Propensities — or meditations on form

Water gushes out from Xiaolangdi Reservoir on Yellow River from the film “Watermark” by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky.

Nothing endures, all is in endless flux,
Each wandering shape a pilgrim passing by.
And time itself glides on in ceaseless flow,
A rolling stream — and streams can never stay.

Ovid. Metamorphoses

The massive blue shards of a glacier, the intricate pattern of a snowflake, the reflective surface of a resting alpine lake, sparkling drops of early morning dew, hot steam rising from a geyser. All forms born out of the infinite reservoir of water’s creative expression.

The hidden dimensions of water’s dynamic structure do not reveal themselves by meditating upon its myriad of forms, but instead upon close inspection of their internal processes of formation. Instead of discussing form as an end in itself, it is fundamental to examine the ensemble of forms and their immediate context. Rather than reviewing the qualities of static shells, we should think of form as temporary plateaus of stability within a schema of becoming. We should ask ourselves: How are forms born and endowed with duration in an environment of unending process and change?

The continuous structure of water — Formation

Water’s structure is not, as one would assume, a homogeneous field, but rather an agentic assemblage of molecules, all in constant reciprocal adaptation, each acting and reacting according to the others’ activity. The cloud-like H2O molecules are strong entities that inherit electric charge from their constituent atoms (hydrogen, oxygen). A field of polarity emerges around each molecule, making it highly excitable and enabling it to bond with its neighbors. Each agent attaches and breaks away from its neighbors in a constant vying between forces, a temperature, and pressure-dependent competition between ordering (bonding) and disordering (kinetics)
Water does not respond homogeneously when exposed to external forces (heat and pressure); rather, charged agents move through the structure and distribute their energy by colliding with others on their chaotic path.

Martin. F. Chaplin, A proposal for the structuring of water, Biophysical Chemistry

Every part has the capacity to affect and be affected, endowed with the ability to create a self-organizing structure. Polarity fields arrange the molecules within the superstructure and create environments of different electric charges constituting structural formations of various shapes. Within some of these structures, bonds are more durable and enable molecules to stay in a formation for a longer duration before surrendering to the surrounding molecules’ movement. These are called clusters.

While each molecule is pursuing its own consistency, maintaining its individual attributes, groups transcend themselves and acquire collective properties that constitute larger patterns. A metastable equilibrium coexists with local substructures and enables water to expand and contract in response to environmental forces without breaking its overall composition. Order emerges spontaneously in the structure of water. Though not moving in sync, the whole and its parts are always in motion. Like the resonating tones of a song, water is a structural organization stretched out over time. Water is not shaped into a form: water forms and reforms its structures based on internal principles and perturbations from its surroundings.

Forms understood in this way are merely temporary arrangements, plateaus of differentiation, at the immediate intersection between embedded forces and external context.

Martin. F. Chaplin, A proposal for the structuring of water, Biophysical Chemistry

Epitaxy — Degrees of freedom to unfold

Water’s structure is not like a pop song’s periodic chord, but rather like a jazz performance’s improvisational scheme where each musician follows a unique modulation pattern based on an overarching theme. While the melody stays recognizable, possibilities for variation open up and change it from within.

In a jazz piece, changes in the self-ordering parts influence the whole without breaking its overall composition. Water, in the same way, orders itself from within, doing so without the exchange of matter, induced only by external energy entering the system. Through a process known as epitaxy- electromagnetic charges are applied to regions within the liquid body, augmenting local charge environments, imprinting structural information onto local areas. From these augmented centers, vectors of reorganization propagate through the entire ensemble, reorienting molecules and affecting their capacity to bond with others. The emerging surplus of indeterminacy, or degrees of freedom, serving as the base for unfolding arrangements of molecules. New clusters form and induce change in the overall formation. Only when quantitative changes accumulate to reach a discernible plateau of intensity, a critical point, the system is pushed across a threshold and changes its quality. Liquid water stretches beyond its metastable equilibrium and becomes vapor. A new form is born.

This qualitative approach to perceiving and creating form overcomes the dominating Kantian model of form interpretation and tackles form at its organizational level in which it appears: Cognizing form as the moments within an ensemble at which thresholds of intensity are crossed and induce qualitative change. Under this premise, forms resemble sound patterns, vibrations, resonances, existing in the environment long before becoming audible to the human ear. Form enters the field of human perception rather than coming into existence, with this approach to form the role of intensities and multimodality in our experience as human beings regains prominence and breaks out of our epistemological straightjacket.

Formation — the unfolding of the city

When introducing these themes of formation and augmentation into our thinking about design and environment, we will re-learn to see our cities and their forms as environments of change; as formations over time. These cities do not consist of static forms, empty shadows of their makers, but are instead composed of formations in interaction with human individuation. Buildings are active participants endowed with the ability to affect and be affected, reflecting the richness of life. The architect’s and designers’ roles will then evolve from the author of static forms to the inducer and catalyst for ensembles of formation endowed with enough freedom (indeterminacy) to unfold. Such an Architecture understands itself as a practice beyond mere expression and representation, a practice that induces local change within a polyrhythmic environment of complexity.

A method of thinking and designing that no longer tears us out of the world to represent it, but instead connects us evermore with the thick of reality: the complex world we live in. Because change begets change, and what we shape ultimately shapes us.



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Viktoria Luisa Barbo

Viktoria Luisa Barbo

Designer/ Creative /Thinker. Interested in the cultural and spatial effects of perception and ecology.