The Grandest Canyon
Like archaeologists, architects tend to work against the grain of forgetfulness. When confronted with an artifact, our instinct is to turn things — nameless and inscrutable — back into objects. We stabilize matter’s meaning with language, undoing the effects of time which would tend towards formlessness. The preservation and reproduction of an object’s position in culture helps it to resist heat death, the inevitable cold dark nothingness that awaits everything at the end of the universe. And while there is nothing more terrifying than staring at some thing we cannot explain, the ability reckon with entropy is crucial for an architectural understanding of time.
Objects, however, are becoming exponentially more precise and troubling our ability to imagine other states of matter. The degree of specificity with which an object’s meaning is inscribed determines its ability to resist formlessness and entropy. Today, the increasing precision of mechanically-produced objects (building parts, coffee lids, microchips) seems to trap them in a state of suspended animation; they are stubbornly trapped in the present. In “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Robert Smithson calls the objects of mass production ‘anti-Newtonian’ and says that they reduce ages down to microseconds. “This kind of time has little or no space,” he warns. “It is stationary and without movement, it is going nowhere.” Mechanical precision destroys our ability to imagine longer processes of time like decay or evolution and ultimately prevents an understanding of thing-ness.
The problem for architects is attenuated by the fact that entropy operates on time scales that we are largely incapable of grasping. We may borrow terms like ‘geological time’ or ‘evolutionary time’ to describe these vast reaches, on the order of thousands or millions of years, but the discipline has yet to invent its own method of describing deep time. We might attribute this to architecture’s obsession with tolerance, resolution, and legibility, as too much clarity in the present obscures our ability to imagine deep futures. Yet even the most expertly inscribed objects will eventually return to a state of thing-ness. How, then, in a moment of infinite precision, might we begin to bridge the conceptual gap between objects and things?
Trash is introduced here as a third state of matter that might help us deal with the problem of deep architectural time. Too purposeless to belong to the world of objects, not blank enough to be fully absorbed into thing-ness, Trash is an outcast - the indeterminate midpoint between object and thing. It sits uncomfortably unstuck in time, awaiting entropy but not fully dissolved. This black sheep of the material world has several things to teach us about the fate of our mechanically-produced objects.
Still imbued with the bodily information from its former life as objects, trash comes pre-inscribed with specific characteristics and behaviors. But because it no longer fits into the structures of human routine, trash is free to explore its traits anew, unburdened by the pressures of existing for the use of humans. Trash is not yet formless, but its form has lost any direct relationship to information, giving it a blurry kind of freedom which objects do not possess.
Specificity without meaning allows Trash to re-configure itself into illogical and previously forbidden alliances, working to produce new constellations of space and matter. In these improbable structures, we find a way of thinking about our objects’ fates as a process of emergent togetherness.
Because the Anthropocene will far outlive the Anthropos, Trash will very likely outlive its creators. Before it is completely lost into entropy, trash will consume architecture and configure it in structures unimaginable to those of us concerned with meaning. Exactly who lives in this Trash world and how they might find spaces in our artifacts is hard to say. We could speculate that Trash in its indeterminate state of form may make home for humans, critters, and chthonic ones alike.