Essay | Claude Lichtenstein
News from Elsewhere
What would it be like if people didn’t stand with their feet holding them apart, but with their heads closest, in other words if they were ‘prokephaloi’ rather than antipodes? This is what Christian Waldvogel’s proposal would lead to. He’s put a lot of thought into improving the condition of the world, and got further than most people. And he’s no fool, this is an intellectual game and not a power fantasy. But it’s a game that’s meant to be taken seriously. If there is a connection between man’s behaviour and his milieu, then every possibility that might make some difference to this unsatisfactory relationship has to be considered. So why not take as fundamental a look at the ‘milieu’ as possible? The milieu is – essentially – the globe that stands between people. (And this fundamental approach is permitted, given the matter in hand.) It is our dear and ill-treated globe, with its biospheres, the ocean, the vegetation and its fauna. Our Noah’s ark, our Spaceship Earth, so far the only oikos we know in the coldness of the cosmos, ‘Third Stone from the Sun’, as it is called in an impressive recording by Jimi Hendrix. And it is getting smaller for us all the time. How much further can this shrinkage go? More and more people on a globe that’s constantly getting smaller? Something’s going in the wrong direction there, says Waldvogel.
His “Globus Cassus” hypothesis postulates a completely different view of the world. It is a surprising suggestion: what is wrong with the world could be put right by turning it round, in a long-term rebuilding project.
The Earth is to be completely renewed. A new Earth is to come into being – how do you do that, what might be useful ideas here?
The creator of the world is seen as forming clay into a ball, shaping spheres between the palms of the hands or kneading plasticine, when his bodylanguage is imagined. It is the ancient and imprecise idea of modelling. Globus Cassus is entirely different. Certainly the globe is to become a shell here too, but not by shaping, as on a potter’s wheel or a chasing lathe, but through a long process of exchanging material. Waldvogel thinks and constructs with crystal clarity, and here the meaning of the word ‘modelling’ is the topical idea of a calculated surface. Something different is ‘brought out’ of the existing matter. This is the motto of modern architecture in the early 20th century taken seriously: building from the inside outwards.
It is about multiplying and improving the surfaces of the world that can be lived on. In this way, through planned reconstruction, the world could provide a better covering for its peoples.
Albert Einstein uses a clear image for the difficulty we have in imagining the ‘curved space’ of the theory of relativity: we are in a similar position to that of bacteria living on a ball and ceaselessly on the move, but who can see only their immediate vicinity. Those of them who keep going straight can’t understand why they keep passing the same point they’d been at earlier. Now man is more highly developed, and knows that the Earth is a sphere. If a car’s milometer shows 120,000 kilometres it tells us that we’ve gone as far as three times round the world. But this knowledge about the convexity of the world is abstract and mathematical; it does not fit in with our everyday experience. Far-sighted thinkers have realized this and used a lot of their energy in making the real state of affairs plausible as something to contemplate, and to overcome the erroneous model of the flat Earth in practical life as well. But here we meet strong resistance, perhaps even resistance to the image of the sphere whose surface we live on. Our empirical knowledge is still that of the Earth disc, and when we manage to develop planetary awareness and see ourselves as globe-dwellers we know how things really are, but we don’t really believe it, because we see the sun standing obliquely and not us.
But what is the real state of affairs? In today’s world, which we call our Earth, on this unimagined sphere, which the Globus Cassus dwellers will still talk about occasionally in Christian Waldvogel’s thoughtful future, we stand with our head facing outwards. In the possible form of Globus Cassus it would be the other way round, we’d stand facing inwards. We wouldn’t be held in place by the Earth’s gravity, but by its centrifugal force. We would sense our own weight through rotation. The Earth would henceforth be a rotating hollow shape with seven times the diameter or circumference of the Earth. This sounds immodest, but humanity, whose growth dynamic and behaviours are not shining examples of modesty, gave Waldvogel the model.
Globus Cassus is an intellectual game. The ‘Earth Case’ in the mood: what would happen if? If not everything was different, just the Earth? The question is admitted here and the answers are impressively ‘pictured’ in the sense of Ernst Bloch’s view of Utopia. Globus Cassus is a kind of Utopia, but this is not really about Utopian contents – contents that ‘as yet have no place’ in the precise sense of the word – here Utopia is ‘the other place’ in its most consistent interpretation. The ‘other place’ is the new place, instead of the old place, which has been made to disappear. And this is Christian Waldvogel’s hypothesis, the startingpoint for his game: the Earth could some day have turned into a wide, hollow form the size of Saturn (but flattened) and with a shell thickness of 150 km. And then what he presents would be the greatest rebuilding project in the history of the Earth. What do we see?
First we see the world. Our present convex world is not visible to itself, despite all the photographs of the ‘Blue Planet’, which could make us believe that the Earth is a sphere. The image of the Blue Planet is an image outside our everyday experience. As far as our behaviour is concerned, it seems more like an intellectual construction and a piece of theoretical imagination than a real picture. The visible world always ends at the horizon, and the horizon (Greek for border-line) is perhaps the outward equivalent to man’s narrowness of outlook. Possibly it is even the reason for it? Our view ends at the nearby horizon, and slips off on it, and any thinking beyond this falls into a vacuum. Is there a primeval fear of falling into a vacuum? The question arises, as all our panic about ‘staying on top’ shows. And man’s inclination to banish unwelcome problems beyond his horizon, in other words his slipping sense of reality: is this the inevitable result of a convex existence, of what it feels like to live on the outside?
Globus Cassus would be the concave world as visible to itself. An asymmetrical geodesic shell, an icosahedron, is built from the spherical volume of Planet Terra. Its ‘horizontal’ diameter is seven times the width of the Earth, its ‘vertical’ one about four times. Man lives on the inside, but daylight and a view ‘outwards’ are taken care of. Large, very large spherical triangles placed laterally above our heads permit a view of the universe and let the sunlight in. Only so much – I shouldn’t repeat the description. But so much. It is a fascinating idea that we can see the side of the world-ring that is opposite to us directly. We are effectively looking into the rising curve as it were, and seeing the diametrical areas. The old and misleading idea of the ‘vault of heaven’ is replaced by the real world vault, the space-shell that drops from the zenith and approaches in a broad curve from both sides. The world is its own skyline with a wide space in between; 85,000 kilometres, as if the moon were five times nearer. Our opposite neighbour would be visible till dawn, and when it starts to get dark it would appear again, the opposite side of the Earth’s shell. How big would what we could see be? What would we see from this distance? Only different light patches or oceans, forests, cities and colonies? Gigantic gardens? Coloured light? The shadow cast by our part of the shell? What would we see with the naked eye? What would come into the picture if we looked through binoculars? And who will be the pioneers of centrifugality who risk going over on to the other side of the shell? (Running away from the world will change its methods.) We are permitted to imagine something underneath, no ‘on top’ – or beyond?
Our consciousness will be affected by it. Or possibly not?
The world as it is, is convex. As it is: we stick out from the globe into space, every individual and also people en masse, and hitherto always have, and only the deceptive blue of the sky conceals this fact for us, which could frighten us to death. The spherical world is actually frightening: nothing but emptiness and infinite space all around. That is the price of convexity: life as an outsider. Is it not astonishing that it has taken until now for a trained architect – a space-maker – to make the world itself into space? Everyone talks about space, but in reality it is always the limitations placed on space that create space. “Form is limited space, and only real through its definition.” Only one person – Mondrian – could find a sentence like that, which thinks forms spatially from the inside, from inside their body. The concave world would make a world-space visible.
Globus Cassus is a project in the real sense of the word: pro-iacere, which means to throw forward, fling views or ideas forward, ‘throw out from oneself’, ent-werfen, (entwerfen, to design, ent-werfen, to cast aside) free oneself of the ballast of the past.
The transformation would take a long time. This shows that the enterprise is an important one. We are told that we should strike while the iron is hot. Should we carry on watching the inside of the Earth cool down? No, Waldvogel tells us with Globus Cassus, we can think how to make something quite different with the available material – for as long as it can still be shaped. He decides (chooses this possibly way of thinking) on a fundamental rebuild. The inside is turned outwards. A new world spreads out from the four axes. The four assembly needles are construction frames, climbing cranes and growth axes, all in one. Tunnels used to be driven through mountains like this, halves of bridges grew towards each other across the abyss. Here man is building out into space as never before. There have been previous examples of architecture building up upon itself; no skyscraper was built by an external crane, and the Eiffel Tower provided early proof of this incontrovertible fact. But it was not the first: the medieval cathedrals and Renaissance dome structures operated in the same way. What is new in the present case is the scale. A new world is arranged within the spacious icosahedric skeleton: a metabolic process as a considerate revelation of cosmic dimensions. “We were struck by wonderfully beautiful flabellina among the structures, and Bourbon eyes, Neptune’s cars from the Antilles, magnificent pieces of coral, and finally all kinds of rare polyps that can grow together as complete islands, and one day will form continents.” What Jules Verne was describing in ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ in 1866 was a flat development form, essentially a two-dimensional movement. The upward folding of the mountains, the emergence of the oceans, the formation of land masses are the great events in Planet Terra’s coming into being, three-dimensional changes to an essentially flat relief, with which nature modifies the spherical surface of the globe. Here, in Globus Cassus, it is man who determines the course of the building processes, and the process is on a large, three-dimensional scale by definition.
The change of shape from full sphere to capacious shell also reminds me of my astonishment as a little boy when watching my mother folding freshly washed socks into each other in pairs. Two flat things become one volume, and here in Globus Cassus, the process is simply reversed. It is a children’s game, but it uses one constant of children’s games: it is a magical exchange of matter, from here to there: loading, moving out, around and in, as we might say in Switzerland.
But what will happen to the countries now? What will happen to the territories? What will happen to the languages? What will happen to the seasons? What will happen to the demarcation lines? What will happen to areas of jurisdiction? We would see. Globus Cassus would offer a chance to shake off the burden of human heritage. First of all everything would be different, aiming to be better. We are inclined to smile at ‘those who want to improve the world’. But we need to know – and we do know – that art, because it is art, can stop the world getting worse to a small extent. We know that. But because ‘stop to a small extent’ doesn’t exist, we have to think a little bigger.
Written in 2004 as a contribution to Globus Cassus