Simultaneity, Both/And, In-Between-ness in Architecture
“By embracing contradiction as well as complexity, I am for vitality as well as validity,” writes Robert Venturi in Complexity and Contradiction. However, Venturi’s use of the word “contradiction” seems an antonym for his ultimate goal: simultaneity. For example, instead of an opposition of the interior towards the exterior, why is it not encouraged for both spaces to engage the user simultaneously? If by using the term “contradiction” Venturi is intending to contradict himself, then he is successful. “I like elements which are hybrid rather then ‘pure’…distorted rather than ‘straightforward,’ ambiguous rather than ‘articulated,’…” he writes, mistaking a hybrid as a composition of two contradicting elements, rather than a composition of two combining elements. Perhaps Complexity and Combination would have been a more convincing title, especially for an architect who prefers “both-and” to “either-or.” Semantic criticisms aside, a spatial condition that celebrates such simultaneity and both-and relationships is worth discussing.
Siegfried Geidion discusses Cubism as one method of achieving such a relationship. “The presentation of objects from several points of view introduces a principle which is intimately bound up with modern life – simultaneity” (Geidion 436). Imagine a space. Now imagine three spaces. Now imagine being present in those three spaces at the same time. How would that feel? Would there be an obvious distinction between these spaces, or an ambiguous overlap? These questions are important to consider when designing because they are descriptive of how we experience the world, which is in constant motion between in and out, and even above and below. Thermal Baths by Peter Zumthor is a successful example of an architectural work that is rich in these both-and relationships. Set within the earth, the Baths engage through a sectional relationship of interiority and exteriority.
At one point, the only hint of the baths below is the glass slits within the ground of the above space. The organization of the baths within keeps the user in constant consideration of inside and outside, locating baths in fully enclosed spaces, in completely open spaces with constant views of the adjacent mountainside, or in in-between spaces as one moves from bath to bath. Zumthor also uses stone from the neighboring quarry as the main material of Thermal Baths, which continues the dialogue between natural space and constructed space.
The simultaneity of Thermal Baths is a characteristic I would like to engage in my own design work, especially in my Charles River boathouse project. Along the Charles, rowing is rhythmic. Crew teams are dedicated to their craft and require space to train and store the equipment they need. Like the structural body of a rowing shell, this boathouse looks to enclose such program in the same structural manner. Located on Magazine Beach along the Cambridge side of the Charles River, this project employs a unique system of assembly in order to house rowing shells up to 60 feet long. This system is articulated through the concept of shift. Composed of rows of bent steel tubes, shift occurs when each tube varies its bends. By slightly varying the location in which the bend occurs laterally, the steel members assemble in a wave-like form overall longitudinally. This horizontality of form then follows that of the river.
Analyzing the project now, the form takes on the persona of the exterior context in order to bring it into the interior. Like the shaping of Ronchamp, there is a constant reminder of “the interconnection between inner and outer space that Le Corbusier calls ‘acoustic space’” (Geidion 49). In the same way bathers look upon the mountainside at Thermal Baths, rowers look upon the river as they practice, because the orientation of the boathouse directs rowers toward the Charles, consciously connecting them back to the exterior. There are many opportunities to emphasize the in-between for this boathouse that are inherent in the original design, but falling short in execution. The spacing between roof members could break apart a little more in order to expose the enclosure to the elements above, providing an unconditioned space that is simultaneously inside and out. Given that the boathouse consists of three separated spaces connected by a circulation spine, the physical in-betweens of these spaces could be integrated into the use of the building more and enjoyed by the rowers, rather than as divisions of the main spaces.
Acknowledging these past opportunities and successful examples of in-between-ness can enhance my current thesis work. This thesis asserts that architecture has gone beyond structure to the kinetic, beyond program to the purposeless, beyond beauty to the visually ambiguous, and beyond site to the peripatetic. Exploring transformative architecture through models that explode and collapse, this thesis aims to stimulate curiosity and provoke imagination. Interests in visual ambiguity come from initial research in avant-garde art of the twentieth century. Geidion states it well in Space, Time, and Architecture, when he writes, “a new sort of geometry was created, one which differed from that of Euclid in employing more than three dimensions…with figures and dimensions that cannot be grasped by the imagination” (Geidion 435). Currently, I am working to develop forms that fit
these assertions, particularly ones that encompass an interior space and then explode to engage the exterior surroundings, no matter the site. I am realizing now that within the transformative process are in-between spaces, like those shown in the model photo above. This ambiguity or indefinable space is the sort of stimulus needed to provoke new ideas about space.
Reconsidering the both-and relationship of interior and exterior space creates a hybrid space present in both realms. Venturi speaks of architects utilizing existing conditions, rather than reinventing techniques in Complexity and Contradiction. He is right in the sense that architects already have the tools necessary to combine spaces, to create simultaneity. “By a twist of context…they can make us see the same things in a different way.” I look forward to implementing such contextual twists in the production of my thesis work, in order to celebrate simultaneity.
Geidion, Sigfried. Space, Time and Architecture: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (1969), 5th Edition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2009.
Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 1966.