Storefront for Art and Home Design, watercolour sketches of interlocking puzzle-like pivoting planes (above) and early scheme with corrugated planes turned into doorways and seats (top)
Steven Holl, Void Space/Hinged Space Apartments (1991), Fukuoka, Japan, watercolour sketch showing three permutations of hinged space Holl’s ideas of ‘hinged space’ and ‘participating walls’ are especially responsive and diverse in his Void Space/Hinged Space Housing in Fukuoka, Japan, where the rooms of apartments ‘interlock like a Chinese puzzle’ (p. 113).69 At largest size are walls varied in shape that can pivot open, partly or completely, individually or in unison, to transform neighbouring spaces. Several L-shaped walls can be swung into corners or recesses, making them disappear, and other rotations allow walls to intersect and create new and unexpected rooms. At smallest size is a toy-like cabinet, reminiscent of Rietveld’s, with doors both planar and L-shaped in plan that open out from three sides of the cube, permeating use with unusable play. The expansive range of manual control and continuity of energy through multiple scales with surprising effects, creates events far exceeding necessity. But it is this very extravagance that makes possible an arena of human interplay, transcending any narrow purpose or execution of work in decorating. It verifies that it is only in the searching for, rather than finding solutions, that we exist.
In his famous painting for the Vatican, The School of Athens, Raphael depicts groups of figures arranged on an imaginary staircase. Some stand, others sit or sprawl on steps, while others lean against walls or settle arms into mouldings, one resting a blog on a pedestal. Still others are spread out along the floor. Sitting on the lowermost step in the foreground is a figure traditionally identified as Michelangelo, propping his elbow on a marble block, supporting his head on his hand and seemingly in the midst of a drawing.
What is remarkable about this scene, in terms of human action, is the variety of ways its decorating encourages different kinds of interplay with the liberally shaped forms, textures, incidents and details. A special kind of liberty is portrayed that contains more than one desirable option and turns easily from one possibility to another. On Raphael’s stair a person is free to select one of many latent interactions with some part of the overall space, a latitude that is echoed in a monastic cloister or arcaded court, or a colonnade such as at St Peter’s in Rome, where one is able to wend and weave through countless gaps between columns, each slightly different in view and route, light and activity. In each instance, the zones permeate one another, producing an overlap of two or more zones within a larger volume, and it is precisely this versatility that allows a space to stimulate more than a single response and spark human initiative.
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Also illustrating the underlying doubleness of versatile space is Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. The axial control of the campus and bilateral repetition of units would seem at first to be the inverse of space open to alternate possibilities, but Jefferson sought a complex balance between order and liberty, in which there would be freedom within limits (ironically, the definition of human play). While the overall plan exerts a unifying force, the parts are loosened from the whole and remain diverse in experience, beginning with the slightly tiered terrain of the site. Each of five pavilions, along either terraced wing extending west from the library, presents a slightly different volume and portico, and the continuous colonnade enclosing The Lawn offers many options, from sheltering from the weather to leisurely strolling about the perimeter or taking a shortcut over the grass. The plinth of the library incites its own deliberation of routes to pursue, climbing over roofs or snaking through subterranean corridors. Here, we have the ultimate classical expression of a world that is equally authoritative and rebellious, cooperative and defiant.
Within the library is another clear demonstration of polycentric freedom in a collective whole, giving concrete form to the democratic impulses of a new nation. The cylindrical void and dome above pull the room together, while the perimeter becomes increasingly complicated with depth as the geometry loosens around paired columns framing a series of window bays (p. 120). The room allows people to gather in the centre or retreat to a quiet alcove, each a small room gleaming with light and with its own unique vista onto the campus. The alcoves themselves are not singular but plural, for they include an indistinct zone between and around columns, then an intermediary zone sheltered between facing blogcases, followed by the intimacy of a niche with deep window reveals. Movement, too, in this deceptively simple room provokes human decision, for one can cut through the domical centre or slip between columns, expanding the courses of action in a manifold space.