The principle of animation

“Just keep working in practice and animating the materials with stories, dropping a few stitches in design, sprinkling in some conceptual frills, spilling plenty of imperfection, pitching open designs – do everything robots can’t – to stumblingly start up the turbulence, the mini-tornado, the chain reaction of emotional matter” […] Influencing a frequency means creating an experience, and that experience, that creation will always be lived through by another person and coax out an emotion.” Architect Maurice Nio over (het belang van) ontwerpen op een suprasensitief niveau.

NIO architecten / manipulated by NEJI201

NIO architecten / manipulated by NEJI201

Five years ago, I got to know someone with a special gift. He sees things as if they have just walked out of the sauna into the freezing cold. For him, all the things he sees are continually sweating, steaming, fuming, they’re ‘smoking’. It’s not the same as seeing an aura. An aura belongs to people and animals and is relatively stable. No, the clouds and fumes he sees are lively and often rising high as houses. Sometimes he only sees suggestions of shapes, sometimes vaguely making out the contours, but most of the time the edges are blurred and dissolved. There are no lines or borders. Things ‘in his eyes’ have no boundaries, no fixed form.
Once I tried to visualize what he sees. ‘Is this what you see, then?’ I asked Stephan, laying out on the table a number of images I edited. ‘Yes, but..,’ and I don’t remember exactly what he said next, but the gist was that, besides the image, he could see the intention behind the way it was edited. And that applies to everything for Stephan. Paintings, photographs, drawings, texts… When he reads a newspaper article, besides the words, he sees the intention the text was written with. When I heard this, my brain started smoking. I was completely out of sorts.

Thrown off balance, frustrated, angry even, because why don’t I have this gift? Or should I say: why am I so limited? Why are average people like us so limited, compared to Stephan? In the case of Christopher Knowles, who, without fault, could produce precise geometrical patterns with a typewriter, I think it’s fair, because he’s autistic. God took something from him, and to replace it Christopher got a very unique gift in exchange. That’s a classic kind of symbolic trade and therefore tolerable. But in Stephan’s case it’s ‘unfair’, because he’s got an extra talent. It’s just as unfair when a talent is taken from you, like going blind or deaf.
But after envy there is always that backdraft-emotion: panic. What if Stephan didn’t get an extra talent? What if he had it, even before his DNA was mutated (the way doctors explained his ‘condition’), and imagine that average people like us also have this gift, immanently. Imagine if we could see much more, smell much more, hear and taste, reach beyond our limbs? Everyone has had moments when he or she felt the imposed limits, handicaps, boundaries and filters, discerning a glimpse of an immeasurable sensory potential. And we haven’t even mentioned our sixth sense, whatever that may be.

Without the limitations of our five senses, we would be all but omnipotent and perfect. Evolution has realised this in time and threw a wrench in the works. Humanity, with its massive brain, was already escaping evolution to such a degree that a further escalating singularity had to be stopped. About 70.000 years ago, when humans first developed their ‘consciousness’ – long after fashioning their first tools and weapons 2,6 million years ago – mother nature urged all human genetic and biochemical processes to develop filters for the five senses and ordered to cease the creation of the sixth sense, or we would all be flying around like Silver Surfer, super slick and super powerful. What was left of evolution continued smoothly and delivered a hundred percent pure and balanced ecosystem where humans, because they’re so limited and inept, keep muddying the waters and throwing off the system. In this perfect system humanity is the deliberately developed embodiment of imperfection. Which, strange as it may seem, is humanity’s charm.

Thirty-four years ago I was standing on the sixth floor behind the elevators of the architecture department of TU Delft, looking at all the materials they had put on display for us students. I needed to pass my Material Science class and, from this forgotten corner, memorize the attributes of the various materials from the lecture transcripts. For hours I watched these materials, but I saw nothing. Someone, a woodcutter or a mining student, should’ve told me something about the tropical hardwood or the Brazilian marble I was looking at, so it would come alive for me. A simple anecdote would have sufficed to animate one of the materials, and once animated I would be able to ‘see’, not just with both my eyes, but with my mind’s eye, with the eye that doesn’t look but feels and sees within.
A couple of years later I saw some photos in a trade journal from a museum for modern art, where Arata Isozaki had applied gold-coloured onyx to a massive window. Wonderful how the dark interior, in an otherwise emotionless building, comes to life through this simple intervention. This was my cue to use various translucent materials for my graduation project ‘A villa for Michael Jackson’, to make the light tangible, with a lot of lead in the façade to shield against radiations, and Venetian plastering on the inside to absorb the time. But also scenes from the silent horror film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) by Robert Wiene to accent the insane aspect, a complete building from Piranesi’s Campo Marzio (1762), the pool from the house for Josephine Baker that was never built (designed by Adolf Loos in 1928), a couple of hippos, an immense window to, like Peter Pan, escape maturity just in time, a door for his Captain Nemo-like submarine to shake off his photographers. Once animated, everything is useful material, everything can serve as material, just like writing a story.

Animating a material or a word, animating a configuration of materials or words, doesn’t just mean putting your soul in it, charging the material, but stirring up all the animated materials, shifting the whole. You need to actually use your soul – your heart, your passion, your ‘grit’ – as a stick to stir the charged materials and initiate the turbulence, the mini-tornado of emo-elements, the chain reaction of architectural emoji’s. That’s where the term ‘soul stirring’ comes from. A good building is a successful soul stirring. An industrial object can be one too, just like a dance or a novel, an album or a film (an artwork is in a different league). Even an urban planning design can be a wonderful whole of soul stirrings, as long as there’s enough time for the stirring taken into account, not too little but certainly not too much.

At the start of the design process at first there’s always a phrase, a photo, a film scene, a sudden impulse or something trivial in the location – a trigger, something coming from outside of architecture bringing life to the whole – that’s the breath. Then the choice of material follows, texture and touch: that’s the body. Next are colours, sounds, scents, sometimes flavours, the light and details (sharp, angular, flowing, flat): that’s the character. Only later, when the program of requirements and the available budget are fed into the process, forms(s) and spaces are created: that’s the dimension. This four-step process can succeed in one try, but it may have to be repeated a hundred times. The form is what it ends up being. Messing with that is not much use. The form is adornment. She seduces or she doesn’t.
A soul stirring is successful or unsuccessful. A design is successful or unsuccessful. Oftentimes the form is already there, somewhere in the immense Borgesian library of ideas, and you only have to pick the right one, pluck it out. Animating or designing something has nothing to do with the linear and academic process going from function to form or, even worse, the rational process from concept to icon. You – with your soul – are solely there to initiate the interlinking, to spur on the evolution of things. You, designer, you are the developer of a soul stirring, and this development is completely dependent on your limitations, your handicaps, your capriciousness, your deep rooted irrationality, in short your original imperfection. That is the principle of animation.

Seven years ago, during Christmas, I felt a chill go down my spine in the newly finished Caixa Forum (2008) building in the centre of Madrid, even though all the rooms in the building were heated. Despite all the attention to the smallest details and the right materials, the whole comes across cold and lifeless. The far-reaching stylisation is not the result of a relaxed passion but of a malignant, robotic obsession with perfection. That’s why the whole seems so distant. It’s a closed circuit of colours, materials and details. The building tries its best to be faultless, architecturally impeccable, resulting in a sterile experience. The absolute zero of experience. The designers were simply stirring too long.
This experience isn’t subjective but suprasubjective, or suprasensitive, past the distinction between subject and object, good and evil, mind and matter, observer and performance. It’s not a judgment, it’s a realisation. An experience, as a pure insight passing all mental and sensory limitations, is the best measure to find out if you’re dealing with a cold or a hot system, with a closed or an open construction. Experience is the closest thing to Stephan’s gift for observing the intentions of a creator – just not with the eyes but with the mind’s eye, maybe with your whole body as an eye. After all, the whole body, including the brain, is an antenna in a world completely made up of vibrations.

Now that we know from quantum mechanics that the fundamental distinction between ‘matter’ and ‘mind’ doesn’t exist, that they’re just different aspects of the same reality, and that matter is nothing but a vibration, we can see buildings and people, thoughts and dreams, events and words as ‘vibrating’, with everything having its own unique frequency. We can’t observe these frequencies. Our senses are just too blunt, too limited, but experience can discern them, even if only a little. Not enough to perceive the frequency of a chair, for example, which is fortunate because you wouldn’t sit in it otherwise – enough, however, to sense if the chair feels right, meaning if the chair has the right ‘vibe’, if it’s in the right vibration. Take hearing for example. We understand that we can’t hear anything under twenty or over twenty thousand hertz, but we see and know that dogs can. We can feel our filters and limiters, we are conscious of our imperfection. But we also comprehend that our brain system, where our consciousness sits, is still brand new (70.000 years old compared to the 600-million-year-old brain), so anything is possible.

Highly sensitive people, but also schizophrenics, paranoiacs, autists, or people missing one of their senses, can perceive more than us. Their sensory filters are more porous, or certain filters are missing, or they’ve messed with their limiters, that’s another possibility. The spectrum of vibrations they can perceive is broader than ours. For them objects, thoughts and occurrences are not delineated, rigid or clear. They’re more receptive to the suprasensitive dimension.
Artists also belong to this category. They’re a breed apart. They coquet with the suprasensitive, almost like they have a sixth sense, but it might as well be faked. Like with a good illusionist, you never know if it’s real or a sublime trick. And it doesn’t matter. The reversibility between art and kitsch, circus and culture is much more crucial and exciting. Thanks to artists we know there is a suprasensitive dimension we can’t perceive because of our sensory limitations. Works of art are proof that the world is vibrating, ambiguous and reversible.

Two weeks ago I finally realised that I’m not an architect. Ultimately, it was caused by signing a land agreement with a municipality in the Netherlands. If I find myself busy with finding locations, tenants, financing, compiling programs of requirements, then ‘architect’ as a concept – master builder, building designer – no longer fits the bill. Additionally, and more importantly, the term is no longer adequate on a suprasensitive level; after all we don’t design anything since the form already exists. We don’t shape anything, at most we find a form, we give a vibration to something. We develop an emotional chain reaction with the use of materials.
In college you won’t learn designing on a suprasensitive level. You would need a different kind of academy or university for that, a different system of education and different teachers. However, you can learn by doing it often. Since we can’t observe vibrations, we have to stretch our capabilities for perception. We have to train our mind’s eye. Like a good waiter, always blindly sensing when someone is ready to place an order. Everyone can develop a similar sensitivity and feel for those signals bypassing our sensory bandwidth and filters.

Mind altering substances are another possibility for stretching your sensitivity. Shamans, and the Beatles, used them to reach ecstasy intending to open themselves up to the suprasensitive world. Or you could start meditating or, like they used to do, go on retreat in a monastery, but that is the long way. I choose the short cut: just keep working in practice and animating the materials with stories, dropping a few stitches in design, sprinkling in some conceptual frills, spilling plenty of imperfection, pitching open designs – do everything robots can’t – to stumblingly start up the turbulence, the mini-tornado, the chain reaction of emotional matter.
Ultimately the principle of animation is what counts. Becoming conscious of the suprasensitive world is one thing, but using that consciousness and having an influence on that world is another. As a designer you need to find the right string to pull to shift the unique frequency of things. Particularly when it comes to matter. If you are capable of animating matter with a precise frequency, which subsequently sets loose another vibration, then you’ve achieved something. Animating matter means influencing its frequency. Influencing a frequency means creating an experience, and that experience, that creation will always be lived through by another person and coax out an emotion.

Developer. What a wonderfully free profession! Reviled before the crisis as corrupted potbellied sleazebags in tacky pink shirts and BMW’s, now – with the coming demise of general contractors and banks – ready for a reinvention. Let’s, now that architecture is ventriloquising, now that students and professors are navel-gazing and all the circuits are closed short, let’s break open the circuits, bring something in from outside to influence the vibrations, let’s change the frequency of the physical world, make materials vibrate another way, materialise the network of animated elements, set our minds on emotional sustainability, and write on our business card: ‘Developer of soul stirrings.’

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