Mesmerizing depictions of an architectural field are found in Joseph Gandy’s watercolour interpretations of the building designs of Sir John Soane. Sectional elevations peel away boundaries, giving illusory access to different volumes and levels at once. We can deliberate over spaces and then enter and move about them, gazing up or down into neighbouring zones. Most astonishing of these fanciful worlds is Gandy’s cutaway perspective of the Bank of England. Much of the roof has been stripped away, along with fagades and cell walls, to reveal an interlocking maze of corridors and courtyards, carried so far that the building appears to be a ruin, conveyed by walls and columns split off at varying heights, often with seemingly timeworn edges, reduced in places to stumps in the ground or empty arches devoid of vaults. The viewer is urged to wander through an irregularly broken formation and peer into fissures and hidden corners – all in multiple random relationships that are not dissimilar to letting one’s gaze wander across a Cubist or
The same desire is incited by pictures of ancient ruins, as in Piranesi’s etchings of the remains of Ancient Rome or the engravings of Egyptian temples produced by Napoleon’s scientific expedition and published in the Description de lEgypt. Piranesi’s famous series of vedute depict a world of eroded forms spread over an equally porous ground, interlaced with infinite routes to explore. Huge tracts of ruins have missing parts, and some are still half-buried in the earth or veiled by vegetation that has taken root in their cracked textures. It is not only the incomplete carcass that is evocative for a searching eye, but also the sense of elements partially concealed beneath the ground, intensifying their presence by absence, dotting the picture with things people could unearth and bring to light.
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The fractured beauty of actual ruins turns this inquisitive image into reality. There are probably no buildings on earth more fertile for simple human action and rewarding to deliberation than the great ruins: the temples of Karnak and Paestum (p. 214), the Forum in Rome, Tintern and Rievaulx abbeys in Britain, and Jumieges (p. 214) and Les Baux (p. 214) in France, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, Machu Pichu in Peru, Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The once whole and relatively closed structure of each has been transformed, through age or violence, into one that is fragmentary and half-exposed. Shattered things induce puzzlement and unease, but also fascination and wonder, for their unplanned forms and openings encourage interpretation and reveal an array of trails to seek out, exploring a multitude of hiding places and spatial secrets ripe with promise. Moreover, because its original order and function are weakened, a ruin frees people to initiate moves without regard to external directive or logical sequence, and to do this in any order, without any beginning or end.
Receding colonnades of Greek temples, Paestum, Italy; basilican fragments at Jumieges Abbey, France; the porous underworld of Les Baux, France (clockwise from top left)
The interactive field of action is diametrically opposed to the concept of decorating as a fixed object, whose volume remains constant and stable, closed and inaccessible, and thus unresponsive to what is around it – including us. Rather than being ‘inert’ (from the Latin iners, meaning ‘inactive’ and ‘unskilled’), the field presents a cluster of reciprocal elements charged with energy and forces of attraction. Our experience of this structure no longer centres on independent physical things, but on the spaces between things, which are now the site of invisible yet real and activating powers.
The view of decorating as a field of forces parallels ideas about physical reality that began to emerge in the late 1800s, beginning with scientist Michael Faraday’s conception of the world as an arena of electromagnetic happenings. In 1861 James Clerk Maxwell introduced the term ‘field’ to convey the existence of streaming lines of force active in space – various stresses and strains, attractions and repulsions, pressures and displacements, which fill space with neighbourhoods of energy. Maxwell’s field theory challenged the static Newtonian view of reality as discrete particles behaving at a distance, showing instead that currents and lines of force extend through the intervening medium. Space could no longer be understood as empty and inert, for its domain is pulsing with unseen electric and magnetic intensities – forces that occur at every scale, from the microscopic to the cosmic, but are invisible to the naked eye and are fully evident only when recorded indirectly or through non-visual wavelengths of energy.