Underground Observatories: on Marot’s Palympsestuos Ithaca

Duchamp’s Boite Verte

Mariée en haut, célibataires en bas. Les célibataires devant servir de base architectonique à la mariée, celle-ci devient une sorte d’apothéose de la virginité
Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp himself suggested that his La mariée mise a nu pas ses célibatairese, même, had to be eventually completed by the construction of a box, the renown Boîte verte, containing all his studies, calculations, preparatory drawings, texts and notes written between 1912 and 1915 while assembling the Grand Verre itself. This forced the beholder to ‘delay’ his act of reception, instilling that doubtful ‘indecisive reunion’ between truth and false, figurative and non-figurative,[1] visual and literary that the artist suggested.[2] In this way, not only the creative process never crystallized in a definite form preventing its fast artistic consumption but also it emphasized the very act of making, the supreme poiesis,1. Lyotard, Jean-François, Les Transformateurs Duchamp, English translation Duchamp’s Transformers (Los Angeles: Lapis Press, 1977)
2. Duchamp, Marcel, Ecrits, curated by Michel Sanouillet (Paris: Flammarion Editions, 1976): 41. Duchamp, Marcel, “Letter to Jean Suquet,” Dec 25th 1949 in Miroir de la Mariée, in Duchamp du Signe. Ecrits, curated by Michel Sanouillet (Paris: Flammarion Editions, 1994)
3. Marot, Sébastien; Palimpsestuous Ithaca: A Relative Manifesto for Sub-Urbanism, lecture at the Berlage Institute Rotterdam, concise summary of his forthcoming book and PhD thesis
which isolates something from casualty and provides it a particular existence through a differentiation: difference is an operation (l’écart c’est une opération).

Therefore, when Sébastien Marot introduced his lecture Palimpsestuous Ithaca: A Relative Manifesto for Sub-Urbanism projecting a closed box on the screen[3] he established one main thesis of his project, a precise methodological operation.

His presentation could be conceived as a direct homage to J.B. Jackson and his theories on landscapes but also as a proposal for a new metaphor of the contemporary landscape, that ‘third landscape’ that Jackson vaguely defined as the mutual interrelation of a vernacular and a political projection. In his book The Necessity for Ruins and Other Topics (1980), Jackson illustrated the ‘landscape as theater’ as a metaphor originated in the sixteenth century, when landscape assumed a fundamental role in painting composition and theatrical production by locating and defining human action within a set, a background, and by establishing those orders, limits and extensions which, through centuries, would eventually trigger scientific and mathematical investigations. Gradually, such a metaphor became useless to envision the depth and the extension of the contemporary landscape, a complex interrelation of local and territorial networks, urban natural and anthropic fragments which are juxtaposed and superimposed in a vertical layering that Marot defines hyper-landscape.

Here Duchamp comes back. Marot proposes to twist vertically the conceptual canonical representation of the theatrical landscape, made of ordered horizontal successions of urban, political, agricultural and divine/wild natures, in order to obtain a vertical superimposition each of the layers: a section plane read as a palimpsest, where traces of different texts could be read on the same ideal parchment. Once ‘verticalized’, the obsolete horizontal separations are simultaneously read on the same perspectival plane from which conceptually observing reality itself, like Duchamp himself experimented in Cols-alités (Embedded Hills, 1959), using his Le Grand Verre as a framing window.

In the Large Glass, the third dimensional workshop of the Bachelor’s domain, meticulously composed by machines grasse and lubrique, is propelled by the descending energy of the Bride, where technology operates by electrical transmission and the fourth-dimensional “cinematic blossoming” generates heterogeneous forms. Similarly, in Marot’s paranoid project, new theory-machines on a suburban landscape, and their relative nine bachelors, are conceptually triggered by the ravines and the waterfalls of Ithaca, Upstate NY. What Sub-urbanism? Why Ithaca?

Out of metaphor, both the ideas of an abstract geological substratum to be gradually dissected and of a territorial plane conceived as palimpsest/hypertext to be unfolded, converged in the definition of sub-urbanism: a subverted, underground urbanism which Marot already investigated in his previous Sub-Urbanism and the Art of Memory.[4]4. Marot, Sébastien, Sub-urbanism. The Art of Memory, Territory and Architecture (London: AA Publications, 2003) In this essay the Freudian notion of the ‘oceanic’ was retraced through the studies on the Renaissance Ars Memorativa by Francis Yates, Maurice Halbwachs’ theories on collective memory, and Robert Smithson’s odysseys in Passaic, to demonstrate the possibility of a mutual relation between the cognitive spatial construction and the geographical urban settlement. sub-urbanism could be then collocated within the broader declinations of the Landscape Urbanism emerged during the eighties and aimed at deducing architecture directly from the context avoiding a formal composition, generating the program from the site itself and fiercely opposing any ‘programmatic carpets’ or ‘fuck the context’.

But, if hyper-urbanism had already its own hero – Rem Koolhaas – its undisputed manifesto – Delirious New York – and an authoritative urban paradigm – New York – according to Marot sub-urbanism would find its deserved theoretical manifesto in the little town of Ithaca. By establishing an equation between the programmatic stratification of the Downtown Athletic Club and the superimposition of the geological horizons of Ithaca’s underground landscape, the principles of hyper-urbanism could be reversed and Manhattan could be cast out of the Lake Cayuga.

Ithaca, located among the ‘finger-lakes’, originated from the northward flowing rivers out of the continental glaciers, during the Pleistocene glaciation that also left numerous other traces carved in the landscape surrounding the city: deep through-valleys, lakes, gorges, uncontaminated vegetation. Hence, it was not a coincidence that Ithaca has always been conceived, since its first Iroquois inhabitants and their mythologies, as a real cross section of the world history, attracting numerous scientists, geologists and geographers. From Simeon De Witt, who was the first planner of the city with his Central New York Military Tract, after the Revolutionary War, and also the author of the famous Manhattan grid in 1811; to the swiss glaciologist Louis Agassiz, who transformed the surrounding landscape into a real open-air laboratory for his geological researches, foreseeing an academic institution embedded in the site itself.

The first act of Ithaca’s palimpsest and its first three bachelors, in fact, corresponded with the establishment of its university: a three-layered campus arisen directly from the natural context. There was the geo-technological campus of Ezra Cornell, a self-taught engineer who, after having accumulated large amount of money with his ingenious inventions for the telegraph company, promoted the construction of the first university for natural, agricultural, scientific research in the gorges, a sort of dam stretched between the gorges to retain knowledge from a too rapid downstream application while accumulating its power. There was the school of Architecture and History, funded by Andrew Dickson White, who economically supported the construction of a more traditional red-brick campus with the relative facilities. And, finally there was the State College of Agriculture created by the famous botanist, father of the American environmentalism, L.H. Bailey, who set up a gigantic arboretum between the two gorges, at the edge of the city, where he elaborated the first theories of ruralism as complement of urbanism.

The second act of the palimpsest concerned three architects who gathered in Ithaca between the 60’s and the 70’s and whose production culminated in 1978 with three distinct essays: Collage City by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Berlin as a Green Archipelago by Oswald Mathias Ungers and Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas. Three ‘situated’ manifestoes that, although focused on different reference cities – Rome, Berlin and New York – share a common ‘distance point’ – Ithaca – and also the common interest for landscape architecture. All of them used the investigation of the territorial texture and its historical depth as a testing ground for their different planning strategies: Rowe and his studies on the urban fabric and the figure-ground relations derived from the French-English landscape experiments in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; Ungers research on the invariants of architecture and their combination within the specificity of the site looking at the Havel Landschaft by Schinkel and Lenné; and finally Koolhaas, fascinated by the Manhattan grid and its origins rooted within the Technology of the Fantastic in Coney Island. The combination of ‘bricolage’ and rationality in Rowe, the articulation of an archipelago of discreet developed points in Ungers, and the elaboration of the grid and the block in Koolhaas are, according to Marot, three other bachelor machines triggered by the same gaz d’éclairage found in Ithaca.

The third act and the last three bachelors named by Marot were two artists and a writer who worked, lived and dealt with Ithaca and its ‘underground observatory’: Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta Clark, who both met in Ithaca in 1969 for the Earth Art Show, and Vladimir Nabokov, who taught Russian and European literature at Cornell for ten years since 1948. If Robert Smithson with his last non-site, Mirror Trail, retraced the evolution of the old glacier by positioning a series of mirrors through the whole extension of the Cayuga region at different depths, from the deepest in the northern Salt Works to the highest in the Andrew Dickson White Museum at Cornell University; Gordon Matta Clark, who studied architecture at Cornell, kept the memory of the Cayuga gorges in all his further production, from the ‘building cuts’ to the works dedicated to his death brother; Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote his most renown masterworks in Ithaca, among all Speak, Memory where he deeply dig through the memories of his past superimposing the images and the places of his Russian childhood on the American landscapes of his exile.

Marot left us not only an admirable story. Beyond the articulated refinement of the machine he constructed, the wise alchemic assemblage of different characters, events, anecdotes and images, all within the same boîte-en-valise, there was the ambition of planning ‘something geographical’: developing a thesis in which landscape became the whole project itself, investigating the territorial limits of knowledge and its institutions, subverting the traditional ‘research methods’ and eroding the disciplinary boundaries from within through an historical dérive.