Esoteric Embodiment
Human Being Architecture
MIT 2017 SMArchS Design Thesis: Advisers William O’Brien Jr. + Mark Jarzombek

Aa-001-1-2 PostMordial-39This thesis speculates that common funerary practices do not reflect a wide enough range of contemporary cultural attitudes towards mortality, humanity, and end-of-life ritual. As human beings increasingly embrace the paradigms of bioinformatics and digital fabrication, this thesis proposes that alternative funerary practices will arise to reflect these cultural attitudes, with individuals taking on increasing levels of both personal and collaborative agency in the design of their own memorial artifacts, and those of their loved ones. Through a series of speculative models, this thesis projects a scenario in which a group of humans embrace their corporeal materiality and its internalized information as precious and sacred, to produce memorial artifacts that are constructed from their own biomatter, and that formally encode streams of genetic information. The artifacts become esoteric ‘post-mordial’ embodiments of human being, existing as totems of their lineage, and ‘momento mori’ for remaining humans.

This project develops, in tandem: (1) algorithmic systems for importing and formally encoding streams of genetic information, and (2) fabrication systems for extrusion printing water-based latex caulk via pneumatic power and CNC tools, using choreographed tool paths of robotic gestures to produce a series of speculative models. These 1:8 scale models simulate a process that reformulates the pulverized and slurried biomatter of a deceased human (or humans) with a formal translation of their genetic information, to create a unique artifact of architectural design, an artifact of human being.

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This project proposes that through new instruments and armatures, the human body serves as an increasingly inadequate description for the extents of human being, and that as an enterprise of plastic experimentation, the discipline of architectural design is equipped to explore and express these extents. The following diagram maps out continuously expanding notions of human corporeality in architectural design discourse, pointing to several moments in the discourse where humans have been enabled to rely decreasingly on the membrane of the human body through the absorption of new apparatuses and methodologies into the discipline.

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1. Contemporary archaeological discourse places the origin of the hominin (previously referred to as ‘hominid’) to approximately seven million years ago, with Michel Brunet’s archeological team’s 2002 discovery of “Toumaï,” the Sahelanthropus tchadensis found in the central African nation of Chad. In The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors, Ann Gibbons (Science magazine correspondent on human evolution) summarizes the rationale for this attribution: “Teeth and skull show ‘human’ features, and possibly signs of upright walking.” (Gibbons xii-xiii) This delineation in evolutionary lineage—however (arguably) arbitrary—marks a potential beginning point for our story, for the story of human being.

Human being walking (maybe). Human being talking (maybe). Human being naked.

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2. In Architecture of First Societies: A Global Perspective, Mark Jarzombek (Professor of the History and Theory of Architecture at MIT) describes “the earliest evidence so far of a man-made structure,” approximately 1.8 million years ago at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania: “a circle of lava stones that were the remains of a hut or windbreaker consisting of branches anchored at the base by stones piled into heaps and spaced on the circumference about every .7 meters.” (Jarzombek 3) Presumably constructed to supplement the human body’s membrane for purposes of climatic comfort and protection, this location symbolically marks the beginning of conscious human intervention with the environment through “social order and spatial differentiation,” and the ongoing enterprise of homo faber for the purposes of bodily wellbeing and satisfaction. (4) The structure—and its surrounding locale, which is scattered with a wide range of stone tools and other human artifacts—might also be viewed as a signpost for the foundation of cultures of toolmaking technē, design methodology, and ontological construction; the inauguration of architectural design discourse.

Human being cultured. Human being mindful. Human being sheltered.

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3. In the Journal of Archaeological Method & Theory, Ian Gilligan (Department of Archaeology at the University of Sydney) postulates, through an analysis of Paleolithic tools and human migratory and thermal models, “The Prehistoric Development of Clothing” as beginning approximately one hundred thousand years ago. (Gilligan 32) The author defines ‘clothing’ to “denot[e] items that act to enclose or cover the body,” and situates its development as a part of the larger technological shifts in human capacity that enabled human populations to expand, and migrate into less climatically temperate geographic regions. (17) The advent of clothing would further decrease the human reliance on the membrane of the body, in order to adapt to relative changes in environmental conditions. The mission of the architectural design discourse took on mobile, nomadic, and increasingly transformative—or ‘dominion-ative’—aspirations.

Human being active. Human being capable. Human being clothed.

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4. In 1967, the discursive entity of architecture again expanded its role through another shift in paradigm: the cover for the February issue of Architectural Design featured an image of a human spacesuit. (AD37 cover) The discipline of architecture now encompassed the motivation for the human body to survive not only within the atmosphere of the planet, but also in the vacuum of space outside of it. This new instrumentation almost altogether augmented the body’s membrane, adequately simulating the necessary atmospheric conditions under which the human body had previously evolved. As a technological armature for preserving the pre-existing environment of the human body and catering to its ‘natural’ functions, the spacesuit fit comfortably within the discourse of architectural design, continuing the territorial expansion of humankind into previously impossible domains.

Human being extra-human. Human being otherworldly. Human being extra-atmospheric.

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5. In 1997, another sea change quietly occurred. The New York Stock Exchange commissioned Asymptote Architecture to design a “Virtual Trading Floor,” a digitally simulated virtual environment. (Amelar 140) Architecture could now exist without being physically inhabited, facilitating human processes without need for the entire human body, but merely its cognitive faculties and interactive appendage(s). Supplanting the direct bodily inhabitation of architecture through simulated spatial experience, the architectural design discourse lost its direct obligation to the human body. This continues to compound through the rise of biomechatronic augmentations for the human body, including synthetic organs and prosthetic limbs, which have effectively reduced matters of mortal concern for the body and its contents.

Human being supplemented. Human being transformed. Human being virtualized.

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A desire to transcend the human body is a common characteristic in human beings. Whether through biological programming, environmental conditioning, or individual autonomy, humans seek to connect with each other, to connect with a collective, to connect with something greater, to connect with a higher power, to go on living, to see what the future holds, to continue to exist in some way or another, to see what it’s like, to escape this form of existence, to have another chance, to find new opportunity, to confront their mortality, to be remembered. In many ways, human beings use architecture to facilitate this desire for transcendence and its diverse manifestations, including houses of worship, funerary constructs, and memorials.

In “Architecture as Membrane,” Georges Teyssot (Professor in the School of Architecture at Laval University, Quebec) speculates that a human’s being extends beyond the physical extents of their contiguous body, as a continuously fluctuating architectural membrane. The human body itself is not an adequate membrane, or a comprehensive embodiment for human being. Human beings consume and excrete. Human beings produce and deplete. Human beings procreate and expire; grow and decompose. These phenomena extend beyond the boundaries the human body, but are fundamental—perhaps inarguably—to human being. Building from Teyssot’s conception of architecture as the membrane for “a continuous, fluid” human, this project positions the discourse of architectural design as an arena to explore, define, and even create expanded notions of human being, corporeality, and selfhood.

This project speculates that the discourse has the opportunity to progress further on this trajectory, to move beyond obligations to the human membrane, to human being architecture, whereby artifacts of human creation can exist as externalized augmentations to an individual’s intellective sense of self-identity.

Human being post-corporeal. Human being transcendent. Human being architecture.

Aa-001-04 PostMordial-04Look. Taste. Touch.

Aa-001-04 PostMordial-11Carnac stone field, United Kingdom.
Photo credit: Clemens Koppensteiner, “Stones in the Fog 1” (2005).

Aa-001-04 PostMordial-12Human Being Architecture.

Aa-001-04 PostMordial-13Physical Model Photographs [Water-based latex caulk extrusion-printed via pneumatic power on CNC ShopBot];
Diagram-Drawings: Tool Path Choreography Plans, Axons, Elevation [Rhino, Grasshopper, Mastercam, AutoCAD, Ps, Ai]


Sarah Amelar, “Asymptote’s Dual Projects for the NYSE Span Both Real and Virtual Realms,” Architectural Record 187 (1999): 140-145.
Ann Gibbons, The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors (New York: Doubleday, 2006).
Ian Gilligan, “The Prehistoric Development of Clothing: Archaeological Implications of a Thermal Model,” Journal of Archaeological Method & Theory 17.1 (2010): 15-80.
Mark Jarzombek, Architecture of First Societies: A Global Perspective (Hoboken: Wiley, 2013).
M.D. Leakey, Olduvai Gorge Volume 3: Excavations in Beds I and 11, 1960-1963 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971).
John McHale, guest ed., Architectural Design 37 (1967).