The World Mountain or The Construction of the Virtual Real | ULRICH GEHMANN AND MARTIN REICHE



Based on World Mountains, the major forces towards an increased functionalization are examined, with a special emphasis on the city. The original conceptions of urban life as a major constituent of a conditio humana are compared with these forces, and their impact on our self-understanding and changed spatial conceptions are discussed, centering upon the ideas of virtuality and grids.




Based on an exhibition called World Mountain Machine, our contribution focuses on so-called world mountains in their recent modern form [1]. In many cultures, the 'world as it is' in its cosmic order has been expressed by the symbol of a mountain. To name just a few, for the Mesoamerican and Mesopotamian civilizations, the world was symbolized by a mountain shaped in the form of a pyramid; and in our own culture, the cosmological opposite between the Tower of Babel and the Heavenly Jerusalem became the epitome for two kinds of competing world orders. World orders which stand for two basically different kinds of city, the latter to be understood as man's genuine place to live, derived from the Aristotelian understanding of man as a zoon politikon, a "political" animal (literally translated) that lives in the city, the polis [2].

That the 'world as it is', particularly the human world of the city, can be expressed by a mountain is an old idea with strong imaginative power. In our culture, it is not confined to some recent past but kept alive through the ages, until today. According to Aby Warburg, it embodies a coining image, an archetypal imago mundi that reappears in ever changing forms without losing its essence [3], from the Sumerian ziggurat at the dawn of civilization to recent skyscrapers, from explicit representations of a cosmic order like a Heavenly Jerusalem to their implicit and secularized variants of modernity and today. The forms and shapes changed, the basic contents didn’t. The image remained, despite its manifold shifts in outer appearance. In the sense of Warburg, it resembles a kind of mental morphology, an epitome not only of order but also of hierarchy, and power [4]. The concrete nature of the world in question is of minor importance. It can be the world of civilization and power (and the power of civilization) resembled by a ziggurat, an acropolis, or a recent skyscraper. Or it can be man the zoon politikon's ideal place to live, namely an ideal city located either on earth as in case of Paolo Soleri's Hexahedron, or in Heaven as in case of a final Jerusalem resembled in gothic cathedrals. It can be pure fiction as the city of Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings or Plato's ideal city of Atlantis, or it can be an approach to be decisively realized like the ones of many modern utopias for ideal, i.e. fulfilled human beings.

Moreover, the world in question can even be completely functional, stripped of every mystification and part of our everyday lives: a functional diagram of ordered processes embodies a world mountain too (despite no one seeing a concrete mountain), since it orders the relevant world of flows according to their relative relevance for sustaining the whole; take for instance a metro plan, or any kind of technical flow chart. It are these kinds of functionalization that determine our recent cities to a domineering extent (so our thesis); moreover, they lead to their actual dissolution as unities of space, and place – characteristics making up the essence of city life in its traditional terms of understanding, essential for the "political" animal's genuine place to live [5]. With a look at the hybrid spaces of smart cities and their aligned always online culture, and facing the non-places of modernity vs. the anthropological need of place as a moment "…of identity, of relations and of history" [6], the question arises if being human as an urban animal in its classical terms is not in the process of fading away.

On Symbolic Orders

Coming back to the metaphorical image of a world mountain, the question arises if we are living within the terms of a gigantic functionalized, literally mountainous artifact. A format due to its specific kind of order, ordering the (conceived) relevant world in ideal terms; in its original meaning of an eidos, 'ideal' both in terms of conceiving something as an image, and as perfection [7]. And out of this, to embody a literal utopia, a construction that is not bound to a specific place in geography or time (utopia comes from ou-topos, non-place) and which owns an ideal character transcending its respective materializations [8].


Image 1: World Mountain as Utopian Longing [9]


All the more since world mountains are also 'virtual realities' because in the above meanings of the ideal, they refer to an ideal representation of the (respective) relevant world. What shall get expressed through them is a world as it should be – and is, if broken down to its very essence, to its features constituting its relevance. Taking the notion of the virtual in its literal terms from its Latin origin, denoting the capacity and power to unfold, to let become real what is embedded as a potential [10], world mountains are virtual worlds: they symbolize entire realities standing "behind them", i.e. for worlds they both reflect and represent. And as mentioned, they do not only stand for such worlds in total but also for their order since they show only the relevant features of the world in question, features which actually constitute it. This holds valid also for their modern and recent variants devoted to functionalism. Such 'functionalist mountains' are of particular interest since they constitute, by their realization, a large part of our today's life world. They are virtual realities in that they are worlds reduced to the minimum needed to be world at all, and because these minimal worlds are those of the functional, preplanned as realities to become ("virtual"), and then put into operation as realities. Functional models of the world ('virtual' worlds) became, in their sum and combined impact, the real world we know [11]. Despite they aren't overtly mountainous, they symbolize the relevant world in its order – metro plans, gridded cities, and other networks of the most diverse functionalities; each of them a cosmic structure of, and by its own, and even more important as regards real conditions of life, representing an entire world by its own.


Image 2: Functional Cosmic Structure [12]

Exemplified by the above image, what we see is a functional cosmic closure of pure technicality, showing only the features of its relevant world. That world's rim, what does not belong to the world of relevance, it has been omitted – like an original ocean on early maps of the world, depicted as a mass of blue surrounding the cosmic order in question. The fact that we got acquainted to these kinds of technical cosmic structures does not mean that they are self-evident, despite their functional justifications.


The City as Utopian Functionalization

In historical terms, it was a long process of development that started with the imago mundi of an encompassing rational order, exemplified in the (still) physical substrate of man the 'political' animal, namely with the idea of a gridded city. Brought down to its core, it was the idea that such an encompassing rational order can be achieved by applying a certain technical means of ordering reality, first of all urban reality: the grid. With a look at the postulated actual dissolution of cities, this is nothing against technique, or technical application; as such, the grid is a very old instrument for ordering the cityscape, it had been ubiquitously used throughout history and by quite different cultures [13], also by non-functionalized ones. The respective outcomes are not a matter of technique but of the mindset applying it – in case of our recent functionalized culture, a mindset aiming at (a), an encompassing and (b), a total domination of the "relevant world" through functions. It is a mindset that has its roots in what has been described by Günther Anders as a basic occidental dualism: between the world of the sensually given (the mundus sensibilis) and a world conceived, a mundus intelligibilis as the subject of planning [14], aiming at models in the above sense of the virtual. In the high rise of modernity already, before an Internet Age to come as its fulfillment, it led to an antiquation of both time and space (he calls it) in its real outcomes, emerging in a destruction of consistent spatiality and an attempted annihilation of time [15]. It were movements that succeeded, for the time being, starting on large scale with the functional city of classical modernity and recently perfected through manifold immaterializations brought about by an Internet Age.

In its first steps as an urban grid, its aim was the very opposite: for Aristotle, the first occidental gridded city of Miletus was an epitome for free citizenship and urban variety since according to his estimation, the embracing rational order of the grid allowed for both [16]. Only much later, beginning with the Baroque era and its conception of an empty, essentially abstract space, a concomitant abstraction of the spatial perspective took place, leading to a new kind of visual perception, and to a "mechanical order" as a product of reason [17]. It was a reason that first culminated in the gridiron city of modernity, an encompassing rational construct but still devoted to the needs of all – i.e., yet serving the ideal of a conception of man as zoon politikon [18] – and still later, in the construction of real and virtual systems of nodes and lines, the world as network we know today, consisting of the most diverse "logistic landscapes" and information networks. To draw this line of historical development to its recent end, the conception of an abstract, 'absolute' space and an absolute time [19] paved the way for the annihilation of both, and the modern space became literally utopian since essentially placeless, pouring into the non-places of Augé. But it all started with the modern city, that gridded functionalized entity on the historical substrate of which we live.


Image 3: Placeless Places [20]


Referring to the symbol of a world mountain, it became the mountain of existence for the former zoon politikon, next to the one of being networked – both as an encompassing environment and a problem. Because that former communal entity isn't truly communal any longer but got individualized, as did the networks it is part of. The ideal of the modern space became the grid: extendable in every direction and within the terms of such a space, the notion of the place, the specific topos where to live and where to generate identity, lost its meaning; and hence, the idea of the communal. The new communalities are as dispersed and as virtual as the new space is, they became consequently individualized, too, nowhere-places adopting the shape of (essentially) immaterial 'clouds'.


Some Conclusions

This is not to say that recently, no communality exists. But when referred to the city as its "classical" place, the latter lost its meaning, giving way to a conception of the urban that finally centers on the individual: individual organizations located in certain cities but globally active, as parts of the respective functional cosmic structures (of economic networks, etc.); or individuals as persons, assisted with state of the art-technological means and consuming the remnants of the former urbanity – the historically grown place which owns, through that, "flair" and "atmosphere" – or the investment company as an individual of peculiar class; or…the list is long and can be extended in every direction, like the grid [21]. As in case of the communal that ephemeralized into many "fluid" communities, the idea of city turned into a phenomenon called splintering urbanism that dissolved the old unitary city ideal yet prevalent in classical modernity (cf. above), consisting of network unbundling combined with urban fragmentation [22]. To make it short, the common point of these tendencies is an ephemeralization of formerly sound, and through that, identity-generating entities (as the traditional city, for instance), paralleled by a consumption of world. In that the world became an application, an app for the respective individual purpose. The world turned into an app for individual use, enabling a seemingly outburst of individuality (compared to epochs before) although based upon strictly defined technological formats [23]. But where from all these individual "users", caught in the technical networks of their respective functionalities, should derive their identity? Provided that the need for identity is still a trait of a conditio humana [24], of course, and is not to be superseded by diverse consumptive applications.

To draw a line of historical unfolding, as a world mountain with essentially immaterial since purely functional qualities, the grid became ubiquitous via its inherent capacity to create functional networks. What started in classical modernity with a virtualization of reality by imposing functional models on the existing ended recently with the real of the virtual, resembled in hybrid space-, smart city- and related approaches. Looking at the basics of modernity, namely rationalization, economization and universalization with their accompanying functionalism, the modern constructions were without history [25]. The functional format, by applying the ever same to mold the ever same – algorithmic procedures in a repetitive manner – has no history; except the one of creating the ever same. Recently, it led to what we call an eternal present, in particular of world consumption by the individual, no matter if aggregated as an enterprise for instance, or a 'community' of 'users', or single. But taking architecture as symbol for the city, man's supposed genuine place to live, is the future of architecture to serve man as a consumer [26]? If architecture is understood in its wider sense, not confined to physical buildings, then the question arises if the one of the functional grid, the "world as network" is the only world mountain left - for the time being.


Image 4: Format with Individuals [27]


Also see in this issue of Interartive: Ulrich Gehmann And Martin Reiche, "World Mountain Machine" 



[1] Gehmann, Ulrich and Reiche, Martin: World Mountain Machine. Presented at the RHIZOPE 2014 Art & Science – Hybrid Art & Interdisciplinary Research exhibition at Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design in Tallinn, Estonia, May 30 – August 24, 2014 (Book available at

[2] To this conception see Kullmann, Wolfgang: "Der Mensch als politisches Lebewesen bei Aristoteles" [Aristotle's man as a political animal], in: Hermes 108 (1980): pp.419-443

[3] Aby Warburg cited in Schulz, Manfred (2009): Ordnungen der Bilder [The Orders of Images], Munich: Wilhelm Fink: p.43

[4] Cf. Gehmann, U./Reiche, M.: Morphology, Myth, and the Symbolic, in: World Mountain Machine (op. cit.): pp. 47-59

[5] Vidler, Anthony (2011): The Scenes of the Street and Other Essays, New York: The Monacelli Press: p. 280

[6] Augé, Marc (1995): Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, London: Verso: p. 52. To the virtualization of the (former) real and a new real to emerge, see Reiche, Martin and Gehmann, Ulrich (2014): “Towards an anthropology of location-based recommendation and search”. In: R. König and M. Rasch (eds.): Society of the Query Reader: Reflections on Web Search, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam,

[7] To the notion of an eidos and the related concept of an idea see Hoffmeister, Johannes (1955): Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe [Dictionary of Philosophical Terms], Hamburg: Felix Meiner: p.186 (eidos), and p.317 (idea).

[8] Eaton, Ruth (2001): Die ideale Stadt [The Ideal City]. Berlin: Nicolai: p.11, to utopia and to the 'ideal' in both its original and derived meanings addressed here.

[9] Dome of Regensburg, Germany, detail of main façade. Photography Ulrich Gehmann

[10] To the connotations of the virtual see Knebel, Sven K.: Virtualität [Virtuality], in Ritter, Joachim et al., eds. (2001): Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie [Dictionary of the History of Philosophical Terms], Darmstadt: wbg: p.1062

[11] To such worlds in their different aspects see Gehmann, Ulrich and Reiche, Martin, eds. (2014): Real Virtuality: About the Destruction and Multiplication of World, Bielefeld: transcript

[12] Metroplan of Paris,,

(“Metropolis” by Quentin Creuzet,[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (]

[13] Kostof, Spiro (6th ed. 2007): The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History, New York etc.: Bulfinch Press: pp. 95f.

[14] Anders, Günther (1987): Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen [Man Antiquated], vol. 1, Munich: C.H. Beck: p. 10

[15] Anders, G. (op. cit): vol. 2: pp. 335f.

[16] Cf. Delfante, Charles (1999): Architekturgeschichte der Stadt [Architectural History of the City], Darmstadt: Primus: pp. 40f.

[17] Delfante, Ch. (op. cit.): p. 123; and Vidler, A. (op. cit.): p. 131, to the empty space of reason.

[18] Graham, Stephen and Marvin, Simon (2001): Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructure, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition, London/New York: Routledge: p. 60.

[19] First defined by Isaac Newton, cf. Scafi, Alessandro (2006): Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth, London: The British Library: p. 155. To Augé, see note [6]

[20] View on the city of Athens, one of those Aristotelian poleis and assumed cradle of democratic citizenship. Photography Ulrich Gehmann

[21] In case of the arts, this development is reflected in Würtenberger, Franzsepp (1986): Das Ich als Mittelpunkt der Welt [The Ego as Center of the World], Karlsruhe: von Loeper

[22] Graham, S./Marvin, S. (op. cit.): pp. 215, 385f., 407f.

[23] To the notion of the format see Gehmann, Ulrich (2012): Formats, in

[24] To the human condition in the entire epoch looked at here (modernity to recent past), see Pleßner, Helmuth (2003): Conditio Humana, Frankfurt: Suhrkam.

[25] Böhme, Gernot (2013): Architektur und Atmosphäre, Munich: Wilhelm Fink: p. 8, to the basics of modernity; and p. 12, to their a-historical essence.

[26] ibid.: p. 12

[27] Detail of a housing facility, Turin. Photography Ulrich Gehmann


Ulrich Gehmann (Dipl. lic. oec. HSG et MA History) leads the permanent working group Formatting of Social Spaces at Karlsruhe University (KIT), and is editor-in-chief of the journal New Frontiers in Spatial Concepts (KIT,

Martin Reiche is an audiovisual artist living and working in Berlin, and founder of Subformat Research Group