Magritte the Architecturologist [1]

the complementary structure
of architectural space

By Nold Egenter

"They speak about Neon, I myself about truth"[2]


Magritte and artificial intelligence? Are we not at the wrong place? One thing is for sure, surrealism has remained mysterious for many, particularly in its home within art. Maybe the fairly unusual milieu - quite in the sense of Magritte - allows us to put down the normal blurred spectacles of art theoreticians and to use the clear view of artificial intelligence to gain new insights.

Is it not strange that computer freaks are also often fans of Magritte. Dialogue as a form of provocation. Strange relatives are met. Everyone knows that the gigantic dream of a global communication network is based on a super simple principle. "Bit", it is called, an abbreviation for binary digit, which means binary number. It is the smallest possible memory unit of any data system. It can only register the values 0 or 1. The Bit is the basis of the binary numeral systems and of binary coding. On this most elementary binary structure of 'nothing and one', further units are supported, the "Byte",further, the word, finally the whole manifold of programs. Games with pictures. Text processing. Administrative databases. Data communication networks belong to it and recently also CAD, which more and more enters creatively into the world of design.

All those who try to gain an overview of Magritte's oeuvre will soon discover to what extent architecture with concrete formations of space and even furniture, plays an eminent role.Whatever he paints in his technically fairly clumsy way, the unreal spiritual gains momentum through the real and always more or less turns around human dwelling in its objective and relative formations. In most cases the viewpoint of the observer is somehow housed or sheltered. The observer looks through windows and doors towards outside, looks from a balcony on to the ocean, etc.. Magritte composes mobile or immobile elements of the built environment. He also distorts their relations. This legitimates us to look at his pictures with the optics of architectural theory. We will see that in this way his deliberate distortions can be understood to a great extent. This is so because the complex of 'building and dwelling' contains the definitions of his formal elements and also because their characteristics are known. The cosmos of Magritte, his universe, is doubtless not the abstract space of physics, nor the space of psychology. Magritte deals with the physical space of architecture, he transmits his ideas with the language of culturally formed built space. Magritte an architecturologist? Is he really an architectural theoretician, an architectural researcher in the widest humane or anthropological sense? At the end we will see that Magritte questions not only our modern interpretation of space; there are indicators, that he offers a new world of architectural understanding with his complementary particles of built space. Like the new means of storing memory, they might become fruitful for a more humane architecture.


Fig. 1: The usual door between earth and ocean, intermingled in its form with heaven and earth, what has it to say here? Taken off from its traditional milieu, it tells us what a door once was.

The picture called "the victory" (Fig.1) [3] confronts us with a door. But, unusually, it is put up near the beach, in the sand, close to the moving borderline between land and ocean. Why is this door here, isolated under the open skies, at the limits of the domains of human life? Evidently this is not a place for a door of this type, definitely not in this isolated position. The door opens or closes nothing. We can go around it: does it play monument?

The answer is simple. "In my mind the 'invisible' dissolves the usual meaning of things visible in a picture. Through this our secret starts to dominate us completely. [4] Magritte tears the door off from the usual context of the house, takes it away from walls and enclosures, to demonstrate qualities which are not evident in the framework of normal use. Too much we have accustomed ourselves to its presence, to its natural function. In the unfamiliar condition at the beach, Magritte's door starts to speak in very new ways.

The door is slightly open we would say. Or nearly closed? Its status is ambivalent. We can not express it clearly. The door is partly opened, partly closed. In another sense too there are difficulties. The position, necessarily fixed in the picture, implies movement. The door is in the state of closing or opening. The 'wing' "flies" open, "falls" to closing. "Wing"? Is this not a term of the animal world? Why "wing" and what about its "swinging"? What kind of spirit is hidden in its hinges that let it move or flap? The words indicate very ancient things. But, who has formed these ideas? Are we, maybe, in the same situation like the women in Patricia Highsmith's novel "The horror of basket weaving"? Discovering her own capacity to repair a broken basket all by herself drove her nearly crazy. She had never learned it. Are there most ancient concepts living in our brains? Capacities which were developed thousands of years ago?" These are the questions she raises to herself and gets fiercely panicked. She finally burns the basket as if it were a horrible monster and thus frees herself of the problem. It was not madness, it WAS menacing. She was about to lose her identity.

We do not want to go so far, but only note that the word "wing" (German: "Flügel") makes us conscious of something. Usually the frame is fixed and stands irremovably stable, it is part of a building. In contrast to this, the door is mobile, like the wing of a bird, which is fixed to its body with natural articulations . The ambivalent function of opening and closing in the case of the door has its roots in this mobility. In contrast, the frame provides stability, keeps the door in its provided space. The door (female in German) and the frame (male in German), both are complementary like black and white, like female and male.

But, not only the complementary categories of "rest" and "movement" characterise the door as unit and two conditions. The door is also articulated into fillings and frame. Is this only for constructive reasons? Very likely not! Three fields can be distinguished. A horizontal filling separates two other vertical rectangles, one in the upper, the other in the lower part of the door. The lower part, nearly quadratic, indicates closed form, static conditions. The upper part's direction is upwards. Technically all fillings are similar, they are only formally defined with different proportions. A very simple every day door? What is really shocking with this door is the way Magritte coloured it. Blue, bright, like the skies, in the upper part. Yellowish like the sand of the beach in the lower part. Thus, Magritte is definitely not an everyday painter. Or, might it have been the interesting idea of good designer imagination? Evidently Magritte does not want this.There is this mysterious cloud, which pushes itself into the space left open by the door. The cloud speaks. Blue is not just blue like the skies. Blue IS the skies. The intermingling of far and near implies the upper part of the door is part of the skies, the lower part is part of the earth. This is not meant simply in the common symbolic sense, as a 'make-look-like' image of heaven and earth. The image tells us much more. The door IS at the same time heaven and earth. It is interpreted as a dual or polar unit composed of two antithetic domains. [5]

If this situation is - as mentioned above -taken in the philosophical sense as an expression of non-analytical thought which organises the world metaphorically into complementary analogies, then a new access path is formed. By its absurd position at the beach, standing in sand, the door is decisively de-functionalised and put into a quite different context. The door now stands in the framework of a more ancient system which organises phenomena genetically (once and now) as unity of contradictions (coincidentia oppositorum) to harmonise them. The door is identical with heaven and earth in regard to the harmonious relation of its contrasting parts.

The discovery of this vertically complementary organisation of the door becomes retro active on the whole structural framework. Evidently Magritte has not put his door just by chance on the borderline between land and ocean. First, a further concept is shown. Land, the earth, man the upright walker's medium has its limits. His living domain ends in front of a surface on which there is no walking. This medium can not support his feet. The waters are adapted to it for other types of existences. Thus the door in Magritte's painting does not separate two identical spaces, as this is usually the case with a door separating for instance two office spaces. Magritte's door stands on the borderline between two absolutely different domains.

Let us carry the door back into a house, but using this image. Another meaning can be seen differently. The door of a house facing the street for instance is not an ambivalent hole in some wall, it relates and separates ocean and sand, heaven and earth. Earth in the sense of being reliable, being accessible to man. Heaven in the sense of correlation of an unknown illimited. Is our apartment not in most cases the unique place on earth, where we know even the smallest thing in all detail? Is it not reigned by a principle of organisation which we control - at least in the case of furniture - to the absolute and smallest detail? On the other hand, is there not some sort of similarity between the street and the ocean, even the skies?

Fig. 2: The hole frightens us. Violence. Non-culture. Thus, is the door more than a hole in the wall?

In another picture too, Magritte tells us that the door is more than a hole in a wall. The formless breakthrough which opens into the dark of the next room is frightening us (Fig. 2) [6]. The amorphous dark hole speaks of force, of non-culture, of anti culture. We feel the sacrilege, the stolen treasure. The door has lost its protective capacity. With the hole it also loses its ambivalence. The broken door can not just be closed anymore by a swinging movement of the hand.

Evidently, Magritte does not superficially teach us diffuse 'surreal' realities. He is not just a casual innovator of dreams or illusionary alterations of reality. With deep reflections and intensity he reconstructs very precisely lost structures of the past, conditions which are no more conscious to us. Magritte is not really a 'surrealist'. Dealing with what is below the surface, he rather would have to be considered a 'sous-realist'. Like an archaeologist he digs out what is culturally submerged, the history of the door from below. He searches for conditions which are subconsciously experienced, maybe, but usually answered merely by surprise, for instance in the case of the door: why is that so? But they can no more be consciously formulated. In short, he portrays a substrate of spatial reality conditioned by the history of culture which is intensively related to the concrete disposition of building and dwelling.

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