In Search of the Continuous Monument (or, the grid as speculative architecture)

In the late 1960’s, a group of radical Florentine architects by the name of Superstudio proposed to wrap the world in an endless grid – producing a series of fantastical renderings depicting a hulking, crystalline superstructure built over everyday environments.

Called The Continuous Monument, it put to question Modernist doctrines of the 20th century, acting as a hyperbole of the movement’s ahistorical aesthetic as well as its uptopic ambitions. Overlaying real landscapes, the Monument becomes one of disillusionment and acculturation, minimalism and functionality – simultaneously tracing the faults of Modernism while finding within it some ideological platform upon which Superstudio could further develop its own praxis of radically re-imagining architectural production.

In this spirit of critique and co-opting, I want to try and understand the Continuous Monument as a structure that crosses the boundaries of the world it was originally rendered in, and think of it instead as a structure traversing a range of other fictional landscapes. Assuming that through its own relentless fabrication it has in fact permeated ‘other worlds’ of popular fiction, how might we make sense of the Continuous Monument, what it means and how it works more broadly in considering the grid as a speculative architecture?

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The grid is, above all, a conceptual speculation…in its indifference to topography, to what exists, it claims the superiority of mental construction over reality”  – Rem Koolhaas, Delerious New York

The grid is fundamentally a symbol of fabrication – an artificial structure that holds its own determinacy and potentiality. It can be thought of as denoting social convention and conservatism – The denizens of a given society (OneState, Diaspar, or Middle-Class North America for example) being ‘squares’ in a picnic-blanket grid of social strictures that expands into notions of the (social, political, electrical) power grid we are in reality both bound by and woefully dependent on. Living ‘off-grid’ then, implies the kind of transcendental lifestyle seen as both virtuously and threateningly subversive, encompassed by a range of figures from Thoreau to the Unibomber. In the quote above though, Koolhaas is referring specifically to the grid plan characteristic of modern cities. The structured, hierarchic system of blocks supersedes the natural landscape that lies beneath it, in a way that frames the grid as already unreal. The grid is set up as a kind of game-board on which the metropolis plays its own development. The city grid becomes the game-board of urbanism.

In an endless speculation of design action and user reaction, this imagined interplay frames the grid as a place of strategy and competition, in line with an array of parameters (economic, social, political etc.) that define the grid itself as a quintessential game space. This brings us to what is arguably the most iconic gridscape in recent science fiction:

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Tron’s light cycle arena enables something like an object-lesson on the dynamics of interaction in strategic situations – a hugely oversimplified, albeit relevant sketch of game theory. Simply put, the grid becomes a not only a mental construct, but a structure with innate theory and parameters as well – all visibly demarcated in its ruled and intersecting lines.

In this light, the grid takes on a more autonomous expression – as a thing or entity unto itself – coming to delineate meaning through its own geometrical language. This is another way of saying the grid becomes weirder. When juxtaposed with the banal and familiar, the grid seems auratic, even sentient, as is the case in the final scenes of 2001 A Space Odyssey:

The backlit grid is ideologically opposed to the surroundings it upholds; densely traditional neoclassical designs – the furnature, the paintings, the ornament etc. – become objectified and suspended as mere incidentals in a far more abstract and alien environment. Kubrick has the protagonist traverse the area as an astronaut, taking advantage of the suit’s visually and aurally hermetic perspective, while further adding to the sense of this place as being somehow outside or beyond comprehension. The grid essentially sets the room up as a frontier populated by the trappings of domesticity and tradition – a disruptive, incongruent depiction that works to interrogate and subvert ideas of convention and normality. The grid itself is the prototype for understanding the arbitrariness of the normal when juxtaposed upon a surface of total possibility.

This brings us to what is likely the most abstract manifestation of the grid – and one that was at first comprised a fictional environment before drifting into the banality of the (hyper)real: Cyberspace. Coined by William Gibson, and popularized in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, the word is now ubiquitous (probably to the point of cliché) as a synonym for the internet.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/4b/Neuromancer_(Book).jpgBeyond the descriptions of it being a “consensual hallucination” of “disembodied consciousness”, Cyberspace to Gibson is structurally characterized by its now-infamous description as a “grid-space” or “matrix” full of “bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colourless void” – outlining an abstract space as imagined through an iconography of the grid. Gibson goes so far as to evoke, in full circle, images of the urban grid in his conception the internet, colliding and equating the two geographies:

“Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”

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Its funny the way that tangents work; while perhaps speaking more to the meanings of the grid in general, I think these extrapolations enable a re-conception of Superstudio’s provocative work as well, where the Continuous Monument can begin to be understood through associations of the grid in its many permutations, fictional and otherwise.

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