Beyond Buildings


The Avatar of Architecture

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If you want to experience architecture beyond building, go see Avatar 3D. Once again, Hollywood has produced a challenge to buildings’ claims to frame, define, and contain human-made reality. Put on those newly trendy 3D glasses, wait for the lights to go out, and you are thrown into an environment in which technology floats or nature envelops, and everything in-between, from buildings on the screen to the building in which you are sitting, disappears.


The 3D aspect takes care of the latter disappearance and thus continues a movement away from the staging of an alternate reality in an architectural framework to the creation of a completely anonymous and endless space. Sitting in a stadium auditorium, where the arc and slope of the seats cause the remainder of the context to fall away, you suddenly find fiction right there, floating in front of you, when Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the main character, wakes up from his sleep in a pod and moves into the space right next to you. That pod is what remains of containment, and it is soon jettisoned. It is, however, the final defeat of building: Avatar’s story hinges around lying down in the pod, closing your eyes, and waking up in the jungle on the far-away planet of Pandora.


Floating World


There, human beings have built a military base, but the film’s director, James Cameron, never gives us a sense of what its contours or structures are. It exists as a landing pad, cavernous hangars, perimeter fences, and giant digging machines. Only occasionally, somewhere in the background, something that looks like a barracks or utility structure appears. Inside this controlled environment, what matters is that the air, otherwise toxic to humans, is filtered. Otherwise, you see vistas into eternity, curves around corners, and, above all else, equipment, lots of equipment. Even that techno-stuff has only limited reality: it consists mainly of screens and scrims that cannot even contain information. With thoughtless ease, scientists swipe images from one surface to another, carrying it with them through space.


Yes, we have seen this all before, but what is different now is the naturalness of this reality verging on the virtual as it floats all around us. And after a few years of playing with our iPhones and Wiis, we know it is not just science fiction. This will be our world, this is almost already our world, this is a world in which the notion of framing, founding, fixing, and staging can perhaps only survive as apps that have not yet been invented.




Step outside of this human-made world and you are in a jungle so dense and comprehensive that it makes the Amazon look like a city park. This Pandora is not just filled with rapacious beasts and luminescent flowers, however, but also with a kind of people, the Na’vi. These blue-skinned amalgams of computer simulation and human scanned humans move up, sideways, and around the foliage, turning it into an endless jungle gym where there is, once again, no ground, middle, and top, no limits and no frames. Parts of it even float, like a Magritte painting, in mid-air. There is no home or a village here: the Na'vi live in an immense tree, sleeping in hammocks that curve around their bodies in imitation of the pods in which Sully, the interloper, is actually sleeping when his avatar leaps from limb to limb with his new friends


Cameron’s message is unequivocal: human attitudes towards nature—from their desire to mine the ridiculously named unobtainium on Pandora, to their retreat into fortresses and their destruction of the great tree—are bad. Living in and with nature is good. What is remarkable is that the director gives us this message not just through the rather predictable story, but also through his spatial inventions. Watch Avatar 3D with the sound off and you still see the death of buildings. Buildings are bad—or, rather, irrelevant. Our choice is between swiping information and swinging from trees. Rapacious technology or revolution: architecture can be avoided.



Comments (5 Total)

  • Posted by: Jorge Gorostiza | Time: 7:50 AM Sunday, January 24, 2010

    I liked very much, if are intested in arcitecture and film, see

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:33 AM Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    Beautifully stated Mr. Betsky. Your blogs pleased immensely.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 5:04 PM Tuesday, January 19, 2010

    Aaron’s thesis misses the point and is annoyingly contrived. The world that Cameron and his team created is clearly an archetype of Eden, where God/Nature is the architect. Like the movie’s antagonists, Aaron sees paradise as threatening and uncivilized. Yet, much like Earth’s oceans, this organic place provides the physical, aesthetic, and spiritual needs of the native species.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:49 PM Friday, January 15, 2010

    the above post is just moronic. you should worship nature, because you are nature. unless you're a robot. are you a robot?,,, or just a moron?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:15 PM Friday, January 15, 2010

    Living in and with nature might be good in an imaginary Utopia, but much of the real world requires buildings that offer protection FROM nature. Beware of the Green movement turning us into worshipers of nature .

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.