The Feeling of Falling
What follows are two experiences where the ground beneath my feet was disturbed, when I failed to sink into it normally.
A. Familiar to Unfamiliar
At DIA: Beacon, Donald Judd’s 1976 piece Untitled is massive, but seems mundane: a 4 foot tall plywood plane spreading across the full 30 feet of a gallery space. I assumed the sculpture was like many other Judd works where what you see is (pretty much) what you get. I was only inches away from the piece when my brain finally registered its other side. Seeing a ten foot long slope extending down to the back floor of the gallery space induced a sudden and strong sense of vertigo. For a moment I felt as though I was falling over into the piece, although my legs had not lifted off of the ground and I had not stumbled. The feeling ended as quickly as it came.
Somehow a simple extruded triangle became like a monumental interior landscape. Its particular scale, in relation to my height, caused the surprise. The piece is four feet tall - higher than a typical railing - reaching roughly to my shoulder. There was no way I could see the other side until I was quite close, making its immensity more dramatic when finally in view. Architects may have three and a half feet in mind for a typical railing or counter height, but four feet belongs nowhere in particular. The four foot height of the sculpture did not signify full enclosure nor comfortable use, and this particular, queer scale aided in the disorientation.
B. Unfamiliar yet Familiar
At the Tama Art Library outside of Tokyo, designed by Toyo Ito, from the entrance to the library space to the tremendous arched windows, the floor slopes downwards 3 degrees, the concrete undulating just a little in my memory. Every chair and table had little objects or pieces of foam underneath their legs lest they wobble when used. Long curved tables directed movement somewhat oblique to the angle, slowing the procession to the front windows. Gravity pulled me downwards gently towards the light, the ground embracing my feet with each step in a different kind of interior landscape. I’ve never felt lighter in a building.
The Judd piece and the library floor play with subtle forms in planes, boundaries, and masses that make one’s body feel unexpectedly lighter or momentarily unstable. Disorientation may produce disorder, giddiness, or nausea, but also brings into relief the previously unseen devices, scales and spaces that typically orient us, like a flat floor or a six-foot partition. This year, Meghna Mudaliar (M.Arch I ’22) introduced me to queer phenomenology, specifically the work of Sara Ahmed, who wrote: “Moments of disorientation are vital. They are bodily experiences that throw the world up or throw the body from its ground. Disorientation as a bodily feeling can be unsettling, and it can shatter one’s sense of confidence in the ground or one’s belief that the ground on which we reside can support the actions that make life feel livable.”1 At the same time as disorientation may destabilize, disorientation contains a potential for re-orientation. The library and the sculpture re-oriented me towards new understandings of how the body carries its own weight in a space or the particular dimensions that define use and enclosure. Yet like magic, there is not necessarily a meaning, a moral, or a thesis to disorientation. In For an Architecture of Reality, a slim book published decades ago, Michael Benedikt writes of moments in experience where “the world is perceived afresh” and certain sounds or feels or sights are magnified. 2 There is no reference or allusion, and he calls these moving moments—like the experience of the library or the sculpture—“direct esthetic experiences of the real.”