Dual Natured Architecture

Walter Gropius standing next to a building that would never get built.

 “With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage. In equal scale weighing delight and dole.”  William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Strikes and Gutters –  The Big Lebowski

The theory of dual natured architecture is itself a duality.  It could be criticized as being simplistic in its blind categorization of all the complexities of architecture into one single idea.  This is precisely the point.  Duality in architecture, as a law, is both simple and complex.

-It is simple in that the general thesis is a notion that anything has its opposing force.

-It is complex in that there are a nearly endless variety of these dualities.

There are also fundamental dualities in architecture and peripheral dualities in architecture.

-The fundamental duality is the tug of war between pragmatic and spiritual (aesthetic) agendas.  It is the balance between the circumstantial and the willed.  It is the ability to improvise within rigidity.

-Peripheral dualities are the many piecemeal results of built architecture.   Glass is both transparent and obfuscating.  It allows one to see through it, but reflections also distort reality.   It is the contrasting games and implicit decorum between a sculpture and a building in close proximity.

Architecture is the search for the god of the unknown and the god of the logical.  It is possible that a logical approach gives us insight into the unknown.

Of all the arts, architecture is the one most mired by reality.  The architect’s goal of expressing a spiritual notion can only be accomplished within the confines of the god of gravity, and the god of budget, and the god of client.

Duality stretches out beyond architecture.  In the largest sense, birth and death are our tethering antipodes.  On a smaller scale, we are constantly navigating the terrain between good and bad news.  One of the happiest moments of this year for me was the announcement that I got accepted into the Harvard GSD.  I was at work at the time, and saw that I had an email in my inbox. The email was from Harvard.  The previous Friday I had been rejected from Yale so I was preparing myself for more bad news.  I breathed in a disappointed sigh, although my heart was already pumping, and opened up the email.  The first word I saw was Congratulations followed by an exclamation point.  I’d gotten in!   I couldn’t believe it I, I was ecstatic.  I called my parents immediately to let them know the news.  Unfortunately, on this same day, our longtime cat, the one I grew up with, was found dead at the bottom of my parents stairs.  He had been sick for a while, so it wasn’t totally unexpected, but the news came at a strange time to say the least.  My happiness was tempered, but my sadness was also alleviated.  The result is a strange sensation.   This kind of thing happens all the time.  We live in a world of things we understand and things we do not.

Duality is a simple idea that collects the myriad complexities of life.   An architect is an interesting individual.  They have not drawn a line in the sand.  They are neither artist nor engineer.  Instead they vacillate between the conflicting desires of pure beauty and pure logic.  An architect betrays his/her own desires.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Antipodes of Our Age

Hans Scharoun. Theatre. 1922-23. The Expressionist Theatre.

Walter Gropius. Total Theatre. 1927. The Rationalist Theatre.

“Architecture wrote the history of the epochs and gave them their name. Architecture depends on its time.  It is the crystallization of its inner structure, the slow unfolding of its form.” Mies Van Der Rohe

In the modern era, the emerging technology of steel glass and concrete, construction forged a new freedom.  Without the constraints of stone or masonry construction architects found themselves able to explore many new avenues not cumbered by traditions.  This came at a time when ideologies were also changing.  The new construction and the new ideology coincided to express a break with the past. This was the dawning of a new epoch.

So what new constraints emerged in the Modern epoch?  The violent birth of the modern era in Europe amid the rubble of the Great War was a blooming of creativity at a time when the economy was dry and people were broke (and broken for that matter).  The concept of rationality, of “Sachlichkeit” was the counter to the freedom proposed earlier by Expressionism.  Rationality justified architecture and cleansed it of unneeded bourgeois excess.  The new client and the new focus were on the middle class, not just the wealthy.  Even the bold wealthy of the time embraced Modernism for it’s apparent lack of pretense.

Erich Mendelsohn. Optical Products Factory. 1917.

Walter Gropius. Fagus Factory 1911.

Freedoms and constraints gave the Modern epoch a shape.  Arguably a new epoch is emerging.  To a degree we have new constraints and new freedoms.  The new freedom is in the technology of the computer, which allows us to create almost anything in our imagination.  Computers can be used to create components of construction more precise than ever.  At some point in the near future I can imagine computers basically printing out components of a building for construction like a puzzle.   We are not there yet; the computer is in the end just a tool helpful for the realization of ideas.  These same ideas could potentially have been created without the computer (Look at what Nervi did without a computer!).  One of the obsessions of our time is the organic manipulation of form (Mimesis of organic shapes, beautiful curves, or chaotic juxtapositions).  Now did this emerge because of the computer or independent of it? In the modern era Hugo Haring and Hans Scharoun were dealing with similar leanings as a counter to the mechanical rationalism of their time.  So the current wave of architectural form-making is not without precedent, but is helpfully realized by a technology that allows more precise expression of complicated form.  Before computers the drafter only had the compass and the French curve to realize complex shapes. These of course met with a certain degree of imprecision that the architect would have to accept.

So, computers are the new technology, but we are still using basically the same materials and methods for construction.  Steel, concrete, and glass are still the dominant materials used today.  Computers have not created new materiality; it has only enabled a potentially different approach to these materials.  Does this make for a new epoch?

The constraints of our time are as important to the shaping of our possible new epoch as available technology is . Sustainability and a consciousness towards more responsible design is quite clearly the counter to the freedom of our computer technology.  We can no longer build glass skyscrapers with no sunshades.  In the modern age the mitigation of the greenhouse effect in glass buildings was the increased use of air conditioning.  We are now aware that this is a gross waste of resources. We are also economically limited by this freedom. Energy costs are much more expensive so it is only beneficial that a responsible skin that responds to environment and energy efficiency should emerge. This energy efficient consciousness is expressed serendipitously in the materiality of sustainability.  Reused, recycled or responsibly sustainable materials are encouraged.  In the modern epoch materials were only constrained by cost and availability. Now they are limited by our conscience and acknowledgment that our resources are no longer infinite.

The constraint of sustainability is perhaps more decisive than the freedom of the computer in determining the shape of our possibly emerging new epoch in architecture. Time will tell if the computer take an increasingly dominant role in the concrete realization of buildings.  Inevitably, I believe it will.  Sustainability has already done this.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Empty Vessels for Soulful Expression: Fine Art and Mies Van Der Rohe

Klee-Relapse of a Converted Woman-1939- From the collection of MVDR

When Franz Shulze asked Mies Van Der Rohe why he never collected works of art that were geometric abstractions he seemed to elude the subject by declaring; “ You don’t have to have everything.”    Like Andy Warhol, Mies was being willfully simple in spite of overwhelming evidence that there was a strong intentionality to his decisions.   Mies art collection is fascinating in that it consists almost primarily of expressionist works of art, namely the works of Paul Klee, Early Kandinsky, and the Dadaist collages of Kurt Schwitters.   The works are playful, colorful and messy.  These are all words one would never think of using when discussing his architecture.  This duality between what he created and what paintings he collected speak volumes about his feelings towards decorum in the differing arts.

Kandinsky-Winter II- 1911- From the collection of MVDR

Art to Mies was not held down by the constraints of structure and program in the way that architecture was; it was limited only by the canvas it was painted on.  Fine art gives total freedom to the expression of the artist.  Architecture as artistic expression is diluted by the needs of; the client, structural demands, the requirements of function, environmental comfort and contextual considerations.  Architecture exists in reality. It is an expression of the constraints and technology of our time.   The work of Mies seems to be telling us that he does not believe that architecture necessarily functions as artistic expression.  Architecture is appropriate only when it purely addresses the problems of its creation.  Forced expression in architecture is often imposed at an early stage in the design as a whim of the architects mind.  As the building progresses, the architect as artist must neglect practical solutions to problems he encounters along the way to impose artistic will.  This is architecture that does not act like architecture.  The decorum of architecture is ignored. Only when architects approach a building with the acknowledgement that it is a result of constraints, does a building emerge in a purer form.  Let’s not fool ourselves by declaring that the work of Mies is nothing but the sum of constraints and technology.  Mies had a keen sense for aesthetic proportion.  Even if his buildings were not pure expressions of architectural constraint, they expressed the idea that they were.  Mies was an Expressive
. This resulted in hyper-honesty in his architecture.

Schwitters-HE-1922. From the collection of MVDR

A great debate in the art world was happening at the time of Mies Van Der Rohe’s early professional career. There was a battle between art as pure undiluted expression and art as a vessel for pure objective truth.  Kandinsky Klee and Picasso all believed in a visceral expression of art.  The sloppy colorful moodiness of their work attempted to break the walls of formality and constraint in modern art.  Conversely, the works of Mondrian and Theo Van  Doesburg (among others) believed that feelings got in the way of a pure expression of a timeless truth.  Expressionism is concerned with the moment and the precious nature of the piece, whereas the works of Mondrian are suggestive of a small piece in the puzzle of infinity; a matrix of eternal logic and sound reasoning.  Based on the description of these two opposing movements, one would be inclined to infer that Mies Van Der Rohe probably aligned himself with the likes of the geometric abstractions of the De Stilj.  However, the work that he collected reveals that he preferred expressionist art.  This is the opposite of what one would initially expect.   The reason for his artistic eye leaning this way is perhaps evidence of his philosophy on art  (as opposed to his philosophy on architecture.)  Mies believed that it was unnecessary for art to concern itself with ideas of objective truth.  Perhaps he believed that the constraints imposed by Mondrian etc.  were self imposed and not there in reality.  Art does not serve the same function as architecture; art is less tangible.  It does not need to interact with reality in order to be effective.  It can be a pure expression of soul if it wants to be.  Architecture, no matter how hard Frank Gehry tries, can never be a pure expression of soul.  It must make too many consolations on the way to its manifestation.  Perhaps Mies envied the freedom afforded to the fine artist.  Or perhaps it bolstered his belief that his approach to architecture was in the right direction for the simple fact that it did not function on the same level as fine art.

The duality between freedom and constraint in these two arts is best represented in the collage work of Mies Van Der Rohe.  These collages generally consisted of black simple line drawings of a building in one point perspective with large blocks devoted to colorful paintings.  These bold explosions of color and pure emotional expression are in high contrast to their subdued, almost invisible surroundings.  Indeed, the buildings in these collages do essentially disappear when a painting is applied to them.  In fact, in the collage for a Museum for a Small City, there is no architecture at all.  The placement of the art and the nature behind the windows evoke space.   Art steals the show.   Mies was telling us something about the appropriate expression of architecture and fine art, chiefly, that they are not the same. They serve different purposes.

To illustrate this effectively, I have doctored up some of Mies’ collages.  Instead of including works by Kandinsky or Picasso, I’ve inserted works by Mondrian and Frank Stella.  In this environment we see that the opposing relationship between the two arts is attenuated.  Architecture and art tend to blend into one another.  They are not effective counterpoints. Now, in the opposite realm, these works of geometric abstraction would work better in a gallery by Frank Gehry, but like I have stated in an earlier post, this would be an ironic statement.  The decorum would be flipped around, undermining honesty of expression in the arts.

MVDR- Collage for a Small Art Museum-1941. With painting by Kandinsky.

Same Collage as above with Mondrian painting "Yellow Patch" inserted. (Argitect)

MVDR: Museum for a Small City. 1937. With PIcasso's Guernica.

Same collage as above substituted with Frank Stella's "Delphine and HIppolyte" 1967 (Argitect)

As a final note, I am not suggesting that there is one true way that art and architecture should be created.  As long as expression is true to itself and addresses constraints or lack of constraints it becomes good art.  This is merely a basis for critique.

Klee-Soulful Expression-1938-Collection of MVDR


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Reactions to Context: The Duality of the Circumstantial and the Willed.

MVDR. Glass Skyscraper Project. 1922. and Lake Shore Drive Apts. 1951.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” -George Bernard Shaw

In this context heavy era it is easy for architects to become mastered by their site.  The question is; do we create place or do we let place emerge? The word “organic” has permeated all facets of architecture from form to site context.  Architects like to use the word to justify the conclusions they’ve drawn.  It can be a pragmatic, almost scientific, matrix laced over the will of the architect.  If not done masterfully, justifying a building in this way can lead to reduced potency or muddled ideas.

Mies Van Der Rohe and his evolution of contextual reactions is a good lesson for architects today.  In examining his early skyscrapers and comparing them to his later work we can see an architecture that goes from circumstantial place to willed place.

MVDR: Glass Skyscraper Project. Site Plan

Glass Skyscraper project site plan.

The Glass Skyscraper proposals of 1922 by MVDR is an example of a buildings formed by its site.  It is a shape that emerges from the edges of its site like a liquid pouring into and conforming to the contours of a glass.  The shape of the site is a wedge, thus it emerges roughly as a wedge.  He justifies this shape in publications as a reaction to the materiality and reflectivity of glass. Similarly, the Friedrichstrasse glass skyscraper project is a wedged shape building on a wedge shaped site.  This is almost a complete extrusion of the site parameters.

Friedrichstrasse collage.

Nevertheless,some interesting deviations from site extrusion are made in these projects. Both projects seem to pinch in at the midpoints and create wells that catch light and permit a maximum amount of views.  These pinched wells are the precursors to the plaza obsessions found in his later high-rise work.

In the context of their time, before the widespread emergence of Modernism, (more specifically before the clinical pragmatic strain of modernism emerged triumphant), these projects are expressionist and daring.  They fly in the face of convention.  By flaunting classical notions of symmetry and orthogonal, geometrically derived form, these projects have a revolutionary looseness.  Only with hindsight and comparison to his later work do we see the flaws of these projects.  Mies would learn to master site in a more potent yet subtle way.

Friedrichstrasse plan.

Lake Shore Drive Apts. Plan

The apartments at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, built from 1948-51, are perhaps the best examples of Mies’ approach to site context in his later American work. Mies is dealing with a wedge shaped site similar to the earlier glass skyscraper projects, the result, however, is completely different.  Instead of a building that rigidly reacts to the edge of the site, Lake Shore Drive Apartments are broken up into two buildings that are orthogonal and symmetrical.  The two high rises hug the edges of the site furthest from the lake and are arranged asymmetrically, sliding past one another like volumes in a Modernist painting.  This maximizes views of the lake and creates a grassy space for repose.  This open space is a direct break from the traditional wall of skyscrapers that skirt the edge of Lake Shore Drive.  By not conforming rigidly to the shape of the site, Mies creates a point of interest and a break in the monotony of the Lake Shore Wall.  Not to mention the revolutionary use of an all steel and glass facade shorn of all traditional decoration!  At the Lake Shore Apartments we see a building where place is willfully created as opposed to being an organic result of site conditions.

Lake Shore Dr. Apts. showing well the site.

This approach to site would inform all of Mies skyscraper work in America.  Famous examples of the stepped away plaza include the Seagram Building, the IBM building in Chicago (Which has a very demanding site), and the Chicago Federal Center.  All of these buildings are symmetrical, classically inspired but distilled volumes that are arranged in an asymmetrical fashion (Except for Seagram’s single tower). All of these works break the regularity of their immediate urban condition creating modern piazzas that are very popular.  MVDR evolved his approach to site to create better solutions to urban problems.  A novice to his work may assume that because he was a “minimalist” his work was unsympathetic to its surroundings but this could not be further from the truth.  Simply look at the countless models he worked through for the Chicago Federal Center to see that his volumes were very carefully situated and proportioned.

MVDR. IBM, Chicago. 1971. Model.

IBM. A difficult site.

In this age of organic contextually, we need to look at the work of Mies Van Der Rohe and learn how to master a site.  The duality between organic and willed architecture will be a constant point of debate in the field. I believe in the end architecture can’t truly work without the other.  One is lying to themselves if they believe their decisions are complete organic outgrowths of constraints. Conversely, problem solving inevitably goes a long way towards informing the forceful will of the architect.  Architecture is both of these things.  The question is what side you lean towards.

Final note:  Apologies for the long delay.  I’ve been rehired at my old firm (Murphy/Jahn) and moved back to Chicago in the last two months so it’s been pretty hectic.  From now on I hope to keep up my old pace!

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Digital Art Museum Part III: Dualities

The DAM. Annex Lobby. (ARG. 2010)

Well, now that you know the motivations behind the Digital Art Museum, I will go ahead and mention several dualities found in the D.A.M. that give it additional bearing in terms of the topics of interest I’ve been exploring on this blog.

1. Light Vs. Dark:  Perhaps the most important duality in the DAM is the gradual transition from light and dark space.  In our subconscious, the light space feels extroverted.  In the light space we feel the discomfort of potential voyeurism but also the comfort caused by almost immediate understanding of the space. In other words, there is little mystery.   The dark space is introverted and more comforting, but at the same time scary because the dark is the container for the unknown.  Depending on what type of disposition you are, you will probably enjoy one space over the other more.

2. The Old in the New: The DAM is a building meant to look modern but is not ignorant of the past.  There are several precedents that inform the structure and give it a richness of character, without being superficial homage.  Precedent should be evocative, never blatant.

Egyptian Temple contrasted with The DAM. (ARG. 2010)

-Ancient Egyptian Temples informed the planning of the DAM in terms of the transition from light to dark.  In the Egyptian Temple this light to dark is a hierarchy that leads up to the most holy place.  The hierarchical element is diffused in the DAM because the flow is on a loop not a line.  Instead of going from light to dark, the DAM goes from light to dark to light.  The DAM plan is also aesthetically evocative of the Egyptian temple plan.  They share a similar quality I like to call linear transformative symmetry.

KF Schinkel. Altes Museum. The Portico and ingress in the DAM are evocative of this museum.

– Altes Museum by Friedrich Schinkel: The frontality and niche-like quality of the entrance was partially inspired by the entrance of the Altes Museum. It is an intimate and gradual way to bring someone into the space.

FLLW. Darwin D. Martin House. Axial games.

-Frank Lloyd Wright:  The axial relationship between the gallery, the annex and the sculpture garden is partially inspired by the shifting axial games played by Frank Lloyd Wright.  FLLW was interested in constantly rotating main axis’ to engage a person more immersively into his buildings.  I believe all of my projects are informed by this axial shiftiness.

– Mies Van Der Rohe:  Of course the aesthetic thrust, the belief in the distillation of building, the use of order, the use of glass and steel detailing are all informed by the later work of Mies Van Der Rohe.   I believe MVDR created an architecture that was the logical conclusion of Modernism.  He took it as far as it could go before it was no longer practical or able to stand.  I believe buildings should be free of all unnecessary elements.  Nothing need be added and nothing can be taken away.

– Renzo Piano Museum Designs:  The new addition to the Chicago Art Museum and several other works by Renzo Piano has definitely played a part in my approach to this museum design.  The greatest lesson I learned from the Chicago Art Museum addition is that paintings are much better in daylight than artificial light.  Pianos complex screened and shaded daylight creates a diffuse glow that keeps the paintings positively vibrant!  I want this in the DAM too.

DAM. The art changes the whole temperature of the museum. (ARG. 2010)

3. Content Vs. Container:  Another important duality is found in the relationship between the building (container) and the art (contents).  There is a striking contrast between the unfussy neutral colored building and the loud, busy and bold artwork that houses it.  The acknowledgment and aggrandizement of this contrast creates a dialogue related to the decorum between art and architecture: The art in a museum is meant to be viewed, the architecture is meant to create the best possible and least intrusive environment in which to view the artwork. Too much competition between these fields results in a diminished quality to both.  When this occurs art and architecture are no longer helping each other; they are at war.  The building is the frame for the artwork; it should not be fussed over or distracting from the art.

Specifically to the DAM as well is the increased amount of robustly whimsical artwork.   This contrasts wildly with the sober building around it.

DAM. Major Axis Diagram. (ARG. 2010.)

4. Symmetry vs. Asymmetry:  There are several games played with symmetry in the DAM.  The museum proper clearly has a linear symmetry, but this is contrasted with the asymmetrical placement of the annex.  The annex itself has symmetry within individual parts, but is not itself wholly symmetrical.  The sculpture court at the entrance of the two buildings creates axis’ that tie the museum and annex together.  Shifting axis create symmetrical experiences, even within spaces that are not wholly symmetrical.  The building engages itself with the symmetry/asymmetry debate.  It is both these things at different times.

DAM. Dual Densities in the museum and in the relationship btw the museum and the annex. (ARG. 2010)

5. Duality of Density: The duality of density is the acknowledgment and distillation of what Louis Kahn calls the servant and served space.  In buildings that use a large amount of glass, unsightly utilitarian needs such as bathrooms and mechanical spaces become concentrated into cores.  These cores are a marked contrast to the free and open public spaces that deal regularly with people, light and culture.  Cores spaces deal with specific functionality.  This frees up the rest of the building and allows it the freedom to adapt to ambiguous use.  To clarify this:  The lobby is an ambiguous space that can be used for any number of things including buying tickets, checking coats, or having a rendezvous, whereas the furnace room has a specific functionality and task.

To take it one step further we can look at dual density in relation to the museum and the annex.  The museum has a free program that is adaptable to changing art.  It is glass clad and filled with light.  In contrast, the annex deals with more specific functionality, including the archives, auditorium and administrative offices.  Appropriately then, the annex space is clad in concrete.  It can be thought of as an externalized core in service to the museum.

The fritted glass creates and ambiguous relationship between protection and connection.

6. Protection and Connection:  The job of a building is twofold: to protect its contents and people from the adversity of weather, and to give one a relationship with the outside world so they do not feel stifled and isolated from nature.  The DAM attempts to have a dialogue with nature while at the same time reassuring its inhabitants they are protected from the nature’s wrath. Connections come in several forms:  The front portico is an introduction to the envelope of the building before one actually enters the building. It is a transition from outside to inside.  It provides a transitional amount of protection from the weather by providing shade and relief from the rain. Once inside, the glass creates a visual connection to nature, but keeps the wind and temperature out.  Glass is both protection and connection. The inner courtyard, which is also visible from the front portico, is another device for connecting the inside with the outside.   In terms of protection:  the most potent symbol of protection is the ceiling plane.  It is the looming object that buffers us from the ravages of sun, wind and rain.  The abstraction and overarching quality of the roof provides contrast with the connection of the glass facade.   The solid floor and utility cores also ground the building.  As one makes their way further into the museum the fritted glass and media theatres provide more and more protection from nature, which is demanded by the type of artwork presented.  In the annex, protection and connection are contrasted between the solidity of the functional spaces and the glass encased linear hallway.  In general, the museum has more connection devices with nature, while the annex is more about protection from nature.  This speaks to the sensibilities of introverted and extroverted functionality.

7.  Grounding/ Flotation: While not deliberately done in this project there are still certain aspects of the DAM that tie in to the grounding/flotation duality.  Grounding/Flotation is the manifestation of an architect’s contradictory needs in terms of his/her relationship with gravity.  An architect wants to ground a building and give it heaviness to reassure its inhabitants that it will not fall down.  They also want to alleviate the oppressive effects of gravity by using aesthetic devices that give a building a sense of flotation.   Flotation is achieved in the DAM using several devices.  The base course around the museum and annex is inset and painted black. This is to give the building the illusion that it is slightly hovering. White painted slender columns in the interior hold up a darker roof, which also reinforces the effect that one is hovering between a plane of ground and ceiling. The use of glass on the facade is the separation between ceiling and floor.  It also reinforces the effect that the roof is a floating plane.  The shifted placement of the annex next to the museum gives the effect that it has potentially slid out of place furthering the illusion that the building is hovering.  Grounding elements include the utility cores in the museum. These solid elements help to visually tie the building into the ground.  The solid concrete facade of the annex also gives an illusion of extra weight.  These elements are balanced with each other in the attempt to assure the sound nature of the building while at the same time alleviating the oppressive effects of gravity.

8.  Rationalist vs. Spiritualist:  Last but not least is the central idea of this blog, which happens to be the reconciliation between pragmatic concerns and aesthetic ideologies.  How do we as architects balance these opposing demands into cohesive design?  We are fundamentally torn between our aspiration for honesty and our aspiration for looking good.  We should embrace our hypocrisy, not hide from it, because in the end we can’t be one or the other.  We have to be both.  Our best intentions are betrayed by opposing demands.  A functionalist will inevitably be biased by the desire for aesthetic delight no matter how much this is suppressed.  A pure aesthete will constantly be hounded by the practical demands of a building. We can’t help but be influenced by opposition.   The master architect will acknowledge this and weave the contradiction into a supplementary whole.  They will use the dual demands of architecture in their favor.   Duality no longer becomes about opposition, but about balance.

I’m not going to analyze the Digital Art Museum in terms of this fundamental duality.  It is spoken for in all the previous dualities mentioned.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Digital Art Museum Part II.: On Context

The D.A.M. from above: A building without a place.

Some interesting points have been raised about the Digital Art Museum in terms of context and environment.  I will address these points directly after I discuss some pertinent general ideas on architecture:

Real architecture, built buildings, are born of constraints.  They are the sum total of the architects ability to compromise.  The major constraints all strangely seem to start with the letter C so I guess I will call them the 6C’s:  Client, Climate, Context, Construction, Contractors and Codes.  These outside factors inform a building beyond any idealized notion the architect may have.  It is the architect’s job to synthesize these constraints, to adapt to them in a way that appears effortless.  The artistry and creativity of an architect is more rigidly restricted than any of the other arts.

Having said that, I am not personally a fan of architecture that bends over backwards to accommodate its environment.  I believe in the assertive will of the architect to create a place.  An architecture that twists and turns and aligns with all aspects of its context can be compromised to the point of losing its identity or force.  I believe a building should have the ability to stand on its own two feet when completely removed from its context.  This is a test that I think many new buildings would fail.  I am not a functionalist that believes a building is only the sum total of its compromises.  I believe it is the architects will adapted to these compromises.  Context is very important, and should be meticulously considered in the design of a building.  It is the architect’s responsibility to be conscious of his/her impact on the urban or rural environment. But this does not mean that an architect should lose his/her focus in service to the constraints.  There are also degrees of context.  In a dense and historical urban site context has much more importance than in an open flat plot of land out in a developing suburb.  Sometimes buildings are expected to blend, but sometimes they create a sense of place.

I tend towards Mies Van Der Rohe’s notion of universal space as opposed to specific space.  Program should be fluid and adaptable to change.  It should be ambiguous in order that the tenants can adapt it to their needs.   Organic architecture, which is born out of specific functionality, is rigid in what it accommodates.  For example, let’s say 10 years ago a gallery installed niches into a wall to allow for large tube televisions to be inserted flush into the wall.   After ten years the gallery purchases new televisions; all flat screens.  What are they to do with a wall they want to be flat but now has a bunch of niches in it?   Specific functionality is not fluid, it does not adapt to changing technology or the needs of the clients.  The same can be said for context.  Too much contextual acrobatics can become confusing if at some point a building nearby that has informed the design is torn down.  Now without the contextual cue, the building looks absurd and strange.  A building should be able to stand on its own and adapt to its environment.

The D.A.M:

The Digital Art Museum is a building with minimal constraints.  They include; the acknowledgement of gravity, a serious response to program, my personal taste, and the breadth of my creativity.   The building is not meant to respond to a context because it does not have one.   If it did, I would imagine it in some sort of business park surrounded by trees similar to the location of the John Deere Headquarters by Eero Saarinen in Moline, Illinois.  The building does not even have a solar orientation.  (Solar considerations would be accommodated by the placement of trees and the amount of frit on the glass facade.)  That is because this building is an idealized version of what the DAM is to me.  This is the distilled intent of the building, shorn of all major constraints.    If this building were taken to the next step and translated to the real world constraints would inevitably inform the project to the point that it could change drastically.  However, the germinal of the design would remain intact.  The distilled idea would survive the barrage of constraints because I searched for the idea of the building before I was mired by limitations.   Thus, for me, architecture is born of constraints but is given force by the creative will of the architect.

I am fundamentally torn between pragmatic and spiritual concerns.  I am an architect, and thus a hypocrite towards my own desires.

The next post will explore various dualities investigated in the Digital Art Museum.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Digital Art Museum. Part I. Introduction

D.A.M.: Front Facade. Andrew Ryan Gleeson

The Digital Art Museum is my attempt to design a museum that houses media art spanning roughly the last 30 years, and doing it in a logical progression that is sympathetic to the patrons.  The D.A.M. is also a chance to put a number of the dualities I’ve written about in this blog to practical use.  I’ve also come up with a couple new dualities in the process.

This museum arises from my general frustration with the flow of a museum as one is experiencing art.  I can’t remember how many times I’ve walked through a museum and felt lost, confused, and had to backtrack several times to find something new.  This can be a positive thing if your objective is to get lost, but I find myself being more frustrated than excited by it.   The museum in general is poorly planned in terms of flow.  The only museum that comes to my mind that solves these problems is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in Manhattan.

DAM:Ground Floor Plan ARG

DAM: Light and Flow Diagram. ARG

Another problem I’ve found in museums is the way that sound utilizing Media art is integrated with the other strictly visual arts.   Media art pieces like this are very isolating and alienating to the museumgoer.   A patron walking around the sculptures and paintings at their own pace is suddenly expected to go into a dark room and immerse themselves in a piece that has a different pace than the art around it.  People find this sudden extreme shift in the artist’s expectations to be jarring and unpleasant. They rebel against the work.  They shuffle in, see a video that looks like it takes commitment, and walk right out.  I firmly believe that a gradual transition from the purely visual art towards the more immersive media arts will allow patrons to ease into the more demanding work and accept it more readily:  It’s a transition from light to dark, as well as freedom and constraint.

DAM: Exaggerated Frit Glass Facade Demonstration. ARG

The building achieves this goal most persuasively with the use of a fritted glass facade.  At the entrance and lobby the glass is almost completely transparent.  There is a small frit that does nothing more than to frame the outside world. This frit is made up of little squares: the glass wall is itself pixilated! As one progresses further into the museum, at the location of the fine art gallery, the frit gradually becomes thicker, to provide shading for the paintings, but to still allow a relationship with the outside world.  As one moves farther into the space the frits gradually become larger and larger.  At the midpoint of the building the frit is at 50% and looks like a small checkerboard pattern.  A little beyond this is the digital art gallery. This houses the digital art that does not have sound.  It is a mostly dark space, the frit is heavy, and outside light shines only through tiny spots in the windows.  In the very back of the museum there are the immersive media art galleries that require  soundproofing and
no daylight .  Here the glass is almost totally opaque, in a reverse of the transparent lobby.

DAM: Fine Art Gallery. Note the "Pixilated" Ceiling Panels. ARG

DAM: Media Theatre with light adjustable ceiling panels. ARG

Once the museum patron has progressed gradually from light to dark, their expectations of how to approach the art adapt gradually.  This makes the various manifestations of art easier to accept. As the person reaches the apex with the media theatres, they loop around to the other side and gradually work back towards less committal artwork (and more daylight).  Ones eyes are allowed to dilate in a non-jarring fashion.  The initial concern people may have is that the various arts are given a hierarchy with the immersive media art being at the top, but because the system works on a loop and not a termination, all art is given equal credence.  One goes from light to dark, and then from dark to light, ending up in the lobby again.

Tectonic systems:

DAM: Exploded Isometric. ARG

DAM: Detail Section Sketches. ARG

The architecture of the space is fundamentally meant to take a backseat to the artwork it houses.  It is a blank canvas to be filled by the work. It does not compete with the art or steal ones attention away.  Clarity of plan and structure allow a patron to immediately understand the space and not be tricked by it.  I believe architecture should be understood quickly so one can breath easier in the space.  The columns are on a 20 foot by 30 foot grid and do not deviate from that framework. The windows and panels on the facade measure 5 feet wide by 8 feet high, which is close to the golden section. This 5X8 grid is used everywhere in elevation, including the concrete panels in the annex.  In plan the system is on a 5 foot by 5-foot grid.  The ceiling and roof panels follow this grid.  The roof system is a sandwich. The ceiling panels are hung under the sloped glass skylight roof.  The roof is held up by a long truss system.  The sloped skylight roof is concealed on the top by roof panels similar to the ceiling panels. These roof panels also can accommodate solar panels or “greenroof” patches.  Both panel systems have room for projectors to shine light or image onto them. The roof plane becomes a canvas for pixel art.  I would propose that the museum hires various media artists to create works of art for this roof.

ARG: Aerial Isometric View of Entrance. ARG

This post is just an introduction to the Digital Art Museum.  The next post will explore several dualities found in the DAM.  And the post after that will talk about the building in terms of context and environment.

DAM: Exterior Front View With Annex in Foreground. ARG

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment