Petracchin / Ark Architecture

Ark Architecture Space Suspension Strategies

Author: Alberto Petracchin, Politecnico di Milano

Supervisor: Sara Marini, Professor, (Iuav), Politecnico di Milano; Alessandro Rocca, Professor Dr., (Polimi), AUID, DAStU, Politecnico di Milano

Research stage: Intermediate doctoral stage

Category: Extended abstract

Architectures, cities and territories are today crossed by transformations out of control. The advancement of forests, the intrusion of animals, floods, earthquakes, fires, are changing the “territory of architecture” after years of apparent stability. At the same time, as argued by the Italian philosopher Federico Campagna, we are witnessing the collapse of an old world giving way to a new one for which we are unprepared, and for which we need new design tools1. In the face of the loss of the notion and the condition of order, and in front of new unknown cultural and life questions, we see the need of strategies that acting in advance and working over a long period of time can save those materials that could be lost but at the same time could be useful to design new beginnings: we need a new Noah’s Ark. We find ourselves, to quote a drawing by Massimo Scolari, “At the end of history”, inside an “apocalypse” where “all is lost” and the city is in fragment. The modernist certainty of a bright tomorrow gives way to unpredictable futures: it is therefore the time of a new refoundation cycle.

Entering the ark. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway, 2008. Ph. Matthias Heyde

Figure 1: Entering the ark. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway, 2008. Ph. Matthias Heyde

The ark. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway, 2008. Ph. Matthias Heyde

Figure 2: The ark. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway, 2008. Ph. Matthias Heyde

The immersion in what Timothy Morton calls “Dark Ecology”, questions architectures and tools able to anticipate the present, at the same time to review some positions of architecture from its foundations in front of contexts defined no longer by the static data but by the emergence of other entities which claim for space2. We are therefore witnessing today the return of a figure, in reality ancient, called the ark, understood as architecture to accumulate necessary treasures and ferry them to other destinies by suspending their use. Hubert Damisch has the merit of having brought attention to this ancient figure by bringing it back into the architectural debate. His essay, entitled Noah's Ark, is a rereading of the figure of the ark from the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert3. The first part of Damisch’s essay insists on the definition of “architecture” written by the famous French architect François Blondel for the Encyclopedie, who speaks quickly about the history of architecture insisting on the discipline as a fact of orders, composition and proportions, making it emerge still as a classical discipline and entirely understood as geometry. Nothing is said about construction and site techniques, or about the social meaning of the profession. Paradoxically, says Damisch, architecture is better treated in another entry of the Encyclopedie, the entry “ark”, referring to naval architecture. The entry is written by Abbé Edme-François Mallet and occupies three times the space occupied by the entry “architecture” for a total of four pages and offers not so much an alternative to the entry “architecture” but a compendium of it. The text does not give “etymological” definitions of the word “ark” but neither does it give a definition directly referring to the sacred scriptures: for Mallet an ark is Noah’s Ark. After setting out the reasons for the design of the ark – understood by Mallet as a survival device – along with its design, dimensions, materials and internal maintenance, the author reasons for the rest of the article on the design, technical and logistical implications present in the history of the ark, through the treatises or words of Origen, St. Augustine, John Wilkins, Buteo, Kircher and Isaac Newton, who in the words of Damisch sets up a “functionalism ante litteram”. From the text of Mallet, through that of Damisch, emerges an “enlightened” declination of the figure of the ark, intended therefore to the agreement with the laws of nature (this through the mathematical demonstration of its exact dimensions, enough to contain all the animals and at the same time to float on the water without sinking) and therefore functionalist; not least the ark is loaded with a further declination, all modernist, or the naval meaning, with a salvation attempt inside the so called “flood”.

The ark in fact stands as a closed but ephemeral and defenseless architecture, able to retain precious materials, to block their aging until they are released when necessary4. The construction of real arks such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway5 calls into question this ancient figure, an archetype, necessary to carry us and our treasure toward a remote distant time. So, the Vitruvian notion of utilitas undergoes a twist in the sense of its possible suspension, this is the main question of the research: architecture, which has always been built for the immediate, is instead designed in advance, to be put “on hold” and then “used” in a distant future. Living today becomes therefore an expectation6, literally a “tension towards”, a journey towards a destination, a look to what is yet to come, based on the future7.

The ark’s strategy involves a temporal dynamic that consists of a triad composed of anticipating reality, suspending time and pervading the existing, with the final objective of re-foundation.

The entrance tunnel. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway, 2008. Ph. Matthias Heyde

Figure 3: The entrance tunnel. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway, 2008. Ph. Matthias Heyde

Anticipating reality speaks of the foundation of the ark starting from a prediction of a tomorrow that is expected to be unknown. In today’s world it is a question of anticipating reality, we need to ask ourselves about possible new practices of forecasting, between the realism of science and the oblique imagination of magic8. At the same time, the question that Mike Davis asks about “Who will build the ark“9 with what remains of our world today is at the center of the foundation of this figure: it is a question of choosing things not to be missed for the future, and then to deprive ourselves of them today. In Davis’ idea the ark is a collection of waste materials, of forgotten things, anonymous materials that we want to save; we are talking about architectures built starting from choices of what is necessary, that reveal their strength in the sense of restraint, of a wait that is a choice of time in which to act. Of course, it remains to be seen how this prediction will be realized, if it is reliable, if what is predicted will happen, but what is on question here is that the ark is planned with a possible future ahead of it, a destiny written before.

Frozen time. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway, 2008. Ph. Matthias Heyde

Figure 4: Frozen time. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway, 2008. Ph. Matthias Heyde

The second moment of the ark is the crossing of those contexts that are changing. The seal, the total absence of an exit defines the importance of what is housed inside but of course during the “flood” the shipwreck is always possible, architecture could also fail. What is inside the arks must be “frozen” or cultivated: like an “enclaves in time”10 the ark goes through the places while they change, remaining “suspended”, sealed but defenseless, retaining its contents: the ark is not only a conservative attempt but an extreme exploration of the future.

The seal. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway, 2008. Ph. Matthias Heyde

Figure 5: The seal. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway, 2008. Ph. Matthias Heyde

The third stage is finally marked by the opening of the architecture. The trauma is over, the ark is dismantled, and its content is freed to pervade and change the existing, “what has been lost”, or that has remained secret for years, can return to upset the already known coordinates. It is therefore a matter of suspending “the use of the bodies“11 to “abandon spaces” to bring in the future those treasures, if not also life, that will serve to refound future new worlds. We will call them architectures of expectation.

The treasure room. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway, 2008. Ph. Matthias Heyde

Figure 6: The treasure room. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway, 2008. Ph. Matthias Heyde

  1. See Campagna, Federico (2018): Technic and Magic. The Reconstruction of Reality, London: Bloomsbury. The philosopher argues for the return of magical techniques to design the new world to come, in reaction to the collapse of the old one.
  2. See Morton, Timothy (2016): Dark Ecology. For a Logic of Future Coexistence, New York: Columbia University.
  3. See Damisch, Hubert (2016): Noah’s Ark. Essays in Architecture, Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press, pp. 1-24.
  4. See Slotedijk, Peter (2014): Spheres II. Globes, Cambridge Mass: The MIT Press.
  5. The project, its content and its reasons are documented in Fowler, Cary: Seeds on Ice, New York: Perspecta Press
  6. About the theme of expectation see for example Nancy, Jean-Luc (2017): Expectation: Philosphy, Literature, New Yorkk: Fordham University Press.
  7. The Italian world “attesa” means literally “come to an end”, “aspire to”, “strive for”. See, consulted 2021.05.09.
  8. About possible forecasting tools see for example the research contained in the journal “Nature” or in the journal “Future”.
  9. “Left to the dismal politics of the present, of course, cities of poverty will almost certainly become the coffins for hope; but all the more reason that we must start thinking like Noah. Since most of history’s giant trees have already cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias”. See Davis, Mike (2010): »Who will Build the Ark?«, in New Left Review 61, p. 30.
  10. See Lynch, Kevin (1972): What Time is This Place?, Cambridge Mass: The MIT Press, and the recent research book Foscari, Giulia UNLESS (edited by) (2021): Antarctic Resolution, Zurich: Lars Müller Publisher. In the seventh chapter, ice as an ark containing unmissable ‘times’ is mentioned with the example of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the United States National Ice Core Facility.
  11. See Giorgio Agamben (2014): The Use of Bodies, Vicenza: Neri Pozza.