Sometimes you encounter a thing that is not “properly” architectural, but which yet has something profound to say about the discipline.
That thing might be a passage of text, an image, an incident, an analogy, a construction even — and it strikes you in a very particular way, not because it is delightful (although there may also be that) but because it seems to say something you’ve been wanting to say, something you’ve been thinking but have not quite articulated, something lurking at the vague shadowy edges of your mind. It’s tantalizing, such a thing. It holds the promise of extension, expansion, the pushing-back of some frontier, or the naming of some truth, even if it is only one’s own. It seems to offer an aperture to a new space, a new insight.
So when you find such a thing, it’s a writerly instinct to examine it, to turn it over in words, to tap it first lightly, then harder; to sniff and shake it, to try and work out what small verities might lie within, and how to get them out. An essay is the way to do it. An essay is your lock pick and your sickle probe, your bevel chisel and your sledgehammer. To assay: to grope towards understanding through words. This is one such essay.
The object: a cartoon
The object at hand is a cartoon. A single cell image and accompanying caption, with the familiar, intensely spare visual and textual economy that is the hallmark of The New Yorker’s cartoons. I liked it, and laughed at it, because it seemed to me unexpected, and witty, and illuminating; and also something more — I saw something in it and couldn’t say quite what that was, or why it might be important, or whether it might be important to anyone other than me.
The image seemed telling, but I couldn’t quite tell it. Its insights were elusive, they feinted and dodged. There were loose ends, and they refused to be neatly tied: That’s where we are right now.
In fact the image affected me with an almost visceral thrill. But when I showed it around, others seemed unmoved — if they responded it was to laugh, but not really a laugh, more that kind of breathy snort that people give, to show mild appreciation but not actually raise a guffaw. They seemed to think it was more clever than funny, but even then perhaps only clever in a smart-arse, one-liner kind of way, maybe even a kind of gimmick, a dimension-bending sci-fi scenario of an M.C. Escher kind. A curio, nothing more. It became clear I was appreciating something here that others were not. This, also, was intriguing.
Sometimes a thing is not ‘properly’ architectural, but has something profound to say about the discipline.
Maybe it was because my interest was specifically disciplinary: as I saw it, the cartoon was saying something particular to architecture, something about buildings, the vagaries of architectural scale, the quality of interiority: the interiorness of interiors. Maybe also something about the strange and unique point of view of the architect who, when designing, projectively inhabits and moves around the building, both inside and outside at once, in the mind’s eye. I thought I glimpsed something about the melancholy of representation, about the curious status of architectural models. But more than anything else, I was fumbling towards an idea about architectural criticism, and the obliqueness of the critic’s gaze; also about architectural writing per se. It felt profound to me because it seemed to somehow encapsulate a way to write about architecture — an expression of both a critical position and a method. The image seemed to capture something I’d been trying not just to say (although there is also that), but also to do. The only way to find it, then, was to do it, to write it: that’s where we are right now.
Rachel Brownstein writes about the essayistic mode I’m working with here: starting with a compelling but not-straightforward thing in the world, and trying to work it out. It appeals, she argues, “to writers whose impulse is not only or not exactly confessional — people with a taste for the revealing anecdote told almost, if not quite, for its own sake.” She continues:
Often offered in the first person, such an anecdote is not necessarily, not strictly, derived from a meaningful personal experience. It might be, rather, a story in search of a meaning, an insight, an irony, a perception, a connection that eludes flat-out, flat-footed exposition. … It’s a matter of style and taste, for which as we all know there’s no accounting. I write what has been called personal criticism because I’m most moved to say something by an incident that seems to me somehow telling, because I tend to reach for an anecdote when I think I have something to say. 1
The cartoon is, for me, an occasion. It is interesting and worthwhile in itself, but also, perhaps more so, for what thinking it affords.
The scenario depicted
But we need to back up a little. What exactly is going on in the cartoon? In the foreground we see a scale model, not just of a building but a city block, complete with trees and streets and varied other buildings. The model is displayed within a room in what is possibly an office building, judging by the fluorescent lighting and large plate glass windows. It could be a display suite, or the foyer of a company that develops such buildings. It does appear to be a display model — as opposed to an architect’s massing or working model — because it has trees. It is set relatively low, seemingly on a purpose-built table or plinth, in order that viewers in a standing position have a magisterial, aerial view over the whole precinct. In fact, it’s set unusually low, on an angle, and below waist height of the people in the room — who might be a salesman and a potential buyer. Or could they be an architect and client? What are those papers under the arm of the man with the tie — architectural drawings? One is certainly explaining the model to the other, of indiscriminate gender, who bends over to look more closely.
This is a wildly compounded interior. It feels impossible to escape from: spaces forever captured inside other spaces.
But all this ignores the most significant aspect of this cartoon narrative, the punch line, as it were: the eye. A giant, crudely drawn, wide-open eye, complete with iris and pupil and individual eyelashes, fills almost the whole of the window, looming behind the two individuals in the interior. This huge eye is literally a dilation of the smaller eye we can see peering into the model, perhaps in shock at what it sees within. But, casually, the other character (the architect?) says: “That’s where we are right now.” Even the grammar is significant: that’s where we are right now. Not this is where we are right now, but the more alienated and distanced that — that other place, over there, where we are other people, and much smaller.
The effect is uncanny — there is a yawning, vertiginous sense of an abyss cracking open, because we realize immediately that there exists not only these two worlds, these two scales we can see within the image, but also a whole vortex of ever smaller and smaller worlds inside that tiny building there on the plinth, and at the same time an expansion of ever larger and larger worlds outside that plate glass window, extending in both directions to infinity. We see into a labyrinth of nested spaces, containers within containers. This is a wildly compounded interior. It feels impossible to escape from: spaces forever captured inside other spaces. So this crudely drawn room, really only a corner of a room, contains both the gigantic and miniature, the microcosm and macrocosm, the minuscule and the infinite.
It is clear the model on the table is not just a scale model (although it is also that). There is a difference between a scale model (an abstracted representation at a different scale) and a miniature (the actual thing at a different scale). What we see here is the latter: a miniature version of the very building which holds the scene which we can see, with these same people, now, in real time. Steven Millhauser, in his classic essay “The Fascination of the Miniature,” writes that the miniature “must not be confused with the merely minute. For the miniature does not exist in isolation: it is by nature a smaller version of something else. The miniature, that is to say, implies a relation, a discrepancy.” 2 In our cartoon, this discrepancy is in fact the source of the humor and illusion: a joke on the distinction between scale model and miniature.
The effect is not unfamiliar. Filmmakers know that there is fun to be had with this same confusion, and its sometimes uncanny effects. Indeed, this is a recognized trope in film and TV, as when the overly literal Derek Zoolander confuses the model and the finished thing and asks, outraged: “What is this? A center for ANTS? … How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read, if they can’t even fit inside the building?”
The reduced scale of the model leads to the correspondingly gigantic, godlike scale of the onlooker. Scale models literally give a new perspective; throw the viewer into a new relativity with buildings and environment — they make us gigantic, casting us as Gulliver in their Lilliputian world. Suzanne Menghraj has examined what she describes as the “transporting” limitlessness of the miniature — “the infinite in the infinitesimal.” 3 Wondering “how miniature versions of things, mundane or not, manage to express so fully what their full-size prototypes cannot,” Menghraj describes finding in Gaston Bachelard’s account of the miniature a “boundless, amplifying reverie.” Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, argues that to understand the power of the miniature, one must understand more than scale: “One must go beyond logic in order to experience what is large in what is small.”
Now I am usually allergic to Bachelard, and the ways in which his particularly flaccid brand of mythopoetic, essentialist, nostalgic phenomenology has been taken up in architecture. But in his work on the miniature, I have to concede that he’s onto something. And as Menghraj, after Bachelard, frames it, the imaginative, expansive possibilities of miniature things lie not, or not only, in their being shrunken versions of a larger thing. Instead, as she notes, the miniature allows us, in fact invites us, to daydream.
Other scholars have explored similar territory. Susan Stewart could almost be describing the miniature buildings of our cartoon, when she speaks of the world of the miniature as opening to reveal a “secret life.” “This is the daydream of the microscope,” she writes, “the daydream of life inside life, of significance multiplied infinitely within significance.” 4 Stewart discusses such ideas in relation to the dollhouse, “the most consummate of miniatures.” She explores the dollhouse’s unique interiority:
A house within a house, the dollhouse not only presents the house’s articulation of the tension between inner and outer spheres, of exteriority and interiority — it also represents the tension between two modes of interiority. Occupying a space within a closed space, the dollhouse’s aptest analogy is the locket or the secret recesses of the heart: center within center, within within within. The dollhouse is a materialized secret; what we look for is the dollhouse within the dollhouse and its promise of an infinitely profound interiority. 5
She could be describing our cartoon: its “infinitely profound interiority.” It seems that particular varieties of (architectural) miniature lend themselves to ever greater doubling and compounding and miniaturization, to the point of descending into the abyss.
Mise en abyme
In this sense, the cartoon can be seen as a mise en abyme: a French term usually translated as “placed in the abyss” or “scenes from the abyss.” It is a device equally well known in cheesy optical illusion and commercial advertising, and in the realm of high-concept fine art practice and literary theory. In everyday life it is most familiar as that effect you get when two mirrors are facing one another: when you step into that mirror-lined elevator and see endless reflected versions of yourself, ever smaller, receding into infinity — into the abyss. Invariably, these days, people respond to such a situation by taking a selfie. This is not surprising, really, given mise en abyme’s rather creepy, mystical qualities, its sense of eternity, as you contemplate your own mortality, all alone, in that elevator, gently falling between floors. The moment is both literally and figuratively self-reflexive.
The cartoon can be seen as a mise en abyme, a French term usually translated as ‘scenes from the abyss.’
The implications of mise en abyme in visual art are related, but a little different. There it refers to a representation of a thing embedded in the thing itself — for example a mirror or a painting within a painting, as we see in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, and in Velasquez’s Las Meninas. In such cases it bespeaks a certain self-reflexivity, as it inserts another, allegorical image within the image, or alternatively breaks the “fourth wall” and shows the painter him or herself, literally “reflected” within the work. It always entails a degree of authorial self-reflexivity, a certain meta-level narrative, a knowing address to the beholder, a message about connotations beyond the literal, denoted image.
In theatre, mise en abyme usually manifests as a plot device: a play with a play. This is perhaps most famously used by Shakespeare, in Hamlet, within which is staged a secondary play, The Mousetrap — thus we, the audience, are watching both The Mousetrap, and watching the characters of Hamlet watching The Mousetrap: the narrative is layered, one play is seen through the aperture of another, and vice versa. This is a mode of meta-theatre, a reflection on the artifice and framing of theatre, within a work of theatre: a frame within a frame.
The mise en abyme is also found in architecture: where a model or image or replica of a building is shown within that same building. There is a celebrated example in the Hagia Sofia, where there is a mosaic depicting the Virgin Mary, flanked by the Emperors Justinian and Constantine, one offering her the building in which the representation is shown, while the other offers the city of Constantinople, which in turn contains both the actual Hagia Sophia and the smaller representation of it … and so on … and on.
Our cartoon, too, can clearly be seen as a mise en abyme, in both the imagistic and architectural senses. It is a picture of a building within a building, or more correctly an interior within an interior — or indeed it confounds the distinction between these two, creating a labyrinth: it is an interior which actually has no exterior, or rather, its exterior is only ever another interior, containing another set of people peering into a model and seeing themselves: that’s where we are right now.
Part of the cleverness of the image is that it recasts the usual order of the mise en abyme illusion. The viewer is usually at one end of the abyss, which recedes in only one direction — the viewer sees a small version of the thing represented, and imagines the recursion as that thing becomes ever smaller. This one, however, drops the viewer right in the center of the illusion, which recedes in both directions — leaving us in medias res, as it were, in the middle of things, both within and outside of a building, existing on an infinite scale of distinct scales, all at once.
Now: this is all slightly creepy. Our cartoon is creepy in much the same way as that unforgettable scene in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, where main character Fred attends a party and meets the extremely spooky Mystery Man, who despite standing right there says he is at Fred’s house at that moment, and invites him to call and talk to him. It’s the inexplicability of being in two places at the same time, but more than this, the idea that the two versions of the self could be aware of one another, even in contact.
Lynch’s film is a fairly straightforward manifestation of the uncanny, or Freudian unheimlich, which as Anthony Vidler has described, was first explored in the short stories of E.T.A. Hoffman and Edgar Allen Poe, in “the contrast between a secure and homely interior and the fearful invasion of an alien presence.” As Vidler writes, “on a psychological level, [the unheimlich’s] play was one of doubling, where the other is … experienced as a replica of the self, all the more fearsome because apparently the same.” 6
Let’s imagine for a moment that we could unspool our cartoon scene into a sequence, a linear narrative. What would be its genre? The uncanny is most closely associated with horror, and indeed this could be a scenario in some goose-pimpling horror film. Or, perhaps more likely, it would be science fiction: which specializes in the kind of space-time-continuum wrinkle that might allow people to be in two places at the same time. Science fiction is, after all, dedicated to science and mathematics, for which discipline the infinite recurrence of a number at ever smaller increments is quite commonplace.
As Vidler finds, the unheimlich — literally the unhomely — finds its true metaphorical home in architecture:
First in the house, haunted or not, that pretends to afford the utmost security while opening itself to the secret intrusion of terror, and then in the city, where what was once walled and intimate, the confirmation of community … has been rendered strange by the spatial incursions of modernity. 7
So perhaps it is not so surprising that our cartoon’s manifestation of the uncanny should be both within and because of a building, a seemingly safe and “normal” haven which turns out to be a portal to other dimensions and worlds, possibly benign, or possibly not. There is something uncanny about interiority: the connection, or disconnection, between the outsides of buildings and their insides, their capacity as containers, distinct from the lives and objects and meanings they contain.
The meta-architectural: a conclusion
So what have we found, where have we come to, in this essay as an act of stuttering, of groping towards an understanding of a particular cartoon image and its larger articulations? Well: the cartoon shows us the within within the within. It makes a double joke on scale models and miniatures, and illustrates the labyrinthine qualities of interiors, always opening further inward. In this it also manifests an architectural unheimlich, an uncanny doubling (trebling, and so on) of places and people, and it does this through a new slant on the device of the mise en abyme.
A building is always the container for human life and action and agency, but it is also the meaning itself contained.
I think that in architecture, the mise en abyme takes on a particular poignancy. This is because through its doubling, we see quite directly the way in which a building is always both form and content: it is always the container for human life and action and agency, but it is also the meaning itself contained. It’s this that calls to me in the cartoon — the sense of one thing seen through another, a frame within a frame, an aperture opening forever onto another reality at another scale, an allegorical approach to architecture and its representation and criticism.
For me, then, the cartoon’s significance is something about a method of seeing and thinking about buildings and their multitudinous contents. Or if not a method then a disposition. Or a writerly stance, an approach, actually really a viewpoint: what else could it be, given that giant looming eye.
If it’s not too grandiose, I think the cartoon illustrates a meta-textual approach to architecture; or at least poses the possibility of it. It suggests the architectural equivalent of The Mousetrap within Hamlet, but doubled so that we see the play within The Mousetrap within Hamlet, and so on to eternity. The cartoon shows an instance — framed, perhaps deceptively, as flippant and light-hearted — in which the viewer is invited to consider architecture from both outside and inside at the same time, in just the way an architect does in the process of a building’s conception; just as a critic does, in its evaluation; just as I myself do, when seeking an architectural subject and object to become an essay.
This is a viewpoint which wants to see a building as a microcosm of larger ideas and conditions; wants to spiral outward from the particular to the general, whilst simultaneously spiraling inward from abstract ideas about buildings and lives in the world, to the specificities of an actual building, an actual place, the actual warm bodies of living people. It’s about seeing and trying to understand architecture from within and without, all at once.
If that’s where they are right now, then where the hell are we?
Because, ultimately, the mise en abyme in our cartoon is multiplied yet again — in the other direction, on the other axis, one might say — through the subject position that it gives to us, its viewers. If the two people in the frame, in the middle of their vortex of infinite recursion, are concerned only with one another, and their model, and their doubled selves, where does that leave us — the omniscient onlookers who can somehow see through walls and into this interior, from an elevated position. If that’s where they are right now, then where the hell are we? And when?
By such a setting of frames within frames, we see architecture as both an object and an environment, as an interior and an exterior, both intrinsic and extrinsic — these seeming opposites are transformed into a spiraling, continuous, recursive, dialectical scale. I realize it now, finally: it is this same viewpoint, both within and without architecture, that has animated my own thinking and work, criticism and writing, about architecture, all along. And this essay, then, becomes exactly an example of such: about architecture, but seen from an angle, through another thing, relative to something else, allegorically, askance. This, too, is a mise en abyme. That’s where we are right now.