2017 Jimenez Lai


Hair Do's and Don'ts: A Brick Problem
The contrasting graphic techniques of the two The Lion King films demonstrate a jarring shift in representation between 1994 and 2019. In the first film, the individual hair strands are invisible, but the flattened, cartoon surfaces depicting a low-resolution hairstyle for each animal exaggerates their attitudes. These smooth surfaces make up the animals' fur, which the viewer perceives to be comprised of many parts only by way of the tufts at the edge. In the second film, a high-resolution attempt at realism demanded the articulation of individual hair strands at the expense of the characters' ability to emote. The fur is made up of so many highly defined individual parts that it appears continuous and approaches verisimilitude. This contrast, paralleled in architecture, highlights a compositional problem: easy 'parts' with easy wholes' or difficult 'parts' with no 'wholes.' The former prioritizes the legibility of a "hairstyle" silhouette to convey character, while the latter emphasizes the quality of an individual hair strand to display technological mastery.

This perceptual "experience" of surface, whether one whole or many parts, is elucidated by perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson. In The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Gibson states that "the perception of surfaciness depends on the proximity to one another of discontinuities in the optic array."[1] In other words, there needs to be a certain density of parts for one to perceive a surface instead of an array of many parts. In Gibson's experiments, which involved imperfect wall surfaces and a series of black and white rings, discontinuities were seen as the grain or density of a given surface. When the density was high, a continuous surface was perceived.


1. Not everything is about Michael Meredith – in this case, low- and high- resolution simply refer to an image's readability at multiple scales, its sharp details, dots per inch (DPI), and verisimilitude.

2.The more recent production's photorealistic depiction of The Lion King has been criticized by many for lacking the character's ability to emote. Perhaps, with the loss of abstraction, something more was lost. Meanwhile, in the low-tech 1994 analogue, the fur-as-surface lion gains in character what it lacks in resolution. See Roger Eber and Molly Freeman.
The Lion King film comparison of both conditions—the whole hairstyle dominating in the first movie, and the individual parts making up the whole in the second one—shows the inherent duality of fur-as-surface and fur-as-array. The 1994 fur is always flat and never multiple. By contrast, the 2019 fur, which is a product of the digital age, employs a topographic skin that is populated with a series of interrelated primary and secondary hairs. Adult Simba's mane consists of 700,000 strands of hair in which 1% are 'lead' hairs and guide the movement of any surrounding tresses.[2]

Architecture has always had a hair problem, too. The single follicle (or part) must necessarily negotiate with the hairstyle (or whole). As an irreducible, atomized absolute, the strand of hair is architecture's default single-pixel part that aggregates into a greater whole. It is one fraction of a modular, standardized, repeatable, rearrangeable, and replaceable system usually guided by an additive process. One ubiquitous example of this is the unit of the brick, which defines the scales and resolutions of an object, whether such object is as small as a wall or as large as a city. Rather than having any character of their own, architecture's hairs are only masterful and complete when they make up a hairstyle. Such hairs can be clay, terracotta, and mushroom bricks, but other times concrete masonry units, pillows, rooms, lawn chairs, skateboard off-cuts, and even megapixels. The hair versus the hairdo is a conceptual problem at the core of every compositional endeavor.

Much like film and animation, architecture has experienced a digital transformation in the last 30 years. In many cases, this transformation has moved away from the raster and toward the vector, assigning directionality and movement to architecture's parts. This suggests that component-based architecture has begun to swirl and coif in ways that make it behave even more like hair. As Caroline O'Donnell points out in Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships Between Architecture and Site, Tim Ingold's diagrams of a human's relationship to the earth and sky are best understood when one studies the effect of wind, weather, and land unto the human. Unlike an 'exhabitant,' an 'inhabitant' of the earth has an orientation, a gait, and hair to interface with the environment. This tactical relationship to context can also be perceived in ecologically responsive architecture, where a favoring of the edge condition of a given whole increases the legibility and performance of the architecture.

Meanwhile, those whose work followed the raster logic had a different relationship with the digital project. For instance, Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto were producing collages. Their 1989 Aktion Poliphile series was an aggregation of found objects in large raster clusters. To collage is to derive new meanings from parts with old meanings - the part-to-part relationship of the clusters to convey semiotic associations, and therefore cannot be broken down into smaller bricks. Therefore, context is indispensable in order for the collaged architecture to become characters. The clusters were recognizable images in themselves, which allowed them to obtain new meanings when rotated, interrupted, or surrounded by new meanings. The collage was more difficult to translate using the early rapid-prototyping technology, and it would take another decade or two for technology to catch up to the raster logic. Greg Lynn's Toy Furniture series in 2008 marked a significant transition point from which designers sought to find bricks, rather than make bricks. Similar to a collage where the image is composed of found objects, Lynn curated the bricks instead of prototyping them. Perhaps Lynn foresaw the problems ahead in the over-articulation of the single follicles with Blobwall; either the bricks needed to be simpler to produce, or the wholes must become more legible for the architecture to work. The zero-sum game of spending all efforts into the design and fabrication of individual parts contributes very little to a larger output or a project's reading across multiple scales. In the toy series, Lynn's solution was to simplify the parts by aggregating modified plastic toys and turning them into compression members for furniture.

To the List
2020.11.11: Many thanks to the invitation of Aristide Antonas, Jimenez Lai delivered a lecture about life on a desert island at ETH.
2020.11.11: Many thanks to the invitation of Aristide Antonas, Jimenez Lai delivered a lecture about life on a desert island at ETH.