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Peter Wilson.

A few millennia ago the Egyptian hieroglyph for house was a horizontal box, the middle third of the lower side missing and below this a vertical line-a room, a door, a planometric diagram. In 1929 Le Corbusier proposed a museum (Le Musee Mondiale) in the form of an extendable spiral; a built graph of cultural aggregation, good for evolutionists, problematic for thematic curators. In 1971 Leonard Cohen sings '... you can find your love with diagrams on a plain brown envelope ...'. In the early 1980s, Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas explain their La Villette Park design as diagrammatic parallel programmed stripes, an abstraction of Dutch tulip fields. Around the end of the millennium in Japan, SANAA propagate buildings stripped to their diagrammatic essence. The prescriptive diagram is a stringently reductive design tool. Successful buildings from the 'diagram school' are judged by their felicity to the generating hieroglyph. Subplot or other multivalence evolved from process, the tectonic evolution of the object or the contingencies of its location would only blur the clarity of the diagram/building closed circuit of reciprocal authentication.


For media-circulated new-millennia projects the role of the diagram is twofold. First, it is prescriptive, proffering a sort of DNA/hieroglyph, which purports to have already solved all contingent issues. In its second role, the same diagram is offered to the observer/critic as a yardstick against which to measure the finished building, a 'fast-track-packaging' of architecture, a reduction to the 'one-liner' to the 'headline'.

At this point I must confess, I am not very good at it. Diagrams do appear from time-to-time, but my logical facilities are for better or for worse not focused enough to decide the rules of the game in advance. Designing for me is a process of trial and error. I am not ruthless enough to throw overboard all those compromising loose ends with which one toys while coaxing recalcitrant form from the soup of experience and circumstance. Teaching is a good antidote; an explanatory diagram is worth a thousand words in keeping a confused student on the straight and narrow.

Luckily Italo Calvino has mapped out a resolution to the diagram dilemma. Two of his 'Milennia' essays are titled Exactitude and Multiplicity. Diagrammatic thinking, and designing certainly, belong to the Exactitude methodology, a continual reduction and paring down to essences. But at a certain point such refinements reach their limit, become self-reflective; a no longer useful closed circuit. At this point Calvino, describing his own writing process, switches to Multiplicity, an ever-expanding game of connections, associations and parallel lines of thought. The product (text or building) charts a complex course, engaging with what has gone before and juggling with a multiplicity of ideas, spaces and scales. At a certain point this process topples into the encyclopaedic, and it's time to jump tracks again, back to the reductive, to exactitude, to the diagrammatic. Calvino's star sign, like Le Corbusier (and both partners of Bolles+Wilson) was Libra.


The Bolles+Wilson design for the New Luxor Theatre in Rotterdam has a spiral plan, a continuous wall that first encloses and then spirals once more within the volume to divide the auditorium from the foyer. The spiral plan form is the generative diagram, re-enacted nightly by the passage through the foyer of the 1500 strong audience. The diagrammatic spiral is the subsumed vertebrae which give the animal its characteristic form, but the story does not end with this unifying gesture. The spiral is also the carrier and the organiser of a multiple of subplots, relationships from within to the surrounding panorama, localised spatial sequences and incidents on the scale of the individual user. Such buildings do not reveal their spatial, material or phenomenological qualities through the diagram or even through the eye of the camera. They are better measured at a scale 1:1, by being there, than against the reductive discipline of the diagram. PETER WILSON, BOLLES+WILSON

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Author:Wilson, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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