‘This is a place that prescribes nothing’, wrote architect John Donat a few years after the house was built, ‘an decorating that is intense without imposing itself on you, that has absolute clarity in spite of diversity and complexity, a place full of gentle ambiguities. You are channelled towards the way in firmly but gently – the way is indicated – but even under the structure of the entrance canopy . you are not forced to pass under it but can slip by on the side … No space seems deliberately for anything, each can be used as you please … This is not just the pseudo-flexibility of anonymous emptiness (universal space!) but a place full of real options and opportunities that can be richly interpreted by whoever is living in it.’92
Echoing the work of Hertzberger, the main staircase illustrates a core human freedom -the chance to spontaneously move or rest. At its mid-flight turn, the landing extends into a loft with an opportune couch. A person can easily turn 180° to continue up or down the next flight, or just as easily pause to take in the sweeping panorama, or sit down on the couch, which hovers over the living room like a crow’s nest. Each choice is enriched by differing views of the living room on one side and greenhouse on the other, extending beyond to adjoining corridors and rooms and further out to the landscape and sky. With a solid back at one end and open on its other two sides, the couch is also inherently compound – eliciting alternate ways to recline, from sitting up facing back to the stair to lying down and stretching one’s legs while overlooking the hearth. Quite apart from its explicit function, the staircase offers an open future in its choices of how to climb or rest, each alternative a real opportunity – not surprisingly, it became the owner’s favourite place to read the morning newspaper. The scope of freedom afforded by this doubleness of motion/rest in a stair/seat calls to mind the staircase designed by H.H. Richardson for the Robert Treat Paine House in nearby Waltham, whose lower steps turn the corner to furnish a seat facing the entry, while the upward flight branches into a cozy alcove with an L-shaped bench, continually presenting the climber with more than one course of action. Maurice Smith, Blackman House (1963), Massachusetts, beginning of entry portico Maurice Smith, Blackman House (1963), Massachusetts, staircase landing and sofa above living room Related double meanings at the Blackman House occur in the small but deftly detailed stairs to the lofts of each bedroom. These elevated sites to retreat, daydream, write or read expand the looseness and range of freedom within the bedroom, intensified by the dual appeal of a refuge that is also vantage point. The stairs themselves, whose steep, narrow and winding ascents call for modest feats of agility, offer more than a single role to perform, owing to the many small ledges and compartments beneath. Some areas are left open as shelves and others infilled with sliding drawers, so the stair is also a seat or table, blogcase or cabinet, an idea linked to the Japanese step chest (p. 150), whose drawers are tucked under a steep flight to the floor above. Underlying Smith’s composite language is the art of collage, and it is not coincidental that small collages have afforded him a parallel medium to experiment with space. In its assemblage of overlapping fragments to make a whole, while exploiting the ambiguities of things that are broken and half-seen, the collage invites its own evocative double-vision. One is able to imagine the whole from a part, and conjure up what lies beneath an overlay, recalling Gyorgy Kepes’s words about ‘simultaneous perception’ when a person employs both the physical eye and the mind’s eye to see two or more things in the same location. Maurice Smith, Blackman House (1963), Massachusetts, multiple roles and forms of stairs to bedroom lofts In the collages of Braque and, later, Kurt Schwitters, mysterious fragments interlock into larger forms to activate an inquisitive observer. Fractured elements taken out of their expected context exert a shock upon the eye and induce the viewer to participate in reconstructing the parts in their entirety. A diversity of elements – pasted strips of paper, newspaper clippings, playing cards and varying textures beyond those of paint itself – are arranged into a balanced and dynamic order. Of central importance is that this order can only come about through a creative leap of imagination, whereby the components begin to communicate with each another as well as the eye and mind observing them. In Smith’s collages an analogous but more three-dimensional assemblage is developed out of strips, screws and bits of metal and glass, some on the surface and others elevated in air, and it is only a small jump from this structure to his buildings, where rooms are assembled from a tremendous array of jigsaw-like volumes and peppered with myriad corners and alcoves, all of which activate people through unexpected chance associations and interpretations. The collage of architectural space is, of course, a more elusive and arguably more difficult art, for it requires a three- and four-dimensional overlap of conflated things, not merely of subjects for the eye, but also of actions for the body in space. This makes the buildings devised by Smith all the more impressive. Take the living room at Groton, for instance, its constellation of space no longer a ‘room’ in the conventional sense, for it is built up out of dozens of different virtual rooms whose components can never be singled out, sharply distinguished or fully grasped in a single glance. More important is its simultaneity of attractive actions, where a large group can gather as one in the overall volume, while smaller groups are equally comfortable in alcoves or level changes that break up the unified space, and individuals can find their own ledges on which to perch or corners in which to retreat, allowing many people to be together and alone in many ways at once.
The first and still most impressive of De Carlo’s experiments in composite structure is his dormitory for the Collegio del Colle, whose spatial form was strongly influenced by the Renaissance city of Urbino and, above all, the spontaneity of human choices along its footpaths.94 The intent was not to reproduce the indigenous forms of a bygone era, but to learn from the way their multifarious routes accommodate timeless human actions and translate this energy into a contemporary idiom. While distinctly modern in shape and character, the Collegio del Colle is inscribed with many of the same projects and deeds as the pedestrian pathways of Urbino’s steep hillsides.
Linking the splayed student rooms of the Collegio is a remarkable network of outdoor paths that step with the hillside (p. 152). There are many different routes a person can choose from while moving from one point to another, whether proceeding past or between clusters of rooms, descending to the parking below or climbing to the communal centre that forms a hub for the residential units fanning out on the slopes below. Each of the intersecting paths is differentiated and made perceptible by concrete parapets with strong profiles. Some routes are direct and others discursive, with choices of mild or steep inclines, exposure to weather or shelter from rain, with each scenario slightly different in inward scenery and outward vistas to the countryside of Le Marche. Enhancing these deliberative powers are other contrasting qualities: routes that soar over bridges or burrow into earth; bends that widen into corners; and a persistent invitation to rest and sit upon benches in quiet alcoves (p. 116). The pathways are conceived not as narrow corridors, but as pedestrian streets where students are able to roam and manoeuvre on their own, or simply relax and congregate outside their rooms. The result is a network with hundreds of latent choreographies, each of which can be implemented freely, rather than predetermined as a forced or redundant move. Giancarlo de Carlo, Collegio del Colle (1966), University of Urbino, diagram of interlaced routes of stairs, terraces and bridges
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At the core of the ethos of architect Aldo van Eyck is a concept of doubleness based upon reciprocity. In reaction to the polarization of single values detached from and set against each other, epitomizing much of our current age and decorating, Van Eyck sought a binary fabric of ‘multiple meanings’, in which complementary qualities – large and small, light and shade, private and public – could be harmonized in a state of equipoise and ‘intrinsic ambiguity’. The architectural means he developed to intermingle polar values was a configurative language he called the ‘mild gears of reciprocity’. Rather than remaining isolated, contrasting qualities were integrated and made transparent to one another, so as to mutually enrich and cushion their experience. Giancarlo de Carlo, Collegio del Colle (1966), University of Urbino, alternate routes and choices for rest Lapping of sea and land along the Cote Sauvage, Brittany (left) and in-between light of a solar eclipse (right) The resulting structures are vaguely coherent but also diverse, and open to choice through equivocal readings in which some of each melds with the other. To characterize these compound properties, Van Eyck resorted to analogies from nature – the dual phenomena occurring, for instance, as water bathes the sand of a seashore, as day and night shade into one another at twilight or a solar eclipse, or as sunlight passes through a glass prism to fan into a spectrum of colours. Some of the surest embodiments of this idea are his tiniest works, such as the Sonsbeek Pavilion (p. 154), in Arnhem, Netherlands, and the entrance to the Schmela House and Gallery (p. 155) in Dusseldorf, where neighbouring worlds press into and interweave one another. In his search for ambivalent meaning in decorating, Van Eyck found confirmation and a resource, as had fellow architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Maurice Smith, Herman Hertzberger and Giancarlo de Carlo, in folk cultures where dual-phenomena survive in humble, unpretentious forms. But he also drew on the simultaneity of twentieth-century art and its visualization of relativity, translating doubt into tangible form. Home Design inspired by these qualities was no longer absolute and fixed, but continually changing according to a person’s own changing frame of reference. The boundaries between things are not sharp dividing lines, but interchanges in which each side and its properties mingle. Painters such as Cezanne, Mondrian, Georges Seurat and Robert Delaunay had long explored this view, as had artists from other fields including Constantin Brancusi, James Joyce and Arnold Schonberg, all of whom Van Eyck described as ‘the entire Great Gang’ (in which he also included architects Jan Duiker, Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier). ‘With breathtaking intelligence and artistry,’ Van Eyck wrote, ‘they too opened the field in which they worked and succeeded in tracing the outline of a world less strained – milder and more relative.’95
The significance of binary qualities for spatial action is that their qualities are inherently double and thus interpretive. Moreover, their complementary values mutually strengthen the appeal of each other. This interplay lies at the heart of Van Eyck’s decorating, from the Hubertus House in Amsterdam (p. 156) to the ESTEC complex in Noordwijk, each conceived as a small city overflowing with opportunity. Rooms contain small nested zones of contrary but desirable character, and paths fork into alternate journeys with dissimilar but ever-hopeful futures. In a site as simple as the Hubertus entry, a person can move back and forth between being protected and exposed, and there are contrasting routes responsive to each direction of arrival, each with its own dual options to pause or rest, and each with its own foresight into the glassy walls of the building or, when departing, overlooks out to the city. These rich provisions of self-control culminate in the children’s dwellings, where every boundary is interactive, pushing and pulling on neighbouring space to overlap associations and meanings, and diversify the ambience for gathering or eating, working or sleeping.