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.
-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.
-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: 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!
-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.”