Architecture of adrenalin

Today's ever-larger and more complex roller-coasters are sophisticated architectures, designed to let people experience and overcome extreme sensations. Also, under the pretext of a craving for amusement, they enable a virtual desecration and demystification of the malaise of metropolitan life.

This article was originally published in Domus 965 / January 2013

Speed, force, energy, beauty, harmony, emotion, fear and excitement. This set of physico-perceptive factors with a potent reaction poétique offer a good starting point for thinking about the aesthetics of what may be the most spectacular architectures of amusement: roller-coasters. This is what the English-speaking world calls these veritable machines pour le plaisir , or perhaps even architectures de vertige , but to everyone else they are known by their original name as "Russian mountains".

From ships to trains, motorbikes and cars, planes and even spacecraft, the history of every means of locomotion reveals a peculiar combination of coherently harmonious, streamlined forms dedicated to speed, and the pleasure of overcoming extreme sensations like those of flight and gravitational force. In its more experimental or applicative phases, design progress in this field has had to reckon with such conflicts as desire and refusal, pleasure and fear, in relation to the exciting or scary emotions aroused by sudden, sometimes violent alterations of our bodily state.

Serving no useful travel purpose, roller-coasters spring from the idea introduced by technology and industrial society to pursue the evolution of this unique phenomenon of speed, seeking to reproduce the combined emotions that it sparks in what might be called "controlled" laboratory conditions. All this fascinating engineered architecture was not of course created to train pilots or astronauts, but as spectacular machines that induce intense emotional reactions. They are tailored for ordinary humans who willingly subject themselves to an enjoyably "death-defying" challenge for its own sake. This aspect raises all manner of stimulating design questions and solutions, involving the search for daring acrobatics and structural projects with increasingly complicated evolutions; plus a craving for extreme physical experiences akin almost to those of astronauts or top guns in supersonic fighter planes experiencing forces of up to 9G.
Top: The
Japanese White Cyclone
at Nagashima Land Spa
(opened in 1994), the world’s
third longest wooden rollercoaster
with its 1,700 metres
of tracks, and the seventh
highest. ©Joel A. Rogers
-coastergallery.com. Above: The Battlestar Galactica,
a duelling launch coaster by
Vekoma Rides Manufacturing
opened in 2010 at Universal
Studios Singapore®
Top: The Japanese White Cyclone at Nagashima Land Spa (opened in 1994), the world’s third longest wooden rollercoaster with its 1,700 metres of tracks, and the seventh highest. ©Joel A. Rogers -coastergallery.com. Above: The Battlestar Galactica, a duelling launch coaster by Vekoma Rides Manufacturing opened in 2010 at Universal Studios Singapore®
At this point, since the ordinary human cannot whizz through the air like Superman or Spider- Man, certain special emotions have to be recreated. Hence the dizzy rides that run on "safe" rails set on top of structures that are firmly anchored to the ground. Like majestic molochs with the semblances of mythological prehistoric animals, they are designed to inspire an adrenalin-charged sense of wonder, fascination and fear.

Browsing the rich and up-to-the-minute Roller Coaster DataBase , it is amazing to see how rapidly in the last decade these increasingly colossal and complex structures have sprung up everywhere, though chiefly in Asia and particularly in China.

It is also interesting to note the parameters used to classify the different types of amusement machines. The first basic subdivision is that of material and construction technology: all-wood structures on the one hand, steel on the other. The wooden ones (which are more classic and traditional, but still being constructed today) have the charm of being denser — hence also very sculptural — in their structural texture, making these large modular architectures look like sinuous mountains, or even gigantic frozen waves.
X-Scream, perched on top of
the tallest observation tower
in the USA—the Stratosphere
Tower (350 metres)—has been
offering a plunge into midair
over Las Vegas since 1996. The
Stratosphere’s other attractions
include a free-fall tower and the
Insanity merry-go-round
X-Scream, perched on top of the tallest observation tower in the USA—the Stratosphere Tower (350 metres)—has been offering a plunge into midair over Las Vegas since 1996. The Stratosphere’s other attractions include a free-fall tower and the Insanity merry-go-round
Conversely, steel roller-coasters have recently undergone considerable technological innovation, as well as being developed in more advanced forms. On this type of construction the passenger cars no longer run on the upper side of massive support structures. Instead, they are attached to monobeams that seem like free and light fluctuating lines, suspended in space by the occasional support pylon. In particular, state-of-the-art steel rollercoasters offer spectacular sequences of hyperboles, parabolas, sinusoids and helicoids that seem to float magically in midair. In addition to all these loops, twists and turns, in some cases new rollercoasters also offer yet more surprises, such as plunging at breakneck speed into underground tunnels, shooting through sudden slits in walls of solid architecture, or riding upside down as in an overturned ski-lift. And thanks to the latest generation of magnetic field engines, today's wouldbe daredevils can experience crazy accelerations to relish ever higher levels of G-forces.

The fast pace of technological and formal innovations also sheds light on today's standard yardstick for classifying these types of machine, i.e. that of records per speciality: length, height, speed and loops, meaning the number and complexity of evolutions and revolutions performed during a ride. Naturally, this kind of vertigo-generating machine goes hand in hand with the concept of records, which fuel riders' appetites for ever more breathtaking ordeals that offer them an immediate sense of elation afterwards for having overcome their fear. Many have written that this mad urge to "look death in the face" is simply an attempt to defeat it, which may also be translated as a feeling of erasing, albeit for a couple of minutes, the dullness of everyday existence through the inebriating, wild sensation of risking one's life (in a controlled form, of course). Indeed, subjecting oneself to such peculiar stress is like releasing for a few seconds the innermost animal instincts of fear, courage, resistance and strength, in something verging on a drugged, esoteric experience.

As W.H. Auden wrote in 1966, in a verse from his poem Fairground :

A ground sacred to the god of vertigo
and his cult of disarray: here jeopardy
panic, shock, are dispensed in measured doses
by fool-proof engines.
Subjecting oneself to such peculiar stress is like releasing for a few seconds the innermost animal instincts of fear, courage, resistance and strength, in something verging on a drugged, esoteric experience
The Spanish PortAventura
theme park was built at
Salou, Tarragona, in 1994.
Among its most spectacular
roller-coasters are the
Dragon Khan, famous for its
8 loops, and the Shambhala,
which at 76 metres is the
highest in Europe
The Spanish PortAventura theme park was built at Salou, Tarragona, in 1994. Among its most spectacular roller-coasters are the Dragon Khan, famous for its 8 loops, and the Shambhala, which at 76 metres is the highest in Europe
This "cultural" condition was also well described as early as 1928 by Walter Benjamin's friend Siegfried Kracauer, the architectural historian, sociologist and culture critic. In his Roller-Coasters article (original title Berg – und Talbahn ) published in the Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper, he noted with acute insight: "It almost seems as if everybody is screaming because they imagine themselves safe at last. With a cry of triumph: 'Here we are, borne aloft in beatitude, zooming ahead in a race that may imply death, but also appeasement.'" Many a page has been written on this comparison — anxiety as an existential state, and dread as the effect of an event or trauma — starting from the analyses of Sigmund Freud. However, aside from the diverse and contrasting interpretations (neurological versus psychoanalytical), it is worth remembering that, according to psychoanalytical theory, the death drive is exactly what dreams are to sleep: a guardian. In this sense, we might hazard a guess that the aesthetic exaltation of forms of speed "guards", incarnates, desecrates and demystifies the uneasiness and frenzy of our metropolitan life.

Steven Stern's article Off the Rails , published a few years ago in Frieze , offers an interesting comment on the subject of these architectures. "Despite a 100- year history," writes Stern, "roller-coasters suffer a dearth of criticism. While cultural theorists are in love with amusement parks, they have little to say about the rides themselves. You can find dozens of Baudrillard-quoting articles about Coney Island and Disneyworld, but not much about what it means to actually strap in and take the plunge.

Maybe that's because roller-coasters don't traffic in representation. They're not simulacra, but the real thing: more like drugs than movies, working directly on the stomach and the inner ear. To call the experience 'visceral' is, for once, not an exaggeration. No matter how theme parks might dress them up with borrowed narratives — you're on a rocket, a runaway train, you're Batman — what happens on a ride is almost entirely a matter of physics and physiology."
Left, The Vanish roller-coaster
at the Cosmo Land theme
park in Yokohama, Japan.
Opened in 1999, it plummets unexpectedly into an
underwater tunnel, simulating
a dive into a giant pool. Right, Millennium
Force, one of 4 roller-coasters
to exceed a height of 61 m at
the Cedar Point theme park,
together with the Magnum
XL-200, the Wicked Twister
and the Top Thrill Dragster.
Counting 16 roller-coasters,
Cedar Point first opened in
1870 on a 147-hectare site in
Sandusky, Ohio
Left, The Vanish roller-coaster at the Cosmo Land theme park in Yokohama, Japan. Opened in 1999, it plummets unexpectedly into an underwater tunnel, simulating a dive into a giant pool. Right, Millennium Force, one of 4 roller-coasters to exceed a height of 61 m at the Cedar Point theme park, together with the Magnum XL-200, the Wicked Twister and the Top Thrill Dragster. Counting 16 roller-coasters, Cedar Point first opened in 1870 on a 147-hectare site in Sandusky, Ohio
It is also important to remember that these impressive structures are the work of highly professional teams of designers and engineers. (In this sector the world's most famous office is the German Stengel Engineering in Munich, but the Italian firm Ride Tek also occupies a distinguished place). Also offering superb quality are the companies specialising in the constructions themselves, which have their own specific and sophisticated backgrounds (of the top four, two are Swiss, one is German and one American, but the Dutch are prominent too, and there is also a worthy Italian representative).

To follow up on Steven Stern's reasoning, it has to be recognised that the theme of temporary architecture dedicated to entertainment has, together with the world of fairs and expos, gained a permanently strategic role in the interpretation of genetic changes in the urban scene. This is partly thanks to Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York. A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan published in 1978, in which he outlined his view of the myth of the modern American city in the opening chapter "Coney Island: the Technology of the Fantastic".

Koolhaas wrote: "At the junction of the 19th and 20th centuries, Coney Island is the incubator for Manhattan's incipient themes and infant mythology. The strategies and mechanisms that later shape Manhattan are tested in the laboratory of Coney Island before they finally leap toward the larger island. Coney Island is a foetal Manhattan." Among these "technologies of the fantastic", a place of honour certainly belongs to the legendary roller-coasters of Coney Island: Thunderbolt (1925), Tornado (1926) and Cyclone (1927), the latter having been a US National Historic Landmark since 1991.

It must also be recognised that this interpretation had already been identified a few years earlier by other leading theorists and architects, engaged in a critical and alternative survey of the evolutionary models in urban culture. Think of Cedric Price with his Fun Palace of 1962, or of Andrea Branzi who in 1966, a few months before the foundation of Archizoom, submitted an amusement park project as his degree thesis; and especially of Guy Debord, who in 1967 published his seminal theoretical book Society of the Spectacle . It may also be worth considering that Domus has never published any roller-coasters. However, this term has been used several times to describe such projects as the Centre Georges Pompidou by Piano and Rogers, or some of Gehry's designs. These architectures also represented a "dream-nightmare" in relation to their point in history, representing and "guarding" some of our innermost anxieties as men and women overwhelmed by the "roller-coasters" of contemporary everyday life. Giampiero Bosoni, academic and design historian

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