Designing from infinity to multiplicity

Katsuru path

The human mind has a mysterious mechanism whereby we are convinced that that particular stone is always the same stone, even though its image – at the slightest movement of our gaze – changes shape, dimensions, colour, outlines. Every single frame of the universe breaks up into an infinite multiplicity: all you have to do is go round this low stone lantern and it turns into an infinity of stone lanterns; this fret-worked polyhedron of stone, marked with lichens, becomes doubled and quadrupled and sextupled, turning into a totally different object depending on which side you look at it from, on whether you are approaching or leaving. 

Italo Calvino, “The Thousand Gardens”1

Clearly I’m not done with (and never will be) Calvino’s Collection of Sand.  While describing his walk around Kyoto’s 17th-century Katsura Imperial Villa in “The Thousand Gardens,” Calvino acts as its resident phenomenologist. At the same time, with a literary slight of hand (or is it flight of head?) he also brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges’ “Funes the Memorious.”2 No matter that Borges’ story is set in Uruguay.

As it happens, Borges’ protagonist, the eponymous Funes, comes to the same recognition of an “infinite multiplicity” that Calvino describes in the passage above – but purely by dint of accident. A fall from a horse similarly changes the way Funes sees the world. In fact, he’s unable to forget anything he experiences. His brain is awash with the detritus of unfiltered sensations. Funes can only describe each thing (each event might be more accurate) as he sees it and feels it.

In contrast, to Borges’ diagnostic tale in which there is no cure for poor Funes, Calvino’s is corrective. He transcends the ground around Katsura while never looking away from it. He counts the number of slabs that make up the path at the Villa and finds there are 1,716.  It is these specific stones that afford the visitor 1,716 perspectives out of the incalculable possibilities. Now infinity is tapered to multiplicity and Calvino finds he “can master [the garden] without being overcome.”3 The perspectives opened up by each carefully positioned slab are duly credited to the garden’s designer. It is the designer’s decisions that alleviate his Borgesian anguish.  (“Anguish” is, in fact, the word Calvino chooses to describe the affect of too-much.)

Here is the essay’s true gift to those concerned about the integrity of designing in the age of design thinking sans making. By collapsing the 17th-century into his present (roughly 1984), Calvino locates the essence of the act of designing, that being to edit. (Needless to say, editing doesn’t necessarily require subtraction; it can also be a matter of addition, of proposing options.) No matter the strategy, Calvino confirms that design, at its essence, contends with the disease of sensations that afflicts Ireneo Funes. It is easy to forget how disoriented we would be without paths. We’d be lost in undifferentiated space.  

  1. “The Thousand Gardens” in Italo Calvino. Collection of Sand. [1984] Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002, 170.
  2. I am indebted to philosopher James Dodd for introducing me to Borges’ story as a ‘way into’ phenomenology. Neither Borges’ or Calvino define the concept, nor will I. Their prose is its best approximation short of reading Dodd (and Husserl before him.)
  3. Ibid., Calvino 171.

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