odors that came from the forest – there came a whole universe of suggestion – a gay and motley train of rhapsodical and immethodical thought...
—Edgar Allan Poe, A Tale of the Ragged Mountains, 1844
What does phantasmagoria – with fantasy at its root – imply for architectural imagination? In an era of instant information, when everything seems to be explained away, is it still possible to genuinely wonder about the world, about shared human conditions, and about architecture? In what ways can architecture help restore space and time for genuine wonder?
This studio invites students to genuinely wonder: about architecture; about the architecture of the human and extra-human world; about life in all its manifestations (strange and familiar); and about the ways in which architecture can meaningfully deepen, heighten and extend our lived engagement with the world and with one another. Students will be encouraged to explore all varieties of imagination: material imagination, social imagination, spatial imagination, historical imagination, kinetic imagination, sensual and perceptual imagination, memory, anxiety, desire, humor, anticipation, etc. Students will seriously play with phantasmagorical effects, experiences, modes and mediums of investigation, while developing comprehensive design projects that aim to cultivate worldly wonder.
For these explorations in phantasmagoria three precedents can be recalled as helpful guides:
1. Phantasmagoria is a neologism coined by the Belgian stage-magician Étienne-Gaspard Robertson who began performing wonder-inducing entertainments for Parisian audiences in 1798. Phantasmagoria may be a compound word meaning “place of fantasy” – joining phantasm (a ghostly illusion) with agora (Greek for meeting place); or, it may be derived from phantasma (Latin for apparition) with a fanciful ending. Either way, phantasmagoria implies imaginative works and experiences that are simultaneously real and illusory, appealing and frightening, ethereal and tangible, extraordinary in effect yet (relatively) ordinary in workings. It is no coincidence that popular desire for phantasmagoria coincided with the world-transforming onslaught of the Industrial Revolution. When every aspect of daily life was being mechanically homogenized, quantified and controlled, there arose a counter-desire to re-endow reality with intricate mystery, unexpected quality and delightful diversity – to reclaim the magic of technology for the social production of wonder, generating more subtly unique phenomena and liberating experiences.
2. In his 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas de Quincey described phantasmagoria as a condition of entrancing dreams – especially those “waking-dreams” occurring as one is half-asleep and half-awake, when prosaic reality mixes in strange and inspiring ways with memory and imagination. In the same work de Quincey recalls a profoundly moving encounter with the 18th-century prison etchings (Carceri) of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. In these mysterious labyrinthian etchings—crowded with steep staircases, balconies, bridges, machinery and curiously striving individuals—de Quincey recognizes the peculiar intertwinings and peregrinations of his own waking-dreams: “With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams.” Philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes about such “waking-dreams” as a state of “reverie,” where oneiric and lived spaces commingle in the play of narrative and symbolic imagination.
3. In a short story entitled Ligeia (1838), Edgar Allan Poe describes the “phantasmagoric influences” of a pentagonal chamber designed specifically by the narrator to accommodate a medley of architectural embellishments and captivating exotica: Egyptian Sarcophagi; billowing gold draperies with anamorphic figures; golden carpets with Bedlam patterns; a lofty vaulted ceiling elaborately-fretted with grotesque devices; and a Saracenic censer animating the room with writhing serpent-like flames. Yet, the strangest mystery of all, the narrator claims, is that the same phantasmagorical influences and metamorphoses were felt in the commonest objects of the material world: in the contemplation of a moth, a butterfly, a chrysalis, a stream of running water, a falling meteor, the sounds of stringed instruments and passages from books. Similar sentiments are described in Poe’s Tale of the Ragged Mountains, Bernice, The Fall of the House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum and The Poetic Principle. These stories suggest the possibility of discovering profound surprises and meaningful delights in seemingly simple things – of finding, creating and rediscovering our capacity to perceive poetry in the prosaic fabric of daily life.
Poe sometimes attributed the experience of phantasmagoria to morphine, to strong wine, or (like de Quincey) to opium. In this studio, students will indulge in a medium more powerful and transformative than any drug (and I hope addictive): architectural imagination.
This comprehensive studio will include a field trip to New York City in mid-October.
Image Credits (top to bottom): Dream sequence film still, director Akira Kurosawa, Kagemusha, 1980; Abelardo Morell, Manhattan View Looking South in Large Room (camera obscura series), 1996; Vilhelm Hammershøi, Sunbeams, 1900; Peter Zumthor’s Brother Klaus Field Chapel, Mechernich, Germany, 2007, photo by Hélène Binet; Edgar Allan Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom, illustration by Harry Clarke; Magic Lantern, from Athanasius Kircher’s Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, 1671; Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Irinaland Over The Balkan, 1969.