Tension Fields, Diagrams, and the event horizon

The work of Lebbeus Woods is a prime example of an architecture emphasising the intrinsic differences between materials, and how such conflict can offer an insight into the internal and external relationship of these substances. Where some see pacification of form, Woods sees the tensile strength of structure battling against the forces of gravity. Consequently, his work resembles unfinished projects; designs and installations caught in the process of shattering or disassembly, as if unsatisfied with their final form.

Source: http://www.lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com

An example of this is The Storm, installed at The Cooper Union in 2002, inside the Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery. In this installation, he used braided cables, strung wall to wall, with vertical steel tubes at intervals which permitted changes in direction. With the cables and tubes acting as a structural framework, he then inserted a set of pre-designed rods that tensed or compressed the cables with their weight, dictating the final form through the relationship of all the parts. Woods describes his method:

[…] the structure acted as a field and not as collection of independently stable, ‘classical’ objects, the failure of any element reduces the tension in the entire structure. The idea of transformation in a tension field is linked with inter-dependence of the elements in the field, and, more accurately, to their inter-connectedness. The field changes as an integrated whole, whatever its size or scale. And it performs as a space.

Tension Fields

From this quote then we can understand Tension Fields (TF) as a spatial field of multiple components that in interacting with each other critically shape the final form of such a field through the permissions and constraints of its constitutive parts. It is an environment which emphasises the temporality and conflicting nature of its material and significant components, even though in certain instances, such components may appear as a static expanse or structure. Woods argues that materials are in constant movement, interacting first of all with gravity plus their internal tensions and the relationships produced through the assembly of one material with another, whether configured by nature or not. Think of sedimentary rock as an example of this, for the distribution of each layer exists in a mutual interaction of compression and rarefaction that knead each other, henceforth providing land for certain islands in the Mediterranean, or else consider the case of architecture, where a balance of forces must be achieved for a skyscraper to remain erect and prevent the buckling of its parts.

Following his argument then, if we tentatively concede that everything is in relative tension, then the definition of stability which so perturbs him, is a definition founded upon a distinction between the magnitude of forces and the variable unfolding of time. Imagine a game of Jenga that lasts a millennium, where a round would take a lifetime to complete. From this perspective the Jenga tower is in perpetual stability, whereas the game at its true pace is usually one of tension and instability, however, under such circumstances, it gains monumentality. This example demonstrates that what appears to be in stasis is only due to its relationship to the lifespan of the human observer in conjunction to the durability of its construction, implying that what is seemingly still, is imbued with the same momentum of an unstable structure, yet unfolding at a pace dependent on its assembly. Reiser + Umemoto emphasise a similar idea in the introduction to their Atlas of Novel Tectonics with an eloquent quote by Aldo Rossi:

The mason was struck by the fact that expended energy does not get lost; it remains stored for many years, never diminished, latent in the block of stone, until one day it happens that the block slides off the roof and falls on the head of a passerby, killing him […] in architecture this search is also undoubtedly bound up with the material and with energy; and if one fails to take note of this, it is not possible to comprehend any building, either from a technical point of view or from a compositional one. In the use of every material there must be an anticipation of the construction of a place and its transformation.

The element of tension in the above quote is certainly apparent in the relationship of the stone with its position on a rooftop, but it is also in tension with the design interests of the architect and to a lesser but critical degree, with the passerby that loses their life in an unfortunate turn of events. Therefore, an assembly will have parts of it which may prove unstable at a faster rate than other components, and that components do not need to be mechanically bound, as in a building or a motor vehicle, but that a TF extends past its own boundary and may integrate at anytime objects at varied proximity of either material or immaterial composition. Examples of which could consist of a car joining a highway, a worker in a factory, an intrusive shout during a performance, or the wrong solution to a math problem.

However, to argue in favour of an inclusion of the abstract within a TF then it is also necessary to analyse the ontologies of these fleeting components, which at times may overtake the material counterparts. Indeed Woods’ debate is based on an understanding of the oppositional forces between his architecture and Classicism, yet it is not the form per se that bothers Woods, but that a conceptualisation based upon the diagrammatic persists to an extent that the Diagram itself becomes the point of reference for the experience of architectural space. A famous quote by Jorge Luis Borges from one of his novels illustrates this idea, one of his characters narrates how

[…] In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.


From this point of reference, we can define a diagram as something that is usually a representation of dimensions, forces, and form which may be used to construct a conceptual or built object, yet it can also be a paragraph in a book that defines certain parameters for a theoretical concept. It is an idealised depiction of a model (structural, mechanical, cognitive, etc.) or a mode of function which instructs its user towards a generalised end result which stratifies all the various forces inherent in a specific material or conceptual configuration, suggesting an ideal snapshot of its functionality. Diagrams may be produced a priori of the creation of an object, such as a blueprint or a schematic for a boat or an electronic device, or they can be produced a posteriori, similar to Borges’ map in the previous section. The interesting aspect, however, and this is also a critical one, is that a diagram is related to its real world counterpart only in terms of similitude and that it may subsist independently from world-reality. Deleuze + Guattari while writing on their concept of abstract machines in A Thousand Plateaus, give us a particular perspective of the diagram by writing that

[…] diagrams must be distinguished from indexes, which are territorial signs, but also from icons, which pertain to reterritorialization, and from symbols, which pertain to relative or negative deterritorialization. […] The diagrammatic […] does not function to represent, even something real, but rather constructs a real that is yet to come, a new type of reality.

Here is where the diagram gains a peculiar complexity, for in this quote we can observe three parameters. The first; is that diagrams do not have content, a diagram of a table is not a table, for a table needs to be a material table to be what it is; the second is that diagrams are forces, not in that they depict the table as a conglomeration of forces but that it, the diagram, already is an actant within itself;  and third is that since as forces they are real they serve to function to construct inter-dimensional realities within the world constructed by the diagram where it subsists as diagrammatic and that they may be implemented for intra-dimensional use in world-reality, where it is only through transposition that they may become material presence.

Event horizon

With these two poles in place, it is evident that the opposition in the concept of TFs and the diagram resolves itself in a complex manner, for even the diagram may in itself contain a TF, albeit one in the inter-dimensional sense, that could not only join a world-reality TF as a conceptual component but that it could possibly be the diagrammatic event that transposes its internal forces into the formation of a TF which it would not be part of. This interweaving of dimensionalities is possible because both a TF and a diagram are a conglomeration of forces working in different dimensions, which however intermingle within an event horizon that exists at the point of contact between intermingling poles where transmutation occurs. The question that it leaves us with, however, is where and how does this transmutation happen if it truly is the case? And is there truly a point or is it a gradient that produces emergent qualities? With my word limit at a maximum, I will have to explore this in a seperate post.

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