The Blue at the Horizon: Leaving room for the unknown in Architecture
PHOEBE HARRIS (M.Arch. I, ‘20)
“To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Walter Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.” – Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
The atmospheric effect of the blue distance symbolizes both the unknown and the unknowable. It can never be occupied. The horizon will remain untouched no matter how far you journey toward it.
This elusive condition began to be addressed by Renaissance painters in the 15th century. Figures were no longer solely depicted against flattened backdrops, but rather painters began to employ depth and atmospheric effect. With the invention of perspectival construction, the horizon line was given new importance as it became a tool for understanding three dimensional space. The lines converging toward a vanishing point on the horizon line rationalized the immediate setting, but it also allowed for the viewer to understand that a world lay beyond the constructed scene. In Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, Christ, the vanishing point of the painting, is framed by a window looking out toward the blue of the distance. This, the only depiction in the painting that hints at a world beyond the immediate scene of the supper, is the unknown of the horizon seeping into the otherwise sealed off scene.
It is the artist’s responsibility to open doors and invite the unknown. Through this work of exploration and questioning, humanity moves forward. Architecture can also achieve this dialectic between the constructed environment and the possibility of the unknown. Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute frames and rationalizes the horizon line, allowing the infinite abyss to be a part of daily contemplation. At Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the reflective surface of the wall suggests the unknowable loss of war. Visitors lose themselves to their reflections superimposed with the names of fallen soldiers.
Yet, architecture as a practice is often equated with a desire to rationalize and to regulate the unfamiliar. The processes of sketching, diagramming, and measuring are all tools architects employ to master a site. Even the act of naming a “site” suggests a new understanding of it, transforming it from an unknown location into something knowable. In a discipline teaming with Type A personalities, it is no wonder that an “open door” has been shut on on so many possibilities for the unknown or the mysterious in the built environment.
The act of surrendering to a reflective state where one is both fully present and completely lost is achievable through built space. We are capable of, and responsible for, creating environments that force occupants to think, question and surrender to the unknown. The art of losing oneself can be a constructed conscious act, and architecture can be the tool. As Solnit argues, “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”