Pan Scroll Zoom 20: 10PM in Inner Mongolia

By Mark Dorrian

‘To ask for these things to be confirmed by reason is just as idle as to try to be rationally mad’
Inscription by William Adam for Sir Gilbert Elliot, Lord Minto.

This is the final episode in the Pan Scroll Zoom series, edited by Fabrizio Gallanti. It was written in April 2021 and first published in print in Drawing Matter Extracts 3: Pan Scroll Zoom. Mark Dorrian is the Forbes Chair in Architecture at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and the Editor-in-chief of DM Journal–Architecture and Representation.

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It’s late in China by now. I’m ‘asynchronously’ (as I have learned to say) trying to connect with a student in a northern city but her video feed is still turned off. Audio is live, however, and there is an echoing hubbub coming across. At last the video is switched on, but it’s dark and it’s hard to make much out. The student explains that she has come out to a bar in search of a better wi-fi connection, for in the evening it drops off in the apartment in which she lives. The noise around her is so loud that I can hardly make out what she is saying. The people at the table behind are talking and loudly laughing. She says that she’ll ask them if they can be quieter. There is a moment of puzzled — or perhaps amused — silence, and then the noise starts up again. We struggle on, although it is very difficult. The project is getting to quite an advanced stage now and there is a lot to be said — or at least a lot that should be said. But I find myself putting limits on what I’m trying to convey — I’m reluctant to open anything that is complicated enough to require a dialogue, any movement back and forward, to elucidate or develop the thought, for I know it’s likely just to collapse and lead to confusion. Instead, I’m circling around the same basic points time and again. It feels like teaching by semaphore.

I’ve been teaching ‘remotely’ for the best part of a year now, with a brief but refreshing interlude before the enforcement of the lockdown in December 2020. The names of the software I have been using suggest either a chummy conviviality (Collaborate, Teams) or dynamic ubiquity (Zoom), but this is hardly borne out in practice. While I haven’t had many large lectures to give, I have found those to be the weirdest experience – sitting in a room at home, talking to an array of black rectangles labelled with names and muted microphone symbols ‘+ 120 other participants’. It is the complete absence of any signal coming the other way that is so disconcerting — a broadcast of one talking to oneself. At times this has made me feel as if I am participating in some social-science experiment on the wrong side of the one-way mirror, or else am in a panopticon that by some topological trick has been turned inside-out, so that the ‘supervisor’ is the object of surveillance by presences who might not even be there at all.

Seminars, on the other hand, have been a more engaging format. This year I have run a theory seminar on the work of the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk — I admire Sloterdijk’s ability to formulate ideas in surprising ways and thought his immunological theory of culture would be interesting to students in our time of Covid. There were around 15 in the group and, as we were mostly able to keep cameras on, we could generally see one another all at the same time on screen. And while the movement of the discussion was not as fluid as it would have been in a physical meeting space, it was quite good — it required a more active kind of chairing, but it was possible to read reactions and see people stirring as they gathered their ideas or leant forward to switch their microphones on, and so give them space by inviting them to speak.

But by far and away the majority of my teaching over the past year has been to do with design studio, and here the experience has been different again. More than anything, it has brought home to me the richness and complexity of communication in a ‘normal’ physical studio environment. While video-conferencing software might be thought to capture much of what matters in verbally led lecture and seminar formats, I’m struck by how many of the kinds of things we do in the studio escape — especially when the projects are a little more advanced and the conversations have started to become intricate. Typically, in a studio we might gesture to show the shape of things, or the way they connect, or their size; or we might pick up an object or a fragment of a model and place it on a drawing; or fold an off-cut of card; or describe a relationship with reference to something we glimpse through a window or see in a scratch on the floor.

In the building in which I work in Edinburgh there is a mysterious inscribed stone block, apparently recovered from the town house that was designed by William Adam for Sir Gilbert Elliot, Lord Minto, and demolished when the present street was constructed. As it’s built into the wall beside a landing, anyone going up the main stair passes this, although it’s barely noticed and never talked about. The inscription is a quotation in Latin, drawn from the Roman-African playwright Terence. The translation reads: ‘To ask for these things to be confirmed by reason is just as idle as to try to be rationally mad’. It’s an unexpected message from the past that seems — in this truncated form, at least — to extend a blessing to things that are beyond explanation, and, because of that, I’ve always taken a kind of pleasure in it. I mention this for I want to talk of the sort of places — or, let’s say, situations — in which relations between things can emerge and be developed, whether they are to do with the contingent scattering of objects on a table-top or the permanence of a stone that transmits a longer history.

Perhaps strangely, it’s been through drawing that I’ve most strongly felt this thinning-out of the communicative resources underpinning the kind of thinking-together central to architectural design education. Why strangely? Well, I suppose because drawing is one thing that might seem to be quite directly conveyable across the digital interface, whether via a technology like a tablet or a piece of paper waved in front of the camera. At one point during the year I was given a document camera — really just a vertically mounted digicam — which meant that I could transmit an image while drawing on a page on a desk. (I was surprised that, when I saw it on my own screen, my drawing was flipped around a vertical axis — it should have been obvious, but I hadn’t realised until then that, on our own screens, the software produces a mirror-reversal of the image input by the camera to keep our faces familiar.) But even with a technology supposed to facilitate drawing ‘as normal’, I was struck by how reduced it seemed — I think because it had become stripped of the kind of everyday but complex relationality of drawing in studio situations, in which we’re not only verbalising but drawing with reference to things that are around us, including other drawings that may have taken material form in different ways. ‘Do you see what I mean?’ is the most pointless of questions, but I’ve found myself using it more and more. It’s a sign of bumping up against a certain limit.

My feeling is that there is a kind of obligatory response to the Covid conditions that architects are supposed to enact, mainly because this is, or has become, central to their self-definition. Architects are supposed to work productively within constrained situations, engaging powers of inventive and tactical thinking, rather than address complaints to the larger structural conditions that encircle their possibilities of action. This has taken different forms but has been a recurrent note within architectural thinking for forty years, and perhaps longer — the call to capitalise upon restrictions enforced, flipping them to advantage (and in a way the more constraining these are the better, as the inversion then seems more startling, magical and validating). This has a strongly discursive character. I remember listening to Rem Koolhaas’s talk given as part of the Architectural Association’s 150th birthday celebrations in 1997, during which he spoke of the architect’s loss of control (over time, process, etc.) under conditions of accelerated urbanisation in China. At the end of the lecture, Mohsen Mostafavi, then AA Chair and also chair of the event, thanking him for the talk, asked if he could leave us with something positive. Cue Rem, deadpan: ‘But this is positive.’

Thus, architecture’s weakness is repositioned as its strength, the conditions out of which — disabused of idealisations — it engages productively with the contingencies of the forces within which it finds itself and from which it even wins a kind of pleasure, or at least a pleasure-for-itself, from its service (hence Koolhaas’s famous ‘surfing’ metaphor). It seems to me that this kind of orientation is widespread within contemporary architectural culture and shapes much of the celebratory character of responses to the enforcement of the digital interface. For it turns out to be exactly this kind of thing that allows us to demonstrate who we are – mobile, productive, agile thinkers, whose agency is realised precisely to the extent that we are able to extract something from constraints. As a Covid-related call for contributions by a journal declared recently — ‘We are architects…’

Certainly, I recognise the appeal of this and found interesting the way the Covid context put a kind of pressure on the way studio teaching had previously taken place and necessitated a reimagining of how it might otherwise work. But at the same time, I feel cautious about the way in which the celebration of the agency of architecture under constraints can shade into acquiescence and entail a disengagement from debates and processes out of which those constraints arise and take form. As a subject of study, architecture has often come under strain in university contexts. Seen as resource-hungry and expensive to teach (studio spaces [for many, already long gone], the tutorial system, etc.), it has constantly had to find ways of formulating arguments to account for itself. From this point of view, the kind of teaching environment precipitated by Covid can look like an accelerated trial of something that has been in the air for some time — namely, a form of teaching whose investment in ‘educational technologies’ allows a stripping away of other costly overheads. For that reason, a threat shadows the possibility of making a success of it, whatever is taken to constitute a success in the current situation. After all, if we can do well under Covid, perhaps we just don’t need any of that other outdated stuff… And anyway, as I heard an information technologist put it, human interaction without a prophylactic digital interface will remain a ‘biosecurity hazard’.

But while Covid may have brought the experiment forward, it has also altered the conditions in which it takes place. Although it’s unclear how the post-lockdown, post-Brexit economic situation will play out in the UK, many institutions, families and individuals are likely to experience extreme financial pressures — as we are already seeing. Fixed capital resources such as university city-centre estates may turn out to count for less and be less realisable than they were before, if remote forms of working developed during the Covid crisis persist, as is predicted. Another tendency that Covid has brought to the fore is the anticipation of an alignment between remote teaching and commitments to carbon neutrality, although here again the story is complex. The dependence of UK higher education on overseas students paying high rates of fees — a cohort widely prioritised by development plans over many years — is in obvious contradiction with carbon reduction declarations, which are hard to take seriously when the business model relies on students making long-haul flights, probably multiple times a year. Here the possibility of digitally mediated teaching looks as if it might offer some kind of way out, although the situation is then complicated by the fact that a significant part of the income turns out to be derived from accommodating students on campus, and so, in turn, attention is redirected back to what makes attendance on the ground attractive — ‘student experience’, facilities, etc. As we have seen nationally over the past year, one of the major sources of student discontent has been to do with their being encouraged to attend on campus and then finding themselves locked out of university facilities.

Being in this netherworld — on, but not fully on, campus — has led to some pleasing acts of improvisation. In the lead-up to the submission of his project a year ago, one of my students needed a particular animation software. It was available to him if he was logged on to the departmental network, but the architecture building was closed. If he had reasonable band-width in his flat he could have accessed and run the software using a VPN, but things ground to a halt when he launched it. Finally, after some experimentation, he found he could connect to the network of the media centre at the main university library in George Square from outside the building, even though it was closed. The library is a 1967 Basil Spence building — quite an elegant modernist structure, with strong horizontal articulation, whose upper floors cantilever to shelter the raised podium below. On this are some concrete benches and tables where he was able to sit and work outside through the night, or at least as long as his laptop battery lasted — a lone glowing screen in an otherwise dark and deserted city square.

The kind of networked separation that we have all been experiencing produces a curious kind of isolation, one that is simultaneously relieved and intensified by the digital apparatus. In some ways we can feel more interconnected than before — for example, as I’ve tended to organise tutorial days as a single long Zoom session, students have been able to join and participate in one another’s discussions in a way that wasn’t previously possible. But at the same time, this is an experience of closeness that carries with it a strong and poignant feeling of separation, given that it arises from an event which is occurring only as a consequence of isolation. Architectural education is not just about conveying disciplinary knowledge, but about situating that knowledge within a more expansive context that gives its exercise an orientation or ethos. I often feel that architecture is such an interesting site of thought because so many things converge upon it — although highly defined in its own right, it acts as a kind of crossing point where multiple practices and disciplines meet. Because of this, architecture is also a site at which we ‘see’ things — where relations, however encrypted, become visible and articulated — and it seems to me that this is one of the reasons why many contemporary thinkers have had particular recourse to it. When students undertake a project, they step into this force field and engage in a complex kind of thinking that, in the most interesting work, touches not only on the task that they have been given but extends the inquiry to the formulation of the task itself, its underlying presuppositions and constitutive limits. Such an inquiry is a shared endeavour of thinking together, which relies on possibilities of encounter and debate and the vital sense of being present as part of something that is larger than one’s own individual work. It’s the ‘thickness’, and also the affectivity, of this situation that the remote teaching set-up tends to drain away.

One of the more humorous responses to our entrapment in video-conferencing has been the Zoom Escaper, developed by Sam Lavigne. Users are able to choose from a series of unpalatable interferences guaranteed to make their presence, as the app website puts it, ‘unbearable to others’. These range from Bad Connection to Man Weeping, and Urination. (His alternative nuclear option is the Zoom Deleter, which continually patrols one’s machine for signs of Zoom and extirpates any installation.) I like this, although personally I’m not quite at that point yet. The detour through remote teaching over the past year has been instructive in all kinds of ways, and the technology and its general adoption have certainly extended possibilities to us that we didn’t have before — the presence of globally dispersed contributors to reviews, for example, which we have enjoyed, and a lively appreciation of the dissemination of the work beyond the usual boundaries. But in the end, the Covid-accelerated shift to digitally mediated teaching should be thought of, I feel, as less a jump into the kind of future promoted by ‘edtech’ industries than a period of experimentation with a tool, which does not transcend the physicality and mutuality of the studio but rather needs to enter to participate and evolve relations with it.