Do Architects Dream of Fugly Sheep



Volume 5, Issue 06
October 31, 2019

Charles Weak, M.Arch I 2018, University of Michigan

The principles of beauty and ugliness are nebulous, especially as they relate to bodies. Beauty in architecture has classically been determined through adherence to things like the Virtruvian triad, Proportio, Symmetria, Eurythmia and/or platonic models for forms. Caroline O’Donnell points out that recently these models have lost power, and opened Architecture up to new objectives.[1] In her article, “Fugly”, in Log 22, O’Donnell uses Greg Lynn’s reflection on William Bateson’s mutation of the human hand to talk about the space between principles of beauty and our collective image of beauty. Lynn points out that the addition of a thumb on the opposite side of a hand makes the human hand more symmetrical, however this second thumb would be seen to make the hand uglier, rather than more beautiful.[2 ]Lynn’s work is connected to both biology and technology. The intersection of these two systems hypothesizes how new media creates new power structures around different architectural identities.

Additional appendages, growths, and physical abnormalities conjure up images of the works of the Horror Sub-genre, Body Horror. Body Horror explores graphic and disturbing images of the body to thrill or shock viewers. A particular tradition of the Body Horror Genre focuses thematically on the intersection of the human body and technology. David Cronenberg’s 1983 movie, Videodrome, centers around our dependence on forms of entertainment, programming, and how mediums reshape our idea of what is real. The main protagonist, Max, discovers a television show that causes what initially seem to be hallucinations, like Max seeing his body developing orifices, for which technological objects can be inserted. The film also portrays technology morphing to take the form of the human body, VHS tapes become fleshy and act like organs. The film ends with Max committing suicide, so that he might ascend to a new level. Videodrome ends with the line, “long live the new flesh”.

The film Ghost in the Shell takes on similar thematic elements to Videodrome, by exploring the ways that technology might further alter the human body. However, Ghost in the Shell takes a more optimistic stance on the intermingling of bodies and technology. The protagonist, The Major (a cyborg), spends the film chasing down The Puppetmaster (a program that has reached singularity), culminating in a final confrontation between the two. The confrontation between The Major and The Puppetmaster ends not with a victor, but with a synthesis of the consciousness of those two main characters, human and digital.

In her article, “Body” for “Critical Terms for Media Studies,” Bernadette Wegenstein points to the dual quality of the human body to be both the physical body (physically having a body) and embodied experience (culturally enmeshed in a context).[3] Videodrome does very little to examine aspects of embodiment, tending towards grafting aspects of machines and bodies onto one another, heightening the space between the two rather than exploring their intersection. Ghost in the Shell plays out the conflict, resolution, and then synthesis between human and digital entities. Wegenstein points out the role that architecture plays in this new system through Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Blur pavilion, which harnessed fog to create a climatic zone that moves architecture outside the realm of the body and into embodiment. This leads Wegenstein to speculate: “In the wake of new media, architecture need no longer concern itself solely with erecting separate, exterior structures to house bodies but can position itself as an exteriorization of embodiment, which is to say, as a design practice fundamentally continuous with the body’s own status as medium.”[4]

Ugliness, beauty, cuteness, elegance, grossness are all contextual effects that communicate through our bodies and through architecture, which act as the medium for these affects.[5] Integrating the human body with digital systems makes our bodies more open to reinterpretation, which is then also true for architecture by proxy. Architecture no longer must relate itself to the human body but can reflect on the nature of embodiment. Ugliness and the grotesque no longer exist in contrast to beauty, but as separate generic conditions that orbit around both the body and architecture. Moving past Cronenberg’s cautionary tale, there is a possible future where digital media interfaces with architecture and the body which has the potential to create new power structures for the historically abject. Embodiment of these new generic identities would create a new playing field for a host of invigorated identities–boring, confusing, ugly, comforting, cute–to find agency.

[1] Caroline O’Donnell, “Fugly”, in
Log 22 (Spring/Summer 2011), 95.

[2] Ibid., 96.

[3] Wegenstein, Bernadette, “Body” in Critical Terms
for Media Studies, edited by W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B. N.
Hansen, 19-34. (University of Chicago Press, 2010), 25.
[4] Ibid., 30.

[5] Caroline O’Donnell, “Fugly” 100.

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Volume 5, Issue 06
October 31, 2019