The Horizontal Line
Written for the publication: Collective Misunderstandings as part of the show by the same name by the collective ATB.
The Horizontal Line
“Love, which is so useless today, will thus become one of the most brilliant mainsprings of the social mechanism” – Charles Fourier1
“The ‘heart’ as lived is strangely different from the heart as thought and perceived.” – Henri Lefebvre2
For this text, we begin with a blank sheet. In fact, the sheet is a blank document on my screen. The emptiness of content must have content inserted, and I am the person who can fill this empty space out. Therefore, the empty sheet is always a catalyser for me to start writing. As I am writing this, I do realise the fact that ‘I am sure this sheet is actually empty’ is a preconceived idea, which I have from a certain context and history.
Henri Lefebvre tells a story of 13th century Tuscany. It begins with the way how the bourgeoisie transformed the countryside in a dialectical development between the country and town. At this time, the bourgeois in Tuscany was, according to Lefebvre, an “urban oligarchy of merchant and burghers”. Among others, they organised domestic production for the town in the nearby countryside where the producers were ‘métayers’, farmers who received a share of what they produced. Meanwhile, the town bourgeois were too the main developers of space. Since they had an interest in the production of the mésayers, they constructed a specific type of built farmland in the empty fields of the countryside for the mésayers to live and work in. These constructions were very much based on symmetry and had the horizontal line as their conceptual starting points. As Lefebvre notes, these built spaces were introduced to the places where they were situated with the interest of increasing production. As this happened, a concept for designing architecture and urban environments emerged: “…artists ‘discovered’ perspective and developed the theory of it because a space in perspective lay before them…” Lefebvre continues: ”Out of this process emerged, then, a new representation of space: the visual perspective shown in the works of painters and given form first by architects and later by geometers. Knowledge emerged from a practice, and elaborated upon it by means of formalization and the application of a logical order.” And: “The point is merely that some artists and men of learning arrived at a very different representation of space: a homogeneous, clearly demarcated space complete with horizon and vanishing-point.”3
These quotes describe a history. This history is felt and reproduced by me and my conception of a blank sheet, an empty document, and an abstract space of ideas for the empty document is a constructed idea (the same goes for the role of the ‘artist’ and the ‘learned man’ as the person to fill out the ‘empty space’). It has its beginning with something similar to streamlining of space in order to accumulate the production of food. The cross-role of food producers and urban developers gave that bourgeoisie in Tuscany (and elsewhere) at that time a unique opportunity to come up with a way to control their production, thus their oligarchic state. They came up with a form of abstract space that in a way has defined how urban spaces today are developed – the control of space is a control of production and desire at the same time.
The legacy is the horizontal line, the idea of looking at a space as a blank sheet, an empty space. The first line is always given. This has gone a long way up through modernism and into the computer software of architects in contemporary design and urban planning. The idea of modernist housing blocks, as seen in suburban developments in most of the world, is conceived of as an empty space – the pre-spaces of the neighbourhoods are usually completely reformed to fit the massive housing blocks and their infrastructure. Furthermore, the concept of living of these blocks does something similar, by preconceiving the way of people’s life in general; in a sense, totally ignoring that people (might) live diverse lives. With the goal of minimum sustenance for each individual, the apartments and outdoor, shared spaces of these blocks are designed to keep people alive, not living their lives. Following the tradition of mixed streamlined production and life through constructed space, these developments follow the movement of the horizontal line: horizontally running over everything that is living. Such a space is an abstract space, which is a tool of domination and which destroys “differences that show signs of developing, in order to impose an abstract homogeneity”.4
However, is the horizontal line really the first step? Does every space not already have a social dimension? Lefebvre comes to this point. Would we come to the same point when we imagine a change of a given space? Or if we imagine a completely new space, a Utopia, do we then wipe out a social space of our own imagination?
Approximately two hundred years after the tale of Tuscany took place, Thomas More wrote his Utopia, forming a way of imagining not only space but also complete worlds. This feeds our imaginary muscles today, as well as the fantasies of utopian writers up until now. Another utopian writer, Charles Fourier, had many ideas of streamlining as well. He did not name it so, but he did look at preindustrial civilisation as a very inefficient way of producing. First of all, he was sure that he had discovered the secret of passionate attraction between people, to him something like a natural law like gravity. Secondly, he did not see the reason to fragmentise social reproduction. Out of this came the concept of the Phalanxes – baroque, symmetrical housing blocks that were spread out in the countryside. See a similarity to something previously described? Fourier thought of a very detailed system for passionate productive life. There is no work without passion, and no moment where every single person’s passion is not streamlined with their activity. Here, restrictions to passions and desires must be sought extinguished. To him, this is a high priority; it goes over other priorities such as technological progress.5
Thus, in my opinion, Fourier’s Phalanxes does not only resemble the production-streamlining process, started in Lefebvre’s Tuscany-story, going to the industrialized factory, on to the modernist housing unit. It also gives me a resembling feeling towards the 60’s and 70’s drop-out communes. When state modernism found that dense living and fragmented lives could indeed go hand in hand in a period of extensive boredom6 – productive streamlining here worked both at work and at home. It seems like a fair response to drop out from this situation and thought. On the other hand, perhaps the legacy of the horizontal line was not washed away in the drop-out experiments, as so many other concepts of living were sometimes brutally removed in order to get in with passionate love and new ways of communal living. Perhaps this somehow brutal washing away of a social and emotional landscape in order to start everything anew was coming directly from the hands of the 13th century architects as they drew the first line, horizontally going over houses, people, animals, bacteria, entire ecosystems and social spaces in order to wipe them out for the sake of, in this case, a streamlined life (of free love).
At the same time, both the drop-outers and Fourier seem to agree that love is important, and irrational. Fourier said: “Today young people disdain manias because to indulge in them is to invite ridicule. People forget that love is the domain of unreason…”7 Still we all indulge in a rationalistic mania of planning from a blank sheet, a straight line, an empty space. We insist that there is nothing before we start creating. It is a matter of perspective: how close you zoom in on things. The horizontal line only appears a straight line from a far distance. In the same way will a zooming in on every straight line in any circumstance make the line seem less straight at a certain point. Actually, all lines are curled and weird, in fact they are not really lines when one gets close enough. If you look around you, how many actual ‘lines’ do you see? It is like this everywhere, except in the vector driven software of contemporary architects and urban planners. Here the lines remain straight no matter how much is zoomed in on them. When a line is drawn, it is an actual line, a border by definition. Where does this leave architectural work in relation to lived life? Perhaps a little zooming in on the horizon, in terms of moving one’s body, would help. Then it is not only blindness or ignorance, for when Fourier’s passionate community of Harmony, the Phalanxes, becomes problematic is when asking the question: whose passion? As I imagine the realisation of Fourier’s detailed Utopia, it becomes clear to me that he has not given himself a role in it because his role is that of the architect’s – a passionate architect or a planner of passions. Even though I can relate to many of Fourier’s thoughts and ideas, as dissident to modern rationality and enlightenment, it still seems to me that when a preconceived idea is moved from the mind of one thinker to be lived by a group of people, reality becomes different. The same happens when a master plan exits its software and goes into actualization. Sometimes ideas become just too real when realized, too overruling, and what role does an imaginary mind play then?
In this sense, Utopia could not have one single author. To me it is a shared experience all the way through. Our lived life experience makes spaces of difference, difference to overcome estrangement to the other. It is a lived experience too, not able to become a preconceived, fixed space in any sense. This demands sensitivity towards how ideas are realized and a sensibility in relation to the power of the idea-makers – this can only happen in process, in situation. Therefore, we play Utopia, go on walks and eat Utopia communally as a flavour in the soup. The passionate organisation of the Phalanx will become in our intestines as we digest and salute. No line is a line, and no space can be said to be empty.
“I shall also take the liberty to switch between ‘I’ and ‘we’ as I please.”8
1: The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier, Jonathan Beecher & Richard Bienvenu red., p. 327
2: Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 40
3: All quotes and references in this paragraph are from: Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, pp. 78-79
4: Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 370
5: All references in this paragraph are from: The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier, Jonathan Beecher & Richard Bienvenu red.
6: Reference: Institute for Precarious Consciousness, Six Theses on Anxiety and Why It is Effectively Preventing Militancy, and One Possible Strategy for Overcoming It, found in the Danish translation in Brud 1 & 2
7: The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier, Jonathan Beecher & Richard Bienvenu red., p. 349
8: Anna Ørberg, Deviations, Island of Open Process, ATB