Friday, May 7, 2010

The Duality of Density

Le Corbusier: Chandigargh. Superimposed Independence.

It’s a given today that most buildings have open airy public spaces. In these buildings, the private functionally dense spaces such as bathrooms, utility rooms and vertical transportation tend to be clustered into private dense cores. These contrast greatly with the open, usually light filled and glazed open spaces that contain the more ambiguous function of human interaction and use. The cores are function concentrated, the public spaces, even though they may be given the titled function of (for example) lobby, or reception hall, contain within a freer nature in regard to their functions. If this is ubiquitous and happens in most modern buildings I could name off any number of arbitrary examples to describe this duality of density , but I will look at something else: This density duality becomes interesting when the architect acknowledges and aggrandizes this contrast for effect. The super functional dense space is then balanced with the freer space creating a tension between; opacity/transparency, density/openness, and strict functionality/organic functionality.

Le Corbusier: Domino Structural System.

The Industrial Revolution allowed for column and beam design to span much greater distances. When architects such as Le Corbusier finally embraced this we suddenly see a distilled separation between building functions that were once contained in unity. The Domino column system Le Corbusier developed finally allowed walls the freedom from structurally bearing loads. This allowed freedom of placement and materiality. Inevitably this led to the ubiquitous use of glass facades in public rooms. By necessity this forced more private and unsightly functioning rooms such as bathrooms to remain opaque and concealed. Le Corbusier may have brought the Domino system to the modern world but he didn’t utilize the freedom it garnered as much as his contemporaries in the 1920s. Le Corbusier, even after the Domino system, continued to create sculptural form driven buildings that held up ambiguities in functional density. He does do it, but not as clearly as Mies Van Der Rohe would. The Villa Savoye plays with programmatic and structural contrast but packages it in an ambiguous fashion. The elements are less distilled. The House of Parliament in Chandigargh India built in 1961 demonstrates a clear separation between the rigid structural grid matrix and a free plan. Stairs, bathrooms and the parliament assembly hall float in allotted spaces not determined by the grid. Structure and function operate in superimposed independence.

MVDR: Chicago Federal Center Lobby.

Mies Van Der Rohe took the distillation of function and density and perfected it. The pinnacle of dual density can be found in his glass skyscrapers. The Chicago Federal Center is a perfect example of his skyscraper archetype. The lobby is the best place to start because the public part has an ambiguous functionality. In other words, function in a lobby is liquid, it changes periodically and adapts to certain uses, whether it be asking for information at a kiosk, getting coffee or waiting for a rendezvous. The lobby is glazed and open, columns are minimized in order to allow as free and indeterminate space as possible. In bold contrast to this are the hyper functional cores, opaque, clad in granite, containing elevators, stairs, and other mechanical utilities. Openings are minimized. It is meant strictly as a solid element. The ground and cores are clad in the same material to reinforce this solidity. The duality is uncompromising: when in the open lobby we are confronted with giant monoliths of functionality. A lesser architect would have broken up the severity of the contrast, even added clerestory windows in the bathrooms! But Mies does not, he chooses to exploit the contrast completely. Mies may have not been the first one to have a skyscraper with a core, but he was the first to completely distill the core from the rest of the building in such a complete way. Almost all architects after him copied this skyscraper archetype to such a degree it is hard to appreciate the original.

MVDR: Crown Hall Section Showing Sectional Density.

The basement into Crown Hall. Oooh ominous.

Mies utilized this core distillation in several of his other notable “Pavilion” type buildings. With the pavilion type he began distilling function by levels. Crown Hall and the Berlin National Gallery are both essentially dense opaque plinths full of function topped off by glass pavilions completely open, uninterrupted and functionally liquid. To further the freedom of the space he relegates the structural supports to the outside allowing for almost no interruptions whatsoever in the pavilions. Visiting Crown Hall it is jarring to descend the open stairs of the glass pavilion and arrive in a dark concrete block hallway with minimal light. It’s like walking into a completely different building, one that is certainly more conventional. Mies put the serious constraining business of his buildings in these plinths allowing the space above an uncluttered haven for creative thought and open dialogue.

Johnson's Glass House Plan.

Philip Johnson Glass House arguably demonstrates this dual density more successfully than the Farnsworth House. In Johnson’s House the core is asymmetrically placed, cylindrical and clad in brick, just like the floor. The fireplace in the core grounds it further. It is the anchor and the glass house seems pinned down by it. The tension is marvelous between the shape, the materiality and the completeness of the opacity versus the transparent walls. The ceiling, which is also opaque is not embraced by the core and floor, but instead seems to float by using the simple trick of cladding it in white plaster. Had it been a darker color or clad in brick the house would have taken on too much of a severity, the contrast would have remained ambiguous. Now that I think about this, the rule of floating ceiling and grounded floor seem to be almost universal in mid-century minimalism. I will explore this in another post.

Kahn: Richards Medical Research. Density chimneys.

Many of you may be thinking by now that Louis Kahn has already expressed this duality when he spoke of his servant and served spaces, and yes I agree with you. Louis Kahn exploited contrast when it came to functionality. His architecture is bold and unambiguous in this way. Richards Medical Research Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania is an early and great example of dual density. The labs are comprised of autonomous squares connected by transitional hallways. The squares are glazed and uninterrupted by structural supports. The function is liquid; the scientists are free to conduct their business. The functionally dense portions of the lab are relegated to core elements attached on the center perimeters. These functionally dense spaces are appropriately opaque, being clad in brick. They also have a vertical thrust that contrasts with the horizontal stacking of floors. One small criticism: Had Kahn used brick exclusively in the vertical core elements instead of using brick accents on the facade the contrast would have been better distilled. The brick on the facade is used to articulate structure versus infill, but some slight difference in hue or materiality in contrast to what is used in the cores might help. (I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that Louis Kahn got it wrong, the building is stunning as is, and his dedication to his craft leads me to believe he exhausted every possibility before deciding on the final solution of this building.)

Kahn: Salk Court. Is there a more perfect space?

The Salk Institute is another strong example by Louis Kahn of this functionally dual density. In this building we find a complete distillation between freedom and density. The stairs, elevators bathrooms and utilities are relegated to opaque core elements clad in concrete. These cores, in rhythmic ribbons, are offset by completely open laboratory floors where Scientists are unhindered in their pursuits. Taking this distillation to the next level, Kahn relegated all mechanical and structural systems in the interstitial floors between the laboratories. So basically, a lab is found on every other floor with a utility floor sandwiched between them. Similar to what Mies did with his pavilion buildings, functional distillation is remedied in section. Kahn addresses the dual density once more with the dramatic courtyard. The courtyard separates the building in two. It is open in every way, its function is completely liquid, in fact it has a fountain that embraces the coastline in the distance. It is a place of repose, reflection and escape in contrast to the heavy task of work. Louis Kahn acknowledged, embraced and exploited the myriad dualities found in architecture. He was truly a genius.

Many more examples come to mind of this duality of density, most notably the Lloyd’s of London Building whose drill bit stairwells contrast with glass floors, albeit the building is so busy with high-tech clutter the distillation is not entirely clear. The master architect, when dealing with functions that vary wildly, is able to tease a distilled clarity from the complex and confusing realm of architecture.

Lloyd's of London. Busy Business.

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