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Architecture of Mind

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Steven Holl | Chiasmic Crossing

“There is double and crossed situating of the visible in the tangible and the tangible in the visible: the two maps are complete, and yet they do not merge into one. The two parts are total parts and yet are not superposable.”
-Merleau-Ponty, “The Intertwining-The Chiasm”

In Kiasmus ” an interior mystery and the exterior horizon , which, like two hands clasping each other, form the architectonic equivalent of a public invitation. ”
-Steven Holl, “Kiasma monograph”

Steven Holl asks the same question of architecture that Merleau- Ponty asks of philosophy . Can the ambulating sentient being embedded as he or she is in the matrix of concretized values as they are inscribed in that being experience and understand seeing in a context articulated for that purpose? How can a building such as Kiasma, function simultaneously as the “frame” of the experience of and for visual art and as an embodiment of the very process of seeing. For Holl like Ponty uses the analogy of the optic chiasm with its “inflected” decussating fiber structure which appropriates the visual field like a highway cloverleaf, allowing each hemifield to be conjoined, left side to right sided brain and right side to left side of the brain, to serve a as model to appropriate the entire visual apparatus including the eye and the folded surface of the brain, for his purpose.

Holl uses each element of the building as another opportunity to deal with the structure of light and its processing: the building operates as a kind of surrogate for the eye. On the first level of analysis there is the light catching section, functioning somewhat like a pupil, which captures the warm light of the a horizontal sun and diffuses it through carefully oriented apertures and there is the “sun path reversal” in which the building, like gaze movements of the eye, follows a reverse path of the sun’s path between 11 am and 6 p.m…

Coextensive with these aforementioned qualities of seeing is the process by which seeing becomes other. Seeing is evaluated in terms of itself and is analyzed as process. Thus Kiasma reveals a succession of curved enframed structures as rooms in which the different qualities of light are created because the light enters each room in many different ways: in the journey from one room to the next we experience the transformation of light as data. This evolving ambiance is linked to the type of art or installations exhibited in each room. ” We considered the range of contemporary art work, and tried to anticipate the needs of a variety of artists including those whose works depend on a quiet atmosphere to bring out their full intensity.” (1)

The context creates spaces in which how one reads the work of art will be affected. Ones’ journey through this museum is like that of the continuum of changes that take place as the light transformations which inaugurate the sensation of seeing at the retina, the light sensitive film like membrane at the back of eye, and then move through the component parts of the visual system, through the lateral geniculate body, optic radiation, visual cortex and on and on through the myriad of association cortices. Each of these areas of the brain have specific architectonic microbiologic structures which reconfigure the information extracted in specific ways before sending it on along to the next stage. Each areas transformations is necessary for the successive liberation of information. For instance even though the image of the world is reversed and upside-down at the retinal surface we experience as right side up by the time it is experienced by the brain. But the building like two hands which enclose themselves in each other or like the two optic nerves of the optic chiasm which embrace each other in an ecstatic moment of folding and plication, the macular fibers are diverted from their straight egress and fold upon themselves , intertwines, at its inflection, with itself and with nature. Kiasma uses this anatomy as a model for an architectural statement as Merleau-Ponty did. “The “line of culture” forms a link to Finlandia Hall, intertwining with a “line of nature” from the landscape and Toolo Bay, and lines extending from the existing city, grid.” (2)

It is this bending and merging into each other yet not like each other that Holl’s building takes hold of the real meaning of seeing. For just as the optic chiasm is affected by the structures that surround it, for instance an enlarged pituitary gland upon which it rests can distort it’s transmitting abilities, so to is Kiasma embedded in certain sociologic, political, cultural, economic and aesthetic relations which affect the way it is seen and perceived and cognated. As Bernard Cache says ” Our brain is not the seat of a neuronal cinema that reproduces the world: rather our perceptions are inscribed on the surface of things, as images amongst images.” (3) In other words in this rebuff to Descartes, Cache envisions a projective creative changing vision which is the result of an ever contextualized vision. The point of inflection in which in one grand gesture the buildings crossing imbricates itself , like the links of a chain, to a series of relations which begin with the nature, architecture’s’ source, and flow outward towards the city through a kind of vernacular history of the city that surrounds it. The building becomes a kind of knot/not that ties a cultural, historical city together and at the same time freeing it to move towards the future.

1. Steven Holl, Kiasma, Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, 1998, page 16.
2. Steven Holl, “Kiasma, working process”, Architectural League of New York, 1995.
3. Micheal Speaks, “Folding Toward a New Architecture” in Earth Moves, Bernard Cache, MIT Press, 1995.

Linda Roy | Tonustal

Swiftly the brain becomes an enchanted loom, where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of sub-patterns
Charles Scott Sherrington

The early 20th century theoretical biologist Jacob Johan von Uexküll, noticed the decidedly ambiguous relationship between a stimulus and the excitation patterns that ensued. He realized a reaction was not simply triggered or fired by one fixed center of coordination. Instead, internally generated rhythmic activity like tiny pulses, seemed to indicate that each small part of a nervous system was itself a mini reflex center. Coordination appeared to be located everywhere and nowhere at once. For von Uexküll, coordinated behavior was a consequence of certain regular, distributed criteria. It was variable, plastic, and flowing  something realizing itself over time, under certain conditions.

But precisely how these fluid processes were regulated remained a mystery. Von Uexküll proposed the topographic concept of the Tonustal, or the “tonus valley,” a model of displaceable fluids using gradients as a form of regulation. If nervous excitation is prevented from spreading in one part of an organism, it moves to another location as if in a valleyed landscape along which it naturally flows. In the case of the Tonustal the plastic distribution system comprises a variable nerve net across which impulses move, are caught and take form rather than being transmitted in a linear chain-reaction manner along a prescribed path as Sherrington earlier had thought.

‘Beharringstendenz’ and ‘Magneteffekt’

Von Uexküll’s Tonustal remains a conductive model. Though able to explain, if vaguely, why a single stimulus can result in a range of response forms, it fails to address those strangely spontaneous, rhythmic activities that unfailingly suggest generative processes at play. In the 1930s, after an extensive comparative study of animal locomotion producing two miles of tracings, the systems physiologist Erich von Holst identified a neural oscillator and defined it as a system effecting periodic behavior. Von Holst may be said to have done for the neural oscillator what Sherrington did for the reflex. Examining the multiple ways in which Labus, a fish distinguished by the fact that it swims using rhythmic fin motions while keeping its body immobile, synchronized its fin movements, he arrived at two basic principles that characterize the coordinative properties of oscillators: the Baharrungstendenz and the Magneteffect. Beharrungstendenz or the tendency of an oscillator to maintain its rhythm, leads to totally synchronized movements like chewing, breathing, and running, which von Holst referred to as states of absolute coordination. These steady, rhythmic oscillations work in clear contrast to the Magneteffect, which is the effect one oscillator exercises over another of different frequency so that it seems magnetically to draw and couple it to its own frequency. Phase slippages and temporal drifts, the outcome of a latent and perpetual struggle between Beharrungstendenz and Mageneteffect render infinitely variable couplings, easily forming larger compositions with smoothly altering tempos. Accelerated and decelerated running are states of relative coordination. Plastic forms such as dance are also manifestations of this phenomenon where oscillatory motions combine, forming molar ensembles moving fluidly from one mode to another. Sherrington’s reflex arc intervenes here as an adaptive agent in these fields of oscillators. By introducing information from the outside into this highly tuned but otherwise hermetic ensemble, the reflex arc sensitizes ensuing activities to changing conditions in the environment.
Here coordination is clearly plastic, variable, and adaptive, a versatile tiling of many scales of activity in space and time. Neural oscillators are an elementary unit of a nervous system. Coupled oscillators are prototypes of a time-dependent nervous geometry.


In everyday usage, when we say something shows plasticity, we imply that it can be molded or readily made to assume (and to retain) a new shape. Probably the term should not be used in relation to living systems, since plasticity is something found in inert, inanimate material. The nervous system is living and changing all the time; and while it can be induced to change shape by surgical or other traumatic means, it cannot be induced to maintain a new shape without being killed. Yet the concept of plasticity is used in relation to other growing systems; one talks about molding the character of a young person, or molding the shape of a tree by selective pruning. What is meant by such cases is that constraints are applied so that the form of the organism changes and future growth is differently channeled.
Plasticity in the nervous system means an alteration in structure or function brought about by development¹ or experience. But not just any alteration, to qualify for term plasticity, an alteration has to show pattern or order. Plasticity here means patterned alteration of organization.
Richard L. Gregory | The Oxford Companion to The Mind p623