John Lobell addresses how new technology changes our consciousness, which in turn leads to cultural paradigm shifts. He received his degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and is a professor of architecture at Pratt Institute. His interests include creativity, architecture, cultural theory, consciousness, mythology, and movies. He has lectured throughout the world and is the author of numerous articles and several books.
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Quantum Theoretical Issues in Architecture: It’s A Lot Stranger Than We Think

John Lobell

(An edited version was submitted Fall 2003 to tarp, a publication of the School of Architecture, Pratt Institute.)

“Every architect is–necessarily–a great poet. He must be a great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age.”  ~Frank Lloyd Wright, London lectures, 1938

“Architecture depends on its time. It is the crystallization of its inner spirit, the slow unfolding of its form.”  ~Mies van der Rohe, Speech at IIT, 1950

… quantum theory is our basic theory of the physical world. All construction is quantum construction.”  ~David Deutsch, Edge interview, 2000

In the period of classic modernism, from the 1920s through the 1940s, there was an intense awareness of the impact of relativistic space-time on architecture as evidenced in Gideon’s Space Time and Architecture . We today are in the midst of an equally revolutionary upheaval in our awareness of space and time, yet we have not systematically rethought this most fundamental aspect of architecture. This essay is meant to serve as a brief outline of some of the issues we will have to address in our new quantum world of entanglement, superposition, M-branes, parallel universes, strings, and quantum computing. The world, even on an everyday level, is a lot stranger than we think it is.

Architecture is in and of its era:
•  It is built into the space and time of its era
•  It is built of the materials and methods of construction of its era
•  It is built out of the structures of consciousness of the people of its era
•  It is built in the socio-culture context of its era

Each period in architectural history is characterized by these four imperatives, but in this essay we will focus on space and time.

The architecture of the Renaissance, exemplified by Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, along with perspective painting, exemplified by Raphael’s School of Athens, manifest the same instantaneously juxtaposable space and time as does Newton’s physics. The rich spatial complexities of Maxwell’s field theory can be seen in Impressionist painting, the transparency of the Crystal Palace, and the spatial complexities of Beaux Arts architecture. The existential space-time of Wright’s Open Plan in his Robie House, as well as that of Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion, along with Cezanne’s and Cubist painting and Proust’s and Joyce’s novels, manifest Einstein’s relativistic space-time.

We can see clearly the relationship of the space and time of Newton’s physics to that of perspective painting and of Renaissance architecture. All three are dependant on a uniform, continuous space that is occupied by objects. This is Newton’s stated theory; it is depicted by the perspective grid; and it is implied by the dual axis symmetry of the Villa Rotonda, which implies the reality of the parts we are not observing. Likewise, all three exhibit instantaneous juxtaposition. We see this in Newton’s concept of momentum, or the velocity of an object at an instant. We see this same notion in perspective painting, which tells us the motion of a figure by depicting one frozen moment, and implying what came before and what will come after. And we see it again in the Villa Rotonda, which assures us that the other side of the building is there even though we have not yet arrived there.

There cannot be a direct causal effect from Newton to the artists and architects of the Renaissance–Newton’s Principia Mathematica was published in 1687, while Brunelleschi developed perspective in the 1400s, and Palladio built the Villa Rotonda in 1550. What then is the relationship? All three derived from a change in consciousness in that era from aural to visual, and particularly to the fixed focus center of vision exercised by reading, which becomes more important with Gutenberg’s development of movable type and the printing press. The part of the brain used in reading is linear and logical. The exercise of reading makes this part of the brain dominant, leading to a total restructuring of consciousness. Likewise, Einstein’s relativity, Proust’s and Joyce’s novels, Cezanne’s and Cubist painting, and Wright’s Open Plan all develop in a world that was beginning to be enveloped with an exo-nervous system of electric communications.

Our approach here can be summarized as follows: With Hegel, we recognize that a cultural era has a deep structure or worldview, and that the changing of these deep structures is the defining essence of history. With Marx, we recognize that technology drives that change. With McLuhan, we recognize that the true essence of the change is in consciousness; technology, through extensions, changes consciousness. That is to say that technologies act as extensions of ourselves, changing us (our body-subjects as Merleau-Ponte would say) and the operations of our consciousness. People in a culture that uses a phonetic alphabet will be dominated by the linear-logical processes of that part of the brain that is developed by reading, while those in a culture that is immersed in electronic media will have a holistic worldview.

The media of our culture today is very different from that of 1900 and even from that of just twenty years ago. Our ability to easily accept films like Groundhog Day , Memento , T2 and The Matrix grows out of the way our experiences navigating the Net and moving through the space-times of computer games has completely rewired our minds. It is easy to forget how rapidly our world has changed. While India has been long comfortable with infinities, our little world surrounding the Mediterranean has until very recently lived in a bounded universe. Newton saw our solar system as surrounded by the fixed stars. It was not until 1924 that Hubble discovered that ours is only one of countless galaxies, and 1927 that he discovered that our universe is expanding. The big-bang model was developed by George Gamow in the 1940s. All of this is within the memories of many living today. Our comfort with sliding on the surfaces of membranes in infinite seas of universes filled with strings and virtual particles popping in and out of existence is very recent.

Just the way we can regard Newton’s physics and cosmology along with perspective painting as a diagram of the mind that produced it (to use the term developed for chip pirating, we can “reverse engineer” Newton’s laws to reveal the structures of consciousness that produced them), so we can map the structures of consciousness that will be producing the architecture of our immediate future by looking at quantum theory along with M-brane cosmology, string theory, and cyberpunk novels and films, as well as and the work on the boards of architecture students.

Quantum theory, dealing with the strange behavior of subatomic particles and the role of the observer, came into focus by the late 1920s in what is called the Copenhagen Interpretation. Until recently, it remained in the domain of subatomic particles, and impacted broader fields of thought in only limited ways–fascination with the fact that photons are both particles and waves, the notion that the act of observation disrupted the thing being observed, and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat (it is neither dead nor alive until we open the box and observe it).
Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s interest in Bell’s Theorem of 1964 (a recasting of the EPR Paradox) began to spread in New Age circles, and in 1982 Alan Aspect produced experimental confirmation of Bell’s Theorem which states that observation of a particle here can instantaneously influence a particle across the universe. Worse, we can photograph a particle here today, put the photo in a drawer, look at it six months from now, and influence a particle across the universe back at the time of the taking of the photograph. On a quantum level, neither space nor time exists as we have understood them.

Quantum theory began with the riddle of black body radiation–the observation that the radiation emitted by a hot glowing material is red, while the calculations show that it should be blue. The resolution of the riddle lay in the realization that energy states are not continuous, but exist in discrete units we now call quanta that are defined by Plank’s constant. It was soon realized that all phenomena–energy, charge, spin, and even units of space and time are not infinitely sub-dividable, but exist as quanta.

At first scientists were able to keep the full implications of quantum theory contained. Quantum theory only applied to the subatomic realm. In our larger world, classical theory held. And the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat was just that–a paradox. Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle was interpreted as a disturbance problem of observation–a particle, for example an electron, actually has a position and momentum, but we cannot know it until we measure it, for example by hitting it with photons (a beam of light), at which point we disturb it. This description is not correct. It is not the measurement that disturbs the particle. A particle truly does not have a definite position or momentum before we measure it. An unmeasured object, such as an electron, posses all of its possible attributes. It is everywhere and in every state it can be and have until we measure it, at which point it takes on one set of attributes.

But by the 1980s, with Bell’s Theorem sinking in things began to become unraveled. The interested public and then scientists began to confront what was really in front of them. Uncertainty was not a consequence of observation. Black holes could dissolve as pairs of virtual particles that spring in and out of existence in the vacuum become separated at the event horizon. And most disturbingly, parallel universes were not only a mathematical speculation, but the bases for the prodigious power of quantum computers. (A quantum computer can theoretically be more powerful than would be the entire universe if every particle in it were a computer. David Deutsch contends that the only possible explanation for this is that quantum computers harness the power of their infinite siblings in infinite parallel universes.)
Many lay people and scientists attached to classical thinking still simply refuse to confront these now well established realities. For example, Stephen Weinberg, Nobel laureate for his work in establishing the quantum theory of the weak atomic force and participant in the Sokal Hoax debate, remains classical in his epistemology. And Matthias Scheutz in Computationalism: New Directions , a 2002 book read by architects interested in computationalism, does not even show the word quantum in the index despite David Deutsch’s observation that, “We’ve got the quantum theory of computation–which, by the way, is THE theory of computation.” (Edge)

Before we explore the implications of quantum theory for architecture, let’s first look at the implications of quantum theory for reality.

Newton’s physics as it developed over two hundred and fifty years not only described how things behaved, but also what they were, and what the space and time in which they were behaving were. But with the development of quantum theory with its implications for extreme weirdness, physicists began to insist that quantum theory (and physics in general) says nothing about the nature of reality, it only makes mathematical predictions. In part, they adopted this position in reaction to claims that particle physics supports Eastern mysticism. However, that position is not ultimately tenable, so, following Nick Herbert in Quantum Reality , we will describe the eight possible realities compatible with quantum theory. They are as follows:

1. There is no deep reality. This is Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation. Bohr contends that our phenomenal world is real, but it rests on a non-real world. This is the position of establishment physics.

2. Reality is created by observation. This is part of the Copenhagen interpretation. The world we see is real, but it exists only when we are looking at it. This position is familiar to philosophical idealists who hold that the world is a creation of mind, but it is discomforting to most physicists, even those who hold it.

3. Reality is an undivided wholeness. This position arises from the fact that particles once entwined (having a common origin) can influence each other instantly even at great distances. It was hypothecated by the EPR Paradox, established by David Bohm and deepened by Bell’s Theorem.

4. Reality consists of ever increasing parallel universes. This notion holds that when there is a situation in which either of two outcomes is possible, they both happen and the universe (or “multiverse”) splits into two universes, one for each of the outcomes. And since there are countless such events every moment, there are countless additions to the multiverse every moment. First proposed by in 1957 by Hugh Everett, this is the position taken by Deutsch.

5. The world operates according to quantum logic. The classical worldview uses the syllogistic logic described by Aristotle and codified by Boole in the mid-nineteenth century. Just as Einstein overthrew Euclid’s geometry with relativity, so quantum theory replaces Boolean logic with a disturbing quantum logic. Quantum logic is typically seen on the sub atomic level where a particle can be in two places at the same time, but you can also see it by setting up two polarized lenses with their polarization at right angles. Together, they block out all light and you see black. Now insert a third lens between them with its polarization at a 45-degree angle. Light reappears. Thus zero light minus an additional amount of light yields a positive amount of light.

6. Neorealism, holding that the world is made of ordinary objects. This point of view, that things actually exist in the classical sense, is very difficult to maintain, as quantum facts seems to continually refute it, but David Bohm was able to devise an interpretation that saves it. However, Bohm sacrifices locality–all things are instantaneously interconnected. Perhaps the universe is one point–there is no distance.

7. Consciousness creates reality. This is a subset of number two, Reality is created by observation. In this version, the observer must have consciousness. This position is very interesting for those in the arts, and was held by John von Neumann, among others.

8. The world consists of potentials and actualities. This interpretation, maintained by Werner Heisenberg, is called the duplex world. It answers the question: If observation creates the world, what does it create the world out of? In this interpretation our world of actualities is created out of a previous world of potentials. Heisenberg says that underlying our world is one made of probability waves.

All eight of these models of reality are fully supported by quantum facts and quantum theory. As architects steeped in the arts we should be comfortable with this multiplicity of interpretations. Since we know that the world is metaphor, why can’t there be more than one metaphor and more than one interpretation. We can move among the metaphors to weave powerful understandings of the reality of our era and the architectures that will come to exist in that reality.

We might try to adopt the notion that if any of these models of reality are indeed the case, they apply only at the atomic scale. At the macro scale in which we live our everyday lives, classical reality applies.

But this kind of thinking is based on the misconception that the same “common sense experience” is held in all cultures. By common sense, we mean Newtonian reality, but Newtonian reality is not universal and hardly commonsensical. Aristotle says that if we push an object it moves as long as we push it, and stops when we stop pushing it. Galileo’s and Newton’s laws hold that an object in motion or at rest will remain in motion or at rest unless acted on by an outside force. Of course friction is an outside force, and it will eventually stop a book that we shove across the table. So we have to imagine setting an object in motion in the vacuum of deep space. Since there are now people in orbit most of the time, we can actually picture this highly abstract notion, but we can hardly call it commonsensical everyday experience. And of course there is now no vacuum of deep space–all of space is pervaded by the Higgs particle, and virtual particles spring in and out of existence out of the vacuum everywhere. Many artists (McLuhan’s “early warning systems”) abandoned a Newtonian/Maxwellain reality by the early 20 th Century. In his autobiography Dali describes being able to viscerally feel the twisting distortions of relativistic space-time.

In other words what we call commonsensical everyday experience is actually our acculturated notions of reality, and is constantly undergoing change.
This paper is focused on space and time, but at the beginning we listed four imperatives: space and time, material and methods of construction, structures of consciousness, and socio-cultural context. Let’s look briefly at the implications of quantum theory for the remaining three.

As our building materials and architectural forms become more informationally intense, we will eventually need a quantum constructor theory. David Deutsch, in his Edge interview, says:
We already know of a few issues in theoretical physics (like the Maxwell Demon question, and the relationship of thermodynamics with statistics) which it is useful to regard as computational questions–questions about how information can or cannot be processed. What I am aiming for now is a new kind of theory, quantum constructor theory, which is the theory of what can be built, or more generally, the theory of what can be done, physically. We build computers and skyscrapers and space ships, and we clone animals, and so on. At root you can regard all of these too as computations, because when you build a space ship and fly it to a different place, you get new information, or rather a different perspective on the same information, which is just what happens when you input information into a computer and look at the output.

To this day we play out two conflicting notions of the self inherited from the Enlightenment. One, described by the philosopher Charles Taylor sees “the senses of inwardness, freedom, individuality, and being embedded in nature which are at home in the modern West,” and is favored in popular culture. The other sees the self as socially determined, and individuality and freedom as illusions, and is favored in academia. Our emerging models of quantum consciousness have the potential to resolve these two notions into a continuously flickering whole.

The anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff and the physicist Roger Penrose have developed a quantum theory of consciousness which Penrose describes in his books, The Emperor’s New Mind and Shadows of the Mind , and Hameroff describes on his web site,
… Most approaches to the problem of consciousness see the brain as a computer, with neurons and synapses acting as basic switches, or “bits”. In this approach, consciousness is thought to “emerge” as a novel property of complex computation. However this approach fails to adequately deal with enigmatic features of consciousness and more radical approaches may be necessary. Quantum mechanics describes the seemingly bizarre behavior of matter and energy at microscopic scales, e.g. that of atoms and sub-atomic particles. At that level particles may be in two or more places at the same time (quantum superposition), and particles widely separated in distance may nonetheless be intimately connected (quantum entanglement). These properties are used in quantum computation which offers potential solutions to the enigmatic features of consciousness. But neurons may be far more complicated than mere switches. If we look inside neurons … we see … microtubules … cylindrical polymers of the protein tubulin arranged in hexagonal lattices comprising the cylinder wall. Cooperative interactions among tubulin subunits within microtubules have been suggested to process information, as in molecular scale “cellular automata”. As the states of tubulin are controlled by quantum mechanical internal forces (van der Waals London forces), they may exist in quantum superposition of multiple states (“quantum bits”, or “qubits”), and microtubules may be seen as quantum computers involved in cellular organization.

The quantum nature of these cellular activities not only forms the basis of consciousness, but also provides a model for the connection between mind and body, and mind and the material world. We can now see that both are comprised of the same form of quantum information.
The quantum theory of consciousness also addresses the question of memory. The Empiricists held that we are born a blank slate and build a self through the accumulation of all memories, which are retained as though recorded on a hard disk (a position still held by advocates of hard AI). Rousseau predicted the Romantic vision and even Freud’s theories by showing that this notion was not adequate to construct a self, which he held could be done only by positing that selected memories are linked by a self-created narrative. But all of these approaches fail to describe what we actually experience when we closely watch our minds, as we do for example in structured Buddhist meditation. We now see that the flickering and layering of experience can be well described with the notion of flickering in and out of parallel universes. (See Deutsch in Fabric. )

The social sciences today remain for the most part mired in the Newtonian linear-logical paradigm and hardly cognizant of the Maxwellian and relativistic flux in which most people actually experience their lives, much less the implications of quantum theory. As a result academic social sciences have become distanced from actual experiences and stay within circumscribed theoretical realms.

Alexander Wendt, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, has posted online an outline for a book he is working on, Quantum Mind and Social Science . In it he writes:
This book project explores the implications for social science of thinking about human beings and society as quantum mechanical phenomena. … My suggestion is that man (sic) and society really are quantum phenomena. The bridge between the microscopic world of quantum physics and the macroscopic world of society is provided by “the quantum consciousness hypothesis,” an argument now being advanced by growing numbers of physicists, neuroscientists, and philosophers of mind that human consciousness is a macroscopic quantum process…. Social science in both its positivist and interpretive forms has reflected the metaphysical assumptions of classical physics since the 19th century, when many prominent political philosophers, economists, and sociologists tried self-consciously to ground their nascent disciplines on physics. … If consciousness is a quantum rather than classical mechanical phenomenon, then these fundamental parameters of contemporary social scientific discourse will be undermined. Man will not be a machine, nor will his behavior be explainable in purely deterministic and objective terms. On the other hand, neither will this entail a Cartesian dualism or the impossibility of social “science.” Contrary to both orthodoxies, the “ultimate” science, quantum physics, would establish the importance of consciousness for the scientific study of social life, and point toward a radical rethinking of man and society.

What, then, can we say about “quantum architecture?” Do we mean buildings that flicker in an out of existence? Buildings that are entangled and influence one another at a distance? No. While the Villa Rotonda manifests the structures of consciousness that gave us Newtonian space and time, it could have easily been built by the ancient Romans. And while Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion manifests relativistic space-time it could have it could have been built forty years earlier by the Chicago School architects. However, Hadrian, coming across the Villa Rotonda would not have experienced it the way Palladio did, nor would Sullivan have experienced the Barcelona Pavilion the way Mies did.

Our experience of our buildings changes reflecting changes on our consciousness even before new materials and methods of construction come into play.

Hold out your hand. Move it to the right. Now move it to the left. If you were to move it again, would it move through the same space? Newton, Einstein, and Deutsch would all answer differently, as would the “common sense” observer in the era of each. For Newton, the space remains the same, or, if you want to take into account the movement of the earth, you could calculate the displacement. For Einstein, the event of moving your hand generates its own space-time. For Deutsch, each sweep of the hand creates another series of layers, perhaps even in flickering parallel universes, for different observers.

Now imagine you are moving from room to room in the Villa Rotonda. You move through a pre-existing space as a universal clock ticks off our progress. All of the rooms are there waiting for you whichever path you take, and any given room will be the same no matter which path you take and will be the same the next time you enter it. Now imagine you are moving through the main space of the Robie House. You might come up from the lower entrance into the living room and circle around the right of the fireplace core to the dining room. Or you might start from the living room and move around the left of the fireplace core to the dining room. Every possible path of movement creates a difference experience as you enter a space whose character is not complete until you establish it by your path of movement, just as a space does not pre-exist in Einstein’s relativity, but rather is created by the presence and movement of objects.
Rather than point to current buildings and stating which qualify for the term Quantum Architecture (although there are plenty of examples, especially on the desks of students) we will list some of the features one might find in a Quantum Architecture. These might seem enigmatic (the building exists only if it is observed), but remember Renaissance space and time was completely enigmatic to the Medieval mind. Perspective is based on the viewpoint of a human observer. The Medieval painter failed to use perspective not because they lacked the technique, but because the only view point worth considering was God’s. The features of a building experienced from a quantum point of view might include:

•  It exists only if it is observed
•  It exists only if it is observed by a conscious entity
•  All part of the building exist and are experienced simultaneously
•  The building unfolds in multiple layers as we experience it multiple times
•  Its underlying logics is post-Boolean
•  The building unfolds from a ground of potential differently with each experience
•  In our path through the building, we take all possible paths
•  Each time we return to a room we add another layer of a parallel universe, and when we recall a previous visit to the room we reenter a previous universe.
•  Once you have experienced one part of the building, that experience remains entangled with all other experiences of the building
•  The building is experienced in higher dimensions, which we then reduce to three dimensions of space and one of time

Again, we should emphasize that a building manifests its era not by illustrating the current technology, but by becoming a context for the experiential mode of that era. We can see the printed circuit board analogies of Archigram as satire, but we have to question Sterling when he made a library into a mission control launch center, and a dorm into a lunar landing module.
Each new architectural era has been ushered in by alterations in our structures of consciousness and thereby in our experience. It is the role of the artist and the architect to be early warning systems, to be acutely sensitive to their own experience, and to be able to manifest that experience in form so that it is communicated to others. We have seen how the architects of the eras we briefly discussed did just that. Now we await what forms our students will bring forth.


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_______. “It’s A Much Bigger Thing Than it Looks”, interview on
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