Architects have one major foe they tend to fight, even if at the same time they embrace because of the level of comfort it brings them: this foe is gravity, and since the beginning architects have done everything in their power to pull out every magic trick available to suppress its oppressive pervasiveness. This is the paradox of the architect: to design within gravity to create a building that reassures its inhabitants that it will not topple and crush them, and yet to design against gravity so the inhabitants do not feel stifled by the constant force that keeps them grounded. Gravity is rational, and aesthetic anti-gravity is purely spiritual (or is it?). The rationalist deals with the physical well being of a buildings inhabitants, while the spiritualist deals with their mental well being, insuring their sanity and sense of freedom.
One can almost feel Pre-Roman architects frustration with the painfully small distances they were able to span. Before the discovery of the arch in the Roman era, architects had almost no tricks up their sleeves to suppress the true weight of gravity. The arch allowed spaces to free up considerably and soar to the sky, making one almost forget for a second that they were enveloped in a closed space with the weight of gravity bearing down on it. Still, columns and supports for these remained frequent and thick allowing most of the freedom to happen only in the ceiling.
It was with Gothic Architecture that architects started seriously doing aesthetic tricks to suppress the oppressive nature of gravity in order that ones spirit could commune with heaven unencumbered. The introduction of the ribbed vault certainly helped, allowing bays to be of shapes other than square. The introduction of the flying buttress freed up wall space considerably allowing a marked increase of glass surfaces on exterior walls. These devices allowed the buildings to positively soar, defying gravity with every fiber, but the most important development in helping gravity dissolve was the way that the architectural elements were articulated. Columns still had to be relatively thick to hold up the long spanning arches. This was suppressed considerably by breaking up the large columns into smaller bundles. These bundles appeared light and airy and diffused the mass of the large columns. This detail was carried over in the window mullions and the ribbing of the vaults to create the illusion of a lighter building. These details made one think the building was not indebted to gravity as much as it really was. This is a lie, but is it a lie that tells the truth? No: it is a lie to express a spiritual desire for freedom and connection to the above.
Bibliotheque Ste Genevieve by Henri Labrouste
The Renaissance temporarily put an end to this flouting of gravity. The focus shifted away from the organic progress of architecture and more towards a fixation with reigniting the decorum and tradition of the Roman Empire; an architecture whose rhetoric is decidedly more grounded. The emergence in the 19th Century of the Industrial Revolution and its new materials and methods, allowed for architects who were sick of neo-classical obsessions to once again play games with gravity. Examples are many and include the Bibliotheque Ste. Genevieve by Labrouste wherein the columns that hold up the double barrel vaulted interior space look less load bearing and more like stalactites that have reached the ground. Also the explorations of Viollet Le Duc as well as the bold form of the Eiffel Tower show architecture soaring again in the face of gravity. Gaudi may have not used modern industrial technology to give the illusion that his Sagrada Familia Cathedral is floating, he merely reintroduced and refined many of the aesthetic tricks used in Gothic Architecture to create a building that looks as if it is being pulled upward rather than the opposite. The cathedral looks like an upside down melted wax candle.
50X50 House by Mies Van Der Rohe
Modern Architecture saw important advances in the game of aesthetic anti-gravity. Louis Sullivan used the gothic device of bundled columns to visually attenuate the large columns needed to hold up early skyscraper design. Frank Lloyd Wright created a whole vocabulary on the defiance of gravity. His perfection of the cantilever literally allowed for certain parts of his structures to float. Also the way he articulated corners etc. were all put into place in order to keep his buildings soaring. (Interestingly though Frank Lloyd Wright dealt with the paradox between grounding and flotation, but I will explore this in another post.) Over in Europe, Le Corbusier innovated the Domino system of building. With this system columns separated from facades allowing anti-gravity tricks such as ribbon windows to create the illusion of floating architecture. Erich Mendelsohn used this trick to good effect on his Schocken storefronts. So did Walter Gropius in the Bauhaus building. Mies Van Der Rohe explored the idea of floating architecture mostly beginning with the Barcelona Pavilion. Of his unbuilt work, the 50 X 50 house boldly utilized only four slender columns at the midpoints of the perimeter to hold the roof up. These complex cantilevers gave the impression of flotation. His floating aesthetic culminated with the Berlin National Gallery where 8 columns are separated from the edges and brought in to about the 1/3 points on any given facade plane. The columns are tapered and end with a shrunken capital, almost the inverse of traditional Greek column anatomy. The effect is stunning, creating the illusion that the roof is hovering and the columns are merely pinning it down. It is amazing how just a few aesthetic devices can break the psychic bonds of gravity. A current and successful building that utilizes many of these same tricks can be seen in the New Modern Art Wing in Chicago by Renzo Piano. The louvered and articulated roof hovers over the main building and is held down by dramatically slim columns that taper at both the capital and the base. With their proportions, it is difficult to believe they are doing any work at all. The effective use of cantilevers, proportioning, structural disconnection from the facade and many other tricks, all contributed in the architect’s quest to break the oppressive pull of gravity.
An architects first and foremost obligation is to create a building that does not fall down on its users. Yet we remain obsessed with liberating ourselves from the constant constraint of gravity. It brings us down. It is depressing. It is a nag. Buildings by nature are fixed beings, and it is precisely the nature of a building that makes us want to rebel against it. But does the aesthetics of anti-gravity serve any rational purpose? I believe it does in that a building that uses the aesthetics of anti-gravity will, for the most part, use only the essential amount of materials and methods required for it’s construction. Making a structure that needs no embellishment to help it withstand gravity will by its very nature be lighter. It will fulfill the ultimate rationalist benchmark (the elimination of the inessential) as well as the ultimate spiritual benchmark (freedom and all that word implies)! The closer one comes to floating, the closer one comes to perfection!
Modern Wing Chicago: Renzo Piano (photo by Argitect)
End Note: Now in all reality a building that floats is not rational for all programs. A hospital or a prison most definitely would not want to adopt the aesthetics of anti-gravity for practical and rhetorical reasons. There is a time and place for the expression of flotation in architecture.