Addendum to the Golden Record
© Nicolás González Montofrédia, diagram of the Voyager Golden Record; images source: Wikimedia Commons.
It’s been forty five years since the launch of the interstellar probes known as Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. The two spacecrafts were to fly near Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune and collect data for back-to-Earth transmissions. Although this was the initial plan, a greater mission was ahead as the possibility of remotely reprogramming the onboard computers could have redefined their purpose of trying to grasp the far reaches of the solar system.
But having been able to travel millions of miles every single day, this meant an opportunity not only to receive information, but also to send information. A message. A mere glimpse on our civilization for an extraterrestrial ‘audience.’ An inventory of references representing our technological and cultural evolution boarded in the hope that it could someday tell the story of mankind, long after it had probably ceased to exist.
Greetings in ancient and modern languages, natural sounds and music were thus encrypted on two golden phonograph records and sent into space as time capsules for any advanced civilization that may encounter them, be it alien or far-future human. Along with the audio messages, the so-called “Golden Record,” one for each spacecraft, also carried 115 images – or an ‘iconographic autobiography’ of humanity, as I am trying to force an approach to the very intention of this text.
The committee responsible for designing these plaques, chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University, had, therefore, the crucial task of selecting those visual references which could express both concrete information about our achievements and something that has to do with the immaterial world – the human emotion. The joy of having a family dinner party, as shown in Michael Rougier’s photo, or the clumsy smile of a girl caught eating grapes in a supermarket, as shown in Herman Eckelmann’s photo, may render such emotions. At the same time, putting together the last two images written on the plaque – a string quartet and the photo of a violin along with the score for Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 (one of the music tracks on the record) – could also show the human’s ability of creating emotion through their work. These very last photographs, along with the music itself, could thus describe the act of producing such work as they represent the ones that are playing (the quartet), the result of what they are playing (the actual track) and, last but not least, the convention under wich they are playing (the score).
Depictions of architecture were also scattered among those 115 images, pictures of small human dwellings, as well as more complex man-made structures, such as The Great Wall of China, The Golden Gate Bridge or The Sydney Opera House, showing fragments of our evolution regarding the act of building. But although these examples are accompanied by ones revealing the process of constructing (the building of a vernacular brick house and that of a timber frame barn), a connection between them could never be drawn. I attribute this to the fact that there is no such thing as a ‘score’ for architecture embedded on The Golden Record. Therefore, a holistic view on making architecture could never be achieved in understanding this kind of human practice.
he fact that the architectural object is related only to the act of building leaves the convention under which this act is possible a mystery for our supposedly interstellar bretheren. Architectural plans, sections or facades were omitted to such an extent that the idea of a project for architecture – if Beethoven’s score can be perceived as a project for music – is something that is fundamentally missing from what aims to be an ambitious effort of capturing the human condition.
It is said that by the year 2025 all connections with the Voyagers will slowly pale, thus the spacecrafts will carry out our message on their own and may never be tracked again. If my humble remark proves to be legitimate, we might be facing an ultimatum for the possibility of adding to mankind’s ‘iconographic autobiography’ an addendum which may embody the very discipline of architecture.
If this were to be possible, what projects would we then ‘submit’?
What is it in the architectural plans, sections, and facades that can show the system in which a building is to be built, yet also describe the feeling of experiencing space within or around it?
Also, could these abstractions speak more about architecture than those photographs showing architecture itself can? I often think about answering these questions myself.
Maybe they can. Maybe there is some sort of an archaic understanding of space, its hierarchies, its ordering systems and contradictions that are beyond human condition. Maybe even aliens are driven by the same instinct for interpreting architecture as we are. If that is so, then what is indeed an alien perception of architecture?
In the very beginning of his lecture held at the Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest, architect Valerio Olgiati showed a plan representing the Zapotec Temple of Mitla, stating that in the context of not having any connection with European culture, Asian culture and so on, the building could be seen as if it was made by aliens.
“They came to the same conclusion in installing space as we do; so there is an archaic understanding or an archaic way of experiencing space.”
Olgiati selected the plan from his own iconographic autobiography – and I dare say it was not an arbitrary choice, as this is also the only image included in his notorious book, Non-Referential Architecture, a book that obstinately tries not to rely on such references. It is, therefore, the case of an exception. The succession of the temple’s distinct spatial systems and, at the same time, the connection between them, seem to best imply that maybe in the abstraction of an architectural object – in this case, the mere drawing of a plan – lies the idea of understanding “a universality in the experience of space.”
But if the so-called conventional representation can indeed speak authentically about the architectural project as the fundamental act of creating spaces which can determine a universal way of experiencing them, then what is it that is being truly abstracted within this convention?
This question may raise other, more specific ones, as we are now reffering not only to the common knowledge of a ‘guild’ or the historical agreement upon a way to represent and register its field of work. Architectural drawings may actually be the most referential way of visually communicating the idea of creating space to entities that are supposedly purely non-referential. In this regard, the concept of non-referentiality is to be seen not as a delineation of the architect from his own cultural landmarks, but as a necessary disruption between those landmarks and what is to be perceived in his work. In other words, it rests with the viewers rather than the author and it depends on their ability to interpret architecture.
Therefore, one can seek answers about what is there to be interpreted in the many types of representations related to an architectural project, apart from its physical dimension that can be virtually recomposed through them.
Can intuition be recorded in the very first sketches of a project? Can a project’s topic be extracted from its conventional drawings? Can the scale and specificity of a territory be captured in a site plan? Can the bearing capacity of a building, its structure, be shown in a section? Can material be identified in a construction detail? Can a building’s purpose be revealed by its facades? Can human propensity toward primary geometrical forms determine the very idea of a project? Can the recurrence of established models in our discipline be anticipated through all these types of representation?
Many other such connections between what we consider to be a condition for architecture and what is conventionally known as semiotics can occur. As I am now just relying on the likelihood of formulating such connections, I do not intend to answer these questions or similar ones on my own. This is merely an invitation for the authors of this issue to share their own perspective on the importance of architectural representation, an idea that was triggered for me by Valerio Olgiati’s very simple and yet so enticing analogy between the human and the alien perception of space.
Cosmin O. Gălățianu is an architect based in Bucharest. He studied architecture at UAUIM Bucharest where he is currently a teaching assistant in prof. arch. Iulia Stanciu’s studio. Since his graduation in 2016, he has been developing a doctorate on Valerio Olgiati’s architecture and has been invited for lectures or as a guest critic in different schools such as Accademia di Architettura in Mendrisio, Universität Kassel or Peter Behrens School of Arts in Düsseldorf. He has been working as an associate architect at STARH since 2016 and co-founded the architectural group Alt.Corp. in 2018.