Roentgen Objects, or: Devices Larger than the Rooms that Contain Them

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

An extraordinary exhibition last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured mechanical furniture designed by the father and son team of Abraham and David Roentgen: elaborate 18th-century technical devices disguised as desks and tables.

First, a quick bit of historical framing, courtesy of the Museum itself: “The meteoric rise of the workshop of Abraham Roentgen (1711–1793) and his son David (1743–1807) blazed across eighteenth-century continental Europe. From about 1742 to its closing in the early 1800s, the Roentgens’ innovative designs were combined with intriguing mechanical devices to revolutionize traditional French and English furniture types.”

Each piece, the Museum adds, was as much “an ingenious technical invention” as it was “a magnificent work of art,” an “elaborate mechanism” or series of “complicated mechanical devices” that sat waiting inside palaces and parlors for someone to come along and activate them.

If you can get past the visual styling of the furniture—after all, the dainty little details and inlays perhaps might not appeal to many BLDGBLOG readers—and concentrate instead only on the mechanical aspect of these designs, then there is something really incredible to be seen here.

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

Hidden amidst drawers and sliding panels are keyholes, the proper turning of which results in other unseen drawers and deeper cabinets popping open, swinging out to reveal previously undetectable interiors.

But it doesn’t stop there. Further surfaces split in half to reveal yet more trays, files, and shelves that unlatch, swivel, and slide aside to expose entire other cantilevered parts of the furniture, materializing as if from nowhere on little rails and hinges.

Whole cubic feet of interior space are revealed in a flash of clacking wood flung forth on tracks and pulleys.

As the Museum phrases it, Abraham Roentgen’s “mechanical ingenuity” was “exemplified by the workings of the lower section” of one of the desks on display in the show: “when the key of the lower drawer is turned to the right, the side drawers spring open; if a button is pressed on the underside of these drawers, each swings aside to reveal three other drawers.”

And thus the sequence continues in bursts of self-expansion more reminiscent of a garden than a work of carpentry, a room full of wooden roses blooming in slow motion.

[Images: Photos courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

The furniture is a process—an event—a seemingly endless sequence of new spatial conditions and states expanding outward into the room around it.

Each piece is a controlled explosion of carpentry with no real purpose other than to test the limits of volumetric self-demonstration, offering little in the way of useful storage space and simply showing off, performing, a spatial Olympics of shelves within shelves and spaces hiding spaces.

Sufficiently voluminous furniture becomes indistinguishable from a dream.

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

What was so fascinating about the exhibition—and this can be seen, for example, in some of the short accompanying videos (a few of which are archived on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website)—is that you always seemed to have reached the final state, the fullest possible unfolding of the furniture, only for some other little keyhole to appear or some latch to be depressed in just the right way, and the thing just keeps on going, promising infinite possible expansions, as if a single piece of furniture could pop open into endless sub-spaces that are eventually larger than the room it is stored within.

The idea of furniture larger than the space that houses it is an extraordinary topological paradox, a spatial limit-case like black holes or event horizons, a state to which all furniture makers could—and should—aspire, devising a Roentgen object of infinite volumetric density.

A single desk that, when unfolded, is larger than the building around it, hiding its own internal rooms and corridors.

Suggesting that they, too, were thrilled by the other-worldly possibilities of their furniture, the Roentgens—and I love this so much!—also decorated their pieces with perspectival illusions.

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

The top of a table might include, for example, the accurately rendered, gridded space of a drawing room, as if you were peering cinematically into a building located elsewhere; meanwhile, pop-up panels might include a checkerboard reference to other possible spaces that thus seemed to exist somewhere within or behind the furniture, lending each piece the feel of a portal or visual gateway into vast and multidimensional mansions tucked away inside.

The giddiness of it all—at least for me—was the implication that you could decorate a house with pieces of furniture; however, when unfolded to their maximum possible extent, these same objects might volumetrically increase the internal surface area of that house several times over, doubling, tripling, quadrupling its available volume. But it’s not magic or the supernatural—it’s not quadraturin—it’s just advanced carpentry, using millimeter-precise joinery and a constellation of unseen hinges.

[Images: Photos courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

You could imagine, for example, a new type of house; it’s got a central service core lined with small elevators. Wooden boxes, perhaps four feet cubed, pass up and down inside the walls of the house, riding this network of dumbwaiters from floor to floor, where they occasionally stop, when a resident demands it. That resident then pops open the elevator door and begins to unfold the box inside, unlatching and expanding it outward into the room, this Roentgen object full of doors, drawers, and shelves, cantilevered panels, tabletops, and dividers.

And thus the elevators grow, simultaneously inside and outside, a liminal cabinetry both tumescent and architectural that fills up the space with spaces of its own, fractal super-furniture stretching through more than one room at a time and containing its own further rooms deep within it.

But then you reverse the process and go back through in the other direction, painstakingly shutting panels, locking drawers, pushing small boxes inside of larger boxes, and tucking it all up again, compressing it like a JPG back into the original, ultra-dense cube it all came from. You’re like some homebound god of superstrings tying up and hiding part of the universe so that others might someday rediscover it.

To have been around to drink coffee with the Roentgens and to discuss the delirious outer limits of furniture design would have been like talking to a family of cosmologists, diving deep into the quantum joinery of spatially impossible objects, something so far outside of mere cabinetry and woodwork that it almost forms a new class of industrial design. Alas, their workshop closed, their surviving objects today are limited in number, and the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is now closed.

Trap Rooms

While finalizing my slides for tonight’s lecture at SCI-Arc, I was reading again about one of my favorite topics: trap streets, or deliberate cartographic errors introduced into a map so as to catch acts of copyright infringement by rival firms.

[Images: A “trap street” on Google Maps, documented by Luistxo eta Marije].

In other words, if a competitor’s map includes your “trap street”—a fictitious geographic feature that you’ve invented outright—then you (and your lawyers) will know that they’ve simply nicked your data, giving it a quick redesign and trying to pass it off as their own.

But this strategy of willful cartographic deception is not always limited to streets: there can be trap parks, trap ponds, trap buildings.

And trap rooms.

Earlier this week, I was reading about the rise of internal navigation apps for mobile phones, apps that will help you to find your way through otherwise bewildering internal environments. Large shopping malls, for instance, or unfamiliar subway stations.

From the New York Times:

A number of start-up companies are charting the interiors of shopping malls, convention centers and airports to keep mobile phone users from getting lost as they walk from the food court to the restroom. Some of their maps might even be able to locate cans of sardines in a sprawling grocery store.

Whichever company can upload the most floorplans before everyone else will, presumably, have quite an economic advantage. So how could you protect your proprietary map sets? What if you’re the only company in the world with access to maps of a certain convention center or sports stadium or new airport terminal—how could you keep a rival firm from simply jacking your cartography?

[Image: Photo by Laura Pedrick for The New York Times].

Introduce false information, perhaps: trap halls, trap stairs, trap attics, trap rooms. Nothing sinister—you don’t want people fleeing toward an emergency stairway that doesn’t exist in the event of a real-life fire—but why not an innocent janitorial closet somewhere or a freight elevator that no one could ever access in the first place? Why not a mysterious door to nowhere, or a small room that somehow appears to be within the very room you’re standing in?

It seems to be a mapping error—but it’s actually there for copyright protection. It’s a trap room.

On one level, I’m reminded of a minor detail from Joe Flood’s recent book The Fires, where we read that John O’Hagan, New York City’s Fire Commissioner, used to drive around town with blueprints of local buildings stored in the trunk of his car. If there was ever a fire in one of those structures, and his men would have to find their way through smoke-filled, confusing hallways, O’Hagan would have the maps. But is there a kind of Fire Department iPhone app? Could this be downloaded by everyday citizens and used in the event of emergency? What about a Seismic App for earthquake-prone cities like Los Angeles? Going into any building becomes a considerably safer thing to do, as your phone automagically downloads the relevant floorplans. Perhaps buildings known to be fire hazards, or known to be earthquake-unsafe, are somehow red-flagged as a warning before you step inside. (In such a context, the first person to become Mayor on foursquare of every earthquake-unsafe building in Los Angeles wins cult status amongst certain social groups).

But I’m also curious about less practical things, such as what cultural, even psychological, effects the presence of trap rooms might actually have. Games could be launched, the purpose of which is to find and occupy as many trap rooms as possible. New paranoias emerge, that the room featured above your apartment on the new app you just downloaded is not really there at all; it’s a trap room. You can’t sleep at night, worried that you actually have no neighbors, that you’re the last person on earth and every building around you is a dream. There are panic attacks and feelings of unreality, that no map can be trusted, that you’ve been living in a trap building all along. An Atlas of Trap Rooms is then released, with a foreword by Kevin Slavin.

These and other subtle geographies—trap architectures—awaiting detection all around us.

Quadraturin and Other Architectural Expansionary Tales

While I’m announcing things, I also want to give a heads up to anyone in the Los Angeles area that I’ll be lecturing on Wednesday evening, October 13th, over at SCI-Arc, speaking on the subject of “Quadraturin and Other Architectural Expansionary Tales.” I’ll be delving into the long-running subtheme on this site of the role of architectural ideas in poetry, myth, comics, and fiction, from the ancient to extreme futurity.

From “trap streets” in London and the fiction of China Miéville to the folklore of The First Fossil Hunters and myths of Alexander’s Gates—to, of course, Quadraturin—by way of Franz Kafka, Mike Mignola, Rupert Thomson, 3D-printing bees, haunted skyscrapers, neutrino storms, the Cyclonopedia, and much more, the talk will be a quick rundown of both the narrative implications of architecture and the architectural implications of specific storylines.

It’s free and open to the public, and there’s an insane amount of parking, so hopefully I will see some of you there. Here’s a map. Things kick off at 7pm.