Key Points: Between Figure and Ground

Georges Teyssot
Translated by Alexandre Champagne

Reviewed by Robert Mitchell

24 Jan 2016

In his book Du mode d’existence des objets tech­niques [On the Mode of Exis­tence of Tech­ni­cal Objects] (1958), the French philoso­pher Gilbert Simon­don refers to key points” — objects at once tech­ni­cal and aes­thet­ic — struc­tur­ing the ter­ri­to­ry, such as a bridge, a light­house, a cas­tle, a ruin, an anten­na.1 Such mon­u­ments are also equip­ment,” in the mod­ern sense of the word.2 These engi­neered struc­tures cre­ate key points anchored in the land­scape. In the vol­ume men­tioned, Simon­don shows that a new retic­u­la­tion is favored by tech­nique, insti­tut­ing a priv­i­lege to be grant­ed to cer­tain places in the world, in a syn­er­getic alliance of tech­ni­cal schemes and nat­ur­al pow­ers: There, the aes­thet­ic impres­sion appears, in this accord and this sur­pass­ing of tech­nique,” insert­ing itself into and link­ing to the world through the most note­wor­thy key points.”3

Since antiq­ui­ty, what con­sti­tutes the ground — such as nat­ur­al land­marks, trees, rocks, moun­tains, grot­toes — has become cul­tur­al fig­ures, mag­i­cal and/​or reli­gious, capa­ble of giv­ing a mean­ing to the land­scape.4 Fig­ures and grounds devel­op a rela­tion­ship of mutu­al ten­sion, cre­at­ing an unprece­dent­ed retic­u­la­tion of the ter­ri­to­ry.5 In that way, a work of art par­tic­i­pates in a net­work­ing of the world through its inser­tion in a region, a town, or a site that thus becomes dis­tinc­tive: It is indeed the inser­tion that defines the aes­thet­ic object, […] the work of art defines the high­est point of a promon­to­ry, ends the bar­ri­er wall, sur­mounts a tow­er.”6 In the world, there are remark­able places, excep­tion­al points that stim­u­late aes­thet­ic cre­ation: thus, the aes­thet­ic work makes the uni­verse come into bloom, extends it, con­sti­tut­ing a net­work of works, that is to say a net­work of excep­tion­al real­i­ties, radi­at­ing, a net­work of key points in a uni­verse at once human and nat­ur­al.”7 The aes­thet­ic impres­sion is linked to the inser­tion in the envi­ron­ment; it is like a ges­ture that fits itself into the nat­ur­al milieu, like the sail of a ship under the force of the wind: the light­house by the edge of the reef over­look­ing the sea is beau­ti­ful, because it is insert­ed on a key point of the geo­graph­ic and human world.”8 A tech­ni­cal object such as this leads to a rede­f­i­n­i­tion of the rela­tion­ship between fig­ure and ground: the object is beau­ti­ful when it has met a ground that suits it, of which it can be the prop­er fig­ure, that is to say when it rounds off and express the world.”9 For Simon­don, the tech­ni­cal object acquires its aes­thet­ic capac­i­ties against a vaster real­i­ty that is used as a ground.

As, in a way, ener­getic tran­sit points, these key points con­fer an aes­thet­ic sense to topog­ra­phy. Con­sti­tut­ing a net­work of works, such points are placed right in the mid­dle, in between things; they form a mi-lieu” [lit­er­al­ly, a mid-place”], which explains the beau­ty of pow­er line tow­ers cross­ing a val­ley.10 The tech­ni­cal object is beau­ti­ful when it is the fruit of a meet­ing between the ground and the fig­ure. An oil refin­ery, a hydro­elec­tric pow­er plant, a tele­phone exchange (objects that are oh so for­bid­ding!) are locat­ed at the criss-cross­ing of cir­cuits and, con­se­quent­ly, they can be beau­ti­ful, for the lights which come on express aspects of human life, mak­ing explic­it an unsat­is­fied desire, an immi­nent piece of news, a renewed hope.11 The tech­no-aes­thet­ic objects express affect and per­cept, and it is con­ceiv­able that Gilles Deleuze made Simondon’s the­sis his aes­thet­ic and philo­soph­i­cal bible. The exam­ples pre­sent­ed by Bertrand Rougi­er have val­ue at once local and glob­al: pow­er lines and pylons cut­ting across forests, tem­po­rary snow shel­ters, nomadic fish­ing cab­ins on frozen lakes.They pro­vide the nec­es­sary par­a­digm, which allows the trac­ing of a new archi­tec­tur­al car­tog­ra­phy, illus­trat­ing the key points in our con­tem­po­rary world, the age of the tech­no-indus­tri­al and tech­no-sci­en­tif­ic devel­op­ment. With­out nos­tal­gia, they rede­fine also the notion of nature,” extract­ing it out of its pic­turesque or roman­tic sub­strate.12

There is a the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tion, raised by Simon­don, that deserves care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion. A major por­tion of Simondon’s mag­is­te­r­i­al demon­stra­tion is based on the con­cept of anal­o­gy, because his aes­thet­ic think­ing main­tains fig­ure and ground togeth­er in an ana­log­i­cal rela­tion­ship.13 For Simon­don, the anal­o­gy con­sists of the iden­ti­ty of the rela­tion between fig­ur­al struc­tures and a ground of real­i­ty. It is the iden­ti­ty of the cou­pling of the fig­ure and the ground. Such a rela­tion­ship of anal­o­gy offers a guar­an­tee to the uni­ty of the aes­thet­ic work. Form­ing a com­plete uni­verse, this rela­tion­ship cre­ates true mon­ads in the Leib­niz­ian sense of the word.14 What cre­ates the con­di­tions for beau­ty is not an iso­lat­ed object, such as a stat­ue, but the asso­ci­a­tion between a real aspect of the world and a human ges­ture. For exam­ple, it is the com­bi­na­tion of the land­scape and the vil­la that is beau­ti­ful, not the stat­ues of the gar­den tak­en sep­a­rate­ly.15 It is because of the gar­den (ground) that the stat­ue (fig­ure) can appear to be beau­ti­ful. Thus, anoth­er par­a­digm: lines would not be har­mo­nious if they were pure­ly rela­tion­al.16 With all due respect to Mati­la Ghyka’s gold­en num­ber and Le Corbusier’s mod­u­lor, beau­ty is not shaped by num­ber and mea­sure per se. In fact, notes Simon­don, a cer­tain curve can be beau­ti­ful even when it is dif­fi­cult to deter­mine its math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­la. Simondon’s argu­ment is still valid and has not aged. Besides, there is in it a truth that the painter Eugène Delacroix knew well: There are lines that are mon­sters: the straight line, the reg­u­lar ser­pen­tine, above all two par­al­lel lines. When man estab­lish­es them, the ele­ments wear them away. Moss­es, acci­dents break the straight lines of his mon­u­ments. A line alone has no mean­ing; it will need a sec­ond one to give it some expres­sion. Great law. Exam­ple: in musi­cal har­monies, a note has no expres­sion, two togeth­er form a whole, express an idea.”17

When all is said and done, it is nec­es­sary to come back to the ques­tion of the rela­tions between form and mat­ter, at the root of the Simon­don­ian notion of force, then to intro­duce the con­cepts of form and infor­ma­tion, which allow one to devel­op and explain the process of mod­u­la­tion” as laid out in a mas­ter­ful way in Simondon’s main the­sis about indi­vid­u­a­tion (1958).18Then, again, as sketched out in the late text by Simon­don, enti­tled Sur la tech­no-esthé­tique” [On the tech­no-aes­thet­ic] and pub­lished posthu­mous­ly, it actu­al­ly seems that a fruit­ful path opens up.19 Judg­ing by the nomadic, pros­thet­ic objects pre­sent­ed in Rougier’s pho­tographs, a tech­no-aes­thet­ic could be deployed.20

All pho­tographs and draw­ings © Bertrand Rougi­er. Repro­duced with permission.


L'Isle-Verte, Québec

L'Isle-Verte, Québec

L'Isle-Verte, Québec

L'Isle-Verte, Québec

La Baie, Québec

La Baie, Québec

La Baie, Québec


49° 16' 30.5" N 68° 07' 53.2" W

47° 30’ 47.9’’ N 70° 25’ 16.2’’ W

49° 16' 26.6" N 68° 08' 15.3" W

47° 42' 05.7" N 70° 06' 56.4" W

47° 35’ 05.7’’ N 70° 18’ 12.8’’ W

47° 42' 03.6" N 70° 06' 50.1" W

47° 48' 07.3" N 69° 57' 05.8" W

47° 42' 05.4" N 70° 06' 45.4" W

47° 42' 10.4" N 70° 06' 44.0" W

47° 40' 13.3" N 70° 09' 18.7" W


chemin Sainte-Foy, Québec City

Avenue du Cardinal Bégin​, Québec City

Avenue du Cardinal Bégin​, Québec City

chemin Sainte-Foy​, Québec City

rue de Longpré​, Québec City

boulevard René-Lévesque​, Québec City

boulevard René-Lévesque, Québec City

boulevard René-Lévesque​, Québec City

boulevard René-Lévesque​, Québec City

boulevard René-Lévesque​, Québec City

rue de Longpré​, Québec City​

avenue du Bon air, Québec City


By Robert Mitchell

Georges Teyssot’s Key Points: Between Fig­ure and Ground” is a won­der­ful reflec­tion on, and appli­ca­tion of, the con­cept of key points” that Gilbert Simon­don devel­oped in Du mode d’existence des objets tech­niques [On the Mode of Exis­tence of Tech­ni­cal Objects] (1958), and it makes one rue once again the lack to date of stan­dard Eng­lish trans­la­tions of Simondon’s major texts. As Teyssot notes, mod­ern key points are for Simon­don objects at once tech­ni­cal and aes­thet­ic” which, because they struc­ture a ter­ri­to­ry, can­not be sep­a­rat­ed from the phys­i­cal space in which they have been placed. (Or, at any rate, these objects no longer func­tion as key points if they are removed from this space.) With that said, the key points that Teyssot exem­pli­fies with objects such as a bridge, a light­house, a cas­tle, a ruin, an anten­na” are per­haps bet­ter qual­i­fied as mod­ern key points, for ear­li­er in his text, Simon­don had used the con­cept to describe the struc­ture of the mag­i­cal” world in which humans lived before they made a dis­tinc­tion between reli­gion and tech­nol­o­gy. The key points of the mag­i­cal world includ­ed spaces of inflec­tion and cross­ing, such as a moun­tain peak or the heart of a for­est, and enabled a retic­u­la­tion of space and time which high­lights priv­i­leged spaces and moments, as if all of man’s pow­er of act­ing and all of the capac­i­ty of the world to influ­ence man was con­cen­trat­ed in these spots and these moments.”21 Simondon’s descrip­tions of both mag­i­cal and mod­ern key points under­score his sense that humans relate prac­ti­cal­ly and affec­tive­ly to space as a medi­um that is fun­da­men­tal­ly het­ero­ge­neous and struc­tured by gra­di­ents of attrac­tion and repulsion.

Though Simondon’s account of mag­i­cal key points was intend­ed to describe a world now long past, Teyssot’s read­ing — and Betrand Rougier’s strik­ing pic­tures — helps us con­sid­er ways in which sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge about glob­al eco­log­i­cal process­es has facil­i­tat­ed the emer­gence of new key points that are nei­ther mag­i­cal, in Simondon’s sense, nor pre­cise­ly technical/​aesthetic objects of the sort exem­pli­fied by Teyssot and Rougi­er. I have in mind spaces such as the ice packs of the North Pole and Antarc­tic, the Ama­zon rain for­est, and nat­ur­al parks such as Yel­low­stone, the man­agers of which seek to main­tain wild” herds of ani­mals. The beau­ty of such places is at this point insep­a­ra­ble from the sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge that posi­tions them as key points with­in glob­al eco­log­i­cal process­es, yet these are not tech­ni­cal objects in the sense of bridges, light­hous­es, and cas­tles (if only because their prac­ti­cal pow­er and use” requires that they not be used in the mode of tech­ni­cal objects). Nev­er­the­less, acknowl­edg­ing these spaces as key points would be vital for what Teyssot describes as the project of trac­ing […] a new archi­tec­tur­al car­tog­ra­phy, illus­trat­ing the key points in our con­tem­po­rary world, the age of the tech­no-indus­tri­al and tech­no-sci­en­tif­ic devel­op­ment,” and under­stand­ing their beau­ty and appeal would help us to fur­ther the inno­v­a­tive aes­thet­ic the­o­ry devel­oped by Simon­don and tak­en up here by Teyssot.



Gilbert Simon­don, Du mode d’existence des objets tech­niques [On the Mode of Exis­tence of Tech­ni­cal Objects] (1958), (Paris, France: Aubier, 1989), p. 181. As a doc­tor­al stu­dent in France, Simon­don was required to sub­mit two dis­ser­ta­tions, both of which he defend­ed and sub­mit­ted in 1958. His main the­sis, L’in­di­vid­u­a­tion à la lumière des notions de Forme et d’In­for­ma­tion [Indi­vid­u­a­tion in the light of the notions of Form and Infor­ma­tion] was pub­lished in two parts, one in 1964 (Press­es uni­ver­si­taires de France, Paris) and the oth­er in 1989 (Aubier, Paris), and all togeth­er in 2005 (Edi­tions Jérôme Mil­lon, Greno­ble). His minor or sup­ple­men­tal the­sis, Du mode d’existence, was pub­lished in French in the year he defend­ed it (Aubier, 1958) and even­tu­al­ly in Ger­man and Span­ish edi­tions but not in Eng­lish. In 1980, part I of Du monde d’existence was trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Nin­ian Mel­lam­phy, then a fac­ul­ty mem­ber in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of West­ern Ontario, but that text remained in man­u­script form. The trans­la­tions here are those of Alexan­dre Champagne.


The mod­ern sense refers here to Michel Foucault’s notion of equip­ment,” which is now accept­ed in Eng­lish usage.


Simon­don, Du mode d’existence, p. 181: Là appa­raît l’impression esthé­tique, dans cet accord et ce dépasse­ment de la tech­nique”; au monde par les points-clés les plus remarquables.”


Ibid., p. 182.




Ibid., pp. 183 – 184.




Ibid., p. 185.






Ibid., pp. 186 – 87.


Georges Teyssot, On that word, Nature’,” in The Avery Review 1 [online], Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, Grad­u­ate School of Archi­tec­ture, Plan­ning, and Preser­va­tion, New York, NY, Sep­tem­ber 2014. http://​www​.averyre​view​.com/​i​s​s​u​e​s​/​1​/​o​n​-​t​h​a​t​-​w​o​r​d​-​n​ature


Simon­don, Du mode d’existence, p. 189.


Ibid., p. 190.


Ibid., p. 191.




Eugène Delacroix, Notes sur les lignes (…),” 18431849, in Id., Jour­nal, nou­velle édi­tion Inté­grale, ed. Michèle Han­noosh (Paris, France: J. Cor­ti, 2009), vol. II, p. 1600.


Gilbert Simon­don, L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information (1958) (Greno­ble, Switzer­land: Jérôme Mil­lon, 20052013).


Gilbert Simon­don, Sur la tech­no-esthé­tique et Réflex­ions préal­ables à une refonte de l’enseignement,” in Les papiers du col­lège inter­na­tion­al de philoso­phie, CIPH, no. 12 (1992); reprint­ed as Gilbert Simon­don, Réflex­ions sur la tech­no-esthé­tique” (1982), in Id., Sur la tech­nique, 1953 – 1983 (Paris, France: Press­es Uni­ver­si­taires de France, 2013), pp. 379 – 396.


Georges Teyssot, A Topol­o­gy of Every­day Con­stel­la­tions (Cam­bridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013) ; French edi­tion, Une topolo­gie du quo­ti­di­en (Lau­sanne, Switzer­land: PPUR: Press­es poly­tech­niques et uni­ver­si­taires roman­des, in prepa­ra­tion, 2016).


Simon­don, Du mode d’existence des objets tech­nique, édi­tion aug­men­tée d’une pré­face (Paris, France: Aubier, 2001), p. 164. Trans­la­tion by Robert Mitchell.



Georges Teyssot is a Pro­fes­sor in the School of Archi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­sité Laval in Québec City, Cana­da. He has also taught his­to­ry and the­o­ry of archi­tec­ture at the Isti­tu­to Uni­ver­si­tario di Architet­tura (IUAV) in Venice, Italy, the Prince­ton School of Archi­tec­ture, and the Depart­ment of Archi­tec­ture at the Swiss Fed­er­al Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy (ETH) in Zurich, Switzer­land. Teyssot is the author of many books, includ­ing Pae­sag­gio d interni/Inte­ri­or Land­scape (Electa/​Rizzoli, 1987), Die Krankheit des Dom­izils: Wohnen und Wohn­bau, 1800 – 1930 (F. Vieweg, 1989), A Topol­o­gy of Every­day Con­stel­la­tions (The MIT Press, 2013), and Wal­ter Ben­jamin: Les maisons oniriques (Paris: Her­mann, 2013). With Monique Moss­er, he co-edit­ed The His­to­ry of West­ern Gar­dens, which has appeared in Ital­ian, French, Ger­man, and Eng­lish edi­tions and mul­ti­ple re-edi­tions. With archi­tects Diller + Scofidio, he co-curat­ed the exhi­bi­tion The Amer­i­can Lawn: Sur­face of Every­day Life at the Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Archi­tec­ture (1998) and edit­ed the cor­re­spond­ing book, The Amer­i­can Lawn (Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press with the Cana­di­an Cen­tre for Archi­tec­ture, 1999). He also wrote the intro­duc­tion to Diller + Scofidio’s mono­graph Flesh: Archi­tec­tur­al Probes (New York : 1995, 2011). Email: georges.​teyssot@​sympatico.​ca

Robert Mitchell is Mar­cel­lo Lot­ti Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty, where he is also Direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Stud­ies in Sci­ence and Cul­tur­al The­o­ry (CISS­CT). His research focus­es on rela­tion­ships between lit­er­a­ture and the sci­ences in the Roman­tic era, as well as con­tem­po­rary inter­sec­tions among infor­ma­tion tech­nolo­gies, genet­ics, and com­merce, espe­cial­ly as these have been played out in the legal, lit­er­ary, and artis­tic spheres. Mitchell is the author of Sym­pa­thy and the State in the Roman­tic Era: Sys­tems, State Finance, and the Shad­ows of Futu­ri­ty (Rout­ledge, 2007), Bioart and the Vital­i­ty of Media (Univ. of Wash­ing­ton Press, 2010), and Exper­i­men­tal Life: Vital­ism in Roman­tic Sci­ence and Lit­er­a­ture (Johns Hop­kins Univ. Press, 2013). He is also co-author of Tis­sue Economies: Blood, Organs and Cell Lines in Late Cap­i­tal­ism (Duke Univ. Press, 2006) and co-edi­tor of Roman­ti­cism and Moder­ni­ty (Rout­ledge, 2011), among many oth­er works. Email: rmitch@​duke.​edu

Alexan­dre Cham­pagne is a Ph.D. stu­dent in the Depart­ment of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign. After sev­er­al years as a finan­cial ana­lyst at the Banque de France, Cham­pagne earned a Mas­ter of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture (MLA) degree at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty. He interned at Peter Walk­er and Part­ners (Berke­ley, CA) and worked briefly at Michel Desvi­gne Paysag­iste (Paris, France) before co-found­ing the firm Aire d’essai (Los Ange­les, CA) in 2004. At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois, Champagne’s work focus­es on his­to­ry and the­o­ry of land­scape archi­tec­ture in rela­tion to dance and move­ment. Email: champag2@​illinois.​edu