Thursday, March 25, 2010

Protection and Connection Part III: Pre-Modernism

Typical Villa in Pompeii (photo by Argitect)

As I’ve pointed out earlier, the concept of protection and connection in architecture has been around since the beginning of building. This post will show the protection/connection devices of pre-modern architecture.

The rhetoric and technology of ancient architecture inclines itself towards a protective nature. The architecture is heavy, thick walled, and sparsely windowed. This is done for two pragmatic reasons. First; the ancients needed to protect themselves from invaders. Second; the limited building technology available at the time (monolithic post and lintel) prevented architects from creating large light filled spaces. For non-pragmatic reasons one still felt the need for architecture to be a buffer against the true harshness of nature. In other words, architecture is a corporeal force that keeps death and hardship at bay. For a time this rhetoric outweighed a desire for a re-connection with nature. The first civilizations had their fill of nature, it was time to go indoors. The stake of mankind in the realm of nature is assured. Nature is alleviated, mitigated, conquered!

Portico and Courtyard:

The Ancient Egyptians did desire a connection with nature within their limited technology. This was accomplished with spaces that had the ambiguous quality of being neither indoors nor outdoors. The portico and courtyard (which are used in architecture throughout history), create a connection to nature while at the same time protecting. The early Pylon facade temples of Ancient Egypt usually had an interior court skirted by a column-supported portico. Under the portico, one was protected from the most basic of nature’s torments: sun and rain. The portico does not protect from wind and temperature. It provides a view to the sky and landscape. The view is framed and thus given more order. The interior courtyard, with the porticos eliminating all views of the outside but the sky, also seems to be a place of ambiguity. It is connected with nature but quarantined from it. It is a space demonstrating protection and connection. The contrast between the courtyard and the interior temple are profound and will be discussed in a later post about dual density.

Le Corbusier sketch of Greek Ruins

The portico was famously developed in Greek temples. A traditional Greek temple would house a usually windowless and dark, thick walled temple. This temple would be surrounded by a columned portico. The Parthenon is the most perfect example of the Greek Temple and it’s supreme archetype. The portico is vast and set upon a pedestal that distances itself from the earth. Fluted columns frame carefully planned and beautiful views of nature. One is neither inside nor out. Protection and connection is in balance. Roman temples added nothing new to the archetype except for the arch and the dome whose best example is at the Pantheon (Whose Oculus is another great example of protection/connection). The arch and the dome allowed for large interior spaces. One could argue that this actually hindered the buildings from further connection to nature. The large vaulted basilicas and public baths usually had small windows that perhaps didn’t let much light in. These buildings had a hermetic tendency.

The typical house of Ancient Rome made use of an interior courtyard that would allow for the entrance of fresh air and light and the exit of smoke and funk. The courtyard is surrounded by thick walled living quarters that are unfriendly to the street. These rooms had very small windows if any. They opened inwards toward the courtyard. A donut of protection surrounds an island of connection.

Gothic Glass.

Translucent Glass:

In the Gothic Cathedral one finds a desire for the buildings to have more light, to look more lightweight, but also to remain sealed in upon themselves. Just like in Egyptian Temples, the front of a typical Gothic Cathedral is bold and has terrifying proportions. The inside however utilizes much more glass than has ever been seen before. The glass, is not transparent but translucent, and consists of colorfully rendered biblical scenes. Had the large expanses of glass been transparent the connection with nature would be much more pronounced. The murky glass, while letting light in, buffers one from the outside world. So, with Gothic Cathedrals, we see a style that develops the flying buttress to allow for more windows, but keeps the windows from connecting with nature fully. It is a strange Pro/Con duality.

Campidoglio by Michelangelo.


The Renaissance contributes little to the protection/connection duality. The discovery of perspective did find it’s way in some buildings. This perspective manipulation had the potential to aesthetically draw nature within. I’m sure there are better examples of this but the one that comes to my mind is the courtyard of the Campidoglio in Rome by Michelangelo. The two flanking building of the Campidoglio are at angles in such a way as to make the courtyard between them become a trapezoidal shape. This manipulated courtyard when seen from the steps of the central buildings can trick the eye and make one believe the courtyard is larger than it is. It can also be used to lure the horizon toward it. This embrace could create a closer connection with nature.

Schinkel: Altes Museum Entry

Schinkel Villa

19th Century:

Just before the aesthetics of architecture were influenced by the Industrial Revolution Karl Friedrich Schinkel was perhaps the last major architect to utilize some pro/con techniques. His Altes Museum had a central entry portico that reached inside the building so effectively it created a wonderful interstitial space that bridged the gap between exterior and interior. His villa projects also utilized portico spaces to create an ambiguous transition between inside and out. The “Roman Baths” at the Villa in Chalottenhof has an ivy covered portico that branches off of the main building and wraps around a tailored garden. The device is effective as a protection connection element.

Joseph Paxton: Crystal Palace.

Early Industrial Revolution feats include the Crystal Palace. Here the concept of protection and connection is complete. Walls and roof are made of transparent glass and held up by a light filigree of iron structure. All visual barriers to outside are eliminated while all the negative effects of nature are mitigated. (Well.... not entirely. I imagine the greenhouse effect could be quite high in such a space as that.)

The concept of protection/connection throughout architectural history has been an important motif since the earliest days of building. The demands of architecture by the people are the same as they have always been: a building that protects one from nature, but done in such a way as to not cut one off from nature. What a defiant and comforting feeling we have when witnessing a thunderstorm from behind glass.

A sketch by Mies Van Der Rohe of a garden proposal for the Tugendhat House. View from window of main house.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Protection and Connection Part II: Albert Frey

Frey House I: Showing extension of walls and overhang of roof.

Albert Frey is an important modern architect who studied under Le Corbusier for a time and built almost all of his work in Palm Springs, California. Most of his buildings are potent examples of the protection/connection duality that I have discussed in my previous post. He took many of these elements farther than any architect. The illusion of ambiguity he created between inside and outside was so effective photographs are sometimes no help in discerning where building and nature divide. Below I will discuss the connection devices of his work. The protection device will again not be discussed in too much detail, but it is found in all his works as a large flat overhanging roof. This roof is the abstracted buffer zone between inside and out. It hovers over the proceedings.

Connection devices applied to the works of Albert Frey

Horizontal Thrust: Most, if not all, of these connection devices can be shown in the constantly evolving house that Frey built for himself in Palm Springs. (Unfortunately this house was torn down in the 60’s by a developer who ended up going bankrupt. Nothing was developed on the site; the demolition was all in vain!) The horizontal thrust is shown foremost in the fact that most of his buildings are a single story. This gives them a horizontal appearance. In Frey’s house, as well as the Loewy House, a perimeter pergola around the outside of the private garden extends construction beyond the interior and creates an embracing line that combines with the distant horizon.

Floor to Ceiling Glass: This does not need to be elaborated, but yes, all of his later works incorporated floor to ceiling glass in almost every exterior facing wall.

Homogeneous Use of Inside and Outside Materials: Combined with the large expanses of glass and the extension of walls and roof, the homogenous use of materials is very effective in his houses and reinforcing this connection with outside space. In his own house he would transform the floor as it went outside. The grid of the concrete porch would protrude in spots and create chairs. These chairs looked like strange outcroppings with cushions on them. Creating built in furniture on the outside also furthered the blurring of the line between in and out.

The Extension of Wall: Frey used this device very effectively in his own house as well as the Hatton House. He said these, “walls that go out and make spaces within the landscape.” These walls used the same materials from inside to out and floated between the planes of the floor and the ceiling. The extensions of these walls in plan evoke a compacted version of the brick country house project by Mies Van Der Rohe. They accomplish a lot towards drawing one outside and bringing nature inside. An innovation Frey brought to this concept is the extending of glass walls. In his own house one can see a glass wall with a metal frame continue beyond it’s necessary edge out into nature. The frame continues but once it goes outside the glass is gone. This is one of the most effective examples of extended walls I have ever seen in terms of its ambiguity.

Frey House I: Extension of walls. Also note the inside/outside relationship between furniture.

The Overhang of Roof: In almost all of these low one-story houses the roof overhangs and the materials between inside and out on the ceiling are often the same. The overhang is very necessary in the hot desert climate of Palm Springs. But beyond pragmatism, the overhanging roof is just one more element that reinforces this embrace towards the horizon. At the same time it reaches out for nature it protects one from nature. The overhanging rood does double duty as protector and connector.

Disappearing Glass: He used sliding glass doors often and effectively in his own home. This literally destroyed the barrier between inside and out, and put the entire burden of protection on the roof.

The Pool: No other architect was more effective at using a pool that straddled between inside and out. Frey used it most effectively in the Loewy House. A large swimming pool dips into the living room. This combined with sliding floor to ceiling glass creates a completely ambiguous line between inside and out. The only cue of division is found on the floor; the living room is carpeted and the porch is concrete. Other than that the connection is perfect. The plan of the Loewy House perfectly shows many of the dualities I have been discussing in my recent posts. It is a perfect example of Mullet Architecture in that the front facade is private, has few windows and seems to hermetically shun it’s environment. The private garden facade is all glass and thus open to nature. The duality between order and chaos as mentioned previously with the Villa Mairea by Alvar Aalto is evoked in the relationship between the ordered house and the amoebous swimming pool. This whole house is about dualities.

Loewy House: The pool, disappearing glass, horizontal thrust.
Loewy House: The Pool, Mullet Architecture, order and primitivism.

-The Natural Element: (This is a new connection device that was not in the previous post because I could not find a good example besides Frey.) An element of nature that is brought inside the house and integrated into the architecture is yet another powerful way of creating a connection with the outside. A wonderful example of this can be found in the house that Albert Frey designed for himself in Palm Springs in 1964. The house is built on a rocky mountainside and its most noticeable feature is the wall that separates the living room from the bedroom. It is not a wall at all but a giant boulder! The house was designed around the giant boulder. The rock is an integral part of the design. It also goes a long way in creating an ambiguity between the inside and the outside especially when used in conjunction with continuous glass curtain walls. All of the previous connection devices I have mentioned were aesthetic and mostly implied connections through a visual blurring of inside and out. At Frey’s house, the boulder is still nature. The house is connected to its environment by having a prominent piece of it in the house. The duality of protection and connection becomes more complicated here as well. The connecting element in this case is also the major protecting element. The rock anchors the house and gives the tenant a feeling of support and strength if any bad weather should strike. This is literally true because the boulder allows the house to be earthquake proof. Frey said; “..whenever there is a quake the house moves with the rock and there’s no damage.” The rock serves the dual purpose of protection from nature and connection with nature.

Frey House II: The boulder as natural element. Protection and Connection!

Albert Frey was a master at creating modern architecture that had a serious relationship with nature. Too bad, in the second decade of the twentieth century, most people are still choosing to live in houses that are cut off from the outside: Too much protection, not enough connnection.

Note: All the photographs in this post were taken by the amazing architectural photographer, Julius Shulman.