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Visual Essay: The Letter Rack, a speculative exercise on the emergence of new spatial relationships

Text by Stefano Corbo

The Letter Rack is a speculative exercise on the emergence of new spatial relationships once we stop thinking of future cities in terms of figure/ground duality and start instead looking at them as a continuous assemblage of forms and signs.

This sort of digital divertissement in drawings originates from the reinterpretation of the so-called trompe l’oeil, a pictorial genre used for centuries to depict illusionistic scenes giving spectators the impression that they were facing real, three-dimensional objects. More specifically, the Letter Rack refers to the 1668 trompe l’oeil by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts, representing a board partition populated by envelops, objects and a music book [1].

The Letter Rack borrows the spatial organisation of Gijsbrechts’ painting – and, in general, some of the ingredients common to the tradition of the trompe l’oeil, such as the use of metaphor, allegory or symbolism – to reverse their meaning: by turning realistic representations into a hypothetical scenario in which building types and urban spaces meet, collide, and fuse in novel configurations. In other words, The Letter Rack is an inverted digital trompe l’oeil

If the reference to the trompe l’oeil constitutes a latent and invisible matrix – the starting point of three-dimensional explorations – what The Letter Rack describes is a collapsed, abandoned cityscape – a composite sequence of architectural entities shaped by specific compositional devices: nine-square grids, modular structures, typical office plans, inhabitable walls. Their chaotic disposition is counterbalanced by the presence of the rack – a cartesian system of linear elements that acts as the only ordering element within this entangled composition, which allows recognising patterns of analogy and difference. The architectural singularities depicted in the Letter Rack arise from the magmatic surface of the city but, at the same time, collapse into it until it disappears.

In the interplay between forms and topological space, the Letter Rack is an ironic attempt to represent past and future, the figurative and the abstract, in one image. In its candour, however, the Letter Rack detects some of the issues intrinsic to the current discourse on digital and post-digital culture; it speaks of the constant tension between the smooth and the rough, the assemblage and the fusion, the collage and the morphing.

[1] Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts or Gijsbrechts. Trompe l’oeil. Board Partition with Letter Rack and Music Book, 1668

(Media courtesy of Stefano Corbo)
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