Architecture in large part involves placing things in space: a building on a site, a door in a wall, an object in a room. Might there be an underlying order that, when accessed, unlocks an authenticity deeper than identity, history, or the self?
First things first. If something “goes without saying” then it should be said. It is precisely such things which become presumptions — a form of arrogance and therefore a kind of blindness. Presumption is ubiquitous, but avoidable in some ways with practice. Taking “simple” things — obvious or self-evident — for granted is a serious oversight.
As William Gass described in his elegant 1996 essay “Simplicities” (from “Finding a Form”), there are many kinds of simplicity; Kenya Hara’s new book “100 Whites” shows the same idea with respect to what most consider a simple color: Even the most rudimentary acts are in fact quite complex and rich with implication.
One might focus on “place” as verb — to place; the act of placement — rather than the usual use in current architectural discourse, as noun. As above, observations on this topic might be seen as completely obvious; hence this text.
To “place” something in space (pose / posit / position; sit / site / situation; set / settle / setting) is an act of intention — an act of curatorial discretion — and gives meaning and has consequences whether known and considered or not. We “arrange” things to meet needs or perhaps as a form of expression; an expression of form. To put forth. To find form in life, to find life in form. To find or give structure. To “place” emphasis. Louis Kahn would say that “truly the role of the architect is that of a composer.”
Whether this is in two dimensions — something “on” a page, or “in” a frame, or frames “on” a wall; or something placed in three dimensional space: “on” a surface, or “in” a volume — the act of placement vests one, several, or many elements into a context or site with resulting consequences. The empirical qualities manifest in a given installation — by artist, curator or architect; inside or outside — might work “with respect” for the space / site, or might deliberately violate the intrinsic qualities and spatial traits or characteristics. Intention is subjective and contingent, but both require a default understanding. Kahn’s “I always begin with the square, and then look for forces which would disprove the square,” or Donald Judd’s “ … art, for myself, and architecture for everyone, should always be symmetrical except for a good reason” express default “primary conditions” upon which their work was predicated.
The initial reaction for a single element might frequently be to “center” it. This might mean the exact dimensional location or might refer to an implied gravitational or spatial center which seems to suggest static balance. The visual “weight” of a thing many times gives reason for more surrounding space beneath it; space to “carry” the form. “Breathing room” is a typical description of the space required or desired surrounding an element in order to hold it respectfully “in place.” To “lock in place” is to find a situation in which the elements and the space they occupy are held in some form of compositional unity or aesthetic stability.
This act of centering in architecture is perfectly expressed in the Pantheon’s ocular aperture, which exists at the exact axial apex of an implied spherical architectural volume. Its numinous equivalent in another way would be illustrated by Ise Shrine’s “august column of the heart” (shin-no-mihashira) or “heart post.” Representing the sakaki bush sacred to Shinto, the post — the “true pillar” — is hidden from view at all times. In the 20-year interim between each rebuilding of the shrine, the post is covered by a small, gabled wooden structure (oi-yu) in a field of white gravel (kodenchi); the arrangement itself being an exquisite “object in a field.”
Even a deliberate eccentricity requires knowledge or understanding of the center, just as jazz requires understanding classical form and structure. The tension between the two is implied in either direction — centered things imply dissonance, and dissonance requires an implied center. Carlo Scarpa was a master of this form of eccentric, off-center composition.
A center line of a room might determine everything regarding a work, as in Carl Andre’s wood case of poems at Chinati or his 1968 work, “35 Timber Line,” installed in a Chinati barracks gallery. Or, of course, the aperture and reflector in Kahn’s Kimbell vaults.
The “site” as receptacle, volume, or “contain/er” is not a neutral element. Louis Kahn believed a person had a rapport with a room, as though it were a sentient being and a singular entity. Its qualities prefigure the results of the insertion. The characteristics of the site or space will evoke a condition which might reinforce those qualities or attempt to negate them. A “figure / ground” relationship is created and is either desired — as “two things” — or, if perfected, they seemingly become a congruent “one thing.” An engagement or, if “joined,” a marriage. They resonate in some way as a whole, grafted together, differently than as two distinct elements. This vesting of one thing within another takes many forms, and the extant fabric or volume determines the qualities achieved as much as do the intrinsic qualities of the element “vested.” Even the slightest movement can affect the specific aspects considerably, as any curator hanging a work or several in an exhibit knows. The meaning of the “work” can be changed significantly by this. The effort is towards the enhancement of both “figure” and “ground.” This is an iterative act. In art terms, “site specific” refers to this quality. Light lends aspect.
The exact dimensions of the site or space may be employed to locate the object’s “place”/ment. A superb example of this is the 1467 Rucellai Sepulchre in Florence by Leon Battista Aberti whose room dimensions and window arrangement (themselves “placed” in the wall) dictate the exact location and proportions of the figural aedicular insertion. Similar as well to much of the sculptural work of Carl Andre, Richard Serra, Robert Morris, and Donald Judd, as well as other sculptors and artists whose simple forms engage the room or space by first engaging a plane. Each considered the floor an “equal” to the wall or ceiling, and works such as Serra’s 1974-75 “Delineator” “lock” together the ceiling and floor planes in the installation. Almost the entire corpus of these artists’ works addresses such concerns with erudition and precision. All four, and many others, have works in the landscape which align with or reference the cardinal directions, such as Judd’s north / south line of 15 concrete works in Marfa, or his circular concrete works which strike a perfect level against the slope of an existing topography. Actual versus ideal, held in contrast.
Archaic geometries, ley lines, geomancy, Feng Shui and “regulating lines” all carry this ancient concern for intrinsic or “correct” placement. Richard Long’s walked lines and stones in the landscape are of this raw primordial essence, as is — with contemporary capacities for land formation — Michael Heizer’s 1969 “Double Negative.” In architecture and landscape, specifically the example of Moorish water rills on the center line of a space (such as the Court of the Long Pond or Court of the Lions at the Alhambra, or Kahn at Salk) are many and profound. One might cite any allée, such as Dan Kiley at the Miller garden, or Paul Rudolph and Russell Page’s glorious row of pleached oaks at the 1974 Bass Residence in Fort Worth, in which the linear aspect is both “drawn” on the ground in bluestone, and cut in the air directly above by a gap exactly the same width between the parallel oak canopies.
Placing two things creates a juxtaposition or opposition. A binary counterpoint for the purpose of didactic comparison or evocation of some form of tension. A dialogue. Pairing is of course an archaic act and can be seen in poetic form, for instance in the recently discovered “Woodhenge” a short distance from the well-known “Stonehenge.” Apparently linked by the adjacent river, the pair are now being reassessed as “one thing,” or one activity. Wood and stone have ancient and rich connotations, in this instance perhaps as a rudimentary expression of life and death. The adjacent river acting — in one interpretation — in the same manner as the idea of Greek “thirds,” in which a third element “holds” two things together (or the French idea of a marriage … ). Wood and stone, but both “henges,” or circles of columns. The archeological evidence seems to support such a reading.
To place one thing on top of another, as in Serra’s 2014 forged steel work “Dead Load,” Hubert Kiecol’s almost analogous 1987 piece in concrete “Saule Liegend” or Serra’s 2013 work “Grief and Reason (for Walter)” speaks directly to such a vertical bearing condition. Weight and gravity are rendered manifest.
The marriage of more than two, or multiple elements in a space obviously becomes an even more difficult act. The five islands arranged in raked white gravel at Ryoan-ji in Japan represent a congruent whole, which speaks to the many nuances of its culture and to the timeless, particularly in its use of gravel field as a metaphor for the ocean and the infinite.
John Cage wrote of “repetition as a form of change,” and seriality — lining things up — creates a construct — Judd would say “small order” — in which many factors begin to have bearing; including the odd or even number of elements, which involve differing centers. Cardinal alignments or axial references give additional meaning, bearing, and weight.
Donald Judd’s “100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 1982-1986” gives example to just how many elements can be inserted in a pair of spaces and still cohere as an idea. The structure of the two extant Artillery Sheds (recycled truck garages with Judd’s new glazing system and roofs) determined the placement of the works. One space holds 48 works, and the second holds 52; it is not two equal conditions as one might presume. Once situated, the phenomenon of daylight causing the “dematerialization” of the pieces begins, and by the moment various pieces “come and go.” This effect was known to Judd, even if he chose not to talk or write about its obvious ephemeral aspects. (He did, however, relish the story of a visiting priest who told him after looking at his work that “they were in the same business.”)
The history of architecture, art, and our existence is replete with such examples — sacred or secular, as one chooses to understand them. If, in fact, there are such things as “givens” in our existence — default conditions that might predetermine a set of cognitive structural concerns as intrinsic and ab initio references — then these primal conceptual framing elements explain much in the history of ideas. It is not an accident that the first of things is almost of necessity “ugly” and predicated upon such rudimentary assumptions. The first airplanes, for example, were designed using squares and cubic frames before aerodynamics was understood. And it is ironic that the International Space Station is designed in the same “space frame” structures, since aerodynamics is of no concern in a vacuum.
One could argue that the sense of “authenticity” derives from such concerns, in that they might reflect, in some manner, an underlying geometry of inception — “true,” “genuine,” “valid” — and that “authority” and the autograph “hand” of the author are rooted in such deeper meanings and in their continued evocation over time and place.
W. Mark Gunderson, AIA, is an architect in Fort Worth.