Measuring the world

How The Matrix Captures Our Imagination

In actual fact, the only things that were missing were spice dealers and flavoursome flat bread. Everything else was already there for a Souk: winding alleyways, nice cosy spots surrounded by high walls – Frankfurt’s “Design Annual” 2006 broke new ground. Taking a step outside the box that is the unrelenting matrix of modern trade fairs suddenly came winding alleyways made of 0.6 millimetre thick polyurethane foam. The town was produced on the computer, or more precisely, in the digital design laboratory of Clemens Weisshaar. The Munichbased designer worked, in the fashion of a town planner, with large-scale models and outlines which come together to form a temporary town. Weisshaar sees trade fairs as the regimented ranks of a military camp: “anarchic, temporary and difficult to take in.” The chequer-board matrix of trade fair stands – passé. Does anyone have any idea of where they are after the third bend? The designer heads from the impasse of the new age of matrices into the modern digital world. No component is the same as another. Despite this, in just 24 hours, an exhibition was born that celebrates the act of exhibiting itself. It takes the form of a theme park in which spectators must rediscover and conquer every corner. Visitors to the trade fair sauntering along with suitcases on wheels and wearing comfortable shoes became transformed into explorers wearing sun helmets and carrying machetes. It is not enough to be neutral anymore. Trade fairs must become an experience again, a feast for the senses. Vilified, berated and yet endlessly reproduced: the matrix represents the ultimate in modernity. It lies at the heart of modern day expression and construction. It catapulted factory-based machine aesthetics into the horizontal world of mass (housing) construction, blew the two-dimensional plan up until the house became a reality in concrete and steel. Work and free time have never been as closely related to one another as here, in cumulative synchrony with prefabricated components that were inserted into loadbearing structures like pieces of a gigantic puzzle. The matrix promised to encapsulate the divine trinity: never-ending, eternal and ubiquitous. From then on, buildings could be extended and developed in all directions. Its flexible steel and concrete core developed organically, as it were, from the smallest spatial elements and cells from the inside outwards. Firstly: what you see is what you get. The structure and surface were fused into one; the construction was reproduced directly on the outer layer which had ceased to be part of a load-bearing structure. However, it had also ceased to promise a mystery, a promise which first of all had to be kept by the interior.
Something that modernist master builders saw as liberating them, largely led, however, to monotony. Opinion is divided on the matrix format. It marks architectural triumphs as well as low points in a soulless form of building which conceals its lack of imagination with a sense of order. In Brasilia and other carbon- copy cities that were constructed during the postwar period, the euphoria of modernity collapsed back upon itself. In the case of prefabricated slab construction, we are faced with the downside of the matrix, the soulless home machine that standardizes human beings and becomes a problem in itself and is in need of refurbishment. It comes as no surprise then that the abandoning of the matrix signals the start of the postmodern period, with the first rented tower blocks being demolished and falling in a cloud of dust.
The matrix has withstood ideologies. Collective combines, which were designed to achieve rapid growth and profits, were in no way inferior to their capitalist counterparts. In precise terms, the matrix represents an ideology in itself. What was the greatest promise of clarification promised nothing short of world domination by a format that was just as rational as it was economical. It represented planning that was able to overcome all opposition. A new world was created from modular building blocks: a regular world that could be reduced to a few basic structures. In this world, the small and large, ephemeral and permanent were united, just as Lego bricks promise to do.


This technology was also born out of a need for perfection. All new designers, builders and architects can learn a thing or two from its dream proportions: the Lego brick measures 2.1 x 1.5 x 0.9 centimetres and has eight studs. It weighs two grams. The success story of the toy aimed at construction enthusiasts and plastic enthusiasts began in 1949. The skilled carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen invested in an injection moulding machine and recognized the building material of the future in the garish, multicoloured plastic. The acronym Lego, which stands for the Danish expression “leg godt” (play well), had already been the jewel in the crown of the company name for 15 years by this point, but was only protected in 1954 when the success of the building block became apparent. Whilst Lego might be more reminiscent of a normal brick at first glance, the injection- moulded standalone building block encapsulates every element of rational design that is encapsulated by the term modernity. The system of building blocks makes virtually endless combinations possible and represents nothing short of a miniature version of the development of the modern world. There are around one billion hidden possibilities with six bricks each having eight studs. The plastic bricks derive their strength from the way in which they can be connected together. Hollow tubes link together with the studs. Broken finger nails and bite marks on the bricks are evidence enough that the toy system is difficult to break down. It was only the new designers who created more and more innovative and increasingly daring designs with the state-of-the-art material of their time that were wideeyed. Even Frei Otto could not do anything other than praise the little bricks as experimental ground for future great engineers.

If Lego is the offspring of the matrix, its castle has grown up on the Kuhberg in Ulm, Germany. The Ulm Design School (Hochschule für Gestaltung) wanted to completely change the stuffy and oppressive postwar world and give a new, systematic face to everything from the spoon with which we eat to the city in which we live. Even fine art and poetry united a set of beliefs that rational design could be used to break new ground: the so-called concrete poetry of the 1950s represented the culmination of “environmental design”. Just as the Bauhaus artist Josef Albers succeeded in creating a masterpiece, the “Interaction of Colour” (1960), Eugen Gomringer’s collection of works developed an “Interaction of words”. Poetry suddenly became a form of communication. The matrix had also conquered language, as had happened previously with the selfsupporting structures of Konrad Wachsmann and Fritz Haller. Haller’s USM steel modular furniture system can still be found in architects offices today. Preferably in black.

White Cube – Black Box

Aeroplane hangars and counters, modules compliant with DIN standards and modular systems, white cube and black box: the matrix forms the fundamental basis of modernity, so much so that in their comic “Fever in Urbicand”, 1989, Belgian comic book artist François Schuiten and comic book writer Benoît Peeters depict the wild fantasies of the town planner as a steely matrix that devours the metropolises. Nowadays, new possibilities are opening up to create systematic structures either side of linear structures. Technology no longer goes against nature but is reflecting nature once again. The modern digital age makes things to measure which are capable of looking one way today and completely different tomorrow. “A waste of time and energy and violated material”, is how Adolf Loos described ornamentation in 1908. This statement turned him into a much quoted forefather of through and through rational modernity. However, the CNC milling machine doesn’t care what it tailors, whether they are flowers or strip connectors. What is more, traditional qualities suddenly take on new meanings: take atmosphere, for example, the feeling of walking through a living world. The very thing that hundreds of thousands of tourists are looking for when they visit the old towns of Regensburg, Barcelona or Genoa: the feeling of losing oneself and embarking on a voyage of discovery offers new possibilities. Frankfurt even attempted to revitalize its exhibition area, which remains nameless, into a network of alleyways and corners that appears to be spontaneous and not to follow a plan. This shows that in the future, emotion and rationality will no longer cancel one another out. In contrast: playful elements will click into the matrix, which is the fundamental building block of modernity. We are on the verge of witnessing modernism 2.0, whose rational core allows for a very wide range of applications and which can be compared to the operating system of a networked computer system, whose user interface can be adapted to individual needs. Flowers and tables based on a rigid matrix. Who would have thought it possible? But it works brilliantly. The matrix won’t let you down.