Ruins, architecture, and morphology (2011.2.1[Tue.])


The scholar of visual design Barbara Stafford observed that elements common to those found in atlases of human anatomy can also be found in the work of Piranesi, the 18th century Italian architect noted for his detailed etchings of ruined buildings. We can see the influence of anatomy in culture, and that of culture in studies of anatomy and physiology. The humanities and physical sciences both take place within and respond to history, and Stafford notes in her book "Body Criticism" that what we see in our visual compendia are the result of those forces, a thought that should stimulate readers in the life sciences as much as anyone. It is also food for thought about how morphology should be studied and depicted.

    I'm a big fan of ruins, real or in photography or engravings, as the loss of external structures brings the once compartmentalized inner and outer spaces of a building into contact, laying bare the forms and inspirations that undergirded it. It is a rediscovery of spatial relations. And the resemblance of a ruined building to a disassembled human body is undeniable. In these we can see at last structures, functional relationships, and precise designs that long lay hidden, and are soon to be lost again. The record is necessarily accurate and unambiguous in its detail. Anatomical drawings also strive for this precision; it is a spirit shared by natural history. Dissection and division as a path to understanding; it's a feature common to the budding scientist's sketches of their ambitious inventions and children's landmark-studded maps to buried treasure as well. All such atlases and anatomies seek to unveil the Big Picture.

    In July 2010, while I was participating in the International Society of Vertebrate Morphology in Punta del Este, Uruguay, I thought I found a number of dilapidated buildings while walking about the town. On closer inspection, I found that all were hotels were actually under construction, rather than succumbing to destruction (see Fig.). In Japan, due to construction law or some practice, buildings under construction are kept hidden behind plastic sheets or temporary walls, so we rarely have the chance to see an unfinished building in all its glory. The hotels in Uruguay that were being built were indistinguishable from ones in the process of being torn down. There is a fundamental similarity between development and dissection.

    An interest in ruins reveals curiosity as to how things are made. It is the very basis of love. In the sense of its revelation of the secret and concealed, destruction is the counter face of construction. The same is true in biology. By seeing the bones and muscles that lie beneath the skin, by examining the connections of the parts of the digestive tract, we gain an understanding, and begin to gain a sense of their origins. The same is true of embryology. In which we seek to understand how a single cell can divide, differentiate and form the structures from which the body emerges. If anatomy seeks to reduce the completed whole to its component parts, embryology pursues the logic of its construction. The same symmetry is seen in ruins and construction sites - these are visual revelations of the logic of morphology, an instant frozen in time.

    Embryology and anatomy both seek to unriddle the same mysteries, by following threads in different directions through time. What true biologist could claim to be interested in one, but not the other? Many fields of biology look at the whole through a single mesh in the structural web, but anatomy takes the more direct and simpler approach of examining its essential features. It is an investigation in the truest sense; a pursuit.

    When seen through that eye of investigation, Paris is blessed with may anatomical structures. The Eiffel Tower is a four-legged animal with its bones, nerves and vasculature exposed, and the Palais Royal and Gare de Lyon another example of the same, while some passages can be seen as the interior of a womb. That spaces for human activity have such clearly organic and anatomic structures is no stranger than that cities have their own physiologies.

    Cartography is another stimulant for the anatomist's sense of pursuit. When we seek out birthplaces or downtown spots where we once went on dates, it is like tripping (in all senses) through four dimensions in the mind. Looking down through the monitor gives a sense that can only be described as omnipotence. But the author Kobo Abe had already described this autistic form of seeing more than twenty years ago in his novel Hakobune sakura maru (The Ark Sakura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter). At the time, we began to have the first glimpses of virtual experience, and now we can travel the digital globe at any magnification and following any vector. As I write this, I am sitting in an airport in Atlanta (itself named for the world-bearing Titan of Greek myth), but using this same computer can browse an atlas of the world as detailed as any book of anatomy. When we use it to recall a town of memory past, we do so with a sense of dissecting, and inspecting, our world.