Instrumental Plausibility

Words by Shane Reiner-RothKyle Branchesi

“For me, it is the very perfection of architecture that removes its own traces, and where space becomes thought itself.” Jean Baudrillard, ARCHITECTURE: TRUTH OR RADICALISM?, 2013

A woman walks into a shop. The employee behind the counter asks her to hand him a small box by her feet for inspection. She picks it up, concerned about its apparent weightlessness. Responding to a label on the box reading ‘OPEN ON SITE’, he places it on the countertop and cuts the packaging tape; the lid opens and reveals a basketball, shortly followed by a bowling bowl coming from the same small box. The woman stands back in shock as he casually explains the situation to her. “They ship the bowling balls with the basketballs, because it’s lighter… the air. Yeah.” Dumbfounded by the nature of this technique, she asks a round of frantic questions with the employee answering to purposely confuse her: she is on a hidden camera magic television show called The Carbonaro Effect, he is actually a magician named Michael Carbonaro, and there is still no way as of yet to invert the air in a bowling ball.

Before having their bubbles burst, the unsuspecting participants of the show typically express confusion, gratitude, curiosity and even anger, but never skepticism. Even when clearly bored by the demonstration, they cannot help but add what they witness to their catalogue of reality. They observe and, if only for a moment, believe in the existence of capsule rafts, laundromat slot machines, transmogrifiers, instantaneous growth hormones and other developments that seem to accelerate what is possible in technology and reality in general.

Carbonaro’s act is much more potent than that of most other street performers and theatre magicians for one reason: rather than rely on the supposed credibility that velvet capes and other supernatural pretensions can provide, he removes these signifiers entirely to create totally ordinary settings and situations. In other words, his acts are only credible through the erasure of ‘magic’ and a focus, instead, on inclusive realism. His announcer states, “Hiding in plain sight, he makes them fall for the impossible…”

When an audience is told they are about to witness magic—typically past a marquee and under flashing lights—they filter out all the add-ons to look instead for common deception methods, such as slight of hand, mirrors and invisible forklifts. In Carbonaro’s act, the participants put their guard down, never assuming they should have put their guard up in the first place. His performances hang in a delicate balance between the ordinary and the outstanding, mining a territory described here as ‘instrumental plausibility.’ They are essentially hoaxes, producing a tenable addition to reality for more than one second and less than permanence.

The greatest struggle a performer in any field deals with is their audience’s disbelief; disbelief in their research, disbelief in their skills and disbelief in their promises. To believe is to entrust, and instrumental plausibility identifies and removes the lapses in faith that come with the presentation of anything spectacular.

The audience for architectural proposals has become especially jaded by the onslaught of dramatic imagery and foolhardy ambitions, finding admiration instead in anything they understand to be fully realised, ‘built’ projects. To get anything built at all is the spectacle today—a consequence of the lowering of expectations over time. Blogs and monographs play a major role in this polarising view of an architect’s success rate. They are to an architect what the theatre stage is to a magician. Those that intermix realised and unrealised buildings treat their content with varying levels of detail. The realised buildings are exhaustively photographed by a professional, documenting the way the bathroom tiling meets the urinals; poor interior lighting is justified by reasonable constraints. The building’s corners are focused on to reveal the many hours of labor that must have gone into their detailing, while all the material imperfections are on display.

A building proposed or UNREALISED, on the other hand, is often handled with insecurity: a few money shots equipped with birds and lightning, interior shots with light mysteriously hitting all the elements with even care and shadowless people thrown around for good measure. REALISED buildings are presented as reality—something to be proud of because they can be added to what we know and expect to exist—while proposals are treated as cheap magic, with the fishing line clearly visible.

How can architects gain credibility without built work? Like their magician brethren, they should expect to remove the traces of their practice by aligning their proposals as closely to reality and other outlets as possible; to consider photos of the building as it might live and breathe. Between reality and cheap magic are hoaxes, and this is perhaps where architects can most effectively apply their skills.

Deceptive imagery has been performed on architecture recently, but only under the guise a photographer. With the aid of rendering and photo editing software, as well as a deep understanding of the gravity of realism, Filip Dujardin and Philipp Schaerer—each in their own way—distribute nearly incontestable photographs of eccentric buildings. They are both quick to say that they are not architects, and are photographers with the added talent of delicately photoshopping false buildings into real contexts. Dujardin takes advantage of our familiarity with the strange architecture of former soviet countries by pretending to newly uncover additions to its collection, mimicking both its formalism and materiality. Schaerer’s photos are of perfectly constructible barn houses and box galleries. They are chillingly minimal, but an unknowing audience would have no reason to disbelieve their existence. The world is big and full of wonderful things, so why wouldn’t these be in some part of it?

These images are the equivalent to Carbonaro’s air­inverted bowling ball, though one look at their creator’s bios is their version of pointing out the hidden camera. Without birds or lightning, these performances rid themselves of the pomp of the discipline to instead ‘reveal’ the labour-intensive corners as confidently as their more truthful counterparts.

As architects yearning for credibility, our task is to increase the duration of whatever positive attributes a client might anticipate from us and our profession. Douglas Monroe once said that true magic is the art and science of changing states of mind at will, and so we must consider any act necessary to get our foot in the door.

Of course, we recognise the potential danger of discussing instrumental plausibility this openly, so please: let’s keep this a secret, just between us.

Illustration Courtesy of Samra Avdagic