Man on Wire © James Marsh

Some People on Wire


BArch 2 Studio: Analogue Digital Production


Wolfgang Tschapeller | Werner Skvara

On 7 August 1974, not long after the Twin Towers had opened in 1973, a man – Philippe Petit – balanced on a wire strung 417 meters above the ground between the two towers. It was not a public event. It was a covert, carefully prepared show for which, first of all, a high-wire had to be rigged between the towers. Rigging the wire required several simulations and trials in advance until a method involving several towropes of varying thickness turned out to be the best possible option. Then it took days until about one ton in equipment had been snuck into the towers in small batches. Philippe Petit used a bow and arrow to shoot the first, lightest towrope from one tower to the other, and thicker towropes were then successively pulled across until finally the actual high-wire was rigged. So it was not just a show, but also a construction, an illegal act of construction by which Philippe Petit developed an exterritorial, autonomous space that he alone could enter. Petit made eight passes along the wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center, between the police officers waiting on both sides, until he finally returned to solid ground after the eighth pass, where he was immediately arrested before he had even left the roof.

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Some People on Wire


BArch 2 Studio: Analogue Digital Production


Wolfgang Tschapeller | Werner Skvara

The space that Philippe Petit developed at a height of 417 meters was a swaying space, precarious, elastic, which gusts of winds caused to vibrate slightly, and it was a space Petit not only traversed, but also experimented with playfully. There were some magical moments in this high-wire act, such as when Petit did not step onto the safety of the roof after his first pass, but turned around, went back out into the elastic, vibrating space. There he stopped, he shifted from one foot to the other, bent down and sat on the wire – with apparent satisfaction - and even lay down on the wire, as if he were tired and wanted to go to sleep.

In “The invisible cities” Italo Calvino decribes a city without walls and floors: “Wether Armilla is like this because it is unfinished or because it has been demolished. I do not know. The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceilings, no floors: It has nothing that makes it seem a city except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be: a forest of pipes that end in taps, showers, spouts, overflows. Against the sky a lavabo´s white stands out, or a bathtub, or some porcelain, like late fruit hanging from the boughs.”

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Some People on Wire


BArch 2 Studio: Analogue Digital Production


Wolfgang Tschapeller | Werner Skvara

In his “Fundamentals of a Future Architecture” (1997), Frei Otto contrasted the mission of an architect with that of an engineer. We can surmise from this collection of short texts that Frei Otto does not have a lot of confidence in the profession of architects, considers it outdated and sees “scientific engineers” as the successors to architects. A “contemporary engineer” needs skills different from those of an architect, he claims. A “contemporary engineer” has to be an authentic scientist who learns to understand reality based on analyses and experiments. What, then, if the architect becomes an authentic scientist, an engineer, so to speak, and works with experiments and trials and, in the process, forgets the space amassed and dragged on over the centuries?

Phillipe Petit, Armilla and Frei Otto are providing some specific ingredients. Let´s use them. Let’s try to change our role. This time, let’s not attempt to develop a space. Let’s try to focus on structural systems that can lift us into a space and make that space habitable. In concrete terms, we will explore cable constructions, tension systems and membranes, and how and what we can construct using these elements, and how we could live there.