Architecture of the Blink

[Image: “The ghost cinema” by Phill Davison, used through Creative Commons].

An article posted today on New Scientist suggests that, over the course of a 150-minute film, audience members will miss an incredible fifteen minutes simply through the act of blinking – but also that people watching a film tend to blink at the same time.
It’s called “synchronized blinking,” and it means that “we subconsciously control the timing of blinks to make sure we don’t miss anything important” – with the addendum that, “because we tend to watch films in a similar way, moviegoers often blink in unison.” That is, they blink during “non-critical” moments of plot or action, creating a kind of perceptual cutting-room floor.
On the one hand, then, I’m curious if this means that clever editors, like something out of Fight Club, might be able to insert strange things into those predicted moments of cinematic calm – moments deemed safe for blinking – simply to see if anyone notices, but I’m also left wondering if there is an architectural equivalent to this: a spatial moment inside a building in which it seems safest for us to blink.
In other words, do people not blink when they first walk into a space like Rome’s Pantheon or into Grand Central Station – or is that exactly when they do blink, as if visually marking for themselves a transition from exterior to interior?
It would seem, then, that if film has moments of synchronized blinking, then so might architecture – but when do we choose to blink when experiencing architectural space, and do those moments tend to occur for all of us at the same time?
How could we test this?

[Image: The Pantheon, photographed by Nicola Twilley].

Further, if there is, in fact, a moment inside a building somewhere where almost literally everyone blinks– say, in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art, or in a bathroom corridor in the history building at your own university – could we say that that space is somehow yet to be fully seen?
It is the spatial equivalent of those fifteen minutes of a film that no one realized they missed.
After all, perhaps there’s a detail in your own house that you’ve never actually seen before – and it’s because you tend to blink as you walk past it. Your own body assumes, outside conscious awareness, that this must be a safe space for blinking; it’s near a window, or the colors are very dull. Perhaps that’s how spiderwebs build up: you literally don’t see them.
On a much larger scale, meanwhile, are there stretches of highway somewhere outside town where the scenery gets a bit boring – and so everyone starts to blink, more or less at the same time, thus visually removing from collective cultural awareness that McDonald’s, or that abandoned house, tucked away over there beside the trees?
And could you locate that exact moment of blindness – could you find blinkspots throughout the urban fabric – and start to build things there? Architecture becomes a three-dimensional test landscape for the neurology of blinking.

[Image: A human blink, via Wikipedia].

For instance, if people driving 65 mph travel, say, five feet with every blink, then what spatial and architectural possibilities exist within that five feet?
What are the spatial possibilities of the blink?
I’m reminded of certain zoning laws in which you need to consider the exact amount of shadow your building will cast on the neighborhood around it before beginning construction.
But what about zoning for blinks? Can you zone a building for maximum blinks?
Or perhaps the opposite: a new genre of architecture, specially designed for Halloween fun houses, in which it’s too stressful to close your eyes even for a micro-second…

(Spotted via @jimrossignol).

15 thoughts on “Architecture of the Blink”

  1. Also consider the reverse blink – a technique I read somewhere ages ago and use to capture a particular view or image.

    Squeeze the eyes shut, and blink open for a second, like a camera. The image captured like this seems to impress more on the memory…

  2. On editors and blinking, the main book by Murch, a master on editing, is called "In the Blink of an Eye". He ellaborates a whole editing theory based on blinking and sinchronyzed blinking.
    He explains how he edited Coppola's "The Conversation" all based on Hackman's character blinks.
    That book is a great reading, even if you aren't interested in movies.

  3. I'd argue that while cinema is also multisensory, it is predominantly visual (secondarily auditory). Architecture (or our experience of space), is far more premised on other nuances (both subtle and obvious incarnations of taste, scent, sound, touch). So I don't know if blinking would really change our experience of a space in so far as the other sensory cues are giving us a sense of continuity.

    Film is premised on DIScontinuity. In fact, it's been said that film is actually the space BETWEEN the frames, not the content of the filmic frames themselves. It's the Gestalt principle of filling in the gaps to provide an illusion of continuity where there is none.

    People have experimented a lot with projecting frames at various rates per second to get the most beautiful (maybe not most life-like) moving image. Take for example digital video that is generally shot at 29.7 fields/frames per second (though there is 24p registering that is growing increasingly more popular).

    Watching that video at 29.7 gives you a sharper, grittier moving image while watching film's standard 24 frames per second gives the moving image this poetic softness – a sultry saturation. I guess one could argue that's because our mind's eye gets to fill in more of the movement. Imagination inserts magic.

    The blinking thing is fascinating because it basically doubles the amount of time lost and once you insert too much time between frames, you're losing information rather than creating it.

    I'm with you on the idea that this phenomena holds a lot of potential for how we conceptualize the design of architecture/space, but I don't know that 'the blink' is the correct metric to do so. Unless of course architecture began to change and move in a different time scale (i.e. changing 24 times a second like film does) or became really fragmented (with purposeful gaps). Regardless I'm all sorts of uncomfortable with premising any architecture on a visual standard alone.

    [[I guess we could think of places like elevators or airplanes as types of prolonged blinking (displacing the body because of visual disruption)?]]

  4. An auditory equivalent might come to mind then. At London's Royal Festival Hall, for instance. In order to isolate it from the trains of the Hungerford Bridge just next to it, this was famously designed as an 'egg in a box' – a concert hall suspended on concrete pillars within a second, outer structure housing circulatory spaces, bars, etc.. The principle works beautifully… almost always. I once heard Luigi Nono's Prometeo there, in the one exception. A 'tragedy of hearing', part of its method is to reduce occurrences to where, the general bombardment of the senses of modernity reversed, awareness of the qualities of sound reaches a maximum. Hours long, attention seems to reach a peak and plateau there, sensitivity settling at its most acute. For the first time in my experience a little auditory window pierced both the egg and the box, allowing in occasionally the gentle rumble of trains. Strangely, it was in no way distracting, but actually affirmative mutually of both the building and the piece training the ear to sound out its merest depths in a series of terribly slow reverse auditory blinks.

  5. There was a road in Georgia we would drive along fairly frequently to get to a certain area. After five years of driving that road, I noticed a set of what looked like abandoned industrial buildings of some kind not far off the road, surrounded by trees, with squatters living in and around it. Maybe not squatters, but there was evidence of habitation around it.

    Somehow, at that particular bend and dip in the road, with the trees leading up to it, I managed to not see that area for five years. When I did see it, I would make a point of noticing whether I saw it or not when we went that way.

    I don't know if it was from blinking, or just never looking at that side of the road or what. It was a little disconcerting.

  6. If a film is re-edited, I would imagine the blinkspots to change from the alteration of the content. In the same way, I think architecture within a physical blinkspot would cause it to be interesting enough to be visually perceived.

  7. The original article assumes ~.5 sec of information is lost for each blink. Who knows how accurate that is. A blink only lasts .05-.1 sec (a little bit longer than 1 frame in a movie). So if you miss a couple frames each time, you'll only literally not see about 2 minutes.

    As for the idea of people noticing if you edited something into a predicted "blink spot" — the original article reports that only 20%-30% of people blinked at the same times, so 70% of the theater is going to notice.

  8. In a fit of internet amnesia, I completely forgot I could post comments on blogs (that's what I get for reading through RSS so much, I suppose). I originally sent this directly to Geoff, and he suggested I post it here as well. But of course. (It also allows me to correct a terrible mistake: I didn't include the URL to Peter Watts' site/work:

    Peter Watts, a Canadian sf author, writes some mind boggling hard sf. His first novel, Starfish, takes place in a facility at the bottom of the Straight of Juan de Fuca, harvesting geothermal energy for the surface–and the facility is entirely populated by the only people whose mental states won't be affected by the lack of sun or confinement in such a terrible place: those who are already sociopathic. The architecture of sustained pathology? It's a fascinating look at how sociopaths deal with each other, with their environment and the sense of community that arises between humans in such close quarters. I use 'community' loosely.

    His 4th novel, Blindsight, is much different than his first 3 novels (Starfish is the first in the Rifters trilogy). It's an alien first-contact novel at its most superficial, but it's also a meditation on consciousness and a critique of human biology (and what humans believe is biological primacy). I felt like nothing more than a big bag of chemical reactions after reading the book. It was simultaneously depressing and life-affirmative. But before I digress too much, your post on blinking reminded me of some notes Watts makes at the end (referencing some biological glitches which play in the novel itself). I don't want to spoil it in case you're interested in reading (and it's a quick read: even available online under a CC license), but one of the biological glitches has to do with the probabilistic information processing the human vision system does. Problem with probabilistic processing in a system like vision, though, is that some data either isn't actually received or is thrown out. That is, we don't actually see continuously, but instead are taking rapid snapshots. It's almost as if we're "blinking" more often than we're physically blinking. Watts links to some great videos that demonstrate some of the visual/processing glitches at a site full of demos.

    I had never considered the architectural ramifications of such biological glitches before, but the extrapolations are fascinating and frightening.

  9. Thanks, Ryan! As said over email, I'll definitely look up Watts's work. Glad you posted the comment here, as well.

    Ariel, BLDGBLOG actually interviewed Walter Murch two years ago – it's a fascinating interview, I think, if you get a chance to read it: The Heliocentric Pantheon: An Interview with Walter Murch.

    These are very interesting comments, by the way – thanks to everyone who's stopped by.

    Blinking as a kind of unacknowledged editorial process is something that seems to deserve far more attention…

  10. Someone at MIT or somewhere should test this idea by creating a headset with a camera mounted on it that snaps a picture of the direction you are facing whenever a sensor detects you blinking. The images could complied into a portfolio. An interesting art project. Maybe I shouldn't post this comment!

  11. @ London Archaeologist and the Windowless Consultant

    That sounds just phenomenal! I'd really like to experience something like that.

    @ Eagle
    I think you perfectly captured the beauty (and simultaneously disorienting and frightening nature) of the ephemeral. Maybe the trick is, then, not to rely just on blinking as an organizing principal but expanding it to our understanding of how we perceive and create space. Dealing with that gap and our biological glitches (instead of feigning, and aiming for, perfection).

    Maybe a new 'trend' in design should be to incorporate more of that accidental experience – not just disclosure but actually a play on hiding – engaging the inhabitant through acts of discovery. Individualizing each person's experience depending on timing or how they see or how much they explore.

    Absolutely beautiful memory @ Eagle. I think it'll stay with me for a long time.

  12. A very enlightening post. 🙂 Thank you! Now I know why even when I watch a movie for 3 times already, every time there are seems new details that I never see before.

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