Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Clear Sub-Parts

Mercer Museum, Doylestown, PA (photo by Jared Kofsky via Wikimedia Commons)

While Bill Kleinsasser may have disagreed with the notion of designing too specifically to suit immediate needs, such was not the case when it came to responding to the particulars of site, orientation, memory, and the materials with which one builds. He repeatedly cited the idiosyncratic designs in Doylestown, PA by Henry Mercer to illustrate his lectures about response to place, historical continuity, and—most intriguingly—the construction of mental maps in the process of comprehending the places we experience. For Bill, it was essential that rich, complex spaces also offer easily understood sub-parts. Clear sub-parts are the outline of outstanding features within which details are filled. 

A visit to the Mercer Museum, Mercer’s home Fonthill, and his Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, all located in Doylestown, features prominently on my “bucket list.” I look forward to someday experiencing these unique works of architecture, with the privilege of viewing them through eyes influenced over three decades ago by Bill’s teaching. 

Elements, spaces, sub-spaces, details
If, as in speech or music, the separate parts of a spatial construct are not fully developed and clear, there will be confusion about what they are and what they offer. Spaces and parts tend to merge with others if clarity and identity is lacking. Conversely, great spatial complexity may be understood easily if parts are clear, and a whole place may result that is rich, yet perfectly comprehensible. 

While each sub-space is always part of the whole in Mercer’s buildings, each is also always clearly expressed and useful on its own. Each is intriguing in regard to the special concern that is evident in its configuration and when the smaller spaces are brought together into the whole, a complexity of memorable elements exists without confusion. 

Interior of the Mercer Museum (photo by Mrmcdonnell, used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License)

How different Mercer’s museum would be (and how confusing) if the sub-spaces were all alike in spite of the differentiation suggested by the different exhibits, different positions, and different conditions of light. The uniqueness of each would be lost and with it the lucidity of the whole. If in all the buildings, the vaults, walls, columns, stairways, corridors, doors windows, corners, and tiles were less clear and expressive in themselves, their simultaneous presence would be like mumbled words. Eloquence is only possible when sub-parts are vivid and clear.

WK / 1981

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great insight into the subtelties of great design. Thanks for the reminder about Mercer's craft.