- September 12, 2019
In 1971, Siegfried Giedion theorized three epochs in the conception of architectural space in “Architecture and the Phenomena of Transition.” The first centered around the interplay of built volumes in exterior public space while the second focused on interiors as the medium of architectural discourse. The third, and present, era was predicated on the synthesis of interior and exterior spaces as mediated by a threshold or an in-between. This paradigm of liminality pervades late 20th century design, especially contemporary nightclubs—or ‘discotecture’—a unique programmatic genre that operates within this threshold condition; between light and sound, space and time. Between public and private, physical and intangible. By manipulating perceptual experiences, particularly through material treatments, nightclubs establish themselves as spaces of exception that produce experiences outside the confines of quotidian life.
Discotecture emerged in post-war Europe, where the death of High Modernism from over-commercialization and limited aesthetic ends paved the road for so-called ‘Radical Architecture.’ Radical architecture flourished through conceptual projects that critiqued mid-century city planning and embraced technology for its phenomenological and aesthetic opportunities. Italian design groups such as Superstudio and Gruppo 9999 were particular vanguards for their abundant output of provocative images and speculative writing. The theoretical projects operated at an urban or global scale, but the early built work was much more modest: modern leisure and party spaces. Post-industrial depression left a wide array of vacant space in urban areas that enterprising designers redeveloped to meet the tastes of a new generation who wanted flexible venues to accommodate varied performances and congregations. The discos were draped in rubber, plastic, mylar, and high-pile polyester. They also featured prolific use of the mirror across swaths of horizontal and vertical surfaces. In doing so, discos situated themselves at the spatial threshold theorized by Giedion. Mirrored space is both literal and figurative, with the ideas of self-reflection and mirroring as a critical performance of the disco’s own modernity.
The mirror has been fruitful as a physical object, a scientific tool, and a philosophical metaphor throughout Western cultural history. Early mirrors from Roman antiquity were precious commodities available only as handheld objects. Expanded fabrication capabilities and trade systems during the Renaissance proliferated the mirror as a fine art object for domestic interiors. Their growing prevalence impacted aesthetic production and the understanding of the visual in media more generally. Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait of 1434 was an early document that utilized mirrors to break the confines of pictorial space. In the painting, a convex mirror, positioned behind the newly-wed subjects, shows their rear reflections as well as additional figures and objects present in the theoretical space beyond the picture plane. Through the mirror, multiple realities are collapsed into a single viewpoint. The mirror also played a critical role in the understanding of single-point perspective. Brunelleschi first used a mirror to measure distance between his own Santa Maria del Fiore and Florence’s famous octagonal Baptistery and in the process proved that three-dimensional space could be constructed geometrically on the two-dimensional picture plane.
Conceptually, the mirror provided two critical lines of inquiry. First, it represented a paradigm shift across all visual arts to represent life and the world as it actually existed. This new attitude pushed back against the religious hegemony that idealized human existence and singularly focused on the divine. Secondly, the mirror established new forms of subjectivity and self-awareness – critical tenets of cultural modernity that tracks with Giedion’s third spatial epoch.
Reflective surfaces continued to provide productive grounds for conceiving space through the 20th century. Concurrent with Giedion, Dan Graham’s conceptual art in the 1970s frequently used pavilions and mirrors to critique the act of looking. For Graham, sculptures at an architectural scale were “optical instruments” that “negotiated the relationship between image and physical structure.” One piece, “Public Space/Two Audiences,” situated a two-way mirror across a large interior room, accessible via two doors on either end. Visitors could enter the room from either side, confront a wall of their own reflection, and “see themselves seeing themselves.” In an act of experiential dislocation, both the subject and the object of viewership are superimposed onto one another. Similarly, one can look to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion (1929; rebuilt 1986) as an earlier example of space augmented through reflections. The stated goal for the pavilion was not to market any specific commodity or cultural theme. Rather, the exhibit was to address exhibitions themselves. The program of the pavilion thus looked itself in the mirror and in many ways became an exhibition purely about seeing.
With these historicities of the mirror in mind, we can acknowledge that mirrors render nightclubs as definitively modern, liminal spaces. Mirrors operate between the tangible – concrete, steel, stair, plinth – and the intangible – chemical, vibration, light. As with exhibitions, discos provide no marketable product upon which to garner audiences or attention beyond their design and the resultant aura or experience it promotes. The juxtaposition of opaque and translucent surfaces with reflective materials produce phantasmagorical images of a fundamentally static environment. In reflections, the seen image is a veneer of reality – alignments are coincidental and fleeting based on the location of the viewer, and deep space is observed where obstacles and screening occur in real life. Mirrors produce an invented world of spatial impossibility, collapsing views ahead and behind, and physically collaging a multiplicity of conditions onto one another.
Mirrors have the paradoxical ability to both multiply exposure and intensify concealment. Reflective surfaces arranged in multiples can duplicate and re-create an image to be viewed from multiple vantage points, unbeknownst to the source image/person. The mirror promotes this dialectic condition by complicating the real location of things in space. Like a contemporary panopticon, mirrors assist in rendering discotecture as highly performative; regardless of positioning, these surfaces multiply visibility to others. They also heighten the visibility and awareness of oneself. In this exceptional space, dancing, if not merely existing, can be an act of “voluntary self-objectification.” Occupants become the protagonists of this illusory narrative, their bodies, the interactive decoration.