With the publication of his special theory of relativity in 1905, Albert Einstein further demolished the Newtonian belief in absolute measurable things, demonstrating that matter and space are themselves relative, and change with different observers and according to each observer’s shifting perspective. Moreover, the established dimensions of length, mass and time transform with one’s frame of reference. Physical reality alters with a person’s speed and location, and is not independent of the observing eye – it is, essentially, not determinate. These relativistic ideas might have remained the province of science had they not also begun to appear in more concrete form within the arts, allowing them to be more easily grasped and directly experienced by a wider audience. By the late nineteenth century, Vincent van Gogh was already painting a reality whose physical presence is overshadowed by turbulent energy. In Road with Cypress and Star (p. 216), material things are less important than the vibrations around them. Waves and bits of coloured light swirl and resonate in patterns of motion and countermotion, within the air as well as the pores of solid matter, filling space with something tangible and penetrating solid masses with something active and fluid.
The growing abstraction of twentieth-century painting, along with other visual media, continued to explore the visceral and elemental appeal of this newly imagined magical field, with its multiperspectives and expanded vision. In describing this new world view, Paul Klee wrote: ‘A sailor of antiquity in his boat, enjoying himself and appreciating the comfortable accommodations. Ancient art represents the subject accordingly. And now: the experiences of a modern man, walking across the deck of a steamer: 1. his own movement, 2. the movement of the ship which could be in the opposite direction, 3. the direction and the speed of the current, 4. the rotation of the earth, 5. its orbit, and 6. the orbits of the stars and satellites around it. The result: an organization of movements within the cosmos centered on the man on the steamer. Analogously, the observer of a picture by Klee is not given a literal or preconceived subject to admire with a passive gaze, but is challenged to enter into the painting itself, to linger over enigmatic brushstrokes and vague shapes that interact across the canvas and with the viewer’s imagination, and to a great extent only take form in the mind’s eye, rather than physical one. Its reality cannot be recognized or construed without the creative aid of an observer, giving that person a compelling degree of involvement and power that illusionistic art cannot equal. Developing out of the mosaic-like fields in paintings by Klee and Cezanne, and the Cubist works of Braque and Picasso, as well as the diverse abstractions that followed, was a radical change in seeing the world. A wide number of simultaneous or incomplete views of an object are now juxtaposed and a dimension of unfolding time is introduced to the image on canvas. The faceting of things, and the interlocking of partially transparent planes to form rhythmical structures flowing through one another, produce a realm full of surprise and fascination, richly supplied with hints of things left to explore beyond the immediate reach of the eye. Painting becomes extra-retinal, something able to invite and charm, even disturb and trouble, but always including the audience as a creative participant in giving it momentary form. The inquisitive eye cannot coldly observe from a distance a painting by Delaunay or Pollack, Rothko or Tobey, De Kooning or Tapies, for the eye is urged to peer into and explore a universe of endlessly puzzling things that pervades the entire canvas – a world that attracts but also, more importantly, incorporates us as visually inventive beings.
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Some of the largest but humblest architectural fields are vernacular settlements whose contents open to action within as well as without: the perched villages of Conques and Gordes in France; the white Andalusian towns of Casares (p. 218) and Olvera; the seaside hilltowns of Riomaggiore and Manarola in Italy; the Greek island villages of Santorini and Mykonos; the Saharan cities of Ghardaia and Beni Isguen in Algeria; the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings of Colorado. The walls and roofs of these spongy cities keep supplying hints of latent space as they twist and turn, while receding in depth and spilling into the foreground to produce silhouettes teeming with possible things to explore. Cascading facets take infinitely varied angles that stimulate endless scrutiny, as if gazing into a broken rock formation (p. 219), its thousands of incidents catching the eye and tempting us to graze
Seen from afar, the hilltown silhouette bristles with faceted houses and strongly marked towers, ramparts and turrets, signalling like beacons that call to us. The almost hypnotic allure of these settlements is also due to the way in which the steep terrain keeps tilting their pattern of solids and voids into oblique angles of view, at times almost a bird’s-eye view, expanding our ability to deliberate over the attractions. This enhanced perception is similar to the vantage points taken in paintings by Memling and Bruegel, which lower the middle ground and elevate the background to accentuate visual access to otherwise tightly knit worlds. While this scope of perception is greatly reduced and almost disappears when standing inside the slot-like streets of vernacular settlements, it returns and explodes when paths widen into plazas, or turn perpendicular to the contours to expose a section of cascading opportunities, prompting us to savour a series of receding futures (p. 220).
I don’t mean to suggest a conscious intent by hilltown builders to construct open urban forms, since their primary concerns were defensive and climatic and, apart from their institutional landmarks, most of these settlements developed less by controlled design than from a tolerance for patterns built up over time by many different hands and circumstances. Nevertheless, the most entrancing and porous of these towns, as they exist today, present monumental fields of action whose latent deeds are almost as open to visitors as to the inhabitants.
Though rare in modern urban planning, the expanded field of a rich topography is a principle attraction of cities such as San Francisco and Lisbon, Prague and Rome, which have not ignored or levelled their terrestrial gifts. Slopes keep tilting possibilities into view and increase the detection of otherwise hidden architectural options, whose mere sight can elicit the simple and automatic pleasure of wanting to walk through their streets.
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