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VOLUME 40 : DEVICES

In Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s The Way Things Go, 1987, tires roll and fuses ignite, seeming to carry a chain reaction through 30 min of interconnected movements, a Rube Goldberg machine that is all flair, no function. (1) The film never reveals the whole of the apparatus to its audience, a fact that only increases the frustration and delight that the piece elicits, and surprises and absurdities abound (a ladder trundles down a ramp, a series of tires rolls uphill). The work looks and acts like a deviant device, or a series of them, twisting the viewer’s perception as the connections accumulate, defying them to explain the space or the situation.

Clever machines that adjust the parameters of our world, devices surround us, though they appear differently depending on who’s using them. To a screenwriter they are the points that keep a plot moving; to a Western engineer they are “the mediation needed to intervene in natural processes.” (2) Medical devices are mechanical adaptations applied to the body, restricting, supporting, or enhancing processes and functions to alter and extend the life of their user. There are no prescriptions limiting their simplicity or complexity: a magnifying glass is as much a device as a computer. Like the surprise that comes from a good metaphor or the slow build of anticipation locked into the rhythm of a sentence—literary devices that are the design elements of a text—strong devices create strong effects.

Devices in design are often tools—they proliferate as ways to measure and enhance, from a surveyor’s sight to a smart phone that puts the control of a room in the palm of your hand. They often operate at the scale of the body, extending an architect’s perception beyond the abilities of human senses and the user’s intent to the far corners of their domain. As an aid to exploration, devices translate perception into data, and vice versa. They are as integral to colonial catalogues that divide land for use and occupation as they are to the experimental approaches to our understanding of the environment, built or otherwise. In California, the Center for Land Use Interpretation scales landscapes up and down, revealing the hidden devices in their topographies. Elsewhere, the Unknown Fields Division packs the tools of design and analysis into the specialized equipment of the expedition. Other tools of looking and feeling serve as intermediaries that heighten rather than distance a person’s relationship to a place, as in Gunther Vogt’s refiguring of the Swiss landscape. (3) They can enforce a measure in the form of a rule or offer conflicting or dependent ways of acquiring information, unsettling the binary oppositions of city and land, urban and not-urban, rural and metropolitan. By offering alternative points of access for research and experience, a well-conceived device exposes the ways in which different spatial forms infiltrate and affect the social and phenomenological experience of our environments.

The upcoming issue of the The Site Magazine is interested in examples, proposals, and theorizations of devices that function not as bluntly defined instruments, but as tools that enable phenomenological manipulation through the same means as architecture. Borrowing from architect CJ Lim’s definition, these types of devices use “space, time, sound, and materiality to interact with [their] audience in a performative relationship.” (4) As catalysts for new perspectives and narratives, they are capable of recording both qualitative and quantitative aspects of the environment, documenting architectural form, urban space, and vast landscapes. We are interested in what happens when the traditional precision devices of the surveyor and the cartographer are set alongside mappings of low frequency sound, solar time, and distorted vision. How can devices, as twists and turns in perception and understanding, reinforce the links between context, information, and narrative that guide architectural interventions at the personal, local, regional, national, and global scales? In answering this question, we will test the capacity of the magazine, as a device itself, to pull ideas together and send them outwards, to shift and circulate, to alter our understandings in surprising ways.


(1) “Seeming” because the film is not a continuous shot, but rather a carefully edited piece that gives no indication of what might have occurred, or not occurred, in its skillfully concealed gaps.

(2) Mathew Wells, “Devices as they appear to a Western Engineer,” in CJ Lim, Devices: A Manual of Architecture + Spatial Machines (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006), 248.

(3) David Gissen, “Architecture’s Geographic Turns,” Log, vol. 12 (2008), 59-67;
http://www.unknownfieldsdivision.com/; Gunther Vogt, Introduction to “Recording - Acknowledging and harnessing the subjective human experience of landscape” in Wunderlust/Wanderkammer, ed. Gunther Vogt (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers); Alessandra Ponte, “Desert Testing” and “Journey to North of Quebec: Understanding (McLuhan’s) Media” in The House of Light and Entropy (London: AA Publications, 2014).

(4) CJ Lim, Introduction to Devices: A Manual of Architecture + Spatial Machines (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006).

Other sources:

https://www.nevadaart.org/exhibition/landscape-futures-instruments-devices-and-architectural-inventions/

http://www.oed.com/oed2/00062593


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