Saturday, September 12, 2015

Hierarchical Clarity

Henry Mercer’s Museum, Doylestown, PA (photo by KForce used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

Bill Kleinsasser successively produced version after version of his self-published textbook Synthesis. I’ve reprinted excerpts from several editions, of which the following is from the earliest I own. He was constantly distilling his lessons down to what he considered their essence. In the end, Synthesis was striking for its clarity and brevity. 

Although I’m sure Bill believed each edition was an improvement over the one that came before, I’m finding in retrospect it is the earliest copy of Synthesis I have that is the richest and most rewarding to read again. Like Henry Mercer’s Museum, it is a wandering, eclectic, and sometimes eccentric collection, an anthology of essays roughly organized around Bill’s evolving notions about frames of reference for architecture. 

In the following passage, Bill addresses the fundamental principle of hierarchy in buildings and its enrichment through holistic imagery: 

Answerability, Unity, Dominance, Subordination
In built places, as in speech or music, confusion results if the relative importance of elements is not clarified. Every design situation that has its own intrinsic structure of relationships and physical organization of places should make this clear. Some elements will be supporting and subordinate, while others will be dominant. 

Henry Mercer was aware of this discipline. In his Museum, the central space dominates. Many other spaces are important also, but clearly less so. In Fonthill, it is the saloon that dominates; furthermore, the saloon is the “main house,” which dominates over the utility core and the octagonal servants’ wing. In the Tileworks, the studio and courtyard are expressed as the major spaces, and they both contrast with and clarify the spaces for the kilns, preparation of clay and plaster molds, and storage. 

Mercer also used this principle in the organization of individual rooms. Almost all large rooms in his buildings are composed of major spaces with smaller spaces within or around them. This is especially clear in the studio of the Tileworks; the saloon, library, studies, and certain bedrooms of Fonthill; and the library and “stove plate room” of the Museum. 

Hierarchical organization reduces and explains constituent parts. It induces a sorting-out or mental reconstruction that confirms situational order. Arbitrary hierarchies, or course, are only confusing. 

The remembrance of whole places, which might be called holistic imagery, may be useful in the establishment of hierarchical clarity. If memories (or dreams) of whole places are successfully translated to the language and requirements of new situations, they may strengthen as well as enrich the organization of new places. Mercer’s Museum is essentially a system for display and easy movement, but it is also dominantly and magically reminiscent of both castles and caves. The Tileworks is essentially a factory for utility and storage but its imagery makes it also answerable to the characteristics and symbols of a cloistered Spanish mission. Fonthill is part castle, part cave, part garden, and labyrinthian; and an observer is always aware of these characteristics in the dynamic interplay of changing light and spatial complexity. In each building, Mercer’s imagery organizes the whole while appropriately serving the new and special circumstances.

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