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X-Screens: Röntgen Architecture


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When Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen first published his very recent discovery of the X-ray in December of 1895 in an article entitled “On a New Kind of Rays, a Preliminary Communication,” he wrote about a new form of transparency in which “bodies behave to the X-rays as turbid media to light.” The invisible rays are described as a “medium” that penetrates objects and is revealed on screens. A floating technical surface acts as the most intimate witness of the otherwise hidden interior. An architecture is established that inverts the classical relationship between inside and outside, an architecture we still live in today, with our countless screens monitoring endless invisible flows. Architects, historians, and theorists quickly absorbed the new paradigm—developing an entire logic of the invisible in the early decades of the twentieth century that remains largely in place. New medical screens are today creating new forms of architecture as the relationship between inside and outside passes through another twist. New forms of intimacy are emerging.

Even before he mentions X-rays, Röntgen describes in the second paragraph of his paper a new concept of transparency closely linked to the idea of a “screen.” The screen is actually made of a piece of paper coated with a thin layer of “barium platinum cyanide” that glows fluorescent when exposed to the rays. He marvels at the fact that paper itself is very transparent when seen through such a “fluorescent screen,” so the screen is really just the thin layer of barium platinum cyanide. But it is not just a sheet of paper that is transparent. Even a thousand-page book placed behind the screen becomes transparent. “Thick blocks of wood are still transparent.” Tinfoil needs many layers to hardly cast a “shadow” on the screen and it takes a very thick sheet of aluminum to reduce the fluorescence.

Röntgen’s screen showed, in the words of his first report, that “all bodies possess this same transparency, but in very varying degrees.” Transparency, therefore, is a property of seemingly opaque bodies, including the human body. In other words, it is not an effect. The X-ray is not something done to an object. The object is already transparent and the X-rays allow us to see it. The whole world is now understood to be transparent.

Having studied the transparency of many materials, including glass itself, which paradoxically is more opaque (because it contains lead), Röntgen looks through the human body: “If the hand be held before the fluorescent screen,” he writes, “the shadow shows the bones darkly, with only faint outlines of the surrounding tissues.” The famous X-ray image of the hand of his wife Bertha Röntgen, with her wedding ring on the third finger, taken only five days before he submitted the article for publication, is used as an illustration—as proof of the astonishing revelation. The image was crucial to the popular success of the invention.

Read the full article here.