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15 Gennaio 2013


Walls, space and light*

Versione italiana

Quarry face (ph. A. Acocella)

There are always going to be some critics, theoreticians and architects of our age, with our kind of education and training (undoubtedly the majority of the total), who are going to claim that present-day architecture is inevitably totally different from what it was like up until our fathers’ generation: they see it as breaking with, or juxtaposed to, all past tradition.
We, on the other hand, do not share this same view: we do not accept it as the inevitable starting point for any present-day construction programme, nor do we believe that situations exist justifying the creation of architectural designs – albeit with a clearly contemporary character (that is, updated in terms of their architectural language and aesthetic rationale) – that are in no way linked to the fundamental, traditional traits of this subject. In our view, the concept of the stone wall can still be part and parcel of contemporary architectural projects.
Indeed, the radical nature of the wall – conceived as a barrier, as a protective boundary around an increasingly less exciting built environment – has strongly re-emerged in recent years, thanks to the considerable contribution of certain great architects, who have designed the wall using a variety of different materials (brick, stone, earth and concrete, for example, in the case of Tadao Ando).
Such walls have in many cases regained their rightful status.
A considerable number of contemporary creations could be cited here – some of which are in fact included in this very section of the present volume – all of which feature an architectural composition based on the logic and strength of the wall that physically and psychologically encloses isolated spaces, as in the past. However, we believe that further analysis of the wall as a constructive and expressive feature of contemporary architecture is still required. There is a vision of the wall – which we strongly share – which places the emphasis on its homogeneous, stark, egalitarian character, whereby each component of the construction loses its individuality and merges into the overall creation. The basic architectural choice is that of displaying the wall in its most sober, essential form, boasting nothing more than its own constructive logic. This severe, timeless conception of the wall, characterised by its solidity, mass and volume, its individual elements blend together to give a homogeneous effect, without any clear contrasts or engravings.

Project drawing and view of Gibellina Museum (1981-87) designed by Francesco Venezia (ph. A. Acocella)

The bulk and heaviness of traditional architecture is an ancient, ever-present virtue, whereas in present-day walls, such qualities have to be rediscovered and re-acquired.
This vision of the masonry wall is generally accompanied by the abolition of any strong distinction between top and bottom, between the centre and the edges. The essence of the wall is homogeneity and unity; a load-bearing wall (or a wall that is designed to appear as such) that aims to express its way of being, its subjection to the law of gravity and to the constructive process underlying its formation. An architectural element, devoid of all underscoring, that offers and valorises continuous stone surfaces within which the openings themselves are often limited, and are created flush to the surface of the walls.
While the physical essence of the wall is that of the volumetric boundary of architectural constructs, defining the internal spaces of buildings, its two-dimensional identity recalls the superficial sphere. The figurative character of a wall is largely given by the design of its surfaces.
We acknowledge that the meaning of planes consists mainly in their different ways of interpreting the connection with the ground, the rising up towards the sky, the opening and closing towards the outside world.
A wall, in order not to appear as a completely inert surface, has to be given a certain direction, a certain pattern. Figuration must primarily take into account the difference between horizontality and verticality, in order that structures are built with clearly developed rhythms and tensions. Indeed, the relationship between the elevation and the longitudinal extension of a wall already gives an initial appearance to any artificial construction.
The elevation of the wall, as its rises vertically skywards, often involves the hierarchical organisation of the structure: this starts from the basement level (the “base” of the structure that is in contact with the ground), followed by an intermediate zone (the “belt”), and ends in the upper band (the “crown”).
In the past, the basement gave an impression of considerable solidity in that it was often thicker than the rest of the wall; given its role as supporting element for the weight of the entire construction, it was required to be particularly strong and soundly anchored to the ground on which the building rose.
At the other end of the wall, the “crown line” constituted the upper boundary, a demarcation line separating it from the sky above. It was here that the two worlds met. The lesser or greater emphasis given to this upper band (whose plastic moulding was accompanied by shadow, giving it a chiaroscuro appearance) was of considerable figurative importance.
The upward movement of the construction was accompanied by a descent, the “earthing” of the gravitational load, which significantly conditioned the assemblage of the stone ashlars joined together to form the structure of the masonry wall. This dialectical relationship between the upward “growth” of the wall and the downward gravitational load encompassed the most ancient and hidden secret of those walls destined to constitute the “foundations” of a given architectural space. As Dom Hans van der Laan observes in his celebrated work “Architectural Space”:

We should not forget that architecture is not limited to giving walls a shape; the latter’s raison d’être is that of composing a space within their reciprocal proximity. Wall and space cannot be separated; together they constitute the combination full-empty. In the interaction between wall and space, the wall’s mass possesses its own form as a result of the agreement between height, length and thickness; the architectural space, on the other hand, has to base its form on that of the wall.1

“Espaces rythmiques” (1909) by Adolphe Appia

Van der Laan thus introduces us to the rather ineffable idea of the immateriality of the architectural space as the negative result of the walled envelopment resulting from the juxtaposition of walls to form barriers or filters between the exterior and the interior.
These walls are created, sized and modelled along an upward plane, while at the same time being solidly anchored to the ground beneath them. They often reveal diverse forms of architectural logic (featuring cell-like arrangements, or separate independent structures, with broken walls, curved walls, etc.), of prevalent direction (vertical, horizontal), of balanced layouts (when, for example, the square is the dominant geometrical figure), of dimensional scales capable of “fixing” the character of the space (functional measurements designed for use by Man; “representative” measurements designed to give a certain architectural effect; grandiose sizes of more monumental works).
If the empty space is “materialised”, that is, is given its own existence within the walls giving rise to it, the greater the thickness and bulk of these walls, the more the said space resembles a block – that is, an entity with a clear shape and identity.
The physiognomy of the stone-walled inner space is prevalently that of solid configurations such as courtyards, classrooms, reception rooms and other rooms that incorporate to a certain degree the contribution and fascination of light and shadow.
Stone architecture has in general promoted a form of composition designed to establish physically and psychologically enucleated spaces, but not ones that are necessarily isolated from the outside world, given that the intersection of walls, together with their opening and closing, produces a variety of forms of integration-separation of outside and inside.
The horizontality and verticality of walls, together with their cubicalness and curvolinearity, represent very different aspects of the spatial character of stone architecture. One congenial device used, in particular, in modern and contemporary architecture, is that of emphasising the longitudinal nature of the wall by granting it the role of guiding principle of architectural composition. Thus walls are built with little or no vertical additions to break with their clean-cut horizontal development along the ground. The horizontal façade, the very perspectives that emerge close to walls, remain the principal characteristics of the entire composition; the inner space corresponding to this horizontal extension of wall is involved in this extended design of the walled block. The architectural space characterised more by its verticality is also fascinating, although such constructs are less commonly found than those with a primarily horizontal character.

Worl War I Memorial (1930-31) Berlin, Neue Wache. Designed by Heinrich Tessenow

The way that the walls of a structure envelop their inner space may involve an interruption in the continuity of the walls themselves, and feature the juxtaposition of different “sections of wall”. In this case, the arrangement of the stone mass is based on the alternation of closed and open sections; this variation in rhythm has always accompanied the composition of walls that require entrances and openings designed to guarantee the interconnected distribution of different spaces or to ensure the entry of light and air.
Of course, there is a considerable difference in spatial terms between a horizontal extension of solid, completely “closed” wall, and an arrangement characterised by separate distinct sections of wall. The continuity of the wall in this latter hypothesis is interrupted, thus depriving it of its absolute, homogeneous character, which is replaced by the rhythmic quality of a discontinuous system such as the result of the utilisation of the trilithic system. In cases of this kind, the walled structure features a sequence of pilasters and masonry sections which characterise a more complex, less block-like spatial arrangement.
Recent works by the French architect, Gilles Peraudin, give a clearer idea of recent developments in this direction, with the focus very much on creations of a distinctly primitive, megalithic flavour. His works reveal, once again, large squared ashlars employed in a structural role: this represents the renewal of the principal of mass in response to the need for enclosing elements offering considerable thermic inertia.
Generally speaking, the composition of the wall, obtained by juxtaposing extensive sections of masonry structured in various different ways, is designed to meet two requirements: it enables the architectural space to be used, while at the same time enabling light and air to flow into the resulting structure. Light has always been of fundamental importance for the architecture of walls, and in itself contributes to the valorisation of the entire construction.
Within the architectural space enclosed by the walls, one of the features that has had the greatest historical influence on the development of architecture itself has been the equilibrium between an active force (light) and a passive state (darkness). Free to pervade external spaces, light is, on the contrary, “captured”, “directed” and “qualified” within interior spaces, as a result of the openings and cuts made in the body of a building. The architectural space would never have taken on the varied qualities it indeed possesses had it not been for the presence of light.
Light is at the origin of everything in architecture.
The shaping and illumination of the space within the walls of buildings has for centuries been the principal concern of European architecture. Tadao Ando seems well aware of this question when he affirms that:

Western architecture employed massive stone walls to separate interiors from the world outside; windows, cut out of walls so thick that they appeared to constitute a rejection of the outside, were of a small size and an austere shape.
These openings, more than allowing in light, shone intensely thus replacing the light itself; they probably expressed the desire for illumination of people condemned to live forever in obscurity. A bright ray of light cutting through this obscurity could have seemed like an invocation, and windows were not designed for the pleasure of looking through, but simply to let in light in the most direct manner. This light, which perforated the interior of the architecture, produced solid, resolute spaces. Such openings, created in this severe manner, segmented the incoming light so as to model, almost sculpt, the space from luminous lines that cut through the darkness and whose shape changed continuously.
In modern times, architecture has freed windows from all structural constraint, and has allowed them to take all manner of shapes. Of course, this has not meant that light itself has been freed; on the contrary, its energy, which was once the object of never-ending attention, is nowadays greeted with indifference.
Modern architecture has produced an excessively transparent world, one that is illuminated in a totally homogeneous, bright manner, and thus devoid of all obscurity. This world, over which a halo of light shines, has decreed the end of space and of obscurity.

Domus Aurea in Rome, Emperor Nero’s residence (ph. A. Acocella)

Historically speaking, on the other hand, more complex methods of capturing the sunlight have played a fundamental role in the characterisation of architectural spaces.
The type of light – horizontal, diagonal or vertical – is clearly a consequence of the reciprocal relationship between the sun’s position and the walled planes enveloping the interior spaces; in particular, great importance has been given to diagonal light, above all that of the zenithal variety.
Vertical light, descending from above, is obtained by holes made in the covering (be this a vaulted ceiling, a sloping roof or a flat floor).
Horizontal light, on the other hand, is produced by the sun’s rays shining through openings (in general windows) situated in the walls of the building’s shell.
Finally, diagonal light is produced by the modulation of light coming in through openings in the wall or in the roof. The Romans were the first to valorise interior spaces by exalting them not only in terms of their shape and size, but also in terms of their luminosity, with the introduction of light from above. In particular, the architecture of the Imperial age, characterised as it was by the development of an original conception of space, saw the introduction of sophisticated systems for the capture of natural light, featuring special “incisions” in the roof or the vaulted ceiling and the creation of spy-holes of light. It was during this period that, for the first time in the history of architecture, importance was given to the enigmatic quality to zenithal light as a design feature of interiors.
The “new” Roman architecture often saw the projection of light down to the ground, licking the intrados of the great cupolas that accompanied it on its downward journey; it was as if the architects had deliberately decided not to use horizontal light, seen as a destructive influence on the solid interior block which was indeed emphasised to the utmost by the closed character of the surrounding walls.

Domus Aurea in Rome, Emperor Nero’s residence (ph. A. Acocella)

After the initial pioneering experiments conducted in the Campania region, Nero’s Domus Aurea (64-68 A.D.) represented the advanced codification of the new perception of interior space and of its scenographic illumination, especially in the case of the more important reception rooms of the imperial residence situated on the Esquilino Hill. The outside of the building is merely a series of rectilinear façades containing the all-important interior: a veritable spatial concatenation of a highly original character, centred around a large octagonal room which is truly marvellous to perceive.
Having finally abandoned the Greek constructive style, based on the trilithic system in which illumination plays a minor (sometimes altogether marginal) role, the architects Severus and Celer accentuate the importance and the directrices of space thanks, in fact, to the considerable contribution made by light.
The most important innovation consists in the octagonal room surrounded on five sides by rooms radiating off, while the remaining three sides open out directly onto the frontal portico. The central room is covered by an octagonal vault (the upper section of which resembles a semi-spherical section) featuring an oculus at its centre designed to let light into the room. Splayed windows – situated in the space between the extrados of the dome and the vertical extension of the walls of the internal octagon – complete the ingenious system, using light from above, illuminating the five rooms radiating off from, and directly connected to, the octagonal room.
With the construction of the Domus Aurea, zenithal light became a “raw material” of Roman architecture (only sixty years later, Hadrian’s Pantheon was to be built), and the lesson learnt was never to be forgotten thereafter. In fact, the echoes and influences of this “discovery” are still to be seen today.
We believe that the results achieved by the Romans constitute the source of inspiration of much of modern and contemporary architecture; we ought to look back at such ancient works if we are to really understand Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn, or more recently, Rafael Moneo, Mario Botta, Tadao Ando, Kengo Kuma, Jorn Utzon, Sverre Fhen, Alberto Campo Baeza and Peter Zumtor. The importance of light as a design material is clearly emphasised by Alberto Campo Baeza, when he writes:

When an architect finally discovers that light is the focal point of all architecture, then, and only then, does he really begin to understand things and become a true architect. Light is not a vague entity, one to be taken for granted because ever-present. The sun does not rise every day for nothing. On the contrary, regardless of crepuscular theory, light is a concrete, precise, continuous, definite thing. It is a measurable, quantifiable material, as all scientists know but as numerous architects choose to ignore.
Light, like gravity, is an inevitable fact of reality; fortunately for us, since at the end of the day, architecture has developed over the course of time thanks to these two primary elements – light and gravity. Architects should always carry a compass with them (showing the direction and angle of the sun’s rays), together with a photometer (with which to measure the quantity of light), and not only their spirit level, tape measure and plumb-line. While the battle to overcome gravity lies at the roots of architecture, the pursuit of light and the relationship with it that is created, constitute the two factors that lead the creation of architecture to a sublime level. Thus it is that one discovers, by pure coincidence, that light is in truth the only element capable of overcoming the force of gravity. Therefore, when an architect succeeds in tricking the sun, the light perforating the space created by generally massive structures, breaks the spell and helps the said space to rise and fall, to levitate and fly.

Inner courtyard of DZ Bank (1994-2001) in Berlin. Designed by Frank O. Gehry (ph. A. Acocella)

Looking back at the development of contemporary architecture, we see that, on the contrary, the excessive growth in the size of openings, designed to create a more immediate degree of contact between interior and exterior, has created a difficulty (which in the end has become an incapacity) with regard to the modulation of light, and to access to that magical world fed by the dialectic relationship between light and darkness.
Thus we find ourselves today faced with an architectural praxis incapable of controlling light, one that does not provide for any selection of what to show by opening just one part of the enveloping wall. The same modulation of light offered by traditional windows (which combined transparent panes of glass with shutters and window splays) has been lost forever.
Nowadays, it would seem that windows may be only smaller bigger, surrounded by a thin coplanar frame that immediately reveals their fragility. The ability to “select” light, air and portions of the outside world that can be part of the interior space, is often overseen in a clearly, unjustifiably superficial manner.
However, contrary to this general tendency, the works of Jorn Utzon and Peter Zumthor provide a convincing argument for a review of such contemporary developments. These works are amply documented in the present section of the book, as their spatial clarity and use of light express to the full the combined value of stone architecture, of solid masonry walls and of light.
We would also like to propose the latter works as a model of contemporary architectural design capable of countering the position adopted by those who judge masonry walls and stone architecture in general as merely things of the past, part of traditional architectural language and nothing more.

Alfonso Acocella

* The re-edited essay has been taken out from the volume by Alfonso Acocella, Stone architecture. Ancient and modern constructive skills, Milano, Skira-Lucense, 2006, pp. 624.
1 Dom Hans van der Laan, “Architectonic space” (original title L’espace architectonique, 1989), in Alberto Ferlenga and Paolo Verde’s Dom Hans van der Laan. Works and words, Milan, Electa, 2000, p. 166.
2 Francesco Dal Co, Tadao Ando, Luce (original title Licht, 1993) (Milan: Electa, 1994), p. 470.
3 Alberto Campo Baeza, “Architettura sine luce nulla architettura est”, Domus n. 760, 1994, p.2.

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