Do You See Whales, Heisenberg?


(Article originally published in J-A 249, p.338-339)

The wind had suddenly dropped, the sky started to get darker and darker, and they were in the midst of a big storm, with no food or water. Among the crew members were Nobel Prize laureates Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. For them, trips like these were known to be great opportunities for very profound conversations about trivial observations. While Heisenberg was carefully watching for nearby ship lights, he was asked what if they hit a stray whale. Did he see whales? “I can’t see anything but. Though some of them may turn out to be nothing more dangerous than big waves.”[1] In that pitch black night, he was expecting the greatest threat to be signaled by lightened objects and did not realize that something else, as obvious as a whale, could be much bigger of a problem. In fact, he wasn’t really sure of what he saw. Even a big mammal could be ambiguous in such an obscure reality.

As human beings, we are interested in knowing the truth. What is reality and how we perceive it has been a subject of discussion for many centuries, from Aristotle to Wittgenstein, from Lewis Caroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to The Wachowskis’ “The Matrix”. It is important to consider that, perhaps we are made to believe that truth is just waiting to be hunt down when in fact we are the ones who create it. We create it.

Like the American philosopher Richard Rorty wrote: “The suggestion that the truth, as well as the world, is out there is a legacy of an age in which the world was seen as a creation of a being who had a language of his own. The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only other human beings can do that.”[2]

Groups like C-Lab (the Columbia Laboratory for Architectural Broadcasting) are important in creating truth. In the end, truth can be seen as something as creative as any other invention imagined by humans. And cities do instigate imagination.

Based in New York, the most linguistically dense city in the world, C-Lab benefits from its position. As a semi-autonomous think and action tank for the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, its main mission is to understand how, specifically architects, have used language to express thoughts in the past, and how can we disseminate new ideas to a wider public in the present.

C-Lab also shares the same view as the GSAPP in relation to the importance given to cities. Both acknowledge that reality outside the campus is far more daedal than inside it. “Serious universities understand that they need to turn themselves inside out” said Mark Wigley, dean of GSAPP, in this Fall’s Open House. At this moment, cities are moving faster than what is done in universities. “Because the city is so complex and difficult to comprehend, now is the moment for architects to spend more time to try and understand it and not give up”[3] defends C-Lab’s director, Jeffrey Inaba. That concern is reflected in partnerships like those with Audi, which addressed the issue of new forms of urban mobility, or the recent lectures at the Architectural Foundation in London which talked about “smart cities” and how architecture will become more fundamental at the same time that urban spaces become more technological.

All of this can only be done having mind that reality is in constant change and therefore, in a more classic sense, there are no unquestionable answers which could be given. This is notorious through the most visible of C-Lab’s outputs, the Volume Magazine.[4] Consequently, it’s crucial to think about the problems and propose interrogations about certain phenomena. “We don’t know what architecture is. For us, it is a big question. We want students to work on the question, not in the solution. We leave it to other schools to provide answers to questions.”[5][6] That can only be done through the valorization of an interdisciplinary view and through a very cautious attitude regarding hyper-specialization.

In outlining a problem we are designing what the future can be. It is an exercise that requires broadness. In a complex environment it is fundamental to have a wider panorama of what we think could be reality. Be it in the Baltic Sea or in New York City. And we architects are especially good at that. In observing reality and creating new truths.


[1]Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Beyond – Encounters and Conversations. New York: Harper Row, 1971. Print.

[2] Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Print.

[3] Jeffrey Inaba “C-Lab by Archdaily”. Vimeo. Video File. Posted April 28, 2008. Accessed December 3, 2013.

[4]Magazine founded by Mark Wigley, Rem Koolhaas and Ole Bouman which is the result of the collaboration between C-Lab, AMO and Archis

[5]  “Mark Wigley | Architectural Theory: Evolution in Architectural Intelligence”. YouTube. Video file. Posted July 18, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2013.

[6] A similar opinion is shared by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek “I don’t think philosophers can bring ready-made answers. But philosophers can do something very important today – and this is no less important than the correct answers. They can allow us to ask the right questions.” [“Slavoj Zizek — Talk with Charlie Rose (2011) 1/3”. Youtube. Video file. Posted January 28, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2013.

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