- November 8, 2021
Charles and Ray Eames’ short film, Powers of ten—a film dealing with the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero1 , runs through scales ranging from the quark at 10-16 meters to the universe at 1024 meters. The imagery scales in and out but always centers on two individuals picnicking in a Chicago park. Scales of observation and analysis in architectural design and planning can productively happen between the 101 and 105 meter scales depicted in the film, but when does zooming out too far affect meaningful analysis? Once the two picnickers are visually lost to the viewer, is the fact the lens is centered on them enough to say the film is about them?
As the world becomes more globalized there is a need to broaden and diversify what architecture has traditionally seen as sufficient analysis. Using the two picnickers in the Powers of Ten film as an example: without the initial imagery of the two experiencing the park, the understanding of the urban landscape at the progressively zoomed-out images, while visually compelling, would have lost much of its relevance. While architectural pedagogy is trying to determine what designing for the human condition truly means, it is important that multiple scales work together to provide enough of an intentional understanding of place before generating analysis and design.
The tendency to try to understand unfamiliar spaces in architectural studies means the world’s urban, suburban, and rural spaces are often first approached formally—through plan in Google Maps—at a generally zoomed-out and noncommittal scale. The experience of the cultural and human relationships tied to these spaces are reduced to patterns of poche in order to produce easily digestible diagrams (often the first formal analysis includes identification of void spaces or any formally interesting patterns that may suggest a grid).
The use of form to analyze space is not inherently problematic, but misinterpretations happen when perceived relationships gleaned only from a zoomed out formal analysis of plan are applied as absolute. Nuances of different cultures will often reject the blanket interpretations of society through form alone. An unbuilt lot within a city can be many things depending on cultural context. While unpopulated in a zoomed out view, that lot could be where the community’s children play sports. It could be the local meeting spot for the community to have weekend farmer’s markets or gatherings. In the same vein, the streets interconnecting neighborhoods may look intertwined in plan, but the reality may be that the same streets could divide and separate class and race. Ultimately, there is a need for more - more intentionality, more empathy, and more specificity when looking into and/or designing for a new environment. The two picnickers ground multiple frames of scale within a film on the vastness of the universe. The usage of a “zoomed-out typology” to analyze and communicate the experience of the world’s spaces is only valid as a starting point.