Inhabitation of Bodies and Toys

Marcos Cruz - I have been observing you and your toys for a while now. What still seems to me very intriguing is the way they work as the trigger for new ideas about inhabitation of space. Which aspects of your work reflect this?

Marjan Colletti - I may have to specify what kind of toys I mean. Generally, one could differentiate two different categories: ‘throw away toys’ and ‘keep forever toys’. The first group has very short life expectancy and a high ‘transience index’, as psychologist Alvin Toffler calls it. These toys are a product of the throwaway society and its high ‘rate of turnover’ of things, ideas and places.
Soft toys belong to the latter group, and are called ‘transitional objects’, which means they serve the child to transit from the childhood to the adult stage. Psychologists imply separation from those elements. Why? I think that the act of playing with these toys reveals itself as an incredible demonstration of inventiveness, responsiveness and control over the environment and objects. And that is not much different to what I expect from the ‘professional architect’.

Marcos Cruz - I understand that as a principle or analogy, but you also take them literally into your design as physical inhabitants of two, and three-dimensional space.

Marjan Colletti - First unconsciously, then consciously, my friends constantly appear and re-appear in my designs, inhabiting the space and filling it with secondary layers of architectural information. If I say inventiveness, responsiveness and control, I mean it in internal, psychological terms. The playful, professional architect can re-create spaces and shapes of a secondary layer which are triggered by one’s emotions and mood. I still stick to the toys, and they turned out to be helpful designers...
They show up for example in the project Besking (a hybrid between a BEd, deSK and intelligent thING) that re-introduces the toys’ softness and reveals their shapes in plans, sections and details. Every (technical) drawing has a secondary (private) story to tell. Since then, they re-appeared in other designs. For instance, in the interior design project for the refurbishment of a flat in Bozen, Italy, where they permanently inhabit empty space, thus, reacting to the Aristotelian and Freudian ‘horror vacui’. Aristotle’s ‘horror vacui’ argued the impossibility of ‘nothingness’ and influenced the pragmatism of Renaissance perspective realism, while Freud’s ‘horror vacui’ influenced Secessionist Gustav Klimt to fill the canvas with symbols, shapes and ornaments, representing an atmosphere of cosmic peace. I need ornaments and friends. That is what the toys are all about; shapes are not just shapes, they are friendly shapes and talk to me as friends. It’s my way to somehow escape my ‘horror vacui’.

Marcos Cruz - Wasn’t that the case when I saw you for the first time with the toys sticking on your head?

Marjan Colletti - The toys, wrapped in a blanket and velcroed onto my shaved head, represented my vision of the professional, imaginative, and playful architect. It was a very obvious way to introduce my friends into architecture. Maybe that is why we both shaved our heads when we had to present ourselves at the Bartlett: I did it for the toys and you did it to put yourself into a sticky, slimy latex wall, isn’t it? And that before the Matrix!

Marcos Cruz - That was about the ‘Deviant Bodies’ and ‘In-wall Creatures’, ideas, which later reappeared into the project of ‘Hyperdermis’. The proposition was that inhabitants would incorporate their body in a flexible, and living architectural ‘dermis’: a biological tissue with several service-devices, such as ‘Storage Capillaries’, ‘In-wall Seats’, ‘Relaxing Cocoons’, and ‘Communication Suits’. It was a hypothetical scenario. The ‘Inhabitable Walls’ were surfaces punctured by pores, and bulging scars, and reactive tentacles, in which people crept into wall chambers through stretchable orifices. I was somehow annoyed that the traditional architectural discourse was just concerned with the use of ‘empty’ space. My interest was focused on what was potentially in-corporated behind our physical surrounding, in this case trans-lucent walls and membranes. It triggered in fact the existence of a new inhabitable ‘in-lucent’ reality. These ideas were related with William J. Mitchell’s comments on inhabitation in ‘City of Bits’, in which he observed a change of meaning, “one that has less to do with parking your bones in architecturally defined space and more with connecting your nervous system to nearby electronic organs.” As he continued, “your room and your home will become part of you and you will become part of them.”
Similar ideas came back during the NEB competition proposal. I saw the 300 scientists specified in the programme as our ‘Deviant Bodies’, suggesting that their spatial constraint in the proposed inhabitable lab-cones was standing in opposition to their visual freedom when popping out of the roof in their office-capsules.

Marjan Colletti - So is architecture the extension of the body?

Marcos Cruz - In this sense, yes. We are living in an era, in which anti-flesh Puritanism is gradually disappearing, at the same time, that the contemporary body is affected by a technical upgrading towards anatomical and sensorial perfection. There is a belief in the ‘technologised’ body as capable to interface with its increasingly changeable and responsive environment. It is a time of Cyborgs (A. Clarke/ D. Haraway) and Biomechanoids (H.R.Giger), but also of Robosapiens (P. Wenzel/ F. D’Aluisio)4 and … yes, with more and more Extropians.

Marjan Colletti - I always asked myself whether your deviant bodies were sort of neglected grandsons of Le Corbusier’s Modulor and Neufert’s ‘ideal man’?
Is Man still the measure of all things? As Volker Giencke once told me, the measure must be the intellect, and not the body of Man.

Marcos Cruz - The contemporary body-machine is not at all an average character. On the contrary it looks by any means for an individual identity in terms of mind and physical appearance; it also looks for the potentials of its extension towards its physical dilution in real and virtual space. Describing Extropianism, Rachel Armstrong assumed a new generation of people that has a desire for science and technology in order to “improve their internal character, radically transforming both the internal and external conditions of existence. The Extropians regard technology as a natural extension and expression of human intellect, creativity, curiosity, and imagination, encouraging the development of evermore flexible, smart, responsive technologies.” As the wish for an artificially differentiated physical identity progresses, the more it carries with it the human body understood as manipulable object. And it is a result of the vanishing classic norms of beauty and function, expressed in the ‘sacred’ integrity of the body’s natural seal. The ‘contemporary body’ can’t anymore be understood without the sophisticated apparatus that triggers its ‘healthy’ permanence, deliberate ‘re-design’ and, as a consequence, the materialisation of a newly inhabited ‘biotectural chimera’. It is the re-application of this scientific knowledge into a future architectural bio-machinery that interests me.

Aesthetics of cuteness and disgust

Marjan Colletti - Many wonder how we can work together at all, you being engaged with aesthetics of disgust and the grotesque, and myself with aesthetics of cuteness, softness and blurness. Are these aesthetics actually that different? Or do extremes equal each other?

Marcos Cruz - Contemporary architecture is still (Although some might say not) very much structured upon a tradition of Platonic prejudices in favour of the ‘noble senses’, such as vision and hearing, and also upon Kantian aesthetics of the ‘pure taste’, which consider the ‘abstract’ and the ‘intellectual’ of a higher rank than the ‘material’ and the ‘visceral’. Both our drives towards the disgusting and the cute wish to break that tradition.
Pierre Bourdieu wrote that, “pure taste and the aesthetic, which provides its theory, are founded on a refusal of ‘impure’ taste” and of aisthesis (sensation), the simple, primitive form of pleasure reduced to a pleasure of the sense (…).” That’s what characterises the predominant taste in contemporary architecture for minimal objects and spaces.

Marjan Colletti - Isn’t that related to a certain aesthetic of cleanliness, even in the (contemporary) cyber architecture? I always wondered where this hegemony of glassy, glossy rendering came from. Now I am starting to understand that it may be this need for hygiene, which found the ideal environment in the digital realm.

Marcos Cruz - Of course. Since the middle of the 19th century and in particular at the beginning of the last century, hygiene became a dominant preoccupation in cities and in particular in the domestic realm. That had an immense influence upon design and upon our values of taste and beauty. Adrian Forty has a chapter in ‘Objects of Desire’ dedicated to this matter. He describes that dirt and disorder became “labelled as unhygienic and therefore the source of disease”, suggesting that this phenomenon brought up an intensifying anxiety about levels of cleanliness. Thus, an increasing demand for simplicity, and purity in design; a design of clear order!

Marjan Colletti - And in particular cyberspace has been the ideal environment for the materialisation of such preoccupations. Actually, Kevin Rhowbotham comes right to my mind. He argues that “in architecture, this proleptical vision has produced a glassy” (and I add glossy!) “Urbanity; cities of the net, (...) cities of insinuated transparencies, (...) in which territories of difference (...) are smoothened and flattened (...).” But for him smooth means clean. “Rather like old Sci-fi movies, everything is tidy, everything is ‘in-place’.”…

Marcos Cruz - … here one can establish a parallelism to Mary Douglas’s theory of “matter out of place!”

Marjan Colletti - Rhowbotham continues, “Clean not dirty, imagined not dirty-real. But isn’t clean always and already a prevarication? At least when it is projected as a permanent vision. Clean is the absolute presence of a territorializing stratagem. The unadulterated idea. The lie.” This sort of answers my question about the similarities of our arguments: our disagreement with the ‘cleanliness’ of mainstream architecture.

Marcos Cruz - I think that the conditions of disgust and cuteness which we are referring to, definitely exist in a marginal territory. Interestingly enough, the terminology we use does not belong to the traditional architectural vocabulary. The implications of their aesthetic want to shake the discourse that still follows the ‘pure’ and ‘clean’, the ‘abstract’ and ‘elegant’, and the purely visual.
My interest in disgust stands in straight relationship with the touch sense, and that is where I like to experiment with matter that implies viscid, sticky, slimy, squishy, or slithering properties. Although disgusting this matter has for me an enormous capacity to allure. As William Ian Miller describes, it brings with it affects that can “work one closer again to what one just backed away from.” These affects range from feelings such as curiosity, fascination, or even a wish to touch. I like that! A materiality with intrinsically haptic and tactile attributes.
But the whole excursion into the disgusting has also to do with my study about artificial skin growth, and the proposition to use this as living tissue in architecture. That brings with it an unpleasant aesthetic, which many related to the ugly and dirty. But I think that is exactly one of its fascinations. I believe that our standards of perception and taste are changing with the increasing ‘medicalisation’ of our environment. Architects will have to look in the future into territories that might be quite contradictory with the aesthetic parameters of contemporary mainstream architecture.

Marjan Colletti - Can you give examples that you consider of particular relevance?

Marcos Cruz - In architecture? Not really! Well, there is an experiment I can think of, done by Gaetano Pesce in 1975. ‘Le comparse del tempo (Omaggio a Mies van der Rohe)’, a weird model for a tower build out of pieces of flesh and metal. A very unique experiment.

Marjan Colletti - Ironically, Pesce is a quite isolated source of reference for the figurative approach in architecture, too. The ‘Counter-Project’ for Les Halles in Paris of 1979 and the ‘Maison des Enfants’ of 1985-86 i.e. are in fact interesting…

Marcos Cruz - But there are examples in art that seem to me of particular relevance. Max Aguilera-Hellweg is a photographer who pierced into ‘the priesthood of surgical theatres’ in a simultaneously beautiful and cruel way. The visual grammar of the ‘dissected bodies’ raises questions about newest surgical techniques, and the way they have extended themselves into territories of ethic, moral, philosophical, and religious discussions.
Further, Louise Bourgeois is a fascinating artist in this matter. In the 1960’s she came across with a lot of, for that time, disturbing, near repellent latex sculptures, which strongly transformed the predominantly minimalist art scenery. Her two main projects of that time, The Destruction of the Father, 1974, and Confrontation, 1978 became, I would say, a liberating icon for the aesthetics of art … and architecture.
Following a similar tendency, the English artist Helen Chadwick combined a whole plethora of unusual, organic and visceral materials. As she said, “a vital relation of incompatible elements”. She mixed very weird, yet exquisite textures and sensations transforming them into installations that implicated people into a complex sensorial pleasure, of both seduction and nauseous revulsion. These are qualities that interest me when applied to architecture.

About technologies

Marcos Cruz - You are doing a research, in which you establish an interesting relationship between soft toys and computers. What is the importance of the ‘line’ in all that, considering that the line is an agent of separation and differentiation of boundaries and territories, is getting problematic when confronted with the contemporary conditions of dilution and diffusion of these boundaries.

Marjan Colletti - I am keen on challenging the relevance of the line, since it is perhaps getting a new meaning. The line is used in order to represent material or immaterial boundaries, living or dead matter, static or dynamic conditions, precise or unexpected situations etc. The line has been accepted as translation medium from idea to drawing.
In that sense the furry softness of the toys was a great challenge to the line, since elegance and cleanliness were not part of the information, which had to be translated. Thus, initially, I thought I was going to declare the death of the line. But we are not quite there yet. I therefore had to reconsider the black ink line, and move towards written lines and other sorts of possibilities with soft lines, such as carefully manipulated CAD lines and curvilinear lines.
The ‘Gestalt’ psychology, founded in Germany in the 1920s, defined the whole as being more that just the sum of the parts. Some of their various laws, which are not really ‘scientific’, but ironically have been taken up in programming software for recognition of patterns and objects, are “Closure (the tendency to group single objects to a whole), Common fate (the tendency to see single parts moving together as an object), Contiguity of close-together features and a preference for smooth lines”. Cartoonists depend on these principles, and so does the figurative approach I mentioned before.

Marcos Cruz - And how do you apply that to your drawings?

Marjan Colletti - Since I am drawing with a computer, I cannot rely completely on the ‘talented hand’. I had to investigate the mathematical, geometrical and informational properties of lines, splines and polylines in different software. It was a rather dry investigation, but I needed it to widen my understanding of the computer-space and to escape average skills. John Maeda argued that this “is important to understand the underlying principles of how the digital material is composed and behaves”, and that this allows to predict “the behaviour of existing software and how those elements might interrelate. (…) People all over the world create average things because they use exactly same tools, (…).” I realised how poor and almost dead the black ink line actually was. Instead, I began to play with the computer to create distinctive soft, furry, feathery, fluffy lines - or better: spaces.

Marcos Cruz - In that sense I found interesting how you used digital effects to make the screen become literally three-dimensional.

Marjan Colletti - These drawings, which you call ‘patterns’, are in my eyes more than just abstract images. They are some kind of reaction to Nick Barham’s vision of contemporary intelligence and reality. A layering of “multiple, conflicting, confusing, colliding realities on screens, through music, [and] via urban brightness.” I wanted my drawings to be a representation of these layered realities. In fact, although being two-dimensional vector drawings, the amount of layers the software needs to build them up is immense. Also the spatial depth of the drawings is given by their precision. You can zoom in and out in the range from 3,13% up to 6400%, without loosing any resolution or detail, but gaining a ‘gaze’ into this ‘flat deep space’.

Marcos Cruz - In a curios way, it reminds me Michel Foucault’s definition of the ‘clinical gaze’5, which describes processes of unveiling the ‘visible invisible’ of the body. Our eye has a limited capacity to apprehend the real porosity and depth of the opaque ‘envelope’ that covers our environment, body, or building, ...or the computer space. Therefore, yours seems to me a sort of ‘digital gaze’.

Marjan Colletti - Seeing the software building up the drawing element by element, layer by layer is fascinating, and shows the spatial complexity of the drawing. In the flat in Bozen project the sandblasted glass behaves like the blurred computer drawings, creating a perception of three-dimensionality on a flat surface. Body and distances are blurred, light and space penetrates the walls, which can be considered three-dimensional versions of the blurred, soft lines.
Your skin studies imply a similar research of two-dimensional surfaces. Yet you promote model making; and looking at you doing them reminds me more the process of a fine artist rather than that of an architect…

Marcos Cruz - I like to work in an intuitive way with models and materials, because model making is in itself a quite rational process of transformation. By using different flexible materials, each model is a sort of pluri-sensorial experience that is based on a negative-positive logic of casting, moulding and pouring techniques. In a sense I believe that challenges in architecture are changing according to advances in material engineering. While the seventies were the era of polymers, today much of the research is concentrated on the development of ‘elastomer’ phenomenology: latex, silicones, polyurethane, etc… But in my opinion the real interest lies in the mix of material sciences and biology, which develop histo-compatible and engineered compounds, that can be infiltrated and co-inhabited with living tissue. We are getting closer to the era of what I call ‘growingmers’.

Marjan Colletti - That is where your skin research comes in.

Marcos Cruz - Artificially grown skin is a territory that is increasingly becoming important. What interests me on that is the fact that it is increasingly been produced in laboratories. And in fact, it is a kind of artificial living surface that, although right now not available in bigger portions than 10 by 10 cm, will, I presume, be produced in huge industrial sizes shortly. Imagine new leather factories producing artificial grown skin without killing one single animal…
Also relevant is its hypersensitivity to exterior and interior vicissitudes. The skin is our biggest organ and at the same time the most important sense agent, since it integrates in its surface all the other sense organs. But to create it artificially we are increasingly hybridising it with a sophisticated electronic-digital apparatus and biomaterials.

Marjan Colletti - In that sense, how much did these ideas influence a project like the Palos Verdes Art Centre?

Marcos Cruz - The competition entry for the Palos Verdes Art Centre was strongly influenced by this idea that body is building and building is body. Which means that the building borrowed from the human body and skin principles of locomotion and sensitivity, without necessarily imitating its form. It was designed as a serious of gallery spaces surrounded by a tensegrity skeleton that was embedded in a continuous skin of moulded silicon. The ‘inlucent’ and malleable silicon filtered even light to the galleries and incorporated a variety of inter-active devices on its roof. The hairy roof was a field of ventilation hairs that colonised the outside surface. These gestural hairs bent smoothly according to wind pressure, but simultaneously twitching when censoring external movement. There was a cause-effect reaction between the inhabitants and the building.


Marjan Colletti - As marcos&marjan we are trying to bridge the eternal gap between theory and practice, researching in architecture by design.

Marcos Cruz - Well, that is the basic principle of the PhD we are doing at the Bartlett. But with marcos&marjan everything started in November 2000 with the idea of redesigning our tiny studio in to a scale 1:1. We wanted to build a ‘soft table’ that could be pushed against the wall in order to gain space in the studio. The table was to be built out of a resin compound, which was gradually becoming flexible on its edges, enabling those areas to slide up the wall. The table embedded in its ‘soft-inlucent’ mass drawers, plugs, light sources, water tubes, electrical equipment, responsive structures, secret enclosures, etc., which were protruding irregularly from its underneath belly, yet keeping the upper surface ‘deeply flat’. It became a beautifully moulded, chunky plate...

Marjan Colletti - …well, in the NEB competition for instance, the functional program seemed to fit ideally your research topic: laboratories and clinical environments, proteins research etc. It was very clear that we were trying to combine our obsessions: ‘intelligent skins’ and ‘soft toys’. The site for the NEB competition looked like a duck to me, and the Tomihiro site like a polar bear. And my responses to all your ideas about where to site the building were very figurative.

Marcos Cruz - I remember that later we were sketching a lot. We were filling dozens of pages in search for a possible scheme. It was exciting, because you ended up doing a funny croquis, which summarised a lot of thoughts into one idea. I saw you drawing the king and his (new) robe and also a Santa Klaus with his Christmas bag. And, yes, that was our scheme!

Marjan Colletti - The amount of input was rather stunning, and although we were talking about completely different things and interests, apparently, at the end our visions were not that distant.

Marcos Cruz - My interest in the fusion of biological and architectural phenomena triggered my immediate attention as we saw the announcement of the competition programme on the Internet. It was an opportunity to deal with spaces, in which molecular biology production and bodies could be able to interface with architecture in an intriguing way. At that time I was quite involved in discussions with Orlando de Jesus about the project ‘Fabric Epithelia’, an installation for an exhibition at the Textile Museum in Toronto.

Marjan Colletti - Simultaneously, we tried to develop the scheme further with many experiments. I remember you started with the first small wax-model, while I sat in front of the computer and started playing around with an oil layer over a digital surface. I put oil pills onto the screen re-considering a holographic system for the roof.

Marcos Cruz - Simultaneously my concerns were focused on three-dimensional matter, on aspects of plasticity and ‘inlucent’ materiality. We speculated with a continuous surface of a varying resin compound, embedding structural and technical appliances in it.

Marjan Colletti - Yes, we split for a while in fact. While you were pursuing this ‘soft inlucency’, I tried to get similar results in the drawings re-working them on different software.

Marcos Cruz - The 150.000 S.F. proposal was our former ‘m&m table’ inserted into the landscape. The building submerged its massive volume in the topography letting its huge colonised office roof appear as a new artificial garden in the site. The winter garden separated the interior laboratory area from the outside bucolic landscape with a double-layered transparent wall, presenting an enigmatic green façade.
The trigger of the project was the re-interpretation of the programme. It located the private office areas in the roof and the wet lab areas in various cones, integrating in between all circulation and mechanical support spaces. The upper offices allowed each scientist to sit in the roof ‘touching site and sky’.
The skeleton of the building was embedded in the mass of lightly coloured resin, which filtered a variety of different light levels through its membrane.
Marcos: And the resin could also be host for a variety of inter-active devices. The performance specification of the membrane varied continuously along the surface, from the properties of a rigid, opaque screen to those of a flexible, transparent skin.

Marjan Colletti - The notion of this membrane re-appeared in the design proposal for the New Tomihiro Museum in Shi-Ga, Japan, in December 2001. The idea of the bagpipe (played by the polar bear, the site…) popped up pretty soon, and has served as ‘Leitmotiv’ through different stages. We both liked the combination of soft and hard components (the bag and the pipes) and of skin and face (the fur and the head of the goat).
The walk through the New Tomihiro Museum was like a discovery trough an artificial landscape. A landscape of numerous and varying exhibition vessels hanging along a meandering, suspended path. Specific paths provided connections to the forest above and the lake below beyond the physical boundaries of the Museum.
And the climatic and seasonal changes were visible ‘within’ the museum in an internalised garden, separating the exhibition spaces from its rest.
Similarly to the NEB laboratories, the external transparent and occasionally translucent screen blurred the internal spatial volumes and the primary structure of laminated timber to a soft whole. The exhibition vessels consisted of a double-layered skin, which hosted services and other technical appliances in the inhabitable spaces in between. The opaque internal layer controlled intensity of light and amount of humidity. Thus, the outside was about the bagpipe, and the inside about the artificial garden. The metaphorical assemblage of the 8 elements of traditional Japanese gardens created a reinterpretation of landscape.

Dialogues between Marcos Cruz and Marjan Colletti
(Transcribed from the publication ‘Actions re Form’, Bartlett School of Architecture, February 2002)