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Repetition-Compulsion: World-Historical Rhythms in Architecture


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In studies of repetition blindness, it is unclear whether the failure to recognize recurring items in a sequence owes primarily to an inability to notice similarities the second time something appears. Conflicting evidence indicates that it could just as easily involve an inability to remember the qualities something displayed the first time around. Psychologists are still split over this question.

A person must first be allowed to perambulate a structure, eyes gliding along its surface. György Kepes, a Hungarian painter closely associated with his fellow countryman László Moholy-Nagy, the Bauhaus master, asserted in his 1944 Language of Vision that

the orderly repetition or regular alternation of optical similarities or equalities dictates the rhythm of the plastic organization. In recognizing such order one learns when the next eye action is due and what particular neuromuscular adjustment will be necessary to grasp the next unit. To conserve the attentive energies of vision, therefore, the picture surface must have a temporal structure of organization—it must be rhythmically articulated in a way that corresponds, for the eye, to the rhythm of any work process.

Kepes may have had visual media in mind when he wrote on “the picture surface,” but the observation holds for architecture as well. For the prolific Danish urbanist and critic Steen Eiler Rasmussen, serial repetition offered a quintessential means by which to convey orderliness in design. “The simplest method,” wrote Rasmussen in his 1959 guide Experiencing Architecture, “for both the architect and the artisans, is the absolutely regular repetition of the same elements, for example solid, void, solid, void, just as you count one, two, one, two. It is a rhythm everyone can grasp.” Here again, as with Kepes, repeated components operate by establishing a kind of rhythm of intuition, which then structures all subsequent experience. Each passage highlights the peculiar double aspect of repetition in architecture: it is simultaneously an objective property of the built work—perceptible to both inhabitants and passersby—and a subjective approach to design.

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