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Feature article

The Cube:

An Obituary

The modernist resolve to appeal to the intellectual presentation of space through the cube must be re-examined if the virtual – which pervades everything despite its co-opting by the automated digital framework of the present – is to be germane to the insistence of meaning accorded by the contemporary practice of architecture.

Our position was prompted by the unintentional intersection of the theoretical, architectural and digital presentation of the virtual as a cube in a 1925 project by De Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg for a flower arranging room within Robert Mallet Steven’s 1924 Villa Noailles. Exploiting axonometric presentation of architecture he rendered the walls and ceiling with a surface pattern of flat colours that attempts to spatialise a four dimensional cube. The method of visualising a four dimensional cube was expounded by the mathematical theorist Charles Hinton in his book The Fourth Dimension (1904). Hinton assumed that ‘as a line can be projected perpendicular to itself to generate a square, a cube might equally be projected in an imaginary direction perpendicular to all three of its defining axes to create its four dimensional equivalent.’  As Richard Difford notes in his essay on the flower arranging room, ‘the four dimensional cube was one of the first entities to be subjected to exploration using computer graphics.’

This dubious line of thought nevertheless carries the concern of the cube forward and annotates the reflection in this text that the increasing contemporary determination to represent the virtual requires a radical reassessment of the cube and its subsequent relation to the new field of data.

Such a thought, one that replaces Hinton’s fourth geometric dimension with a dimension of information, might find expression as a tensor, where linear relations between vectors, scalars, and other tensors are understood as the tensioned space between the actual and the real as conceived in the virtual world. If manifested it might take the appearance of Thomas Heatherwick’s 2.4 m aluminium cube, the Sitooterie – a precursor to his UK Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010 – which expands its physical form through projecting a light source from its centre.

In the television play Quad by Samuel Beckett, four cloaked protagonists walk the perimeter and diagonal vectors that imply a square. On coming to the centre along the crossed diagonals the figures are forced to walk around each other to avoid contact. In doing so they fail to render the intersection of the implied vectors, gesturing to a dimensionality that can never be realised but that confirms, by the ill formed side step into reality, the pregnancy of the virtual. The suggestion here is that architects can be found walking along those tensor vectors, their passage marking at once a surface for dust to settle on and gesturing to a profession that projects itself beyond its bounds and into consciousness.

If architecture is to continue along its path, the fundamental at its core must not inherently be contained within its fabric, arrangement or the mind that created it.

Subsequently, the visualisation of architecture becomes specifically didactic, using the representation of the actual to frame, understand and synthesize ideas and meaning. This suggests that the actual can be infused with the real concerns of the virtual. Returning back to Quad’s figures on their voyage, we might ask how their movement could turn a cube and all of its contents over and through.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s seminal dance work Fase, a collection of four movements in response to musician Steve Reich’s phase shifted musical compositions  offers another suggestion of the virtual framed through the actual. The duet is set within a black box theatre in which point light is used to refract, reflect and multiply the dancer’s movement. The light intensifies their movement not just with shadow, but with the capacity for this new information to feedback upon itself. Consequently De Keersmaeker choreographs not the dancers, but their extrapolation.

The potential contained within the virtual for representation of ideas and meaning is analogous to Big Data visualisation – that is, as additional sets are added, they spawn further sets. Data visualisation uses tools that are formed by the data it seeks to represent. The more data represented, the more the form adapts by the data.

As a conclusion we offer an example in the form of a Masters of Architecture thesis project by Jo-Han Seah, completed in 2012 at RMIT University. These images advocate, despite architectural visualisations maligned position, for a similarly overwhelming presentation of ideas, meaning and character, all of which reform the architecture itself. As it does so, it nourishes the virtual, and points to an approach by which the profession might keep its tensors active.