When trains were first introduced to this continent, there was a folk belief that moving at high speeds would cause the blood to boil. Yet as thousands of Americans began fanning across the continent in the mid-19th century, blood no hotter than usual, the concern subsided.
The train was an alchemical re-purposing of energy and material, a bizarre thing had neither appetite nor breath nor capacity for fatigue, yet on its own seemed somehow to move. The question first posed by a people habituated to the wafting of reeds and panting of horses was, could this machine be safe? Could the flesh of a human being withstand its conditions without being blistered to death in its act of biological transcendence, of hubris?
One orange summer, below the aerosol shroud surrounding Shanghai Pu Dong International Airport, my father and I ran bag-strapped down a long, wide corridor. Our footsteps clacked on the shiny linoleum as we passed from the arrival terminal to the magnetic-levitation train station. The first operational high-speed railway of its kind in the world, the Shanghai Maglev Train had been running its one-way trip between the airport and downtown for three years by this time.
Magnetic levitation trains do not touch their rails. Instead, they float over an infinitesimal space held open by strong like-charged electromagnets. Because the only resistance that they meet is air resistance, maglev trains are among the fastest mass-transit ground vehicles. Today, only a handful exist worldwide.
Outside the glass wall of the causeway, we caught a last glimpse of endless crowds in a dusty world being siphoned off by bus and taxi. We arrived at the ticket kiosk and passed through spotless chrome turnstiles, finally settling into the nova-blue interior of the train while a few other passengers arrived.
Shortly after the doors slid shut, a whirring din rose as the train began to creep, first walking speed, then running, then faster than any human being. The digital tachometer over the baggage racks read 40 kilometers per hour as we pitched out of the station. Soon the number doubled, then doubled again. We were bolting over the sweltering landscape on elevated tracks raised by stilts a story above the ground. The distant skyline approached as we overtook car after car on the adjacent highway. Everything under the sky began to transform. People in the passing slums and construction sites became impressionistic figures then abstract blotches, then disappeared completely. As we approached 350 kilometers per hour the same began to happen for nearby buildings; the music of architecture began to unfreeze. Factories and farms transformed into tones and rhythms; it became possible to feel more than see them. The horizon flowed along at a creeping speed while a city engulfed us. At 400 kilometers per hour, my blood began to boil.
Toyo Ito is an architect known for designs that challenge conventional concepts about urban design, energy use, and the human body. “We posses one body as lived experience,” Ito says, “and another body which tries to burst through it.” In the fact that a telephone booth is both a “physical space,” connected to its immediate surroundings, and a “virtual space,” connected to a multitude of other places, lies the fundamental distinction that Ito uses to describe the “duplex body.” For Ito, the human body can be spoken of both in terms of physical form and the ideas latent in that form.
Many of Ito’s buildings are designed to act as “media-suits” that extend the virtual body in the same way conventional architecture accommodates the physical body. Ito began exploring these ideas with his work on the Mediatheque, a multi-purpose public building in Sendai, Japan that allows patrons to access both traditional and new media.
What do the media devices Ito pays so much attention to have in common? They evoke elsewhere. The whole intent of cars, airplanes, trains, and other vehicles are on elsewhere. Yet these vehicles are more than objects; they are the buildings themselves.
Thus, architecture that moves has always been about elsewhere as well as here, virtual space as well as physical space. An airplane extends the physical body by moving it, but even as the body moves, it remains―from the reference of the airplane―static. The experience of flight is not an experience of movement, but rather a dream-like sequence of being still, waiting in lines, sitting in rows, drinking, using the toilet.
We look out the window and see our surroundings sliding by, but it is not movement in a physical, bodily sense; it is movement in the sense that we know intellectually that we are in motion. The world outside is like the world we could walk through, except if we did so it would not effectively be the same to our senses. We, as three-dimensional creatures, cannot envision a fourth dimension; neither can we experience the speed or the energy transfer involved in machine transport. The faster the maglev train goes, the less the world outside seems like a tangible reality until―at 400 kilometers per hour―it evokes a dazzling kind of cubism. Yet even at low speeds―10 kilometers per hour, 20 kilometers per hour―we are not actually experiencing the physical space the vehicle passes through as much as the interior the vehicle itself and the exterior imagery it generates.
While a static building’s physical space is connected with that of its immediate environment, the moment a piece of architecture begins to move relative to its surroundings, a disconnection occurs. Once the speed of the structure exceeds a certain limit, human passengers can no longer experience physical space outside the vehicle. Thus, the surroundings of a piece of moving architecture become abstract. It has been the nature of machine transport, ever since the first passenger trains, to convert physical space into virtual space.