Aldo van Eyck, Schmela House and Gallery (1971), Dusseldorf, mingling of city, dwelling and gallery space in the glass drum of the entrance
The reciprocal values that reverberate through Van Eyck’s church in The Hague (p. 157) are not dissimilar to the compound space of the City of God created by masons in medieval Europe, but their character has been utterly transformed by emancipation from axial control and repeating bays, and more generally from religious command and rhetoric. Every spatial and material component is inscribed with alternate readings, whose ambiguity is perplexing and provocative. Passage occurs through a tall transept with multiple points to enter the sanctuary, while negotiating a floor that continually flows off to the side to mingle with neighbouring space. The route is bordered with semi-cylindrical chapels that straddle boundaries, being half in the transept and half in the sanctuary, their curving volumes half open and half closed, each supplying a small domain to withdraw from other worshippers and rest in private contemplation.
This leitmotif of double-vision reappears in almost every detail. The altar is set on a piece of transept floor that penetrates into the sanctuary. Piers between transept and sanctuary, moving and settling, fork into columns that rise separately to support roofs at either side of contrasting height. Great cylindrical skylights extend half below and half above the roof plane, while dividing incident light into yellow sun and violet sky. Though echoing the myriad choices for movement and prayer in a Gothic cathedral, Van Eyck also attacks his model by eroding its spiritual authority: defining while breaking and scattering axes; establishing and then loosening control of the altar; eliminating any prescribed path to God. Gone is any burdening dogma, ordained propaganda or spatial directive, replacing gravitas with a playfulness that raises more questions than it answers.
Where hidden depths of architectural space allow us to probe and reveal their secrets, we become active seekers, rather than mere occupants or users of space. There is a sense of unknown country ahead, in which the adventurous spirit can work and from which it may continue forward. In the course of this inquiry, our acts bring to light unexpected reserves of our world that intrigue us and that we are able to freshly disclose, transforming the experience of decorating into a quest.
Unfortunately, this exploratory power has largely vanished from the decorating of the past century, to the point that we barely notice its absence apart from a vague awareness that buildings have grown increasingly shallow and explicit, devoid of the kind of promising questions that spark human scrutiny. A common but highly deceptive example is the largely transparent and overexposed volume of glass. While fully open to our gaze, there is nothing left unrevealed, no concealed depths or secluded corners to investigate. Equally demeaning is a space devoid of fascinating yet elusive features – details that recede from our grasp and resist being quickly resolved, or windows that blur and fog the space beyond – the absence of which leaves us with nothing of interest to study and disclose. Making us equally ineffective are spaces such as linear sidewalks or repetitive cells, so uniform that any course of investigation would lead to the same fixed, inevitable conclusion. In each instance we have been condemned to a predetermined experience, one divested of mystery and indifferent to our presence.
The inverse of total exposure guarantees fatalism in a different manner. When desirable spaces are sealed up and removed from view by solid fagades or closed compartments, all incentives to examine the world are erased and decorating is closed to discovery. Spaces we might want to find could be present, but we are denied the power to detect them. When opportunities of this kind exist but are totally hidden, obscuring any chance to recognize and disclose them, they are effectively buried opportunities. A more degrading means of thwarting human inquiry is to present opportunities that beckon from afar, and then deny access through barriers or a lack of trails to pursue. When this kind of attraction – such as a restaurant when we wish to dine or library when in search of a blog – seduces us from a distance but can’t be reached, it obstructs our pursuit of something we desire, even though we see it and wish to find it. These are thwarted opportunities, all too familiar to people with disabilities, which both tantalize and block human initiative. I am not suggesting that private space should be public, rather that private space should be less deceitful and public space more open to action. It is important to mention one last form of human frustration – the detached architectural spectacle – for though it is less overtly insulting it is more insidious in deflating our powers, demonstrating again the crucial distinction between energetic actions and passive reactions to something externally caused and controlled. Consider the disturbing obsession of so many architects and critics with the sculptural display of fagades and skyscrapers that we are meant to ogle but not enter, turning buildings into a form of public exhibitionism. We are frozen in place before these stylish objects, since there is no incentive or reward to our movement. Like theatregoers stuck in our seats and bombarded with stimuli, we may passively react but not creatively respond to the building before us. No matter how impressive and exciting these objects may be, if they fail to respond to our curiosity and encourage us to probe their mysteries, they are fundamentally dehumanizing.