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Eupalinos and the Duck: Conceptualism in Recent Architecture


Mobility in architecture means to mobilize—money, above all—on behalf of the immobile: to build more space in less time. This further confirms what theorists of the early twentieth century first recognized as modernity’s triumph of space over time, what Michel Foucault would later call the modern obsession with space. While the nineteenth century was preoccupied with time, evolution, cycles, and halt, the twentieth century was concerned with space—so much so that time became but one possible representation of a distribution of elements in space.

If we interpret globalization as a type of mobilization, we take notice of this process in the rapid pace of architectural expansion in Asia. According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, six of the world’s fifteen tallest buildings are located in China, while three are in the United States. Newly published research predicts that for the next three years, China will construct a new skyscraper every five days. Today, the relation between space and time is that of mobilization: the amount of space built is inversely proportional to the time it takes to build. Exceptions are rare and expensive.

Mobilization is to the immobile what the internet is to the architect (who actually sits in an immobile position in front of the screen): a global reality—or what is taken as such—that is delivered more or less free on demand, as the French writer Paul Valéry (1871–1945) anticipated in a text titled “The Conquest of Ubiquity.” In this essay from the 1930s he reflects on art and architecture as subject to the vast transformations of modern times: possibilities and potentials have become numerous, malleable, and accurate enough that the age-old handling of beauty is deeply affected. In allusion to modern physics, Valéry explains that in all of the arts there is a field subordinate to the laws of nature that cannot be regarded or treated as it was prior to modernity. Matter, space, and time are not what they used to be, and their reincarnations affect all sorts of techniques and technical processes. This has transformed the ways artworks are transmitted and reproduced, making them ubiquitous—not only do artworks exist in themselves, they can also be recreated wherever the appropriate apparatus is available. Mobilization takes command.

Valéry is renowned not only for his lyrics and prose, but also for his monumental notebooks, in which he transformed literary work into scientific research. The modern mind—which for Valéry means the intellect originating in the sciences—is universally interested, above all, in mathematics and physics. Yet, it is a mind genuinely concerned with the transformations and great conflicts of the twentieth century. Valéry actually recognizes the dynamics, divisions, and fragmentations of a world whose unity has been lost forever. Following in the steps of Friedrich Nietzsche, he watches reality enter the era of complexities and pluralities, or—to use his own term—the era of multiplicities. In this, the integral vision of the world turns out to be obsolete, and can only be compensated by multiple observations from multiple perspectives. Above all, Valéry is worried about mobilization in all fields of modern life, with economic exchange value becoming a universal model. In this vein, Monsieur Teste, the eponymous figure of Valéry’s renowned novel, reports:

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