Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Separating Space and Serving Soup

Architecture separates space. Before the structure, there is only the client, the environment, and space. The plan must meet the means, needs, and desires of the client. The structure must durably transcend the challenges the environment poses to achieve those ends. An engineer considers this before designing a structure. An architect makes an art of it. A great architect evolves it. Great architecture beautifully and timelessly defines space that serves both man and environment. The greatest achievements of both are as elegant in simplicity as a bowl of soup.

Architecture is not about the structure itself, but rather the space it separates. This is the primary difference between architecture and design. Design focuses on the structure, how it will appear inside and out, and its aesthetic appeal. The most beautiful house in the world can yield an ugly life. The most impressive looking office can prove an inefficient loss. The grandest church can provide an unsatisfying experience. So important is the separation of space that poor execution of it can ruin anything. The Book of Tao explains, “by the existence of things we profit, and by the non-existence of things, we are served,” (Lao-Tzu, 2:11) For instance, a bowl is not useful because of its material; a bowl made of wood will function as well as one made of gold. A bowl is not useful because of its décor; an unadorned bowl will function as well as one painted by Michelangelo. A bowl is not useful because of what it contains; a bowl may contain nearly anything that will fit within it.

What makes a bowl so useful is the hollow space that is defined and separated by the existence of the bowl itself. The space within a bowl was always there, but undefined and unusable for the purposes of holding soup until the bowl encompassed that space. A sphere might look the part of a bowl if it is only considered from above or below, but would be just as useless for holding soup as a solid half-sphere would be if the bowl were viewed from the side. What makes the bowl useful is the hollow within. One might be tempted to wonder then why most bowls are round and semi-spherical. It is because the natural use and primary function of the separated space usually determines the shape of what bounds it.

“Form ever follows function,” according to Louis H. Sullivan (Lippincott’s Magazine, March, 1896). Before the space becomes separated, the architect must consider the needs of the client. Is the space to be a home? If so, how cold is the environment in winter, and how hot are the summers? What are the physical needs of those living within it? How many will be expected to live there, and what cultural considerations must be taken into effect? How will the neighborhood lots be allocated? What about once the buying family moves out and another family moves in ten years from now? Fifty years? A hundred? A thousand?

A home is so much more than a few walls, windows, and doors. With every consideration of client, environment, means, and future needs, it is as complex as trying to figure out the end of a game of chess after only ten moves. Yet a house is probably the simplest structure to design. It is not unlike the bowl of soup. If one examines the soup bowl, it might be flattened on the bottom, to serve the need for stability. The curvature of the bowl might be roughly the same as the edge of an egg, to serve the need of using a spoon. The walls of the bowls might be about a quarter-inch thick, so as to remain thick enough to keep the hand from burning. The size of the bowl might be about the size of a hand with splayed fingers, so as to cup it comfortably from underneath.
Or, it might be none of these things if the need was for a dog’s water bowl. If the standard image of the dog’s water bowl and soup bowl were switched, both would give an overall unsatisfying experience to the user. The dog would continually knock over its water, and the human would have trouble picking up and holding the soup. If one approaches architecture first from a functional standpoint, the form becomes more naturally apparent as each fundamental need is resolved. An ascetic shrine with great consideration towards function will fulfill more than the ostentatious cathedral that forgets its reason for being.

Nature prefers order and simplicity to chaos and complexity. A spider’s web achieves uniformity not through complex equations, but because the spider uses its own body for its primary unit of measurement. Likewise, architecture has for the last few millennia relied on divisions of circles to achieve that which materials alone could not. The ubiquitous arch is beautiful in its own right, but was designed as a pragmatic solution to bear weight while conserving materials and allowing passage through a wall that separates two spaces. Arches are not beautiful because of their existence. They are beautiful because the solid wall that would otherwise be there no longer exists and a permeated one remains.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery claims, “perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Applying this to architecture, one may conclude that facades, columns, pediments, and arches may be well and good, but that the core of the structure should be elegant in its simplicity. Styles will come and go, owners will change hands, and the surrounding area will be renewed and rebuilt over time. Sentiment aside, what allows a building to remain a permanent part of the locale is not an overabundance of design, but rather simplicity and timelessness. Even in massive structures with gargantuan internal spaces this is the case.

I.M. Pei’s Fountain Place is a prime example of what architects for hundreds of years have been trying to achieve: height and walls made almost entirely of glass. The very shape of the thing is crystalline and gives the impression of staring at a piece of sky. A façade would ruin it. Externally, it is as near to perfection for the intentions that designed gothic cathedrals, yet internally it is an office building. Layer after layer of floors, internal walls, and supports mean that internally it lacks the perfection that the outside implies.

The Cowboy’s Stadium in Arlington, Texas, is almost the exact opposite. Externally the site is monstrous, far from beautiful. It looks like little more than a naked metal mountain from a distance. And yet, internally it achieves an empty space of such monumental proportions that it encompasses about two and a half times as much square footage as Fountain Place, with little more than a heavily supported retractable shell. Neither achieves perfection, but it is through what they lack, rather than what they have, that defines their best qualities. As regards the serving of soup, a bowl with too much material and excess makes the bowl too heavy to use, too fragile to clean, and too much trouble to do anything but sit on a shelf. For soup, what one needs more than a brazen reliquary is a simple ceramic bowl.

Ultimately, the very definition of perfection in architecture will be forever up for debate. Some will desire a perfectly environmentally conscious building that conforms to the tenant of Feng Shui, and never overcomes the beauty of nature around it. Others will need a fortress capable of withstanding all elements of nature and warfare and make the most efficient use of compartmentalization. Great architecture is the rare occurrence when perfect harmony is achieved between the desires of the client, the vision of the architect, and the needs of the future. Like a bowl of soup, it fulfills not because it is larger than life, but because it is conducive to it.

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