Touch Me: The Mystery of the Surface

“A study of the architectural Benutzeroberfläche is an examination of people’s needs, of traditions and rituals, of the definition of spatial content, of the dimensions of space, and of those spatial elements most proximate to our bodies. It is an examination of the perception of materials, atmosphere, the visible and invisible parts of architecture; of materials, surfaces, textures, and ornament; of the light, the smell, the sound, the body of space, and its users.”

Touch Me: The Mystery of the Surface explores the Benutzeroberfläche, that curious relationship between living humans beings and the inanimate walls that we construct around us. In a conversation with architect Eberhard Tröger, professor Gregor Eichinger—who focused on the Benutzeroberfläche in architecture during his tenure at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich—explains the demands that we place on architecture and the demands that architecture places on us. Sections of the book are titled everything from “Surface and Depth” to the more unexpected “Architecture and Love” and move from subject to subject, supplying an exhaustive explanation of a very holistic ideal: “The surface tells you everything because nothing else could possibly speak to you.”

The book begins with its own surface. A bright red cloth cover with “Touch Me!” in royal blue stitching cleverly plays into the hands of its thesis. The opening quotation from The Picture of Dorian Gray, “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible,” acts as the bedrock of Eichinger’s philosophy. For Eichinger, Wilde’s quotation reminds us that “engaging with the all too familiar and with the supposedly superficial in fact reveals the whole.” Surfaces—floors, walls, furniture, and counter-tops—contain the world and that world, like any other vast and complex system, begs to be deciphered.

Eichinger is at his best, and in a way, most accessible, in the sections “The Craft, Machines, and Personality,” “Skin, Wounds, and Age,” and “Nerves, Cleanliness, and Atmosphere,” in which he talks about the now undervalued human impression on objects and buildings. Craft implies a personal rendering of energy and thought into a tangible object. The object reflects the personality of its creator. But now, as Eichinger explains, “We demand the same uniformity from craftwork that in principle only a machine can produce.” In doing so, what once represented the pinnacle of a crafter’s work—the mark of his apprized signature—is now seen as a flaw compared to the uniform anonymity of a machine-built object. Good architecture anticipates aging; it allows for surfaces—the skin—to wrinkle and mature with the experiences of time and thus produce atmosphere. Eichinger writes, “A really old bar, for example, is permeated with guests who have drank at it, who have celebrated, laughed, and wept at it. In a good bar these signs are lovingly preserved.” The tendency we have now to force such beauty marks on products from the “pre-washed” pair of jeans to the “pre-aged” dining room table to the “pre-bought” nostalgia lining the walls of a new Applebees might just reveal more about our disconnect with reality than we think.

If anything, Eichinger’s book begs us to take our surroundings seriously; he asks us to take surfaces and images quite literally for what we see them for, because that’s all there is, and it is only in recognizing them as such, that they become intelligible. At times his prose falls victim to the philosophical jargon that can befuddle most of us (“What one produces is actually the future past”), but it is relieved by the simplicity of last 70 or so pages—a collection of quotations from artists, authors, scientists, and philosophers preaching the importance and consequence of the known world, followed by photographs of the minutia of the surfaces around us: edges of tables, overhead lights, the shadows of a stairwell. The final quotation goes to Wolfgang Bauer, who writes, “How beautiful and simple is the world how joyous a life without metaphors.” Such a world of candor and wonder indeed sounds enchanting, I’m just afraid such a world might be missing this book.

Josh Parkey

Book Description

Touch Me: The Mystery of the Surface

by Gregor Eichinger and Eberhard Tröger
Lars Müller Publishers, 2011
184 pages, 21 illustrations, $45
ISBN 978-3-03778-229-3

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