1+1=1: The Nagging Tooth of Architecture.

The Oculus of the Pantheon. Rome, Italy (Photo by Argitect)

Finally, after putting it off for years, I had my wisdom teeth removed last week.  Over the next couple of days the effects of the surgery were pervasive.  It affected the way I breathed *, it affected how I ate and drank.  The pain was steady enough to be noticeable.  The absence of my teeth became my fundamental identity for this recovery weekend.  I could manage minor but brief diversions watching epic movies and sleeping, but the consciousness of my circumstance was never more than an inch from my thoughts.

In this half awake pain pill fueled stupor I had a minor epiphany:  “The aching in my mouth is the dominant theme of my life at this moment.  It is the one thing that really identifies me right now.  It puts everything in simple concentrated focus.”    Here’s the leap:  There are certain buildings that also have this concentrated focus, this one element that identifies every inch of the building.  There are certain structures where one centralizing element has such magnetic force it informs and influences all other parts of the design.

The prime example of this is the Pantheon in Rome.  The oculus at the top of the dome is the nucleus of the whole design.   Every element is in service to and seems to have force directed towards the oculus. Even though the structure is bringing load downward, it appears that the entire interior facade is thrusting towards the apex.  The coffers in the domes bend radially and are stretched as if in exaggerated perspective towards the oculus. The pediments point towards it. The columns, pilasters and niches all seem to be spiritually informed or tugged by the oculus. This is a very elusive and vague thing to describe, but for some reason this potent force, almost intangible, is felt in this place. It leaves an impression that taints the view of every element of the structure.  Part to whole is in complete unity.   Even outside one is seared with the memory of the oculus (and perhaps even literally has a blind spot in there eye from looking into it for too long!)  The oculus stays with you and blinds all your memories of the place. The Pantheon IS the oculus, and nothing else!

This is a kind of element in design I would  call the Dominant Father.  A young child, growing up with an overbearing disciplinarian father, will constantly live in fear of his father. All decisions and actions are framed in relationships to the consequence of his father’s reaction to it.  Life becomes about one thing only. This constant obsessive thought taints everything.  Perhaps the metaphor is not ideal in that it suggests hostility, but the metaphor works in the sense that it describes a concept of one germinating element that informs all other components.  This can also be found in literature: The search for Kurtz in Heart of Darkness Poe’s Tell Tale Heart, or the White Whale in Moby Dick are constant looming thoughts in the respective novels.

This does not happen in that many buildings, and quite frankly it is something I am less comfortable in assigning because it is such an intangible, spiritual, feeling.  Nevertheless, I will cite several examples I think may fit the Dominant Father concept in architecture.

A courtyard in a Pompeian Villa. Photo by Argitect.

-The Pompeian Villa:  The central courtyard in a typical Pompeian villa, open to the sunshine and in a central location to the house, is the dominant life force of the house. It is the spoke in which functions surround.  It is pervasive, and is not far from the dwellers mind even if they are in a room where they do not see the courtyard directly.

A golden section diagram of Palladio's Villa Rotunda.

-Villa Rotunda: Similar to the Villas of Pompeii, but perhaps more refined, the Villa Rotunda by Andrea Palladio is a buildings whose rigorous proportioning are informed and tainted by the impression of the centralized dome.  It affects every element of design with its spiritual exhalations.

Barcelona Pavilion. Kolbe Sculture. I like to call her the BarPa Water Lady!

-Barcelona Pavilion:  The Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van Der Rohe is a rare modernist example of this idea although the dominant element is not even architectural. The Kolbe Sculpture in the water at the far end of the Pavilion is the entire heart of the design. It is impossible to see the building as complete without it. It counterpoints and gives heart to the abstract planes that gently envelope it.  One is struck by its singular gravity, and it forms a place in your mind that sticks with you even when you can’t see it.  The sculpture becomes the one thought of the building!

Salk Institute. Louis Kahn. Basically the only photograph necessary.

-The Salk Institute:  The dominant element in the Salk Institute by Louis Kahn is also not technically architectural. Instead of being the building it is the void between the buildings.  The courtyard puts every element of the design into laser focus.  More specifically, the narrow channel of water down the center of the courtyard is the nucleus of the whole building, the spiritual center of the space.  Bays in the building seem to thrust toward it in response like sunflowers facing the sunshine.  To a certain degree the focusing courtyard also reaches out to the distant landscape. The water and the horizon are brought in and framed by the courtyard.  Horizon is also part of this dominant element.   In the windowless laboratories one may still feel the presence of this space.

These examples all seem to have this intangible dominant nucleus space that informs the design. It can simply be a skylight, a void, a sculpture or any other building component.   It’s like the nagging pain of a pulled tooth, or the manipulation of a dominant father.  Unlike my previous posts concerning the dual nature of architecture this is a concept of holistic unity. This unity, however, cannot be achieved without a masterful meeting between the pragmatic reality of built form and its aesthetic expression. All elements of construction can conform to the single idea.  The purely willed and distilled artistic filtration of these pragmatic concerns can heighten the potency of this dominant vision better than mere rationalism.   So in the end, the dual nature of architecture must be acknowledged in creating an architecture of singular unity.  How’s that for a paradox?

*It’s like that great line in Chinatown. Yellburton: You ought to be more careful. That must really smart.  Jack Nicholson: “Only when I breath.”

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4 Responses to 1+1=1: The Nagging Tooth of Architecture.

  1. Kmart says:

    mediateque and the maniacal light fixture

  2. YL says:

    You may say that there is (almost always) a singular central focus/design feature in a piece of architecture, but the meat that you construct around the supposed ‘heart’ is just as important to ensure that the design intention pulls through. It is easy for us, anyone in fact, to just come up with some interesting concept, and say, “Oh, let’s have this really long escalator that punctuates the building. That will be the focus.” A client can demand for that. The layman may certainly find this interesting feature unforgettable. But it takes an architect to design everything else around it, besides and despite of the singular focus. Architecture cannot then become just designing/coming up with that brilliant unique idea. That is almost like industrial design. You know, like those witty salt-and-pepper holders, that beyond its wittiness, we ask ourselves, so what else? The pain in your mouth cannot be felt and amplified if not for the nerves in the gums that occupy it.

    and also, I don’t think the Kolbe Sculpture is the heart of Barcelona Pavilion. The I-beams are. The narrow strip of water isn’t also the heart of Salk’s. The view is. (upon which the courtyard, the master-planning of the whole Institute, the offices, and the windows are all oriented towards.)

    • argitect says:

      First off, I did not say that this singular focus idea in architecture is common to all buildings. I would say that it is actually pretty rare and is only successful in the hands of a master architect. And this is not about a concept or a feature of the building, it is much grander than that. It is a spiritual force with a magnetic pull that constantly reminds one of its presence. All other very important components to the building seem to have a relationship with the central focus. I’m not saying the rest of the building is unimportant,, it is vital in gesturing towards a singular theme. Only a genius can create unity within the endless complexities of architecture. This is not a tangible thing, it cannot be proven, or perhaps even agreed upon from person to person. It is a very spiritual feeling. When one is in the Pantheon, one feels every niche, every gesture in every sculpture, is in some way bent towards the dome and the oculus. This is not a concept or a fancy escalator, I’m not talking about design features, this is a spiritual center to the buildings themselves.

      It’s just like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Everything in the book is about the inevitable meeting with Kurtz, but the details and journey leading up to it are the fascinating part. It gives the book tension and thrust. All details follow a central nagging idea.

      This post explores the concept of unity in singularity. I would also in the near future like to explore the concept of unity in repetition.

      As for the Barcelona Pavilion: There are no I-beams in the barcelona pavilion, just chrome plated cruciform columns. And these are more of a unifying element achieved through repetition not singularity. The Kolbe sculpture is the contrast to the planar spaces that envelope it. It is unimaginable to view this building without that sculpture.

      And I agree with you about Salk, this is what i said in the post: “Horizon is also part of this dominant element. “ But the courtyard and the laser focus of the fountain are the things that contain the view, reach outwards and bring it in.

      Thanks for the comments! I love a good dialogue.

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