THOUGHTS ON ARCHITECTURE. THE DEFINED AND THE INTERMINABLE
Define versus Interminable
“Diastimma” is for the ancient Greeks the word for space, which expresses even on our days the defined void, as well as the interminable area of the sky. Defined and interminable: two meanings directly related to architecture. Let us remember the interminable space, which according to Michelis constitutes one of the characteristics of the Byzantine church.
The defined void, in which the creation takes place, the limit and its process, constitutes an important field of reference, whether it concerns fiction, music, cinema, painting and of course (for one more rea son) architecture.
The terms used for the analysis and criticism of works of art often allude to spatial relationships of movement and stop, solid and void, cyclical, linear or daedal routes, in repetitions which count time and measure space, on planes and volumes, in open and closed forms, organized geometrically or freely and so on.
Italo Calvino, in his Six American Lectures, written in 1985 and published after his death entitled ‘Six proposals for the next millennium’ (he only managed to finish five of them) he had recorded and analyzed six points which according to him characterize tendencies and define directions for the process creating literature.
The six points, which the author has chosen with great care in order to project the future of literature, are:
In an attempt to translate but also to transfer onto architectural terminology the six proposals by Calvino I would say in Greek:
2 Ταχύτητα ή καλλίτερα σβελτάδα
4 Ενόραση –Ορατότητα –οπτικότητα
The introduction of the book refers to texts by Massimi Piatelli Palamarini, which was published in the newspaper ‘Corriere de la Serra’ on 20.09.1985.
…He was talking in the lectures, as someone who is getting ready to demonstrate a new and admirable game, a distribution of playing cards, capable of transferring simply to others the pleasure of being thinking …
Reading the same book this summer and enjoying the elaboration on five of the six points I wondered the same way I did when I first read it; if it would be possible for someone to draw parallels between literature and architecture. As we work for many years now designing and writing we think that we have got to some ‘principles’, which constitute some kind of guidelines which direct us from the concept to its elaboration and materialisation. They are some departure points for our work that with time have created an esoteric ‘typology’ which creates the conditions for cooperation in teamwork.
Approaching the Arts
Although the projection of an art on another art, is often considered by theoreticians a risky process, which can only cause confusion (I would like to remind you that Sartre supported such view with confidence in his essay “What is literature?”) nevertheless (bearing in mind the possibilities offered by technology as well as the general attitude that artists have adopted on approaching the arts) and continuing on the playful mood of Calvino, I think that it is interesting to take the risk and search –in the time we have available- a few correspondences between architecture and Calvino’s views on literature.
Let us consider these comments a brief introduction and a staring point on our problematic and the accumulated doubts which stimulate our architectural work in Atelier 66, for many years, but also views which to a great extent represent paradoxically the current scene of architecture on our days…
These are the tendencies that have raised on the horizon, with regard to the design activity, as well as with regard to the brief and the treatment of limits influencing this way the style of the projects both in terms of design and in terms of realisation.
Italo Calvino’s sensitivity for the cities and their inhabitants is known from his book ‘Invisible Cities’:
The city, an exceptionally complex symbol, gave him the possibility to express the tension between the geometric logic and the mosaic of the human existence. This relationship of geometry with the human activities, in everyday life and on a special day is and might continue to be a successful definition of architecture.
It is neither in our intentions, nor in the constraints of the time available to deal with each one of these interesting themes, which could certainly not be isolated but interrelated. The author with his chosen references has written amazing texts on literature always reminding us that each one characteristic is in pair with its opposite.
At the end of reading this book, we realize that the remarks on the style of a piece of literature are to a great extent applicable to architecture. Meanings, repetitions, spatial and time distances, connections in which precision is necessary as well as open narration, that opens up for the reader possibilities for interpretation.
If we think however that in architecture the Topos -place (whatever that entails) the brief and the construction, are even today to a great extent the axes which determine the design activity, we would realize that the six points by Calvino have to do with the tendencies of our times and the principles which drive architecture and its possible projections in the future
According to the poet Seferis, words are like ships. They depart for new destinations and return to their departure ports. In the same way “architectures” some times return from their trips with valuables loads, that is say useful chosen elements adaptable to the place they return to, and some other times return with useless stuff. As you can appreciate these are the choices of the poet – architect, which judge the quality and the future of the texts built or written.
In an attempt to search for the driving force of our architectural thinking and aiming to make it more understandable, beyond slides which always show an incomplete reality, we will also project some of our compositional views that, we think, make it possible to relate to some of Calvino’s points.
Lightness versus Gravity
From his thoughts, I would stop to the one, in which the author by recognizing literature as an existential function considers the pursuit of lightness (with a content far from frivolous) as a reaction to the weight or load of life.
Brief- Units- Scale
Treatment of Limits
I would associate this characteristic with our choice to reorganize the brief and to recompose units, which permit the interpenetration of indoor and outdoor space in a way that releases some weight from the composition. Scale and the treatment of limits are also associated with this characteristic.
As the author claims, when he elaborates on the proposition on lightness that does not mean that he underestimates gravity; what concerns him is the dual relationship weight-lightness as a twin phenomenon, to use Aldo Van Eyck’s terminology.
According to him when he gains lightness it does not mean that he underestimates gravity, what interests him is the dual relationship: weight-lightness, in the twin phenomenon, to use Aldo Van Eyck’s terminology.
Let’s remember at this point, the drawing with the centripetal forces, which direct movement and stop towards the center and the centrifugal forces as they open up to the open horizon.
This proposition by Aldo refers indirectly to the relationship between weight and lightness: the stocky volume that opens up to the horizon direct the spectators to look at the infinite and in the other case, the two opposite hill-sides define the void attracting the stare of the spectators.
This reference which is directly related to stare, the movement of the eye, portrays with distinctness the relationship see and be seen which has been analyzed by J. P. Vernant.
The mutual stare alludes to relationships between theatricality and architecture.
Breaking the Solid Structures
Touching the Landscape
With our means and possibilities, we attempt in our work to break the solid structures, in the buildings we design and built: residencies, schools, museums, settlements or hotels. Our intention starts from our intensive search for transparency and interpenetration of solid and void, but also for ways in which our works can touch the landscape, which will enhance it, allowing it to pass in or through the built volumes.
Zones – Movement – Street
In parallel with the successive zones which we explore in the synthesis of small scale projects –residencies- but also in small complexes –settlements and so on, we aim, when that is possible .to ‘open’ the closed element to the interminable,
I would like to stress at this point the great importance we place on the movement as an almost autonomous element during our design activity.
The street with all its complexities, the external and internal street as a meeting point and journey is one of the fundamental themes, which articulate from the start the determinants, and the tissue of the composition.
Our proposition on lightness was sustained on the restless search for the diffusion and the impregnation of the built form with tiny pieces of infinite sky as well as adjacent or distant landscape.
The briefs and the special conditions, have not always permitted the fulfillment of these intentions, that is the penetration of the void in the body of the building, such as the cases of the blocks of flats in the urban tissue, where we created, with the proportions of the plan and sections, internal spaces, with characteristics of open air spaces and we treated the limits with these presuppositions.
Calvino’s analysis on the point of precision, refers to the light feather, which was used as a weight on the weight scales for the souls of the ancient Egyptians – the hieroglyphic Maat (goddess of scales) implied the length of a brick which was 33 centimeters but also the basic note of the flute. It is worth remarking, that the weighing that refers to the soul, the lightness of a feather, as well as the reference to a tone for the music or a measure for construction, have the same symbolism…
Precision alludes in summary, to defined design, to linguistic clarity and to images worth to remember, charged with an esoteric necessity. Images that have the power to capture the attention alluding to a plethora of probable signified, remote from the well known phantasmagoric games with which, we are uninterruptedly bombarded from everywhere, the cloud of images that surrounds us and is blown up, leaving us with a feeling of emptiness.
Calvino’s analysis on the point of precision becomes very interesting in architectural terms, where he distinguishes the concept of infinite –infini– from the concept of indefinite –indefini– and writes:
I would like to refer to my preference to geometric forms, symmetries, consequences, combinability, mathematic proportions, I would like to explain the things I wrote, with guide my faith in the idea of measure, of limit….Perhaps though it is this idea of precision which also attracts the idea of the absence of the end: the sequence of integer numbers, the Euclidean lines
.He goes on to refer to the obsession that conquers him so that he limits the spectrum of his themes into smaller spectra, and the obsession for the detail that conquers him reminding Flaubert’s words that good God is in the detail, which also repeated by Mies Van der Rohe.
Measures – Logos
In this relationship of our architecture with precision, we have practiced from our student times, with the catalytic influence of James Spayer, who –as an open-minded apprentice of Mies Van der Rohe- taught us, the importance of moderation and measure which determines with precision the proportions, but also the importance that deviations stress in this normalities.
To this education we owe the practice of applied λόγοs -discourse- and the open interpretation of the grid in architectural composition. A pace, which is selected in order to allude to measures which correspond to elements repeated in the building, a pace which measures vertical as well as horizontal surfaces, indoor or outdoor spaces and it is therefore diffused in all the volume….
With architectural terms we search a vocabulary and the articulation of our own language, which will allow us, to apply an open typology, which is useful as a starting point, for its adaptation to the particularities that appear each time, due to different reasons: financial, local, constructional, or even due to the brief…
However, we never stop considering, that we found something that will solve all our problems. This is the charm of architecture. It is a field for the investigation of properties which coexist influencing each other analogous to what Calvino refers.
Training in Architecture
To practice and to training in architecture in an attempt to summarize all those things that for years you have been trying to articulate with your work, fighting with a tough reality, with the indifference that surrounds you, with the inflation of the empty image that devours the variable landscape, with a ruthless bureaucracy that only rarely has a face and escapes from the neutral fear of responsibility, is an extremely painful experience.
And if one could think that we live in this magic land, Greece and we speak a language, which has sustained its continuity and its stemonologic vocabulary from Homer’s times. Words such ‘thalassa’ for the sea or the word ‘plhiggi’ for wound, which have been left, untouched.
Closing by returning to the texts, I would say that we architects could with all the downfall of architecture, as we experience it everyday, derive the power from the strength of the Greek language throughout the centuries. Its poetic infrastructure, its assimilative confidence, recognizable especially on Crete has proved that it receives and assimilates the particularities of the Greek language, which according to M. Z. Kopidakis are:
The ability to abstract
The richness of meanings
The competitive polytypic
“Language is our Home Country”
A proof of the invention and the need of the Greeks to escape from dry mathematics, is that in order to express the particularities of individuals they invent thousands of names, what Kopidakis has called idioprosopia
In a speech titled “ Language is our home country”, he refers to some of the fifty names that Isiodos used to name Nirihides: Ploto, Amphitrite, Pontoporia, Sao, Gallini, Glafki, Kymothoi…
Narrativity – Poetry
The difficulties that architecture comes across are infinite, in this dual road of wish for legibility and plurality, for the design and materialisation of spaces that are distinguished for their ‘narrativity’ and which allow us to fascinate others, beyond our own self, spaces that offer what an inhabitation really ought to be. To be poetic as Heidegger so characteristically has described….
In this difficult route that architecture has taken it is exposed to everything, from inflation and deprivation, thousands of mute images, verbosity of materials, bulimia and unlimited exhibitionism, arrogance or indolence of power, pedantic attitudes and fear of responsibility for the interpretation of the laws and the most painful, indifference that leads to aggressiveness and hostility to the bodies of buildings that have been designed with love…