Sunday, August 10, 2014

Architecture is Awesome #6: Space

Deep space star cluster photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope

This is another in my series of posts inspired by 1000 Awesome Things, the Webby Award winning blog written by Neil Pasricha. The series is my meditation on the awesome reasons why I was and continue to be attracted to the art of architecture. 

As defined by Wikipedia, space is “the boundless three-dimensional extent in which objects and events have relative position and direction.” The entry describes physical space as “often conceived in three linear dimensions, although modern physicists usually consider it, with time, to be part of a boundless four-dimensional continuum known as spacetime.”

Wikipedia suggests that space is more or less formless without the objects and events that occupy it. It is these that provide otherwise limitless tracts of space definition and shape.

The act of building is an event that fixes relative positions and directions. Just as the galaxies, stars, and planets do, buildings demarcate, delineate, and distort space and time. We don’t normally conceive of architecture from so celestial a perspective but in the grand scheme of things the architect’s goal is precisely to slice off, capture, and shape tiny bits of our vast universe.

Architects form relationships between empty space and objects, and it is our perceptions of these relationships that constitute architecture. We may utilize walls, columns, domes, and other elements in our designs, but space is the primary medium we work with when we plan buildings and places. Our creative use of space is what sets architecture apart from the other arts.

This is a concept that isn’t always easy for students of architecture to grasp. After all, we ask them to begin by drawing the walls, roofs, doors, and windows of a building rather than its volumes—the space—they shape. For many, it takes a while to realize that the form of the spatial volume is as important as the form of the mass containing the space.

It’s perhaps easiest to imagine space as being something tangible, especially when we consider both the elements shaping the portion of space we are engaged with and the form of the spatial volume itself. A jar and the volume it contains comprise a whole. They form a unity of opposites, the jar being the yin to the yang of its contents. We see the jar—its materiality, patterning, and color—but we also appreciate its capacity to hold and protect materials we value. The relationship between form and space is likewise an association of opposed elements, where space may be interpreted as the absence of form, even as space may be given shape.

Sometimes, architects design freestanding objects in space (suburban homes on their large lots are examples). Other times, they bend, warp, buckle, and bow buildings to bound and give shape to outdoor places (such as the courtyards and squares of medieval cities) or envelop distinct volumes (such as the Pantheon does). The figure-ground relationship between objects (figures) and space (ground) considers the importance of both equally.

1784 figure-ground map of Rome by Giambattista Nolli

The composition of space is among the most rewarding tasks architects engage in. Louis Kahn went so far as to define architecture as “the thoughtful making of space.” And yet, space has always been there and always will be; we didn’t make it. Skilled architects simply use proportion, light, and the materials & language of construction to reveal its existence. They create churning eddies, idle pools, and flowing streams of space. They actively engage space by rendering it in terms we can perceive and be moved by. 

Outer space is seemingly infinite, its uncharted frontiers the inspiration for science fiction. Architectural space is part of the same continuum as outer space, just much closer to home. It’s both amazing and humbling to realize we’re empowered to establish dominion over a tiny share of an infinite cosmos. Good architecture particularizes and composes space. It defines order out of disorderliness. Good architecture marks humankind’s moment and place of habitation along the spacetime continuum. 

Simply put, architecture is AWESOME because it’s literally crafted from the same stuff as the universe itself: space.

Next Architecture is Awesome: #7 The Process of Discovery

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