Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Labyrinths Concepts

Sun and the Petroglyph. Digital collage by Myriam B. Mahiques. Here, my interpretation of the built labyrinth in the analogy of the stone plus the oniric space in the attractor. 2009.

Labyrinths have been built in several cultures in all continents, archaeologists have traced them back some 4000 years ago; there is also speculation that this symbol dates back to the Paleolithic period (20000 BC) in prehistoric rock art. It is sustained in a universal pattern of disorientation, with a psycho-somatic quality that triggers our experience. Its meaning is expressed in both conscious (architecture) and unconscious levels (memory and experience). Bernard Tschumi appropriates the figure of labyrinth to explain that it concentrates on the senses, on the experience of space, as well as the relationship between space and practice; the morphological opposite is the pyramid, with its shape variations implies the dematerialization of architecture.
The labyrinth or maze is a good analogy to describe some cities with morphologies of fractal patterns. More than the geometrical pattern itself, city is a labyrinth only to the activity of unwitting users. Some cities are the realization of this ancient human dream in the impossibility to conceptualize and experience space at the same time; though sensations and feelings are enhanced, there is no way to know how to get out of them. In ancient cities, the analogy is seen in the network of paths and corridors of its tangible construction, but in modern city, it refers to the attraction and fear that they transmit. In both cases, the same psychological state is produced: confusion, disorientation. In this sense, as stated by Walter Benjamin, the modern citizen becomes a Theseus inside the Minotaur’s labyrinth.

Bartolomo Veneto, "The Man and the Labyrinth"

The most known labyrinth is the seven circuit type. The author of “Through the labyrinths”, Herman Kern, speculates that it has been originated in the Neolithic period, in celestial observation rituals where the psychic structure created a disposition towards dancing and movement to a central point; or possibly in cave cults in which the winding natural caverns symbolized the bowels of Mother Earth. Nevertheless, Henri Lefebvre, states that the labyrinth was originally a military and political structure designed to trap enemies inextricably in a maze; it served too as a palace, fortification, refuge and shelter before coming to stand for the womb (Lefebvre, p. 233). Movement has to be considered independently of the graphical motif. Kern suggests that the path consisting in seven circuits has a cultural and anthropological connection; the inner path, then the outward circuit with a central point to be reached and departed from, has an implicit metaphor in the path through life to death to rebirth; the circle is an universal symbol representing the wholeness.

Greek myth of Perseus and the Minotaur [Medieval rendition]

This is a true Theseus’ labyrinth of a single path, with no dead ends to deceive the explorer, it leads directly to the center, then from the center, one makes its way to the exit. The point is to have the Minotaur at the Center and “the terror comes in because you don’t not know where you will come out and see what the Minotaur will do….Then there is the mannerist labyrinth. If you unravel it, you find in your hands a kind of tree, a root-like structure with many dead ends. There is only one exit, but you can get it wrong. You need an Ariadne's thread to keep from getting lost. This labyrinth is the model of the trial-and-error process. Finally, there is the network, the structure that Deleuze and Guattari call a rhizome. The rhizome is set up that each path connects to every other one. It has no center, no periphery, and no exit, because it is potentially infinite.” (Umberto Eco). In botany, rhizome is a subterranean horizontal stem of a plant sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. In philosophy, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari used the term “rhizome” to describe the theory that allows multiple, non hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation. It is very difficult to see the extinction of a rhizome, as a new one is always emerging. It would be a maze, instead of a labyrinth, the maze is more complex, it presents choices among alternative routes, some of them are deliberate dead-ends.

Piranesi's drawing.
Labyrinth in a

In landscape, the labyrinth means an intricate network of pathways, usually enclosed by tiny bushes, in which it is not possible to visualize the center. Nowadays, this design has experienced a revival of the old geometrical style of gardening, as a “healing walk” that helps in humans emotional stability; the person needs to walk, to immerse in it and search for the center, because it is impossible to grasp its whole entirety in just one look.
Currently, there are labyrinths in prisons, drug rehabilitation centers, medical facilities and of course in domestic gardens. Once inside them, rational conscious orientation is disturbed, the initiate temporarily loses his way in confusion to enter in the Nature dimension.
Ideas for the experience of the labyrinth in an outdoor environment are: approach and curiosity of enter; path in an uni-cursal way; interruption for meditation; final destination; return that evokes memory and sense. (Hollis Vellenga, Amber.2001)
Considering labyrinths are intermediaries between reality and oniric fields, and they are so close to the idea of motion and universality, I will end with a beautiful example in an excerpt of Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino:
“after six days and seven nights, you arrive at Zobeide…with streets wound about themselves as in a skein. They tell this tale of its foundation: men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. As they twisted and turned, each of them lost her. After the dream they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. In laying out the streets, each followed the course of his pursuit; at the spot where they had lost the fugitive’s trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from the dream, so she would be unable to escape again. This was the city of Zobeide, where they settled, waiting for that scene to be repeated one night.”

An aerial view of the urban fabric in Fez (Morocco), Tamentit (Algeria) and a village in Saudi Arabia.

Further readings:
S. McCaffery, S. “To lose one’s way” ,2003
Hollis Vellenga, Amber. Taking the First Step: The Labyrinth and The World of Landscape Architecture Virginia Polytechnic and State University. Department of Landscape Architecture.2 001
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Massachusetts. U.S.A. 1999

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