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Multi-Sensing Space in Noise-Cancelling Architecture

“A thing, until it is everything, is noise, and once it is everything it is silence.”

(Antonio Porchia)

The dualism of sense and non-sense already is complicated by the dual nature of sense itself, where sense stands for both the sensual and the sensical. The limited range of architectural phenomena that extend into the senses, as in the haptic-optic spectrum, are imprinted and registered into the sensorium of the individual. The sensations of a space lies in its pulses, ambience, tones. In parallel, the nearly undetectable signals from spaces can also infiltrate our logical assumptions and cultural codes, with both forming the parameters of emergent possible architectural spaces for the designer. Though this speculative territory can be a vast zone, in practice the aesthetic determination of the senses of a specific space involve very delicate forms of attribute selection and technological determinism.

Operating outside both meanings of sense, then sensual and the sensical, are their non-sensical shadows (doubles). This first meaning of the sense of space, the sensuality of spatial experience, is doubled by an alternative to the immediacy of our perceptual scanning of spaces - this other would be some curious echoes or after-effects, else pre-encounter premonitions or clairvoyance. This alternative to the sensuality of space, a blank spatial non-sense, would be zero condition of the unavailability of sensations, but also where other phenomena could abhor the vacuum and seep into our liminal perception. Like the umbra around an eclipse, these stray signals and pulses can circuitously register into our perceptual wetware; produced but also producing this alternative sense of space.

The second mode of space, the sensical, also harbors a covert alternative, one outside of clear logic, marked by the receding of logical sense. Becoming lost in a complex will shift spatial certainty into the slippery and mutable spaces of dislocation and misrecognition, where the signals and processes of these spaces cannot confirm identity and location. More theoretically, the loss of logic of space is the recognition of the absence of logical sense structuring metrical space, the space of organization. From metrical space - where it is “naturalized” that space is operational: programmed, analyzed, commodified – the double of this sensical logic of space is a non-sensical processural space that works against the clear and distinct presence of identities, positions, and relations. Non-causal chains of meanings and occurrences, marked by inflections, tangents, and distortions between what is conceived for spatial functionalism and the fascinating range of dys-functionalism that is latent and poised in even the most rationally calculated space. As our capacities for perceiving these doubles of doubles, we have now reached a point where architectural theory can begin to account for spaces to be highlighted as processes and interfaces, beyond the limited technical-determinist model. Indeed, our entry into spaces, and our recognition of spaces and spaces if sense, are already tensioned between sense and non-sense, which tumble and oscillate to signal nothing is as it first appears. The senses and non-senses of space (always plural) work as open, real-time processes of recursive (internal) augmentation. Thus the sense of space is actually a complex (in the facilities management as well as psychoanalytic models).

Let us sketch the challenge of the production of space today. First there is the input mechanisms of the designers, codifying metrical spaces from project directives but always taken through the dissonance of their internal tensions of sense and non-sense. Some of these inflections and interpretations are outside our control, but many are closer to selection and choice. Secondly the range of unknown future users will inflect and imprint these articulated metrical spaces as found raw spaces tolerant of differences, divergences, productive miscodings, and aberrant performance. These liminal and visceral variations exceeding the performance specifications of the metrical imperative are but types of in situ noise gaining from but obscuring the functionalist signal, an emergence of a noise that charges the spaces of the everyday with alternatives to logical sense. The noise-space relation is thus inserted into the sense of architecture through use and attention.

Let us turn briefly to the lo-fi reductivist aesthetics of minimalist architecture in the mid 20thC, mid-century modern, as in the provocative cases of industrial designer Deiter Rams (b. 1932), architect Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971), and architect Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). These multidisciplinary spatial designers share many similarities in their primary sensitivity to mass and form and their secondary tactical use of elements within regular spatial-pattern fields, their polemical objects that anticipate further minimalist spatial accommodation, and the effect of the ultra-modern lifestyle their works amplify. The post-war modern progression into differentiated species of minimalist spaces expanded the field of design practices around non-textual practices and knowledge; a construct best defined as retro-minimalist design intelligences. From the original practices of the “culture of negation” of the high modernist period there is a convoluted transference to the conceptual claims of the hi-fi minimalist movement in late modern conceptual art, and its popular cultural absorption (from object-hood to kitsch).

The specific noise-cancelling technologies available today, from headphones to acoustic panels, mark the translation from the cybernetic concept into the mathematical models into the everyday. Along this series and progression into today’s designed apparatuses, there is a need to take a curious detour through the aesthetic field of electronic music, an insightful detour that should be acknowledged as unconventional.

The refinement of minimalist tendencies in modern art, architecture, and music is increasingly a high-fidelity amplification of the pre-war, back when the signals were weaker and the fidelity was lower due to then-emergent models, processes, and audiences. From performance to recording to synthetic production, the electronic music trajectory (as sonic-spatial) holds uncanny parallels with the development of mid-century modern design (as visual-spatial). It is with the clearing point of the sparse acoustic minimalism characterized as ambient music (from Brian Eno onwards) in the 1970s that the neo-avant-garde and electronic counter-culture are both normalized and sustained as a new open process. In tracking the claims for an Ambient Century in this text by Mark Prendergast , we can note the diverse and complex claims of minimalism, as a spatial and acoustic agenda can be re-examined in light of this "noisy" contestation. Noise is neither sense or non-sense, but is here proposed as the condition of indiscernibility of qualities, attributes, pulsations, flows that do not yet clearly organize or fixate along the sense / non-sense philosophical teeter-totter. On the role of noise in homo-spatial situations, Netchvatal notes that itself it cannot be a singular block or entity, but also harbors processes within - from one to many noises we have a “noise aggregate as a summational but all-over net-condition/awareness of plurality in hyper-homogeneity, a supplementary order of diversity within orders of noise” that are “capable of creating new forms of order,” which occur internally, and which he defines as hyper-cognitive noise.

In proposing a common equivalence of the forms of sensory disappearance staged by minimalism, and the rise of other senses to respond (resound) to minimalism, the sense of space is exposed as a complex and also as a process. To answer the uncommon question of what echoes of sense or non-sense lurks in minimalist space, to get to the emptiness that precedes the emergence of noisy phenomena in experiential spaces, we can take the unruly pulsations and signals of found spaces as an opportunity to understand the noise as generative – to consider how architects can “bring the noise” or create architectural spatial complexes and processes which can mute and dampen the wider range of noisy phenomena, insert these as minimizing tactics into raw spaces, and set up the conditions for new forms of (ultra-)minimalism to emerge. This is the end-game of the alternative soft approach to noise-cancelling architectural theory, which seeks to extract the hidden and covert signals and traces in the larger registration of noise (as unknown). In the same way we learn to see from blurs to figures, so to we can learn to sense (sensation and logic) through the reduction of noise, using a wide range of cognitive, conceptual, and tactical design intelligence.

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