Assignment e bibliographic Essay: Effacing the Boundaries Between Spaces

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Jeffrey Sargis

26 October 2012

Thesis Prep I

Ian Baldwin

Assignment E

Bibliographic Essay: Effacing the Boundaries Between Spaces
Visually spaces are perceived with transparency when they have overlays, extensions and their boundaries blur at certain points. These observations are found throughout various works and they concentrate on visual perceptions of space. One of these concepts illustrated by Eve Blau includes abstracted spaces that create an image similar to cubist paintings where the user is constantly viewing spaces that intertwine and relate. The relationships are formed from the basic roots in tectonic style that controls how one sees a room such as heavy or light, shallow or deep. These different methods of overlaying and showing ambiguity abstractly within spaces merges and shifts programs to alter our ideas on how these spaces are associated. These perceptions not only include overlays but a sense of the beyond and the shortening and the extending of a space. Ambiguities within spaces that make associations between two or more areas are referenced to explain the phenomenal perceptions of a larger layout. The occupant’s assessments and perceptions about a space is directly associated with spatial relations, ambiguities, tectonics, and perceived barriers. These aspects all inform and contribute to the ideas behind the perception of phenomenology.

As discussed in Eve Blau’s essay “Transparency and the Irreconcilable Contradictions of Modernity” architecture in its most abstract views can play with the same tools as Cubism. Much like Picasso’s L'Arlesienne where parts of the painting tend to take the foreground while others recede while the reverse is equally visible. Shapes overlap and interpenetrate one another without one taking the dominant view. Blau defines transparency through its visual and physical phenomena’s by the juxtaposition of spaces and the literal qualities of the materials. “By means of carefully juxtaposed images and a shared vocabulary of term – transparency, interpenetration, movement, lightness, elasticity, dematerialization, and limitlessness – to describe [buildings of that era].”1 Her support is drawn from the fluctuating figures of Le Corbusier’s houses at Pessac where the design is based on relation and interpretation and not space nor form.2 Furthermore, Blau asserts that this notion of phenomenal transparency in architecture branched from experiments in photography and film, especially Mies Van der Rohe’s collaboration with artists’ experiments with light and movement.3 Blau connects these experiments with Van der Rohe’s buildings, which like the projections from the artist films lightly define the limits of spaces as minimally as possible. This article is written for architectural scholars to better understand the different types, especially the abstract, of transparencies and how they can be utilized. Blau’s elements of transparency are used as tools to create and manipulate perceived spaces.

Like Eve Blau Michael Hayes addresses how transparency was influenced by a cultural shift. His focus, however, is different from Blau’s in that he attributes the change and desire to create subtle interest in space in response to the modern state where we are constantly being bombarded by exterior stimuli. Michael Hayes’ article Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form analyzes architecture’s relationship to the changing times and the needs of new generations. He supports his claim by using case studies and psychological academic sources that reference the effects that over stimulation have on a person. These sources then inform how architects, notably Mies van der Rohe, responded to this rush of external modern stimuli. “[A] building form conceived not in terms of separate, articulated masses related to one another by a geometrically derived core, but as a complex unitary volume that does not permit itself to be read in terms of an internal formal logic.”4 This description of Mies’s Friedrichstrasse skyscaper exemplifies a new form and spatial view of architecture. He rebels against the older formal layout to create an interpretive mobile organization that better responds to the new modern era. The article’s concepts are used to blend different spaces so that organization is dependent on the user and reinterpreted by the individual. Mies van der Rohe accomplished blending spaces within his buildings by merging and shifting programs and keeping an open plan that connected different areas of use. These two different views on a similar cultural phenomenon relate and explain how the change in perceptions has formed transparency.

Throughout history tectonic have been used to inform spatial properties and create a feeling within a space. In a chapter from Kenneth Frampton’s “Introduction to Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture” he seeks to explore how the tectonic “poetics of structure and construction”5 evolve throughout time in different cultures. This book’s chapter excerpt focuses on tectonic meanings, origin and uses. The author presents a walk through the history of tectonics in different cultures, focusing on completed works from ancient religious buildings to modern buildings and their building techniques in order to define a methodology in their use for the occupant. Frampton defines how tectonics has developed throughout cultures and how it can be used to engage the occupant in their surroundings. For example Alvar Aalto’s Saynatsalo Town Hall plays with surface coloring and placement to enforce how the space is seen. Brick is used in the stairway to darken the approach into the light council chamber and also oriented along the corridor giving an added sense of direction, thus creating a feeling of enclosure and quick movement before entering the open destination of the council chamber. The tectonic elements are used to alter the feeling of a space. Materials and space are essential in forming spatial perceptions. Kenneth Frampton writes about how tectonics have been used and evolved over time, while Steven Holl, Juhani Pallasmaa, and Alberto Pérez-Gómez write about the poetics of their uses.

Fundamentally linked to ideas about spatial perceptions are Steven Holl’s, Juhani Pallasmaa’s, and Alberto Pérez-Gómez’s book “Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture.” This book is composed of three essays that are thematically linked by the idea that all the senses are needed to completely experience architecture. They assert that human perception and phenomenology play the largest role in architecture. In the Porta Vittoria project of 1986 Holl designs the architecture by drawing partial perspectives illustrating the particular views of the occupant. This fragmentation creates overlaps of space and the combination of materials blur where many of the spaces end. “Within the experimental continuum of enmeshed space, we understand distinct objects, distinct fields, as a “whole.”6 It narrates the methods necessary to engage all of the occupant’s senses and create elements that will influence the user’s experience inside a piece of architecture. Frampton and Holl et al. are examples of two approaches written years apart, however, they share similar underlying notions about how materials and the built influence the occupants perception.

Pierre Von Meiss’s “Elements of Architecture From Form To Place” asserts that spatial relationships are born from what the user perceives as boundaries. He describes how forms are created by ideas of what space is and how they are defined by elements that hint at boundaries or combined spaces. For example columns, layered spaces and changes in material are a few tools Von Meiss asserts designers use to create implied spatial boundaries. He begins his discussion by breaking down the box and the mindset of a wall and cites examples of porosities and free plans that maintain this sense of place. “Architectural space is born from the relationships between objects or boundaries and from planes which do not themselves have the character of object, but which define limits.”7 These limits define space and relate them to one another conceptually. The limits are either outlined or intersected which create related areas where their organization can be reevaluated and rediscovered. The spatial designs of Pierre Von Meiss and Robert Venturi are both determined by their ideas on the limits of space. They both discuss how space is determined and manipulated by different kinds of or lack of a definite outline.

Robert Venturi’s “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” discusses the phenomenological aspects of architecture. He analyses the complex uses of contradiction by highlighting ambiguity and relationships in spaces and forms to add depth to architectural design. “[A] wall is not violated by window penetrations but is totally interrupted by glass; program functions are exaggeratedly articulated into wings or segregated separate pavilions. Even ‘flowing space’ has implied being outside when inside, and inside when outside, rather than both at the same time.”8 These spatial interactions create volumes that share limits and create a sense of completeness within two different areas. The concept of contradiction in architecture can create a complex space from simple shapes. The lack of clear boundaries creates contradictions in its form and can incorporate other interlocking spaces, making once simple shape relationships more complex and rich.

Colin Rowe’s and Robert Slutzky’s “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal” claims that “Transparency means a simultaneous perception of different spatial locations. Space not only recedes but fluctuates in a continuous activity.”9 This assertion that architecture can be viewed equally from more than one point of view at more than one time creates a dynamic within the buildings order. Rowe and Slutzky cite buildings from influential architects that display a duality of space, planes and structure.

“Similar parallels are very obvious in considering the organization of the principal floor. For here the vertical equivalent of deep space is introduced by the double height of the outer terrace and by the void connecting living room with entrance hall; and here, just as Leger enlarges spatial dimensions through the displacement of the inner edges of his outer panels, so Le Corbusier encroaches upon the space of his central area.”10

Most notably Le Corbusier plays with transparency as a painter would, layering his buildings order in plan and elevation. His elevations from the villa at Garches seem to be separate flat elements exploded apart from one another making space. When viewed the elevations pieces seem to oscillate in their positions in the foreground and background. The contrasting understandings of transparency in terms of it’s literal and phenomenal realities add depth to a once simplified concept of design. Colin Rowe’s and Robert Slutzky’s discussions on transparency illustrates its expression within architecture.

Colin Rowe’s and Robert Slutzky’s “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal Part II” continues from their first discussion on transparency and extends it to encompass historical precedents. The authors continue their explanation of perceived overlaps and contradictions in space only now they apply it to all time periods instead of just the modernist ear.

“[O]f phenomenal transparency there might be found a preference for shallow space, or where such space was not possible, for a stratification of deep space, so that the phenomenal as opposed to the real space could be experienced as shallow.”11

This explanation of the phenomena explains the ambiguity between shallow and deep space and its implications within a space. Rowe and Slutzky diagram façade organizational layouts from renaissance and modern architecture along with implied shape recognition associations to show examples of different ordering interpretations. Renaissance façades and a skyscraper in Chicago by I. M. Pei and compared to show they share similar qualities. Both building façades contain pieces that can be viewed equally as to which one is in front of the other. The contrasting understandings of these forms of transparency are illustrated in simple diagrams so the different hierarchies in façades and forms are displayed. The compared and contrasted works are models to how designers achieve this phenomena and how viewers register its effect.

All of the combined attributes coincide to create spatial qualities that are perceived and show as phenomenal transparency. Each source describes how different time periods created and expressed this phenomenon differently. Some ways have been influenced by the extremely abstract and others the orderly archaic. Many examples of transparency have been in response to changing eras such as modernity. When the users experience these effects one can see how it can be influential in adding richness to their viewed space, thus creating phenomenal transparency.


1 Eve Blau, “Transparency and The Irreconcilable Contradictions of Modernity”(Cambridge: Praxis, Fall 2007), 52

2 Eve Blau, “Transparency and The Irreconcilable Contradictions of Modernity,” 55

3 Ibid, 52

4 Michael Hayes, “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form,” (Cambridge: MIT Press Perspecta, 1984), 19

5 Kenneth Frampton, Introduction to Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 1-27

6 Steven Holl, Juhani Pallasmaa and Alberto Pérez-Gómez, Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture, (San Francisco: William Stout, 2006), 48

7 Pierre Von Meiss, Elements of Architecture From Form To Place, (E&FN Spoon, 1988), 101

8 Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradictions in Architecture, (New York City: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966), 31

9 Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky, “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal,” (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1963), 45

10 Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky, “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal,” (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1963), 51

11 Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky, “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal Part II,” (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), 288

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